The blessing of constraints.

There is a nightmare image every writer knows: the cursor blinking at the top of a blank page. Or, somehow worse yet, the cursor blinking at the end of a bit of text, when all the steam has run out and there is no way forward.

Several times before I wrote Book One, I had tried to write novels. I never got very far beyond page 10 or so, because I inevitably ran headfirst into a wall of horrible inertia at the end of the first idea. The rest of the story vanished in front of me like smoke. I could sort of see it, but only if I squinted, and by then it dissipated.

This phenomenon is a bit like the paradox of choice: if the story can become absolutely anything, then the horizon is so completely open that my poor little human brain starts to overheat from all the possibilities and I get a paralyzing case of the vapors.

May I suggest a way forward?

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2020 Goals, writing-related and otherwise

I am a chronic maker of lists. You should see the chaos that is my Google Keep, a mess of immediate and short-term and long-term and unknowable-term tasks all jumbled together with lists of ideas and movies I want to watch.

When things get really hairy, as they did during law school, I find myself making to-do lists that get as granular as “eat breakfast” and “shower.” Even, on dismally rough days, “go to class.” Because there is an unmatchable joy that comes from crossing something off, even if my life is otherwise a dumpster fire.

It has never so far gotten quite as bad as having to remember to “breathe” and “sleep,” but never say never.

There is a push-pull relationship between me and the lists. Part of me delights in writing them down, because in that moment it feels like proof of the delicious possibility of the future. Look at me—I’m going to run five miles and write five chapters of a book after work on Tuesday, after I cook myself dinner! God, I’m unstoppable.

But then, inevitably, Tuesday-after-work shows up, and I’m exhausted from work and also pretty cold and hungry, and I rebel against that taskmaster who assigned me the run and the writing project and the cooking assignment. I eat packaged ramen and watch Netflix and feel both free and kind of nauseous.

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A short story for Epiphany.

Trying something new around here: I had the following idea for a short story this morning. So I wrote it down. Happy Twelfth Night, everyone.

When the wise men set out on the dusty road after the audience with the infant king, their treasure chests were lighter. To their surprise, though, they were lighter only by one measure of gold, one of costly incense, and one of embalming resin. Why hadn’t they given the rest of the tapestries, the rare gems, the stoppered bottle of precious wine?

As it had happened, they disagreed sharply about giving the myrrh. It was in their trunks only because the worst could always happen when traveling. Thieves and murderers tended to lurk around every corner, especially in this restless corner of the western empire. The myrrh was not meant as a gift. It was meant to ensure that, if any of them were to be stabbed to death by ruffians, they would be ready to prepare the body for transport home. So at the solemn moment when they had bowed their heads and offered the gifts (gold first, then incense) to the cooing baby in his mother’s arms, they had shot sharp looks at the third among them.

“Wrong, simply wrong,” the first one hissed at the third one afterward, “to give such a morbid gift to a king.”

“To a baby,” nodded the second, grimacing.

The third had merely shrugged. 

Annoying, essentially unbearable, that it was said that some back home knew him as the wisest of all.

But after they made their goodbyes, they had only the briefest of conversations about how full their treasure chests remained, still heaving back and forth with the donkeys’ every step. They hardly discussed what they would say when they returned the tapestries, the gems, the wine to the storerooms. They avoided agreeing on how they would explain the visit to the homebound many, anxiously awaiting tales of adventure in the hinterlands.

Words failed them, indeed, on all topics.

They could not discuss how they would explain that they had stopped following the star. Imagine: they had come all the way from Persia, even east of Persia, and the star had not failed them for a moment. But when they entered this country, they had thought the better of going straight to where it was taking them, which appeared to be the middle of nowhere. After all, they were united by an uncanny feeling that they were going to a king. It made good sense, then, to go to the palace, didn’t it? Which is when they met the governor-king. But each of them knew, through furtive, discomforted glances—this was not it. This old man, with that evil, thirsty, striving glint in his eye—he was not the one the star had been guiding them to. It had been too late, and too rude, not to answer his many questions. But none of them had liked his reaction to their answers.

And now that they had left the little family in their little house (a poorer house than they had seen in decades; more of a barn, truly, although they did not want to make uncharitable assumptions about the living standards out here) the star lay parked above it, as though imploring them to stay.

They ignored their unease. They did not stay.

They made camp among the kind shepherds, who had insisted on hospitality, and who seemed to be under the rather amusing impression that the men were themselves kings of some kind. That night, they spoke only in significant looks about the strange audience with the king. His parents had been kind, terribly kind, and rather noble of mien, yes, but—in what was essentially a stable. Was that how things were done out here in the ragged west? Where were their attendants, their courtiers, the palace? Where were the subjects? Was he to be a king among sheep only?

But he was unquestionably a king. Far more of a king, somehow, than the old man in the palace. An irrational, unavoidable, conclusion.

And they did not speak at all of the horrible dreams they all had that first night, sleeping rough among the good shepherds. Stomach-turning dreams for each of them, waking up in a sweat. The first saw rivers of blood. The second, an army of the dead chasing him, and his legs wouldn’t run. The third, darkness upon darkness, disorienting and alone, a void, full of screaming. They did not know this, of course, because they did not speak of it, and they did not know as each of them briskly filled his saddlebags the next morning that each had a firm, bone-deep conviction not to return to the governor-king with the directions he’d asked for—a conviction that would have inspired each to travel the hundreds of miles home alone if necessary to avoid that nauseating palace.

So it was with silent relief that they found themselves setting off together the long way, the perilously roundabout way, skirting Jerusalem by many weary miles, until they passed through somewhere called Nazareth, fumbling with the language as they traded for dried meat and fruit and nuts for the extended journey.

And when they arrived near home, they made their quiet goodbyes. Life on the road together had made them closer than family, but they were too wise for many parting words. Perhaps, the first one thought afterward as he plodded alone, they would meet again sooner or later. It might happen again as it had many months ago, when they nearly collided on the road in their distraction at the wondrous new star in the west. 

After all, who is to say what will happen?

“Not a wise man,” he chuckled to himself, and his donkey shook his head as though in wry agreement.

But the star never troubled them again.

They went back to their studies, and to their magic tricks, the only way they knew how to show the masses a glimpse of the inexpressible. All the while the heavens remained silent and ordinary, moving exactly as they always had.

As they aged, and as their sons and daughters grew, in quiet moments they wondered often of the tiny king they had seen. They wondered what had become of him and his brave mother, his kind-eyed father. 

Did they hear the news from Jerusalem nearly three dozen years later? 

Did they wonder if their gold had made his travels easy?

Did they wonder if their frankincense perfumed the space around him, as he taught those who were drawn to him, just as they themselves had been?

Did they wonder if his mother had unwrapped the myrrh, which she in her sad wisdom had saved all the while, and handed it to his friends when they took his body?

Audio fiction podcasts for long drives.

In addition to living in the Golden Age of Television, we also appear to have the great fortune to also be living in the Golden Age of Podcasting. (How can a medium that didn’t exist 20 years ago have a Golden Age? I’m not entirely sure, but it sure feels like there will never be a time with more podcasts than there are now. I mean, how…?)

All this Content can make some of us (me) feel a little overwhelmed. Thoughts and prayers. We’ll get through this together.

But not before I recommend some Content.

The podcast world is full of all manner of shows to listen to: political analysis, news updates, science and history and pop-culture informers, emotional shows about hidden and unknown things that, one surmises, couldn’t be revealed outside the secretive world of the podcast. And then there’s a whole lot of random people swapping jokes with their friends for public consumption, which I’ll admit is a genre I really don’t get.

Due to my strong innate inclination to FOMO, I’ve become a heavy user of this medium. Shocking though it may be to you few, you happy few, you band of readers, the world of written Content like blogs is long gone, and the age of video and audio is at hand. Therefore, people whose ideas I want to hear are saying their ideas out loud in this format, rather than writing them down. And I do get a lot of insights this way, but unfortunately, one must listen to the whole damn thing to wait for a few morsels of wisdom to fall. This makes podcasts rather more difficult to skim than a printed article, and a lot more time-consuming.

So I listen at 2x speed. Then I wonder why I tend to feel a little manic and overstimulated.

But that’s a problem for another time.

After this wordy intro, all I’m really here to say is that one of my favorite genres of podcast lately is fiction. It’s a rich field, and because the podcast medium is cheaper to produce and has lower barriers to entry than film/TV and traditional book publishing, there are a lot of small producers making great audio fiction that you can access all for free.

This time of year, a lot of us are traveling, and I think some of these podcasts make a great short alternative to an audiobook if you like to listen to a story while you drive, or while you take a break from whatever you need to take a break from this season.

All of these shows make the most of the limitations and the opportunities of audio-only, whether they have a single narrator or a whole cast.

So, below are some of my favorites in different genres, in no particular order:

  • Surreal: Welcome to Night Vale and Within the Wires: Two shows from the same writing team at Night Vale Presents. Welcome to Night Vale is in the form of bizarre, hilarious community-radio broadcasts from a town in the desert where all conspiracies are true. Listen basically in any order, except for episodes marked as multi-part. For more of an ongoing story, each season of Within the Wires is presented as found audiocassettes of various kinds (relaxation tapes, museum audio guides, dictation tapes, and voicemail) from an alternate history of the 20th century. It’s slow but so creative and beautiful.
  • Parody: A Very Fatal Murder from The Onion perfectly parodies investigative reporting shows like Serial, wherein the host has boundary issues. The first season stands alone very well.
  • Action: Carrier has excellent performances. It follows a woman who takes over her father’s job as a trucker, only to find that there’s something very wrong with her deliveries. Also, Passenger List tells the story of a young woman trying to find out what really happened to a plane that disappeared in midair with her brother on board. These are both miniseries, so there’s an ending!
  • Eco-Thriller (?!): Forest 404 from the BBC was a great sci-fi adventure set in the far future, when the world has entirely forgotten nature. The feed also includes ambient nature sounds and brief talks with scientists about topics related to the story. It’s also a miniseries (as Tahani knows, you can trust the BBC to exhaust itself rather quickly), so there’s an ending.
  • Drama: Motherhacker and Sandra (both from Big Podcast company Gimlet; both miniseries (do you see a pattern here? I love an ending)) are comic dramas with great acting that live in our world of spam calls and Amazon Alexas, but with unnerving twists.
  • Suspense/Horror: Video Palace was a truly creepy story of a man investigating a mysterious VHS tape that haunts him.
  • Sci-Fi: Steal the Stars has government alien conspiracies, forbidden love, and a main female character with a captivating, deep voice. What’s not to like?
  • Immersive: The Walk, written by novelist Naomi Alderman of The Power, is controversial in terms of quality, but I liked it and would recommend it if you’re down to have a weird, maybe dissatisfying narrative experience. This is immersive audio, meaning you the listener find yourself spoken directly to by the cast. You are tasked with walking from Scotland to London to deliver a mysterious package as the world goes to pieces around you. It’s weird, and it doesn’t necessarily entirely work as a story, but I listened to it with some friends on a long drive and it was absorbing and made the drive feel eventful, rather than merely distracting me from the tedium. So give it a try.

Are there others you like that I left out? Leave a comment or let me know on Facebook or Instagram.