Posts Tagged ‘reading’

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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Today, it’s less than two weeks until All the Ugly and Wonderful Things releases into the wild. In the vernacular of my youth, I’m pretty stoked.

I am also starting to fill up my dance card with a lot of events. As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve got events at four Kansas bookstores in the week after the book’s release. More details here.

There are also two giveaways currently in effect. One on Goodreads and the other on Go Fug Yourself. (Please note I pulled the link for that by Googling Go Fug Yourself Bryn Greenwood. Yep.)

So while I’m totally open to ideas about what I should talk about at these events, I’m not very nervous about them. I’ve done a lot of public speaking, much of it involving talking to giggling teenagers about sex. Far more unnerving is the fact that I’ve also got two television appearances scheduled. I used to do some TV spots when I worked for Planned Parenthood, and a few times I made quick talking head appearances when the real PR person wasn’t available. I’ve never actually been asked to talk about my own personal shit on TV, though. Still, I was okay until I read my refresher on TV appearances and was reminded that one should never wear black, white, red, or patterns on television. My closet:

Black like my soul

So, that’s black, black and white, red, black, leopard print, black, and a blue muumuu. After I stared this down for ten minutes, I started to wish that I were going to appear on a German naked newscast. I’m not, though, so pinky swear that I will be on TV, wearing something that isn’t black, white, red, or patterned.

Of course, as soon as I ventured into the world to shop for clothes, these are the things that jumped out at me:

Awww yeah. I love shopping at thrift stores, but aside from reassuring myself that the world is full of truly fantastic prints, I didn’t find anything. Guess that means I’ll have to break the old admonition about avoiding any activity that requires one to buy new clothes.

One thing I do know I’ll be wearing for at least some of these events: these super fantastic Fluevogs.

Fluevog Odettes


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The short answer: nothing.

When I read about writing, I write nothing. It’s not that the reading takes up all my time. After all, when I read about other things, I still find the time to write. I can have a book on 18th Century Chinese commerce on one hand and a novel about an African marine biologist in the other, and at the end of the day, I can still write a thousand words about a bull riding mishap that caused an Oklahoma high school boy to limp for the rest of his life. The more stories and ideas you put in my head, the more stories come out.

The instant I start reading about writing, however, the whole mechanism stutters to a halt. John Gardner, Julia Kristeva, Stephen King, Susan Sontag. It matters not one whit whose wise and erudite commentary on the methods or moral obligations of writers that I read, I flounder.

I don’t even understand why. I only know that it has always been the case. For as long as I am telling the stories of these people who inhabit my mental space, the work is effortless. As soon as I begin to question why I’m telling this story or the implications of how I tell it, the whole thing falls apart and I find myself questioning every word that goes on the page.

What dog hair?

                           What dog hair?

Sometimes I suspect it’s a kind of magic–one of the few superstitions I indulge in. When I focus on the stories as the stories of real people, it’s as though I’m transported on a magic carpet. If I try to look under the hood, so to speak, to investigate thematic issues or narrative constructs, I discover I’m sitting on a rug in my living room. It doesn’t fly. It doesn’t transport me to new places. It just covers the floor and collects dog hair.

When I used to teach freshman composition, my one plea to my students was that after the semester was over they would burn their literature essays and forget everything I taught them. Go back to reading for pleasure, I told them. Go back to the joy of a new story whose ending you don’t know. Go back to the joy of an old story with a familiar and comforting ending. Forget all this dissection and analysis. Forget about what the awkward and grisly innards of stories look like.

Twenty years after I left grad school, I’m still working on that myself. I’m hobbled somewhat by the fact that I now look at so many stories from a writer’s perspective. Like a mechanic investigating an engine, for the familiar, for the innovative. Still, my greatest pleasures are those moments when I read something that makes me forget I’m a writer.


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One of my Absolute Write compadres recently blogged about an audience question she got at an author’s panel. If you could only read OR write, which would you choose?

Like many writers, she was unable to decide. The two pleasures are inextricably entwined for writers. Conjoined twins with a single heart and tangled viscera. Most of the writers I know are like me, in that they use reading to fuel their writing energy. If we gave up reading, would we be able to write?

On the flip side, would there be anything new to read, if such a conundrum were presented to the writers of the world? If we all gave up writing in order to keep reading, where would new books come from?

Oh … right. From that scary little clique of would-be writers who bound into writing groups and conferences, clutching their manuscripts and blankly declaring that they “don’t really read.” The mysterious, mystifying non-reading writers. They want you to critique the YA book they wrote, while proudly declaiming that they haven’t read any of the last few years’ top sellers in YA. They just finished writing this thriller, even though they’ve never read a thriller in their lives.

So, please, talented writers of the world, have mercy. If some cruel race of aliens comes to our little blue bouncy ball and imposes this literary Sophie’s Choice, I beg you not to be selfish. Don’t just think of yourself, curled up on the couch reading the great classics of literature. Think of the rest of us, waiting to read your next book. I know, it’s quite a sacrifice I’m asking for, but keep writing. Keep writing.

All your literary aspirations are belong to me!

All your literary aspirations are belong to me!

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Things have recently heated up over on the Wylie-Merrick blog on the topic of advertising in books.  Scott Jensen, a reader of the blog, was invited to post his ideas about the future of e-publishing, which in his opinion will mostly involve books being free to consumers.

We’re all familiar with the phrase “there’s no such thing as a free lunch,” but I think we often forget what it really means.  “Free to the consumer” for example isn’t quite true.  In Scott Jensen’s view of future publishing, advertisers will bear the cost of producing and distributing the e-books.  Scott seems to like the idea and has some interesting concepts for actually integrating the advertising into the book-reading experience.

Nothing against Scott or his ideas for his own writing, but for me, as a reader … it gives me the willies.  While a consumer downloading these books wouldn’t pay any cash for the book, he/she would pay in time spent viewing advertising between chapters.  Like commercials on television.  Because we all love commercials on television, right?   I was called an “elitist” for my hatred of commercials, but I know I’m not alone.

Almost since the beginning of television, people have been devising ways to avoid watching commercials.  They go to the kitchen for a snack, let the dog out to pee, or myriad other household chores that only require two minutes.  The VCR allowed people to simply fast forward through commercials.  Tivo does the same.  The incredible popularity of television shows on DVD makes it clear that lots of people enjoy watching TV without the commercials.

Are all those commercial-skipping people elitists?  Are they all wrong?  Would they be joyfully converted to enjoying commercials in books?  You know, the books that vast numbers of Americans can’t be bothered to check out “free of charge” from the library now?  Would those books be more attractive with ads in them?

It has been suggested that “free” books, paid for by advertisers, would be beneficial to poor people.  The masses, if you will.  I don’t get it.  Seriously.  I’m not being snarky, but I don’t get how e-books with commercials in them would make more books available to poor people.  Poor people can already get books from the library.  Even dead broke homeless people can get a library card where I am.

When I was a kid, being raised by my hard-working single mother, we always got our books from the library.  There wasn’t some Big, Evil, Greedy Publisher lording it over us because we were poor, twirling his mustache and saying, “No books for you, dirty little Okie.”  That’s why I find it hard to imagine businesses as Duddley-Do-Right, come to save the day with their advertising dollars.  Corporations advertise to sell more product, in order to benefit their shareholders, not to provide a public service.

The thing we don’t often think about is what’s being sold.  When a television broadcaster sells advertising time to a business, the business isn’t buying x minutes of broadcast time.  The business is buying x viewers.  Advertising is valued based on the number of expected viewers for the time slot.  So if I’m watching television, the advertisers are buying my time.  They’re buying me.  To be honest, that creeps me out a little.  Especially if I carry that feeling over to reading.

For Sale

For Sale

I love books.  Right or wrong, I trust books.  When I’m reading a good story, I’m vulnerable in a way I never have been while watching TV.  The last thing I want is to have companies pitch their goods and services to me while I’m in my wonderful-happy-reading place.

This isn’t just speculation on my part.  When I was about eight or nine, I bought a book at a garage sale that hooked me like a fish.  It’s a fairly famous fantasy book, part of a trilogy, which I didn’t know at the time.  All I knew was that from the first sentence, I was in love with that book.  It was an older paperback, and some of you will remember that in the late sixties and early seventies some paperbacks came with advertisements.  Hard cover stock, often in full color, bound into the middle of the book.

This book that I fell in love with had one of those glossy, color ads.  Right in the middle, stuck between two pages of a scene in which the main character came to terms with the fact that she was responsible for the deaths of two men, and that if she didn’t act, she would be responsible for the death of a third.  Very intense reading for a nine-year-old.  Would she save this man, trapped in the dark and afraid?

I turned the page and there.  There was the ad.  For cigarettes.  Ah, yes, those were the days, when you could advertise cigarettes almost anywhere.  Including in books that were on the cusp between young adult/adult.  In a fit of annoyance, I ripped the ad out, but I still remember clearly what brand of cigarettes it was, what the ad looked like.  I still have that book, the cover torn and utterly worn down at the corners, and the spine warped by the little raised ridge of glossy cardstock where I amputated the ad.  Where I declined to be sold to the high bidder.

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Carol Emshwiller’s The Mount is one of those small books I pick up at the library, thinking, “I’ll take this to my dentist appointment and toss it off in the waiting room.”

I was wrong.  I lingered over it and read it twice before I returned it to the library.  The book is written in the sort of spare prose I admire so much and find so rarely.  It’s narrator is Charley, an 11-year old human, who serves as the mount for his little alien master, Future-Ruler-of-Us-All.  (Yes, it’s one of those spec fic stories, where aliens have taken over earth and enslaved humans.)

Where other stories of this type fail, The Mount convinces utterly with its immersion in the world it creates.  Part of that immersion is Emshwiller’s keen eye for subtle details.  As her mount protagonist observers, “We prefer pats.  Hoots prefer strokes.”  (The aliens are known as Hoots for the sound they make.)  That one detail stayed with me and left me observing people for weeks to confirm it was true.  Of course, humans stroke each other, but the essential communication of care, concern and friendship in human interactions is a pat.  On the hand, the arm, the back.  And so the Hoots use pats to indicate approval and care for their trusty steads.

Emshwiller’s descriptions of humans as mounts made me watch the treadmill traffic at the gym more closely.  Some people were clearly never designed to be mounts–too much bouncing and jostling.  Others are clean lines and elegant motion.  In The Mount, the hoots classify two distinct types of humans: Tennessee and Seattle.  The Tennessees are lither, quicker, more suited to carrying messages, while the Seattles are sturdier, more sedate, suited to carrying hoots on their shoulders over long distances.  There is one runner at the gym who will always be a Seattle in my mind.  He’s solidly built and he runs long laps around the track at a steady pace, but never sprints.  More importantly, he runs as though gliding.  As he passes me on each lap (I’ve always been a walker), I marvel that his shoulders are broad and perfectly level.  They don’t dip or jerk, and I often imagine a hoot perched on him, enjoying that velvety ride.

The book is both a pleasure to read and an important lesson for writers.  The details that make or break a fantasy world or an alternate history are all subtle and deeply imbedded in the story.

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People are weird.  (I’m sorry.  If you were expecting earth-shattering news, I don’t have that on offer today.  Check back tomorrow.)

I belong to a few writing groups, some in person, some online, and inevitably I rub someone the wrong way with what I write.  Usually it’s creepy ideas or characters of questionable moral values or alarming turns of event, but this time, it’s my profanity.

According to one early reader of a story I’m working on, the use of profanity is unprofessional and shows a lack of “writing skills.”  Huh.  Here and all this time I’d thought it was necessary in the service of making my character believable and realistic.

Normally, I value this reader’s opinion, but I was stunned that she held such deep-seated hatred for swear words, when I love them so much.  As though she’d blurted out, “I hate puppies!”

“Nobody has to swear,” my reader said, after she finished the first chapter.

Perhaps she’s right, but I suspect she’s never accidentally stabbed herself in the hand with a screwdriver.  That’s where I learned all my dirty words.  Truth.  When I was seven years old, my dad was changing the inner tubes on my bicycle, and he used a screwdriver to separate the tire from the rim.  He slipped and stabbed himself in the webbing between thumb and forefinger.  In the twenty seconds following that, with blood spurting onto my partially disassembled Huffy, Dad said every profanity in the English language.  I have never heard a dirty word that I didn’t hear that way.  It was a thorough education, both linguistically and in the business of blackmail.

After it was over and the bloodflow staunched, Dad said, “Don’t tell you mother what I said.”

“Can we have ice cream?” my sister said.

We got ice cream.  We did not ride our bikes for ice cream.  We drove.

As for the question of whether people have to swear…well, that’s a moot point.  People do swear.  Some of them rarely, some of them prodigiously and frequently.  Perhaps it was my misfortune to stumble upon a character who does, although the reader in question implied it was carelessness on my part, like losing both of one’s parents.  (Maybe my reader is a relative of Lady Bracknell.)

I looked at the chapter again, at the dialog in question, and I kept coming to the same conclusion.  If I were on death row, I would probably not be satisfied with using the word “jerks” to describe a former friend who testified against me.  That’s just me, and I don’t think it reveals a lack of education or a poor vocabulary–I do fine in those departments.   I think there’s a reason we have the word “motherfucker” in the English language.  It conveys a level of contempt and hatred that no other bon mot quite manages.

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