Yes to Everything

When I was 17, my boyfriend and I were at his brother’s house. The brother was 10-ish years older than us, and my boyfriend idolized him: everything he did was cool, everything he liked was cool, everything he was was cool. He had long hair and the biggest nose I’d ever seen, and I thought he seemed a nice guy. As we left his house, he said to me “You don’t like anything, do you? You haven’t said one nice thing about anything all day. It makes me sad that you don’t feel pleasure at anything.”

It stung because, while it wasn’t true, I didn’t know how to correct that perception. When I was a kid I didn’t admit to liking anything or anyone, because that knowledge was power my family routinely used against me. My best friends were mocked as dorks for wearing the wrong sneakers or having the wrong haircuts. The boys I liked were not only told that I liked them (which I, of course, could never do myself), but that telling came with laughter at what a joke it was for me to like someone who would never like me back because I was ugly, I was fat, I was a loser. My defense was to deny liking anything.

After I graduated college, I got a job in an accounting department. My boss was a woman about my mother’s age, and I don’t think I ever saw her sad. Even when she pulled out her wallet and showed me the clipping she always carried of her 2-year-old daughter’s obituary, she never seemed sad about it. And she liked everything. She liked lutefisk and country music, and she was willing to be friends with anyone, no matter how grouchy or antisocial (my main evidence being her friendship with me).

I’ve met other people along the way who were shameless about loving whatever they loved. If I denigrated it, rather than shrink away from it, they took it upon themselves to educate me about what I’m missing. I was so excited to see that, rather than being made weak by revealing the things they liked, they drew people to them. It was fun to be around someone enthusiastic about things, and who was willing to give anything a try. The love was infectious.

I’ve tried hard to be that person. The one who loves everything unapologetically and encourages others to do the same. I feel like I’ve finally arrived. When checking into my hotel at the beginning of this residency, I spent a good 15 minutes talking to the staff behind the desk about writing and the kinds of stuff we did in getting our MFA. As I checked out, the woman behind the desk told me that she was thinking about me this week, and studied extra hard, and got her first A on an English paper.

That was it – a little chat about how great it was to learn to write well. A little encouragement. And now someone else is happy because they’ve done well. Why did I waste so much time with “no”?

You’re Doing It Wrong

I’m in the middle of putting together interview questions for Peter Riva, a literary agent with International Transactions. It’s hard to come up with inventive ways to ask the same four questions that everyone asks literary agents and publishers – What kinds of literature are popular right now? What can I say in a query letter to make an agent want to represent me? What’s the magic word? WHAT DO I DO?

I’ve also spent the last week catching up on submissions to the Diana Woods Memorial award competition. I’ve been going through upwards of 25 submissions a day, looking for those that grab my imagination and make me want to say yes. I’m up to four.

That’s what it comes down to. It’s what no agent, no publisher, no editor is going to say flat out. Chances are, your stuff just isn’t that interesting. Our award was started by the family of a woman who passed away in November of 2012, so a lot of what we’re getting is “this person close to me died.” It’s sad, but considering that every human being ever born will suffer the same fate, ultimately not newsworthy. Another big chunk is people’s childhood memories, but unless you’ve just been named Pope or you’re the person that went on to invent fire, your memories are really only precious to you and the people close to you. It’s grossly unfair, but people like Snooki Polizzi get book deals because people want to find out what single thing they did to succeed.

The problem is, not even people who get it right know what they did, or they’re embarrassed that what they did wasn’t what everyone else is being told to do. I went to a writer’s conference about twelve years ago, and the speaker was a novelist of Asian extraction whose name you would probably recognize, and she gave us the same advice as everyone else. “Only send your best work, research your agents carefully, personalize your letters…” But she had to say that it’s not how she got her agent. She was writing her first novel while she was in grad school and her professor had told an agent, and that agent had called her at home and asked to represent her. Another successful novelist had made copies of her full manuscript and handed them to everyone she met, until at last her manuscript was picked up by an agent. I have a friend who did it the old-fashioned way – querying 87 agents before he found representation, but I have tons more who gave their manuscripts to friends of friends.

Friends of friends. That’s what it comes down to. If someone knows your name, they’re more likely to give your work a chance. It becomes less about the work and more about the relationship. That’s why, if you change the name on a story published in the New Yorker, nobody wants it. Not even the New Yorker. Because the New Yorker doesn’t want really great fiction. They want New Yorker writers.

So, the final word is that the thing you should be doing is what everyone else is doing. Move to New York. Crash the parties where all the editors (and editorial assistants) are hanging out. Buy the drinks. And in the time that you’re home, recovering from all the lunches out and parties ’til dawn, hone your craft.

More Than You Can Imagine

Right now, I’m watching The Matrix. Remember The Matrix? Remember Keanu Reeves, turning in a typically obtuse performance that works because the rest of the movie just kind of spins around him? I still like this movie, regardless of whether or not it stands up, especially in light of the two sequels.

There’s a line toward the beginning that I hear in quite a few movies, and every time I hear it, it makes me flinch. Trinity is taking Neo in to see Morpheus, and she exhorts him to “Tell the truth. He knows more than you can imagine.”

Now, given the mental opacity Keanu Reeves displays (although that could just be amazing acting on his part, because I’ve also heard that he’s both very smart and a decent human being), it’s not hard to think that his imagination isn’t quite enough to come up with something as radical as, say, Oreos consisting of vanilla cookies with chocolate frosting between them. So perhaps telling Neo that something is more than he can imagine is not just true, but sort of obvious.

But there’s me. And a ton of people like me. I imagine a million things more fanciful than this every minute of every day. Granted, I haven’t been able to get my ideas the wider audience I personally think they deserve, but that does not mean that my imagination is at all lacking. Frankly, I feel that telling people that they lack imagination is the first step toward turning them into better consumers. If you can’t think for yourself, you’ll buy whatever someone else is selling you.

Don’t buy what someone else is selling you. Think of something better, then go out and make it for yourself.

Travel Day

I’m en route today from my mountain lair to another mountain lair – Salt Lake City, thence to Park City, Utah. The Pirate and I are heading to Sundance.

The thing I hate most about travel is that it never goes the way I think it will. I always think that I’ll be able to sit down on the plane and concentrate on getting some work done, but that never happens. I can’t concentrate with other people around me, and I always end up feeling self conscious, as though people are looking at me and thinking “Look at that woman, pretending to work.”

This is where introversion most bites me in the ass. Being an introvert means that I live inside my own head, and in my own head, I’m freaked out all the time about everything I ever do, say or think. Will I be able to make this left turn? Will my credit card be accepted? Will I be able to find a parking spot? Will I get into a grizzly accident? These are fair concerns, but I am always able to make the left turn, my credit card is always accepted, I always find parking, and I’ve never been in a grizzly accident. I have no basis for the worry, but worry I do.

So, I will get on the plane and worry that there will not be enough space to stow my stuff. Then I will worry that the person in front of me will put their seat back. It’s stupid worrying about that, because one should only worry if something is a possibility, not if that thing is a certainty. Then I’ll worry that, while I’m engaged in reading something that requires my close attention, my husband will hear or read something amusing that he’ll want to share with me. Then I’ll worry that the flight attendant will want to know what I want to drink, whether I want a mylar bag containing the battered remains of three tiny pretzels or whether I wish to give up my trash to her. Tomato juice, no, and please take it. Maybe I’ll make a sign and stick it in my ear where she’ll be able to read it.

It’s occurring to me that perhaps what I need to be a better traveler is gin. And that 9am in California is 5pm in London – a lovely time for gin.

Do I Know You?

One of the lovely things about the Internet is its ability to bring actual friends closer. Who among us has not gotten back in touch with a long-lost friend or relative through Facebook?

I kind of love Facebook, for all its faults. I know all of my Facebook friends in real life, so it allows me, a person who lives in the middle of the woods and doesn’t attend a lot of social functions, to keep up a conversation with people and think that I’m just as social as they are.

I also like LinkedIn, the Facebook for people with jobs. The problem is that I don’t think people quite get the difference between the two. When originally conceived, LinkedIn was a way for people to endorse friends and co-workers they knew and trusted. The idea was that you would link up with all the people you’ve worked with that you would recommend. Friends of yours who don’t know one another could find each other, with you as intermediary, and know that you endorse them both.

Except that everyone is so brainwashed by the numbers game of Facebook, where the goal is apparently to get as many friends as the application will allow, and then force them to play Farmville with you. LinkedIn doesn’t have Farmville, but because they recognize that nobody understands how to be discriminating anymore and will “connect” with absolutely anybody, they’ve now started asking people to “endorse” their friends. Basically, you click on a person’s picture and a list of random nouns and adjectives come up. If you think they apply to your friend, you click the button and your friend gets an email saying that you’ve endorsed them. It must be new, because people I haven’t worked with in half a decade are suddenly endorsing me, as though I’ve just come to their attention again, like they were all at a party and my name came up.

But back to the numbers game, I keep getting invitations to connect from people I’ve never heard of. People who live in the same county as me. People who worked for the same company as me at some time, but not at a time when I worked there. People who know people who’ve worked with me in a similar field. I always feel a little mean about not accepting their invitations to connect, but I’m more about quality than quantity. My feeling was validated the day I got an invitation to connect with someone I’ve never heard of whose skill is tech writing but whose current job is listed as “Unempolyed at home.” sigh 

I’m never going to connect with you, endorse you, etc. if I’ve never even met you. That’s true on the Internet, but I’m realizing that real-world instances of this haven’t gone away. Today’s mail brought a hand-addressed letter from a neighbor who must live just a few houses over, but in this neighborhood that can be half a mile away. This woman writes me twice a year or so to solicit money for the March of Dimes, sending me a pre-printed card with her actual signature and a handwritten note that usually says something like “please help us out!” I kind of resent that fact that this woman lives within easy walking distance of my house, but in nearly nine years, she has never once knocked on my door to introduce herself, or invited me to her house for a cup of tea.

I’m all for connections. I love being able to remind people I know that they’re important to me and that I care about them. But I’ll be damned if I’ll let someone exploit proximity, electronic or physical, to get me to like them, connect with them, or donate to them.

I Only Exist in the Past

When I moved to the Bay Area in 1997, I brought with me a backlog of The New Yorker magazines. It was the first magazine I subscribed to that made me feel plugged into the adult world. The problem was that somewhere along the line, I got it into my head that I had to read every single article in the entire magazine, cover to cover. That meant every Joan Acocella dance critique where Ms. Acocella reveals in painful detail how bitter she is that her dance career never took off. I couldn’t care less about dance, and having it described, critiqued, teased apart and explained to me in painstaking detail is worse than having gum grafts (and yes, I’ve had gum grafts, so I have a basis for comparison).

Then I realized that I don’t care about anything that Roger Angell has to say about baseball, although I’ve ploughed through thousands of words about it because I had to finish that article to get to an Ian Frazier piece about the hilarity of child abuse. But the problem with forcing myself to read every single word is that if I procrastinate at all, the next issue is in my mailbox before I’m done with this one. And then the next one. And before you know it, I’ve got two years’ worth of magazines in a huge pile somewhere, mocking me.

And then I realized that it’s not just my reading habits that have me dwelling in the past. At some point over the summer, I decided that I would give the tv show Battlestar Galactica another shot. My husband and I tried watching it when it first came to Netflix, but because I hold FarScape up as my apex of space opera television, I found Galactica humorless and dull. But I have forced myself since then to watch it (although it’s still humorless) and I’m now nearly through the series. Which apparently ended in 2009.

And I’ve now extended my time travel to my podcast listening. I’ve been listening to Judge John Hodgman since it premiered in 2010, but I’ve since  checked out the other podcasts offered by Maximum Fun, and have started listening to Jordan, Jesse, Go!. I started listening to it yesterday, and I’m now up to Episode 5, which was recorded in January of 2007. Bush was still president. I was still working. My older kid still liked me. That 2007.

I have often been told that I do not look as old as I am. It’s true that I stay out of the sun, I do use a moisturizer every morning and every night, I have good genes for looking young. But I don’t think that’s what does it for me. I’d have to say that what keeps me looking young is that mentally, I’m still somewhere between 2006 and 2010.

 

Right Thought

As a Buddhist, I am used to thinking very hard about my actions in the world. One of the central Buddhist teachings is the Noble Eightfold Path, which describes in clear detail what it means to live a Buddhist life. Right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. All eight start with the word “right,” but the same word can also be translated as “skillful.” For me, right thought is by far the most slippery of the eight, and therefore the most important. How does someone else get to decide if I’m thinking the “right” things?

You might think that your thoughts are private and that they affect no one but yourself, but there is a tremendous body of work that explores the relationship between your attitude (your thoughts) and your behavior. A Google search on the phrase “attitude behavior relation” yielded 1,420,000 results. What you think very clearly manifests itself in what you do.

The place that unskillful thinking hurts the most is when we’re in our peer groups. We think of our friends as those people among whom we can really be ourselves. How many of us have been in a situation where someone in our group made an unkind remark, and everyone else piled on, thinking that it was okay to talk disrespectfully, even hatefully, because “it’s just us”? Think all the way back to junior high school – you know you’ve done it. And the truth is, even at the time you probably thought to yourself “This feels wrong.” The “unskillfulness” of groupthink lets our desire to fit in with the group outweigh our own sense of what’s right.

If you were talking smack about a fellow student or a teacher, you might have worried that the person would hear about your remarks and feel bad. If you were generalizing about an entire class of people, like “boys” or “kids from our rival school,” you might even have thought “but I like this particular boy,” or “one of my friends goes to that school,” but you went along with it in order to go along with the group. You knew what was being said was wrong, but those people weren’t around and therefore couldn’t possibly be hurt by your words, right?

This is the kind of thinking that leads to mob behavior, where the loudest, most extreme voice in the crowd is the most persuasive and can cause a group of otherwise-sane people to do crazy things like the Watts Riots, the Los Angeles riots, and most inexplicably, the Chicago Bulls Victory Riot. It’s the kind of thinking that leads to lynching. It’s the kind of thinking that leads to the sort of attacks that both ends of the American political spectrum are unleashing on each other.

Policing my own thoughts, forcing myself to think, if not positively, then at least honestly about things is absolutely the hardest thing I’ve ever undertaken. But the payoff has been the feeling that I can trust my own judgement and my ability to make good, unbiased decisions. It has meant that my dealings with other people have been more respectful and honest, and people respond to the feeling that they are respected by acting more respectable. Given the chance, people step up to your expectations. Forcing yourself to confront your own negativity about yourself and others gives you the chance to rid yourself of prejudices that do nothing but hurt you. Letting other people know your high opinion of them gives them the chance to reinforce that opinion. Doesn’t that sound like a better deal all the way around?

How to Stand Poised on the Brink

Right now, I’m in the middle of a large project, and there are a bunch of folks helping me out with that project. At the same time, there are big things going on in Santa Cruz. Specifically another TechRaising, which will happen this weekend at the Cruzio offices on Cedar.

I’ve been involved in one way or another with the folks who put together TechRaising for something like four years, but it hasn’t been a “we’re technical people, so we should get together and do technical-people things” kind of relationship. It’s been a “how are your husband and kids? we should have lunch soon” kind of relationship where we talk about who’s got chicken pox and who’s kids are struggling in school and where can a girl get a decent haircut in this town? We’re friends. Busy, yes, but friendly.

But, as Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in his book Outliers, the reason that successful people are successful is not just that they’re smart and driven (although they are that). It’s that they are in places such that, when an opportunity arises, they are able to take advantage of it. I’ve seen people that I know and love pass up wonderful opportunities, saying “I’m too busy,” or “It’s not really my thing.” To me, that’s a limitation of thinking that keeps people from achieving amazing things.

Yesterday, I decided to put together a TED talk to present at the next Santa Cruz TEDx and it turns out that one of the folks I was talking to about something else is a sponsor and wants to help get me in. After that meeting, I went to a coffee shop to pass some time before I met my family for dinner, and while I was there working on a piece of fiction, another friend came by with news about starting a magazine and said “I want you to write an article for it!” I told him about the TED talk, and he was wildly enthusiastic.

On a normal basis, I don’t consider myself any kind of special. But days like yesterday, where all the work I’ve done, all the relationships I’ve built, are paying off in unexpected ways, lead me to believe that there is a “right” way to success. That “right” way is to say yes to everything, all the time. Because even in the very worst case, you will meet wonderful people and do amazing things, and that’s not even a little bit bad.

To Tell the Truth

When we talk about writing, one of the most basic dichotomies is “fiction” and “nonfiction.” We tend to think of “fiction” as things that somebody made up, and “nonfiction” as things that happened and are being reported on.

Except that it’s just not that easy.

Let’s say that you go to a sporting event in a big, crowded stadium. The game is over, and as you’re going to your car, two guys in front of you get into a fight. There is scuffling, punching, blood flies. After a few moments, the two men separate and go to their own cars, each throwing hostile glances over his shoulder at the other guy. What can you say about that? You can report the facts (and by “facts,” in this case, I mean “scenario I made up out of whole cloth”). The problem is that each of those guys will come to you and say “That’s not what happened,” and will then explain to you that the other guy spent the entire game winding him up, insulting his team, insulting his wife, his mother, his choice of beers and then, as they were leaving, the other guy started it.

Do you put that into your story? If you choose not to, can you still call your story “nonfiction,” since you’ve chosen to leave out pertinent facts? If you find out that one guy has a long record of convictions for assault and the other guy recently went off his lithium, do you put that in? How about if one participant was Chinese and the other Argentinian? Or that one was 75 years old and the other on crutches? Do you even know if that had any bearing?

The point is that even newspaper reporting, the gold standard of “just the facts” writing, is skewed toward a certain point of view. The reporter chooses from the available, verifiable facts only those that seem most pertinent to the story and leaves the rest out, no matter how much the rest might mean to something like a criminal investigation or a civil lawsuit.

But where nonfiction is concerned with taking all of the available details about a situation and picking and choosing among them to craft a certain kind of story, fiction writers have exactly the opposite job. They start from the story and pick and choose what details to add to support it. This is where verisimilitude becomes critical. Verisimilitude means that a literary work depicts something real, something believable. To Kill a Mockingbird has verisimilitude. The Story of Babar does not.

Verisimilitude is different than the truth, because, to quote the old adage, “truth is stranger than fiction because fiction has to make sense.” So if you depict Leonardo da Vinci leading a robot army, no one will believe you, despite drawings he made of both armored tanks AND robotic knights. If you portray American cowboys calling police “pigs,” no one will believe you despite the fact that the use of the word “pig” to describe police dates back to the 19th century.

If, as fiction writers, we want to talk about something that actually happened, but “fictionalize” it, that is to say make it seem like something that happened in a different place at a different time to different people so that we don’t get sued or socially shunned or beat up, we have to double back on the whole “make the scene up from scratch” scenario. We have to take a real event, take out telling details of one kind (and we decide what kind that is), and leave in details of some other kind. But then we have to replace the stuff we took out with stuff that we make up, and we have to make sure that the stuff we put back in keeps the story the same. That’s where it gets so, so tricky.

I want to talk about my best friend who skinned her knee roller skating when we were 9, but do I leave in the roller skates or the fact that we’d ditched school to do it and she couldn’t go back to school with a bloody knee, or that her dad beat her for ditching school and never let her come to my house again? (And no, that never happened either.) What do I take out and what do I leave in to create the same story of risk and error and loss without putting either myself or my former friend at risk?

These are the really hard choices we make as writers, and every time I find myself in this situation, I always have to ask myself “why does this matter”? If what matters is that I feel I was unfairly scapegoated as a child, then I can tell that story any number of ways. If what matters is that my friend’s father was an abuser whose only punishment for any infraction was a beating, that’s a different problem to solve.

At the end of the day, it’s down to the individual writer to decide what they’re writing. How much do you want to massage the facts of an event you witnessed and are presenting as the truth? How much do you want to stick to believability when you talk about a fictional meeting between two famous people? How much do you want to protect the people you know in real life when you’re putting them into a story that may or may not have ever happened?

My Dinner With the Constitution

We got my daughter’s grades back. The worst remarks she got were in her gardening class. The teacher isn’t happy about the fact that she doesn’t always dress for gardening, and it’s apparent that because she’s outside digging in the dirt, she forgets that this is a class and she’s being judged on her behavior and participation.

We had a talk about what she might do to bring that grade up. What she said she hated most was when the teacher asked her “What are you grateful for.” It was the same question every time, and she always gave the same answer: photosynthesis. She knew the teacher was unhappy about the fact that she didn’t give the question more thought, but she didn’t care. Just being asked the question made her unhappy.

I understand that unhappiness. I’ve long been an outspoken opponent of what I call “that kumbaya bullshit” that one is asked to participate in during corporate team-building exercises. It’s not that I am not grateful for things, nor is my daughter. It’s the forced revelation that galls me. It’s none of my boss’s business what I like or don’t like about my workplace. I will do my work to the best of my ability, and if I feel there are things to appreciate, I will appreciate them. If I feel those things should be shared, I’ll share. If not, you can’t force me.

I told my daughter that the fifth amendment to the constitution protected her from ever having to say anything that would get her in trouble, and that the next time her gardening teacher asks her to give an answer to a question like “What are you grateful for?” she has my permission to say that she invokes her fifth amendment right to avoid self-incrimination. She said her teacher would likely make her to talk to the administrator, and I told her that’s fine. I stand willing to educate anyone about how the constitution applies in everyday life.

As we ate, it became apparent the kid wasn’t going to eat her veggies. After being commanded, she said that she was going to invoke her constitutional rights.

“Which ones?” I asked.

“I invoke my seventh amendment rights!”

“Great! You’ve invoked the right to a trial by jury. That means that we can ask all these good people here in the restaurant whether you should eat your veggies. If they come back with a yes, you eat them or I send you to jail.” She figured she would have 12% of the restaurant crowd on her side. She took a bite of carrots.

“Okay, I want to plead the eighteenth amendment!”

“Perfect! This means that you will not be allowed to drink hard liquor with your dinner. That’s okay, at the age of 12, that wasn’t likely anyway. But 21 is the magic number, when you turn 21, the 21st amendment, which repeals the prohibition of the 18th amendment, kicks in!”

“I want to plead the ninth amendment!”

“This means that any rights not specifically guaranteed by the federal government are up to the states to protect. The feds may say that children are required to eat their veggies, but it’s up to the states to enforce that requirement.”

“I’m invoking the fourteenth amendment, then.”

“That’s a GREAT one! The fourteenth amendment means that you are entitled to equal protection under the law. It means that any person in the United States is entitled to the same legal protections – trial by jury, ability to attain citizenship, constitutional protections – that everyone else gets. And that includes children. And this is why, when you say in class that you are invoking your fifth amendment rights, those rights are real. They can’t punish you without being in violation of the law.”

I can tell you one thing. She’s grateful to have parents who engage her in adult conversation. By the end of dinner, she was fully owning her rights.

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