The Rest of the Kamenskys Are Okay

Lately, I’ve been poking at the Drakon coda that I’ve taken to calling “The Rest of the Kamenskys Are Okay.” Unfortunately, I’m coming to the realization that it is not my story to tell. A lot of the story is about dragons and rebuilding after loss, yes, but so, so much of it is about Madame Kamensky as a Jewish woman married to a gentile in late imperial Russia. I have so many Jewish friends whose ancestors lived under Russian rule, who still bear intergenerational trauma from what their families endured. When I think of writing about her, I realize that I’m also to some extent trying to write about my friends’ ancestors, and I would never dare presume that I could do their lives justice. There is no amount of reading and empathizing that will make me an authority, because ultimately, the aftershocks of those lives only touch me glancingly. To me, they’re stories. To so many people (and at the same time, not nearly enough people), they’re an inheritance of memories.

I love the family I’ve built for the Kamenskys. I love the way they come together in the wake of the devastation of their home and their oldest son’s death; I love their rigorous fair dealing with the dragons in the lull of the war. That story will always be important to me, and one I hold on to. But I don’t truly understand the layered generational traumas that Madame Kamensky would’ve lived. The way violence in the Pale of Settlement always touched Jewish communities first; the ways that Jewish people were programmatically made vulnerable to state violence. How experiencing the loss of her home during the war would have touched on all of the losses she’d experienced throughout her life, and how rebuilding as a community would have touched on the legacy of shared joys and survival that she was heir to.

I try to write about people whose lives are outside of my own realm of experience. I think that’s important for all writers to do. But on some things, I cannot claim authority, because to do so would disrespect the authority of others. There are so many Jewish writers who could write the story in my head with the authority and experience it deserves.

So unfortunately, I will not be posting “The Rest of the Kamenskys Are Okay.” But I want you to know that they are okay. And if anyone wants to tell the story where they’re okay, I encourage it.

Writer’s Toolkit: Words and Esotericism

In my last post, I mentioned that the four major elements I consider when I’m deciding which word to use are specificityesotericismetymology, and sonics. Today, we’re tackling esotericism — or, simply put, how likely it is that people have encountered the word before.

When I was a kid, my younger sisters wanted to read the books that I read, and (because at that time in my life I was completely insufferable) I told them that they wouldn’t understand because my books had a lot of “big words.”

“Like what?” my middle sister challenged me (because even as a kid, she knew her worth).

I cast desperately about for an example. “Like ‘mar,'” I said. “And ‘cur.'” Unsurprisingly, these three-letter words failed to impress.

Now that I’m older, I’ve realized two things: first, you should never tell a kid what she can’t read. Second, what we call “big words” are often actually esoteric words. They’re words that we are unlikely to have encountered in our daily lives, words that we might have to puzzle out or that might have a context-specific meaning.

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Writer’s Toolkit: Words and Specificity

This series of blog posts is intended to provide writers with some ways of thinking about the tools of our trade. It’s not meant to be prescriptive; there are no hard or fast rules about what makes “good writing” here. The longer I live, the more certain I am that there is no such thing as “good writing,” anyway — there’s only writing that does what it sets out to do. So here are some ways to think about how you can accomplish what you’re setting out to do.

Our first, most basic tool will always be words. Maybe it’s just me, but there’s a thrill to learning new words that’s rivaled only by finding cool rocks or picking flowers. When I see “susurrus” or “inchoate” or “lumpen” on the page, I just want to reach into the story and put it in my pocket.

For me, deciding which words to use is a matter of specificity, esotericism, etymology, and sonics. These are all important things to consider, so I’ll be making a separate post for each.

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Review: Autonomous, by Annalee Newitz

AutonomousANovelI read Autonomous back in 2019, and I came out of it a mess of feelings that I’m still picking apart a year later. It would be an understatement to say that this book tells a great story; that its vision of a near-future Earth is hauntingly plausible; that its presentation of AI is both complex and technically informed. It is one of the best books I’ve read in years, and just thinking about it still makes me upset.

There’s much to recommend this book that I haven’t seen elsewhere. Autonomous, which is for the most part set in midwestern Canada, is the first SF book I’ve ever seen that really tackles the experience of living in and traveling through rural, agricultural spaces and small-to-midsize towns. From the epigraphical lyrics of “The Last Saskatchewan Pirate” to the image of rolling canola fields, there’s a familiarity and intimacy to these landscapes that makes their importance self-evident. (And let’s not forget how closely the agricultural industry is tied to biochemical companies, with their seed patents and their attempt to enforce intellectual property restrictions on the natural cross-pollination of cultivars). As a person who grew up among farmers, hauling hay bales and listening to my father gossip at the seed and feed store, the moments when Newitz dwelt on the farmlands felt both authentic and emotionally charged for me. The prairie landscape of Saskatchewan was not incidental but rather vital to the story that Newitz was telling.

The portrayal of AIs was also gorgeous and nuanced and solidly built. I loved the social protocols for data exchange and greeting and authentication; they felt like the kinds of scripts that humans are even now writing for AIs to make them seem approachable. I also loved how robots do drugs and how they get off — the images of programs glitching, data fragmenting, bad variables making processes slow and hazy and hallucinatory. The cyborg element of the robot build was also a fascinating twist, and the human cast’s human-centric responses to it were believable and ably executed. Newitz’s technical background is on full display here, creating plausible systems of programs that together form people; I’m genuinely excited to see what this author has to offer next.

But there’s also the story itself, which I’ve hidden beneath the jump in case anyone is still worried about spoilers.

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Setting Sail

My copy of Retellings of the Inland Seas arrived today! This book includes my first published poem, “Into the Wine-Dark Sea,” which is about the Argonauts but in space.


I’ve always loved writing poetry, and that love still strongly informs my prose style. There’s nothing more exciting than figuring out how to make words fit together–the firm conviction of a metered line. The way a run of consonants can make a passage murmur like a brook or whine like cicadas in high summer. The hollow finality of rounded vowels.

(And of course, much of what the Western canon teaches us about poetry comes from the very inland seas that inspired this anthology.)

Please do check out this anthology if you’re interested in myths imagined and stars unnumbered.

Prescriptivism: Enemy of the First Draft

I’m trying to start my next book, and I keep getting hung up on semicolons.

A writer whose work I admire once said — I’m paraphrasing here — that in almost every case, replacing semicolons with full stops will make for better writing. In this particular case, I know that the writer who said it was making an offhand comment, not trying to lay down her fundamental philosophy of writing. As a former English teacher, I also know that semicolons have a handful of legitimate uses and can actually improve a piece of writing when used effectively.  As a former scholar of the eighteenth century, I know that this prescription is of relatively recent vintage. In short, I know that this is not one of the Immutable Laws of Writing Handed Down from On High.

But all the same, that comment has stuck in my mind, and every time I sit down to write, I hear it. When I try to string sentences together, I remind myself that I am No Longer Allowed to use semicolons (or em-dashes, that other breathless punctuation mark of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries). After a taxing hour of stops and starts, I reread my handful of sentences, and they sound hideous to my ears. The pacing is wrong. Too choppy. No ebbs and flows, no crescendos and decrescendos, no gentle gliding from one idea to the next. If there’s a trick to writing lyrical sentences without semicolons, I never learned it.

I surface from my word processor, heartsick and practically vibrating with self-loathing. A quiet part of me asks, Didn’t I used to be good at writing?

Read more: Prescriptivism: Enemy of the First Draft

I think many writers have had a similar experience. We want to write well, by which we mean that we want to write the kind of shining, supple prose that reshapes the world in its own image. But that particular talent is cultivated only through observation and practice, and there are only so many times and so many ways that a writer can say, “Observe! Practice!” Thus, in lieu of teaching people to write well, most practical writing advice instead aims more humbly at teaching them to write correctly.

While writing correctly is always at least partly a matter of taste, there are usually enough commonalities within an era or a genre that it’s possible to cobble together a set of rules. Semicolons are my current bugbear, but I’ve encountered writerly Thou Shalt Nots on dozens of other topics: epithets (“the blonde girl”), dialogue tags (“said”), contractions, adverbs, parentheses, sentence fragments, showing versus telling, point-of-view shifts. There are always celebrated rulebreakers — Terry Pratchett, for example, is a master at telling rather than showing — but I’ve come across vanishingly few guides that lay out rules in order to explain how they might productively be broken.

At the beginning of a new project, I’m particularly susceptible to the allure of a set of rules. When you’re desperate to write well, but you aren’t sure what “writing well” entails, it’s natural to seek out guidance from people whose prose routinely shatters you. And it’s also natural to want to implement that guidance as you draft.

For me, though, that approach is almost universally fatal. Nothing kills my projects quite so thoroughly as coming to them with judgment in my heart, scrutinizing every sentence for flaws before I’ve written it. When I’m that concerned with being correct, I forget to observe my characters with emotional honesty, and I’m left with a story that feels like it’s made of cardboard. Apart from anything else, that obsessive self-policing is really exhausting.

As Anne Lamott reminds us in Bird by Bird, it can be liberating to write a really terrible first draft. At their best, first drafts offer an opportunity for exploration and discovery, even for scrupulous outliners like me. They let me stumble across energizing subplots and powerful themes, explore the recesses of the characters’ psyches, and learn what’s really at stake at the story’s climax. Some of my finest turns of phrase have come to me during a first draft, the natural outgrowth of a scene in full flow.

The rest of my best lines, though, have emerged from revision. Once the story is complete, I have the leisure to toil over a sentence as long as I like, deciding whether a bell “rang” or “tolled” or “sounded.” I can decide how much information the readers really need about the particular shade of the sunset as the last evening light spills over the hills. I can slice out three hundred semicolons and two hundred em-dashes in a single, brutal day (or, if I’m feeling contrarian, leave them all where they are).

There’s value in having conversations about whether semicolons are dead, whether showing is always better than telling, or whether it’s ever acceptable to loosen up a tight third-person perspective–but the time to have those arguments is after the first draft.

During the first draft, it’s time to write.

Drakon Inspiration: The Ossian Hoax

“What do you say to that, Tarasov? The dragons have a language—they even write poetry, whether or not it’s any good.”

“Are you sure it isn’t a hoax? A kind of … scholarly prank, devised by bored young men who know too much Greek and too little of the world?”

In these inspiration posts, I want to talk about events from history or cultural artifacts that inspired a few lines of Drakon. Hardly any spoilers here; only a little background.

Only a few days before I started writing Drakon, one of my professors introduced me to the greatest literary hoax of the eighteenth century: James Macpherson’s Fragments of Ancient Poetry, Collected in the Highlands of Scotland, and Translated from the Gaelic or Erse LanguageThese fragments were the precursor to Macpherson’s much better-known anthology The Works of Ossian, which was what got him into real trouble.

As Macpherson told it, he happened to acquire some verses of ancient Gaelic1 poetry in the Highlands. Although these poems occasioned some polite interest, very few Scottish people understood the language well enough to comprehend them, and even fewer of a literary bent knew enough to attempt a translation. Macpherson, though, had been waiting for a chance to try his own hand. The “spirit and force” of these works kindled a poetic fire in him, and he dashed off a translation and shared it with a few Scottish literary contacts. Soon, all of Edinburgh was abuzz with the news: the poetry of their ancestors still lived. There was a man who could tell them the stories they’d forgotten.

Their astonishment and adulation convinced Macpherson that his translations would find a market. Buoyed by the promise of an eager reading public, he worked tirelessly to track down other fragments that had withstood the centuries and to render them in English. At last, Macpherson compiled his first volume of translations: Fragments of Ancient Poetry. He would later refine it into The Works of Ossian, named for the blind bard who had originally recounted the tales.

This is a familiar story to anyone who is familiar with the antiquarians, anthropologists, and archivists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Macpherson’s project was ostensibly the same as that of many other collectors, including the celebrated Brothers Grimm, Francis James Child, and Elias Lönnrot (many of whom he inspired). He went among the people of the countryside, learning stories and songs so old that time had veiled their origins, and he returned to the city full of tales and mysteries. The intellectual luminaries of Scotland praised him to the skies for teaching them to say what they’d been trying for centuries to articulate: We are a people, because we have a story.

The only problem was, Macpherson was making it all up.

Even in his own day, skeptics called his story into question. Even Macpherson’s most ardent supporters wanted to see the ancient manuscripts; his detractors outright implied that they’d never existed. Macpherson clearly felt the pinch. His 1760 Fragments of Ancient Poetry began with a rather formulaic preface that situated these “genuine remains of ancient Scottish poetry” in “an aera of the most remote antiquity.” In 1761-2, though, when he published Fingal, he included a defensive advertisement claiming,

Some men of genius, whom he has the honour to number among his friends, advised him to publish proposals for printing by subscription the whole Originals, as a better way of satisfying the public concerning the authenticity of the poems, than depositing manuscript copies in any public library. This he did; but no subscribers appearing, he takes it for the judgment of the public that neither the one or the other is necessary.

(These “men of genius,” of course, hadn’t seen his “Originals,” either.) By the time Macpherson got around to publishing The Works of Ossian in 1765, he’d received enough hatemail that he started arming himself with “A Dissertation Concerning the Antiquity &c. of the Poems” and a dedication that implied the approbation of Lord Bute. For all the uncertainty surrounding its authenticity, the book was wildly popular, with multiple editions released within the span of a year.

One of Macpherson’s greatest doubters was Samuel Johnson, best known today for his dictionary.2 Johnson’s remarks on Ossian were often scathing; at his most charitable, Johnson wrote,

I believe [the poems of Ossian] never existed in any other form than that which we have seen. [Macpherson] has doubtless inserted names that circulate in popular stories, and may have translated some wandering ballads, if any can be found; and the names, and some of the images being recollected, make an inaccurate auditor imagine, by the help of Caledonian bigotry, that he has formerly heard the whole.

Outraged at the unceasing criticism and the demands for the originals, Macpherson wrote to Johnson demanding retractions. If he didn’t outright challenge Johnson to a duel, the language of his letters came close enough to a formal challenge that Johnson clearly felt the threat. His own writing suggests that he was more than willing to throw down, if it came to blows.

With Johnson and his fellow skeptics keeping the authenticity dispute in the public eye, Macpherson was forced to remain on the defensive. He tried to salvage his good name, eventually producing “the Originals” — or at least, poems in Scottish Gaelic — for inspection. The ruse eventually fell through when readers actually familiar with the language denounced them as ill-made back-translations of the English verses.

At the time of Macpherson’s death, many still believed in the authenticity of his Ossian. Macpherson had himself enshrined in Westminster Abbey, among the storied dead of England.

With the benefit of historical hindsight, it would be easy to dismiss Macpherson as a man striving after celebrity. But what makes his story interesting to me isn’t just the hoax or the controversy that followed; it’s also why so many people believed in Ossian the bard.

There’s the obvious answer: Scottish nationalism. I empathize with that powerful longing for a story that binds a people together — when I first read the Kalevala in translation, it felt like coming home, although I’ve never been to Finland and don’t speak enough Finnish to hold a conversation. The Kalevala was the story of my grandmother, though, and the story of her people before her, and it linked me to them like a shining silver thread.

But as Tolkien wrote of the Kalevala, the language also offers a thrill of the unfamiliar that one often mistakes for the ancient:3

 The almost indefinable sense of newness and strangeness … will either perturb you or delight you … trees will group differently on the horizon, the birds will make unfamiliar music; the inhabitants will talk a wild and at first unintelligible lingo. … This is how it was for me when I first read the Kalevala — that is, crossed the gulf between the Indo-European-speaking peoples of Europe into this smaller realm of those who cling in queer corners to the forgotten tongues and memories of an elder day.

For me, the versification of the Fragments is a big part of why so many believed, despite Macpherson’s almost comical refusal to produce the original verses. Initially, he claimed to have been reluctant to publish because the works of the ancients “would be very ill relished by the public as so very different from the strain of modern ideas, and of modern, connected, and polished poetry.” Even now, these fragments read something like a fever-dream:

I sit by the mossy fountain; on the 

top of the hill of winds. One tree is 

rustling above me. Dark waves roll 

over the heath. The lake is troubled 

below. The deer descend from the 

hill. No hunter at a distance is seen; 

no whistling cow-herd is nigh. It is 

mid-day: but all is silent. 

Compare this verse to a more typical work published in 1763 (George Keate’s The Alps, also about a landscape):

In this wild Scene of Nature’s true Sublime

What Prospects rise! Rocks above Rocks appear,

Mix with th’ incumbent Clouds, and laugh to scorn

All the proud Boasts of Art. In purest Snow

Some mantled, others their enormous Backs

Heave high with Forests crown’d; nor midst the View

Are wanting those who their insulting Heads

Uprear, barren and bleak, as in Contempt

Of vegetative Laws.

The simplicity of Macpherson’s language (like a literal translation, little embellished) and the clarity of his images stand out against the rigid iambic pentameter and soaring abstractions of Keate. This was before the rise of Wordsworth and poetry as imitating natural language; but for a few outliers like the rapturous Christopher “Kit” Smart, almost no one was writing poetry that sounded like Macpherson’s work. We may acknowledge the justice of Johnson’s quip that “many men, many women, and many children” in the modern era could have written such poetry, but the fact remained that many didn’t. For readers raised on the stately Classicist verse of the early eighteenth century, the novelty must have been thrilling. Here is the work of a mind alien to the Greeks and the Romans, some must have thought. Here is a poetry that makes trees group differently on the horizon, and birds sing unfamiliar songs.

When I was writing about the poetry of the dragons, this is what I wanted to convey: the sense of having stumbled upon something that felt at once ancient and viscerally new. Something that convinced one of its authenticity not through logic or evidence, but because it reframed the world like a lightning strike.

If you want to read more about the Ossian controversy, Thomas M. Curley has written a very pro-Johnson article that has some excellent primary source quotations. You should also read Ian Haywood’s book The Making of History: A Study of the Literary Forgeries of James Macpherson and Thomas Chatterton in Relation to Eighteenth-Century Ideas of History and Fiction.

1. Today, “Gaelic” is often used promiscuously to refer to any language in the Gaelic/Goidelic language family (Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Manx). Eighteenth-century British writers had similar issues with nomenclature; they often used “Erse” (Irish) to refer to the Scottish Gaelic vernacular of the Highlands.

2. Samuel Johnson’s own forays into poetic and dramatic literature, such as his play Irene: A Tragedy, have for the most part been forgotten. I don’t care for them much on their literary merits, but I respect their historical significance.

3. The Kalevala is a significant departure from the runot sung by the women of Karjala (Karelia). Although Elias Lönnrot did record parts of these poems faithfully, he reorganized them into his own heroic teleology and rewrote parts of them entirely to suit his narrative needs. While Lönnrot’s Kalevala  would indeed have been full of “memories of an elder day” to Tolkien, who was writing around a hundred years later, it is by no means an untouched record of the ancient songs of the Finnish east. Juha Pentikäinen has done some fascinating research on this topic, and his works are well worth a look.

A Fresh Start

Unfortunate issues with my previous website host have forced me to rebuild my website over again–in the transition, I lost my old blog posts (including the Drakon FST, and the one about the Works of Ossian that I thought was rather good actually).

So it goes–but from the husk of the old, I’ll yet shake out some new seeds and see what grows when I plant them. My garden’s already well on the way.