In the past few months I have been perfecting the skill of Writing Anyways. This is something I thought I had already honed, but apparently not; perhaps it is a skill that you’re never completely done learning, like being kind, or not eating the entire pizza.

One year ago I quit my real job. “Real” meaning I got up every morning, put on pants that did not have an elastic waistband, drove to a place and did something for which I received a paycheck, health insurance and a 401k. I did not like my job. I liked it at one point, but it had turned into something monstrous that hurt me badly to do.

I didn’t really have a plan when I quit, aside from giving myself a month to recover and then finding something else. This is not how one is supposed to go about quitting jobs, but I was lost and wrecked and I couldn’t force myself to do it anymore. It was worth being reckless to get my soul back inside my body. About halfway through my recovery time I realized that I should not be reading job descriptions with dread in my heart. If you hate a job before you even get it, how could you possibly succeed? And I don’t like to succeed. I prefer to excel. This wasn’t going to work.

And so I turned my hobby into a business, thinking it would be a side project and that I’d work part-time in other jobs until I had clients and classes to support me. Almost immediately, I had more work to do than time to do it. I quit the restaurant job I’d taken after just a few months, once private clients started coming in regularly.

Only six months later I asked my husband to move out.

Here’s a story: the day after I got home from Clarion West, I took my dog Vesper to the dog park. I had missed her horribly and wanted to reconnect. She has always been a complicated animal, adrenaline-charged and management-heavy. Long story short, she knocked me down and when I stood up I realized my left ring finger wasn’t working right. I said to my wild-eyed, panting dog, “I don’t think it’s supposed to crunch like that when you bend it.” She concurred.

For fear of swelling, I started to tug my wedding ring carefully over the break. As I did I remember thinking, very calmly, I don’t think this ring will ever go back on. 

In the end, it didn’t.

My Clarion Divorce took two years to the day from that moment I pulled the ring from my finger; I didn’t plan it, but the court date just happened to land on the anniversary of the broken bone. My life seems to be full of that kind of poetic drama.

A few weeks after my ex moved out, my left hand started going numb. I have had years and years of strange symptoms all over the spectrum, mostly neurological, digestive and musculoskeletal. Some have landed me in the hospital, and very few of have led to diagnoses or effective therapies. I have spent a lot of my life at the least very uncomfortable, being told I’m probably fine, and there’s nothing obviously wrong with me. This whole hand-going-numb thing, though, finally got some attention. I saw a great neurologist (who’s friends with Ted Chiang!), talked to her for a very long time, went in for a battery of tests, got another MRI… and again, nothing.

At my follow-up, she printed some sheets off her screen, circled something on one page, and then squinted at me. She gave me a diagnosis. An actual diagnosis, one that made sense, explained all of my symptoms. What a weird, unique experience that was.

So: I have Fibromyalgia. Which, at first, was a huge relief, because FM isn’t a brain tumor or MS and it justifies my saying no to late nights and staying in bed when I feel like crap. But as I’ve gotten some distance from the relief of the diagnosis itself, other feelings settle in. I have a chronic illness, an invisible disability even. My therapies work sometimes, but I have very bad days. And sometimes the idea of living forever with this seems impossible. It will take time.

In the fray of all of this, did I write? Sometimes. Some weeks, I wrote a lot. Some months I wrote not at all. It’s easy, when you run your own business, to freak out about your business every spare moment of your day. I had to learn how not to do that. I had to learn how to allow myself to be sick and not to feel guilty about lost time. I learned to value frequent short naps–I often solve plot problems in those thirty-minute breaks.

Most importantly, I learned that my writing process can change to accommodate almost any circumstances, but that I don’t have to force it to accommodate all circumstances. I don’t have to write if I’m too cold, because being too cold means I will shortly start having other symptoms that will literally ruin my day’s productivity. I don’t have to write if I have a migraine. I don’t have to write if I’m on a client deadline or if I taught all day.

Writers are tough on themselves. It requires a great deal of mental discipline to sit down and write, and even more to apply structure to that writing, to cut things you love from a manuscript, to keep working on a story that you’re dead sick of looking at. We force ourselves to do a lot. I know I can hit absurd weekly word counts. I can write a story in a day. I can edit to unreasonable deadlines.

But can I be kind to myself? Can I make space to breathe, and still turn out stories, pay my bills, keep my business going?

That’s what I’ve learned to do this year, I guess. It was a much harder process than learning to write, or to write well, or to write every day. And yeah, I have a feeling it’s not a process that is over quite yet.

Portrait of My Lover as a Zebra

Tegan Moore

 

O grant me, Lord, one night
beside a zebra,
one perfect sandy night
beside a zebra
that lets me rest my head against its neck.

                                        -Selima Hill

 

While Jim is upstairs she decides, what the hell, she’ll try it.

She has heard they turn awful, bloated with warts and bony knobs. Right now it looks innocent enough. Just a little ball of shag, like a shearling slipper turned inside-out and tossed on the kitchen table.

She pulls the instruction pamphlet towards her, though she already knows how it works. It’s simple. It will hold everything she and Jim don’t want to, all of the bad grown up between them, the resentment and frustration and boredom. It will carry that so they don’t have to. Without all those feelings clouding their vision they will have a clearer view of what they need to do to fix this.

It’s not a long-term solution; eventually the thing will fill up and she and Jim will have to go back to hiding barbs in exchanges about household maintenance. But the hope is, at least their therapist says the hope is, that by then they’ll remember why they got married in the first place.

It’s a vessel, inert until her first whisper animates it. She reaches out, though her palms prickle when she thinks of the texture of that fleece. She knows it is against the thing’s nature to hurt anyone, but still she expects it to leap for her.

It’s not clumpy twill beneath her fingers, but more like hair, thick and silken. She picks the thing up and turns it to find two dull eyes buried in the fluffy mop. It looks like a toy.

Then it feels like she is holding a toy, a kid’s thing, and she begins to set it down. But she hears Jim thudding towards the stairs and quickly lifts the fluff to her lips.

“He never lets me drive,” she whispers to the dead face. And it shifts in her hand. Its eyes flick to hers.

She sucks air like she’s been slapped and sets it down. She has wished it to life.

Jim stomps into the kitchen, headed for the fridge.

“I woke it up,” she says. Her voice startles the quiet of the twilit kitchen.

“Huh.” Jim opens a beer. “Just couldn’t wait to get started, could you.”

#

She is always surprised when it grows. She leans down to tell it something–it’s been too big to pick up since the first week, the size of Jim’s dead retriever Bucky now–and by the time she straightens up again it has another inch of tail, or a new fringe of mane or a hoof where a formless paw had been before.

Or she’ll find the thing sitting next to Jim in the TV room sporting luxurious new eyelashes, and she will know Jim has been hissing bitter shit into its ear between Brewers innings.

Another surprise is how much she likes the thing. She never liked Bucky, but this isn’t like having a pet. It doesn’t slobber for dinner or whine for affection. It just follows them from room to room, waiting for her or Jim to whisper something hateful.

“He snores,” she confides, warming her fingers deep in its soft hair. “He didn’t snore for eleven years and now all of a sudden he’s a freight train. I didn’t sign up for that.”

She sees sympathy in its blank eyes. She doesn’t care about the snoring now. She strokes its neck, and her fingers find an unexpected series of small warm plates running down its spine. That’s where Jim’s snoring went. Not actually–Jim will still snore tonight. She just won’t care.

The plates feel nice, like the skin of a sun-warmed snake.

#

They are supposed to spend more time together as part of the therapy. They go out for taco Tuesday like they used to, sit so they can see the game. A draft from the window creeps up the back of her jacket.

When they get home she flicks the basement lights on, closes the door quietly behind her. They are keeping the thing downstairs now. It’s so big it has been getting in their way.

It is waiting for her. She puts an arm around its long neck. It is wide as a sofa, tall enough that she doesn’t need to crouch to hug it. She buries her face in its side and warmth soaks into her. It just stands there, unblinking.

“He eats like a slob,” she whispers into its silky bulk, fingers finding the plates up its spine, its teddy-bear ears. She thinks the thing likes to be stroked and snuggled, even though the pamphlet said nothing. “He thinks tipping a lot will make him seem classier but I can’t stand listening to him chew.”

She feels the lightening of her own anger. The thing smells musty-warm and clean, like a new wool sweater.

Something sucks at her equilibrium, perhaps the three margaritas she had, and now there are tears in her eyes. She wants to tell the thing her secret. But no, she won’t tell it everything. There are some words that maybe even this thing can’t forgive.

When she wipes her eyes clear the thing has sprouted two more nascent legs. She had never even considered that it could have more than four.

Back upstairs, she latches the basement door. Jim is at the kitchen sink, filling a glass. “You spend so much time with that ugly bastard I’m starting to get jealous.” Then he grins. It’s a joke.

#

Early the next morning Jim puts on his running shoes. He hasn’t done this in two years, and it must be hard to carry the extra weight he’s put on, but he returns sweaty and bouncing on the balls of his feet.

“You going to the store?” he asks. “Wanna pick up the stuff for me to make those ribs you like? I haven’t done that in a while.”

While the meat slow-roasts they clear out one side of the garage. She never parks in there during the summer anyway, and the thing is outgrowing the basement door. They assemble shelving that has been in boxes for months, and Jim hauls bags to Goodwill and returns with bales of straw on a tarp in the back of the Highlander. When she splits them open it smells like childhood summer horse camp. She pauses to suck that up.

She feels Jim behind her, his hot sticky arms around her waist, and she holds her breath.

When she goes to shower the grime and straw dust off her she locks the bathroom door.

#

She slides from the bed, aching with sleeplessness. Jim is a furnace and she has lain beneath his arm for hour after slow-witted hour listening to cars yawning by on the street.

In the garage the thing waits. She leaves the overhead lights off, enough illumination seeping from the house that she can see it step toward her as she hurries to it.

It is bigger than a horse now, and it smells of sweet hay and the summer night when she buries her nose in the shag of its shoulder. It was suppose to turn monstrous–Jim says it is monstrous–but she thinks it is majestic, this thing made out of their hatred.

She knots her fingers deep into its hair.

“I don’t want to fix it,” she tells the thing. This is her secret. She can’t go back upstairs, not after she tells it this. “I don’t want to love him at all anymore.”

She is watching, this time, when the antlers sprout and grow from its blunt skull. They start the size of doorknobs but inflate to flat, pronged balloons, like surgical gloves full of air, and then belly out into a broad and leafy crown.

The thing tosses its head. It looks at her.

She draws a shuddering breath. Then she scrambles to the house and hits the button for the garage door. In the starlight the thing lowers its shoulders. It has been waiting for her, so patiently, this whole time. Waiting for her to decide. Waiting for her love.

She grabs a fistful of mane, puts one hand on its broad rump, and vaults onto its back.

Childhood horse camp lessons return. She tucks her knees and turns her ankles out and holds on with her thighs.

The thing gathers itself. Everything that is wrong with her and Jim has made it powerful. She feels it full of love, full of strength and forgiveness.

It leaps out into darkness. They disappear.

Late-breaking news over here, but I’m in week five of the Clarion West Write-A-Thon. My sponsorship page includes a piece of unpublished flash fiction called “Portrait of my Lover as a Zebra.” I almost never write flash (like, one other time?) so this is a rarity for me.

I’m $80 short of my goal and the end is in sight COME ON FOLKS LET’S DO EET

Don’t make me get out the money-mometer again.

Norwescon is NEXT WEEK.

I have been spending so much of my time lately training dogs (mostly puppies) that I wonder if I am even capable of explaining writing things to humans anymore, or if at some point during the weekend I will pull out a baggie full of string cheese bits and try to lure my co-panelists into a down. Or hey, maybe I’ll benefit from a discourse more complicated than “get that out of your mouth.” (Although this topic may come up during the parties.)

Here is my schedule, not including the critique workshops.

THURSDAY

6pm Writing to Market 
you aren’t here to just amuse yourself are you
FRIDAY
1pm Horror’s Role in Perpetuating Fear of the Other
vaginas are scary
SATURDAY
10am The Fine Art of Description
why I hate lovecraft
2pm The Fear of God(s)
we are all shiva ok

One: My Asimov’s story, “Epitome,” which was my first sale (by about two days), was not only reviewed in this month’s Locus but selected as a recommended story.

It’s been a weird, intense, rewarding-but-rough stretch lately and I can’t overemphasize how good this feels. Similarly, I’ve received a couple notes via social media from strangers, or friends of friends, saying that they read the story and liked it–liked it enough to find me on social media apparently!–and holy hell, that can keep a new writer going for days.

Two: I have been invited to Norwescon 40 as a pro. I’ll be giving feedback in the writer’s workshop and participating on panels, and I’m pretty psyched, and also a tiny bit nervous since I’ve never done it before. I’m pretty good with crowds so I’m not THAT worried… mostly worried that I won’t shut up.

Oh, also, I quit my job and started training dogs professionally. And yesterday I found an extra shrimp in my fish tank! I thought they’d all died but one! But now there are two! Everything’s coming up roses!

I have the worst dog.

This is not unqualified hyperbole, either. I am a dog trainer, by hobby at least, and I’m not terrible at it. Vesper is the kind of dog… okay, there have been a couple times where professional trainers watched me working with her and said, “yeah, I couldn’t do that.” By which they meant, “I wouldn’t want to do that much work.”

Vesper is a lot of work.

She is my first dog. Difficult first dogs are supposed to make you a better trainer. I usually feel like a failure.

Vesper is brilliant. My other dog, my puppy, is very easy to train; one or two repetitions of something and he’s got it. He is smart. Vesper is different. She’ll learn tricks, yes, and she’s very good at that, but she would rather solve problems. She’s tenacious. She does not quit. She works at a problem until she loses her temper and then she starts smashing things because she’s not going to stop until she has the thing, whatever it is, even if it’s not that good of a thing. It’s not about the thing, it’s about the problem.

Vesper is intense. She scares people, even though she loves people and wants to lick them. She is pointy and her muscles and ribs stand out and she’s athletic in an intimidating way. She uses her body like a bludgeon and frequently hurts herself. She will try anything; she is fearless.

Vesper is extremely sensitive. She is not afraid–very much the opposite. She would be a fantastic police dog or search and rescue partner; loud noises, weird situations, danger, these aren’t scary. It’s feelings that affect her, not her physical circumstances. If I don’t like someone, she alert barks at them. If I am sad, she is miserable. The few times I have been angry at her directly–instead of at the situation, or myself, or the gaps in our training, like a good dog trainer would be–she was utterly inconsolable, hugging the walls, staring at me from around corners and whining quietly.

Vesper’s own emotions are near impossible to control. She is highly reactive. Her feelings mount until she does not know what to do with them except lash out physically: she lunges, barks, body-slams animals her own size, hangs on anything wooly (poodles, sheep), stomps on tiny things.

I love this dog in a way that is hard to explain, except that most people understand it if they have children or know an animal that has done something remarkable for them. Vesper is inside me in a way nobody else is; she understands my subtle physical and emotional cues and follows them like the partner she is. She’s not a pet. She’s my teammate, my dearest friend. I love all my animals but V is different. Maybe because we have worked so hard to keep her simply functional in a human world that requires things like walking tolerably well on a leash and not frightening the neighbors. Probably because we have gone pretty far in competitions where I was never certain we would get anywhere at all. She has worked hard for me; I have worked endlessly for her.

Recently she picked up a little dog and shook it. There was blood. I am sure she would have killed it if I hadn’t been there.

We were at an agility event; the details are irrelevant except that she was supposed to be working with me and there really wasn’t any inciting incident to send her through the fence, out into the crowd and onto this innocent bystander’s dog. It was like the circus lions getting loose. It was horrific.

I leashed my dog and handed her to a friend to crate her. The other dog’s owner took it to the emergency vet. I locked myself in my car and cried hard for an hour straight.

I’ve had my heart broken before. Never like this. Never when the love was so true.

Vesper has no idea she did anything wrong. You don’t scold a reactive dog for reacting, just like you don’t scream at a toddler for having a tantrum in the grocery store. There are enough bad feelings happening already. We just went home. We had dinner, we played ball. I’ll never trust her to do agility again.

It is hard to explain how much work it took to get us into the agility ring and how it feels to strike a line through all of that in one moment: it’s over. It’s done. She can’t; I won’t put her in that situation again.

It is hard to explain how it feels, to know that this dog I love so intensely is not safe. That I can’t trust her.

What a strange place to be, to love someone who you know would happily, free of conscience, do something abhorrent and break your heart. To not hold that against them–because I don’t; I don’t resent what she did or blame her. Vesper will always be who she is. She’s a rat-killer, a dog-mauler. In public she wears a muzzle that makes her look like Hannibal Lecter. Her emotional roller coaster is so unpredictable and violent it could kill. It’s hurt me many times: road rash, sprains, and one broken bone, all of them unintentional. I just got in the way of her feelings train.

It makes me intensely emotionally vulnerable as well. But really, I already was. It’s just stripped of its cushioning now. There’s no couching this love in the safety of some soft fluffy couch muffin whose full-time occupation is giving kisses. I love a vicious dog. I’m not sure what that makes of me.

If Vivian dies before I tell her I’m in love with her, will I regret that more than telling her I’m in love with her? Because I don’t know what happens to me if I say it out loud. Even if she can’t hear me.

“Epitome,” Asimov’s Science Fiction, September 2016

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I’m on the Slog again talking about how badass women in my genre are.

(Actually, this happened on Monday, but I insisted on hugging Cory Doctorow even though he told me not to (I WAS DRUNK) and I caught his flu and I’ve been a hot mess since I got home.)

I always come home from WorldCon feeling like a celebrity, though I am arguably the least important person there. I think it’s because my friends are so cool.

Last day of WorldCon. I keep thinking “Saint Louis” but it’s Kansas City and that just goes to show how much I’ve been paying attention to the world outside my very narrow focus for the last five days.

Of course, a lot happened, some of which I had to be reminded of the following day. But the theme of the week for me was powerful women.

I realize now I didn’t have many strong female role models as a girl. I was taught that women were wives and mothers, and of “pretty” and “smart” the priority was by far to be pretty. Doing well in school, having hobbies and skills, these were important, but too much intelligence was confrontational. It was my job to pose for photographs, not argue politics with my father or ask questions about our religion.

Speculative fiction is still a battleground, like all of popular culture seems to be, where some with privilege are throwing shit-fits about having to share. I’m not entirely unsympathetic. I, for example, do not believe that we can tell people what they are and aren’t allowed to write and talk about. I believe that skill, quality, and a good, thoughtful heart guide a writer through all kinds of difficult territory. I don’t think that’s what the argument is about.

I got to witness—well, I guess it’s a small part of WorldCon controversial history happening. I was in the now-infamous panel where the Pearl-Clutching Incident occurred. Neil Clarke was so angry he turned ashen and physically moved his chair so he would not have to see this bullshit; Jonathan Strahan and Gordon Van Gelder just seemed to think this was an utter waste of their time. It was Sheila Williams, a woman I already admired quite a bit, who took the reigns of the panel.

Firmly and gently she talked circles of reason around a small, angry man who shrank further and further into himself as he seemed to realize that his political screed was not going over the way he hoped it would. Sheila was gracious, patient, and never unkind, but she was so obviously smart and… I think the word I’m looking for is righteous. I was so impressed with her, so touched by her generosity of spirit in simply handling the absurd accusations of an obvious misogynist and returning bombproof answers of why he was, I’m sorry, wrong. She didn’t take it personally. She kept the room calm, kept things from escalating, kept the world turning slowly on its axis.

And then Liza Trombi taught me how to whistle, and we started a gang and flipped a table (carefully). She won an Alfie Saturday night for her work on Locus. I got to hold it for a minute.

I also owe a constant debt of gratitude to Eileen Gunn, who has been such a force of good for my career. She makes sure I get to the right places and meet the right people. She believes in me. It means so much to have someone whose work is so weird, so true, so unsettling, talk about your writing to other people. Eileen is generous with many young writers but I feel like she has bent backwards to make time for me, and I can’t express enough how inspired I am by her. She’s just badass. She’s smart, she doesn’t pull punches, she has fantastic taste and esoteric knowledge. She fits in anywhere. She manages to sit right at the edges of the center of attention; she doesn’t need to be the focus. She doesn’t need her ego petted. She knows who she is. There is no better role model for a young woman hungry for success.

Strong women are the bones of speculative fiction. It’s absurd to pretend that our contributions are less, or somehow bringing the genre down—we aren’t new here. But whatever. We are living through the death throes of a cabal nostalgic for a world that never actually existed, and their power over us is weaker every year. They can shout and whine and stomp their feet but I can’t wait to ruin science fiction for them.

On a more personal note, I’m grateful to have these women in my orbit. I was taught to define myself by the men in my life; I’m only now learning how fucked up that is. Watching smart, accomplished women be generous and strong and funny and take no shit, being on the receiving end of their advice and kindness–I know I am fortunate. My community is remarkable.

“They said shoot a problem monkey, and we shot a monkey. They’re all fucking problem monkeys.”

“How High Your Gods Can Count,” Strange Horizons, May 2, 2016

© 2016 Nora Potwora,

© 2016 Nora Potwora, “How High Your Gods Can Count”