Cassandra was the Writer in Residence at Library! at Bown Crossing in Boise for May and June 2019. This page is a compilation of notes, fragments, and reflections to serve as a record of the project.
Artist’s Statement. Speculative fiction of all kinds–science fiction, fantasy, fabulism, and more–often begins with wild leaps of empathy, curiosity, and wonder. But how do you write sensitively outside your own experience? In this Vox Poplar project, Cassandra will look at the role of empathy from visualization of novel concept to sketched-out fragments, story arcs, and emerging character voices, with a special emphasis on how to explore the Other and the Unknown in a way that is both compassionate and honest.
Session 1 (May 7)
In Session 1, I found myself mostly still feeling around in the dark. I was focused entirely on world-building and concept. What IS a space opera, and is that even what I’m writing? I determined that, if my focus is more on characters in space than on the science of “science fiction” (without entirely ignoring it, though), I’m probably writing a space opera. But this is something I’m still thinking about, to be honest.
So you can see my snippets that right from the start I’m worried about copying things that have already been done to death. A lot of early sci-fi was written with a colonial outlook: the world is undiscovered, pristine, ours for the taking! But that doesn’t respect the living people, animals, and beings who lived there first. Sci-fi was sometimes used as a form of escapism, to pretend there really are places that are “ours for the taking.”
It’s okay to write escapism of course. Sometimes we all just want to get away from the world. But I want to push into new territory and do something interesting and NOT patterned on colonial thinking. So I’ve set a few preliminary rules for myself to keep me away from that territory.
Session 2 (May 14)
The big break-through of Session 2 was to suggest I do away entirely with the whole idea of a “pristine paradise” in space. I challenged myself to begin experimenting gross words and metaphors instead.
By now, characters with personalities are beginning to form in my head. I’m beginning to daydream now that I have a few parameters of a world to work with. This is really organic for me. When I’m drafting, I try not to be too much of a dictator over what is okay and what’s not. At the same time, I do pause sometimes and ask what I like about a certain scene. Is it self-indulgent? Is it attacking a moral question? Am I intrigued enough to explore it further by committing it to words?
I found that I wasn’t writing much down, but I was just picturing these boys in space ships a lot and wondering why I was drawn to them.
By-Week (May 21)
Even though I’m not in the library this week, I’m pretty consumed by this new story idea. I tried to revise another project, thinking I’d sneak it in, but my thoughts keep getting drawn back to the new story. For the first time in ages (since last July!!), I’m writing whole snatches of dialogue and description, mostly in segments of 20 lines or less.
I’m a very fragmentary drafter. I hand-write in my journal out of order, separating things with a simple dot or dash to keep from being too terribly confused later when I sit down to type. The snippet below is one of the more coherent sections, but immediately after this, I ended up jumping to totally different ideas and content that will ultimately be placed somewhere further into the book, inspired by what I wrote here.
I really want to stress that this material might not even end up in the final book. The important thing is that it’s a strand, like a puzzle piece, that tells me something I didn’t know before. One thing I learned from this passage is that my two main characters will meet on bad terms, with one doing something to embarrass or discomfit the other. The exact way that plays out in the final version might look drastically different from here, but it gave me a feel for the dynamics between them. They are going to be frenemies or enemies-to-friends or maybe even enemies-to-lovers. I won’t fully know what I want it to be until I’ve gotten further into the project.
Session 3 (May 28)
In this session, even though I initially thought I’d still be lost in world-building, my imagination caught fire and I began to type out whole scenes. By this point, too, I’ve become more comfortable with the typewriter as a medium for storytelling and so was able to hit my stride in a way I haven’t in previous weeks.
During the week leading up to this session, I read nature writer Akiko Busch’s How to Disappear: notes on invisibility in a time of transparency. That was a strong influence on where I took the story, in that I began thinking a lot about how environment shapes one’s choices to be seen or unseen.
Session 4 (June 6)
In June, I switched from Tuesday to Thursday night sessions at Bown, and the social impact was much bigger than expected! Or perhaps library patrons have become used to me by now and have begun approaching me more boldly. While I still generated a lot of new material, I found myself stopping often to engage with the public, whether it was to show a child how to type his or her name or to talk about the nature of memoir with a new Boise resident. This really gives a sense for why the Vox Poplar is considered a “living” or “interactive” art installment.
An important theme in the writing this week was the nature of grief for the main character. Many of my creative projects circle around grief, rescue, and found family. This one is proving to follow that well-tread path thematically.
Session 5 (June 13)
One week to go and I already felt myself mourning the end of the residency! I was fully and completely in the flow whenever I wasn’t talking with library patrons this week, but I did pause to rearrange all the fragments I had collected into two sets: writing process notes and story fragments.
Because I also work as an editor and bookmaker, spending more time on a typewriter naturally has led me to consider the “book as art.” When your writing progress is directly measurable by the amount of white paper you’ve run through the typewriter, it creates this very strong question of “now what do I do with all this stuff?”
I have been learning from colleagues and my own experimentation how to lay out a book properly using professional design tools. A lesson to be gained from that kind of work for all writers is that you have to understand what you’re trying to make in order to get the content into the best possible shape for it. So between the typewriter and the book layouts, I kept leaping back to revisions on several other of my speculative novel manuscripts because I was inspired to think about what I wanted them to be in their final forms.
I began to wonder, among other things, whether this sci-fi “novel” I’m working on is, in fact, a short story. There are certain images I can’t get out of my head, but the dramatic arc doesn’t quite feel complex enough for a novel. That’s not something I could have suggested a week or two weeks or a month ago. It came out of experimentation with world and story.