Writing On Eggshells

Gods know I hate to offend people or step on their toes. So it upsets me to find that something I’ve posted on social media or something I’ve said in passing was hurtful. That’s not to say I haven’t on rare occasion given voice to a sentiment I knew would be hurtful. I’m only human, and I do have a temper. I can think of a handful of times where I felt the situation warranted bald truth and did not hold back. But in all those cases, the recipient of my verbal barbs knew without a doubt that my words were intentional. Most of those individuals are no longer in my life, and I am better off without them.

More often, my offenses are unintentional either because I didn’t think before I spoke/wrote, or because it never occurred to me that my words could possibly be interpreted as affronts. Areas of sensitivity seem to be multiplying by leaps and bounds in recent years, or maybe they’ve always been there and we are only now being made aware of them. I try to be mindful of words and phrases that exacerbate the disempowerment of women, racist mindset, gender or sexuality bias, or dialogue that might trigger victims of violence. I make every effort to speak inclusively of people with differing physical or intellectual capacities, and to be mindful of class or cultural bias in my imagery.

But I have to admit that it’s hard to keep up sometimes with all the “proper” terms for addressing these issues, almost as hard as it is to successfully dance around all the potentials for upset. I suppose that is a testament to my privilege. While I am a woman, and can speak first-hand about the struggles women face every day, I am cis-gender, with white skin, of at least average intelligence. I am unhampered by long-term illness or chronic pain or other debilitating physical conditions. I’m not financially wealthy, but I have a roof over my head, food in my belly, a working vehicle and a steady job. I have good medical insurance, so I’m able to see a doctor when I need one and obtain necessary medications. I want for very little, but I am keenly aware that my good fortune is not as common as we might wish. No matter how careful I am, it is far too easy for me to inadvertently say or write something wrong without realizing it until the offense has already been given.

Fiction, at least, allows the writer an opportunity to wield a seemingly careless bludgeon with the hands of an unlikable character. It isn’t the writer’s words or actions the reader will detest; it’s the villain’s. Even a protagonist can demonstrate a failure to display “proper” or “honorable” actions, as long as they redeem themselves in some other way. Behind the façade of fictional tales, writers can say indelicate things in poignant or impactful ways, address sensitive issues in relevant ways without taking too big a hit from readers. We almost expect that sort of thing in a story that isn’t real. Look at the old Star Trek episodes (even Next Gen, or some of the other variations of the franchise). Most of them weren’t even subtle in their “hidden” messages.

Writers of non-fiction, however, have no such shield. They must weigh every word against intent and guess at the reception, then forge ahead and hope for the best. Unfortunately, the outcome is not always everything they wanted—sometimes far less. Even the simplest of statements can easily be taken out of context and become fodder for insult, whether or not it was ever intended as such.

I’ve written in a prior post about how to pen lifestyles unlike my own experience. There, I was mostly concerned with creating a realistic character portrayal. Here I’m asking a different set of questions:

  • Where is the line between authentic expression of emotion or opinion and withholding that expression out of respect for others’ space or, at the least, the desire to remain inoffensive?
  • Can we as writers keep ourselves small, so as to not intrude on those around us, and still write something worthy of our craft?
  • Can our words still have any significant impact if we are always cushioning the blow?
  • How many readers can we expect to follow volume after volume of pablum with nary a chewy morsel?

There are many flavors and shades of Truth, maybe as many as there are humans. Defenders of any one camp disbelieve—and sometimes protest—the truth of those in the other camps. The truth is, we may never bring everyone to agreement on most things of importance. Perhaps the secret is to write one’s own Truth, as honestly and clearly as we can, to know ahead of time that not everyone will like what we say (what was that old adage about making an omelette? Apologies to my fellow vegans) and be ready for that before we print our words, to be willing to defend one’s position when necessary and, when we see we are wrong, to apologize and change position. Life, culture, society is ever-evolving. We have to be able to grow along with it if we hope to remain standing or—in our case as writers—to keep writing relevant works.

The Faraway Nearby

By Rebecca Solnit
Penguin Books, © 2014
ISBN 978-0143125495, 272 pages

Like I said before, I don’t usually read memoirs. At least, I haven’t in the past. This is my second one this month, and I have to say I may be changing my mind. Though I have to say that this isn’t exactly a memoir. It is, but not really. When you read it, you’ll see what I mean.

From stories of her mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s to her own brush with cancer, the author weaves an intimate narrative about personal trauma and family relationships in such a way that we see the beauty amid the chaos, the poetry in the pain. Solnit’s ability to connect seemingly random and disparate elements amazed me, as did her insight. She seems to see right to the heart of things, touching the delicate pulse of truth beneath layers of superfluous camouflage with surprising power and sensitivity. More than once I would have sworn she was speaking directly to me; her words were that apropos to my own experience, that synchronistic to my own journey. Each time I felt her at my shoulder and had to put the book down for a while, so that I might fully absorb the impact of her words.

Throughout the book, Solnit demonstrates the importance in our lives of the stories we tell ourselves. With a true sense of artistry, she lays words like breadcrumbs that lead us toward understanding. Gently, she challenges us as readers to examine our own stories, to recognize their power to nurture love or fear, forgiveness or spite, empathy or anger, recovery or suffering. Her words coax us to believe that perhaps, if we are willing to see our stories for what they are and what they bring to our worlds, we can make new stories that bridge the extremes and lead to healing.

This is not an easy read. Its subject matter is far too thought-provoking. The Faraway Nearby is more a book to savor slowly, with a cup of tea or a glass of wine, perhaps on a quiet balcony or in a comfortable nook. And when you’ve finished it and put it down, keep it handy. It reveals itself in layers as you go, and will likely offer different insights with each pass, so you’ll want to read it again and again.

Writing For the Birds

I love haircut day. I get to sit in a chair and be pampered by my friend Ashley, who always seems fascinated by whatever project I have in the works at any given time. So this last visit, I somehow found myself summarizing for her the “finished” short stories I’m pitching just now. Half of them are heavy with birds – two especially so. She squinted at me in the mirror and said, “Okay, what’s with the birds?”

I had to laugh. It’s a pattern I hadn’t recognized until that moment. I do love birds. I’ll stop the car (safely!) to go back and park somewhere so I can watch egrets or herons on the hunt in the numerous waterways around our area. I look for pelicans or osprey when crossing the longer bridges. All crows, shimmering and sometimes playful, are named Jerrald. I’m always thrilled to actually spy a shy bittern or catbird, or a yellow-bellied sapsucker (yes, there really is a bird by that name). I know by sight (and some—those I can hear, anyway—by sound) many birds common to my region, and have several dog-eared birding books where I look up those feathered beauties I don’t immediately recognize. I’ve written here numerous times that those things that are a part of us must surely show up in our work, so the imagery of birds in my work should be expected. But it made me wonder what other patterns my words demonstrate. It also made me wonder if this was a strength or a weakness.

Certainly there are writers who frequently include a specific motif across multiple works, like John Irving’s bear or Samuel Beckett’s bicycle, or even the cameo appearances made by Stephen King and Alfred Hitchcock in the films associated with their works. Irving waved off any significance to his recurring bears. As far as he was concerned, they were simply a common appearance in his everyday life, thus they also appeared in his stories. For Beckett, who was once a keen cyclist, a bicycle often symbolizes the light of hope or love for his characters. Hitchcock’s cameos were a playful attempt at self-portrait, a permanent mark of his role in the production. King just loves being in front of the camera and brings his remarkable sense of humor to most of his brief roles.

For me, birds symbolize many things, from freedom to spirituality, from beauty to the mundane. The idea of flight gives wings to my imagination! I remember once, during lunch break in my car on a particularly frenetic and harrowing day, I sat with the windows down in a Wendy’s parking lot and tuned out the traffic noise. Instead, I leaned back, closed my eyes, and imagined I was a bird. I flew up out of my car and over the parking lot, past the crowded boulevard and the crackerbox neighborhood beyond to the park a few miles away. I swear I could feel the sun on my back and the rushing wind in my feathers. The sense of liberation lent an exuberance that followed me the rest of the day and lifted me out of my earlier sense of despair.

In hindsight, I see that the birds in one of my stories are surreal spirits sent to do that very thing for a character anchored to unending responsibility despite fatal illness; they lift her out of her earth-bound life and into the clouds above the canopy in her homeland. Another story portrays them as saviors, too, though in a slightly more ordinary way. In a third, they are spirits of place, as well as a shared connection between two unlikely friends that transcends daily life. In my novel series, one particular rare bird is seen as a spirit of transcendence.

For the most part, I didn’t set out to write birds as such hefty symbols. They just turned out that way, and I’m not surprised, given their importance in my life. I wonder if readers down the road will see in them the same things I do now, but that isn’t up to me. Every reader must take away what they will, and that’s okay.

I’m not sure I’ll intentionally put birds (or any other specific motif) into every book or story I write, only those where it makes sense. I think that from now on, however, I might be more vigilant to recognize those symbols as they make their way onto the page, instead of waiting for Ashley—or any other reader—to point them out. Perhaps that way, I can use them more effectively.

What about you? How do you use motifs or symbols in your work?

Long-stemmed Roses

Yesterday, Bobby and I walked on the beach in the chill Autumn drizzle. Among our discoveries of a tiny moss-like crab lurking among the branches of a beached coral, a string of shells, and darting sanderlings, we found a long-stemmed pink rose. Far past its prime, the thing looked sad, dejected, and Bobby asked me for its story.

I glanced in his direction. “It’s story?”

“Yeah. You know, how did it get here. Whose was it. Where did it come from. Its story.”

As we walked, I told a tale of lovers on a cruise ship, one of whom gifted the other with the flower before they fought, and the flower got thrown overboard because it was too painful a reminder of something lost. I rambled about a wedding party taking creative pre-ceremony photos at the beach and when they picked up their equipment and props to go home, the flower got dropped. It wasn’t missed until they were miles away, too late to go back for it and after all, it’s only a flower. Or perhaps it is a clue to a murder. Maybe a young party-goer from one of the beachfront condos had a little too much to drink and slipped out for a waterside stroll to clear her head. Someone followed her, hoping for a little romance and when she refused, things got violent. The flower is a clue because the young killer gifted her with it earlier in the evening and she left it behind in the condo when she went out. Only the person who gave it to her in the first place would have brought it back to her later. (I know. Weak. My defense is that it was an on-the-spot prompt with no time for thought.)

So now I have a new story concept on my list of potential projects. When I was adding it, I read through the list and was struck by how many intriguing ideas are written there. Writing them in that book and nurturing the ideas into what may become great stories is very much like growing a rose garden. I know they aren’t all destined for long-stemmed bouquets, but all have potential to produce prize-winning blooms. In their early stages, I can’t know which ones unless I tend them regularly, one each evening, maybe two on a weekend.

With so many rose bushes, my biggest “problem” is deciding which flower to water on any given day.

Here’s an overview of my current “garden.” I am presently working on book two (and by connection, book three) of a novel series, four incomplete short stories, and several poems. In addition, I’m searching for magazines to print the six completed short stories already on hand, nursing ideas for another novel, taking a fiction class series, and reading as much as I can in various genres, savoring other people’s “roses” so that I can know what makes a good one and what flaws I want to avoid in my own blossoms.

Sometimes, garden maintenance overwhelms me. Each rose is exciting in its own way, and I certainly don’t want to plant a seed only to let it wither and die. At the same time, if I see a rose will die whether I tend it or not, I’m likely to set it aside and work on another instead. I don’t know how other gardeners maintain a large plot, but even a master rose grower has to start somewhere before her canes produce winning blooms.

If it sounds like I’m complaining, I’m not. I’m just thinking out loud, so to speak, trying to make sense out of a crazy, self-imposed regimen of learning when to fertilize and when to prune, and how to recognize when a rose has reached its prime and is ready to share.

How about you? What’s flowering in your garden? How do you manage its regular maintenance?

Bumbling Into Body Hair

By Everett Maroon
First Ed. Booktrope, © 2012, ISBN 9781935961338, 250 pages
Second Ed. Smashwords, © 2016, ISBN 9781370241484

I don’t usually read memoirs, as a rule. I never thought they would interest me. I was wrong. Bumbling Into Body Hair is a story of the author’s transition from Jenifer to Everett, and all the emotional, social and psychological transitions that accompanied him along the way.

Told with remarkable humor and poignant honesty, Everett’s tale is sometimes raw, frequently hilarious, always moving. The thing that shines brightest on every page is his courage. Throughout the process, despite his self-doubt and the resistance from his partner and some of his best friends, Everett persists in doing what is right for himself – which sometimes required him to slow down. Be sure. Think this thing through. Seemed prudent to me, and to his therapist, who is a true gem in this story.

I read with anger, horror, and flat-out shock some of the reactions of people around Everett during his transition. One person on the street literally spit in his face. His bowling league manager asked him to use a special bathroom so as to not upset the other patrons of the alley. A cis-male passenger on the metro stood over him shouting, “Are you a man or a woman?” To each of these painful and awkward moments, Everett brought his own special brand of humor, like shouting back at the guy on the metro, “Are you an idiot? Or an asshole?” I think I actually cheered at that.

It seemed to me that his biggest fear was telling his co-workers, friends and family. How would they react? I won’t spoil it by telling you who said or did what, but I will say that not everyone handled the news well, and I can only imagine the betrayal Everett must have felt from people whose support he needed during an already difficult and confusing time. And yet, through faltering relationships and rude strangers and resurrected breasts, the rollercoaster ride of T creams, disastrous experiments with plastic wrap, and learning to use a “packy” (hint: don’t lay it on the radiator), he maintains his sense of humor and hope for a better life.

But Everett’s gender is only one thread in the larger tapestry of his story. At its heart, Bumbling Into Body Hair is a snapshot, a single episode in a much larger story. Because Life doesn’t hit the pause button while we figure these things out, the daily grind continued to throw the usual obstacles at him throughout his journey of discovery. Every reader, no matter their gender, can find some relatable element of Everett’s story, whether it’s his hectic work schedules, his financial struggles, his tendency to be accident-prone, his social adventures and romantic ups and downs. His first date with Susanne was especially endearing, given that we are riding on Everett’s shoulder and feel with him the awkwardness, his certainty that he will do something to screw it up.

My biggest takeaway from this memoir was that those things that matter most to us must be pursued. Despite opposition. Despite fear. Despite self-doubt. Each person’s journey is unique, and while others travel with us, alongside us, each of our journeys are undertaken essentially alone. Everett’s determination to bring his outside into agreement with his inside, no matter what, made me stand up and cheer.

Some Reassembly Required

I’m a little embarrassed to admit that it took me more than fifty years to realize that the old saying “Life is what happens while you’re making other plans” means exactly what it says. To understand that this moment—not the one when I finally get my act together and all is right with the world—is Life. The body slam of that sudden insight was like rounding a corner to come face-to-face with Wonder Woman only to find that she is far shorter than I imagined, with mismatched socks and bad breath.

That epiphany spotlighted what I’d missed, or perhaps willfully ignored. I have spent far too much time wishing “tough” times behind me and longing for the “good” era of my life. Now, in my middle age, nowhere near the life I envisioned at 18 or 25 or even 30, I find myself in an unexpected role, pursuing a career I never dared to dream of, brought here by adventures and experiences I could never have predicted. Sometimes that awareness is cold water in my face. Other times it is a warm blanket on a chill night.

I can’t help but compare this to storytelling, and the art of writing.

Have you ever seen kintsugi? those pieces of broken pottery repaired by gold-dusted laquer so that the cracks are actually highlighted? The idea therein is that the cracks are part of the piece’s history, that we should embrace the repairs rather than reject them. It’s the same with us. Our flaws make us more beautiful. More interesting. More real. Those cracks are often where stories come from in the first place.

Don’t believe me?

A baby was born into a happy home where her parents adored her and provided every opportunity for advancement. The girl took advantage of this priceless gift, pursuing and excelling at the things that made her heart sing. After high school, she went on to a lovely, affordable college, graduated with high honors and no crippling debt. In the years that followed, she continued to work in her chosen field, which fulfilled her in almost every way. She met and married the partner of her dreams, built a family, bought a beautiful home in a lovely, safe neighborhood. Their credit cards were paid every month. The family never wanted for anything. Their cars never broke down and they were never late for work. Their children were beautiful, well-behaved, with high marks in school. The whole family was happy and healthy, and no heartache or tragedy ever touched them. And they all lived long, satisfying lives. The end.

How much of that book would you read? Probably not much. It’s boring. There’s no escape in such a story. As counterintuitive as it seems, the suffering of the protagonist makes the story more compelling, doesn’t it? In the end, even if she doesn’t “win” (however you define that concept), the story is in the struggle. In the cracks. We don’t skip over the tragedy in a novel only to read the parts that give us the warm fuzzy. More likely than not, we couldn’t understand the warm fuzzy without seeing how it is informed by the tragedy.

I’m still new at appreciating my own brokenness and the idea that life is a pot-holed road. Even so, I find that these flaws hold not only new stories, but clues toward understanding older ones. Perhaps, as the kintsugi artists portray, there really is gold to be found in every crack. We just need to know how to see it.

Write. Right?

I signed up for another 6-session fiction class, where students write and submit, then critique each other’s work. I’m excited, but I’m also nervous, as I am anytime I share my stories with someone else.

(That’s crazy talk, you say; don’t you want to get published? Won’t that mean others are reading your words all the time? Yes, but that’s not the same. Readers in a library or gym or living room half a state away—or half a country or half a world—won’t sit across the table from me while they poke holes in my plots. Yes, I’m sure I’ll be critiqued by anyone who ever reads my stories; but a small, intimate classroom setting hits closer to home. It’s a small difference, but compelling nonetheless. I wonder if I’m in good company?)

I do know, though, that the critique process builds better writing. This will make my second 6-session fiction class. Last time the workshop was facilitated by Lamar Giles. This time, our fearless leader is Lydia Netzer. Both Lamar and Lydia are published authors, so as a student I know I can learn from their experience.

To tell the truth, I’ve been in a writing slump. Oh I have lots of ideas. They just never seem to go anywhere. I keep noting them in my little book of ideas. Meanwhile, I’ve gone back to my novel series, which has been languishing for months while I worked on short stories.

This weekend, I took the time to fill in most of the gaps in my plan for book 3 (book 2 was already plotted and outlined). It looks so wonderful to see all those little colored stickies up on my board, each one a brief note of my intent for that scene. Together they form a sort of road map that will lead my plot through all the essential points up to the crisis and denouement. They give me a target toward which I can aim the arrows of my words.

Even so, some days are a struggle. I’m tired. I’m brain-fried from my day job. I can’t think of a single elegant thing to say. The words I put in my characters’ mouths are stilted, spoken in the wrong voice. On those days, I might write 500 words in three hours, all of which must be rewritten the next day. I must admit, I’ve begun to shy away from the computer on those days. Maybe that’s a mistake. Maybe that’s the source of this slump. ‘Coz writing is hard, y’all. It’s tempting, when I’m tired, to make excuses as to why I shouldn’t even try.

Bobby enticed me outdoors for a few hours earlier today, which I needed, but it was harder to come back to the blank page than I wanted it to be. I did it, though. I wrote almost a thousand words in book 2 (even if I do have to rewrite them later – who cares?), then I switched over to this blog post so I could try (TRY) to describe how I feel when it’s a struggle. If you write, you already know. If you don’t, these words probably won’t suffice. Still, it’s worth the effort. It’s good practice. So here I am, at my computer, even though I’m blah.

Right. Onward. Butt in Chair, Hands on Keyboard, Typing Away Madly – otherwise known as BIC HOC TAM. (Borrowed from Brad Parks, and a darned common slogan for writers online, apparently.)

Doesn’t matter if it’s perfect. Just write, Drema.

Just write.

The Traitor’s Kiss

(Traitor’s Trilogy, Book 1)
by Erin Beaty
Imprint, ©2017
ISBN 978-1-250-11794-6
Hardback, 352 pages

Sixteen-year-old Sage Fowler would rather live off the land than submit to a traditional arranged marriage, despite her uncle’s wishes. After she is apprenticed as an assistant—and part-time spy—to the head matchmaker, the two of them set out across Demora with a group of young women toward the king’s stronghold, where the young brides-to-be will be paired with appropriate husbands, and wed at mid-summer. Sage is just happy she’s not one of them.

Newly promoted Captain Alex Quinn must prove he’s worthy to lead by escorting the women on the months-long journey. Frustrated at what he considers a babysitting job, Quinn soon notices signs that all is not well in Demora. Barbarian squads filter across the borders, moving in strategic directions. Quinn knows something is very wrong, but with a whole caravan of women and the crown prince under his protection, his options are limited.

Sage finds the Captain cold, aloof. Quinn finds Sage rebellious, and far too curious in a suspicious way. As the secrets and lies pile up, neither knows who to trust. When assassins and traitors close the trap around them, they must make hard choices with the lives of others, and Demora will never be the same.

There’s a lot going on in this young adult fantasy. Within the layout of a strange land and a well-developed, intricate social structure lie all the familiar landmarks we might expect: landed lords and commoners, far-flung strongholds connected by dangerous roads where horse-and-wagon travel is the norm, arranged marriages that cement political alliances and secure dowries. Old-world traditions regarding the roles of men and woman rule here, which has drawn criticism from some readers.

But The Traitor’s Kiss also offers a strong female protagonist who isn’t afraid to speak her mind or show her strength in the face of opposition, no small goal for a YA novel. Sage’s intelligence and curiosity make her an oddball to her fellow female travelers and occasionally get her into trouble; but these characteristics also make her an asset to the main plot. No few number of young readers (of any/all genders) will relate to Sage’s difference, and surely find inspiration and hope in her good use of it. Quinn, too, offers a good role-model for young readers with his paladin-like qualities: honor, chivalrous leadership, devotion to duty, refusal to surrender to what seems inevitable.

With more than a few steamy romance and fast-paced battle scenes, it was sometimes easy to forget that Traitor’s Kiss is intended for younger readers. Still, the author balanced the intensity well, I think; there’s nothing in here I wouldn’t want my own teens to read. As for descriptive detail, Beaty spends more time in the characters’ heads, exploring their thoughts and personalities, than she does describing scenery or frippery or architecture. Personally, I find it easier to “see” a scene with a bit more detail, but that’s just me. Even so, it didn’t matter. I was quickly too wrapped in Sage’s and Quinn’s struggles to notice any lack.

I truly enjoyed this story. Even if you aren’t a young adult (I’m certainly not!), this is a good fantasy set in a believable world. Traitor’s Kiss is the first book in the Traitor’s Trilogy. The second book, The Traitor’s Ruin, is due to be released in May of 2018. The third book’s release is scheduled for one year after that, but I can easily see how Beaty could carry this tale on for years, far beyond the current Sage-Quinn drama. I sincerely hope she does. It would be fun to watch how Demora and its people grow, evolve, change. But even if the Traitor’s Trilogy is all we see of this land and these characters, I’ll be watching for more fiction from Erin Beaty.