Friday Favorites, 10/20/17

Welcome to Friday Favorites! I’ve decided to start a weekly series where I highlight a short story*—could be past or present—that I love.

I’m starting off with The Weight of Memories by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu. ~2,800 words, science fiction. While sometimes I give content warnings, I’m choosing not to on this one. (Okay, I’m giving one: I personally found the science to be implausible, but that doesn’t bother me in stories so long as the narrative is internally consistent and doesn’t bill itself as hard science.)

This is a story about a violent conflict between memories and experiences—the same memories experienced very differently, with very different results. If we are the sums of our experiences, then is it possible to add up the same things and arrive at two different sums? Yes, says this story, depending on how the addition is done.

As a very visual reader I also loved how spare the story is, and how stark, with almost all the violent bursts of color coming from the memories being relived.

I was also very deeply touched by this story as a Chinese person. I don’t talk about it a lot, but that is my heritage. A lot of awful events (check Wikipedia, I don’t have it in me to discuss) went on over the last two generations, which my family, especially my parents, somehow survived. I grew up never asking about my family’s past because the answer was invariably Yet Another Awful Story. And I feel sometimes—and my parents too—that China is changing so fast that one generation doesn’t understand another, and this story touches on that connection/disconnect as well. I’m shivering as I type those words. Read the story to find out why.

You may look over the above and say “gosh, Kara, that’s a really dark recommendation.” Fair enough. A friend once summed up my authorial obsessions as “memory, death, tragic love.” What is there to say other than … may as well lean in. If you’re on my wavelength, this may resonate painfully but wonderfully for days, as it did and still does for me.

* Okay so in reality I reserve the right to recommend whatever piece of writing I feel like, but for now at least, I want to focus on short stories.

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Ballet Shoes

Probably the biggest new happiness multiplier in recent memory: I (re)started taking ballet at local studio. Although I am a complete beginner, I grew up on a steady diet of ballet books at varying qualities. I don’t remember when I first saw the photos but I remember being completely entranced by the unparalleled beauty of the form. Lessons were not possible, so I read books, which is always the next best thing. I read all the Noel Streatfeild books, random teen serials where no book is complete without someone bursting into tears mid-dress rehearsal, and of course I read Jill Krementz’s “A Very Young Dancer” so many times that it’s burned into my mind. I also read all kinds of books about technique, and pored over photographs of classical ballets. Thanks, well-stocked childhood library!

One of the really flattering things that a teacher said at my very first lesson was “I can’t believe you’ve never taken ballet before.” And no matter how failhard I am at every lesson, I definitely laid up that comment to live by whenever I feel discouraged (the adagios in center practice, they slay me). And I do fail pretty hard, even for a beginner. My hips are stiff, I can barely follow simple choreography, and my placement is a mess. But I flatter myself that I have been mentally dancing for a very long time. So even when my feet are not right, I do know exactly what I am supposed to have done, and that sometimes–somehow–just a bit–shines through the mess of bad posture and worse turnout.

The other thing I love about ballet is that … I am a fairly competitive and perfectionist person in most areas of my life, but dancing shuts down that part of my brain. That makes it freeing and meditative–I suspect that ballet is to me as yoga is to a lot of people. If my steps are not perfect, that’s just my version of it and it’s as valid as anyone else’s, and I am shockingly content with that.

Which is the complete opposite of how I feel about writing! I submit my stories for publication, and I love it when people read and hopefully enjoy my stories. Part of me feels that a story is not real until it is shared–that it’s just a hallucination in my brain until someone else confirms that they heard those voices too.

In ballet, I do not feel that way. I am overjoyed just to be in the studio. I could do endless tendus alone save for the accompanying music on my phone. I feel absolutely no need to be on a stage.

I wonder if I would be a better writer, if I also felt that way about my writing?

Anyway, this was a rambling post. If you want to read a serious post about taking ballet as an adult, I wholeheartedly recommend the excellent essay “Swan, Late: The unexpected joys of adult beginner ballet.”

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Story sale!

I am very happy to announce that “A Remedy for Memory”, a short SF story about love and memory and the perils of mixing them together, will be in the July 2017 issue of Empyreome Magazine.

I love all my children equally … said the parent of one child (and this is true, she said, in Peter Sagal’s “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” voice). But in all earnestness, “A Remedy for Memory” represents something special to me, not least that I don’t know when to quit. I wrote my first version of this story back in 2009, and since then I’ve lost count of the number of times I revised or completely rewrote the piece. I was going to rewrite it again–I still have the outline in my Google Docs–if there were no takers this year. But I am beyond happy that someone does want it.

As for the story sitting in my revised outline, I still plan to write it, or something like it, one day. Like I said, I don’t know when to quit.

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Worldcon Ho!

I bought a membership to Worldcon 2017 when they first became available, but I wasn’t sure whether I’d be able to actually go. This is not a blog about finances, but it would misleading not to acknowledge that it imposes choices. I went through a very sudden, very expensive move in October-November 2016, and wasn’t sure whether I felt Worldcon was still worth it after the dust (and the books) settled from that.

I was still waffling until last week when a close friend, who is not generally given to Acts of Carpe Diem, announced that he was going to climb freaking Kilimanjaro next month. I’ve never been one to give in to peer pressure, but that was a challenge I couldn’t entirely ignore. Also, I’ve been feeling a bit in a rut lately, and this was a kick that I needed.

So I made some spreadsheets and then decided to go for it. Aside from the excitement and opportunities of Worldcon, I just want to see Helsinki! I also have very probably unrealistic dreams of doing some light hiking with my DSLR in tow.

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Fake Book Covers #1: The South Will Upload Again

In a conversation about writing motivation, I disclosed that my best One Weird Trick is designing fake book covers for my stories. Even if the story in question is 200 words long. I love it because for me, 1) graphic design is low-stress creative fun, and 2) covers are creative affirmation.

Naturally, Spousal Unit chose that moment to wander by and complain that I wasn’t presenting evidence for my claim. Well, designing my own covers is somewhat narcissistic, so I’m not going to release them. Everyone keeps a secret garden; those are buried in mine.

But fear not, I will do you one better.

A few years ago a friend of both myself and Spousal Unit emailed us with, “Hey you read a lot of SF. I once read this book and I can’t remember the title. Maybe you guys can help me find it? Here’s the plot …”

And my friends, it was amazing. Far superior to anything I have ever conceived.

“it’s in the southern us, and people are searching for a great general robert lee (but it turns out to be a chinese robert lee) w/ a chicken against central planners controlling an entrepreneurial computer personality that founded a rebellious transport company.”

So this was inevitable. I’m particularly proud of the gold bezel lettering.

Art credits: Robert E. Lee painting by Daniel Dos Santos / Spaceship is from Futurama by Matt Groening / Chicken is from The Curse of Monkey Island by LucasArts / Photoshopping was done by yrs truly

We sent it off to him with a note indicating a helpful librarian had located a candidate book and scanned the cover, could he confirm or deny that this was the right story?

He took it well, although to this day I remain convinced that it was all a dream. But hey, you never know, so hit me up.

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Snow Country, U.S. edition

Efficient people: move to Colorado, buy Subaru, bike everywhere.

Me: move to Colorado, try not to wipe out in Camry, live too far to bike to work so drive everywhere, give up. Leave Colorado for Maryland, buy a Subaru, bike everywhere.

And the day after purchasing the car, I ordered some wool socks and merino leggings.

Spousal Unit: What are you going to do, turn on the a/c in the Subaru while wearing them?

Now, because I have a very poor sense of direction, the household joke/diagnosis is that I live in my own personal TARDIS. I usually only get lost in space, but you could argue that in this instance, I’ve once again* gotten lost in time and I was actually buying all these things two years ago in Colorado, when they would have been much more useful.

* So there was also the incident when we were trying to go to a museum of classical art in Moscow, and I somehow navigated us to a modern art museum. Artistic satire in the form of a Stalinist-era golden toilet stall is really something, let me tell you.

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The Annual Navelgazing Post, 2016 Edition

I don’t believe in New Year’s Resolutions for their own sake. But the convergence of history and religion, at least in the U.S. where I live, has resulted in a nice string of vacation days leading up to the otherwise arbitrary event. And so around every New Year I get a break from work, resulting in enough time to breathe and take stock of my life.

Usually this results in a few days of wallowing in all my failures of the year, followed by a few days of vowing to do better and scrambling to put systems in place to do so. This year was no exception, and my brain fixated on my fiction writing, which I didn’t work on as much as I would have liked in 2016.

The reasons aren’t all bad. Some of it was failure and procrastination and laziness. But I also burned the candle at both ends successfully developing my career in writing non-fiction. That job keeps my family fed and sheltered and warm, and I’m also pretty fond of it for its own sake. So I’m happy and proud of what I’ve accomplished in that arena.

Still, we all only have so many Action Points in a day. If nothing else, 2016 taught me to honor my limits. And I had to admit that I simply didn’t have the resources to spend as much time grinding at my fiction tech tree*. And that was okay. Everything builds on everything else, and what I did accomplish is not a waste. It’s only a waste if I forget what it’s all pointing towards.

So in 2017, my goal is to rekindle that love, commit to finishing more stories whether or not I submit them for publication, and in general rebuild the foundation (of love, and squee, and passions both dark and light) that drive me to tell stories.

*If it wasn’t already obvious, I view life as a mostly frustrating RPG.

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