Emily Gilman

Making Stuff Up and Writing It Down Since (Before) I Learned How to Write


In which I am about seventy pages from the end of Dune.

So I’m reading Dune. I’m nominally reading it for work, but I’m also reading it because I meant to have read it ages ago (if a certain former professor of mine is reading this, I’m sorry), and because I write fantasy more than science fiction but it’s still an important work in the field, etc.

Also, I don’t know about you, but I have a lot of friends who love Dune. They love it intensely. It is possible I have recently seen a picture of a toddler holding a worm with an appropriate Dune reference as the caption, because I am friends with the kind of people who do that with their kids. My friends are also all smart, interesting people for whom I have a lot of respect, and whose respect and affection I value highly.

Which is all to explain why I feel more than a little nervous and/or guilty admitting that I keep expecting to love Dune, and I just . . . don’t?

Let me clarify what I mean by that, or rather what I don’t mean. I don’t mean that I’m finding it dull: on the contrary, I’m finding the interplay of religion and politics and ecology very interesting on an intellectual level. I don’t mean that it’s poorly written: the writing often feels abrupt to me, but in a way that suits the harshness of the physical and social environments depicted (and I’m generally a fan of writing whose style either reinforces or complicates its subject). I don’t even mean that I’m sorry I volunteered to read it for work, though my friends could tell you that I seem to do a lot of putting off reading in favor of re-watching Leverage or (finally) reading Questionable Content. (Though, actually, there are a whole lot of Dune references in QC, many of which I would be missing if I weren’t reading the book right now.)

When I started the book, however, I expected to love it. I expected to start reading and get hooked and be unable to put it down. I expected to immerse myself in the story and refuse to come out. I expected to be reading it a lot faster than I have been, and I expected that by seventy pages from the end I’d be anticipating rereading it someday.

Instead it feels like homework. I mean the good kind of homework — the kind that has you continuing to think and learn on your own so that you have something to discuss when you come to class the next day — but homework nonetheless. Maybe it’s because I’ve been slowly working on educating myself about Islam and about the Middle East but am still in the early stages of that process, so a lot of words are jumping out and snatching my attention away from the story. Maybe it’s because when I started reading Dune I was reading in small chunks, so I never really built up momentum. Maybe it’s because the language suits the story but isn’t the kind of language I personally fall in love with, nor is it the kind of language I find next to invisible. Maybe I just have too many other things I’m excited about right now.

Reading it has, however, had one unexpected benefit: it’s been the kick in the butt I needed to get working on my own writing again. It’s kind of funny, actually — I’m used to the art that makes me want to write being the art that I do love. Instead I find myself reading and thinking, “Yes, this is very interesting, but the parts that interest me mostly do so because of how they relate to this other story in my head, and right now I’m a lot more invested in that other story.” I find myself thinking that I’d probably get a lot out of rereading the book at some point, but the thought of forcing myself to do so just makes my research reading look that much more appealing.

I’m not sure what I’m trying to say here, though I’m pretty sure it’s not the obvious moral. (“Read your metaphorical vegetables, kids, because they’re good for you even if you haven’t developed a taste for them yet!”) Perhaps I wish only to confess to you, my brothers and sisters (and siblings of non-binary genders), my failure to get it. Perhaps I’m waiting for someone to say that thing that will cast the book in a new, more flattering light, like that time I was complaining about having to read The Song of Roland again and my friend protested, “But it’s awesome! It’s like an action movie!” and suddenly the verse after verse of interchangeable guys cleaving each other in two from their heads through their horses clicked for me.

Or maybe I just needed to say, “Hey, this is where I am right now, but I need to hold myself accountable for those last seventy pages before I can move on to something else.”

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Good Things

I can tell it’s almost the end of the school year by how tired I am. At the same time, it doesn’t feel like the end of the school year because the weather’s been so mild. (Not that I’m complaining, mind you! I’m just as happy to save the hot weather for when I can wear tank tops and sundresses and not worry about work clothes.)

I have at least one entry that’s been rattling around in my brain for a while now, but I’ve been too tired and too busy to actually write it and have it make sense. I’m getting impatient, though, so to tide me over here are some things that have made me happy lately:

  • I just read Mikki Kendall’s story “If God Is Watching” and holy cow are there a lot of things to like about it. You should just go read it, but I especially liked her narrator’s strength and the way she tries to navigate what she can do vs. what she’s willing to do. But I also love the narrator’s parents. And her brother. And her friends. And why are you reading this when you could be reading that? (Unless you already have read it and are coming back, in which case thanks.)
  • Galen Fitzpatrick is a friend of friends whose music I’ve been hearing about for years. After hearing his song “Mud” I finally sat down and really listened to his album James McGovern about a week ago, and I’ve been listening to it pretty much constantly since. To be able to listen to the same seven songs on repeat for days and not get bored? Bliss for those of us with music addictions and obsessive tendencies.
  • I generally prefer paper books to ebooks (“prefer” might be putting it mildly), but a recent conversation with an old friend finally convinced me to invest in an ebook copy of Middle East Patterns: Places, Peoples, and Politics in addition to my paperback copy. My hope is that this will make it easier to work on story research whenever I find myself with a few minutes of downtime without having to lug a textbook around everywhere. I’m also finding the book fascinating in its own right, since the areas and cultures it covers were so poorly represented in my formal education. Which is all to say: hooray for increased productivity and hooray for new things!
  • I also found a copy of The Jerusalem Bible for a quite reasonable amount of money! As a former literature-and-theology major whose hero-since-she-was-thirteen has been Mary Russell, it’s great fun to have a different translation of the Bible that is full of scholarly notes. I’ve also been slowly working my way through a translation of the Qur’an, and while I am very much enjoying the text itself, the version I have is also just a beautiful book from which it is a pleasure to read; it’s nice to finally have a Bible of which I can say the same. As if that weren’t exciting enough, the copy of The Jerusalem Bible I found is the same hardcover-with-slipcase (in the same color, even!) as my mom’s copy that’s been on our shelf at home my entire life, so it’s very satisfying to see it there on my own shelf looking The Way A Bible Should Look.
  • I got to go to my five-year college reunion a couple weeks back. It was great to reconnect with people I still like a lot but haven’t kept in touch with. I loved the fireworks, which were gorgeous and so close and especially satisfying since I’d missed them at my own graduation. It was good-but-strange-but-good to walk around a campus that is still so familiar and that I still love deeply and see all the big and small changes both in the campus and in myself. (More on that next time.) And I got to both acquire and show off my newest tattoo, which I’d had to postpone after car troubles prevented me from making my original appointment. The tattoo ended up looking a little different from how I’d pictured it in terms of size and placement, but it is perfect and I love it, and it’s probably good for me to be reminded every so often that when things don’t go exactly the way I plan it’s sometimes because they turn out even better.

That’s enough for a post, right? And, I hope, enough to put off the I-must-write-NOW impulse for a couple more weeks while I let that other entry finish coming together in my head. While I work on that, what are some things making you happy, dear readers?


Reading and Reflection

Today I finished Mohja Kahf’s beautiful, fascinating novel The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, about a Syrian-American girl and her changing relationships to her family, to her friends, to politics, to religion, and ultimately to herself. I’ve also (finally!) been reading Connie Willis’s time-travel-slash-historical-fiction novel Blackout, which is fascinating and engrossing (but also rather stressful!). And I’ve slowly been reading (a translation of) the Qur’an, one sura at a time, both for research and for my own curiosity. And I just started reading G.K. Chesterton’s essay Heretics, which (along with Orthodoxy) I’ve decided to read as part of my Lenten observance. And then of course there are the young adult books I’ve been reading for work . . .

The funny thing about reading again is that the more I read the more I itch to write. It’s like I was dehydrated from too little reading, and now I’ve finally caught up enough that reading is no longer enough, I need to be doing something with it. I need to be participating in that creative process. And it’s hard, because I love the story I’m working on right now, but it’s the kind of story that comes out as a sentence here, a paragraph there, slowly growing or perhaps slowly revealing itself to me. I’m not sure. (With luck, writing this entry will help tide me over until I have time and energy to sit down and work properly, maybe this weekend.)

I think, though, that I’m glad I’ve been reading so many different kinds of books — books for adults, books for children, fiction, nonfiction, holy, secular, all in different styles and with different emphasis (on plot, on character, on language . . . ). Because, you see, I am also slowly working my way through the draft of a friend’s novel, and every so often I feel that pang that always reminds me of the scene in Velvet Goldmine, when Brian Slade says of Curt Wild’s performance, “I wish it had been me. I wish I’d thought of it.”

The thing is, I don’t wish that, at least not in so specific a sense. I could wish that; I could sit here and be jealous and unhappy and let those bad feelings rot inside me. What I really wish in those moments, though, is that I’d done (or I were doing) something like whatever I’m reading or watching or hearing: I wish I were doing something meaningful, something beautiful, something creative. Reading lots of different things helps remind me of that distinction, because just as I can enjoy all of these different books I can appreciate that my friend wrote her novel and also be excited about my own writing projects and how we’re both doing such different and interesting things.

I suppose I’m also thinking about this a lot today because it’s Ash Wednesday, and after several long months of being tired and stressed-out and unhappy and never quite catching up I’m finally sorting out what I want to be doing and finding the energy to do it. I have no interest in giving things up, right now, but I welcome the extra motivation to focus on reflection and discipline, on making time for the important things in my life and in some cases discovering through that process what those important things are. Mostly so far I’m finding that making the time, investing the energy even when I’m tired, is what’s giving me the most joy and energy back.

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Words With Teeth

I’ve been thinking a lot about language, the last week and a half or so. Partly it’s the shock of going from being surrounded by friends my own age and older at Arisia to being surrounded by kids at work. Partly it’s that I’ve been listening to Matthew Ebel‘s music pretty much non-stop since I got home from the con.

You see, on the one hand there are a lot of these songs that I really want to play for (at least subsets of) the aforementioned kids at work. Almost every song I think they’d appreciate, though, includes language that honestly probably wouldn’t faze them but that I would have a hard time justifying to my boss, let alone to a protective parent. This is especially true of “The Last Pirate,” which (bought from iTunes) has one of those little “Explicit” boxes next to it but which makes librarian-me giggle. (Seriously: it feels like on the rare occasions when I’m not trying to teach kids how to avoid plagiarism it’s because I’m trying to explain the distinctions between plagiarism and piracy/copyright infringement and how they are different kinds of Bad Things To Do.)

On the other hand, it’s nice to listen to such music in my apartment or my car and reinforce the sense that this is a space away from work. It’s similar to the feeling of encountering someone who knows exactly what I mean when I talk about someone or something being “mundane,” but that’s a matter of being able to relax into geekiness. In this case it’s a matter of being able to relax into . . . I’m not sure — adulthood? Into the assumption that everyone present is mature enough to handle “strong language,” especially when it’s being used because the words have teeth?

That’s the phrase that keeps coming to mind as I’ve been thinking about writing this: “words with teeth.” Because really, I don’t just mean profanity in general. Often, profanity is dull and meaningless, used for punctuation or emphasis without any thought about what it really means: profanity for the sake of profanity, or because the speaker (or writer) is being careless. I mean words — profane or otherwise — that are used harshly, to express anger or frustration or self-deprecation or sadness (or . . . or . . . or) in a way that is visceral, that cuts the way those emotions do.

One of my favorite musical examples of this is the Mumford and Sons song “Little Lion Man,” the chorus of which goes:

But it was not your fault but mine
And it was your heart on the line
I really fucked it up this time
Didn’t I my dear?

Partly it’s the bitter way Marcus Mumford sings it, the way he bites off the words. Partly it’s the repetition of that short “u” sound. Certainly there are any number of words you could replace it with, but they sound wrong: “screwed it up” doesn’t quite scan; “messed it up” has too soft a sound. “Mucked it up” comes closest, keeping both the short “u” and the “ck” that makes the word appropriately angry and sharp. It’s still not the same, though. Sometimes you really do mean “fucked it up,” not anything tamer.

Lest you think I’m still only talking about profanity, here’s a different example that led me to the idea of words with teeth, this time from another Matthew Ebel song. One of my favorite of his songs (that I’ve encountered so far) is also one of the ones that makes me saddest, mostly because of two lines that have always jumped out at me even before I caught the lyrics surrounding them. First, the song: “These Wars We Fight”

Now, the lyrics in question, with the relevant lines in bold:

Hanging by a lonely thread
Trying not to come back dead
There are worse things, so I’ve said before
So why gripe at all? This mess is almost through
I’ll be coming home real soon
And other lies I’ve said to you before

I actually had to listen carefully to the song, even though I’ve listened to it several times already today, to check those first four lines, but the two in bold I always catch even when I’m not paying attention. (Or do they always catch me?) In this case the sense of teeth comes from the juxtaposition: “I’ll be coming home real soon” is so familiar, so cliché, that it invokes a sense of nostalgia even before you consider the bittersweet sound of the music so far, so to follow that by immediately lumping it in with “other lies I’ve said to you before” (and emphasizing the word “lies” when singing it) takes all that sense of hope and familiarity and uses it to create an opposite effect.

The list could go on (The Decemberists’ song “Red Right Ankle” has a devastating, visceral example in the third verse; one of the most moving moments in the movie Saved! is a quiet scene in which the protagonist simply stands and swears, and in context it’s just . . . powerful), but mostly at this point I’m reminded of the rule of thumb I’ve always heard regarding Young Adult fiction: you can have sex and drugs and violence and swearing and all kinds of things that grown-ups generally try to shield kids from as long as it serves the story. Now, there’s more to it than that, especially in the way a YA novel handles a topic compared with a novel on the same topic written for adults (think Elizabeth Wein’s novel Code Name Verity*, where the narrator largely talks around her own torture and that of other prisoners, referring to things obliquely and usually in the past tense, not glossing over them but not dwelling upon them or becoming too graphic either), but as a writer I think that’s my own impulse as well.

As a writer, it’s important to me that sometimes my characters swear. Sometimes, having them react differently would be dishonest. But really, at the end of the day I’m much more interested in writing with teeth — my own writing, I hope, and definitely other people’s — whether those teeth come from a deliberate use of profanity, from unexpected juxtaposition of words or ideas, or simply from the exact right word at the exact right moment.

* I’m currently about halfway through Code Name Verity, so no spoilers please! I can say, though, that so far it is absolutely living up to the hype I’ve gotten from friends and colleagues who’ve read it.


In which I am just not reading enough.

I am a bad sister. I was home visiting with my family last night and I completely forgot to bring my brother my trade copies of The Unwritten, which I’d promised to lend him. I also forgot to read any of the comics he lent me so that I could return them.

Lately I feel like I’ve been bad about reading in general, which is especially silly for someone who’s a writer and librarian and who loves reading as much as I do. The problem is that I want to read, but I also want to crochet, and even if the pattern I’m working on is simple enough to leave sufficient attention for reading I just don’t have enough hands to crochet and hold a book open at the same time. This leads me to wonder about cookbook holders, which would solve the not-enough-hands problem if I were reading cookbook-sized things, but usually I’m reading mass-market or trade paperback-sized things and I’m not sure they’d work. (If anyone has experience with them, or knows of some other device that would let me read actual paper books mostly hands-free, I would love recommendations!)

My other problem is that I tend to use music and television for company when I’m home alone, and I just don’t do well processing reading/writing and speaking/listening at the same time. Give me a computer and I can browse the Internet while carrying on several simultaneous IM conversations; give me a conversation with several different people and I can enjoy that too. Ask me a simple question while I’m writing, though? I won’t hear it, or I will but the meaning won’t register until I stop and switch gears. And I do usually listen to music while working on a story, but stories tend to have their own playlists and it’s more for atmosphere than because I’m really listening to the music itself. Anyway, given a choice between reading in a silent apartment or doing something else that gives me the illusion of company, I tend to go with the latter.

I think it will be easier when spring comes and it’s not dark so early. In the meantime, though, I will have to make the conscious decision that from now until I go to bed tonight I will not watch more Flashpoint or listen to more Matthew Ebel (who appeared at Arisia right around the time that I was getting bored with all the music I’d been listening to, but more on that later). Instead I will read more of Code Name Verity and hope that that is not a stupid choice for right before sleep.


Where to begin . . .

Here we are: my first blog entry on my first proper writer Web site. I’m . . . not really sure what to put here.

Actually, no, I am sure.

For whatever reason, there’s been a lot of talk about Harry Potter and Hogwarts houses in my life this week. One friend was upset that she saw tons of Gryffindors but almost no other Slytherins at Arisia this past weekend. Other friends had determined which Catholic order corresponded to each house. Someone turned in a copy of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire at the library where I work and I misjudged how heavy it would be when I first went to pick it up and check it in.

Now don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed the first two Harry Potter books, and I really enjoyed Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban when it first came out. I enjoyed the fourth and fifth well enough. But I never finished the series and I never fell in love with it the way many people have. As far as I’m concerned, that’s cool — I’m sure there are books I’m in love with that are fun but not earth-shattering for other people.

But particularly on the subject of Hogwarts houses, I would just like to state for the record that I am not a J.K. Rowling wizard. I am a Diane Duane wizard, through and through. As such, it feels only appropriate to begin here by quoting the Wizard’s Oath (and from the Support Your Local Wizard omnibus edition that was my first introduction to the series, no less):

It was not decorated in any way. It stood there, a plain block of type all by itself in the middle of the page, looking serious and important. Nita read the Oath to herself first, to make sure of the words. Then, quickly, before she could start to feel silly, she read it out loud.

” ‘In Life’s name, and for Life’s sake,’ ” she read, ” ‘I say that I will use the Art for nothing but the service of that Life. I will guard growth and ease pain. I will fight to preserve what grows and lives well in its own way; and I will change no object or creature unless its growth and life, or that of the system of which it is part, are threatened. To these ends, in the practice of my Art, I will put aside fear for courage, and death for life, when it is right to do so — till Universe’s end.’ ”  (Duane 24)

I think I’ll end there for now, but maybe I’ll come back to the subject of wizardry another time soon. If nothing else, I need to finish the series — I’ve read the first four more times than I can count, and I read the fifth and sixth once each years ago, but that means two books I barely remember and three more to meet for the first time. And of course, if I’m going to do this properly I’ll want to start back at the beginning . . . .

Works Cited

Duane, Diane. So You Want to Be a Wizard. 1983. Support Your Local Wizard. By Duane. N.p.: Guild America Books, 1990. 1-153. Print.