See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me, Heal Me

“Don’t see me!”

My 6-year-old nephew holds his hands over his face. He’s angry because I teased him, and his punishment is to withhold himself from me. “Don’t see me.”

I admire my nephew for being able to be angry. For being able to look at someone who’s an authority figure over him and say that he’s angry and that they deserve punishment. I admire him because he can do something I can’t. When I’m confronted with authority, I can’t express anger. In fact, I can’t even feel it.

I used to work for a large company. My boss was very social and the two of us split the work of our department up between us – she schmoozed her superiors and made PowerPoint presentations, I did the actual tasks. She regularly told me that if I didn’t like working there, I could quit.  That I, a glorified marcomm dork in a job that paid over $100k a year and came with great benefits, could just waltz out of that office and find another job. In tech writing. During a recession.

I had frequent discussions with my boss about the source of our disconnect, but she never saw it as a disconnect. She saw our inability to work together as something I did on purpose, as though I was a different person outside of work – one who loved social gatherings, cats, and knitting – and just chose to be introverted, sarcastic and OCD at work to piss her off.

In these confrontations, she would tell me that my task execution was fine, but she hated everything else about me. I didn’t come to work early enough – she got up at 5 so she could be at work by 7. I didn’t stay at work long enough – she never left before 5:30. I didn’t interact enough with people from other departments – she scheduled meetings and lunches and get-togethers with other departments. I didn’t act happy enough – she acted like every day was a birthday party. Every word she spoke had the same meaning: Why can’t you be more like me?

She’s not the only person in my life who has excoriated me for being the person I am. My parents, my teachers, every authority figure in my life took me to task at some point for not being more social, for not being more cheerful, for not being more extroverted.

There was never a way to express my frustration with adults. As a child, I didn’t know words like “introvert” or “circumspect,” so I didn’t have any way to defend myself. I couldn’t explain that I hated big crowds. That being dragged to parties with people I didn’t know made me anxious and exhausted. That my bad moods weren’t just me being willful, but because I was overstimulated and unable to escape. And without a defense for my bad behavior, I was guilty as charged.

When you’re little, it’s easy to feel hopeless and sad because the adults around you don’t understand you. It’s commonly thought that the reason children in the “terrible twos” are so cranky all the time is that their reasoning ability outstrips their ability to communicate, leading to frustration. What happens when that inability follows you throughout your whole life? What happens when it’s not your ability to communicate that’s lacking, but the willingness of those around you to listen?

It takes a sense of power to feel angry. To express anger, a person has to start with the belief that they’ll be understood by the person they’re talking to. But when you’ve been misunderstood your whole life, you don’t have that. Anger gives you courage; to take away anger is to dis-courage.

I moved away from my family and quit that job, but I still struggle when it comes to feeling that I have the right to be the person that I am without explanation or justification. I struggle with the feeling that I could pour out a sea of words, and they would never be enough, because what I need isn’t for people to listen to me.

What I need is for them to see me.

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.

Can’t Buy Me Love

The Pirate is sitting across the table from me writing his own blog post. He just got an email from the Sundance Institute about six films chosen to counter the “delusions” of Valentine’s Day. The thrust of the email is that normal love stories are unreal, and the desire to think about love in a way that makes you happy is not just naïve, but stupid.

I’ve been disturbed for a long time about the trend to denigrate anything that isn’t 100% good and wonderful and wholesome – and, in fact, even some things that are. For instance, I defy you to name a single popular musician whose work has earned a gold record or won a Grammy or has otherwise reached a large audience, but whose personal life has not been the subject of tabloid gossip. In some instances, such as Jennifer Lopez, the tabloid gossip outstrips the star’s recognition for her actual work. In the case of artists like Michael Jackson or Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens), or even Richard Wagner, people’s opinion of their behavior colors their opinion of the work.

Politicians, who, up until Kennedy, were mostly well-respected as civil servants trying to do good for their constituents, are now among the most likely to have their private lives dissected in such a way that the kind of lapses in behavior that all of us have from time to time are magnified, discussed and interpreted in ways that paint those people as monsters.

People whose personal lives are beyond reproach aren’t safe. We can’t believe that anybody is truly good, so in the absence of actual dirt to dig up on people, we start rumors.  When I was a kid, it was completely uncool to admit to liking Mr. Rogers, even if your childhood was uncertain and you found his unceasing expressions of support and acceptance comforting. People express the same rancor even toward fictional characters who don’t show a negative side – characters like Barney the Dinosaur or Mary Poppins (who acknowledged that she was “practically perfect in every way”).

I object to this ongoing need to strike down anything or anyone that makes us feel that we should try to be better people. When you’re in love, you want to be a better person so that the object of your desire is proud of you. When you admire your heroes, you strive to emulate them and work hard to accomplish your goals. What’s wrong with that? I’ll tell you what media thinks is wrong with that – there’s no way for them to monetize that feeling. America is run on the principle that for our economy to work, everyone must be buying things all the time, and if you’re taking long walks in the woods, holding hands with your beloved, or staying in and cooking spaghetti for two, or sitting up all night talking, you’re not spending money. You need to be reminded that love is false, and to get someone to walk with you, eat with you, talk with you, you need to buy a lot of stuff that will keep them interested.

Similarly, if you’re committed to being a better person – a better athlete or singer or artist – our society tells you that what’s important about those people is not the results they deliver. It’s the image they present. So you need to have the clothes and the hair and the dazzling white teeth, not the hours of exhausting work developing yourself at a skill before anyone even notices you. Because nobody makes any money off that.

So, what are we allowed to love? What are we allowed to express unashamed delight for?

We’re allowed to love our favorite brands. In fact, companies spend billions of dollars trying to ensure that we do love our favorite brands. Brands are not just lines of products, they’re lifestyles, dreams, aspirations. You’ll never be able to have Warren Buffet’s success, but you can buy the same kind of espresso machine, vacuum cleaner, paper towels that he does, and feel that you’re somehow the same.

We’re allowed to love food. I Googled “I love food” and got 985 MILLION results.  Food has become ridiculous. In most restaurants in America, the portions are excessive – 2-3 meals’ worth of food served to each diner, thousands of calories in each course of each meal. We’re told that this is a good thing – that more food is a “value,” and we believe it because we can’t get enough chocolate cake and french fries. 

We’re allowed to love sex. America is famous for its twofold relationship with sex – worshipping it on the one hand with advertising that sexualizes everything from cars to clean dishes, and villifying it on the other hand as shameful and sinful. We can say that we love sex so that all of our friends will know that we’re normal, but we aren’t allowed to demonstrate it, or even say it too often. There’s a line here, folks.

But America can’t monetize love or admiration. Those things serve no purpose in the Corporate State, so they will be rooted out and discarded, replaced by dissatisfaction, insecurity, and the notion that if I buy something, I’ll feel better.

Lemme know how that works out for you, Corporate State. In the meantime, I’m married to that guy who’s also sad about love-bashers, and tonight we’re staying in and amusing ourselves by having a long, interesting conversation. Take that.

Film #6: C.O.G.

C.O.G. is based on a David Sedaris essay of the same name. The film follows David, who’s run away from his family in New York to Oregon where he plans to pick apples. First he works on a farm picking apples from trees. In just a couple of weeks, he’s offered a job at the apple processing plant. He has a run-in with a man from work who tries to rape him, so he can’t go back to the factory, and he can’t go back to the apple farm, so he ends up with a bitter, born-again vet who tries to teach him both how to cut slabs of jade into novelty clocks and how to accept Jesus.

Overall score: 4 out of 4

There was a lot of meat in David Sedaris’ original essay, and the writer/director made excellent use of it, leaving all of Sedaris’ salient points intact and expanding the religion theme to movie proportions.

My one question was whether the viewer would need to know David Sedaris and/or his work to understand everything going on, since the director chose to downplay David’s homosexuality until the end, and the actor playing David may have been a little snarky (like Sedaris himself), but he didn’t have either Sedaris’ soft, high-pitched voice or his slight stature. There was very little to suggest that the character David was gay, aside from one scene where a farmhand asks him if he has a woman and David denies it vehemently.

Otherwise, the film captured Sedaris’ own brand of unsparing, self-mocking humor. There were some really great lines: “What have you got against the Bible?” “It’s poorly written.” And there are many scenes that made me laugh in sympathy for a kid who was clearly trying to find himself and stumbling painfully in the process.  If this movie were picked up for theatrical release, I’d go see it again.

A Dream Where I Am Both Naked and Flying

Last night, I dreamed that I was corresponding with two different people, both of whom were slightly odd. One was a man I knew who liked to have long, rambling conversations about fantastical, nonsensical things. He would drink bottle after bottle of cheap beer, smoke the occasional cigarette (just to see if he still thought it was gross) and hold forth. His letters, therefore, were long, written with at least four different pens, usually contained at least one beer-bottle-bottom ring and smelled of cigarette ash that I’m sure he flecked in there on purpose.

Each time I received a letter from him, I would read it all the way through and laugh and think and feel privileged that he wrote to me. I would sit down to compose a reply, but I could never reply all in a single sitting, so I carried both letter and reply around with me for days until I had worked my way through the whole thing, then posted it back to him.

The other correspondent was also a man, but his letters were even stranger. They referred to current events, to minor local celebrities, to world politics and arts and literature. They made wild suppositions and fantastical claims and sly jokes. I had only written back once, and the reply asked me to come and visit him.

I came right from visiting the rambling beer drinker, who was in sort of a funk. He was a teacher at a private high school, and now that the school year was over needed a job for the next few months. He’d been doing this kind of work for years, but he always seemed taken by surprise when summer came. I invited him to come with me to meet the other person, but he seemed hurt by the prospect that I was corresponding with someone else, as though letter writing were our love affair and I should never have done it with anyone else. I left wondering if I would ever get another letter from him.

The address was in a small open-air mall in an expensive part of town, making me think that my mystery correspondent was a shop owner. As I came around a corner, I saw about twenty chairs arranged under some potted plants, most occupied by men and women holding sheets of paper that they were reading, writing on and showing each other. As I walked among them, I heard snatches of the contents of the letters I had received, sometimes verbatim, sometimes slightly altered.

It took me a few minutes to realize that what I had taken to be an anonymous, delightful correspondence with a smart, interesting individual was, in fact, a delightful experiment with literature and the magazine form. It was a new kind of magazine, hand-written by its authors and mailed out in letter form. It was like a chatty letter from home. When I wrote back, they decided to ask me to come and write for them. I was intrigued by the idea, and immediately sad that my friend, whom I considered to be a much better letter-writer than myself, had decided not to come.

 

When I woke up, I thought for a long time about what magazines are, and what we want them to be. We use social media to feel connected with people, but I believe that the reason it doesn’t work is because we know that the person sending out a missive on social messaging took about 30 seconds to do it, and that the same message is available to everyone. The feeling of holding a letter that had taken someone hours to hand-write was so intimate and thoughtful that the revelation that one of my correspondents was actually a magazine felt even more delightful. What are the possibilities of an epistolary periodical? It seems like it would be the most fun thing in the world, both to create and to receive.

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?

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.