Essays

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One of the things I was taught when I attended a first aid class was to make sure, before I attempted to help anyone, that it was safe for me to do so. To make sure that I was not putting myself in danger by helping a person in distress—whether from an environmental factor like a fire, flood or toxic gas, or even from the person I was trying to help. The gist being: you can’t help someone if you get into trouble—that just makes more trouble for the EMTs when they show up.

It was not an unfamiliar concept to me. At the time, I’d been working and playing in and on and around rivers for many years, and the number one rule of helping a drowning person is: don’t go in after them. Throw them a flotation device, or a rope, but then only if there’s a safe place for you to stand.) Because you don’t want to be drowning number two—or even the person who drowned getting the other person out.

So the idea that you had to make sure of your own safety before providing aid to someone else made perfect sense.

Changing gears for a moment. A while back I had a visit from a friend. Said friend was going through some tough times, and the stress from this was sending them into periodic bouts of depression and anxiety. In the time they were staying with me I tried to render such care as I was able in the form of getting them outside, providing entertaining distractions, cooking them tasty and nourishing food, and giving as much practical advice as I was able.

But before I did any of that, I made sure of two things: (1) that every day  I got an appreciable amount of exercise, and (2) I got a similar amount of writing done. These essentials were entirely for my own benefit, and though it meant leaving my friend alone at times when I’d rather have not, I recognized that these were non-negotiable levels of care for myself. Taking care of my own baseline needs first was what allowed me to devote the rest of my time and energy to helping my friend, without developing any resentment which would have inevitably poisoned our time together and ruined the visit. And because I was able to be so generous with them, they were better able to deal with their own problems, which made the visit more enjoyable for both of us.

What I was doing in this instance was an emotional version of making sure the scene was safe before providing aid. By putting my own basic needs first I was performing the emotional equivalent of making sure the road was clear before running into the middle of it to save a lost toddler.

Yet as simple and sensible a concept as this is, it can be surprisingly difficult to practice. As a species we are inclined to help people we perceive to be in trouble. As a society we are encouraged (through the glorification of heroes, both real and fictional) to provide this help at any cost.

I live in a town built around a river. There are annual drownings. More often than not, they come in pairs—or more—because someone jumped in to try to save their son, their brother, or their dog. This happens even when the first victim is in a torrent of raging whitewater—something that’s obviously dangerous.

The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation has recognized this problem and offers a course of training, through their Everyone Goes Home program, designed to help firefighters recognize when a situation has become unacceptably dangerous, and how to protect themselves when this happens. It is called Courage To Be Safe, and highlights the courage it takes to not run into a burning building when doing so would jeopardize your life or the lives of your colleagues.

Let me boil that down for you: our desire as a species and a society to save other people is so strong that we have had to come up with a provocative slogan to help people resist the urge to walk into a fire.

With this in mind, it should come as no surprise how frequently people get themselves into trouble trying to render other kinds of aid when it is not safe for them to do so. I’ve seen people over-extend themselves trying to help people who are, sometimes through no fault of their own, emotional or financial black holes. One could pour loving care and money into these people forever, and they would not get better. All that happens is the caregiver winds up emotionally destroyed or financially compromised, or both.

Con artists take advantage of this desire to help as well. By presenting themselves as people in need they stir up sympathy and soften their marks. Stalkers and creeps take blatant advantage of people—particularly female people—and their desire not to cause offense and to tolerate inappropriate behavior. Listening to stories of women who were harassed in public, when they are asked why they didn’t speak up, one often hears a refrain of “I didn’t want to embarrass him!”

And you can sneer, if you want. Or point out that he was already making them far more uncomfortable, and was taking advantage of their politeness to behave outrageously. But remember: immediate, physical danger is the easiest to react to. If our natural senses of self-protection can be so easily overturned in the face of roaring whitewater, or a burning building, then we really cannot fault people who allow their judgment to be compromised by much subtler dangers—even if, in the long run, they can turn out to be just as deadly.

Which is why I think it’s worth it for everyone to take a first aid class. Not only will you learn useful skills with which to functionally help someone, you’ll absorb the basic principle that you should protect yourself, which can then be applied to all manner of situations.

It is unlikely for the vast majority of us that we will have to resuscitate anyone, or treat a bullet wound in the field. But it is very likely—almost assured—that at some point in our lives we will be put in the position of wanting to render financial or emotional aid that would put us in danger. At that point it is imperative that we remember that our safety comes first, and no matter what outside pressures are on us, our safety and well-being are paramount: since only from a place of security and strength can we truly help someone. Anything else is just jumping into a raging river to save a person who might smother and drown you, instead. At best, we’re making things more difficult for everyone else, since there are now two people in trouble. At worst, we’re getting ourselves killed.

So don’t jump in. Find a good, safe, solid place to anchor yourself, and throw a rope.

And if you can’t do that, then you can’t help them. Which happens sometimes. And it will be hard to walk away. That’s okay; that’s good. That’s why they call it Courage To Be Safe. But by not putting yourself in danger you are already saving someone: you are saving yourself.

And for all you know, saving yourself today might mean you’re there, in a safe position of strength, to save someone else tomorrow.

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I haven’t had a really bad dream—a real nightmare—since I was seven or eight years old.

Before that I had terrible nightmares. Not frequently, but regularly enough that I remembered them. They terrified me; I’d wake up sweating, shivering, and sometimes crying.

These stopped abruptly after I had a dream that started out as a nightmare, but turned into something very different.

I was in a car. It was dark. The car wasn’t moving. I was strapped into the front seat. I was alone.

There was something in the back seat.

I couldn’t see it, but I knew it was there. My skin crawled and a lump of panic climbed up my throat. My first instinct was to scream for help, open the door and run.

But I could’t speak, couldn’t move, and now the something was crawling forward between the two front seats.

I was terrified by this point. Paralyzed and helpless.

And then out of nowhere came a coherent thought:

The something hadn’t actually hurt me. For all I knew, it was as lost and confused as I was. If I couldn’t move, I had nothing to lose by trying to talk to it.

I was able to turn my head far enough to get a look at this thing.

It looked horrible in that nondescript way things look horrible in your dreams. I remember large eyes—too large—and a small, puckered mouth. Everything about it was wrong and it made me writhe inside and whip around so I was staring straight ahead again. But it didn’t do anything, so after a while I forced myself to turn around and look at it again.

It was still there, still just staring at me.

I managed to unstick my dream mouth and said, as politely as I could:

“Hello, can I help you?”

And the something spoke. Its voice was like two wet rubber gloves being slid together, and I couldn’t understand a word it said (in my dream, it sounded sort of like “whup whuhhp”).

That scared me all over again, but when the something still didn’t do anything, it occurred to me that maybe it was telling me how I could help.

Turning back, which was easier now, I said:

“I’m sorry, I can’t understand you.”

And it was like the terror which had encased my mind burst, like a soap bubble pricked by a needle. The something wasn’t terrifying anymore; it was just strange, and a little lost-looking.

Whuuhp whup,” it said, sadly.

It couldn’t understand me, and I couldn’t understand it. So we stared at each other awkwardly until I woke up.

I haven’t had a nightmare since.

I still have bad dreams, of course. Brought on by anxiety or stress or just a weird, upsetting jumble of images and feelings as the result of my brain uncluttering itself. But they’re not nightmares. Any time I feel that creeping sense of terror that used to develop into a nightmare, there’s a piece of me, stronger than the terror, that turns around and asks the equivalent of “hello, can I help you?”

I’ve kept this experience to myself for over twenty years now, but after recently sharing it with my family, it occurred to me that it might help other people to hear it too. Because I realize now, that dream has had a huge impact on the way I deal with fear in the waking world.

To wit: I don’t run from the things that frighten me; I look at them closely. I try to figure out why they frighten me. A lot of the time it turns out there’s nothing really to be afraid of—or I’m actually afraid of something else. Even when it is something legitimately scary, understanding it helps me deal with it reasonably and rationally, which always makes things less terrifying.

I think we can learn to do this without having deeply powerful and meaningful dreams, of course. But I also think lot of my inner strength in the face of adversity stems from the fact that I was as terrified in my dream as I’ve ever been while I was awake, and I conquered that. There is nothing more frightening than our own imagination, as any writer will tell you. So what’s left to scare you after you’re not scared of that anymore?

Many years after I had this dream, I picked up a copy of Sandman by Neil Gaiman, and was a little bemused to find the message of “DREAMS ARE IMPORTANT” repeated over and over again. It fits, of course, with the theme of the comic, but to me it seemed a little heavy handed. I knew just how important dreams could be. I’d known it since I was seven years old.

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Goldeen Ogawa is a writer, illustrator and cartoonist. She is not sure if this anecdote will actually help anyone conquer their own nightmares, but at the very least it’s an interesting example of how powerful our dreaming minds can be. To keep tabs on her waking life you can follow her on twitter @GrimbyTweets, and on Tumblr. You can also contact her directly.

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One of the questions I get asked most frequently (and sometimes rather impertinently) when people learn of my profession is something along the lines of “how on earth do you make a living at that?”

They don’t always phrase it exactly this way, but this is essentially what they are asking. How do you earn a living writing stories and drawing pictures? Which is actually a little rude, I think. I don’t ask the barista at my favorite coffee shop how much she’s paid per hour, nor do I ask my dentist what his annual income is. Of course, the difference is these are both professions where people have some sort of pre-existing framework for how the people involved earn money: by wages, tips, service fees, etc. Most of the time they are curious about the how of my income, rather than the actual amount of it.

It’s still annoying. Not only because my profession, despite being incredibly rewarding and important, does not pay very well at all, but because there are so much more interesting things to talk to an artist about.

When I was at World Fantasy this year I heard a lot of talk about how people are going about keeping body and soul together in this brave new era of electronic media and crumbling traditional edifices. It is important and relevant that we think about these things, since its difficult to create and publish material when you don’t have enough to eat or a house to live in, but it is also important to remember that life is a transient state, and ultimately the measure of our existence will be taken in the quality of the art we leave behind. In other words, our work, divorced from its capacity as a means to earn money, is worth looking at for its own merits.

Perhaps the most thought-provoking and interesting conversation I had about my writing that weekend took place, not at the hotel or in a conference room, but around the dinner table of my “conservadox” Jewish great-aunt and great-uncle, who invited my Wonderful Mother and I for Sabbath dinner on Friday.

My great-uncle was extremely interested in the kinds of stories I was telling. He’d listened to my “How Riding Got Her Red Hood” short story, and wanted to know if I thought I could use my stories to promote tolerance in the world.

“Intolerance,” he told me, as only an octogenarian Jew can, “is a grave danger to our world. And what you are doing, here, with your work, you have a talent, a power, that not everyone has. And what I hope you keep in mind, moving forward, is how you are using that power.”

Not a single breath was wasted on worrying about how I was going to earn a living while exercising this power. That I would write books, and that these books would find an audience, and be read, was a given, as far as my great-uncle was concerned. He wasn’t interested in the capitalist side of the writing business—only in the creative aspect of it. It was a most enjoyable dinner.

When Ursula K. Le Guin gave her acceptance speech for her National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters she took a more direct approach, but I think she and my great-uncle would get along fabulously. They are both much more concerned with the transcendent quality of modern literature than they are with the money-making aspect of it, which is a refreshing change from the constant barrage of “but how many books have you sold?” sort of questions I usually hear. It is especially encouraging seeing such opinions coming from someone like Le Guin, whom I have admired for years.

While one must admit that a writer needs a certain amount of business acumen simply to navigate the rapids of the publishing river, those skills must ultimately come secondary to our true goal: to produce art that changes the world—for the better. Whether it is by creating tragedies or drama, comedies, comics, fantasy epics or science fiction romances, if you are—to adapt Le Guin’s words—an artist of the imagination; a realist of the larger reality, your ultimate calling should not be the accumulation of wealth or fame, but the creation of transcendent work that will remain, echoing down the ages, long after our flesh and blood and bones have turned to dust, after our homes have been eaten by the jungle (urban or woodland), after the currency we were paid in has lost all meaning, perhaps after even our planet is abandoned.

The best authors, the ones I look up to—Connie Willis, Le Guin, Diana Wynne Jones—have not and do not seem to restrict their writing to what they or their publishers deem profitable. I once heard Willis say, “I just write the books I want to read.” This has certainly been the foundation of every story I have ever written, long before I ever heard Willis speak, and it continues to be the deciding factor in what I choose to write.

In recent years, however, I have augmented this maxim: I will not write what I think will be popular now. I will write what I hope will be enjoyed now. And in ten years. Twenty. Fifty. A hundred. If financial success should come to me in my own lifetime, hurrah! If I am favored with popularity and critical acclaim, fantastic! I shall use it like a trampoline to propel to even greater heights the stories I would be telling anyway.

Because I have been thinking, very hard and for many years, about the power I hold as a teller of stories. And though my ultimate goal—to use those powers for good—is relatively simple, its implementation is complex and variable, and looks to keep me well employed (if not necessarily well paid) for a lifetime that, I hope, should last as long as that of my great-uncle, or Ursula K Le Guin.

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Goldeen Ogawa is a writer, illustrator and cartoonist. To keep tabs on what she is doing you can follow her on twitter @GrimbyTweets, and on Tumblr. You can also contact her directly.

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Or: Thoughts on the problem of works left unfinished.

Recently my mother bought me a copy of Diana Wynne Jones’s final novel, The Islands of Chaldea. I haven’t read it yet, because every time I pick it up I start crying. Partly out of sadness because she is gone, and there will never be any more Diana Wynne Jones stories. Ever. But also partly out of gratitude, because we get one more ride. This is thanks to her sister, Ursula Jones, who finished the book after Diana passed away.

Diana was lucky, I think, to have a sister like Ursula, who was able to take up the ropes and bring the ship in, as it were. Other writers had no one. Others had someone, but they were not up to the task.

Thinking on this, and reflecting on my own mortality, it has become obvious that I will leave at least one incomplete work when I go. In the unlikely event that I die in a car crash tomorrow, I will leave three novels, a novella, and a whole series of short stories hanging. And since I cannot see an end to my writing—I will hopefully be writing up until the day, if not the hour, that I die—I have no reason to presume that, should I die in sixty years from a degenerative illness, things would be much different.

So the problem of what will happen to my unfinished work will remain. And while I realize there will (hopefully) be a lot of time for me to refine this idea, here is what I would like to happen to my unfinished works (and I cannot imagine it changing much):

I don’t want any one person to finish my work. Even assuming there is anyone I would trust to do so (there currently isn’t), and assuming that they survive me, I still wouldn’t want someone other than me finishing my stories.

Even so, I don’t want my stories to go unfinished. I want my readers to find out what happens. I want them to have closure. So even though I usually abhor the idea of giving the reader the task of coming up with their own endings, this is more or less what I would like done with my unfinished work.

To be precise, all my work that is functionally unfinished (completed first drafts will not count: there must be significant chunks of story missing, and I must have not gotten to write THE END yet), should be given over to whatever fans I have managed to earn, to complete at their discretion.

There will be no One True ending for the works I leave unfinished. Rather, there will be a multitude of endings. Because if I’ve learned anything from the fanfiction community, it’s that they as a body of people are more creative than most individual writers. I would not trust one person to complete my stories, but I would trust the collective writers of ArchiveOfOurOwn.org. I would trust the people who loved my work to come up with the endings that pleased them best, and write them down for other people to read. And if you were a fan, and saw a fan-ending you didn’t much like, well, you could write your own. And it would be just as real.

Far from being left with no endings, my readers would have a plethora of endings, and could build their ideal ending if they pleased. And it would forever be an open field: a person who discovered my work long after I was gone could still join in.

No one might ever arrive at the ending I had intended, but I think the odds are good, given enough time, that some of them could come close.

I’ve heard some writers scoff at fanfiction, and though I respect their opinions, I disagree. I find fanfiction and fanon (fan canon) a welcome relief from the straitlaced world of popular media—that can also serve to keep original writers on their toes. I read fanfiction (though never fanfiction of my own work—if any exists), in part because I want to challenge myself to be as original and creative and brave as the fifteen-year-old girls writing civil war, space opera, or firehouse AUs (Alternate Universes), or post-canon fix-it fics, or just plain-old, wild, gay smut, for their friends.

I tell a lie. There is one person I’d trust to finish my stories for me, but as she is already in a place where her stories can no longer reach the living world, I will gladly bequeath mine to my fans. I can only hope that, should I live a hundred more years, that vibrant community of earnest, loving, devoted writers will still be going strong—and that, by the time I am finished here, I will have managed to earn some who are ready and willing to take on the task.

My only other request would be that, although they are of course free to come up with whatever endings they liked, they remember that I prefer they make them happy ones.

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Goldeen Ogawa is a writer, illustrator and cartoonist. To keep tabs on what she is doing you can follow her on twitter @GrimbyTweets, and on Tumblr. You can also send her an email at goldeenogawa@gmail.com.

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