Queen Seon Duk: The Worst Soldier

I've been watching K-drama a lot lately, and I think it's about time I talk about it somewhere besides Twitter. Lucky you! 

As with with my Bollywood binges, I'm transfixed by what I'm seeing because the stories feel gorgeously fresh and unexpected to me. There are a lot of reasons for this, but one of them is that Korean storytelling just doesn't use all the tropes I've been trained to expect. There are tropes, absolutely—just a different set. This means I can be taken by surprise more often and more deeply than in Western media. 

Right now my show is Queen Seon Duk, which you can stream on Drama Fever. It takes place in roughly the year 700 and is absolutely and amusingly anachronistic—just as a starter, the show has featured crystal water goblets, French hook earrings, and endless tall chairs and tables, which I am about 99% sure were not things that existed in Shilla at that time. And that's not even starting in on the subtitle translation, which is fodder for a whole different post.

Forgive me, but I'm going to spoil roughly how the first third of the show goes to give you an example of what I mean about this whole "different tropes" thing. 

See, early on in the series, a young woman disguises herself as a man and becomes a soldier. I've seen this story a hundred times before, and I know how it goes: the young woman struggles at first, but she's all heart. She works harder than all of the men. She gradually earns their grudging respect, and in the end, she becomes the very best soldier of them all.

You've seen that story too, right?

Except that's not what happens in Queen Seon Duk. Our young woman absolutely tries harder than anyone else, yes! She is all heart. But despite all of that, she is a shitty soldier. She's slower than the rest. She's weaker. When the time comes for a real battle, her commander looks at her with pity and contempt and says, "Just stay behind me so you don't get killed."

I kept expecting a crowning moment of glory and physical prowess, where all of her hard work would pay off. And yes, she's smart and cunning. Yes, she performs heroic actions. But all of them are through cleverness, and not battle strength. She is just a really bad soldier, and she never really gets better.

Here I was all primed for a story that it turns out I wasn't going to get. The wrong trope. And it had never even occurred to me that it could go a different way—that all of that heart and trying might not be enough to actually become good at something, much less the best. I kept fighting with myself: "Well of course the GIRL has to be a bad soldier, because SEXISM" vs. "But... actually that's not entirely unrealistic, and it's not like she isn't proving her leadership value at every turn, so why do I need her to be also very physically fast and strong?"

I'm a strong believer that creative people need to feed their brains a very careful diet of interesting ideas and experiences. Part of that means going off the beaten path of your peer group. I could be watching Stranger Things and Luke Cage right now, sure. But then I'd be thinking mostly the same thoughts as all of my friends and colleagues who are watching those shows.

The kind of dissonance I get from K-drama is exactly what I need right now. It's good for me as a writer, because my brain is opening up to a much broader and more interesting array of possible narratives than I could see before. And it's good for me as a human being who needs down time, because I can more easily shut off the part of my brain that analyzes and rewrites the show as we go along so I can enjoy the experience as actual entertainment in a deeper and more genuine fashion.

It's pretty great on basically every possible level. And you're going to be hearing much, much more about K-drama from me over the next few weeks. Brace yourselves!

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Imzy: Off to a Good Start

Kace Alexander posted a couple of really amazing Medium pieces recently about how toxic Twitter has become and why that's never going to change, and the new contender on the horizon to become the next big social media thing: Imzy. Kace is very, very smart, and you should go read those pieces now. I won't be repeating that stuff here.

My personal experience of Twitter isn't actually bad on a day to day basis, but I am keenly aware of some harsh realities. I'm a woman. I work in games. I hold extremely left-wing politics. I've had a few scuffles with MRA-types that blow over fast, but the sword of Damocles hangs over me, just waiting for the right moment to fall. The better my career goes, the worse Twitter will be for me. 

I really need to start fostering other spaces that give me the same benefits in having a public-facing persona, the ability to connect with new people, and access to water coolers for talking shop and letting off steam that encompass entire industries.

So! Imzy. I have a community on Imzy already, and I'm happy to hand out invites—just give me a holler. I don't have the hang of Imzy yet, but it took me a long time to get the hang of Twitter, too. And the lesson I've learned from that is: I need a critical mass of other people there to make it more than just an extra chore.

Right now I'm using my community as a personal space to repost stuff from this blog and from Instagram. In turn, one of the reasons I woke up this blog is to start moving some thoughts off of Twitter. But I'm sure that usage is going to evolve over time, as Imzy's culture grows more established and best practices emerge.

Maybe join my critical mass on Imzy? And help carve out a kinder, safer space on the internet, where moderation exists and abuse isn't tolerated? It may work and it may not, but I feel like the right thing to do here is give it a vigorous and honest try.


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The Cultures 170: Amazon Echo, the iPhone 7, and Disobedience

Remember back in 2013 when I told you I'd started up a new podcast called The Cultures with Adrian Hon and Naomi Alderman? We're still running strong all these years later, and yet it turns out lots of people don't even know I have a podcast. Because we never talk about it, we just do it!

It's podcasting verité—no editing, just roughly 30 minutes a week of unfiltered chat about technology, art, culture, politics, religion, how to be a better human, and how all of these things intersect one another. I treasure recording these podcasts because I get to spend time talking to two smart, wonderful people about interesting topics. Maybe you'll enjoy listening for the same reason?

In this week's episode, Adrian reviews his new Amazon Echo and Alexa, I review the iPhone 7 Plus and Siri, and Naomi talks a little bit about the development of a film based on her book Disobedience. You can find us on iTunes or on LibSyn, whatever works for you! And from here on out I'll try to post a podcasting reminder on Mondays. Because what's the point of doing a podcast if you don't actually tell people about it?

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Circus of Mirrors is Here!

It's been a long journey, but I am absolutely delighted to say that Circus of Mirrors, the interactive children's book I've created with Stitch Media, is now available for sale. I couldn't be happier about it!

Circus of Mirrors is basically a parent-run alternate reality game for kids. That means the story isn't just something the child reads; they get to be a part of it! Each adventure kit includes eight separately bound chapters, and in between each chapter the child is given an activity that puts them at the center of the story. Mazes, riddles, crafts, letters and phone calls all play a part. Oh, and the illustrations? Why yes, that is Mike Holmes of Adventure Time fame!

I'm going to have more to say about Circus in the coming weeks—I especially want to tell you how incredible it was to see my own daughter go through this experience. In my shoes, it's easy to forget how magical it is when the story world first reaches out and touches you. But it really, truly is... magic.

Oh, and I'm still incredibly proud of the Bearded Man. I giggle like a fool thinking about him, even now!

You'll be hearing a lot more about Circus of Mirrors in the weeks to come. But for now I thought I'd send up a flare and let you know this is a real thing that you can buy right now with your own money! And the holidays are coming up real fast. If you know what I mean.

And what I mean is, buy Circus of Mirrors for the chapter book readers in your life for the winter holiday of your choice. I pinky swear you won't regret it!

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Pros Hit Their Deadlines (Unless They Don't)

Last Friday at about 10:30pm, I hit a deadline to turn in a fairly lengthy piece of writing. And I felt mighty. The cards had been stacked against me. This was a week with a major religious holiday and so two days where my kids weren't in school. A week where I was sick with some viral nonsense that left me headachey, congested, exhausted, and sore. A week where I had a mammogram scheduled. A week where I lost my major client and started hustling my tailfeathers looking for new work. (Still hustling, BTW!) This was a week where one of my children sprained her second foot in two weeks.

And despite all of the avalanche of life happening to me, I hit the deadline. So I wanted to take to Twitter to crow that it was because I was a professional, and this is what distinguishes a pro: come what may, you turn your shit in on time. But that's... not exactly true. And in fact, that kind of thinking can be actively harmful.

Using "a pro turns everything in on time always" as a bright-line standard is reductive and fundamentally unhealthy because there are genuinely circumstances where it is one hundred percent not possible to make your deadlines, and it's not something you could've fixed by starting earlier or managing your time better. Honest! I've missed due dates my own self by varying degrees for reasons ranging from "hurricane" to "pneumonia" to a simple "this was a lot harder than we all thought it was going to be." 

There's a certain machismo to writing culture that I find deeply uncomfortable at times. It includes a sort of laissez-faire attitude toward substance abuse and mental health issues—like drinking too much and suffering from anxiety or depression make you more valid, somehow. Like Hemingway and Balzac are something to aspire to, that their success came because of their excessive habits and not despite them. Like caring about your well-being is a dealbreaker.

This macho writing culture also includes a lot of subtext about working to the very limits of your capacity, all the time, no matter what personal cost it exacts. I've been in this game for, what, eleven years now? And it turns out driving yourself flat-out is an unsustainable practice for more than a few months, or perhaps a few years. So you have to ask yourself: Do you want to be a writer just for right now, or do you want to be a writer forever?

Ten years ago, I could put in a full day of work and then do an additional night shift of three or four hours of work after my kids were in bed. I can't do that anymore. My brain needs fallow time to produce more and better work. (It probably did then, too.) And I've finally recognized that the work that I do when I have, say, the actual swine flu isn't going to be worth turning in. 

So what distinguishes a professional? It's not that you see through space and time and block out the week your beloved great-aunt passes away so you can attend her funeral in peace, no. And it's not typing away perched at the graveside, either. It's not never getting sick, never having a power or internet outage, never missing the plane or getting into a fender-bender. It's not never taking a week off of writing to gaze at a crisp autumn sky and grow closer to the people you care about.

It's what happens after and around that. It's talking to your clients, editors, or colleagues when you need to, and saying, "Hey, is it OK if I take a little longer with this?" Sometimes there's a reason to burn your candle at both ends. Usually there's not. Being a professional means knowing the difference.

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