What I Have

There’s something very uncomfortable about having. The recent protests against the profligate rich have framed the debate as being between the haves and the have-nots, but those labels can be applied to any group who feels oppressed. Any group fighting for civil rights is a have-not. Frankly, anyone who’s in a position to feel dissatisfied with their lot probably thinks of themselves as a have-not. And they despise those who have.

graph showing average income

It only takes a little over $150k a year to be in the top 10%, and the more you make, the closer you are to the 1%. In California’s Silicon Valley there are plenty of firms paying this kind of money.

 

So, if you have money, you can’t possibly feel good about it. Even if you donate to charities, help the poor, etc., you’re still a rich bastard living on the backs of the poor.

My father, who is on the Board of Directors for the ACLU in Arizona, does a lot of work on behalf of those people who are being racially profiled and unfairly persecuted by local government. Arizona is a haven for old, scared, politically conservative white people, and the government there thrives by playing on their fears. My father is Mexican, and looks it. My mother, on the other hand, is Scottish. I look like my mother, and therefore, no one would ever think to ask me for my immigration papers if I were ever to be pulled over. But that fact causes me nothing but shame, as does the fact that I was born in Arizona in the first place.

I’ve been happily married for nearly ten years to a man who’s interesting to be around, well-read, likes thoughtful political discussions and foreign films, etc. In short, we’re very well suited and get on like gangbusters. We often hear remarks from people about how obvious it is that we have a great relationship. That’s heartening, but I also hate to bring it up, because I am friends with a lot of people who are either in crappy relationships or wish they were in some kind of relationship but aren’t.

I guess the long and the short of it is that I’m happy. I have a good life, and I’m enjoying it, but at the same time I’m eaten up with shame because I know that so many others aren’t happy, and a lot of them think that I don’t deserve to be happy either. I don’t think anyone’s so unrealistic as to say “If every single person on earth can’t be happy, no one should be happy,” but it does seem that an alarming number of folks live by “if I’m not happy, nobody should be.”

I hope that a lot more people are like me. Enjoying happy, fulfilling lives, but doing it quietly, so as not to bother anyone.

False Modesty

Raise your hand if you didn’t know I’m an introvert.

No one? Good. You’ve all been paying attention.

Woman with two women in background

Unless your entire conversation is about “Here’s what’s going through my mind about you right now,” you have no idea. And even then, they could be lying.

 

One of the hallmarks of introversion is the tendency to spend a lot of time and energy thinking about how others perceive and receive us. “Does he understand what I mean?” “What did she mean by that?” “I shouldn’t have said that.” “He hates me.” One of my greatest fears is being boring, so I remember things that people talk about that have bored me and I avoid those topics.

At the top of the list of boring subjects is complaints. That’s not to say that a friend or family member relating pain or privation is uninteresting to me, but you know the kind of people who can’t have a conversation without it being a litany of the injustices done to them. They hate their jobs, their friends disappoint them, their families are a misery and they have no hobbies or pursuits that bring them joy. These people think that the world is out to get them, and if you don’t participate in their view of the world, you’re against them too. I want to say “I understand that you’re going through a hard time and I wish there were something I could do about it,” but that’s where my expertise ends. I usually can’t do anything about it, and I feel horrible about that.

I’m no different than anyone else in the world in that I have problems. The most visible of my problems is my weight, which is a constant source of aggravation to me, but there are plenty of others. I hate talking about the crappy little day-to-day things that drive me crazy because I can’t imagine that anyone would find those things remotely interesting. I don’t find them interesting, and they’re my problems.

The drawback to not talking about the things that aggravate, confuse or frustrate me is that to the people I speak to most often, I come off as either never having any problems or as not caring about the ones I do have.  I’ve heard from several people I admired who’ve said “But you seem like you have everything together!” Which floors me every single time, because I tend to look at the world as though everyone in it knows something that I don’t and I’m constantly playing catch-up.

I’ve realized a common trait among the people I admire most: they’re all able to distill their own internal states and report them honestly with no fear of judgement. What does that do to people they interact with? If I say to someone “How are things?” and they say “Not great, my dog is sick and I’m distracted with worry,” I feel a few things:

  • I’m grateful that my friend has shared something important with me
  • I understand what tone the conversation should take and if my friend’s reactions are subdued or distracted, why
  • I know not to make demands on them because they’re not themselves

What this tells me is that I need to get better at being not just more honest, but more complete in my communication with people. I need to stop pretending that I’m always fabulous and ready to give my utmost to everyone, because I’m not. I want everyone to think that I’m always available to them, but I’m doing them a disservice because the truth is that I’m not always able to give people my full attention. Sometimes, life distracts me and I am unable to look away. I’m not better than anybody else just because I don’t admit to it.

Best Surprises From Grad School

Tomorrow’s the end of my residency, and this one was entirely different than my first. Everything was a surprise my first residency, so it was hard to tell which parts of my experience were unusual and which weren’t. And, of course, since happy people are all alike and unhappy people are all different, I just assumed that all our experiences writing alone during the project period were different.

First surprise: Not everyone had such a hands-off mentor. My mentor gave very little feedback on my writing, and only talked about my annotations to the extent that they were in the expected format. At first, I was okay with it. I was very busy during this project period, and if I had been working under a mentor that required a lot of new material or a lot of rewrites  every month, a lot of things would have been difficult. My mentor was also supportive of my technological efforts. This was absolutely related to my writing, but was separate from it. But hearing the stories of my fellow students who published tons of shorter fiction, who got their novels into publication shape, who received constant feedback, I began to feel cheated. I wonder what else I could have done with a mentor who was more hands-on. My mentor for the next project period is, I have been told, the polar opposite of my last mentor. We’ll see what that means for my writing.

Second surprise: They remembered me. Last project period, I knew no one and spent a lot of time trying to work up the courage to get into conversations. I was afraid that less-new students would look down on my inexperience. This time, I knew lots of people, and they said hello and we had lots to talk about and we shared our experiences and laughed like old friends. I met the incoming cohort, and they’re all wonderful folks. I’ve spent lots of time talking to them, hoping that none of them feel the way I felt. And in December when I come back, there’ll be even more new people, and the new people from this residency will have become old friends.

Third surprise: Lots of women writing horror. I listened to a great lecture on horror from a woman who was like a female version of my friend Cliff, the ultimate horror fan (right down to her dreadlocks). I listened to another great lecture on writing “transgressive characters” (think pedophiles, serial killers, etc.) by a woman who was trying to get to the bottom of her fascination with what makes someone turn into a pedophile. And that’s just the lectures. There are so many women writing great genre fiction here, and it fills me with hope.

There were tons of surprises every day – it’s always a treat to be in the midst of smart people busy thinking up cool things. At one point, I was in a lecture given by Aimee Bender, and the woman next to me said that she had graduated a year ago and she was still coming to lectures, because alumni are allowed to attend all the lectures they want forever. I was blown away at the thought that I could keep coming back, keep hearing all this amazing stuff – forever. I think that was the best surprise. I may never come back once I’ve been graduated, but I could.

How I Got Published: Grad School Stories

Back when I first started taking writing seriously, I started going to writing conferences. Almost all writing conferences are the same: there’s some famous author who speaks at the beginning, telling their story about getting published, then a bunch of seminars that coach participants on the basics of writing: character building, plot basics, creating tension, good opening scenes, believable dialogue. The advice they gave us about finding an agent and a publisher was always the same: go to bookstores and find books that are like yours, then find the agents and publishers who represented those books and query them. They acknowledged that each of us would have to query a lot of agents and publishers, and that it would be difficult, confusing and an uphill battle.

What bothered me was that so few of the authors had actually gone that route. The first one I heard was a Chinese-American writer who was doing grad work when her professors told their contacts about her writing. When she came home on vacation, there were messages from agents on her answering machine because Chinese-American writing was hot. Another author said that she took copies of her manuscript wherever she went and handed them out to everyone she encountered, and she finally got an offer from an agent. Another one went to grad school and decided that she wanted to win a particular literary prize. She kept revising and submitting her manuscripts until she won it, then the agents came to her.

This isn’t fair. It makes me feel like there’s a fictional, accepted way of doing things – writing the impossible query letter, sussing out the exact right agents/publishers for our work (woe betide those of us who write a variety of different kinds of work), sending out and tracking a million queries. Everyone has signed a secret contract that this fiction is what we’re going to tell writers at conferences and seminars and MFA programs. It’s like that fiction that you’re going to meet the right person, fall in love, get married and live happily ever after.

The possibilities of electronic literature complicate the picture even more. Self-publishing ebooks, indie presses, print on demand – they all factor into the equation now, and the rules are changing. I’d like to stop this lie about the golden path to publication. Let’s go ahead and say “Do whatever it takes. Be inventive. Be persistent. But above all, be good at what you do.”

I think that’s the advice I’m going to give.

Why I Broke Up

I just finished reading Daniel Handler and Maira Kalman‘s book Why We Broke Up. I’m a long way from being a high school girl (and my husband, who only got through the first couple of chapters is an even longer way away) but it brought so many things back to me.

After I finished it, I turned to my husband and asked him what he had thought about it. He said that he wondered why Min, the protagonist telling the story, dated Ed, the popular co-captain of the school’s basketball team in the first place. I told him that even though I’m happy in my life now, even though I like the person I am and I’ve surrounded myself with people whose friendship makes sense to me, when I was a kid, if one of the super-popular boys had asked me out, I would have said yes in a heartbeat. Sure, my conscious mind would have said “He’s just setting you up for some humiliating practical joke!” but my mouth would have said “Yes.”

Back when I first moved to the Bay Area, the popular guy did ask me out. He was a body builder and programmer (remember, this was back in the late 90s, the height of the bubble, when programmers were all gods) and he approached me at a coffee place. When I met his friends, he told them that he loved me. He would take baths with me so that he could brush my hair, and he would sing me to sleep. Even though I was also bodybuilding and regularly carried two full 5-gallon water jugs (that’s 40 pounds in each hand) the five blocks from the Safeway to my house, he would take heavy things out of my hands. “I can carry it!” I would protest. “I know,” he’d say, and gently take them anyway.

But after four idyllic weeks together, it all fell apart quickly and completely. He disappeared without explanation for three days and then seemed surprised that I was angry about it. He began behaving erratically – coming to my place late at night, picking fights, spending whole evenings at my place not even speaking to me. It wasn’t so much the fights. It was that he went from hanging on my every word to forgetting that I was in the room with him.

And then came the day that he told me he’d been taking steroids. My genetics mean that I was able to build up muscle easily, but it wasn’t quite as easy for this guy, so he cheated. I told him I wanted to see him, and when he came over, I had this few things all ready in a paper bag by the door. The actual breakup took about 30 seconds.

It took me years to get over missing the fact that someone knew I was capable of skipping up 3 flights of stairs with 100 pounds of groceries in my arms and insisting that he would do it for me. Of missing being sung to sleep. Of missing having my hair brushed. On the other hand, what I have now, I’ve had for 12 years. There’s something to be said for that. The Pirate may not have been the popular guy back when we were kids, but nowadays, he’s the most popular guy in the house.

 

My Revision Process

I went to the zoo recently, and while watching a giraffe walk like two men on stilts in a tent, it occurred to me that my own editing process looks much like the revision process I believe God went through in making the horse.

a rhinocerous

They pee straight backward. Did you know that?

The Rhinocerous Phase

I’ve finished my manuscript. It’s huge. It’s got bits on it that look like they were tacked on at the last minute, and the parts don’t feel like they fit together very well. Much like the rhino, perhaps the legs are a little thin for the body, the skin doesn’t look like it fits quite right, and the eyes are too small. But it’s got all the requisite parts, in more or less the right place. When I look at it, though, I think to myself “this isn’t nearly as graceful, as flowing, as uplifting as I was hoping for.” So, I start smoothing things out a bit.

a hippopotamus

When I was a kid, we called these “hippomopotamus.” Okay, I still call them that.

The Hippopotamus Phase

I’ve smoothed things out. It’s not as warty, the bits that obviously don’t belong have been taken out, I’ve made a few improvements to the flow. It’s definitely smoother, but look at it. It’s still a bit more bloated than I was hoping for. It’s not very graceful, except when underwater and all the ink begins to run and swirl, but I don’t kid myself about the way that most editors read – they don’t do it underwater. This thing needs to look wonderful and powerful and majestic on land. Time to do some cutting.

a tapir, but not the flying kind

One of my biology professors once went through an entire lecture talking about “flying tapirs.” He meant “flying lemurs,” but I have invested in a special pith helmet just in case I’m ever in the Brazilian jungle.

The Tapir Phase

I’ve cut it down. My lovely piece of writing is now about a third the size it was before. I’ve taken out long, boring expositions, lingering descriptions of scenery, pages of unnecessary background. But it’s still sort of lumpy and ungainly. It’s still not the model of effortless verbal grace I’ve been imagining. And that bit I added on the front there? I don’t think that’s working out at all. So, time to perhaps add a little back. Time to start thinking hard about what’s really important. I want my piece to be the right length, but there’s also breadth and height and all that. Color wouldn’t be bad either.

an okapi

It’s fun to look at, but stylistically, a bit of a mess.

The Okapi Phase

I’ve gone back to the drawing board. I’ve taken all the parts of my story that I felt really had something, and I re-wrote everything else. I added new characters with pizzazz and sparkle. And I gave one guy a funny speech impediment. And I added this great scene between the bad guy and his chief minion where they’re ordering pizza. And it’s really starting to look much more like what I was envisioning. The plot is all hanging together really well, but…well…it’s just not quite there. Not quite. Almost, though. I can certainly see glimpses of greatness. From a certain angle, it’s got a certain majesty to it. But yeah, maybe I’ve overdone. What am I really going for here? More The Great Gatsby, or Cat in the Hat? I have to make some hard choices.

two giraffes running

They’re every bit as graceful as a creature made entirely of knees.

The Giraffe Phase

I’m almost there! I can see it! I’ve toned it down, I’ve shaped and pared the story until its crystalline structure just sings. The plot is everything I’m hoping for, but I do have to admit, the language is letting me down in places. Too stilted in some places, too awkward in others. I’m looking for a more consistent tone and voice, and am willing to sacrifice the 17″-long purple tongue to get it. And I think that succumbing to the urge to add back the horns was, in retrospect, a mistake.

a mule

The only difference between a mule and a horse is some misplaces modifiers and too many commas.

The Mule Phase

I’ve been working on this one story forever. I’m getting sick of it. It’s beginning to smell. And yet, it’s so close! I’ve taken out the awkward bits, polished up the language, and it is now nearly everything I want it to be. Except for that place on page 68 where I typed “that” instead of “then.” And that other place where I didn’t capitalize the last name of the girlfriend. And that place where it was Tuesday at the beginning of the scene and Monday at the end. But I’m so close. I can’t taste it, but boy, can I ever smell it.

a horse

Not only is it beautiful, but it’s also fast, and can kick your ass. And it’s a vegetarian.

Success!

It’s done! It’s beautiful! No one reading this can deny that it’s a masterpiece. Yes, it took a lot of work to get here, but I’ve got a story with grace, flow, majesty…and the kind of legs that will hopefully carry me to a sequel.