We all say careless things. Things we mean, but only in the moment. Or things we haven’t thought through a great deal. If we’re lucky nobodies, we probably feel an instant of annoyance at having blurted out a less than well-turned phrase. For celebrities, I’ve always imagined that they must hear a tiny, distant siren in those moments, right as they realize their words will be plastered all over the place. I wonder if that’s how Caitlyn Jenner felt after her interview with Buzzfeed.

Maybe she didn’t even know what was getting ready to happen as the words left her mouth: “The hardest part about being a woman is figuring out what to wear.”

Jenner_hijabNo sooner had she spoken than the internet rose up with a furious vengeance to correct her. How dare she? fumed the outraged women (and men) of the internet. (The worst of them said, How dare he?) And then, as we do now, they whipped up a bunch of memes, pointing out all the things about being a woman that are harder than sartorial decisions: being raped, being beaten, giving birth, raising children, breast cancer, being underpaid, having your opinion dismissed, having your feelings belittled, having your existence diminished, revoked, erased.

Often when we’re speaking, we forget to use qualifiers, or we assume that the hearer will insert the necessary qualifiers, so when Caitlyn said, “The hardest part about being a woman is figuring out what to wear,” I seriously doubt she meant that as a sweeping statement on all women everywhere. Is she coming to where she is now from a place of privilege? Of course. She’s a wealthy white woman with platform and security. There’s privilege there. Does she honestly believe that the hardest part of being any woman is picking out clothes? For herself, maybe she does.

The qualifier she didn’t say is the one we should all remember to insert when we listen to people.

“(for me) The hardest part about being (the woman I am) is choosing what to wear.”

We are each free to choose our own narrative, and the least we can do for everyone is to accept their narrative as valid, for them. We don’t have to accept anyone else’s narrative as valid for ourselves, but we also don’t get to force someone to accept our narrative as the only one.
So before you get angry and say, “She doesn’t know anything about being a woman,” remember that there are lots of things about being a woman that you don’t know anything about. I’m a writer, so I understand that everyone has their own perspective on the world. I know it’s useful to spend some time considering other people’s perspectives. As a writer, I specialize in using my imagination, but even non-writers are free to use theirs.

Imagine how hard it must be for women who are subjected to genital mutilation, or who live in countries where they’re prohibited from driving or voting or owning property. Imagine how hard it must be for women in war zones in danger of being kidnapped, raped, and impregnated by soldiers, or who are sold by their own families to become child brides or prostitutes. Imagine how hard it is for women who have spent decades in bodies that don’t represent who they feel they are. Imagine how hard it must be for women who risk dying every time they become pregnant. Imagine how hard it must be for women whose children die due to lack of food, water, or medicine. Imagine how hard it must be for women who are murdered just for being women.

For me, deciding what to wear isn’t the hardest part of being the woman I am, but I know that there are many hard things I’ve never experienced. So I’m not angry at Caitlyn Jenner. I’m not angry at any of the women whose narratives don’t match mine. I am a little angry at a culture that still seeks to divide and conquer women. What we need is more concern and compassion for each other.

When I was a kid, the thing I remember most about the drive from my house to my aunt’s house in Manhattan, KS, was the tree that stood by the side of Kansas Turnpike between the El Dorado exit and the Cassoday exit. It had been struck by lightning, causing one of its largest branches to separate from the main trunk. The branch hadn’t fallen to the ground, though. It toppled over, crown first, and stayed there.

 © Copyright Chris Upson

© Copyright Chris Upson

Two branches embedded in the ground kept the base of the large branch propped against the tree. Over the years, that severed branch lost its bark, and by the time I was making the drive by myself, between my parents’ house and college, it was a bleached white bone.

That white limb, as big as the living tree it leaned against, took on an echo of the lightning strike that severed it. Stark and jagged, it caught the eye. It became a landmark, to let me know how much further I had to go. I marked it every time I passed.

After I’d been away, first to Japan, then to Florida, it greeted me on my return. A quick flash of white, an act of violence frozen in time. It’s amazing that it stood there so long–at least 35 years by my reckoning. It’s not surprising that it fell. The progression of decay. That relentless Plains wind. A series of grazing cattle using it to scratch their rumps.

When did it fall? I don’t even know. Was it there that Friday when I drove by on the way to my dad’s funeral? I couldn’t swear to it, because my mind was elsewhere. When I drove down for my mother’s seventieth birthday on the 4th of July? No. It had fallen by then. Finally become what it was. Not the glinting white echo of a bolt of lightning, but a half-rotted dead tree branch. I slowed as I approached and scanned the field. Craning my neck to see over the grass in the ditch, I located the branch in the muddy edge of the cattle watering hole.

Just like that, one of my landmarks was gone. Really, it was two. Not just the tree, but my pop, too. In the year since then, it has started to dawn on me that this is what life is about. Landmarks aren’t just things, they are people and ideas. They are guideposts that you use to make decisions about your life. You base your decisions on the landmarks around you, but the older you get, the fewer landmarks there are.

I became a secretary, just like my grandmother. She was one of my landmarks, pointing the way for my decision to take that first secretarial job. There were other decisions, though, that pulled me away from her. When I chose not to have children, when I ended my marriage. Those things toppled that landmark. I couldn’t use her as a guidepost for a lot of the decisions I made after that.

The grade school where you learned to read will be torn down. The grocery store where you had your first job will go out of business and become a Family Dollar store. Someone will blow up your favorite café. All the people who made you who you are will die. I’m sorry, but they are going to die. But you will tear down your own landmarks, too. You will walk away from the life that was laid out for you. You will turn your back on relationships. You will make different decisions than your grandparents did.

It’s painful, losing those landmarks, but you’ll find new ones. You’ll make new ones. Those will disappear, too, but you’ll get used to it. You’ll realize the older you get that we’re always at the edge of what each of us knows. We’re always looking at a fork in the road and trying to decide which way to go.

Well, as you can see in the sidebar, I officially have my cover for the new book.


I got the news in the old fashioned way: somebody texted me and said, “Hey, did you know your book is live for pre-order on Amazon?” No, I didn’t, but sure enough, it is. With a small publisher, the writer tends to be intimately involved in cover decisions, but with a large publisher like St. Martin’s Press, there’s a whole team of people behind the scenes doing stuff like this. Like publishing pixies coming in the night to put my book on Goodreads.

Speaking of which, there’s a giveaway for the book on Goodreads (those publishing pixies again!) You should definitely go enter.

About All the Ugly and Wonderful Things

As the daughter of a meth dealer, Wavy knows not to trust people, not even her own parents. It’s safer to keep her mouth shut and stay out of sight. Struggling to raise her little brother, Donal, eight-year-old Wavy is the only responsible adult around. Obsessed with the constellations, Wavy finds peace in the starry night sky above the fields behind her house, until one night her star gazing causes an accident. After witnessing his motorcycle wreck, she forms an unusual friendship with one of her father’s thugs, Kellen, a tattooed ex-con with a heart of gold.

Surrounded by addicts and a culture of debauchery, their relationship doesn’t set off any alarms until a well-meaning aunt steps in. Facing a charge of statutory rape, Kellen may not be completely innocent, but he’s the one stable companion Wavy and Donal have. Instead of playing it safe, Wavy has to learn to fight for Kellen, for her brother, and for herself.

We all have good behaviors that we try to model. Politeness, respect, kindness, those sorts of blanket ideas about being decent people. Beyond that, though, we have specific good deeds which we are individually tasked with. True mitzvehs in the Yiddish sense of “good deeds” rather than mitzvahs, the commandments from the Torah.

It’s not clear to me how we take on these tasks. Do we choose them based on our personalities? Do the fates (or G*d, if you prefer) confer on us those good deeds we are best able to perform? Or are we given the good deeds that require the most effort from us? A mix of both?

For example, one of my mitzvehs is reuniting dish sets at the Salvation Army. I love china and spent many years in Florida buying and reselling china. I no longer do that, but when I go into the Salvation Army on one of my regular searches for treasure, I often spend an hour in the dish aisles. Not shopping for anything, but finding the sets of dishes that have been separated on accident, either in the donation or the pricing process. The sad fact is that many sets of nice china get separated and lose both their value and their purpose. By bringing the soup bowls and dinner plates and tea cups and saucers back together on the shelves, I’m helping those dishes go to a new home. I’m helping people buy matched sets on which to enjoy their nourishment. It’s a small deed to be sure, but it feels like something I’m meant for. It gives me pleasure and it’s useful.

Two of my other mitzvehs are not well-suited to my personality, and yet they are my good deeds to perform.

I am an introvert. A text book sort of introvert. I will go to great lengths to avoid interacting with people and, although I’m able to do so for short periods of time, I find it exhausting. Meeting new people is a kind of agony for me, which requires significant girding of my loins.

That said, as I walk across campus during the summer months, it’s not unusual for me to see students and their families posing in front of various landmarks for pictures. Of course, it always means one member of the family is left out of the picture. Despite my discomfort, my mitzveh requires me to approach and say, “Would you like your picture taken together?” To date, no one has ever turned the offer down, which is how I know it’s a good deed and not an intrusion.

Friends don't let friends pitch with their zippers down.

Friends don’t let friends pitch with their zippers down.

This business of approaching strangers is not at all suited to my personality, but it does not compare to the final mitzveh that I’ll mention here. XYZ. I am the person who tells you when you forgot to zip your pants. Or your slip is showing. Or your sanitary napkin has leaked through on your khaki pants. If you’ve ever been in an elevator on your way to an important presentation and some stranger said, “Um, your fly is down,” that was me, or one of my people. I once crossed behind a line of presenters on a stage to whisper into the ear of the guy who was about to stand up and speak in front of a thousand people: “When you stand up, turn back toward me like you have something to tell me. Then zip your pants.”

He did it, in a convulsive gesture of horror, and I could feel the members of the audience who had already noticed it exhale in relief. That is the mystery to me about this particular mitzveh. As uncomfortable as it makes me, I cannot imagine how uneasy I would be to let someone walk around in that state without telling them. Yet I know people who won’t point these things out, because it embarrasses them. As though I’m not embarrassed to say, “Oh, hey, you have a big booger in your mustache.”

I think that’s the nature of these tiny good deeds, though. They find us, or we find them, based on our view of the world. I spend a lot of time not looking people in the eye, so I suppose it’s natural that I should be the one who notices the gaping fly and flash of underwear.

What about you? What are your tiny good deeds? Why is it your mitzveh?

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.


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