Writers are always vulnerable. It’s part of our job, to put parts of ourselves on display, to expose our inner workings. That’s especially true in the early stages of a project, when it’s this half-formed lump with odd protrusions and a rocky second act. With revisions for All the Ugly and Wonderful Things turned in, it’s time to decide what book I want to work on next. What thing to be vulnerable to.

If you read my blog much, you’ll have seen my occasional flirtation with Teaser Tuesday. You’ll have seen just how many random things are hiding in my writing files. So when the topic turned to what I should write next, I opened up the file and took a long, hard look. Then I closed it really fast and went out for a drink.

Later, with my resolve fortified through the consumption of alcohol, I came back and started sorting through all my ideas, drafts, and story parts and pieces. The more I sorted the more I was reminded of a windfall I received last year. A good friend of mine gifted me with several gallon Ziploc bags full of estate sale jewelry. How this came into her possession, I’m not at liberty to say, but she sent it to me with instructions to take anything I wanted and discreetly dispose of the rest.

Of course, the bags mostly contained broken strands of plastic beads, tarnished chains, chipped enamel brooches from the 1970s, and mateless earrings missing rhinestones. The usual junk that gets left behind after someone dies and their heirs have already gone through to pick out anything valuable.

In addition to the junk, however, I found a 14k gold ring set with amethyst and peridot, a string of old Czech glass beads that only needed a new clasp, a clever bracelet made of pesos strung together with wire, and the lovely Indian woven silver necklace I’m wearing in my official author photo.

Treasure out of trash

Sorting through my writing files was like being presented with a giant plastic bag of cast off jewelry and being told, “In this bag of junk there are two pieces of treasure. Your task: find the treasure.” I pulled out things that seemed promising, as well as some things that were intriguing, and here and there a few things that feel like treasure to me. I sent them off to my agent to see if my idea of treasure and her idea of treasure match up.

It was scary, but liberating. I’ve never shown anyone the depth and breadth of my writing files. When I hit send, I felt like an inmate in an asylum, with all my crazy ideas heaped up around me on random bits of paper, but I also felt like a dragon, reclining upon my glittering hoard of ill-gotten chalices, swords, and crowns.

The good news is that on several points, my idea of treasure and my agent’s idea of treasure are similar. Out of the seventeen things I sent her, we found three that we both thought looked like projects my time would be well spent on. Of course, the down side to having made this decision is that I have to stop frittering around, and get to work.

By now, I’m guessing you’ve all seen it: the white American poet who yellowfaced in his attempts to get published. That’s right, a white man used an Asian pen name to increase his odds of having his poetry published. He’s quite open about his reasons for doing so:

The poem in question, ‘The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve,’ was rejected under my real name forty (40) times before I sent it out as Yi-Fen Chou (I keep detailed submission records). As Yi-Fen the poem was rejected nine (9) times before Prairie Schooner took it. If indeed this is one of the best American poems of 2015, it took quite a bit of effort to get it into print, but I’m nothing if not persistent.”

My first reaction to hearing about this was blunt and none too poetic: Are you fucking kidding me?

First, let’s just consider the reality of how difficult it is for people of color to be published. Today provides a great example: Cindy Pon is posting over on John Scalzi’s Big Idea about the obstacles that exist when you’re writing stories about non-white characters. Then let’s take a quick stroll over here, where we find white men dominating writing conference panels, even the ones about women and people of color. It happens so often, it’s hard to pick a single example, so I’ll just grab the latest one: Maggie Stiefvater being asked on a panel about Writing the Other.

So when a white dude goes on record lamenting that it’s so hard to get published as a white dude, and then concocts a rationale that’s based on a small sample at best, and on a completely false sense of persecution at worst, it chaps my hide. If it’s so hard being a white dude in publishing, why do so many “best of” lists contain mostly (and sometimes only) white men? If it’s so hard, why is academia jammed to the gills with classes that teach mostly (and sometimes only) white writers? If it’s so hard, why do so many women writers use just their initials to disguise the fact that they are Tanyas and Rebeccas and Joannes?

Of course, at the heart of this guy’s pen name gimmick is an oozing white core of entitlement. He feels his poetry is so good that the only thing keeping it from getting published is some ingrained bias against white men. Otherwise, how to explain that he was rejected forty times as a white man, but published after only nine attempts as an Asian man? Surely there’s no other way to understand this befuddling experience of rejection.

Let’s look at what he says again: If indeed this is one of the best American poems of 2015, it took quite a bit of effort to get it into print, but I’m nothing if not persistent.

Bullshit. On all counts. Complete and utter bullshit.

Firstly, 49 rejections is nothing. He thinks that’s a lot of rejection? He has no clue. I know people who’ve suffered a hundred rejections in trying to get a poem published. That’s persistence.

Secondly, and above all, I am so tired of this fallacy that great literature never gets rejected. Of course it gets rejected. I’m not even going to bother listing all the great works of literature that had to confront rejection before being published. You all know the list. It’s enormous. Because even a brilliant piece of writing isn’t going to speak to everyone.

A poem being named as a “best of 2015” means only that someone in charge of making the list liked the poem. It doesn’t make it a great poem. It doesn’t put it in the canon of great literature. Nor does it prove that publishing is biased against white men.

To my great joy, Sherman Alexie, the guest editor of The Best American Poetry 2015, has chimed in to discuss his inclusion of this poem in the anthology. He is completely honest about his reasoning, and about his reaction to learning that he had been “fooled.” I don’t think he was, because his job was to choose the 75 poems he liked best from the year. No matter how complex the process by which he got there, he succeeded.

I’m of an age where I don’t watch the MTV Video Music Awards. Of course, I’m of an age that I remember having a crush on Martha Quinn. Considering that, I’m grateful I follow folks on Twitter who were live tweeting the awards. They got me on the internet to watch Kanye West’s acceptance speech for his Vanguard win.

It’s easy to laugh about Kanye. He sometimes wears ridiculous clothes, says ridiculous things, and jumps up on stage to interrupt other people receiving awards. That said, he does all those things because his heart is in it. Whatever the thing is, at the moment, his heart is in it. That’s not something to be ashamed of. That’s something to aspire to.

For those who want to denigrate his “sloppy” or “meandering” speech, or the fact that he was baked, I’d say: imagine being called up in front of a live audience to speak, and being broadcast to an audience of millions more. What would you say? And would you be able to speak from your heart?

The thing I love about this speech, though, is what is in his heart. Yeezy speaks for all artists. Remarking on that fateful awards ceremony where he grabbed the mic from Taylor Swift, Kanye acknowledges that he took a misstep in venting his frustration that the award went to someone he felt was less worthy.

“The problem was, the contradiction is, I do fight for artists. But in that fight, I somehow was disrespectful to artists. I didn’t know how to say the right thing, the perfect thing.”

How many of us do know how to say the perfect thing? I sure don’t, but last night, Kanye came pretty close.


“I still don’t understand award shows. I don’t understand how they get five people who work their entire life, one, sell records, sell concert tickets, to come, stand on a carpet and for the first time in their life, be judged on a chopping block and had the opportunity to be considered a loser. I don’t understand it, bruh! I don’t understand what the biggest album or the biggest video… I’ve been conflicted, bro. I just wanted people to like me more.”

What he’s talking about is the same thing writers wrestle with every time we ask ourselves, “Why not my crap?” What do I have to do to make people like me more? Why did that writer win so many awards? Why did that book make all the best seller lists?

We’re human. We can’t help but wonder about why someone else succeeds when we don’t. We can’t stop our natural inclination to compare ourselves to others. The contradiction, as Yeezus says, is that in trying to talk up some books, we often talk down other books. Even though the writers of those books have surely had the same doubts. Book awards pit books and writers against each other for reasons that are outside the art of writing, just like music awards are a contest that is intended to promote something more than music.

The industries that sell and promote art, from music to books to paintings to dance, those industries serve the arts, but they serve their own purposes, too. We can let ourselves get sucked into that competition, and obsess about who won and who didn’t. That’s how Kanye ended up embarrassing himself by stage-crashing Taylor Swift all those years ago. He bought into the idea that the award was what mattered, and that artists he loved were passed over to reward an artist he barely knew. We can buy into that, or we can grow and take the new, more mature and paternal advice of Yeezy: “All I can say to my fellow artists: just worry about how you feel at the time, man.”

The art isn’t about who wins. “It’s about ideas, bro, new ideas, people with ideas, people who believe in truth.”

Rolling Stone has the full transcript of Kanye’s speech here.

Of course, not every girl in my grade school class was named Amy. There’s only one in this photo of my third grade class, but out of a grade cohort of 30 girls, there were 4 Amies and 1 Aimee. The point is: names go in and out of fashion, and if you’re unlucky enough to be named after a trend, you’ll go through grade school with an initial tacked onto your name to differentiate you from all the other Amies. Or Jacobs or Emmas.


Book titles are a little like this. As this funny piece points out, some trends become so entrenched that book titles are formulaic. The Something’s Daughter. The Art of Something. I joke that if my current novel had been published a few years ago it might have been called The Drug Dealer’s Daughter.

You spend years writing a book, kicking around possible titles, and finally settle on one. Then you discover that another book is coming out before yours with the exact same title. When the title What Belongs to You was chosen for my book, there weren’t any published books with that title, but in January 2016, a novel with that exact title will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

After a brief confab with my wonderful agent and my lovely editor at Thomas Dunne, my book is officially being retitled as All the Ugly and Wonderful Things. Now there are marketing and art meetings going on, out of which will come my cover. Currently it’s set for release in August 2016, so we’ve got a ways to go. Hopefully nobody steals my title before then. ;) At least it’s not like accidentally naming a baby the most popular girl’s name of the decade. You can’t just rename a baby like you can a novel.

(Further notes on that class photo: notice the mishap of the two girls who came to school for class picture day wearing the same shirt, further compounded by the photographer who cruelly seated them next to each other. Also: why were all the girls made to sit, including the very tall girl who then had to hunch over to avoid blotting out the short kid behind her? If you can pick me out of this photo, you’ll also have the answer to why I prefer to wear all black. Seriously, if you’d had a childhood of unfortunate fashion missteps, wouldn’t you prefer the safety of monochrome?)

My first two books were published by a small press, and as such, I was given some input into the decision about whether or not to have my photograph on the back cover. My answer was very firmly NO.

Like many folks, I am not fond of having my picture taken, but I believe I am exceptionally not photogenic, even among that crowd. I don’t mean that I’m hideous. I’m just very difficult to take a decent picture of, as several of my photographer friends can vouch for. “These photos don’t even look like you!” is a frequent refrain. Accompanied by such plaints as, “Why can’t you keep both your eyes open?” and “If you could just keep your face still,” and the always amusing, “Uh, can you, uh, do … something with your hair.” (Answer: No. I’m not the boss of my hair.)

So when I was first asked for my official author photo by the lovely people at St. Martin’s Press, I delayed. I wasn’t lying when I said, “I don’t have anything appropriate.” Boy, did I not have anything appropriate. The closest thing I had to an author photo was fifteen years old. The most recent photos of me all featured various angles of my dogs and cats (frequently their butts), and me giving the camera a googly-eye, or half a snaggle-tooth, or the Flehmen response. As you do.

Have you smelled my book?

Have you smelled my book?

Now, I could have set out the very next day in pursuit of a contemporary author photo, but I didn’t. Instead, like the worst chess player in the world, I engaged in the Fat Girl’s Gambit. There’s something about being obese that works like a pause button on certain portions of your life. You find yourself thinking, I’ll do that after I lose this weight. You hate to buy new clothes, because you’re going to lose that weight! You are. You have a plan. Or plans. Or notebooks full of plans and inspirational quotes.

So back in September, when I was asked for an author photo, I said to myself, “Self, you are going to lose this weight before you have your picture taken.” And I did lose a lot of the weight, but then I regained most of it, because that’s the danger of the Fat Girl’s Gambit. It’s too often an open-ended game with a long view, and you’re stuck in the present.

This is where I found myself on Monday, when St. Martin’s emailed me again to say, “So, about that author photo.” Oof. Chickens coming home to roost on this fat girl.

I did the only thing I could do. I disassembled my dining room and my office to create a suitably literary backdrop, and then I called the skinniest, craziest friend I have. Because that’s how the world works. If you’re feeling fat and you’re forcing yourself to take pictures, you will invariably need the help of that friend who is always trying to gain weight.

As proof of how little the camera loves me, out of 400+ photos, we found four that we thought were acceptable. Of those four, this is the one that reached the middle ground between “menacing” and “dreamy.” This is the official author photo coming to a bookstore near you.

Bryn Greenwood

Look! Over my shoulder, it’s Anthony Trollope.


Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the phrase "suspension of disbelief," if you can believe that.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the phrase “suspension of disbelief,” if you can believe that.

It’s strange the things that jar readers out of their willing suspension of disbelief. Character is a werewolf? No problem. Character is an American who stops by his local chip shop in Wichita, Kansas, to order some takeaway? Hold the phone. As readers, we’re willing to believe all kinds of ridiculous things, but it’s often the mundane details that make us doubt an author’s credibility.

The interesting thing is how those things shift as time passes and societies change. I was reminded of this a few nights ago while having dinner with a couple of friends who are about to set off on a new adventure together. We were discussing MFAs and their usefulness or lack thereof, and I was reminded of one of the most important things that happened to me in my MFA 20+ years ago.

I was in a fiction class which was intended to be a sort of introduction to novel writing. For critique, I’d submitted a chapter in which my two main characters (a 16-year-old girl and her 12-year-old brother) had a conversation about the girl’s prom dress. My chapter was savaged. Hey, that’s cool, being savaged is part of the learning process. After class, however, the professor asked me to see him during office hours.

For half an hour, he proceeded to lecture me extensively on how unrealistic my 12-year-old boy was. Boys, he informed me with all his vast personal knowledge on the subject, are not interested in prom dresses. Boys are interested in comics and baseball and other sport things, and possibly insects. Boys do not willingly iron their sisters’ clothes or sit on their sisters’ beds watching them get ready for prom.

“Some boys do,” I said. I had known a few boys who did. “Some gay boys.”

“Gay?” my professor said. Then he delivered his verdict: “12-year-old boys aren’t gay. Your character can’t be gay.”

The lesson of my MFA: just as not every book is for every reader, not every critique is valuable. Since I knew I wasn’t going to rewrite my story to make my character hetero-normative, I did the only thing I could. I dropped the novel class and enrolled in a play writing class with a professor who did not have such intransigent views on the sexuality of prepubescent boys.

I realized this morning that I’d get called out on a completely different element if I submitted it to a critique group today. In 1992, a gay 12-year-old protagonist raised the hackles of my critique group as “unrealistic.” What didn’t cause them to bat an eye was a story in which a teenaged girl and her younger brother spent the whole summer roaming the streets with their ne’er-do-well neighbor, completely unsupervised while their parents were at work.

23 years later, in a society that now calls the police and social services on parent-less children playing in public parks, no one would believe that my characters could wander freely without adult oversight. Conversely, on the heels of such a momentous Supreme Court decision, let no critique group or writing professor say, “Your character can’t be gay.”

I was lucky enough that I went to bed last night before the news broke about the attack on the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. At least I got a good night’s sleep, unlike a lot of people who must have lain awake all night with that on their minds. This morning, though, I saw the news, and I saw already how the facts were being shaped to reflect this ongoing belief in white America that racism isn’t a problem or isn’t a white problem anyway.

The suspect in this attack has been apprehended, and he’s already made clear that he went to Emanuel AME to “kill black people.” Yet again, I see news outlets and private individuals playing up this idea that the shooter was a lone gunman. Just one white guy with bad intentions. When I look at pictures of the suspect, and his clothing, and his license plate, I see a lesson that I have learned repeatedly about racism.

As a white woman from the Midwest, I was raised in an environment that saw nothing wrong with racism, as long as you were polite about it. This wasn’t the kind of racism that involved hurling racist epithets at people’s faces, or burning crosses, or terrorizing people. It was just this low grade hum of acceptance for racism and racist language.

That “polite racism” has not gone away. I have worked in many different offices, with all kinds of people, and without exception, in every all-white workplace, white people have felt that it was okay to send emails containing racist jokes or to make racist remarks in the break room. White people have felt that it was safe to say these things among other white people.

When I have spoken up to tell people that their behavior is wrong and offensive, the same thing has happened every time. The polite racists don’t stop sending racist jokes via email, they just take me off the email list. The polite racists don’t stop making racist remarks in the break room, they just fall silent when I walk in. Remember that: just because you don’t notice racism, doesn’t mean it’s not there. That’s at the heart of white privilege.

“Polite racism” is not harmless. It is not “just words.” That low grade hum of hatred is fuel for more deadly forms of hatred. Look at the suspect in the AME massacre. On his coat he wears the flags of apartheid-era South Africa and of Rhodesia. On his car, he proudly sports a license plate with the Confederate flag. The same flag that still flies over the South Carolina capitol. These are not harmless icons any more than a Nazi swastika is a harmless icon. And the AME shooter, he didn’t make these badges himself. He didn’t make that license plate. He bought them. They were available for sale because of the existence of hate organizations who use those emblems to promote racist hatred. That is not a lone gunman. That is a mass murderer fueled by a culture of hate.

A former classmate of the AME shooter says that he “made a lot of racist jokes.” So this young man made racist jokes that nobody took seriously, wore multiple emblems from nations that espoused racist beliefs and policies, and apparently nobody saw a problem with that. Nobody in his family or circle of friends said, “That’s not okay. That’s a destructive kind of hatred.” Now tell me again how he acted alone. To me, that sounds like he acted with the full support of his community.

So what are white people supposed to do, if they find this hatred sickening, if they want to put an end to racism in America? As I’ve experienced, speaking up didn’t end it, but that’s only because in most instances I was the only person speaking out against it. I think of a racist email sent by a former coworker to more than twenty people in our office. I hit Reply All and indicated that the email was offensive and wrong. Now imagine if every other person who received that email had simply chimed in to say, “Yeah. That’s not okay.” That’s how you stop “polite racism.”

No, you’re not responsible for every white person in America, but to some degree you are responsible for everyone in your circle of family and friends. When somebody you love tells a racist joke, tell them that’s not okay. When somebody you love sports a hate emblem, ask them to find a different outfit. When somebody you love engages in “polite racism,” shut that down. When you remain silent, you become complicit. Everyone has to speak up every single time, no matter how uncomfortable it is. If that seems exhausting, imagine what it’s like being black in America. Then imagine that by speaking out, you might just save the life of somebody else’s loved one.

A great article about the Birmingham church bombing that helped me put my head on forwards today is here.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,516 other followers

%d bloggers like this: