Saturday, October 13, 2018

My NaNoWriMo Project: #NaNoRBG

I've dubbed my NaNoWriMo project #NaNoRBG, not so much because it has anything to do with Ruth Bader Ginsberg or the Supreme Court particularly.

More because of Ruth Bader Ginsberg's quote: "When I'm sometimes asked when will there be enough [women on the Supreme Court] and I say, 'When there are nine,' people are shocked. But there'd been nine men, and nobody's ever raised a question about that.”

More because I'm furious that Brett Kavanaugh got away with every inch of how he behaved in his hearings and still got the Supreme Court nomination, while Serena Williams shows anger and loses her game and her title. (One of the two of these things lasts for life, too.)

More because, when I was early on in exploring professional writing advice online, I came across an article that told me that it's best to write stories with male protagonists because the publishing industry wants to be better able to market to boys, and I hated that article so much.

More because Shannon Hale is right when she puts the blame on adults for discouraging boys from reading books about girls and gendering books as "boy" books and "girl" books.

More because, when I read The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson for a grad school class, we had a whole discussion about how it felt like there were so many female characters, but even in a story set in a matriarchy, it's just better than half the named cast.

More because it's so easy for a website like ScreenRant to come up with a list of fifteen movies that have literally no female characters, but I'm having a hard time finding any with literally no male characters, even in this age of genderbent reboots.

So, I'm writing a novel where all the named characters are female, female-identifying, or nonbinary. Every. Single. One.

It's a book about a teen psychic who gets abducted by a demon and narrowly avoids getting sacrificed on the table of prophecies by channeling a powerful prophecy of her own. But, once she's given the demons a window into the future and an opportunity to thwart their human adversaries, the weight of consequence falls heavy on her shoulders. If she doesn't escape from the depths of the demon library where she's being held and warn mankind of the impending doom, the world could end--and it would be her fault.

Teen psychic Cassandra is joined by demon hunter in training Kennedy, an orphan trained from birth by the mysterious Hands of the Seers. Kennedy's mentor was killed in in the same ambush that led to Kennedy getting captured and thrown down in the pits of the demon library. She knows they'll feed her to the vampires or cut her open and bleed her out for some dark ritual if she doesn't escape, but she doesn't see a way out, until Cassie appears, mopping the hallway outside Kennedy's cell, and the potential collaboration sparks a glimmer of hope in her heart.

Throw in a fossilized gryphon egg that--turns out--isn't so fossilized for added spice.

That's my #NaNoWriMo project. If anyone else wants to write (or has) a novel they're working on with exactly 0 named male characters and wants to borrow the hashtag #NaNoRBG this month, you are welcome to it!

Whatever you're writing, whether you're all in for NaNoWriMo or you're working at your own pace like the rockstar you are, I wish you the best inspiration, motivation, and time to work your writing magic out there.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Doctor Who: More Please!

Today is one of those days when I dearly miss my friend Jason. His birthday is coming up, and also I would love to share the new Doctor Who with him. He's the friend who introduced me to Doctor Who, who started me on Eighth Doctor, of all places, back when Tennant was Ten. He made lighthearted references to episodes from Nine and Ten's seasons that I hadn't seen yet, so that when I watched a moment, I could come back to him and geek out. He was the best kind of fan--the kind who welcomed everyone to come and enjoy.

Other friends, too, shared Doctor Who with me. I stopped watching shortly after the Capaldi seasons started because the writing didn't hold me the way it used to, or because I didn't have anyone to directly watch and discuss it with. Probably a bit of both. But, today I shared this new season premiere with two friends.

I think Jason would like Jodi Whittaker as the Doctor. I know I did. There are so many things I can list as reasons why I loved her, so many things I enjoyed about this episode. And from here on there are (mild) spoilers. If you haven't seen the episode, and you don't want spoilers, turn back. (I'll actually use a jump break so that if you're viewing this from the top page, you can just scroll to the next post.)

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Lirael, and Being Whoever You Are

Note, reiterated: There's no such thing as spoilers for a book that's more than, like, ten years old. Still, if you want to read the Old Kingdom series for yourself untainted, here there be spoilers. You have been warned.

Look, somehow, I can't start talking about Lirael without making a Steven Universe reference today, so here we are. If I spent most of the book wishing I could grab a ukulele and chase Lirael and Sameth around singing loudly at them, "Why don't you let yourself just be somewhere different? / Whoa, why don't you let yourself just be whoever you are?" can you really blame me?

Because this is a book that begins with fourteen-year-old who has not gained the same magical gift of future vision as everyone else in her community. And she looks different from everyone else. And she feels so hopeless because of what she isn't that she decides she should commit suicide. It's such a gut-wrenchingly painful place to start: She isn't like everyone else, so she might as well stop existing.

Fortunately for all parties involved, the arrival of Queen Sabriel and King Touchstone throws a wrench in Lirael's suicide attempt, and when she's discovered eavesdropping, hiding in a snowbank, the two powerful twin seers Sanar and Ryelle let her know that they didn't come into their ability until they were sixteen and advise her to do something with her time besides wait for her gifts to develop. And so Lirael becomes a librarian.

(And, the Library of the Clayr is definitely at least subconsciously part why I wanted to be a librarian for a while there. Sorry, Rothfuss, but it's still cooler than the Archives.)

It takes Lirael nearly seven hundred pages to begin to see herself as who she is, to recognize and embrace her unique talents. (Granted, she splits those pages with Sameth, but for me it's her book.) There's this distinct difference between being told that it's okay that you aren't like everyone else, and actually feeling like it's okay, and Lirael struggles with that difference. The people around her would technically accept her as she is (though their acceptance is passive at best when their lives are so full of their Sight that they have a hard time being present in the moment). Even if it were more active, their acceptance bears less weight until she starts to see herself differently--

Not as what she isn't.

But as what she is.

So, on the one hand we have Lirael, who wants desperately to be like everyone else even though no one else is pressuring her to become a seer. A girl with no apparent destiny. A dusty forgotten book on a shelf.

And on the other hand, we have Prince Sameth, who is assumed to be the Abhorsen-in-Waiting, destined to take his mother's place fighting the Dead. Only, he's terrified of Death, and he's pretty sure he can't do the job everyone expects him to do. He's got this great talent for making things with charter magic--which the people around him ignore because, well, who cares if you can make a charter magic frog thing that can eat mosquitoes while you travel when you've got a Grand Destiny to live up to?

Instead of fessing up at any point, instead of feeling safe to tell even his family how he really feels inside, he bottles it up and tries to live to the expectation. If he's going to be Abhorsen some day, well, he'll just have to suck it up and figure it out, won't he?

Except life doesn't work like that.

How many children end up with all kinds of bottled stress and anxiety because their family expects them to live up to a set of expectations, and they have something else in their hearts? How many artists get shoehorned into more practical jobs and forced to treat their craft as a hobby at best? How many members of the LGBT community try to fake being straight and cisgender because that's what's expected, and maybe if they try hard enough, long enough, it will somehow work out?

How many people suffer from depression and harbor thoughts of suicide because we aren't a little bit more vocal about how much we love what makes them unique? Because we can't accept them, listen to them, and lift them up?

Sameth puts pressure on himself to be something he's not because of the active expectations placed upon his shoulders. Lirael puts pressure on herself because of the passive awareness of the societal norms she doesn't fit. And it feels so good when both let go of what they aren't, and they start to see themselves for who they really are.

Looking forward to Abhorsen next, because this aunt and her nephew are positively powerhouses in their own right once they cut loose and embrace their own identities.

(Yeah, Lirael is Sabriel's little sister. Which makes her Sameth's aunt. And it makes me glad that Garth Nix had Lirael shut down Sam's little smidge of romantic interest even when they didn't know it because, well, that would have been awkward.)

As one final note: THE DISREPUTABLE DOG. The Disreputable Dog. Oh, my stars. The Disreputable Dog. 10/10 would pet and provide with tasty table scraps.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Horror Movie Marathon

I found myself with a lonely day: my roommates were tired, my husband traveling, Stephanie already back at school. I embraced this - after a weekend cruise that involved crowds, a cramped cabin, and constant stimulation, a day to chill was welcome.

So I googled: best horror movies on Netflix. I love horror movies… but so often, they disappoint. Horror as a genre should be about taking a slippery-slope into the darkest fears of the human experience, but I find that mainstream horror tends to be more slashers or torture-porn, and I usually roll my eyes at the trailers.

However, I do think there has been a resurgence of quality horror lately. After all, Get Out and Quiet Place were among the best films I've seen in years. This made me feel like giving this list a try. I had a delightfully frightening day, and so this post will be a review/analysis of the four films I watched. There will be spoilers, so I recommend watching them before reading on. All of them are worth it!


I started with a movie that has been on my list for months: Raw. The summary intrigued me, and I had tried to find it on Netflix while visiting my sister-in-law in France this summer. It wasn't available at the time, so imagine my surprise when it turned out to be a French film! Get on the ball, French Netflix.

The premise: A veterinary student endures hazing as she enters school. One ritual involves eating a rabbit liver raw, which is a problem since she is a vegetarian. She caves, only when her sister, an older student, pressures her into it. Soon, she craves every kind of meat and ends up with a disgusting but unique zombie / cannibal syndrome.

This syndrome echoes the experiences a young person might have as they transition away from their home and supervision of their parents into drug or alcohol use. The pressure to indulge is high, it is difficult to find moderation, she doesn't quite understand how it will affect her, and she ends up hurting herself and others. The plotline effectively explores our deep fears of addiction and loss of self control, especially due to peer pressure and the fear of being excluded. But this is nicely balanced against the relationship developed between the two sisters. (I love, love, love the way horror lends itself away from tired romance plots!) The older sister knows the ropes of both the school and their syndrome well, and she knows how to manage it… until she doesn't, and frequently lapses herself. The sisterhood is co-dependent, but co-destructive.

Star Garance Marillier (excuse the pun) killed her performance - at the beginning, she sells the quiet-girl schtick so well that by the time she turns feral, she had turned all my expectations upside down. Also, the love interest was super hot (and spoke French the whole movie, hell yes!).

It Follows

This was definitely the scariest of the four! A young woman has sex with her new boyfriend, and gets a unique STD: a curse. She is cursed to be followed. There is a demon that can take any form that will just walk toward her at a slow-to-moderate pace. If it catches her, she dies.

The protagonist, Jay, is surrounded by a group of friends who believe her story, although they cannot see the demon themselves, and commit to helping her. Although there are romantic notes in this story, it's primarily a story of the power of friends, especially in groups. The romances that do develop bloom out of those friendships, which is a nice deviation from the tropes of the "friendzone" or "love at first sight" narratives we see too often.

This resonated with me very much. I live at quite a distance from my family - yes, we live on opposite ends of the country, but we also have large distances in our philosophies and approaches to life. They continue to be religious, where I am a militant atheist. They are conservative, and I'm very liberal. On Sundays, they go to church, and I go to boozy brunch. We still love each other, but such differences mean that it's not always easy to open up to them because there's so much dissonance. So, I have built a family around me here. I live with my husband and his brother, and two married roommates and friends. I have Stephanie, who might live across the country, but who I know would come to my aid if ever I was haunted by a slow-walking demon. So, I really understood when Jay refused to tell her parents about the demon or ask for their help - she had her friends, who were every bit as reliable, committed, and loving as family could be.

Another aspect of this story that caught my eye was the way in which everyone around Jay expected
her to accuse the boy who had given her the curse of rape. The police ask, pointedly, "Are you sure it was consensual?" and she nods. Yes, it was. Even her friend shakes his head and says, "What did he really do to you?" I appreciated these moments because so often, there is this false narrative that women call RAPE! out of revenge, to punish her partner when she is disappointed after the act. Of course, Jay is upset at being used and terrified by the curse, and in many ways she was victimized even if it was not through sexual assault specifically, but she, herself, never goes there. Everyone expects her to. They would "rescue" her and punish the boy, if she gave them cause… but she doesn't. Jay refuses to do that, as I expect most women would.

Thematically, this film seems to address our human fear that death is coming for us. Perhaps, it could be viewed as a story about a serious-to-fatal STD, like HIV, which you have to constantly treat or it can sneak up behind you. However, the film doesn't dwell so much on the sex that it could not be relatable for people who aren't sexually active, and the film doesn't slut-shame. Death could be "following" you for any reason - Jay's happens to be the sex she was duped into, but yours could be a car accident or a disease… or just age.

Cinematically, this was a traditional horror film - shot in third person, the actors beautiful young people in suburbia, intense music, jump scenes, and creepy over-the-shoulder shots of the demon closing in. Creepy, but enjoyable!


This one stars the fabulous Karen Gillan, who I already loved from Guardians of the Galaxy and Jumanji. It weaves together two narratives brilliantly, past and present. As children, brother and sister watched their parents suffer at the hands of an evil mirror. As adults, they try to "hack" the mirror to document and prove its evil before destroying it. In that way, it was a very "traditional" versus "modern" storyline, where the mirror used old-school magic and the protagonists used timers, cameras, and phones to stay one step ahead.

This film was also very traditional in its filming - gore, jump scenes, the works. Its power came from the unique villain: the mirror does not seem to be a specific ghost or demon, but instead mostly a complex self-defense system. It uses psychological tricks to outwit the humans who intended to hack its magic.

The film did a beautiful job of exploring the ways in which our minds can be tricked. It is infrequent that we realize how false our memories can be, how we can doubt or justify our actions for no reason, or act without thinking. This movie shoves this reality right in your face and won't let you turn away.

But in addition, I wonder if this does not represent the fear we have toward technology like Facebook. It can jerk us, emotionally, in any direction, any time, for its own interests. We struggle between that feeling of being coerced and a feeling that we can change the system, if we can "hack" it… but in the end, we only fuel it, at the expense of ourselves.


This film was the hardest for me to buy into, in terms the viewer experience. It features a videographer who is hired by a (supposed) terminal cancer patient to document his life for his (supposed) son-to-be, who will be born after he dies. Much of the film is first-person - you watch it through the camera of the videographer filming and minimally commenting from the other side of the lens. This was disconcerting, for sure, since most films aren't shot this way. But it was also uncomfortable because you watch the story unfold from the eyes of the "victim," but you have no control over what he does. It feels like being in the front seat, but not the driver's seat, as you drive off a cliff.

If you asked me to summarize this movie, I would say it is a "white Get Out." It delves into similar moments and catharsis as the audience shouts at the protagonist to get out of there!!! but watches in horror as the protagonist, Aaron, decides not to. It is distinct - he thinks it would be an overreaction or a sign of weakness to admit he is afraid, even when he sees clear red flags. And since, as a man, he has no real practice being afraid, he barely knows what to do!

Fundamentally, this film is about toxic masculinity. Literally no woman would have fallen into this trap. Go meet a man I don't know off an internet ad? Nope. Walk with him into a secluded forest? Nope. Oh, he sent you a package? Don't open it. Call the police. Stay with a friend - or lots of them (see also, It Follows, above!). He wants to meet to explain? Noooooo.

See, women operate under the daily assumption that we could be axe-murdered by any man, any time. Men don't. This film really plays with that. Aaron is afraid, he is terrorized, but he is unwilling to admit it or take action because that's not how men are socialized to react. This is nicely reinforced when he finally calls the police to report a stalker - the police are so dismissive that Aaron hangs up and resolves to "man up" and handle it himself.

This also addresses the real problems that we have as a society by not acknowledging the ways men are victimized. Women are a bit more comfortable asking for rescue because we are consistently told that we need it - see the whole "damsel" trope. But men can be targeted in the same way and instead be laughed off, even when they are in significant danger. Male victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and (in this case) stalking, are just not taken seriously and thus do not receive adequate help. Throughout this whole story, the villain relied on Aaron's unwillingness to acknowledge his fear and the fact that he would receive little support from authorities. A toxic but absolutely reliable cycle that the villain knew would work in his favor.


At the end of the day, I realized this was a terrible idea because the same solitude that afforded me the space to spend all day watching awesome scary movies meant that I did not have my big, strong husband to keep me safe when I went to bed! Every bump in the night had me wide awake, and I only drifted off when I started streaming the news on my phone for white noise.

But, totally worth it!

Saturday, September 29, 2018

If Reading Builds Empathy...

Note: This is an opinion piece. This is not a scholarly essay. It's not going to have well-cited sources. I've read all the books I discuss here. I've been forced to read them in high school, and re-read them for graduate school. I've read teacher guides on them and listened to teachers discuss the merits of teaching these books. Everything here is anecdotal. It's more of a question than an answer.

I have a vehement hatred for a specific sub-genre of realism: White Boy Attends Prep School and Reveals the Human Condition.

See: Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, A Separate Peace by John Knowles.

White boys attending prep schools are in a minority in the US. They are definitely special, in that they have unique experiences that are pretty much inaccessible to the wider population. Reading books about their experiences should be like an anthropological experience.

"Here, we see this bizarre subculture where everything is cutthroat and emotions must be bottled up and buried because discussing them is a sign of weakness. They claim the law of the jungle is kill or be killed, that life is hopeless and without meaning."

Instead, high school curriculum treats these boys' experiences as somehow thematically reflective of all humanity. Holden Caulfield deserves our empathy even while he views the whole of the universe with a cynic's eye and calls anything and everything phony. The boys of the Lord of the Flies teach us lessons about how we're all little murderers at heart.

For a long, long time (and I know things are changing, and I know some teachers who are doing great work within the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement), the protagonists taught in High School English looked and behaved like Brett Kavanaugh. Placed on pedestals, the subject of essays and classroom discussions for decades. The ones that were treasured, listened to, given the benefit of the doubt.

Maybe no one (or very few people) intentionally taught that because these protagonists were worth studying, representative of the human condition as they are, that made white boys clearly superior and more genuine and more believable. But I have to wonder at the correlation.

If books teach empathy toward their subject matter, and the books that decades of people have been forced to read teach empathy specifically toward rich white dude protagonists, then does this mean some people are more likely to believe the rich white dude when his victim is equally credible? Is there some small bit of familiarity because of common ground in books?

#WeNeedDiverseBooks because we need empathy for all people. We need all voices to be viewed as equally deserving of empathy, not just one minority population.

It's not about replacing the classics. It's about contextualizing them, pairing them with books that demonstrate similar themes with other faces or contradictory themes that underscore problematic assumptions.

We need books like The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks by E. Lockhart, where the young woman attending the prep school hijacks the top secret boy's club and manipulates its members and gets burned by her own toxic behaviors.

We need books like The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, where we develop empathy for Starr as she navigates cultural pressures in all aspects of her life, at home and at school.

We Need Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli to feel the pain of a homosexual student in the closet.

We need immigrant stories like The Good Braider by Terry Farish.

We need so much more than prep school boys can ever teach us.

We need to teach how valuable all voices are.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Sabriel, and Local Problems

I've been taking far, far, far too long to get around to reading Clariel and Goldenhand by Garth Nix, and I decided that in order to get myself in the right place to do it, I would reread the original Old Kingdom books.

I have not been disappointed.

My initial reaction was, "These books hold up well ten years after publication."

Then I had to remind myself that the 90s are now, you know, twenty years ago.

Then I felt old.

Note: There's no such thing as spoilers for a book that's more than, like, ten years old. Still, if you want to read the series for yourself untainted, here there be spoilers.
That aside, two things that struck me with Sabriel:

First, Sabriel doesn't set out to be the Chosen One or Save the World. A spirit approaches her from Death and presents her with her father's sword and necromancer bells, and she refuses to believe her father is dead. She leaves on her quest purely and entirely to rescue her father. There's so much that's personally at stake for her, and all the other stuff about Kerrigor and the deterioration of the Old Kingdom is completely second string.

You as the reader know, or at least strongly suspect, that Touchstone is the true king. You pick up on how much of a threat Kerrigor is beyond just being the thing that stands between Sabriel and her father. You know that Sabriel is stepping up into her destiny, preparing to take her father's place, and that any moment she has with her father before the end of the book is going to be a Mufasa in the Clouds kind of moment. But all the epic saving-the-world fantasy that surrounds Sabriel doesn't matter quite as much as her loss of her father, her desire to protect her friends, even her connection with the soldiers on the wall.

Sabriel's destiny does not overshadow Sabriel herself as she becomes an Abhorsen in her own right. I love that, so much.

Second, in my younger years, I didn't really believe that people could be so ignorant that they'd deny that there's a magical wall where sometimes the undead cross over from a kingdom beyond, and technology gets funky around the wall. As an adult, I'm realizing how little people care about local problems.

If it isn't in your neighborhood, if it doesn't have a celebrity spokesperson, local problems don't really register. Consider the Flint Water Crisis, which is still ongoing after four or more years. (And what other little towns and cities out there in the US struggle for access to clean water, and we don't hear about it at the national weather?) Or, the way that a particular individual with some authority in government can blatantly deny that nearly three thousand people died in Puerto Rico after Puerto Rico was all but ignored in the aftermath of two hurricanes. These aren't exactly tiny problems, but people who are farther distant from the tragedy seem to find it easy to dismiss.

So, now, I can most definitely believe that the government in Ancelstierre would be stupid enough to stop rotating the crossing point on the wall, allowing the dead to pile up in one location and grow worse and worse, against the advice of the military officials on the ground who know its a huge problem. There's a truth to it that I didn't notice or consider as a child.

One of my students is reading Sabriel right now, and I'm excited to hear what she thinks--if it's just my nostalgia and my adult perspective finding comfort in Garth Nix's words, or if I'm right and the story really does hold up.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

What Happened When Joseph Reported

Okay, so, there's this story in the bible. A servant is just doing their servant thing, when an individual in a position of power in the household where they serve attempts to rape them. The servant refuses because they don't want to break the commandments or look upon the face of sin. The person in a position of power claims that the servant assaulted them out of retribution. The servant gets thrown in jail because no one listened to their story.

This is the story of Joseph and Potiphar's wife. Also, the story of To Kill a Mockingbird. Also, a story that is reiterated, over and over and over in the world around us. It is a story that is significant right now.

THIS IS THE MESSAGE: People in power abuse their power. Victims are blamed for things that are not their fault. The world may not know the truth, but the victim is still the victim. Joseph, the victim of sexual assault, is vulnerable. No one believes him. He did nothing wrong, and the only peace he has is knowing that at least he's right with God while he's in prison being blamed for the assault he was the victim of.

The message I saw broadcasted on my Facebook Feed today is: In the story of Potiphar's wife, we learn that women are terrible lying seductresses. Don't believe women when they're telling you that a man assaulted them. They want it.

This facebook post was in the form of a video, where the story was told by a woman. It was also shared by a woman. I struggle to understand how, in a Relief Society where we are taught that we are daughters of a Heavenly Father, filled with faith, virtue, vision, and charity, we're still sitting here calling ourselves lying evil seductresses.

Do you even realize how harmful that is? How much hurt it causes? Why are we teaching our daughters to value the futures of their male counterparts over their own dignity and virtue? Don't report, daughters, because that's what Potiphar's wife did, and see how it got poor Joseph thrown in jail?

I have spent the last few days seeing my friends share their own #WhyIDidntReport stories. Knowing that I have more friends who can't share their personal stories and knowing that could be why they're sharing so many other people's stories instead. These are stories of women and men who didn't or couldn't report because they were assaulted by relatives, bosses, priests, or military officers. They were college students on scholarships who were victims of the wealthy. They were on equal footing in a friendship and no one would believe them because their abuser is such a nice guy that he couldn't have done that.

These victims are Joseph, not Potiphar's Wife. They are Joseph. Their abusers hold all the power, and even when they do try to report, they are cast into emotional jail, cast out of friendships, cast out of jobs, made to feel that they are to blame.

How can we be so empathetic toward a victim falsely shamed and jailed in the Bible, and so deaf to the victims in the world around us?

Those who have ears to hear, let them hear. Those who have eyes to see, let them see.

Come on, people. If you claim the genders are equal and gender doesn't matter, at least have the consistency to read stories in the Bible for their power dynamics instead of their gender roles.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Writing Contest: Three... two.... one....!

So, my bestie, Steph, talked me into participating in a writing contest, which I hadn't done since college. It was a fun endeavor, though, more like improv comedy than short-story writing. The premise is simple: on a designated Friday night, you receive a prompt that includes a genre, a place, and an object. You have 48 hours to incorporate these elements into a story.

For this round, I received historical fiction, a phone booth, and toilet paper. I hated this prompt, and I
spent a good 36 of my 48 hours avoiding my task, until I decided to just tell the story in my heart and make the required elements fit. When you're immersed in a learning journey about race, it can become all-consuming, and this story was a wonderful outlet for it. (Shout out to my mom for posting this meme on Facebook - it is actually hilarious and totally how I feel every day now!)

I loved the resulting product. So, I decided to share it! The contest requires a maximum of 1000 words, but I am including the authentic draft instead of the trimmed version. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it!


December, 1992

Alicia fumed, stalking her way out of the Italian restaurant, her chunky pumps slamming against the sidewalk and leaving her blind date in her wake as he settled up the bill. She had earned every single nickle of her sirloin steak - after all, she'd had to fight for that when her inconsiderate date ordered a salad for her.

And after listening to him talk about himself for an hour, she'd had no patience left when she found out he voted for Bush! As if. No way she was dating a republican. She was a Clinton girl and relieved that the handsome governor had won the presidency. Now just a couple of lame-duck months of the republicans, and then it would be smooth sailing.

It was a chilly December afternoon, and Alicia pulled her stylish, shoulder-padded blazer tighter around her as she stepped up to the sidewalk to hail a cab. A gust of wind up her mid-calf length floral dress, though, sent her muttering curses under her breath when the first two were occupied.

"My place is just two blocks from here," her date, Carl, piped up behind her.

"Thanks," Alicia said, only turning halfway back and hoping he would take a hint. "I'll get a ride."

He didn't, and she deflected him three more times before he finally left.

To add insult to injury, the skies opened up and a trickle of rain plopping drops on Alicia's nose soon became a downpour. Her outfit would be ruined in this weather, she worried, and these pieces were classics. She ducked into the first shelter she saw, a telephone booth.

"Oh ho!" a deep male voice exclaimed in surprise, when Alicia pressed her way into the small space.

"Oh oh!" her own voice returned, just as surprised - the windows on this phone booth were dingy, and with her eyes downcast to keep the water dripping out of her once perfectly-teased hair, she hadn't noticed him inside already. The discomfort settling on her, though, was more than the surprise, more than being shoved in a space the size of an airplane bathroom with a man, and she felt her elbow clamp down on her purse under her arm.

"What are you doing here?" Alicia asked, noting that he wasn't holding the phone. He didn't look homeless - if anything, he sort of looked stylish, in that urban way. His dungarees had one shoulder unfastened, and his striped yellow-and-purple t-shirt matched his dual-colored baseball hat that he wore forward, not backward, like a hooligan.

"Waiting out the rain," he answered, with a lifted intonation that seemed to call her question obvious, although he followed it with a light hearted laugh: "These fresh digs will get trashed up in this storm, feel me?" Alicia laughed - that was precisely the reason she had ended up here, too. "What are you doing here?"

"....Waiting out the rain," she echoed, with a timid laugh. "Do you mind…?"

"Want me to leave?" he asked, and Alicia tilted her head. She had burst in on his shelter, but he didn't feel entitled to it?

"No!" Alicia said, reflexively, politely… although the truth was that she did want him to leave. She just knew that wasn't the right answer. With a smile, she tried to play it off, as if this were about anything except her own discomfort. "I bet the rain will let up soon. Although there's… there's an Italian restaurant, just there. It would be more comfortable."

"You for real?" he returned, incredulous. He glanced toward the street, and when he spoke, it was with the inflection of a joke even though somehow Alicia doubted that it was one. "A black man walking into a nice restaurant just to wait? They'll probably call the cops."

Alicia's brows raised, and she took the last two-inch step back and her back hit the grimy wall, and her elbow knocked the phone loose from its cradle. The muted dial tone filled the awkward silence in the breath before her forced laugh and excuse: "Oh I don't… I mean, I don't see color. I'm sure they won't either!"

She knew that was a lie, though, and her eyes fell in shame… and she noted that his shoes were purple, his tube socks, a bright mustard yellow. He had probably put more time and thought into his outfit than she had.

"For real? That's not why you grabbed your purse the second you stepped in here?" he asked. His voice had an easiness to it that Alicia liked - he managed to discuss the elephant in the room, but... without judgment. He wasn't angry, wasn't accusing. Just saying, straight up, what Alicia knew was true, but hadn't even been able to acknowledge to herself.

All of the sudden, Alicia's eyes were burning. Discomfort turned to shame. She was a democrat! She believed in equal rights! She wasn't a racist! But now she felt like one, and it was unbearable. Groping blindly in her purse, her hand fell on the roll of toilet paper she carried around everywhere, just in case she ever got caught in a public bathroom out of supplies. She drew it out, tore off a few squares, and tried to save her face before running mascara destroyed it…

"Whoa, girl, it's okay," he reassured her. Through blurred vision, she saw his hand lift as if he might want to touch her shoulder in comfort… but then he withdrew it. She knew he was worried she would take it the wrong way, and all the sudden, she realized how much danger she'd put him in, being here alone. And she realized how his back was pressed against the door, like he might need to make that break for it through the rain after all. Both those thoughts made her just cry harder.

Overhead, thunder cracked.

"Now it's raining in here, too," he laughed, when he realized all he could do was lighten the mood.

Alicia glanced up - did he think her tears were funny? She couldn't decode his face, not quite, but if she had to guess, she would say he wasn't judging… he just wasn't surprised.

"Look, it's not your fault." Racism. He spared her by not using the word. "It out of our hands; it's the world." He glanced out the window with a smirk. "It's the rain. Best we can do is hide from it."

Alicia sniffed, hard enough that she snorted. She hadn't grabbed her purse because of this guy. Hadn't wanted him to leave because of anything he did. Nothing she'd felt had been a conscious choice. Instead of trying to look anywhere else or only notice the acceptable things, Alicia let herself actually see her shelter-partner. He was a little younger than her, she guessed. Tall, thin, clean-shaven. When she smiled back at her, his grin was lopsided and it gave his face a handsome boyishness to it.

"Then let's go hide in that Italian restaurant," Alicia proposed. His smile waned hesitantly. The question they were both asking themselves was so absurd that neither could voice it: had she just asked him on a date? Alicia couldn't answer it herself. So instead, she just tucked her toilet paper roll back in her purse. "They won't call the cops if you're with me."

He nodded, and Alicia noticed that his nose scrunched up in the cutest way when he smiled. He cracked the door open with a press of his shoulder, as if he was some action star in a movie, like Kevin Costner in The Bodyguard she had seen last week. "Let's run - in three, two, one…!"

Monday, September 10, 2018

Part 3: White Fragility in The Hate U Give: The White Ally

In contrast to Hailey, whose white fragility worsens throughout the book, Starr's boyfriend, Chris, is provides a dynamic look at the "white ally." He comes from a wealthy family, goes to a private school, but he's enamored with black culture and dates one of the few black girls in school. As the book begins, the reader has to wonder if he has tokenized Starr, especially since the first story we have about him is when he pulls out a condom, even though Starr has clearly stated that she isn't ready to have sex. This is a red flag that perhaps he doesn't fully respect her. He proves himself throughout the story, though!

In one notable moment soon after Khalil is killed, Starr has a freakout-flashback when Chris touches her, her unconscious mind connecting him to the white officer who shot her friend. Starr hasn't told Chris about the shooting, though, and so he's confused about why she is upset. When he presses, she blurts out, "You're white, okay? You're white! ...You're white, I'm black. You're rich, I'm not."

Chris's reaction shows a step in white fragility. He turns the attention back to himself: "God, seriously? This is what you're pissed about? This is why you're giving me the silent treatment?" It is painful for the reader to know what Starr is going through and to see that Chris's first instinct is to focus on his own pain and to blame her for it. He seems to catch himself when Starr shows obvious offense, but his next move - although made in better conscience - is yet another problematic one. He says, "It just… it doesn't make sense to me, okay?... Maybe you can help me understand." This interaction is significant: Although we know Chris is conceding and trying to learn better, DiAngelo still cautions white people against expecting people of color to educate them about race. Again, it is intentions over impact - even good intentions can have a negative impact on the person of color. Starr, exhausted, is not up for the task. She can either set aside her own feelings, passively excuse what is wrong in Chris's behavior, and pretend everything is okay… or she'll likely lose him. So, she does the former. It broke my heart for Starr, but also, uncomfortably, made me wonder how often my friends and family of color have done the same.

My opinion of Chris changed late in the novel, though. When Starr and Seven go to rescue Davonte from King's house, Chris insists on going with them. There is a direct parallel between Starr's insistence and then Chris's, and it happens twice: first when they get in the car and then again when they go into the house. In both cases, Seven wants to go alone, and Starr insists she will come, and then Chris insists as well. This parallelism is important because although Chris is doing exactly what Starr did, his racial status makes his situation very different.

As a white ally, this was a lovely moment of Chris using his privilege. Although the stakes are high and Starr certainly believes that King will hurt or kill them if they are discovered - she says to Seven, "You go out there and you're dead!" - as a reader, I actually doubt that. If anything happened to Chris, or if he witnessed something happen to his friends, he would call the cops. He even proposes it, and his friends shut him down: "'Maybe we should call the--' 'Chris, man, come on!'" While this was certainly an insensitive thing for Chris to suggest given Starr's experience with the police, as a white person, his call wouldn't be the same as hers. They would respond. Chris would be believed. If he was hurt, his wealthy white parents would see to it that justice was served in a manner Khalil's never could. The system is set up to protect Chris, and he uses that privilege to add a layer of protection to his friends. It is not a huge act of heroism, not like Starr pulls off in the climax of the novel, but it is a significant example of how to use privilege.

I encourage all of my white friends to read these books. Socrates is rumored to have said, "I am the wisest man alive, for I know that I know nothing." This encapsulates my experience with these ideas - as I learned more about who I am, and how the system works against people of color, I begin to see nuances, complications, emotions, and more that I could never have noticed before. My takeaways from these examples are that I should:
  • Admit even unintentional racism and apologize
  • Avoid using intent to excuse the pain I cause others
  • Confront racial discussions, even if they are uncomfortable
  • Don't expect people of color to explain racial issues to me, unless they volunteer to
  • Don't deny my privilege, but use it to help others
  • Read more
  • Definitely see the new movie!
There are a million more; this is the tip of the iceberg. But in this moment in time, we see a rebound of overt white supremacy, nationalism, and racism.

There is no more room for good people to do nothing.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Part 2: White Fragility in The Hate U Give: The Racist Joke

This post will examine Hailey, one of Starr's friends who displays racially problematic behavior throughout the book and demonstrates white fragility clearly.

In one moment in the story, the teenagers observe a basketball game and joke about their "food babies" after a hefty lunch of fried chicken in the cafeteria. When they decide to get in the game themselves, a white player chides the black player for being to slow, saying, "Pretend the ball is fried chicken. Bet you'll stay on it then!" Starr takes offense to this and leaves the game.

This moment is expertly crafted. It is obvious why Starr is upset - fried chicken as a favorite of black people is a well-known stereotype. However, they had just been joking about how full they were after a lunch of fried chicken in the cafeteria. So, as a reader, you understand Starr… but you also understand where the joke might have come from. But did it solely come from the lunchroom? Or did the lunchroom reinforce her already-handy stereotypes? Or, perhaps more importantly, does it matter? If Starr was hurt by a joke referring to a common stereotype, why dwell on where it came from instead of how much it hurt our protagonist?

The author did a beautiful job of playing out the resulting scenario. Starr is offended, and her white friend, Hailey, makes all the moves DiAngelo described in White Fragility. First, she tries to make the joke about anything but race; here, the meal served in the lunchroom. Then, she displays the binary thinking when she says, "You think I'm a racist? Really?" Because to say she is racist is to say she is a bad person. The truth is that we white people can draw on stereotypes we were enculturated with without thinking or intending harm. We don't have to be maliciously racist to sometimes say racist things. It happens. And so Starr reacts to this, saying, "You can say something racist and not be a racist!" (112). She's being both realistic and kind, trying to help Hailey save face. This is likely an authentic reaction since Starr tends to speak her mind, but let's not ignore the fact that many, many, many people of color will feel compelled to excuse white racism, especially when unintentional, simply because they might face social sanctions if they do not. A quick search on Google tells me that about 77% of the United States is white. Imagine if 77% of Starr's community refused to talk to her. Could she be honest about whether they were hurting her - or would she decide to endure it and hope for the best?

Later on in the story, Hailey texts Starr, saying just, "I'm sorry." When Starr presses, Hailey says she is sorry "that you're upset with me." Starr reflects meaningfully that this does not show remorse for Hailey's own actions, but instead blames Starr for the way she reacted to them. This is a classic move of white fragility: intentions over impact. If Hailey did not intend to harm, then she should not be responsible for the hurt she caused. It is a form of victim blaming. However, this is compounded by Hailey's white perspective. According to Irving, white people are particularly enculturated to conceal pain (and negative emotions in general) and project optimism. Therefore, Hailey likely views Starr's expression of pain here as being particularly weak, impolite, and inappropriate, which is a culture clash that is so prevalent that we've stopped noticing it.

In Part 3, I will look at Chris, the white boyfriend and struggling white ally.

Back to Part 1

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Part 1: White Fragility in The Hate U Give

Walking selfie! 
This summer, I made a commitment to walking 3-4 miles a day for fitness. I live in a house with four other people who all do Crossfit, but that's not really my speed. (It's not only hard as hell, but it's also a little culty, let's be honest.) Going into this commitment for my physical health, though, had an unexpected result of being good for my mental health as well. All of the sudden, I had an hour or two of free time for my mind, and I had to decide what to do with it. I would catch up on late night comedy from the previous day, listen to clips of the news… but honestly, the news is exhausting these days.

I found myself introduced to the world of audiobooks. I'm not going to lie - I've been really hesitant to try audiobooks because I pride myself on being a reader. And readers read with their eyes! Right? I have also trained in speed reading, and the slow pace of audiobooks annoyed me at first. I knew that if I picked up the paper book, I could move through it three or four times as fast. But, I realized, I am listening to youtube videos and news clips all the time, and I don't chastise myself for not reading the transcript instead to save time. Time, I had. So I embraced audiobooks, and I fell in love. Not only could I listen to them while I was walking, but also driving, washing the dishes, cooking dinner. Think about how much time I wasted not reading over the years!

The the end of last school year, my husband came home with a book recommendation for me: Waking Up White. It chronicles one woman's journey moving from feeling race-neutral, to understanding what it means to be a white person, to pursuing justice and equality from her position of privilege. Her book was a thoughtful personal narrative that benefited from her honesty, even though it resulted in uncomfortable vulnerability and embarrassment.

The next audiobook I tackled was White Fragility, which I had read about on Facebook. This book was written by an anti-racism workshop leader who would go to businesses to help them understand why diversity in their workforce was escaping them. It was more an informational text than a narrative one, although the anecdotes were wonderful.

From these two books, I learned so much. I learned what "white culture" is. I had always assumed that culture was something other people had, but my family and society were just "normal." Values like optimism, efficiency, frugality, individualism, meritocracy - these are aspects of white culture and are not necessarily universal, as I had assumed. (I am hoping, in my further study, to understand the chicken-egg relationship between white culture and dominant culture, since obviously these traits are not exclusive to white people.)

I also learned the "symptoms" of white fragility. These are things like binary thinking - a belief that racism is an intentional hurtful act: racists are bad, so if I'm a good person, I cannot be racist. The resulting defensiveness, "I am the least racist person you have ever met!" Trying to absolve oneself from the racial discussion: "I've been in an interracial marriage for ten years, so I cannot be racist." A focus on intention instead of impact: "He didn't mean it like that." Bringing the focus of attention back to the white person through anger or crying, which detracts from the actual discussion of race at hand or the offense to the person of color.

Next, I read The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas which was my choice of the assigned summer reading choices from my school. Having just read Waking Up White and White Fragility, I was in such a good place to read this book. The story is about a teenage girl, Starr, who witnesses her unarmed, black, teenage friend killed by a police officer during a traffic stop. Throughout the story, Starr dates a white boy and struggles with a white best friend. In this post, I would like to examine a few moments from The Hate You Give that I felt were enhanced by my slightly-more-"woke" position as a white person, reading this book.

Many white readers will love this book for its authentically-written insights into a black character's mind, but the truth is that it is impossible for a white reader to truly immerse into a black character's experience. It's a step in the right direction, absolutely, but your own perspective and worldview will color what you read, and that is what I hope to address here. Years back, now, I read Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. It was wonderful book, to be sure, but it asserts that one can overcome their initial or instinctual reactions through exposure. The more a cop trains under pressure, the better they will perform under pressure. The more fires a firefighter fights fires, the better they will fight fires. (Try saying that ten times fast!) And thus, the more a white person spends time with black people, or reading from black authors, the less racist they will be. But that just isn't exactly true in the same way. As white people, we have privilege that effectively shields us from all this racial discomfort. It is more akin to a fireproof superhero fighting fires: he might see how much the victims are burned, but he's never really felt that pain.

In Part 2, I will examine Hailey, Starr's problematic white friend. 

Monday, September 3, 2018

The Right Perspective

This first draft manuscript I'm working on right now has me thinking a lot about perspective, when to shift perspective, and whose perspective matters most in any given moment. I've got a central protagonist, but it's also a bit of an ensemble cast with multiple dynamic characters in play.

One of my favorite things about third person is the ability to shift perspective fluidly. First person gives you a tight focus and a lot of insight into a narrator's thought processes, which can be a solid decision for some stories, but it always throws me out of rhythm when a first-person novel shifts to third person for a scene. (I'm glaring at you, James Patterson's Ghost Writer(s) on the Maximum Ride series.)

Some stories can be told with different first-person narrators each chapter, but the use of multiple first-person viewpoint narrators requires a schema, a rhythm, a reliable pattern to keep a reader from getting lost. I just started reading One Of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus, and its whole murder mystery conceit is that one of the first-person narrators is lying, as per the title, so it seems an example of a story where first-person narrator shifts will make sense.

With third person, it's unwise to change perspective too often, but you can do it without needing to include text features like a chapter header with a character's name in it to define who "I" refers to now. A light touch of a few sentences that delve into a character's thought processes will shift the focus. It's so easy that it's almost too easy--and there was a time when I'd shift perspectives way, way too often in my drafts. Like, every paragraph.

Orson Scott Card, in Characters and Viewpoint, discusses viewpoints as if they were cameras filming the story with different levels of penetration. (It's been a while since I read it, so I'll butcher it if I try to summarize, but it's worth checking out.) Building from that, then, third person perspective is like working with multiple cameras to get the best angles on a moment in the story. When a film switches visual perspectives too quickly, a viewer might get dizzy or disoriented. The same is true in text. But, multiple perspectives give a writer some options to work with.

So, whose perspective matters most?

I know it might feel like the protagonist's perspective matters most, since you know, they're the protagonist. (And that's why first person works!) But sometimes the protagonist is too caught up in a moment, or incapacitated, or they're being deceived, or they aren't even in the room when something is happening that affects them drastically. Sometimes when a reader knows more than a protagonist, it adds an emotional charge to a scene that wouldn't be there otherwise.

Example: In Redwall books, there are often quick scenes interspersed throughout the story where we learn about the villain's plans. The good abbey creatures (or Salamandastron badgers and hares, or what have you) are unaware of how hideously evil the villain's plans really are. I'd always be on the sidelines rooting for the good guys twice as loudly once I knew the whole shape of the danger in their path.

And, sometimes, an ensemble cast has multiple dynamic characters who are each tackling the central conflict of the story in a different way, who each deserve some focal time.

The best time to determine the best perspective isn't necessarily the first draft of the story. Right now, I'm writing scenes from perspectives that feel most natural for a given moment. If my drafting mind suggests I should write a scene from Lira's perspective, then Lira it is. Maybe I write the same scene from multiple perspectives until I have a sense of the whole shape of it.

In rough draft, the perspective that matters most is the one that enables me to actually write the scene.

In revisions, with a larger picture in mind, I can make stronger editorial decisions. That's when it comes down to two things:

1) What provides the best overall balance to the story?

Some Questions to Ponder:
  • Is there a character I'm neglecting?
  • Does a perspective shift for this scene enhance or throw off the emotional throughline?
  • Does anyone actually need to be witness to this, or was it just for me to know as the author at this point?
2) Who is the best witness to the heart of this scene?

Some Questions to Ponder:
  • Which character has the highest emotional stakes in the scene?
  • What does the scene do to further establish plot, characters, or setting? Whose perspective would compliment that purpose?
  • Will someone be entering, exiting, or becoming incapacitated in a way that makes them better or worse as the perspective point?
The answers depend on the story, the characters, and the emotions that I'm trying to convey through my writing. With perspective, there is no one right answer for all situations, no one Ultimate Perspective.

And that, friends, is one of the most beautiful things about writing.

(And, maybe, one of the most frustrating things sometimes, too.)

Sunday, August 12, 2018

The Resonant Truths in The Name of the Wind

The first time I read Patrick Rothfuss's masterful epic fantasy The Name of the Wind, it took my breath away. My friend Daniel recommended it with the highest sort of insistence that I absolutely must read it. It clocks in at over seven hundred pages--a tome, to be sure--but length has never been problematic for me. I was living in Japan, working as an Assistant Language Teacher, and I had the time to spare.

In short, for those unfamiliar, the framing narrative starts with an unassuming red-haired innkeeper in three kinds of silence--a silence interrupted first by strange happenings in his town and then the arrival of the Chronicler who knows him for who he truly is, the legendary Kvothe, the Kingkiller, who is presumed dead and now in hiding. The Chronicler  convinces Kvothe to tell the story of his life, and that's when the story begins. It's the story of how a boy whose parents are killed by a myth becomes a legendary hero. It's a story that explores the nature of the human being behind the legend.

(It's a story that needs a conclusion, even if the three books are intended as a mere prologue. Come on, Rothfuss, please finish Day 3 soon!)

I wanted to end my summer with something familiar, something comforting, before I started my second year as a teacher. (Anyone who's been a Year 1 Teacher will undoubtedly understand.) So, on friend Daniel's advice, and with an audible credit to spare, I snagged the audiobook version narrated by Nick Pohdel.

Excellent decision.

Two things stood out on my second time through this epic tome:

For the second time, again, the truth of the text resonated deeply. The boy Kvothe takes three years to mourn the death of his whole troupe at the hands of the Chandrian and still grieves even as the innkeeper he is in the framing narrative. His experiences in that grief-stricken fugue state as an orphan on the streets of Tarbean shape his decisions and his reactions. When he makes his way at last to the University, it is feels like higher education with all its weird politics and ivory towers where find you that all the magic of your desired career is achieved through a whole lot of mundane-yet-challenging tasks and seemingly arbitrary hurdles that might actually be safeguards. Plus, come on, student loan debt! How many fantasy epics have you read where student loan debt hangs over the head of your legendary hero?

Just on and on and on, the truths resonate.

But this time, I already knew Kvothe's story. I knew when Denna would appear, and disappear, and appear again. I knew the many ways in which Ambrose would be a jackass. Even though I knew how Kvothe got his Eolian Talent Pipes, I still got swept away in his performance. I knew Kvothe's story as well as one who has only read it once can know it. So I paid way more attention to Scheherazade-ian folklore within the story (within the story, if you count the framing Waystone Inn narrative).

And, boy howdy, am I not even the least bit surprised that Patrick Rothfuss has said that he wants to tell more stories besides Kvothe's in this world because the world-building thought that has gone into that folklore is intense. Centuries if not millennia of history that has become myth distorted by zeal within a particular religious sect that minimizes, trivializes, and outright punishes any belief besides belief in their god's greatness. (Sound familiar?) I found myself comparing Skarpi's tales in Tarbean with the other pieces of folktale that sometimes trickle and sometimes stream out from Kvothe's narrative, as well as the realities currently at play in the framing Waystone Inn narrative, seeking out the truth in the tale. I mean, I wouldn't want to abandon the worlds I have taken even a fraction of the amount of time and energy to build that Rothfuss has after just one story in them, regardless of how epic the tale or how many years it takes to write. The complexity here is dazzling.

Not only that, he doesn't let his world-building overshadow his story. The world is where the story takes place, but the story always takes precedence.

One last note to truths in the tale. In the end, Kvothe's companion-apprentice Bast in the Waystone Inn has an interesting conversation with the Chronicler. One point Bast makes is how Kvothe has taken on the identity of an innkeeper to the point that he's losing himself behind the mask he meant to simply hide behind--becoming the mask.

Names matter.  The things we call ourselves matter. We become who we believe ourselves to be.
In the weeks since I've started calling myself author in my heart of hearts, I've stripped away layer after layer of self-doubt and denial. As I call myself teacher and embrace the things I've learned last year, I've started off this new year with greater confidence in my classroom.

I fear if I start listening to Wise Man's Fear too soon, I'll be distracted when I need to work on memorizing my students' names, building classroom community, and planning lessons. I'll likely hold off until December for that, and cross my fingers that maybe, possibly, some day soon, Rothfuss might announce even a release year for Book Three...

Friday, August 10, 2018

Beatrice Zinker--and Stories of Friendship

A few grad school friends and I continue our passion for children's literature by having a monthly book club. We read everything from picture books and early readers through young adult fiction--generally focusing popular titles that have been published in the last few years. One of this month's selections was the chapter book Beatrice Zinker, Upside Down Thinker by Shelley Johannes.

Quick Plot: Beatrice is an unusual middle child who does her best thinking upside down. At the end of second grade, she and her best friend Lenny agree to wear their ninja costumes to school on the first day of third grade to begin a top-secret operation. But, Lenny goes to the Philippines to visit family for the summer and comes back to school with a new friend Chloe--who definitely does not think upside down. Beatrice and Lenny's top secret operation and their friendship seem to be on the line, and it takes some deep thinking and clever planning for Beatrice to pull everything all together.

Of all the chapter books we've read thus far, I enjoyed this one the most. The protagonist Beatrice had a spunky off-kilter personality that reminded me a lot of another chapter book favorite, Clementine by Sara Pennypacker. Johannes's illustrations do what great illustrations should do--they compliment and enhance the text. Adults were present in Beatrice's world, loving and full of personality but never pedantic. Beatrice used her knowledge of Lenny, her own quirky interests, and a little bit of thinking time to come up with solutions to her problems independently.

Near the end of the book, Beatrice recounts her school day to her neighbor Mrs. Jenkins, Mr.s Jenkins says this about friendships: "Life's like that. It's always shifting and changing. That's why most friendships last only for a season. But occasionally you find a really special one--and you grow with each other, instead of apart."

And that, naturally, got me thinking about my friendship with Rachel and the whole premise of this blog. It also got me thinking about the nature of friendships.

A lot of chapter books, generally aimed at lower elementary school students who are moving up from tiny early readers and developing their reading endurance skills, deal with issues of friendship or family. It can become a little bit formulaic--predictable for an adult reader--but these are real issues for kids in second and third grade.

What age do we stop talking about friendships as a central focus of the plot? I'd hazard a guess that it happens around the time when first crushes come stumbling out in middle grade fiction (and in real life). Life's seasons move on from "Kissing is gross" to "Huh, this kissing thing sounds interesting, and maybe I should investigate it firsthand," and suddenly friendship seems to matter less.

I can honestly think of more instances in modern movies of male friendships that endure long-term than female friendships (but that's probably at least in part because I watch more action flicks than any other genre). So often, the female character's romantic relationship seems to be the central focus of her life. See also: The Bechdel Test. How often are two women in conversation about anything other than a man? The Best Friend is the person who has the Female Protagonist's back when she is trying to decide what to do about her romantic relationship.

I would love to see more, and more, and more female characters who get to be friends and face friendship challenges that don't have to do with romances. I'd love for more friendships in fiction to be the really special ones instead of the ones that last only for a season. Not only female friendships, but also enduring female romantic relationships would be spectacular <3

In that spirit, here's one book I'm looking forward to: EK Johnston's The Afterward. Just take a look at all the epic fantasy ladies in practical armor on this cover:

Then go read the excerpt!

This transformed from a response to a chapter book to a tumble into books I'm excited for, so it's definitely time to sign out. Got any favorite books or movies where friendship is a central focus?

Friday, August 3, 2018

Making It Ain't Faking It

When I learned that Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman were teaming up to bring a crafting competition show to NBC, I knew I'd have to watch it. I mean, Parks and Rec is one of my favorite shows of all time, and I love DIY crafts. Match made in heaven, friends. In episode one, Making It has exceeded all my hopes and desires.

The premise: Six contestants are placed in a barn full of crafting supplies with challenges to complete inside a time limit. Every episode has two challenges, and in the end, one contestant gets eliminated, until one winner receives a big shiny cash prize.

It's... pretty standard for a competition show of this nature.

But, where other elimination competitions use screen time highlight tensions between competitors, let the camera dwell extra-long on that eyeroll, and hold confessional interviews where contestants provide commentary on how horrible that other contestant is, Making It gives us Poehler and Offerman with pun-offs. (In Poehler's own words, "Y'all thready for this?")

The episode is packed with gems and heartfelt moments as makers pour their souls into their crafts in a time crunch and our hosts sing their praises. I connected with maker Jemma when she commented on how much time people waste on their phones, and how they could spend that time to make things.

In general, I get a bit rankled when people blame technology for society's woes. This one rang true for me, though. You see, a little over a year ago, I knew I was spending way too much time on puzzle games. For me, they're repetitive, low-demand, but engaging enough that they hold my attention. Playing a puzzle game is meditative and relaxing. I decided I wanted to find something that would allow me to flow into a similar mental space but feel less like I was just wasting time on nothing, and that was why I picked up crochet again. Same feeling of repetition, same low-demand on the mind, but still with unique challenges that make it engaging.

And now, because I spent so much time over the last year doing crochet instead of playing quite as many puzzle games, my teacher desk has buddies:

Each maker on the show shares a piece of themselves, not only in what they're making but in the conversations they have with the hosts and the judges. Making things takes time, practice, and dedication to learning from mistakes. The exchange value on that time, though? The joy as each maker shares their creations demonstrates that perfectly.

It's a show made by people who understand DIY is more than Pintrest Fails. I can feel this undercurrent of desire to inspire people to try making something. I agree with Poehler: I wish that instead of eliminating a maker each week, they could bring in a new one.

I look forward to seeing where the competition goes and what crafts and challenges get brought to the worktables.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

On the Author Label

A central thesis by linguist Ferdinand de Saussure explains that the connection between a sign (like a word) and the real-world thing it represents is arbitrary. In the words of Shakespeare, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

Few people would argue that labels are arbitrary in action, though. We label ourselves and others constantly. Juliet's whole speech is about how important Romeo's name is. One word, one name, makes all the difference between a viable relationship and tragic doom. Labels can be an opportunity to express who we are, a burden to bear or share, or a self-fulfilling prophecy. I make a point to call my students learners, readers, and writers for a reason.

So, why has it taken me so long to label myself an author?

I mean, consider this evidence:
  • I've had what I referred to as an author website from age thirteen, when I thought that was how I'd be discovered. (Aside: It's not, guys. Websites don't matter. The manuscript is where it's at.)
  • I have a dual master's degree in creative writing and children's literature.
  • I have, at minimum, ten really rough manuscripts under my belt, and I'm actively querying the polished one. These manuscripts include fantasy romps with a chosen one destined to save the world, sci-fi adventures with space pirates and robots, urban fantasies with protagonists who are trying to find their place in a complex and dangerous world, fairy tale retellings, and super hero stories.
So, what was I waiting for?

The answer is surprisingly straightforward: Validation. I called myself a writer because I felt I wasn't a valid author unless I had a published book under my belt. Despite practicing this craft literally since kindergarten, finishing my first novel my senior year in high school, and writing and revising constantly pretty much my entire life, I wanted someone else to tell me that I'm an author.

When I set forth to create my updated author site, I sat there for nearly an hour debating whether to title it "Stephanie Gildart, Writer" or "Stephanie Gildart, Author."

I did one of those Millenial things: I googled it. Susan L. Stewart has a great article on this topic. Jami Gold does, too. After much reading, I came to this conclusion:

In the past, writers were unpublished and authors were traditionally published, but the internet blurs creator lines. For me, the difference between wanting to be an author some day and living with the self-confidence to act like an author begins with choosing to own the label author.
Writing is an individual journey. Writers and authors alike choose their labels and their paths. I have friends who write purely for self-enjoyment, friends who self-publish their work, friends with traditionally-published novels, and friends in all areas of the publishing industry. Everyone chooses their labels with a reason--but hopefully that reason is pride rather than doubt.

I'm an author, so I keep writing and revising multiple projects while I query those that I feel are ready.

I'm an author, so if my query is rejected, I keep querying.

I'm an author, and my website is as in-progress as my career--but it exists.

I'm an author. No modifiers, no doubts, no holding back.

Friday, July 27, 2018

About the Authors!

Hello and welcome! This blog will be about many things - from traveling the world to a warm bowl of mac'n'cheese on the couch, in yoga pants, watching Netflix. We are writers, teachers, foodies...

But the core of this blog is truly the friendship that started it all.

Eighteen years ago. If our friendship were a child, she would be going to college this year!

As a culture, we don't talk enough about modern friendships between adults. How do you "break up" with a toxic friend? Can you still be friends, if you don't talk for months? Rom Coms and novels feature endless romance stories, of course, but your best friend isn't the sidekick in your love story. Friendship is an adventure wholly independent and worthwhile on its own.

So, this blog is about our friendship, and it's also about each of us.

Rachel is an atheist.
Stephanie is religious.
Rachel analyzes literary fiction.
Stephanie is all about children's literature and pop culture.
Rachel lives in Florida.
Stephanie lives in California.
Rachel has traveled Europe and the Middle East.
Stephanie has lived in Japan.
Rachel is married.
Stephanie is single.
Rachel teaches high school English. Private sector, privileged students.

Stephanie teaches middle school English. Public sector, underserved students.
Stephanie has two dogs.
Rachel has no idea why.
Rachel says poh-tay-to.
Stephanie doesn't say poh-tah-to because that's crazy.

But none of these differences can cause a rift because we've been through the thick and thin together. Moving across the country or overseas, a wedding, losing our jobs--these experiences have brought us together. At the end of the day, there's no hack for this type of friendship.

You just can't fake time.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Royal Wedding: Dinner Party

So here we are, back in Jordan! What began as a business connection with the princess of Jordan blossomed into a friendship and - blow my mind, omg - we ended up invited to a royal wedding!

We arrived in capital city Amman at 5am, which is the worst time because check-in usually isn't until the afternoon. A driver from the royal court picked us up and took us to the hotel, all the same. We figured we would try to chill by the pool for a while... a stretch, since we'd been traveling all night and we were exhausted.

But we got to the hotel and our concierge was unusually accommodating - and it was obvious why. He told us that he saw us arrive in a government vehicle (with a "red coat," he said) and asked us who we knew in the royal court. We chatted briefly and, soon, we had free breakfast and early check-in. This is what privilege feels like! We ate, we slept, and we visited the local mall a few minutes away.

In the states, we think about this region of the world negatively. Neighboring Syria is a war zone. Israel and Palestine are in terrible conflict. However, Jordan is an oasis in the terror and the violence - it has its problems, of course, but there is also tons of innovation and modernity. The mall was one such example. Its architecture was close to what I've seen in Disney's Epcot. Clean, futuristic. The escalators slow down when you approach! So cool!

With about an hour's notice, we received an invitation to a dinner party. It turns out, the princess' cousins and sister were throwing her a surprise party, and she didn't know about it until last minute, when they told her to invite any friends she wanted who were already in town. We scrambled back to our hotel to get ready, and then got a text to "wear white." Since getting an invite to a royal wedding, my biggest question has been, "omg what do I wear??" Fortunately, my amazing roommate and style consultant, Leiva, helped me organize outfits for the parties we knew about ahead of time, but this was new! It was the stars aligning in my favor that I had just bought a skirt at H&M that would go with a shirt I packed. Crisis averted - phew.

Now I'm sure our driver was not actually a general, but he sure as hell looked like one. Moustache, beret, full military uniform. He drove us over to pick up a few other guests, three ladies about our age. They were all about as nervous as we were, which made for great camaraderie on the drive over.

The house we arrived at was breathtaking. You enter through a series of Arabic-style arches, swerve around a tiny bubbling fountain at your feet, through a mosaic-tiled entryway, and into a living room made entirely of window-doored walls that you could open to let air flow through the house. The whole place was strung up with glowing lights. We made our way to the back yard, which featured three or four seating areas of low couches, standing heaters, and a massive weeping willow tree that draped over the space. The ambiance was intimate, romantic, gorgeous.

When the bride and groom were on their way, her sister and party hostess drew us to the front door again and explained we would be greeting her with a traditional Bedouin procession - "she'll hate it," Yasmine said, with a conspiratorial giggle.

But whoa - we could never have guessed how cool it would be! A troupe of perhaps fifteen performers were dressed in traditional robes and headdresses. Among them were several drummers and one bagpiper. They played, sang, danced, and clapped with unrestrained joy that defined celebration. When the bride and her fiance (or whatever Arabic for "fiance" is!) arrived, they seemed overjoyed - she hugged every single guest as she entered the house, and then we "procession"-ed them to the back yard. The singing and dancing continued for an hour or so, and I am so glad no one took a video of me trying to keep up when we joined hands and attempted to what I can only call Jordanian riverdance. It couldn't have been more fun, though!

After that, bride and groom participated in a short but lovely ritual that included salt on the shoulders, sprinklings of rosewater, sharing cubes of sugar, and taking a shot of holy water from Mecca - all symbols for a sweet, happy, long life together. Jokes were made about mother-in-laws always hovering over your shoulder, much laughter was shared, and I was fortunate that there was a friendly woman who translated and explained the significance of it all to us privately.

The party overall was too large to be called "small," but far too small to be called "large." Maybe fifty or sixty people - an interesting mix from Jordan and Spain (where the princess grew up), but also a few from France and our little clique from the states. The bride mused to us how the mixture represented the stages of her life, and how grateful she was to be surrounded with so many loving friends and family. Dressed in white, illuminated with lights, she spoke as sweetly and angelically as she looked.

Then dinner was served! It was a catered sort of buffet, with a salad bar featuring hummus, tomato-cucumber-cheese mix, and roasted, curried cauliflower, but that was the only part that was unmanned. The other stations had cooks grilling meats, wrapping pitas and shawarmas, slicing meat off the spit, wrapping and frying pastries. It was half dinner and half cooking demo - my favorite! It was a culinary adventure, trying so many new tastes and textures, all delicious.

This was just party number one! Being here is unreal. I think I expected the environment to be more pretentious (I mean come on, royalty!) than it is. This is a family coming together in a joyous time, to celebrate the love of two awesome people who couldn't be happier. Cheers, to the bride and groom!