If I Can’t Dance

“Attach your oxygen mask first before anyone else’s.”

Last Tuesday felt like the ultimate gut punch. Against my better judgment and what I thought was human decency, the majority* of people who voted elected a narcissistic, bigoted, misogynist who was endorsed by the KKK.

Clouds over Cal Anderson

I have listened to many, many people expressing their fears about what will happen under his presidency. It’s my fervent hope that none of these things will come to pass, but I’m not waiting to see what will happen, and I’m not keeping an open mind. Oh hell no. I’m preparing for the worst. I’m gonna fight with everything that I can.

In the midst of the swirl and anger, grief and panic, I was reminded about self-care from my own support network. Election night I was so anxious, I never ate dinner. It’s very unlike me to not eat a meal. By 9:00 p.m. I felt awful and I realized it might not just be due to the results. I got some food, something I could stomach, and it helped take the edge off.

So I want to talk about taking action and self-care. I know a lot of you are having a difficult time, and these are basic things you can do that will help as you prepare.

  • Eat real food, if you can.
  • Exercise, move your body in some way to tire yourself out and work off excess energy.
  • Water. Water is transformative and mood-alerting. If you can’t swim (which takes care of the activity piece AND helps regulate your breathing), take a bath, a shower, or even just splash water on your face.
  • If you take medication, take it. If you work with a therapist, keep working with them.
  • Limit caffeine and alcohol if you are feeling anxious and/or depressed. Both will just make you feel worse.
  • Meditate.
  • It’s okay to limit your involvement with social media, take breaks, or stop reading it altogether. Social media is fueled by outrage. Your friends are still going to care about you.
  • Get hugs. Humans need physical touch for mental health and resilience. If there aren’t people you feel comfortable asking for hugs from, see if you can get a massage, or even a pedicure or manicure.
  • Get out in nature. If you live in a city, go to a park. Look at the trees. Look at the sky.
  • If you are having trouble falling asleep, here’s a little technique I learned. It gives you just enough to distract you while boring you to sleep. Count from 1 to 5, with each count being on the inhale or exhale. So: one – inhale, two – exhale, 3 inhale, 4 – exhale, 5 – inhale, 4 – exhale, 3 – inhale, 2 – exhale, 1 – inhale. Wash, rinse, repeat until you fall asleep.
  • Do the things that fuel you – whether that is art, writing, music, organized sports … you have something you are passionate. Don’t give that up. That is what makes life worth living.
  • After you’ve done those things, figure out how you want to get involved. Here are a few resources:

Take care of yourselves, find ways to get involved, rest, and reach out to your communities.  You are not alone, not by a long shot, and together we WILL make a difference.

*I’m acknowledging voter suppression, gerrymandering, and the 50% of eligible voters who for whatever reason didn’t vote. So really, less than 25% of eligible voters, which is NOT a majority.

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On Paradise, Viable and Otherwise

Several friends have asked me about my experience at Viable Paradise. I wanted to write up something while the experience was still fresh.

Martha's Vineyard

I first found out about VP from my friend Camille Griep. I had been looking for my writing people for a long time when I finally found Camille. She told me about the workshop, and then over the next few years I met more people who had also attended Viable Paradise. All of them, to a person, were kind and supportive and encouraging. If they had egos, I couldn’t tell. This, more than anything, was a huge selling point for me. I have been working very hard to cultivate people who are focused on their own passions and who support and encourage others to do so. That is the sign of a healthy community in my book.

I sent in my application two days before the deadline and found out I got in two weeks later. I was so used to rejections I made my girlfriend read the email out loud. Maybe something about writing could be easy.

Thanks to the magic that is The Internet, I got to connect with several of my fellow workshop participants before I arrived on Martha’s Vineyard, not to mention meeting two in person, one who also lives in Seattle.

I arrived on Martha’s Vineyard the day before the workshop was scheduled. The weather was delightful and my roommate turned out to be amazing. We got to explore the tiny Victorian houses and get to know one another, learning among other things that despite our two-decade age difference, we both love They Might Be Giants and Queen. Even if everyone at the workshop wasn’t my people, I had at least added another one to my network of support.

Victorian panorama

The structure of the workshop is fairly straightforward. Participants spend the first three days critiquing works they submitted for their application and receiving feedback. There are lectures and other activities to supplement the learning. The students spanned four decades in age and came from as close as Martha’s Vineyard and as far as Hawaii. Other years have seen international students.

And to my relief and gratitude, the experience I had at Viable Paradise exceeded my expectations. Everyone – staff, instructors, and fellow participants – were kind and generous. I was impressed by the level of self-awareness people had, how much work everyone did, and how we all cheered for one another. If someone needed to be alone, they could do so. When I wanted company, likewise, I could easily find someone to hang out with.

One thing that was really impressive to me was the harassment policy. Several times I saw staff say they felt uncomfortable and the person crossing the line reeled it back. I think I’m so used to just feeling uncomfortable at times that it hadn’t even occurred to me I could say something. This created an environment that felt incredibly supportive to me. No one had to guess when they were crossing the line, but at the same time, people did make an attempt to be respectful.

fall color: reflection

Each person I talked to, I found an affinity with – whether it was tea, octopi, librarianship, or a story someone had been looking for for years (hi Val!), we had so many intersections and overlaps I found myself agog. And thanks to the internet, we get to continue our connection as we go forward.

Aside from the community, I got very helpful feedback on my work, and as soon as I figure out how to revise my story to incorporate the feedback, I will be sending it back out for another round before I start sending it out to paying markets.

In conclusion, I crossed over water and spent a week on an island where I simmered in liminal time. When crossed back over, I felt a subtle shift. I have been told there are things I learned in that week that won’t make sense for years. I believe it. In the meantime, I will continue to apply myself to my writing. And if you have been looking for a workshop, I encourage you to apply to Viable Paradise. What do you have to lose?

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Writing Queer Characters

There have been a lot of conversations in the last few years about diversity, inclusion, and representation in fiction. I have followed along with a lot of interest, in part because I want to see pieces of myself reflected in stories – whether queer, Jewish, female, identical twin, femme, tea drinker, you get the idea, etc.

For the purpose of this essay, I’m going to focus on representing sexuality that is non-heteronormative. If nothing is explicitly stated or said in the text, the reader will assume the characters are straight. (And white. And cisgendered.) The question for many writers who want to represent these characters, then, is how to describe or show their characters are queer without it feeling artificial to the reader.

There are two points I want to make here:

1. How to show a character is LGBT
2. How their sexuality relates to the plot

glowing dahlia

Showing the character is LGBT

You might be tempted to just state it directly. A friend allowed me to use this example from their WIP. Your protagonist enters a room and catalogs the people. They see your gay character, who they also know is gay. They say, “Clearly, Juan and Bob are in a relationship,” without giving any additional information. It’s clear to that character, but it’s not clear to the reader. What is it about any couple that indicates they are in a relationship? How do you show that to the reader? What if they were in an opposite-sex relationship? Without having the characters engage in sex, here are a couple of ways I could think off the top of my head: they wear matching wedding bands, they are holding hands, they mention how they met/their first date/their anniversary/their wedding in conversation.

Also, where they stand in relation to one another will tell the reader a lot about their relationship and/or personalities – are they close in private but won’t stand within five feet in public? Are there societal things that make that kind of behavior normal, or is that just the personality of the characters (could be both).

Finally, the attitudes towards the queer characters will tell the reader a lot about the society in your book. Are all forms of sexual orientation equally valued? Are some accepted and others not? This will inform how your characters behave in public versus private, and an individual character’s opinion and judgment about those characters will tell the reader a lot about them.
Last weekend I went to a restaurant for lunch. It had a very long bar. I noticed two women sitting next to each other. The one to the right had her arms stretched out on either side of her, resting on the seatbacks of the chairs. It was a very possessive posture, and it let me know that the two women were a couple.

Here’s an exercise: go to a restaurant in your area. Watch the people and how they interact with each other. See if you can figure out who is in an intimate relationship. What are the cues they are giving? Is it different for same-sex couples than opposite-sex couples? Are there cues that a single person is sending that tells you what their sexuality might be?

Sexuality as a plot point

I have been having this conversation a lot, so I figured I would write it up. It’s very common to read a story or see a movie where the character’s sexuality moves the plot along. The one most people are probably familiar with is the coming out story, where the moment of reveal is the climax, and then the character is punished because of their sexuality.

The movie Carol defies this trope this incredibly well. It’s set in the ‘50s, when American society was less accepting and there were laws against being gay. The titular character, Carol, is married to a man, but has affairs with women. She meets a young woman and tries to run away with her, but her husband sends someone after her. She has a young daughter and is sued for divorce. There are consequences for her due to the cultural context, but the character herself isn’t punished for being queer. She doesn’t feel ashamed or sorry for her sexuality. It is an immutable fact of who she is, just as being blonde or 5’6” tall. This is not to say that everyone’s sexuality is fixed, just that it is for this character.

What I’m trying to get around to is this: your characters will be informed by their sexuality and their social/cultural contexts, but it shouldn’t define them.

I will try to see what resources I can pull together, including a recommended reading list of queer fiction, but that will be in a future post. In the meantime, check out these resources for finding and working with sensitivity readers: Write in the Margins, Writing the Other, and Mary Robinette Kowal’s advice on working with sensitivity readers.

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I am not writing

Bark

I am not writing about another man with black skin who was shot and killed by a person in a uniform and I’m not writing about the man with orange hair who spouts words like a whale exhales. I’m not writing about the thousands and hundreds of thousands of people who are displaced from their homes due to violence or due to flooding or drought, famine or pestilence or illness. I’m not writing about the woman running, running, running and still being judged as not being good enough. I’m not writing about the men kneeling in silent dissent nor the men yelling as spittle flies off their lips. I’m not writing about my city apportioning dollars to lock up more youth and spend more money on militarizing the police.

I’m not writing about how the words all turn into lumps in my throat, because I get to be comfortable and I do not have to give children lessons in how to navigate a system that would rather they are dead.

I’m not writing about the lessons I learned growing up, as a Jewish child, about Auschwitz and Hitler and Nazis. I repeat the stories about people being rounded up, being catalogued and herded on trains. I always wondered why people never did anything, even when they knew. But I know what is happening and I have no fucking clue how to change it. I despair. I fear I’m a coward.

I bear witness to countless stories, the refrains echo, and the chorus grows bigger. My heart continues to break, beyond what I thought possible. This is not my pain. I don’t have answers.

I am not writing, but I am listening.

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Photo Essay

I don’t know where my words are these days. They feel incredibly submerged. So I’m going to share some pics I’ve taken recently that really just please me.

Sunset at Pike Place Market

yellow pink dahlia

Dahlia drops

fibonnaci sunflower

Sunflower

blood red moon

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Resilience and Risk Taking

hanging meadow

Last fall I started developing a severe pain in my left knee, particularly when walking down hills. I could limp through it, but even a mild incline provoked incredible pain. I finally decided to go see a physical therapist in December. Fairly quickly the pain in my knee went away, but it just moved up to my hip and back. This wasn’t any better than the initial issue that brought me in, so I fired that physical therapist and went to another one.

This new physical therapist has a very approach than the two others I’ve worked with. The foundation of her work is based on what she calls “ring correction” which has to do with how the ribs poke out (this is my horrible lay person’s understanding). So when I first started working with her, she didn’t have me do anything with my left knee. Instead, we started work on my right foot.

It’s been an incredibly slow and subtle process. If I didn’t have over 16 years of practice paying deep attention to my body, I don’t know how I would make any progress in this method. It requires a lot of trust (in the physical therapist and myself) and patience.

On Friday my PT  was massaging a very tender and sensitive part of my armpit. I joked about being so sensitive. She paused and said, “You’re sensitive, but you’re also tough.” This led to her asking me about my experience at Amazon and how I recovered from that.

I told her that I have tremendous sitzfleisch which means I can literally sit and tolerate a lot of crap. But at a certain point, if there is no purpose, even I will give up. So to her point about me being sensitive but tough, if the pain/discomfort leads to something better, I can tolerate it.

We talked about resilience, and I told her I spent a lot of time thinking about resilience. I’m pretty sure I made that word my theme a few years ago. At any rate, in my investigations about resilience, here is what I want to say about developing and cultivating resilience in self. First, make sure you are getting enough food and rest. I know when I’m tired and/or hungry I’m much more brittle. Second, having a support network is vital. Third, take risks!

When I was working with my therapist, once I had regained a certain level of stability/feeling of safety, it was time for me to move back into the world. But I was terrified of fucking everything up. I thought any level of failure would mean DOOOOM. I started by taking small risks. And in order to make it easier to try things, I decided to make this my measure for success: did anyone die?

Risk-taking builds up resilience, is what I’m trying to say. BUT, these risks have to be in things that matter to you. If the risks don’t connect to a larger purpose, well, I’m not sure what happens, to be honest. I think that falls under just faffing about. It can be useful in that I can prove to myself that I can take a risk, but if there is nothing at stake, what kind of risk is it?

So, in the last four years I’ve been practicing taking risks. At first tiny ones with low stakes. As I developed my risk/resilience muscle, I’ve been taking more risks. My therapist told me that happy people take more risks. Is it because they are happy that they take more risks, or it that taking more risks makes them happy? All I know from my experiment the last few years is that in taking risks I’ve become an active participant in my life again, instead of passively waiting for things to happen.

I’m curious to hear from folks about their experience around resilience. What increases yours? And what risks are you taking toward your own goals?

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Failure, part 3293409

Many of you know that I have spent some time thinking about failure, how failure is defined, what it means, and so on and so forth.

agave

Recently, as in possibly three weeks ago, I was feeling like an UTTER failure. You know, the kind where you think you will NEVER do anything, no one likes you, why are you even BOTHERING? Yeah, that kind. I wondered why my friends liked me, why my employer hadn’t fired me, and if anyone would ever want to buy anything I wrote. I was like: hand to forehead WOE.

I rode it out. I talked to people. I checked reality. An acquaintance reminded me this was chemicals swishing around in my body. Eventually the storm passed, I dragged my weary soul back to dry land and took stock. I was fine. Nothing had changed, really, only my perception.

When I feel like that, in the morass of it all, I still try to keep my agreements with myself. It helps me to not spiral further down. And in the midst of that storm, I applied for a writer’s workshop that is held in the fall. I thought I was unworthy. I wouldn’t get in. But I would bother, and I would let them decide, before I rejected myself.

Last week my friend Nicole recommended the podcast Magic Lessons, which is by Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat, Pray, Love fame). I was a little skeptical, since I wasn’t a fan of the book. But I’ve heard at least one of her TED talks, and I trust Nicole. The first episode was an interview with someone that Gilbert was coaching. It resonated for me. I had downloaded the last one, and none in between. The last was an interview with Brene Brown, who writes amazing stuff around vulnerability. Gilbert talked about people who had leapt and the net didn’t appear. Brown said, “What’s worth doing, even if I fail?”

“What do you love doing so much the word “failure” doesn’t have any meaning?” Gilbert asked. They go on to talk about inspiration and what it owes you, about being present to the process of creation and not focused on the outcomes.

I was starting to despair about moving to the next level with my writing. Saturday I came home from hanging out with some writer heroes of mine. I felt so encouraged just from those conversations. I checked my email and I found an acceptance to a writer’s workshop on the east coast. I was so stunned I made my girlfriend read it out loud. After so many rejections, it just seemed … so easy.

But when I stop and think about it more, I have been steadily working on improving my writing, however slow my pace might be. Most of our effort is like the part of the iceberg that’s under water. We only see the tiny fraction that sticks above it. And the truth is, most successes are built on many, many failures. There has to be effort and feedback and recalibration. There has to be support and encouragement. And in the process of applying for writing workshops, I have continued to make the effort.

So I’m thinking about my relationship to failure, to my ideas around failure, and the position I hold with regard to it. What would it mean if I take the idea of failure off the table? This is going to be a huge challenge for me. As I told my friend Daryl on Saturday, I’m horribly extrinsically driven. I like pleasing other people. And deadlines. Daryl suggested knowing these things could help me hack my brain into producing. So I’m going to consider that. There is no one right way to do anything. It’s the doing.

So I am going to keep plodding. And plotting.

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Reading the Other

I don’t quite know how to start this, so I’m just going to start. It feels like it’s a tangle of things, but maybe there’s a knife to cut this Gordian knot.

A friend told me last week that he doesn’t like first person POV because he doesn’t like being forced to experience things from another person’s point of view. I can kind of go along with that, but his example really upset me. He said he doesn’t want to read from inside the POV of a teenage girl.

Quelle horror. I mean, what could be worse than being a teenage girl? Apparently nothing.

He went on to justify his stance by saying that third person POV is okay, because it allows him to empathize alongside the character. First person forces him to be the character.

I’m going to go on a slight tangent now. In the last couple of years there have been a lot of calls on social media for diverse representation in fiction, television and movies. More recently there has been a call out of whitewashing, which is using white actors to portray characters that were originally non-white. (Hashtags: weneeddiversebooks which spawned the site We Need Diverse Books; whitewashedOUT is from the Asian-American community. More on that in this piece from the NYT. ownvoices is another hashtag commenting on the need for people to tell their own stories.)

I said this on Twitter the other day, because there were some people who expressed a desire to see Captain America get a boyfriend.

I’ve seen similar sentiments about giving Elsa (from Frozen) a girlfriend.

Okay, back to my point, and I DO HAVE ONE. When I was in high school, I read Catcher in the Rye. I don’t remember if it was required reading, but it was required in my mind. IT IS TOLD FROM THE POV OF A TEENAGE BOY. OMG. And let me say, further, that almost nothing I read in high school reflected any of my identities or realities. I have read countless stories from the POV of people who are nothing like me.

Gah, this makes me so angry and frustrated. For me, one of the reasons to read is to experience something different than myself, and since most of what’s available doesn’t reflect my identities, I’ve learned to enjoy those things. It is a privilege to have so much material to choose from and still have things left over that all reflect one’s identity.

I’d also like to make the case for reading (and otherwise enjoying various types of media) that don’t reflect white heterosexual cisgendered male realities. As I said in my tweet, we are tired of scraps, of hints, of winks and nods. We are tired of only being sidekicks and punchlines. None of this is new. I’m nowhere near to being the first person to say any of these things.

Since I’m ranting specifically about first person, I’m going to keep it in the first person. I am tired of not getting my happy ever afters, of always being the villain, of being alone, or being the monster. I’m exhausted at being seen as less than, as other, as subhuman. And it’s incredibly painful to not see myself reflected in the world around me. It makes me feel quite lonely. Literally one of the most comforting things I can hear is, “You are not alone.” There are many ways I can tell I’m not alone, and seeing reflections are constant reminders of that.

A couple of years ago there was a fantastic essay written by a woman about how she hated the strong female character.

Sherlock Holmes gets to be brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, a polymath genius. Female characters get to be Strong.

Men get to be complicated and messy and all kinds of things in fiction. Women, not so much. Same for other groups. As an aside, I think strong means fully-fleshed out and humanized, but it’s come to mean what the writer above defines.

I want to touch on erasure and ownvoices a little bit more. There is media that is not made for you. I’m not saying you have to understand it. Or like the experience. I’m asking you to consider the possibility of a world that is different and richer for having these representations in the world. There are people, like me, who don’t understand your world, and we are crowbarred into it from a very young age.

I’m also going to recommend a few titles written in first person that fall under the ownvoices umbrella:

  • Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
  • Love Is The Plan The Plan Is Death by James Tiptree (I’m not going to get into gender identity/policing, if you weren’t aware, Tiptree was a male pseudonym for a female writer)
  • Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett
  • Tides by Betsy Cornwall
  • The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by NK Jemison

Although these works aren’t written in first person, I recommend checking out Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno­ Garcia and Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older, too.

Consider this an invitation, my friend, into my world. The lenses may feel uncomfortable and alien, but I can pretty much assure you this: it isn’t going to kill you, but the lack of representation makes it a hell of a lot harder for the rest of us.

If any of you reading this have other recommendations, please leave them in the comments! My preference would be to for works that are written by a member of the group presenting that POV. Thanks!

*The title of this blog post is an oblique reference to the fantastic work of Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward: Writing the Other, which is a program to help writers understand how to better represent people who are different from themselves in their writing.

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Favorites

Last week a friend of mine asked me what my favorite song was. I have to admit, I’m not much of an audiophile. I enjoy music mostly as a sensory experience, and if it doesn’t sound pleasant, I tend not to like it much. There aren’t many songs where I listen to the lyrics, too. So when he asked me that question, I had to go with “Long Road/Long Ride Home” by Patty Griffin (I’m not sure what the actual title is; I’ve seen both).

car lights

I started to tell him the story in the song, about a man whose wife has died and he is thinking back about their marriage. It’s this verse that gets me:

Forty years go by with someone laying in your bed
Forty years of things you say you wish you’d never said
How hard would it have been to say some kinder words instead
I wonder as I stare up at the sky turning red

I love this song because it makes me feel something deeply, and there isn’t a lot of music that does that for me. Also, I feel grateful that my relationship isn’t full of regret, like the person in this story.

You can go listen to the song here.

What songs do you love?

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The Long Con

I’ve been thinking about seduction, falling in love, and the creative process. I keep thinking there are multiple strands I have to weave together, threads to embroider, knots to untangle, but it turns out there aren’t.

I’ve written about distractions before, so I’m not going to spend time on that. I’m just going to say it’s easy to get pulled away from the things I want to focus on – to a point. And that is what I want to talk about.

Heart birds

For the last several months I’ve been tweeting a good night/morning message. Last night it was: “good night existentialists. Good morning absurdists.” I do this because it amuses me. There’s no reward. Sometimes one or two people will respond. Mostly I feel like it just gets lobbed into cyberspace. It’s enough for me that a couple of people here and there seem to like it. I probably ignore a ton of stuff or don’t let the creator know necessarily that I liked something they did. I don’t take it personally that I don’t get much feedback.

It’s easy to get discouraged, to think no one cares, but it matters less and less to me as I let myself fall in love with the work. I feel the pull of the creative process and I’m resisting it less.

This is to say that a slow, steady, persistent effort turns into something else. Recently I had a few friends tell me how much they like these tweets. Individually they don’t stand up to scrutiny, but together, they’ve turned into something else. A little ritual. It’s something I love doing. And even though it might seem like no one else is noticing the effort, it turns out when I raise my head up out of the sand, they are.

There is a second part to this immersion: valuing what you love. I think it’s easy to get distracted when I don’t think what I want to spend my time on is worthy. Over the course of a year there was construction going on across the street from the yoga studio where I practice. I went to a morning yoga class, three times a week. The construction noise was constant. At the beginning of class, I would notice all the banging and clanging, but by the end, I had become so absorbed in my effort that all the noise faded away. It didn’t even bother me in savasana.

Having had this experience, I know I can create the same kind of focused effort in other areas, in areas that I care about. I just want to make a note that I’m not discussing the financial component of making art in this post. I will probably get there one day, but I’m not to that point right now.

Part of my effort this year is enjoying the seduction, and not just in the passive “oh look you brought me flowers and chocolates and wine” way, but bringing myself as an active participant in the process. So I’m doing what I love, and not worrying if anyone else will love it or not. Because just like the tweets, the truth is, there probably are people out there who will.

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