publishing

Practical Dreaming?

Perfection

The only thing better than a beach day is a beer on the beach day. Sadly, this photo is from last month, and I’ve only made it the beach a couple of times this year. Life.

A couple of weeks ago was the Mrs Fringe blog-o-versary. I celebrated in Fringie style by intending to post about running this blog for the past six years, but was distracted by life and there went that.

Here’s the thing about living with chronic bouts of medical mayhem. It doesn’t take much, doesn’t take long to have all the doctor, specialist, emergency room visits meld into one long this-is-the-entirety of life. And it isn’t knowing too much about what’s being said in medical-ese, it’s the sneaky tidbit that comes from behind you and smashes you upside the head with an anvil. Like knowing exactly which bathroom is likely to be the emptiest/cleanest at any given time of day at your most visited ER.

I was joking with one of my writing friends last week, and told her to send me a rejection email so I could feel like a person. She didn’t, but the writing gods were with me and I did get one from an agent a few days later. Sounds a bit crazy to say that, eh? Not just because rejection, but because querying, in and of itself, can often feel dehumanizing. But rejections can be ok, they’re a reminder of person-hood and productivity. And this was a lovely one, personalized, complimentary, and brief. Well, maybe it is a bit crazy to talk about good rejections, but it’s a crazy business.

In addition to commentary on all the political muck, there’s been a lot of industry muck going around recently on social media, stories of agents who aren’t ethical, etc. I follow, pay attention, but don’t say much because I have no personal experience; I’m unagented and have never been strung along by a shmagent. I’d like to say the latter is the result of my sophisticated New Yorker radar, but that would be nonsense. It’s luck. I’m no different than any other wannabe who plays with words, knowing exactly how slim the odds are, and yet investing hours and days and weeks and months, sometimes years, into creating fictional people and living in their worlds, because it could happen. I could get signed, one of my manuscripts could get picked up. I want to think I wouldn’t get suckered, but I can see exactly how and why that damned hope could override any warning signs.

Yesterday there was an interesting thread on the writer’s forum, it’s been discussed many times before, and I don’t think what it became was the original question/intent, but it was a plot vs writing thread. Which is more important to readers, likelihood of being picked up, that kind of thing. Yah, yah, the best novels have both, but most novels aren’t *the best,* and have one or two strengths, not perfection. I enjoy a broad variety of books, literary and genre (nonfiction, too), but if I had to pick one, I lean towards the literary. I can forgive/ignore a lot of plot holes for an interesting character. As a reader, that’s fine, there are always many fine novels to choose from.

As someone who plays with words with an eye towards publication, it couldn’t be a poorer choice. If I was smart–practical–someone who wanted to improve the odds of their dream becoming real, I would work on a tightly plotted thriller with an intern who saves cyberspace, or an epic dark fantasy with a fairy who saves the world, or beautiful, eternally young vampires giving fangtastic blowjobs to shapeshifters–while saving the world.

I’m not that smart. The New Thing I talked about in my last post? I’m still working on it. Took a week off because of the medical mayhem, got back to it the other day. I’m not a fast writer, but if I’m in it, I’m in it, and will average 1000 words every writing session. I’m all in with this angry, unlikeable and unapologetic older woman. This morning I woke intending to open the file and begin the next scene, but instead sat and thought about how thoroughly impractical this story is if I care about finding an agent. And/or being published. There went the day’s words, eaten by angst and shoulda woulda couldas.

There is such a thing as a practical dreamer. I wish it was me, but it isn’t. I I love this story–even though most of it is barely more than a shadow at this point, and I am having too much fun with this character. When my words aren’t lost to practicality and medical mayhem.

What the hell, might as well go all in on the angst:

it was a Dark and Stormy Night

Hmmm

Ok, maybe it was more of a sunny but stormy morning. I like contradictions, the unexpected, the bits that make you say, wait, what? And I love the feeling when a new character’s voice gets strong and clear enough for me to begin putting fingers to keyboard.

And so, here I am. 22 pages into a New Thing. This many pages and it isn’t a short (for me, I know many write long shorts, I’m not one of them) but while the main character’s voice is clear in my head, and I’ve got a shadowy silhouette for the narrative structure, I don’t yet have enough of a story to know this can be a full length manuscript. I’m excited.

I know some who play with words are always excited by their new characters and stories, but I’m not one of those people. I always like them well enough–or, more accurately, not always like but am intrigued by them. But I’m not always excited. As a general rule, the more marketable (hah! as if I understand what’s marketable) the characters/story seem to be, well, the less tied to my words! my sweat! my opened a vein through the keyboard! I am. This is not a given, everyone’s process and experience is different. I’m sure I’ve blogged about this in the past, when I talked more about writing. I’m just not someone who feels each manuscript is a baby I’ve given birth to. I don’t feel any manuscript is a baby I’ve given birth to. Everyone has their own parenting style, but if I don’t feel a limb of any given kiddo is as perfect as I could have made it, I don’t chop it off.

That said, there are a few pieces I’ve been quite attached to, with 210% faith that weird or not, they were damned fine work, with a to-be-found audience that would pay money to read and not feel ripped off at the end, despite my fondness for killing characters. A couple of years back I swore I wasn’t going to write any more of those. Too consuming, too crushing when there was interest but no offers.

So what the hell am I doing with New Thing? It isn’t speculative fiction or magical realism–it’s been years since I’ve written anything over 3000 words that didn’t fall into those categories. Don’t misunderstand, it isn’t like I’m excited by a character or story that’s practical (read, marketable). No romance, no coming of age, no heartwarming friendship story, no thriller or cozy mystery. I’ve got a caustic, no-holds-barred 73 year old woman with early-onset age-related word finding issues, thoughts that skip around like a heart that needs a pacemaker, a love of bourbon, a greater love of cursing, memories of a family she abandoned close to 35 years ago, with no apologies for who she is and certainty that she’s going to die within the next two weeks. She’s offensive.

I’m using 1st person (I instead of she/he) for the bulk of it, which I’ve rarely done and am not particularly fond of, but it feels right for her. I’m using a framing device for the narrative (story within a story) which I’ve never done, and the frame is written in 2nd person, which no one is particularly fond of. It’s, I’m pretty sure, going to be, satire, which no one wants unless you’re Chuck Palahniuk, or Kurt Vonnegut, or John Kennedy Toole. All three are male, two are dead, and I’m neither. Sometimes you see Jane Austen on those satire lists, and I’m pretty sure the only thing my words/stories share with hers is that we both draw/drew from the English alphabet. But I’m kinda sorta falling in love with this bitch of a character. Bitchy, not snarky. I read the opening chapter to Husband (I always read my opening chapters to him–he’s a good sport, supportive of my words, but it’s more an exercise in me needing to read it aloud *to* someone than belief that he’s going to want to hear/read more), and he likes it. Genuinely laughed in all the spots I would hope someone would laugh. This is fucking terrifying.

Instead of a song/youtube vid, I’m closing this with the last few pages of the first chapter. Good, bad, or indifferent, Fringelings, feel free to share your thoughts:

Ha! You make me choke, think I learned to cook in the restaurant. Rest-o-rant-ay. I learned the restaurant to cook. No, I didn’t. I brought my secret in with me and took it when they closed. I’ll learn you to cook, if you want. Otherwise it’s just gonna go with me to the grave. No. Not learn. What’s that word? But I can’t start with cooking. Or the restaurant. If you want to hear my story, you gotta know there’s more than one. It’s a whole lotta stories, like everybody. Even you. You got one story in you? No, you gotta buncha em that brought you here, and a dozen more will chase you into your grave. But you don’t want those. You want what they tell you to want, one long happy ending. Because we’re women. 

Men are supposed to have lots of stories. But women? Women are supposed to learn one thing, and learn that one thing to their children, and then sit quietly in their rockers and knit booties until it’s time to go. I say fuck. that. I seen too many knitting needles used for other things. Them spindles on those rockers hurt my back, I’ve lived too many stories to take that. 

Take this. 

Oh, now, don’t get all offended. It’s just a finger. You sit the rocker if you want, I’ll keep the recliner. See, it fits my body just right, cloth rubbed smooth from my fingers, crooks and all. 

Where did I learn to cook? In the mountains, from my grams, same as most. Told ya, nothing dramatic. Bet ya didn’t know the Appalachian mountains go all into Pennsylvania. I know, most people think of Kentucky when they think Appalachia, but it’s a whole lot more than that. And don’t leave here cracking wise about banjos and moonshine. Sure, a little splash of bourbon is ok now and then. In fact, go ahead and top me up from that bottle in the cabinet next to the stove. No, no danger in mixing it, I told ya, I ain’t takin that damned medicine. A smoke, a tea and a splash, that’s all the medicine I need. Anything else is snake oil. 

What the hell did they learn you up there in the Bronx? No cooking, no stories, too much medicine. Thank the lord I didn’t move up there. My husband wanted to, in the eye-talian section. Where they got those salamis hanging in the windows like shlongs looking for their shriveled owners and pastries laid out like communion wafers. No, Frankie ain’t Italian. He just wanted to be, thought those sharkskin suits and slick-haireds were the way to be men. He’s German-Irish, but not like me. He got all watered in with New York-ese. He mooned over Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin more than I did. I was more of a Bob Dylan gal, myself.

Teach! That’s the word. I’ll teach you to make my dumplings. But now I’m tired. Is something wrong? Nothing’s wrong, I’m old. Heh, who told you 73 wasn’t old? Musta been one of them rich women you visit, someone with a fancy dog and a book club. Women like me with stories and crooked fingers, we’re old. And we’re tired. 

If you come back be useful. Bring potatoes and buttermilk, I’ll learn—I’ll teach you the secret. My gram’s dumplings and the restaurant’s guknockys. Both kinds but the same secret. Also bourbon. 

Words being Served

The Martyrdom of Saint Barbara, Lucas Cranach the Elder, ca. 1510 (yes, this photo is crooked)

Let’s talk about words. I was going to limit myself to “C” words, but I think I’m going to throw caution to the wind and use all 26 letters of the alphabet. Special focus though, on c words. Like cage. And f words. Like fuck, I was right, my country is turning into Nazi Germany. Or turn the clock back further, to pre-civil war legal slavery, or the atrocities visited upon Native Americans and their children, all in the name of white makes right. *excuse me while I puke* And yet, even with 26 letters to make an infinite number of words, they are inadequate.

Over the years, this little blog has provoked some reactions. Some, as I talked about the other day, positive. Other reactions have been scolding, “be positive!” “don’t talk politics, you could turn people off, offend someone!” Ah yes, the sword of offense. A few years back that caused me to shrug. If you didn’t like my politics or my honesty, you weren’t my reader–that goes for both blogging and fiction. By now, if you are offended by my discussing politics, I find you to be both offensive and an affront to humanity. I see too many supporting this ugliness, these atrocities promised and being perpetrated by our government.  And I see many more hiding behind the “virtue” of being apolitical. Some offering the Bible as proof there’s no need to worry about politics, God is in charge. That isn’t virtue, and in these times, it isn’t apolitical. It’s condoning. It’s support for conspiracy and crimes against humanity; in the names of greed, misogyny, and racism. It’s gaslighting of throwing around the word collusion–sounds so official and yet is meaningless in a court of law. It’s caging babies, turning a blind eye to the internment of thousands of children. It’s a lack of compassion signifying sociopathy spreading like genital warts.

There are those of us who are horrified, appalled by the images and audio coming out of these baby jails, those of us whose hearts are being shredded as we imagine being that mother, that father whose child has been stolen–for the sin of hoping to find a better, safer life than the one they left behind. As we imagine being that little girl sexually assaulted by a deputy, her mother blackmailed with threats of deportation. It helps no one to deny there are also those who are gleeful when seeing those same images, laugh at the audio, can’t imagine the terrified, traumatized child with Down’s syndrome as their own because they see her as damaged. Brown. Other. Not a “real” child. They prefer to snicker about liberal tears, pretend shock and offense at the language of Robert DeNiro and Samantha Bee.

I follow several lit agents on Twitter, and a smattering have always included some politics in their feeds, recently more, and in the past couple of days, a few have made reference to being told they shouldn’t–their response being a wholly satisfying fuck you. Some literally, some more politely. I have nothing but respect and admiration for those who will not make a distinction between their business and their humanity. I don’t care what you write or represent, lit fic, sci-fi/fantasy or erotica, this is the literary world. Telling the stories that need to be told, offering illumination to darkness, offering opportunities for everyone–no matter their life circumstance–to find characters that reflect who they are and who they want to be, say the words they wish they could say, offer comfort to those who need it and provoke those who are too comfortable. Publishing is a business, and the business is humanity.

A nation of laws is only as good as the people writing and enforcing those laws. Laws are not just by virtue of being written. Currently, we aren’t living by the rules of a democratic society. We have a spineless GOP in control that has given away the power inherent in their branch of government, enabling this hateful windbag-in-chief and his misogynist, white supremacist cabinet. An entire administration that defines avarice and corruption.

Sometimes silence is strength. This isn’t one of those times. If we do not speak out, we are sacrificing human beings for the sake of…what? Words are what we have. Right now, they’re about all we have. They are the power of possibility, the power of reason, the power of change. Don’t give away any of them. Especially not the ones that make you uncomfortable.

 

 

 

Pilot Light and Irritation

Should have cleaned the stove this morning, oops.

If you’re young and/or never had a gas stove–or a professional gas range– let me explain. Before electronic ignition, in order to use the burners (or the oven) you had to start the flame yourself. (There were stoves in between that had pilot lights to avoid having to do this, but every so often the pilot light went out and you had to do it anyway. “Do I smell gas?!” was a common background chorus of my childhood, and one I sang myself in my first couple of apartments.)  You’d light a match, turn the dial corresponding with the burner you wanted to use and use the match to light the flame while cringing and bracing yourself to pull back in case of whoosh! and eyebrow singeing. More often than not, you’d burn your fingertips trying to get the damned thing to light long before flames were exploding in your face. This, the gut clenching expectation of scorched nose hairs and realization of singed fingers, was what I experienced reading Micheal Wolff’s Fire and Fury this weekend.

I haven’t read anyone else’s reviews, so it’s more than possible my thoughts aren’t in line with the majority. I’m also not a book reviewer, and I have a lot of thoughts, so even with limiting myself, this will run long.

I bought the book Friday afternoon. I tried to get the hardcopy in the morning at my local Barnes & Noble, but they didn’t have it in yet (snowstorm Thursday, everything still iced and approximately 1000° below zero) so I downloaded to my Nook. I really wanted to read this and I really, really wanted to support Wolff and Henry Holt & Co.  Much the way the first thing I did after the 2016 election results was to purchase subscriptions to the NY Times and The Washington Post, it felt important to use my wallet to support free speech and free press.  Trump using the office of the Presidency to bluster about forcing the publisher to stop publication/production? Fuck yes, I’m contributing to this legal defense fund. An in-depth look at the first 9 months of Trump’s tenure in the White House, written by someone who had spent considerable time interviewing people in the West Wing, someone who didn’t seem to be blindly aligned with this administration? Yeah, I’m in. Besides, with the excerpts coming across my twitter feed and just about every news article I read, a) how could I resist? and b) I wanted to be able to discuss the book with more understanding than choice quotes possibly pulled out of context. It took me all weekend to read it, a long time for me to plow through less than 330 pages. First it was slow going because I had to keep putting the book down. The first couple of chapters put me right back to the first days after the election; feeling nauseous, angry, betrayed, and helpless.

It continued to be slow going. Partially for the same reason as those first chapters. Much as nothing I read in Fire and Fury (I’d already seen the more shocking bits in excerpts online) felt truly new, having it all compiled into one book packs a hell of a psychological wallop. What a shitshow of an administration. If only half of what Wolff wrote is true, it confirms we are experiencing my worst case scenario (my vivid and dark imagination is long established). Some of it, though, was because I kept thinking the book would have benefited from holding off on the publication date while spending some more time with a content editor, a copyeditor, and then getting another once over from a proofreader. Separate from the subject matter, it didn’t read like smoothly crafted narrative nonfiction, yet it didn’t read like a compiled collection of essays/articles, either. I understand the need to strike while the iron is hot, and I kept reading until the end, but it was more put-downable than I had hoped. This is so important for all of us, collectively and individually that I wish the author and the publisher had taken the extra month or two to smooth it out, clean it up, and address what wasn’t in there.

Non-fiction or fiction, what an author leaves out is every bit as important as what gets put in. Some of what’s left in the author’s notes shouldn’t ever make it to the manuscript. Those decisions are shaped by the focus of the book, style of the author, and information available. The buffoonery and hubris of this administration is inherent in the very existence of this book, the author’s unbelievable access to the West Wing. But here I have to say I was expecting the author to address a few issues that he didn’t.

Given that much of Fire and Fury focused on the idea that this President takes everything personally and (it seems to me) many of his tweets and comments since winning the election have focused on Hillary Clinton, compounded by the above all threats pre-election of “lock her up,” I kept waiting for this to be addressed, and nope. This isn’t a matter of wanting a bit more juicy gossip. Threatening to jail opponents in what has until recently been a democracy is the mark of a dictator, not merely a bumbling, petulant fool. I understand that the revival of those threats didn’t hit the twitter feed and press until long after the book went to press, but hello?! That seems more than a bit important. Was/is this just a bit of political theater for his base, as unimportant as the other promises he made on the campaign trail that he can’t remember and doesn’t care about? Not understanding how our government works, admiring dictators because hey, they’ve got all the good bling AND good press, planting his equally unqualified family because of paranoia combined with a spectacular lack of comprehension  ≠ purposely, specifically wanting to create a dictatorship. That feels like a really important detail to leave out. Even if the author didn’t know if that is the President’s intention, how about the people around him and advising him? Was that purely Flynn, regurgitated now as a signal for him to stfu? A desperate attempt to distract from the Mueller investigation? A signal to the FBI that their silly laws and mores are passé? Intent matters. It matters for how wethepeople interpret his actions and statements and respond.

Healthcare. DACA. Freedom of religion. Gerrymandering. Separation of church and state. On reading the book, it seems that no one in the West Wing (or the barely mentioned but completely responsible and complicit GOP) addresses, acknowledges, or understands that these issues have tremendous impact on human beings. Does the author? These are issues that yes, are political hotbuttons, but literally have the power to destroy the lives of the vast majority of the American people. Wolff reminds us again and again that Jarvanka and several on “their” team are Democrats. Really? And none of them ever discusses the impact of repealing the ACA on little Johnny in Montana who needs his chemo?  If this is the case–it isn’t a stretch for me to believe it–how about a page, a paragraph, a nod from the author letting me know? The many meltdowns, tantrums, zillion instances of lack of attention to detail are important to the picture being painted, but I could have done with less description of who ate what and more meat.

Which leads me to Bannon, who was probably the one person portrayed in the book as coming closest to remembering these ideas and policies are more than theoretical–which of course, isn’t very close at all; he’s also the one with the closest to clear intent of dictatorship, and it’s Steve Bannon. Describing a conversation with him where he states he doesn’t believe Trump is anti-semitic but he isn’t sure about the “other” (insert dog whistle here) without restating this is Steve Fucking Bannon, master of the safe space for nazis, racists, homophobes and misogynists of all flavors feels like a glaring omission, no? Obviously, Bannon was the one who did the most talking to (at?) Wolff.  It isn’t a coincidence that the book ends with his dismissal. I wish I’d known going into it that this was more of a tell-all from Bannon’s perspective than a general “Inside the White House.” This, more than anything, is what kept my nausea going. I’m all in for an unlikeable and unreliable protagonist, but somehow, somewhere along the way, Wolff dropped the authorial hints and reminders that Bannon is Bannon, not a sympathetic character to hang your hat on. Yeah, I know, this isn’t fiction, and the characters at hand are all too real, but honestly, as it was written, it didn’t feel like clear and reliable journalism–neither investigative nor opinion. I’d still have purchased it, though maybe not rushed to read it, and my expectations would have been different.

As expected, Fire and Fury shows a disorganized, disinterested, and ruled by a brutal and unsupervised playground of a White House. I’m sick from spending the last year living under it, let alone the weekend immersed in it.

What about you, Fringelings? Have you read it, are you going to?

 

Magical Thinking

Reality or Magical–What do you see?

Yes, it’s been a while.  Again.  First I was working on a post that’s still sitting in my drafts folder because I couldn’t beat the words into sense, and then life.  Blah blah, medical mayhem, lots of waiting rooms and doctor’s offices, suffice it to say I’m pretty sure any vision test I take from this point forward is null and void– I’ve seen so many while sitting with my girl, I’ve got every chart memorized. Thank you, my fellow Dems/Liberals for being diligent and insisting on being heard about how disastrous the proposed health care bill was, and thank you, GOP, for being in such a mess that you’ve had to put your we-want-you-to-suffer-painfully plans on hold so I can keep doing this.

And oh yes, I’m writing again.  A secret unless you a) read this blog post or b) follow my twitter feed (which you should, because on the thrice annual occasion that I remember to log on, I retweet with the best of them).  It might be more accurate to say I’m rewriting, because this isn’t a glittery new project, this is the rusty old wreck I tabled a few years back that I’ve already talked about reworking.  I figure I *might* be able to use half of what was there, and overall I don’t yet know if I’m taking something that was meh and making it better, or taking something that was meh and puking weird and unidentifiable bits of acid all over it.

Takes a bit of magical thinking to write a novel, regardless of genre.  More than a bit if you’re writing with an eye towards publication.  If you’re looking at trade publishing (as in–not self-publishing) I’m pretty sure the odds are 843,000,000,000 to one.  A couple of years back I blogged about the need for big brass ones in order to believe this could be done.  Despite regular polishing of my metaphorical testicles, here I am, still one of the unwashed and unpublished wannabe novelists.  Clearly, in addition to working diligently on the MIP (Mess in Progress, since I’m still unsure if I can call it a Work in Progress) the answer is to sprinkle some eye of newt into my word cauldron, maybe wave a bit of sage, and wear my very pointiest hat.

Whatever we’re wishing for, I think most of us engage in a bit of magical thinking.  Like, say, this woman.  This is a hell of a story, an excellent snapshot of why supporting 45 and his merry band of fascists was a bad idea.  She’s an American citizen married to a not-quite-undocumented Mexican immigrant.  She voted for our current regime, because she thought they only meant they would deport the “bad ones.”  Her husband wasn’t in hiding, checked in with ICE when he was supposed to, gainfully employed, paid taxes, legit, provisional Social Security number.  Needless to say he is currently in jail awaiting deportation because ‘Murica.  I’ve seen a lot of people comment on this story, some gleeful at her comeuppance, some who feel sorry for her.  Me? Shrug. I take no pleasure in what has to be a painful and terrifying experience for her husband and their children, but I don’t feel sorry for her.  He was very clear about his beliefs and vision, started his whole damned campaign with racial slurs about Mexican immigrants. This is an example of dangerous magical thinking; belief that no one can see you behind a clear shower curtain, that it’s ok and safe to wish harm on others; ok to strip rights, dignity, even humanity because other.

There were never any real plans offered by this President and his administration regarding how they would make things great. The closest they came to concrete plans involved who they were going to vilify, and how he could do whatever he wanted while keeping his supporters and increasing his net worth.  His net worth, not yours.  I’ve said this many times already, once you say it’s okay to dehumanize this group and that group, it’s a guarantee that more groups will be added to that list, and yours will surely be added sooner or later.  I hope no one reading this is surprised and hurt to discover this, but 45 and his cronies don’t see you as a human being.  You were a vote. If you voted for him, he’s done with you, if you didn’t, you never existed in the first place. Let’s go back to that disastrous bill, HurryUpandDieCare.  This is from a meeting on Thursday night, with a no holds barred attempts to squeeze votes out of those who thought it was still too generous a plan.  “Forget about the little shit.”  The little shit is you, me, and the woman from Indiana whose husband is sitting jail.

A little magical thinking might carry me through months of work on this MIP, enough to (hopefully) craft a cohesive and interesting story, maybe adding the tears of a baby dragon will get me through the querying process. It won’t get me published. Magical thinking got 45 and company into office, it won’t make them responsible, compassionate, or skilled–and it surely won’t protect us from the damage.

The Line Keeps Moving

 

We Need to Talk About Kevin is one of my top ten novels, always comes to mind when someone asks for a recommendation.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is one of my top ten novels, always comes to mind when someone asks for a recommendation.

This morning, as every morning, after my yoga I sat in front of the laptop and started cruising the news.  I don’t read any one paper/site cover to cover; I hop around, the HuffPo, The Guardian, New York Times, Politico, and any links popped up overnight on my Facebook feed that catch my eye.  And so I saw the headline for this essay in The Guardian, and got excited.  (As excited as I get at pre sunrise, only on my second cup of coffee.)  I am a huge fan of Lionel Shriver, as evidenced by the photo above.  Over the past few years I’ve gotten rid of the majority of my paper books–surprisingly liberating–but I keep a couple of shelves worth, a selection or two or three showcasing authors I worship or individual volumes that have had a huge impact on me, as a person and/or as someone who writes.

When I read the essay, my first thought was, “oh, fuck.”  It’s about the author’s response to part of a speech given by Lionel Shriver, about identity, cultural appropriation, what is or isn’t ok for an author to explore through their fiction.  When I love an author’s work, I want to be one hundred percent devoted to them in every way.  I want them to be the giants I’ve built them up to become in my mind, I want to have faith as I learn more about them that this is someone I’d enjoy having conversations with over tea, coffee, or a glass of wine.  Silly, isn’t it?  Especially silly when I’m someone who still harbors occasional fantasies of being published (well published!), and yet here I am running this blog:  Mrs Fringe of the colorful language, big mouth, strong opinions, and anything but neutral political leanings.  I have no doubt there are many who would not enjoy having coffee with me, maybe even some of the same who enjoy my words when they’re fiction.  I’m the first to admit not everyone finds my sense of humor charming. General publishing wisdom–common sense, really–dictates that anyone hoping to earn a dollar from strangers shouldn’t do anything to actively offend anyone.

The thing is, I’m a person, first and foremost. That’s what Mrs Fringe is about, being a person who wears many hats, plays many roles; complete with disappointments, laughter, mourning, screw-ups, nonsense, inappropriate thoughts, offensive-to-some language, a desire to be heard and understood, a desire to learn and understand more, a desire to connect with others.  Kinda like, oh, say…fiction.  And the authors of said fiction.  Yes, it’s imaginary characters and made up scenarios, but good fiction, enduring fiction, the kind of fiction Lionel Shriver writes, is uncompromising, unapologetic.  She creates characters who are SO real, doesn’t hesitate to use her characters and scenarios to explore who we are as human beings, as a society, to use the mirror of fiction to examine the beauty, pain, and the ugly bits of what it means to be a whole person.  Sure it’s uncomfortable, but it’s also riveting.  This is the fiction that endures, because people are people–now, fifty years from now, two hundred years ago.

So I’m a person.  So, apparently, is Ms. Shriver.  And I read the essay, thinking about the author of the essay, her offense at Lionel Shriver’s remarks referencing how easily, too easily, people are offended now, the idea of political correctness.  Her offense at the idea that a novelist can accurately and appropriately portray someone whose experience of life is vastly different than their own, i.e.: a white novelist writing a person of color, straight novelist writing LGBTQ characters, etc.  Her interpretation of the novelist’s speech as arrogance–maybe it was, because I only have the author’s paraphrasing before she walked out twenty minutes into it, I don’t have enough information to give an informed opinion.

I want to be offended by her offense.  But I’m not.  The truth is, she has a point.  Could a white male have written Their Eyes were Watching God, given the character of Janie Crawford the same depth, the same enduring honesty created by Zora Neale Hurston?  Nope. Could In the Time of Butterflies, by Julia Alvarez, have been written by someone who isn’t Dominican, written in a way that allows the reader to come as close to feeling what it would be like living in the shadow of Trujillo as you feel reading her story of the Mirabel sisters?  Nope.  If a white author writes a black protagonist, I’m going to be skeptical, I’m going to be wondering about the character being written in a way that is not only not realistic, but wondering about the icky squicky line of that protagonist being written in such a way that it’s lecturing (subtle or not) the reader on how a person of color should be feeling in this imaginary scenario.  Will that novelist be able to allow the reader to feel the enduring humanity while preserving the reality of life experiences through they eyes and thoughts of a protagonist who isn’t straight and white?

Lionel Shriver, as far as I could tell from the essay, had a point, too. If we are afraid to examine any but our own narrow viewpoint, so afraid of using the wrong words we stay silent, we will never understand a damned thing, and our worlds will shrink with the novels in front of us, rather than expanding.  Female authors have written beautiful, powerful strong male characters and vice versa.  What would seventh graders read if Harper Lee hadn’t written To Kill a Mockingbird?  What are we teaching these future generations (*cue thinkofthechildren wail*) if they stop reading it because it might be triggering, or offensive to examine our society’s racism–past and present?  You know what was amazing to me, about Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin?  Reading about her afterwards, and learning she isn’t a parent.  My mind was blown.  But maybe it shouldn’t have been.  Maybe it’s because she isn’t a parent that she was able to take such a hard look at parenthood without turning the mother into a saint or a caricature of a villain (though not necessarily likable).

Would it be the same thing, a white author writing a protagonist who is Black, or Latino, Asian or Indigenous?  No, but it also shouldn’t mean limiting characters to only those who experience life the same way the writer does.  If it did I’d have to give up even fantasizing about having anything published.  I can see it now, the NY Times Best Seller– Mrs Fringe Buys a Slow Cooker.

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Cultural appropriation is a real thing, and it’s something we need to be aware of, and sensitive to.  Maybe it’s harder for whites to understand because so much of the tradition of white, Christian culture involves the attempt to force it down the throats of everyone else.  What the line is, exactly, I’m not sure.  At the beginning of this post I referenced yoga.  Is it cultural appropriation for me to practice yoga?  I’m pretty sure I don’t have that Jane Fonda exercise tape anymore.  Or a beta machine to play it on.  Nerd Child tells me the Weeping Buddha statuette I have on my desk is cultural appropriation.  I don’t know, it makes me feel better to touch it in the early morning, pretend that I really am letting go of any sadness and starting the day with a clean slate.

Mother of God with Child--Kuz'ma Petrov-Vodkin

Mother of God with Child–Kuz’ma Petrov-Vodkin

I saw the above painting recently, wished I could have it hanging in my apartment.  I’m far from a religious anything, let alone Russian Orthodox.  It’s art, and what makes great art (visual, written, or other) is the creator’s ability to preserve the specific subject while transcending it, offering the reader/observer/listener a world outside of her own while tapping into the common themes we all share.

People don’t change, the human condition has had us exploring the same questions for hundreds of years.  Society, though.  Society changes.  The words and language we use changes.  What is acceptable changes.  The line of what is or isn’t ok to do and say moves.  Sometimes it moves quickly.  It behooves all of us to remember this, and if we write, or read, or engage with the world in any way, it behooves us to remember this, like everything else that’s important, involves many shades of gray.

*Follow up: This morning I saw the transcript of Shriver’s full speech in The Guardian.  I thought some of my readers might be interested, and as always, invite all to come back and comment here if you read it.

Afterword

This full moon wasn't last night, but it felt like it should have been.

This full moon wasn’t last night, but it felt like it should have been.

What is stage fright, anyway?

So last night was that thing.  The reading.  I spent the day with my brain in the overdrive of heightened anxiety, changed my clothes three times, my shoes four, and slopped half a gallon of product in my hair, in a futile battle with the humidity.  I was pretty sure I didn’t have to worry about how my words would be received, or how I’d sound, because surely I was going to have a stroke before it was my turn.

Husband offered to meet me down there.  Down, because the bar couldn’t be further from my apartment and still be in Manhattan.  No, thanks.  I’m one of those people.  When I’m nervous about something, I’m better off alone, because your moral support will likely be met by me biting your head off.  Cranky.  Bitchy, even.  That and the fact that I figured the reason I was doing this was to maybe, hopefully, connect with other writers.  I know myself.  If Husband was with me, it would be the perfect excuse to not speak to anyone, revert to my teenaged self, sit in back and make jokes about myself.  Man Child offered to go down with me.  No thanks.  Then he offered to just travel down with me.  Umm, maybe.  No, no, I’m a grown up, I don’t need an escort, I’m fine.  Are you sure?  Yes, thank you.  Are you really sure, because I’m going to start laundry otherwise?  Yes yes I’m sure.

Ten minutes before I left, I’m going to call Husband and have him meet me.  Oops, look at the time, he’s already on his way home, that wouldn’t be nice.  I’m good, I can do this.

Five minutes before I left, ummm, Man Child?  I changed my mind.  But you can’t stay.  He traveled downtown with me, and then encouraged me when I spent ten minutes standing outside, bemoaning the fact that I had remembered my camera but not the battery that would allow it to work.

I really have great kids.


I’ll be honest, this sign in the window is probably what got me through the door.  That and Man Child’s gentle shove.

At the entrance to the back room, where the event was being held, the producer was checking tickets.  I was nervous about the whole e-ticket thing. My name was already on his list, great. I’m scoping the room behind him, happy to see empty seats in back when he says, “Oh.  You’re reading.”  Was I supposed to mention that?  “Umm, yeah, I guess so.”  Damn, I’m smooth.

It’s a funny thing.  Once I was in, I felt acutely aware that I have never done this before, but not nervous.  Basically I was certain I was going to fuck up, drop my pages, lose my voice, have that stroke, yanno.  It wasn’t crowded, there were two featured writers and several open mic-ers.  The open mic folks were mostly poets.  Excellent, this way I was certain to not fit in.  I liked the way it was organized, open mic readings scattered throughout the evening with the featured writers in between.  (Featured meaning authors with books recently published/about to be published) I’m not sure what I expected, but it was a lively mix of “straight” poetry, spoken word, an excerpt from a graphic novel, excerpts from a flash essay collection, part of a short.  The crowd was mixed in age, sex, and ethnicity, also nice.

There was a microphone! Eek.  And others were introduced by the MC with a bit about them.  Crap, was I supposed to tell them something other than my name and here’s-my-eight-dollars?  Ah well.  I considered plugging Mrs Fringe before or after I read, but therewasamicrophone.  I just did it.  I read the opening few pages to Astonishing (probably about half the first chapter, it’s the one up on the blog here).  Everyone was quiet while I read, so either I held their attention, or they were taking the opportunity for a cat nap. Maybe they just couldn’t hear me, I didn’t get too close to that mic.  I’m from south Brooklyn ferChristssake, I can be plenty loud.

I met a few people who seemed quite nice. Many of those in the audience and those who went up are apparently regulars, but everyone was welcoming.  Not one pointed and snickered, or muttered, “poseur” as I went past.  If they did I didn’t hear them.  Success.

In any case, I felt like it went well.  I was surprised I couldn’t see the audience once I was up there, all I saw was lights, and that made it much easier.  More surprising, I didn’t feel intimidated while I was reading, I just…read.  Scenarios like this always surprise me, no one talking about the angst and futility of trying to get published, trade or otherwise.  It’s as if there’s an assumption that you and everyone else is doing it, you belong there.

I might even say I had fun.

 

We Are Looking For

A clue!

A clue!

Normally, I use this neatogroovycool magnifying glass to examine the minuscule creepy crawlies in the tank.  Today, I’m using it to examine context clues.

I have a Twitter account (@MrsFringe).  I don’t use it much, but I hop on semi-regularly to see what’s trending, and sporadically I’ll spend quite a bit of time for a couple of days having fun with one-liners. Some of those I follow are friends, some are Fringelings, some are people I admire, others are agents/editors who are sharp, or funny, or interesting.  Quite a few publishing professionals will tweet tips–what to do/what not to do, why they’re requesting or rejecting queries, and query trends.

Recently I logged on and happened to catch a tweet at the top of my news feed that’s stayed with me.  While it probably isn’t politic, I’m going to address it.  Since I’m 40,000 years old and not twitter savvy (read: a blabberfingers), I’ll respond here on the blog.  Someone (agent? I think, maybe) tweeted something to the effect of:  Two spaces after a period and I know you’re over 40, don’t do it.

Really?

Well I suppose it’s true, those of us who learned to type on typewriters did learn to put two spaces after a period.  If you learned in typing class and/or did a lot of typing for any reason, it’s kind of ingrained–and if you do think about it, one space often looks “wrong” to us ancients.  Despite my advanced age and inherent slowed mental faculties, I actually understand that things change.  The world changes, advances are made, things that were once acceptable are now either extraneous or completely unacceptable.  Language evolves.

A friend of Nerd Child’s is staying with us for a few days.  He hasn’t been here before, and when he first walked in he said, “This apartment is sick.”  Hard to believe, but I didn’t go running for the Lysol, nor did I tell him to get off my lawn.  I thanked him.  Context clues.

I promise you, Fringelings, I am not what anyone would consider a delicate flower.

I checked. Nope, this is not a self portrait, but I may add it to my salad tonight.

I checked. Nope, this is not a self portrait, but I may add it to my salad tonight.

I also understand publishing professionals are inundated with queries, and there are many reasons to reject manuscripts.  What I don’t understand is why someone would think it’s ok, on a public venue like Twitter, to make this type of blanket, ageist statement.  True, I (and others like me) should probably try to break this wasteful habit of two spaces after each period.  All that white space left to rot by the end of a manuscript, shameful.  Also true, there are practicalities and logistics, reasons someone might not want to take on a debut author who’s 90 years old.  You wouldn’t have to dig too deep through my archives to find I’m quite open about not loving some of the facets of aging–oh, those saggy bits!  But these are query letters for manuscripts, not applications for centerfold models.

I had dinner with my journalist friend the other night.  She is (gasp) older than I am.  Not only still writing, but people still pay to read what she has to say, because she’s good at what she does.  If I checked the list of current best selling novelists, I’m certain a significant percentage would include authors over forty.  If I checked tweets of those I follow on Twitter, I’m certain all would include tweets (from men and women) about being feminists, supporting feminism.  You cannot separate feminism from ageism.  I’d like to see that placard carried at a women’s rights march, “Equal Pay for the Perky Now!”  It doesn’t bother me to be told to break an outdated habit, but the implication that my words hold no value because I’m a woman of a certain age?  That bothers the hell out of me.

I think I’ve posted this video before, but you can just go ahead and blame senility for the repeat.  Or, yanno, trust I felt it was appropriate for this piece.

*And yes, I made sure to add two spaces after each period for this post, ’cause that’s how I roll.

Can’t See What’s Ahead

Three nights ago, unusually foggy.

Three nights ago, unusually foggy.

I grew up in Brooklyn, not far from the water.  I had a little terrace off my bedroom, where I spent as much time as possible.  Some things don’t change, heh.  I could and did stand out there and watch the fog roll inland.  Once it reached my area, you couldn’t see through it, but oh you could feel it, a curiously damp blanket you breathed in along with the smell of low tide and the sewage treatment plant, 7 blocks away. For a while, as a young adult, I lived in Washington, where fog was redefined for me.  Never in any other state have I seen fog as thick as they get in the Pacific Northwest. When I drove home from work at midnight, the highway would be at a slow crawl because you literally couldn’t see the tail lights of the car ahead of you if you were more than a foot away.

With the flash on, nothing to see but the individual droplets.

With the flash on, nothing to see but the blur of individual droplets.

Is it too melodramatic to draw a life analogy here? Probably, but I’m doing it anyway. There are certainly twists in the road that no one sees coming.  Illness, accidents, job loss, house fires, even winning the lottery.  Then there are the expected markers, the things you work to achieve–jobs, promotions, education, children, children growing up, literary contracts.  Oops, that last one doesn’t fit, does it?  Not this time, anyway.

I was careful.  Careful to always acknowledge the many factors outside of my control, the certain percentage of luck and timing in this type of endeavor.  But I believed.  Enough blind faith to face the dreaded blank page and fill it, over and over again. To submit, accept rejection is part of the process, and keep submitting.  To dissect personalized rejections and believe they meant more than a bland “no thanks” form letter.  In writing (fiction or otherwise), there’s a lot of talk of “voice”–the importance of.  I do have a clear and definite voice, as do my characters, and I’ve gotten  a lot of feedback on it.  Some love it, some hate it.  I always considered it a “win” either way. In Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino wrote. “It is not the voice that commands the story, it is the ear.”  I believe that’s true; as I’ve said many times, writing is about communication, the two way street between reader and writer.  For me it isn’t about telling a story just to tell it.  What’s written has to resonate, to where the reader feels they’ve not only learned the character’s story, but felt their own. The onus is on the writer, so maybe my it’s my ear that’s off.

For months now, I’ve been trying to work towards acceptance.  Acknowledgement and acceptance that it isn’t going to happen.  Can I just say this is fucking hard? No, I don’t have to.  But there’s a point where it feels unhealthy to stay on the same road, at the same speed, and expect the visibility to improve just because I want it to.  I don’t want it to be 40° outside at the end of April, either, but here I am wearing a turtleneck and winter coat, because otherwise I’d be freezing.

I’m hoping to come out of this fog and reach acceptance.  Then what?  I’m told I could have had quite the career as a stand-up philosopher–yanno, a bullshit artist (thank you, Mel Brooks).  I wonder where I should send those queries.

A new dimension to Friday Night Madness.

A new dimension to Friday Night Madness.

One More for the Road, or in this case, Three More

I suppose if you look really hard, a theme could be found on my bookshelf.

I suppose if you look really hard, a theme could be found on my bookshelf.

When we moved into this apartment, I packed away many of my books, and donated many more.  These are what’s left–not including cookbooks.

Followers have been listening to me whine about my writing (non)life, and my plan to take stock and move forward.  One of the ideas I was playing with was the thought of self-publishing short stories in groups of three or so.  Since I knew less than zero about self pubbing, I asked on the writers’ board.  I now know about zero, just enough to confirm that I am indeed too lazy and too broke to pursue self publishing at this time.  I’ve never done much in terms of submitting my short fiction. Most have never been subbed anywhere, the few that were sent out once and then filed away with the inevitable rejection letter that arrived a mere 9, 12, 15 months later.

Apparently my sanity plunged along with this week’s temperatures, so I sent off stories to literary  magazines, complete with crappy cover letters.  What the hell do you write on a cover letter when you’re unpublished and have nothing to say about yourself that ties in with said stories in any way?  “Mrs Fringe here, checking in with ovaries o’ steel.”

Why steel?  Because I will only submit to markets that (potentially) pay.  Doesn’t have to be a lot, doesn’t have to be The Paris Review (no, I didn’t send anything to them), but it is my work.  I’ve seen a lot of quotes go past on my Twitter feed recently, having to do with art and writing for the pure love and satisfaction. Most of these quotes attributed to writers who have reached some measure of success, naturally.

Nope.  My words are mine. I spend time, I edit, I pace, I obsess, I rewrite. They’re work, and if I don’t value my words, why/how would I expect anyone else to do so?  If I meet someone and mention that I walk dogs, and they then ask me to walk their dog, it’s understood that this will be a paid walk.  It has nothing to do with whether or not I love dogs.  I can just imagine it, if you really loved animals, you’d be completely fulfilled picking up my dog’s shit in the rain, just for the love of it, and be thankful for the exposure. The reality of this philosophy is that my already slim odds of having a story accepted go down significantly–there aren’t a whole lot of paying lit mags, and they regularly publish prize winning, bestselling authors.  All self explanatory as to why, though I write and have written shorts on a regular basis through the years, I’ve rarely subbed/queried them.

I expect my sanity to return with the projected rising temps.  I hope.

And because it’s Friday, a few tank photos, white balance adjusted.

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Enjoy your Friday, Fringelings.  And when it’s last call tonight, tell your bartender drinks should be on him, for the love of it.