Uh oh, I’m working on a new novel

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I have been happily crafting short stories for the last couple of years, in between finishing my last novel and weighing publishing options. Some stories have even been published. This has been immensely satisfying, especially in contrast with writing long-form fiction. It’s like the difference between adopting a dog and raising a child, where the dog is the short story and the child is the novel. The rewards of a dog may be less emotionally satisfying, but the time-to-payoff is much shorter.

So imagine my surprise when my latest puppy (story) stopped wagging its tail and pressing its wet nose into my hand, stood up on two legs, and announced in an all-too-human voice: “I may be your next novel.”

Standing DogRight now, this new man-dog is neither man nor beast. It’s a collection of characters, ideas, and themes I want to explore. Making all this coalesce into a coherent narrative is a messy process, the contemplation of which makes my stomach roil.

Most surprising of all has been the subject. I don’t like to talk in detail about works in progress, but to give you a hint, I’ll remind you that I admire the fiction of writers like Margaret Atwood and Kevin Brockmeier. This new work involves a world other than our own, which means I must spend more time than usual creating the milieu in which my characters will live, a world full of unfamiliar ideas, apparatuses, machinery, and attitudes. I must imagine all of them—and how they fit together, why they are there, and what they mean to my characters. One of my critique group partners, YA fantasy author Wendy Walter, says world-building is her favorite part of the writing process. For me, definitely not. But I love a good challenge.

Maybe you’ve heard writers talking about their fiction taking on a life of its own. I don’t know yet exactly how far this new endeavor will take me, but I’m excited to go along for the ride. Stay tuned.

Have you ever been hijacked by an idea?

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Word up*

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WARNING: This post contains intellectually provocative ideas, graphic descriptions of the power of words, and potentially repulsive ideas. (And swear words and suggestive sexual content in some of the videos!)

Jenny Jarvie’s recent article for The New Republic discusses the increasing prevalence of the “trigger warning.” As my tongue-in-cheek rendition above indicates, a trigger warning is an up-front disclaimer about stories that some readers may find upsetting or even traumatic. (I first heard about the article in an On the Media interview with the author.)

The initial impulse seems innocuous enough. For those who have suffered traumatic events—rape or sexual abuse, for example—reading a story about those subjects could trigger anxiety or trauma. A sympathetic writer might naturally want to protect such readers.

But what about the trigger warning Jarvie references in her article—requested by students to be placed on class content at the University of California, Santa Barbara?

Another problem is that one person’s innocuous event is another’s trauma-inducing trigger. I understand this from personal experience. For about a year after my mother died, I couldn’t bear to read anything about mothers and daughters. References to Mother’s Day put me over the edge. Should stories about mothers come with trigger warnings?

Banned

Another manifestation of the impulse to protect the vulnerable from powerful words is Sheryl Sandberg’s “Ban Bossy” campaign. Here’s one of the videos from the campaign.

I won’t go into details here; you can read Kara Baskin’s excellent commentary in the Boston Globe or Margaret Talbot’s thoughts in the New Yorker for some perspective. I particularly like Baskin’s observation that “Someday, we should be able to say, ‘You think I’m bossy? So what!’”

Sticks and stones

Both of these initiatives acknowledge the tremendous power of words. And this sometimes puts us—as citizens, speakers, and writers—in a tough spot. We want words to have power. We want them to evoke strong emotions in our listeners or readers. But if our words shock or distress to the point where people can no longer hear what we’re saying, have we been effective? Should we censor ourselves? Or should someone tell us to be quiet?

“Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me,” goes the nursery rhyme. As anyone who has ever been called a name can tell you, that’s not strictly true. Words can cause a world of psychic hurt. Words can put people in boxes, denigrate them, incite them, and cause them to act in ways they might not otherwise act.

Here’s an example of some of the responses to the “Ban Bossy” campaign:

Words as weaponry

However, we do a great disservice to ourselves—and to rational discourse—if we confuse tools with weaponry. Words are tools, to be used in the service of communication. When children on the playground or leaders in positions of power turn words into weapons, we shouldn’t ban the words but should shine a light on the hurtful (or illegal, or morally reprehensible) behavior. We shouldn’t “ban bossy” to protect girls or even because the term has become a shorthand for a complicated mess of psychosocial and gender issues. Ironically, I could support Sandberg’s campaign only if she doesn’t really mean it—that is, if she doesn’t really intend to ban the word but is using a provocative alliterative phrase purely to get people talking about an important issue.

Normally, I’m a person of nuance. I like shades of gray; I don’t buy into “slippery slope” arguments because I believe we ought to be able to distinguish among those shades of gray. But regarding trigger warnings, I must confess to having fairly strong feelings about anything that even vaguely resembles censorship. We don’t live in a utopia. The world is full of pain, hatred, and hurt. Banning words and images that describe these things—even for the noble cause of protecting the vulnerable—is a slippery slope I’m not prepared to start sliding down.

Even more importantly, I believe that both trigger warnings and sensitivity about unpleasant words focus the conversation in the wrong place. Yes, we need to raise awareness about things like persistent gender inequities and the horrors of trauma and abuse. But rather than arguing over the words we use or slapping warning labels on everything we write or say, we should work toward making sure individuals who have been hurt or traumatized get the help they need to bolster their resiliency and take life’s normal harshness in stride. Going one step further, we should work toward a world where the hurt and trauma don’t occur in the first place.

What do you think? Have you ever censored yourself so your words wouldn’t traumatize a reader? Have you ever been triggered by something you read? Do you think you should have been warned? Do you support the idea of banning words to help change social norms?

*If you’re old enough, you may get the reference in the title to Cameo’s 1986 hit song. I’m not sure it relates to the topic but it’s a fun ’80s R&B/funk tune that should help lighten your mood.

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Three beauties and a redefinition

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Thanks to August McLaughlin for hosting her Third Annual “Beauty of a Woman” Blogfest, which prompted this post. Visit her blog starting February 27 to read all the entries.

Beauty of a Woman Blogfest

The Beauty of the Known

It has always seemed to me that people I care about are more attractive to me than strangers.

Looking for confirmation of this, I found a couple of interesting videos. One was titled “How to Make People Think You’re More Attractive Than You Really Are.” Leaving aside the issue of how one assesses one’s own looks, I was interested to find that instead of talking about plastic surgery or makeup, it recommends such things as standing up straight, making eye contact, and smiling.

It seems that the idea of a known person appearing more attractive applies even to oneself, as the video below shows. Four ordinary women received professional makeovers and posed for modeling shoots. You may be surprised to learn that they preferred their pre-makeover selves, replete with curves, freckles, and less-than-perfect hair. One reason? They didn’t recognize their made-over selves.

The Beauty of Surrender

My non-writing work as a birth doula affords me the great privilege of being with women at their most vulnerable: when they are giving birth. Very little about how women look when they give birth matches our cultural norms of beauty. While a few women (usually those who opt for pain medication) may be able to carry on with the application of lipstick and maintenance of their coiffure, for the vast majority of women, the process of giving birth is one of complete surrender.

Birth is an utterly physical act that, paradoxically, causes women to become completely unaware of their physical selves. My doula partner jokes that women “lose one item of clothing for every centimeter of dilation” until, by the time they give birth, they are usually completely naked.

I find this surrender and vulnerability unspeakably beautiful. Unless you are a mystic or a religious devotee, it’s the closest you can get, while alive, to the divine. And it has nothing to do with flat bellies, perfect cheekbones, or lush tresses. You can see some photos here of women giving birth (G-rated), courtesy of Babble.com.

The Beauty of Being

Sometimes, when I finish yoga class and lie like a corpse on my mat, I’m able to completely lose awareness of my body. I literally cannot feel where I leave off and the floor begins. I see colors behind my eyelids but they are not my colors; some larger Eye sees them. I hear the sounds of the room, but I am not hearing them; some larger Ear hears them. I live for these moments, because in them I no longer feel separate. I feel part of something larger, something far more significant than the particularities of my physical body and even of my mind.

This is true beauty: a connection to the universe that transcends the physical, emotional, and intellectual limitations of humanity.

P.S. Redefining Beauty

I added this section because I recently read a wonderful blog post by my good friend Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez. In it, she talks about a new short film, “Selfie,” in which teenage girls—through a guided process of taking and displaying selfies—come to see new possibilities for how to define beauty. You can watch the 3-minute version below.

Leaping Liebsters

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In my last blog post, I mentioned my nomination for the Liebster “Award.”

Liebster image

There are several Liebster images out there. I liked this one… understated.

In fact, this is not an award but a chain letter. You might wonder why someone as skeptical as I would fall for such a thing. Fear not: I go in with eyes open. I understand the honor is not bestowed by some Editorial Board in the Sky but by a fellow blogger who stumbled on my blog and liked it.

In that stumbling spirit, I accept and pass along the Liebster Award.

One of the Liebster rules (see below) requires nominating other bloggers for the award (does the chain-letter nature of this start to become clear?). I took this opportunity to expand my blog-reading horizons—something WordPress makes quite painless—though I stuck to blogs about reading and writing.

As they say in the world of Netflix, Amazon, and Goodreads, “If you enjoy Writing of Many Kinds, you may also enjoy…”

So, let’s leap in.

Each nominee must link back the person who nominated them.

Thank you to A Journal of Impossible Things, written by a fellow Sixfolder.

Answer the ten questions given to you by the nominator.

1) How lit [sic] the fire for your writing? When did your passion for the written word start?

Reading sparked my passion for writing. I can’t remember learning to read; it happened early. Apparently I was disappointed to find that I would be learning to read in kindergarten, since I already knew how. As a kid, I read everything I could get my hands on, visiting my town’s tiny public library at least weekly. I remember writing a story in second grade about a rainstorm. Soon thereafter, I was writing “novels” imitating the books I read—and learning about character, plot, and structure in the process. Why? I wanted to be able to create the luxurious sense of escape that reading provided for me.

2) Do you listen to music when you write? If you do, do you play a playlist or just one song on repeat?

Oddly, I rarely listen to music. When I do, it’s mostly to drown out distractions (TV in the other room, kids making noise). I find instrumental or classical music helpful in those situations. Music with lyrics distracts me.

3) What’s your favorite place in the world? That magical place that you always feel at home in and dream about when you haven’t visited in years?

Winter morning in my back yard.

Winter morning in my back yard (well, technically the neighbor’s yard).

I’m a “home is wherever I am right now” kind of person. I live in Northern California now and love it here. I loved rural New York when I was growing up there. I loved Boston when I lived there, and even Syracuse when I was there for grad school. I loved visiting Greece, France, and Italy; I loved hiking to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

4) If you could only watch 5 movies for the rest of your life, what movies would they be? Care, not favorites. What movies do you think you could watch forever?

Only five for the rest of my life? Oh, come on. And watch forever? I mean, life is great and all, but I wouldn’t want it to be eternal. And I wouldn’t want to watch Dustin Hoffman or Jack Nicholson or John Travolta or Leonardo DiCaprio or Guy Pearce forever either. That said, I’ll play along:

5) Name a moment in your life that was out of a Hollywood movie. Action moment, romantic.

Deciding to get married after spending only three days with my husband-to-be. We’ve been married for almost 23 years.

6) What was the last dream you remember?

Trekking up a mountain carrying a trumpet for my son and being attacked by sand flies.

7) What fictional character would you like to pick the brain of, if you could meet them?

Milo, from The Phantom Tollbooth.

8) What book are you most looking forward to reading in the next year?

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, by George Saunders.

9) What’s something you really love doing and occasionally think you could have made it a living but realized if you did, you’d hate it forever?

Being a concert pianist.

10. What animal would you love to keep as a pet, no matter if it’s extinct or not really a pet type of creature?

A cougar (also known as a puma).

puma

By Ltshears – Trisha M Shears (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Nominate 10 other bloggers for this award who have FEWER than 200 followers. Here are EIGHT. So sue me.

Create TEN questions for your nominees to answer.My lucky nominees only have to answer five! Add that to the list of charges against me…

  1. What’s your favorite time of day?
  2. What’s your biggest fear?
  3. What gives you the greatest joy?
  4. Do you read paper books, e-books, or a combination?
  5. What do you like about blogging?

Rules for honorees

It’s nice to get recognized, but when the recognition come with a list of rules, the honor may feel more like a burden. Although this is like a chain letter, my nominees won’t contract a horrid disease or be attacked by the big Liebster in the sky if they don’t participate. Should they choose to do so, here are the rules (edited by me for grammar).

1. Each Nominees must link back to the person who nominated them.
2. Answer the 10 ten questions which are given to you by the nominator.
3. Nominate 10 ten other bloggers for this award who have less fewer than 200 followers.
4. Create 10 ten questions for your nominees to answer.
5. Let the nominees know that they have been nominated by going to their blogs and notifying them.

Happy blog exploring…

In case you missed it

My flash fiction piece, “Now You Are a Public Nuisance” appeared in Every Day Fiction and is getting lots of positive feedback.

Next Up

My next blog post will also be off the strict literary path as I’ll be participating in August McLaughlin’s wonderful Beauty of a Woman Blogfest III at the end of the month.

Watch it and weep

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Do you wear a watch?

I do. Not a fancy one, and not a digital one. Just a good old-fashioned Ecclessi analog watch my husband gave me quite a few years ago for my birthday. (Come to think of it, the first gift he ever gave me was a watch. Hmmm… can we read something into that?)

Tikker: The Happiness Watch. Huh?

Tikker: The Happiness Watch. Huh?

Recently I heard about a new kind of watch. Not just any watch. This is “Tikker – The wrist watch that counts down your life!” (also tag-lined as “The Happiness Watch.”)

I was fascinated, intrigued, repulsed, and, of course, gripped by existential dread.

Why would anyone want to wear a reminder of their mortality on their wrist?

After I got over my initial shock, it turned out I could think of quite a number of reasons, many of which were enumerated on the Kickstarter page for Tikker. Apparently, many people are intrigued by the concept, as the project was funded with more than three times the amount requested.

On the face of it, nothing would seem more antithetical to the idea of living in the moment than being able to glance at your watch and see an estimated number of years, days, hours, and minutes until your death. But, perhaps counterintuitively, reminding us our time here is finite is the watch’s way of goading us into making the most of every moment.

By Radicalcourse [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

In-the-moment logo by Radicalcourse [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Of course, as practitioners of mindfulness know, there’s a difference between making the most of every moment and being aware of every moment. The first aims to do something with the moments; the latter aims simply to bring attention to the present moment. Perhaps for me, a watch that simply reads “NOW” would make more sense.

Around the same time I heard about Tikker, I listened to a podcast of Radiolab’s show Apocalyptical – Live from the Paramount in Seattle featuring a segment about The Endgame Project. The project involves two actors with decades of experience between them who mount a production of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. The intriguing part is that both actors have Parkinson’s disease and must struggle simply to rehearse.

Samuel Beckett
Samuel Beckett. (Roger Pic [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

You can’t get much more dreadfully existential than Beckett, and the project’s site features a quote from Beckett that I’ve been mulling recently: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” It seems to resonate with me particularly because of some challenges I have been going through that defy easy solutions and pat answers.

Both of these ideas—the countdown watch and the idea that life goes on whether you feel up to the task of living it or not—illustrate the fact that our lives as humans are both painfully exquisite and exquisitely painful. The adjective slashers among you may be readying your red pens over those two word pairings. But they resonate.

Would you ever wear a Tikker? Do you go on, even when you can’t? As for me, my analog watch tells me it’s time for a mid-morning snack. There’s nothing like a rumbling stomach to bring you out of the ether and into the present moment.

Some happy stuff

And now for something more upbeat. A Journal of Impossible Things nominated this blog for a Liebster award. In my surlier days, I would have groused about the artifice of bouncing around the blogosphere handing out kudos. But, by participating in these kinds of activities over the last couple of years, I’ve been turned on to some fascinating people I would otherwise never have found. This will be my opportunity to give back to the blogging community. You’ll have to wait a few weeks, though, since the dictates of the Liebster require some work. Stay tuned!

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