Monday, May 29, 2017

Fuck Advice

Okay, chickadees, let’s talk about writing advice and mental health.

There’s this writing bromide that you have to write every day to be successful. It’s not new; it’s been around a long time, but another article just turned up peddling this.

And, like most writing dogma, it is bullshit. Like the time my college advisor told me to never talk about my writing projects, because I’d lose my drive to write them. Not true, at least not for me. I LOVE talking about projects. Thinking aloud helps me brainstorm, and other people’s reactions help me maintain the emotional energy for a project. (Remind me to tell you sometime about how many years I’d had the idea for #JurassicUnicorn before I started writing it.)

A lot of people--Seanan Maguire, Aleksei Valentin, Mary Robinette Kowal, Daniel Jose Older, Alex Acks, etc.--have torn the write-every-day advice to shreds on Twitter and elsewhere. It’s classist. It’s unnecessary. It can lead to bad writing. It's ableist.

Yep. Yep. Yep.

About a year and a half ago I was considering checking myself into a facility for a nervous breakdown. 2015 had been intense: my biological father had died, I’d gotten married, and I’d started a new job. I taught a full load of three classes across two of UM’s branch campuses, and—because I needed the money and didn’t know my limits—took an overload of two extra classes on the main UM campus. On top of all of this, I was trying to maintain my own demanding internal writing schedule, writing every day no matter what, and blaming myself for laziness and inefficiency when I didn’t meet my writing goals.

By the time Christmas break came, I told my parents I couldn’t visit them because I was too overwhelmed. In truth, I had been isolating myself from people around me because any social engagement, no matter how minor, felt impossible. One night I woke Wil up in the middle of the night to tell him that I was having fantasies about hurting myself. “I’m not going to,” I assured him. “But it scares me that I’m even thinking this. I just feel safer if you know.”

I had anxiety, brought on at least in part by pressure I was putting on myself to do everything at 100%. My body had been trying to get my attention for a while, with insomnia, stomach problems, headaches, neck and back pain, and an eye twitch. But I didn’t listen until I hit that mental wall at Christmas.

It’s taken me the last year and a half to get out of that space. I used medication, counseling, and mindfulness to treat my anxiety, but the most radical thing has been self-forgiveness. Being easy with myself. With writing, that means letting myself off the hook for the days I don’t work. And being more honest about what I call “work,” because even now I have a habit of saying “I didn’t work today” when what I mean is “I grocery shopped, e-mailed five students, read half a book for class, called the vet, cleaned the house, and went to choir practice, but I didn’t write or revise fiction today.” That other stuff—the stuff I’ve had to train myself to think of as “work”—is a vital part of my life. And I am a whole person. I am not a machine that produces words.

What’s been amazing about the process of learning self-forgiveness is how difficult it was at first, how much I resisted it because what if I get soft, get lazy, don't I need the guilt to produce?. I didn’t just wake up one day and say, “Okay, I’ll start forgiving myself now.” Or, I did, but the rest of me didn’t believe it for a while. I had to keep waking up, keep saying it, writing about it, reading it in tarot spreads, talking about it with my husband, my counselor, my friends.

What’s even better is how much easier it is now. You know how it feels when you’ve got the flu, and then you have your first back-to-normal day again? How bright, how easy, how lovely everything is, relative to having the flu? That’s how it feels now that self-forgiveness is a reflex. When I don’t check everything off my list and instead of internally self-flagellating, I’m more able to shrug and say “Oh well. There’s always tomorrow.” Not every time. But more than I used to be.

Which is not to say that self-forgiveness is going to be easy or learnable for every person. I want to share this story because my ability to forgive myself was hard-won, and it still feels like a miracle to me. But even this advice—is this advice?—can be damaging if you take it and feel guilty for how much guilt you feel. Maybe you have a harder time shutting off your brain than I do, because we have different brain chemistry. Maybe you lived longer with people who shamed you or told you that you were worthless, and those messages are more deeply engraved into your identity. In my experience, learning to be easy with yourself is still worth working at, but don’t use it as a stick to beat yourself with. As an old boss of mine used to say, "Don't should on yourself"--whether that should is writing, or self-forgiveness.

The big thing is: No advice is foolproof. Fuck advice.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Me, Bertha Mason, and Trichotillomania

A few weeks ago, my essay “The Breathtaking Sting of the Pull,” about my experience with trichotillomania, came out in Superstition Review. This is by far the piece I’ve gotten the most comments on from readers, which surprised me, though it probably shouldn’t have; more people read non-fiction than fiction.


What shocked me—and ultimately affirmed my choice to write about trich—was how many people wrote to me, both publicly and privately, to tell me that they could empathize. That they too pull their hair or pick their skin or do something else that they’ve always felt vaguely ashamed about. It feels really good to have people tell you they spent their free time reading something you wrote. It felt even better, after twenty-plus years of hiding, to have some solidarity, to have found some people who understand. 

I just wish I’d written about it sooner.

I love hair: all it can do, all it can say. Hair as symbol and signifier. This past semester, my Women in Lit class talked quite a bit about hair as we read Their Eyes Were Watching God and Americanah, both books about, among other things, the importance of hair in the lives of black women. We also talked about Bertha Mason’s hair in Jane Eyre. Jane describes her lover's imprisoned wife as having “a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane,” hiding her face. Wild hair could be read not only as an indicator of Bertha’s madness but also of her potential racial otherness in the book. Some scholars have read her as a multiracial woman. (For what it's worth, the book calls Bertha a “Creole,” which is a complicated and ambiguous term. As far as my research shows, at the time the term simply meant that she was the daughter of a white European settler in Jamaica. However, there is enough in Jane Eyre to indicate that Bertha might be intended to be multiracial—for instance, Jane talks about her “discoloured” and “black” face.)

Women’s unbound hair has also, at various times and in many cultures, indicated similarly unbound sexuality, and Bertha is no exception. Rochester doesn’t spell it out for us, but he says that when he first met Bertha: 
she lavishly displayed for my pleasure her charms and accomplishments. All the men in her circle seemed to admire her and envy me. I was dazzled, stimulated: my senses were excited; and being ignorant, raw, and inexperienced, I thought I loved her.
The words "displayed," "charms," "stimulated," "senses"--all of this reads to me as the account of a man driven to lust by a woman’s sensuality. Later on, though, Rochester criticizes Bertha for her lack of modesty, calls her “perverse” and “unchaste,” a woman of “giant propensities.” Reading between the lines, I assume she had, in some way, violated Rochester’s expectations of committed female sexuality—perhaps through adultery, or by being too eager for and interested in sex in general.

This second option is how I’ve chosen to rewrite Bertha’s backstory, in my story “The Beautiful Bird Sits No Longer Singing in the Nest.” It’s a retelling of Rapunzel, as well, with Bertha imagining herself as the captive at the top of the tower, and Grace Poole/Jane as the witch imprisoning her. And you can’t write about Rapunzel without writing about hair, so my Bertha uses her hair as a means of escape and even revenge. But unlike Rapunzel, whose hair is most useful when it is still growing from her head, Bertha must pluck hers to braid it into rope, to use it as kindling, simultaneously erasing the very symbol of the madness and hyper-sexuality she’s been labeled with. The absence of hair, here, means as much as its presence; it gives her power.  She imagines making a boat out of her hair and sailing away, saying "I would stride the waters like a bald Amazon."

I don’t think I intended all of this subtext, at least not when I started writing the story. I hadn't given much thought to what Bertha's hair might symbolize and I was still in the closet about my trich. But when I thought about my own anxiety, imagined myself in that tower room, the imagery flowed from there. I was writing about trich before I knew it. My version of the story begins with Bertha plucking her hair, in a scene that mirrors my own experiences plucking mine: 
I roll each hair between my fingers like a rosary. My fingers crawl across my scalp until I find one: coarse where the others are thin, kinked where the others are smooth. I enjoy the feel of it pulling against me, tenting my skin. Then I yank it out, suck on the end, and drop it on the floor.

Monday, March 13, 2017

In Which I Reveal That I am a Panther (and other writing things)

Last month I applied for some summer writing workshops and one of them required that I send a chapter of my novel, along with a detailed (2-3 page) novel outline.

This is gonna sound like Writer 101, but I hadn't really written a detailed novel outline yet. I had been working from a three-act structure outline (a great breakdown of this, and other plot structures, on Janice Hardy's blog here), but as far as a scene-by-scene outline ... nope. Didn't have one.

I'm a panther; this baby is my book.
This is fine. Writers often divide into plotters and pantsers--people who plan ahead of time, or people who write by the seat of their pants. I'm kind of in-between. I had the major beats charted out but when it came to writing the bits that connected those beats, I was a pantser. Note: my computer wants to autocorrect that to "panther," so that is my new official writing type.

When I wrote this detailed outline, I realized a couple things.

First, SO MUCH HAPPENS IN MY BOOK. It is kind of breathtaking all the shit that goes down. Which, on the one hand, is good. Fun, action-packed, complex novel, right? On the other hand ... holy wow there are like 4 major plotlines that I need to weave together so that events, themes, motivations, etc. converge at just the right moment.

Second, I have so much to gain from a scene-by-scene analysis of my book that I'm stunned and slightly guilt-ridden that I didn't do it earlier. How much stronger would my book be if I knew how scene 23 connects back to what's already happened, how it moves the plotlines forward, and how it sets up for events that will happen later?

But there's no sense in beating myself up for what I didn't do yet. This is my first novel; I'm learning.

What's really exciting is that I can suddenly see, like I'm Sherlock hallucinating diagrams in mid-air, how to make my book so much better. It's already good, but I'm about to make it kick-ass. And I can't wait.

Friday, February 17, 2017

The Spiritual Hunger of the Young Pope

HBO has given me two gifts in the past six months: Westworld and The Young Pope. Both totally obsessed me from the moment I started watching them, taking up space in my brain in a way that TV doesn’t usually manage to. While I thought Westworld was incredible, ultimately The Young Pope, created and directed by Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino, was more meaningful to me.

It made me miss believing in God.

This may strike people as odd, given that there has been a fair amount of criticism of The Young Pope’s non-reverential attitude towards the church. It has been accused of being sacreligious, Christophobic, Catholic-bashing, and “a disgusting insult to Christians.” If all you watched was the first or second episode, or only saw the (many! wonderful!) online memes, I might get that. Jude Law’s titular character, Lenny Belardo or Pope Pius XIII, is not anyone’s role model. He’s vain, power-hungry, and unfeeling in the model of many other TV antiheroes—and claims not to believe in God. He is surrounded, moreover, by conniving, grasping cardinals, eager at first to cement their role in his new administration, and then later blatantly deceptive to their pontiff when they see his effect on a dwindling church.

So, no, The Young Pope does not treat either the papacy, the Catholic church, or religious authority in general as beyond criticism, not by a long shot.

But if we can separate the show The Young Pope from the character of the young pope, the show itself is obsessed with God—His presence and His absence—in a way that feels genuine and reverential.

For one thing, the show is interested in exploring the idea of religious calling, the moment when a priest or nun feels as though God is telling them to pursue ministry for their life’s work. Lenny asks several of his closest friends to tell them about their calling and each story—often shown in flashback—is given the weight that such serious material demands. These callings, vividly recalled, are watershed moments in people’s lives, portrayed with subtlety, emotion, and no hint of mockery.

The show is also fascinated with religious visions. Lenny himself has several. Granted, their content sometimes borders on hilarious. In one vision, Lenny is surrounded by his predecessors, all decked out in the specific papal garb of their time period, and he asks them for guidance. When they respond with platitudes, he asks “Do you have anything better?” But the visions are more often lovely and serious, as in Cardinal Gutierrez’s repeated vision of the Virgin Mary and Lenny's encounters with the Blessed Juana.





While Sorrentino’s slow pace and lush aesthetic lends a dreamlike quality to what we watch, nothing about the lighting, the music, or the cinematography, diminishes the importance of these visions. To me, this means the show isn’t asking us to question these visions or their provenance. Instead, it asks us to accept them—whether as indicative of the character’s personal obsession (like Lenny’s repeated dreams of his parents) or an actual communication from the divine—as meaningful. The Young Pope doesn’t care if the visions are “real”—what it cares about is that they are real to the characters.

Here’s where I’ll argue that Lenny himself is not as much an unbeliever as he claims. Sure, he says in the first episode that he doesn’t believe in God. But the show makes it clear that he’s not necessarily questioning the objective existence of a deity; he’s really asking whether or not God has abandoned him. God matters to Lenny, maybe more than to anyone else in the show. And that, to me, is what The Young Pope is about—one man’s struggle to reconnect with God.

The fact that Lenny is not, by many definitions, a good person makes the show even stronger. It asks if someone can be unlikeable, even bad, and still be used by God? Can someone have a relationship with a God they don’t quite believe in? Is struggling to believe in God worth it?



Lenny seems to believe it is worth it. And he is able to access God to help the world—though his version of helping the world is fraught with casual violence, from dropping the newborn baby he helped conceive through the power of prayer, to causing the suicide of a young aspirant to the priesthood whom Lenny’s anti-gay policies excluded. There’s a lot of casualties in this show, including a kangaroo (RIP, kangaroo!), Lenny’s best friend, Cardinal Dussolier and Sister Antonia, a corrupt nun who Lenny asks God to smite. The show doesn’t let Lenny off the hook for the violence he inadvertently causes, although it does soft-pedal more than I wish it did. For instance, his punishment of serial child molester Cardinal Kurtwell was the kind of TV poetic justice that is only poetic, not actually justice. Dude needed to be kicked out of the church and subjected to criminal charges, imo.

(And, while we’re talking about ways The Young Pope fails, I hated its portrayal of the character Girolamo, a young man with cerebral palsy who basically just functions as a sympathetic sounding board for the devious Cardinal Voiello. Nicole Cliffe writes very convincingly and not a whit too critically of this treatment here.)

But on the whole, this show impressed me with its treatment of spirituality. It showed a wide variety of experiences with the divine and expressions of religious devotion. It acknowledged how life-changing religious belief can be, and the pain when that belief goes away. The show’s dreamlike quality itself replicates the ambiguity of spiritual experience—you feel that something important has happened, but you can’t quite explain it.

I can relate to that. I often felt, when I was younger, that God was speaking to me—through music, through literature, through prayer. Nature uplifted me; I used to talk to the moon, imagining it as the benevolent face of God in the sky. I’m no longer a Christian. I lost my faith in my late 20’s. But I don’t doubt the sincerity of my spiritual experiences growing up, or the fact that they shaped me into who I am today. I felt those things and they mattered.

And I still feel them today, although I don’t know if I believe there is a divine power motivating them. I’m comfortable with that ambiguity, though. I’m comfortable hungering for spirituality without knowing for sure if there’s a divine. And so, it seems, is Lenny Belardo.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

How to Grow New Ideas


I got a rejection last week that put me into a minor tailspin. "We liked this story a lot," it basically said, "but it didn't do enough new and different with X-plotline."

I wasn't upset about the individual rejection. It was kind, clear, and encouraging. It was also the 101st rejection I've ever gotten so, by this time, I'm a little less touchy about rejection than I used to be. These days when I get a rejection, there's less obsessing*, more ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ and "So it goes" and sending that piece out to a different venue.

What set me back was that it tapped into my deepest neurosis as a writer: that I'm not original.

Don't get me wrong; I have my strengths. I write beautiful setting, because setting is the first thing I notice in the real world. My first-draft prose is pretty clean, often lovely. I come up with funny names, I can structure tight scenes.

This fear isn't about the mechanics of writing. It's that I'm not saying anything new.

This is one of the reasons I haven't pursued writing literary criticism, although it's pretty much a requirement to progress farther in my profession. Forcing myself to write my dissertation was one of the hardest things I've ever done, partly because I don't think I have anything new to say about the writers I study. I haven't written any academic articles since then because the very idea makes me sick to my stomach: not an auspicious sign.

Writing fiction is easier because I enjoy it. It's fun. It's challenging. And the stories I tell are meaningful to me. Toni Morrison said, "If there's a book that you want to read but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it." That's what I try to do.

But what if the stories I want to read--and thus want to write--are boring? Derivative? Trite?

(These are the words the ugly voice whispers.)

The thing with a fear like this is that, no matter what anyone says, you still believe it about yourself. I've talked about it with several other writers, all of whom say "I love your stories; you're brilliant; you're beautiful; we'd follow you into Mordor, etc." Y'know, normal encouraging friend stuff. Encouragement like that is kind and necessary--in this vocation, we need all the affirmation we can get, even if it feels like a bit of an echo chamber.

But it doesn't really address the fact that I can see what that rejection is talking about, and I don't know what to do about it. In my worst moments, I look at my work and all I see is lesser reflections of authors I love.

Which brings me to grappling with the central conflict: how do I have better ideas? Is it possible to make your brain better at having ideas? Or is the brain you're given the one you have, and you make do with the ideas it gives you?

My poet friend Molly (whose excellent book The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded comes out in March) gave me at least a partial answer over the weekend: read widely. Watch widely. Experience widely.

Basically, in this model, the brain is what you feed it. If you keep feeding it the same raw material--if you watch the same kind of shows, perhaps, or read in only one genre or style, or only visit the same restaurants and stores--it will continue to churn out the same end product.

Or in a different metaphor, I can learn to grow better ideas by planting different seeds. Maybe watching a documentary instead of rewatching Buffy for the fifth time. Reading poetry, or biography, or science journalism, instead of the umpteenth Johnlock fic. Visiting new countries, new cities, or driving a new route home.

And even, as Molly suggested, trying to see the same places I always go--we both live in a small town, after all; there are only so many places--with new eyes.




*Although I still engage in a bit of rejectomancy just to see if my stats bear out my feeling that I'm getting better as a writer. And hooray--it looks like I am! My pro rejections have lately tilted towards more personal than form, with a few luscious "your submission has been shortlisted" plums to savor. It's the little things that keep us going through 101 rejections ...