Cry-Baby: HSPs, Toxic Masculinity, and Reclaiming Being a Sensitive Man

I’m a highly-sensitive person.

I used to think that I was on the autism spectrum. While that’s still possible, HSP is a more likely diagnosis. The highly-sensitive person experiences senses and emotions more intensely than others and can be easily overwhelmed. HSPs are often, though not always, introverted. They are also very empathetic. (More on this later.)

Growing up, I was a sensitive, shy kid who cried a lot, preferred playing indoors to rough-and-tumble sports, and only had a few friends at any given time. I was ill-socialized, behind my peers for much of my adolescence (another factor that led me to think I might be on the spectrum). A friend once said that, when I was 16 years old, I was mentally 20 but emotionally 9.

Someone, either a parent or another family member, called me spoiled because I cried so much. I was mocked for it. Later, I was spanked.

I stopped crying. I stopped complaining. I tried hard to avoid showing any emotion at all, as time and time again, I was told that my feelings weren’t wanted.
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I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I’M DOING: A Post About Writing Process

I’ve written two stories in the past six months, and everything about them is different.

The first followed my typical writing process, albeit shortened to meet a crucial workshop deadline. It’s emotionally honest (something I ranted about the other day on Twitter), about a subject with which I have personal ties. It’s longish for a short story, probably with too much character nuance and plot-contrivance to make it salable. The character arc came first, and the worldbuilding details were shrinkwrapped around it. Somewhere along the way, with a good bunch of help from my workshop cohort, I reverse-engineered a three-act structure out of it.

The second I wrote this past month for (dear God, why?) another, undisclosed deadline. This one I wrote much like my posts on The Daily WTF: I started with the core conceit (an observation borne out of my life experience, married to a particular obsession) and built a plot around it, baking in the act breaks from the start, and adding character later. I had to outline every scene, as I just didn’t have the time to “write my way through” the story. I discovered my character arcs through the constraints of the plot: rather than figuring out what a character would do next, I had to figure out why a character would do this particular thing, and change them accordingly.

This second approach (plot-forward) has always felt artificial, almost like paint-by-numbers, or just photocopying the screenwriting book Save the Cat. I don’t write for plot; I write for character moments and worldbulding, because those are the things I look for most in stories I read.

However, and I may eat some unholy weight of crow for saying this, but the stories I write “plot-forward” just work better. My “character-forward” stories are my darlings, but no one buys them. Every story on The Daily WTF, with the flimsiest, tissue-paper-thin characterization needed to make it work, finds its audience. (Hell, the “Mercy the Mercenary” series could make a decent novella, which is how I intended it.)

Changing your process sucks. Change sucks. But you have to know when it’s time. If I’m going to continue writing for the SF market, I have to write more plausible scenarios with precision-timed emotional beats, not meandering revelations. To achieve this, plot must be the skeleton, and characterization and worldbuilding the muscle and skin, respectively. (We’ll say theme is the brain of this whole thing, and the Oxford comma the fingernails.)

That first story could sell — I wouldn’t be submitting it otherwise — but how the second one turns out will determine if my process changes. Although I think it’s better, my critique group may have other ideas! But I’m willing to change if I have to.

How about you? When have you ever had to overhaul your writing process? Let me know!

That’s All He Wrote: Moving on from my Bullet Journal

The time has come to retire my bullet journal.

I moved to a paper-based task management system after getting frustrated with the fragmented, inflexible world of task management/note-taking apps. Bullet journaling offered flexibility, simplicity, and cross-pollination. That last one appealed to my creative side, especially when it comes to brainstorming and lateral thinking.

After eight months, I’ve decided to move back into the digital realm. In no particular order, here are the reasons why:

  • Bullet journaling satiated my need for tactile sensation, but I can obtain that in other ways. I’ve cut back on my screen time and taken up papercraft as a mindfulness practice, as well as keeping a private, hand-written journal for emotional processing.
  • Migration is such a chore. When you fill up one notebook and need to move to another, you have to schedule about an hour or two just copying things over. I was missing things too often, as it turned out.
  • Inter-period projects became too hard to manage. For instance, if I have a project starting at the end of the month and finishing early the next, it’s easy to miss just how close that deadline is. My projects often have external deadlines that don’t conform to calendar months or weeks, but most bullet journaling techniques lock you into week-by-week or month-by-month perspectives.
  • My handwriting still sucks. That isn’t an issue for my private journal, where I can make out most words even when my chicken scratch is at its most illegible. But when I need to notate a phone number or email address, legibility becomes paramount.
  • I still can’t move most of my tasks offline. My work communication, church business, chatter with other writers, bills, all of it has some component that must remain online. Moving from paper to digital and back has a bigger transaction cost than I anticipated, and it’s far easier keeping things digital if they were there to begin with.
  • Contacts. Yeah, just try moving all your email contacts to a rolodex. I never bothered trying to get mine offline.

I’m migrating my tasks, events, and important paraphernalia back online to various services. It was a fun, educational experience, but I need to switch now before my life really gets upended in September.

What do you think? How have your means of keeping up with your to-dos changed with your life? Let me know below.

Shorter, Shorter, Shorter

I’ve been fighting a bad case of pneumonia for the past couple weeks. I caught it sometime in New Orleans during General Assembly, probably due to travel stress. I missed a week and a half of work because of it.

So I’ve had to prioritize. For a week I didn’t have the energy to sit up in an office chair. Yesterday, a church service left me winded and pale. The most I’ve been able to cook on the stove has been eggs and turkey sausage. If you ever doubt Spoon Theory, just remember the last time you came down with the flu or any other medium-term illness.

I’ve had to prioritize my writing as well.

This year, it seems as though I’ve written nothing but short stories. I write monthly articles for The Daily WTF, of course. This weekend I wrote a short piece for a contest, and earlier this year I wrote and workshopped a story called “Juicers,” which I’m finishing up this month. Also, I recently sold a short story to an anthology (more details at a later date, I promise!). Frequently, I’ve been revisiting “brain dump” files for potential story ideas.
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Jesus and the Buddha Walk Into A Bar…

Yes, this really exists.
(This is the third in the series “Erik can’t decide what the hell he believes in.” See earlier posts here and here.)

I wish I had read Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thich Naht Hanh years earlier. It had been on my reading list for ages, but I didn’t pick it up until a few months ago. Hanh describes, with a poetry that only a Zen master like himself can produce, how the teachings of Gautama Buddha and Jesus of Nazareth parallel each other.

I say this because I still flounder on this question: am I a Unitarian Christian who also follows the Buddha, or am I a Zen-leaning Buddhist who also loves Jesus of Nazareth? (The correct answer is actually that I’m a Unitarian Universalist; more on that below.)

I’ve explored my proto-Christian side for months now, and while it’s been fruitful, I still keep returning to the rituals and worldview of Buddhism. There are many complicated reasons why, but I’ll outline a few below.
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Come and Take It

The Alamo church.

“Remember the Alamo” has two primary connotations, depending on the audience. It’s either a jingoistic rallying cry, a justification for the incursion of white settlers into Spanish-held territory. Or, if you’re a certain kind of Texan, it’s a reminder of the nobility of sacrifice, when things are worth fighting for.

Not being Texan myself, nor a believer in the peculiarly American kind of Manifest Destiny, I fall into the former category.
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FFS (Weekly Update for 4/17 – 4/23)

I miss Scruffy. Our family dog, she was 18 when we had her put down last Sunday, Easter of all days. She was quirky in ways I could appreciate, affectionate, and gentle.

(CW: depression)

This has not been the only personal tragedy lately I’ve dealt with recently, alas. I have to be honest: I’ve been in the suck lately. (I can also swear again, as it’s long past the end of Lent.) But I’ve still had work to do, both literal and metaphorical. Next week I’m doing absolutely nothing, apart from the day job.

All this week I’ve been critiquing stories for Paradise Lost, the upcoming workshop in San Antonio, TX. I haven’t been to a writing workshop since Viable Paradise in 2012, and I’m really looking forward to it (even if imposter syndrome has come back to taunt me again). I’ll be learning with some incredible talent this week.

I noticed a few days ago that my body felt leaden, like a marionette with sticky joints. I never dwelled on my fatigue during my past depressive episodes, but it has a tangible presentation. I recall times when I’ve attempted to go for a run, when I would make it a quarter of a mile before my body refused to run another step. I thought it was just an issue of motivation. I wonder if J. K. Rowling was onto something when she created Dementors.

One helpful practice I picked up: writing in a journal, describing my emotions and what triggered them. I started this when I realized I don’t have an outlet for some of what I was feeling (yes, I’m thinking primarily about anger here). The act of writing longhand, in (nigh-illegible) cursive, also has a meditative effect. This is separate from my planner-focused bullet journal, for obvious reasons.

Oddly enough, despite a demanding schedule and a total lack of motivation, I’m doing pretty okay. I’m staying just ahead of my commitments, knowing what I can postpone and what needs doing now. And having a better understanding of my mental state keeps keeps me more even-keeled.

My next post won’t be until May 1. Until then, stay frosty.

Weekly Update for 4/10 – 4/16

Much of the week was concerned with some uncomfortable personal introspection (sorry, no details). And then this Sunday, on Easter of all days, the family dog had to be put down.

I wish I had something pithy to say.

Until next week, folks.

Proportional Response (Weekly Update for 4/3-4/9)

Recent events have been on my mind. Here’s what I posted to Facebook on Friday, when I heard news of Trump’s airstrike on a Syrian base:

Folks, I have some serious misgivings re: the airstrike on a Syrian airbase last night.

My own feelings regarding war have become rather complicated in the past couple years. I was, until a couple years ago, a strict pacifist. After a great deal of thought, I adopted a philosophy of “just war theory,” where war is permissible only under certain circumstances, which include self-defense and proportional response to acts of evil (emphasis on “proportional”).

Our country has a serious problem with proportional response. Al-Qaeda operatives bombed US targets, killing thousands, on 9/11. In response, we wage war in Afghanistan for almost sixteen years, even after we effectively decapitated Al Qaeda. Then, we invade Iraq on the flimsiest of pretexts — doctored photos of WMDs — that leads to a costly and ongoing engagement. So many civilians and US soldiers have died because we had to super-size our response to real and perceived threats.

Last night, in response to the use of chemical weapons, violating international law, by the Assad regime (which has the support of the Russian government), President Trump ordered an airstrike on a military base in Syria. A naive interpretation of this would say that it was a justified, proportional response.

But here are the complicating factors:

  1. The Syrian civil war is, in effect, a proxy war between the US (supporting the rebels) and Russia (supporting Assad). This is very similar to what happened in Vietnam, and we know how that turned out.
  2. Trump’s approval ratings are flagging, and this may be an attempt to boost those numbers.
  3. Trump acted unilaterally, and without the authorization of Congress. The airstrike could lead to something far bigger than a limited engagement, even a capital-W War. Even a polarized, obstructionist Congress should have been given a vote on the matter if it could escalate.
  4. To be frank, I don’t trust Trump’s judgment as a commander-in-chief. He’s a failed businessman who harasses women, who has no foreign policy experience, and who doesn’t like to read. Oh, and he still won’t accept Syrian refugees, despite acknowledging the crumbling conditions in that country.

(Oh, and Trump supporters. Before you say “But Obama did drone strikes!” or “But Hillary–” — as you keep telling us, Trump is the president now. The consequences are on his hands, and the responsibility is his. That goes with the job. As one president put it, “the buck stops here.”)

I sincerely hope this doesn’t lead to something far worse.

In retrospect, I equivocated a lot in the above statement, but this is how I feel. Further intervention would be costly, could escalate the conflict, and may not even be wanted by the Syrian people.

It’s holy week, which means little to a UU, but a lot to a Christian. I find it hard to be invested in passion stories, especially those that cobble together the four accounts in the gospels into something uncanny and stilted. The gospels’ accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus differ in many small ways, simply because they were based on oral tradition. It’s like cobbling together the origin story of Superman using the comics from the 1930s, a two-minute snippet of Super Friends, and the Bryan Singer movie from 2006.

Strip it down to its bare bones, and here’s what you get: Jesus of Nazareth was crucified on orders of Pontius Pilate towards the end of Passover, was entombed shortly after, and his body disappeared two days later. The Romans executed, in a manner reserved for enemies of the state, an iconoclastic faith healer and rabbi during a celebration of the liberation of ancient Israel. I wonder if Pilate intended to send that message, or if he just wanted Jesus dealt with after he antagonized the temple priests days earlier.

The passion narrative has so much baggage — including passages that inspired centuries of anti-semitism — that we UUs don’t address it for Easter. (At my church, we announced our annual flower communion with “rebirth, chocolate bunnies, and fertility”!) I think I’ll be struggling with it for some time yet.

I am so behind on everything. I haven’t gotten far into my reading assignment for book club. I have five stories to critique as soon as that book is done. My bathroom is half-clean because I didn’t get new sponges to replace my old ones until this afternoon.

And yet I’m watching the 1978 Superman film and typing this instead of getting something done. Sigh.