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Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

NYT_secretaryThis week is particularly exciting for me, because an essay I wrote about my grandmother, and following in her secretarial shoes, was published in The New York Times. The venue alone is an incredible bit of luck, but there are few things as wonderful as getting to talk about one of the great loves of my life.

Additionally, my publisher is running another giveaway for my novel All the Ugly and Wonderful Things. It won’t be released until August, so this is your chance to get an advance copy.

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It’s likely that if you follow me at all you have seen how completely I wrecked my Twitter feed last week by posting a dozen remarks about my time at Planned Parenthood. It’s also possible that even if you never heard of me a week ago, I’ll have cropped up on a website you visit.

The kinds of things I experienced as an employee at a women’s health center are not unusual. The 1990s were a time of heightened rhetoric about abortion and women’s rights, and they were also a time when there was less surveillance and fewer methods for tracking people who attacked clinics. Things have improved in that sense, but clinics all over America, whether they provide abortion or not, still get harassed on a regular basis. And the rhetoric that fuels that harassment is the same toxic message that encourages people to shoot up, bomb, or burn down clinics.

If my experiences weren’t that unusual, why did people all over the internet suddenly decide my story was worth talking about? Following the attack on the clinic in Colorado Springs, people were trying to make sense of the violence and hate. Above all else, what helps us make sense of the world? What helps us connect with our fellow humans?

Stories.

From back in our cave-dwelling days, humans have used stories to help us find our place in the world and process the things that happen to us. Stories have helped us to understand other people and the things they’ve been through. We may be hunched over a glowing electronic device instead of a fire now, but we’re still looking for sense. We’re still looking for stories. My small story got spread so far and wide, because it helped people understand and deal with the brutal attack that had just happened in Colorado Springs. That was the reason I shared it in the first place. Telling that story helped me process what I was feeling about people being murdered by someone motivated by extremist rhetoric.

I’m still trying to do clean up on aisle three, because my inbox contains about 200 unread messages. I imagine at some point, I’ll have something more to say about all of this, but for now, that’s my thought. We need stories. We need more of them. We need them from all kinds of people.

George TakeiIf you didn’t witness my Twitter madness, I hardly even know where to link you to. After George Takei RT’d me, I pretty much stopped keeping track of where my tweets had been shared, because I figured I could die happy. George Takei!!! That said, here are a few places, I ended up:

The tweets via Storify

Los Angeles Times

The Guardian

Buzzfeed

Huffington Post

International Business Times

The Alan Colmes Show

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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.

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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.

kanye

“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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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.”

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circus elephant parade

An author’s resume!

One of the things that has been standard in publishing for years is the author’s resume. Sure, we call it the author’s biography, but so frequently it turns into a list of every random job the author has ever worked. Safecracker! Chicken sexer! Hypnotist! Roller Skate Dancer! Gondolier! Lion Tamer! The weirder the better seems to be the goal when you’re writing copy for the back flap of your book.

When I first had to write an author bio, on the release of my first novel, Last Will, I was stumped. People offered the usual advice: all those weird jobs I had. Sex educator! Topless waitress (for a night)! Receptionist at a nuclear power plant! Architectural slide archivist! Nobody suggested that I should trumpet to the world my two stints as a custodian. (Once at a church. Once at a daycare.) Nor my time toiling in the salt mines of university adjunct teaching or the clerical fields.

My solution was to just skip over the random jobs portion of my bio and fill up space with such witty gems as “Bryn Greenwood lives in Kansas, which is as flat as you imagine but slightly more charming.” I’m a novelist, okay, not a biographer.

When my second novel, Lie Lay Lain, was published, it suddenly mattered that I had worked as a church secretary for three years. It gave me pew cred, so to speak, to be writing a book about a church secretary. Rarely, though, do I see authors celebrating the completely normal, menial jobs that they did before they became somebody who had a bio on the back of a book. That makes me a little sad, especially after what I witnessed this morning.

As I was arriving on campus for my quotidienne office manager job, I saw a young woman using a weedwhacker to trim around a faculty parking lot. She paused at one point and pulled a piece of paper and a pencil out of her pocket. With the weedwhacker still running, she furtively scribbled on her paper. Every few seconds her head bobbed up and she scanned the horizon to be sure her boss on the grounds crew didn’t catch her. As I passed, the paper and pencil went back into the pocket, and she returned to whacking weeds.

I imagined her as a poet, capturing some passing observation on spring, but she might just as likely have been a prose writer or, like my custodian friend who scribbles on the job, a screenwriter. Either way, it made me sad to think of young writers reading authors’ bios and finding them devoid of those boring, plain old jobs. Writers don’t only spring forth from the lucrative careers of lion taming or burlesque dancing or mortuary aesthetics. They also spring forth from secretarial work, child care, burger flipping, and unemployment.

In other news, my publisher is running a sale. The Kindle editions of both my novels are only 99¢ until May 10th! Click on the pic to go buy.

LIE_sale_graphic

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Kansas NutcrackerI went to see the Bleeding Kansas Nutcracker over the holidays, featuring John Brown and Quantrill’s Raiders, plus Tchaikovsky’s music performed by the Free State Liberation Orchestra, (a recreation of the original 19th Century Lawrence City Band, right down to the mandolin trio.) While waiting for the performance, the orchestra warmed up, as orchestras are wont to do. The flautist kept running over and over the trilling riff from the Danse Chinoise, obviously anxious about getting it right when it mattered. Sadly, it meant that I heard the riff so many times, I was no longer giggly pleased by it when the time came in the actual performance. My joy was a bit deflated.

First chapters are like that. It’s why you so often find yourself deleting the first chapter when you start the hard work of revising a novel. Sometimes, you delete the first three chapters, because you don’t need them, and they’re dragging down the rest of your novel. Once, I deleted the entire first half of a novel. 40,000 words that turned out to be nothing but a warmup exercise. Like I was a nervous flautist in the orchestra pit, trying to work myself up to the actual performance.

Hearing today that Harper Lee is set to publish another novel, I am put in mind of that process of discovering that you’ve started your story in the wrong place. Go Set a Watchman was Lee’s first novel, the one she first tried to sell to publishers. An editor felt the more compelling story was of Scout’s youth, and so the story was revised to become To Kill a Mockingbird, that classic scourge of high school English classes (and a treasure to those not forced to dissect it for a grade.)

Go Set a Watchman is technically a sequel, in that chronologically it takes place years after Mockingbird, when Scout is an adult. I can’t help but wonder, however, if it isn’t merely 304 pages of warm up. Not merely a first chapter deleted, but an entire book. Will the book astound us the way Mockingbird did? Or will we read it only for peripheral insight into its more famous sibling?

Lee apparently believed the manuscript lost until it was located among archived materials, fastened to a publisher’s typescript of Mockingbird. Such were the vagaries of a writer’s life back in the Fifties. Each manuscript was produced as a unique item, which could so easily be lost or destroyed, so that only the final, printed copy of a book was a sure thing to be reproduced and retained in collections. As we move increasingly into an era when writers’ earliest drafts and minor variations are archived in so many ways, are we also entering the realm of “director’s cuts” for books? A few authors have already done that, with mixed results. I look back at the book of mine whose first half was cut away so mercilessly, long before it was published, and I doubt I’d want anyone to witness my warm up exercises.

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