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I’ve talked publicly about my hate mail, but today I want to talk about something that continues to give me joy, and renders hate mail irrelevant. Fan mail is great. It’s lovely to get letters from folks who connected with the book and wrestled with the issues it tackles.

The letters that get to me, though, aren’t necessarily fan mail. They’re usually longer than my other letters and emails, because these stories require more words. These are from people who didn’t just sympathize with Wavy and Kellen. These are from people who say, “This was me.”

People who know what it’s like to be in a relationship that everybody else looks down on. What it’s like to be in love with someone who is way too young or way too old for you, according to our society’s standards. What it’s like to lie about that relationship for years or sometimes your whole life. What it’s like to lose that relationship. What it’s like to finally make it legitimate.

People who’ve had to listen while others lectured them. Who’ve been told they must be confused, because they were too young to consent or even understand their feelings. Who’ve been told they need counseling. People who’ve been forcibly labeled a victim, and even as adults been refused even the most basic dignity of being believed.

If you’re out there, feeling those things, you’re not the only one.

When I met him, I was ten and he was nineteen, starts one of the letters I’ve received. I knew immediately that he was The One, even though it took us more than fifteen years to be together.

From another letter: We were twelve years apart and we never got to be together, because everyone said I was too young.

And another: On my eighteenth birthday, I went to his house and said, “I’ve been in love with you since I was thirteen years old.” He said, “I know. I’ve been waiting for you.” We got married three years later–it took us that long to bring my parents around. In February, we celebrated his fortieth birthday and our fifth anniversary.

Not all of them go the way you think they will: She was twenty-five and I was fourteen. She moved away because she was ashamed. She thought it was wrong to feel that way about me. Two years ago, I found her and wrote a letter. She had been married and divorced twice. She said she never got over me. If I wasn’t in prison, we would be together now.

Some of them just about break my heart. I felt like a horrible old pervert when I fell in love with her. Like in Lolita. She was only thirteen and I was over thirty. We were fast friends all through her high school years, and I always played the avuncular neighbor. She got married in my backyard. I’m her son’s godfather. When she was thirty-two she was diagnosed with cancer. After her health declined, she moved back home, next door to me. One day I brought by food and flowers from my backyard. Her parents went to the store and left us alone together. She confessed that she had always been in love with me, but her mother had shamed her out of saying so on the eve of her wedding a decade before. You can probably imagine what my answer was. Two weeks later, I lost the only woman I’ve ever loved to cancer. There is still a hole in my heart from everything that was destroyed by doubt and fear. I’m seventy-three now, still a bachelor. She would be fifty-five, and no one would give us so much as a sideways glance if we were married.

These are just a few of the stories people have shared with me (and agreed to have shared), and the reason they shared them with me is simple. My book has let them know that they’re not alone. They’re not the only one who has experienced this kind of relationship. Some of my readers have carried that shame or heartbreak or even joy in secret for years.

This is one more reminder that stories matter, especially stories that we see ourselves in. It’s a reminder, too, that writing is risk. When I wrote All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, I didn’t know what people would think. I knew that some people would hate the book and me by extension, but I also know the story was true for me. I told it as honestly as I could, and I knew that alongside the haters, there would also be readers for whom the story was true. I knew I wasn’t the only one.

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On this, International Women’s Day, I wanted to talk about the evolution of my personal experience of womanhood and femininity.

Two of the women who raised me were not what you would call feminine. They didn’t wear dresses or heels, and they didn’t put on makeup or style their hairs. They did perform many of the socially expected chores of women in the 1970s. They cooked, cleaned, and raised children, but it wasn’t really a natural fit for them. My grandmother was a farmer, who rode a tractor, and my mother worked for a natural gas company doing chemical analysis. They were boots, jeans, and pickup truck women.

Despite the best efforts of my other grandmother (a secretary) to turn me into a feminine woman, she failed. I became a secretary, but by most other measures, I’m pretty butch. I know more about guns and motorcycles than I know about makeup and manicures. I’m more comfortable with power tools than babies. These are all things I’m okay with. I like being the Friend with a Truck, the one who’s not afraid of getting dirty or throwing a punch.

What I’m not okay with is the idea that this makes me different from other women. I see these t-shirts sometimes, the ones that say, I’m Not Like Other Girls. I’m never sure what to make of them, but I frequently suspect I’m seeing myself in an alternate reality. One in which the notion that being rough and tumble means I’m not like other women, and the completely unsubtle suggestion that this makes me superior to other women.

I was raised to think that. I was raised to think men were superior to women, and therefore any inroads I could make into being more masculine would automatically elevate me above those other girls. It was such a desirable thing to be unlike other girls that I was even encouraged to make male friends. My childhood friends who were male were always made more welcome and judged less harshly than my sisters’ female friends. No one warned me that when we hit our teenage years, those boy friends would turn on me like a pack of hormone-crazed Highlanders, preparing to fight each other. There can be only one!

Thirty years on, how did I end up with some of my closest friends being female, instead of wearing a Not Like Other Girls t-shirt? Short answer: books. I read books in which girls and women were valued. I read books in which womanhood and femininity were not lesser or derogatory things. I read books in which female friendship mattered.

Also, I started writing, and in writing characters who weren’t men I learned about all the ways that masculinity wasn’t the most important, most valuable, most world-revolving trait for a person to have. I learned to value all kinds of people, because to write them, I had to know them and empathize with them.

This is why it matters that we have books with girls as heroes. Books with girls of all types doing all the many things that girls do. It’s the most important step we can take to break down the barriers that classify us and pit us against each other. It’s how we get rid of the message that there’s something wrong with being like other girls.

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As we do, I went into 2017 with plans for all kinds of improvements to my life. At work, I cleaned my desk off, and so far it’s produced mixed results. I’m less depressed to come to work, because my space is more orderly, but the cleanliness of my desk seems to invite people to make more requests of me. Perhaps because my work is not so clearly displayed, they think I don’t have enough of it?

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I re-started my home yoga practice, which is almost completely to the good. Of course there’s time for it. There was always time for it.

nyt_bestseller_010416Oh, I made the NYT Bestseller list. Which is not quite the result of any change on my part, but an outcropping of a lot of years of work and several lucky breaks. Or maybe it was all my positive thinking. (Probably not, I don’t really do much of that.)

This week, however, I found a thing that I used to think I wanted to change about myself, but now realize I don’t. When my editor and agent delivered the good news that All the Ugly and Wonderful Things was officially a bestseller, they also asked about my next project. Did I have a synopsis I could share with them?

Welllllll … I don’t really do synopses or outlines or any sort of planning when it comes to writing. I’m a complete pantser (which Autocorrect thinks should be panther.) I write lots and lots of words and after I’ve put several thousand of them together, I start to see the shape of a story. Then I write more words. Usually a lot more words. Then out of this mountain of words, I carve the story I want to tell. It’s not pretty. It’s not simple. But I realized this week that it totally works for me, and I need to stop feeling awkward or ashamed about my messy, chaotic process to creation.

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Now, I did produce a synopsis for my agent and editor to look at, but it’s just a big pile of guesses. (Shh, don’t tell.) I don’t know if that’s what will happen in the story I’m working on. I’m okay with that. I used that crazy method to produce All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, and that seems to have worked out for me.

So whatever things you may have resolved to change in 2017, remember there are plenty of things about the same old you that are worth keeping.

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radiojornalismoAlmost three months on from the release of All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, I’ve done quite a few interviews, but yesterday I got to do one where I was finally asked to discuss one of the issues at the heart of the novel. I’ve talked a little about it at live book events, but this one finally gave me the terrifying chance to talk on the record about consent.

If you’re curious, you can listen to the whole interview here or you can read excerpts from it here. (That second link comes with bonus, maximum-80s picture of me at 13.)

One of the things that I talked about in the interview is the fact that our laws are of necessity based on very black and white ideas of right and wrong, but that we have to acknowledge gray areas. We want the issue of underage sex to be so clear cut that no decent person could get involved in it. That’s the way we like to see it in the news, some great maw in the moral foundation. We want to believe that we stand on one side–the right one–and squint toward the other side, the one where pedophiles gather in shadows.

I say that as someone who not only existed in a gray area, but who thrived and was happy in a gray area. When I was a young teenager, I was in a loving relationship with a much older man. That relationship was sexual, it was consenting, and it was secret. Not just while I was in it, but even once I was an adult. Obviously, it was secret at the time, because it was illegal, but why did it continue to be secret long after it was over, and long after I was an adult?

I kept it a secret, because I got tired of having my narrative overruled by well-meaning people who were more comfortable shaming me than believing that I had been capable of consent. Prior to the release of this novel, I had only told a few people about that relationship, and every time was disastrous. One intimate partner, the one who had goaded me into talking about my earliest sexual experiences, told me, “You’re wrong. You were a victim and that man was a pedophile.”

It was devastating to be told that my personal feelings were irrelevant. In many ways, it was as terrible as the time I tried to report a sexual assault and the police sent me home without writing down a word, after they calmly informed me that I hadn’t actually been raped. They weren’t even two sides of the same coin. They were the same side of the coin. I was being silenced and robbed of my narrative agency. You were a victim, you weren’t a victim, you don’t even know what happened to you. Except I did. Of course, I did.

What scares me about all of this is that we continue to treat people this way. We continue to disbelieve what people say about what happened to them. The John Geoghans and the Jerry Sanduskys of the world are made possible, because when the first child came forward to tell someone what had been done to them, they weren’t believed. Either because they were accusing someone in a position of authority, or because their ability to discern what had happened wasn’t respected.

The thing is, consent isn’t black or white. It’s a long procession of gray areas. A child doesn’t magically become capable of consent when they reach the birthday the legislature in their state has deemed gives them the power of consent. (The fact that it varies by geographical location should be a hint that it’s not as tidy a process as we’d like.)

If you tell me that I was incapable of consenting at 13, then you’re also telling me that I was incapable of refusing consent. The message there is that a 13-year-old’s body doesn’t even belong to them, but to their parents, to the state, to the church.

People become capable of consent, when we teach them what it means to consent, and when their consent is respected. When we actually listen when a child says yes or no, we empower and protect them.

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Fairly early on in All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, Kellen gets arrested while he’s out drag racing with Wavy. The deputy who picks them up tries to make an overture of friendship toward Wavy. It’s clear that he thinks something is wrong with the situation and that she is in need of protection.

deputy sheriff… before we could walk out, the deputy reached across the desk and handed me a piece of paper.

“If you ever need anything, Wavy Quinn, you call me,” he said. That’s what was written on the paper, his name—Deputy Leon Vogel—and his phone number. I stuck it in my pocket and followed Kellen outside to the car.

Later, when Wavy’s parents are doing drugs and fighting, some of my early readers asked me to explain why Wavy wouldn’t call the police. I was startled, because it hadn’t occurred to me that for many people, calling the police would seem like the solution to a problem, rather than a whole other problem. The same people who have sometimes wondered how I could have kept my mouth shut as a kid, knowing my father was manufacturing and selling meth. I realized I needed to include an explanation in Wavy’s narrative, to help people understand.

Deputy Vogel told me to call him if I ever needed something. It’s what they taught in school, too. They said the police were there to help you, but I don’t think they knew what happened when the police came to your house. Cops ruin everything. They kick in the front door, throw people on the floor and handcuff them. They break things and steal things. They lock you in a patrol car, make you spend all night in the police station wearing your nightgown, and then send you home with strangers. That’s why I would never call Deputy Vogel, no matter how much Mama and Liam fought. I’d thrown away the paper with his number as soon as he gave it to me, because I remembered what happened the last time the police came to our house.

There are kids who call the police on their parents. I knew a few when I was younger, and you sometimes read about it in the news, like this 10-year-old boy in Pennsylvania. I hate to see those stories, because I can imagine how bad things must be at home when calling the police seems like the only escape. When taking a chance on strangers seems less dangerous than continuing to trust your parents. I can’t help but think of Victoria Martens from my post last week, and wondering if there was ever a point where she considered calling the police. If she ever had a chance.

Wavy chooses the devil she knows over the uncertainties of going into foster care, and the likely risk of being separated from her brother and from Kellen. As the story progresses, she begins looking for other ways to escape her parents, and so do real kids in these situations. It’s worth remembering that their solutions don’t always make sense to those of us on the outside. That doesn’t mean their solutions are inherently wrong. They’re just outside our understanding.

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Well, my people, All the Ugly and Wonderful Things has been loose in the world for ten days now. Now that I’ve got an evening to sit on the couch and pet dogs, I thought I’d do a little wrap up of my last two weeks. There were three TV appearances, two radio interviews, four interviews for other things, and four book signings!

Back when I worked for Planned Parenthood, I had to get up in front of people and talk all the time, but I’ve never been in the habit of discussing my own stuff, so it was a bit of a gantlet. For fun, here’s a little slideshow of my past two weeks.

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As for what’s coming up … well, I’ll be in San Diego for a day-long book club event at Mysterious Galaxy in October. (Have not yet worked out whether I’ll actually be doing just a reading/signing.)

I’m in Lawrence Magazine this month. And I’m on Bustle.com. Heck, look in your glove compartment. Maybe I’m in there, too. (If so, could you slip me some chocolate?)

Also I’m Skyping with book clubs! If you’re interested in having me chat with your book club, get more info here.

And at some point, when my head is spinning a little less, I’ll be buckling down to work on the next book.

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prairie shackWhen I was six years old, my mother sold me to a witch who lived in a tiny cottage out on the open prairie. I had to live in a lean-to next to the chicken coop, where I could hear the birds fussing and roosting at night. During the day, I tended her garden and worked over the open fire of her hearth, helping her prepare potions. Many of the spells she made were to help people, but a few were to curse people, like the old wizard who snored away the days in her front room. She kept him sleeping so that she could drain his powers for her own purposes.

I dreamed of running away, and eventually I did, fleeing across wheat fields on a stormy August night with a one-armed man who claimed to be a prince but was really just a common thief. Later, I had to run away from him and his life of crime. For several years, I passed myself off as a maid to a duchess, but I would never get free of the witchcraft I had been taught as a child.

Also, it turns out that what I considered a totally normal childhood activity–fully immersive daydreaming that spanned years and took up hours of each day–isn’t completely normal. According to this article in The Atlantic, it may be maladaptive daydreaming. Its author describes something similar to my life, including the pressing need for alone time, so that I could  live in my alternate reality. Or in my case, alternate realities. For her it caused excessive disruption to her daily life and she sought medication to alleviate it.

My initial solution as a child was to use it to fuel the tedious parts of my life. I did spend a lot of hours in my grandmother’s kitchen, helping her cook and can. My grandfather spent a lot of time sleeping and grouching. Drudgery was more bearable if I was shucking corn to make “potions,” or planning my escape from the witch while I pulled weeds. At school, where I was always the first one done with an assignment, my daydreaming kept me from getting bored, because I had somewhere to go for the half hour it took the other students to finish their work.

As a teenager and then an adult, I incorporated my daydreaming into my daily life by writing. Perhaps if I’d been trying to become a lawyer or a doctor, it would have been unbearable, but because I was content to be a secretary and eager to be a writer, it never struck me as a condition for which I needed treatment.

The article suggests that it’s related to obsessive-compulsive disorder or stereotypic movement disorder, which I can easily believe, and it makes me feel a bit conflicted of the role my obsessive and ongoing daydreaming plays in my life. I was relieved in my teens to shed many of the symptoms of my OCD. I don’t miss washing my hands a hundred times a day or engaging in the sort of repetitive behaviors that used to rule my life. (If I didn’t read the entire cereal box three times before I finished eating my breakfast, the witch would kill someone I loved.)

Now that I’ve found a role for my incessant daydreaming, however, I would not want it to end. It would leave a hole in my life. In my lives. Especially now that I’ve run away from my husband and come back to live in the cottage on the prairie. The witch is long dead, but the wizard is still sleeping in the front room. I keep him drugged so that I can use his power as I plan my revenge against the dance hall girl who cursed me.

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