Monday, May 9, 2016

A Bumper Sticker and Diversity

I have a political bumper sticker which I am afraid to put on my car. It doesn't matter who the bumper sticker supports - it only matters that, in this time, in this place, I feel afraid of voicing my opinion.

And I hate that.

When I was a teenager (in the 19-blah blahs as my daughter says. The little runt) I went to a U2 concert where Amnesty International had an information table. They had young (dare I say, cute) activists talking about political prisoners and how speaking up about human rights violations and dictatorships was the only way to change the world. I came home with a button (Buttons were big. So was hair.) a bookmark and a bumper sticker.

I was too young to drive. And there was no way my mother was going to let me put anything on her pristine white Mazda. So I put it up in my room. My mother asked me what Amnesty International was and I launched into a garbled, half-assed recitation of what the cute activist had told me at the concert.

" I signed a petition and..."
Mom cut me off. "You what?!"
"I signed a petition."
She became very serious. "Did you put down your real name?"
At this point, I was convinced my mother was either joking or smoking funny cigarettes.

"Yes, mother (insert eye-roll) my real name, real address, the whole thing." Duh, I didn't say, because slapping would occasionally happen in the 19-blah blahs.

I could tell from her face that she was mad and upset. But I didn't understand why.
Later, she told me that she didn't want me to sign up for any more 'political' things. That people who put their names down for things got in trouble. Sometimes they got beat up. Sent to prison. Disappeared.

I laughed at the woman. I told her that this was America, and that didn't happen here. What I didn't say (again, beware the slapping hands of South American women) was, just because that happens in some third world, ass-backwards country doesn't mean it could happen here.

Flash forward to 2016. There's this story about a disabled woman whose car breaks down and who calls a tow-truck. When the tow-truck driver sees her political bumper sticker on her car, he abandons her at the side of the road. He later said that he was proud that he drew a line in the sand. Against people like her. Because of a bumper sticker.

Thinking about this, I don't think my mother's warning was so crazy after all. Maybe it's not the same as what she experienced in Uruguay with the dictatorship and the Tupamaros, but it's not so different. People do get beat up for their opinions. And they get discriminated against. And it gets scary.

So what does this have to do with diversity? It's a complicated word, meaning a lot of things to a lot of people. But it has power. The power to normalize the idea of 'other' so that it doesn't frighten and anger us so much. Diversity has the power to give voice to the underrepresented and understanding to the majority. If it were a coin, on one side would be carved 'Diversity'  on the other side would be 'Tolerance'. Diversity begets Tolerance. Tolerance begets Understanding. These are the slogans we want on our bumpers.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Writing a Hard Thing

This new WIP is already getting under my skin, embedded in my brain. I've been writing for two weeks now and, when I say writing, I mean thinking.

I do a lot of pre-writing when I start a new project. I cannot approach a blank page cold, without sketching out ideas first. These 'sketches' happen in my head, while I'm washing dishes or making a cup of tea - random acts of housewifery and home repair.

And I DO NOT write these sketches down. I build them up in my mind, telling myself the story as if it's a memory. "Oh yeah, Maribel is always stuck making the tea for her abuelita. And her aunt will tell her that Americans don't use soap and water to clean their bathrooms, they use Aguajane. Hmm. Got to Google what the generic Spanish term for bleach is..."

Basically, I have to give the main characters the chance to become real to me.

But for this WIP I have to do something else. I have to research two things that are hard. Grief and Immigration. Those are two heavy M-Fing subjects and I don't want this book to be a quagmire. I don't want to gloss over two very serious things either. I know I'll have to strike a balance.

Thing is, I know this WIP is going to be hard. It's going to stretch me and challenge me and will make me drink Hendrick's Gin and Tonic at 4:45PM. I'm a little scared of this WIP, this new idea.

That's why I'm doing it. It's not like other things I've written. It's going to require a level of writerly skill that I think I WILL have, that I MAY even already have, but one I haven't shown. In other words it's the challenging, heartbreaking book.

Trepidation. Worry. Excitement. Anticipation.

This is going to be good.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Reading While Writing: A Recipe

When I was a newbie at this writing thing I worried a lot. (Editor's Note: Unlike now, you mean?) What should I wear while writing? Computer or longhand? How many spaces should I indent? These are the things all writers worry about when embarking on the scary path of writing because they are the easy. You can fiddle with these details endlessly, never committing to actual writing.

But the biggest worry I let consume my mind before writing my first book: Should writers read while writing? What if the amazing book I’m reading seeps into what I’m writing?

The argument goes something like this: What if I’m reading American Gods and suddenly I write something incredibly Neil Gaiman-esque? Or worse—and more likely— what if I create a pale facsimile? Or if I plagiarize?

It seemed too dangerous to read anything at all, like a novitiate on her way to the nunnery who, driving past a happy hour sign and thinks, “Maybe I should go in and have one last rum and Coke?”

I made the mistake of not reading while I was writing my first book. No books AT ALL while writing my first draft. Keep the book pure. No rum and Coke for this How-Do-You-Solve-A-Problem-Like-Maria.

Maybe this works for some people, I don’t know. For me, reading is a combination of writing fuel and those mind expanding mushroom-y drugs I’ve never tried but read a lot about when I was fifteen, during my William S. Burroughs phase.

Reading does things to me. I can see patterns of meaning, filaments of connection between the made up worlds spilled out onto the page and my own life. If reading is doing that kind of good to my mind and soul, how much more good can it do to my writing?

I wrote that first book on the no-reading-regime and it was bad. It didn’t perform any of the magic that books should perform. The coalescing of thoughts and feelings, the sharp acknowledgement that someone who has never met you could understand something about your life that you’ve only just discovered. This book was just a bunch of characters standing in space saying words. That’s a bad book.

Looking back on that fallen-soufflĂ© of a book I think it was down to two things; it was my first book and I didn’t know what I was doing and, I consciously choose not to read while writing.

That’s like going on a grapefruit diet before running a marathon.

So, I worked out a recipe for how to combat the reading while writing seepage problem.

Step One:
Read a sh*t ton of books. Saturate your brain with words from a variety of different places.

Step Two:
Have your bullcrap meter turned all the way up to eleven, so you know if you are unconsciously pilfering.

Step Three:
If you are writing in one genre, read in a wholly other genre. Or don’t read genre at all – read non-fiction. Or read books you have already read and loved.

Step Four:
Choose books that compliment what you are writing. Remember the color wheel from art class? Complimentary colors are opposites. Yellow and Purple. Red and Green. Historical Fiction and Sci-Fi Romance.

Step Five:
Read what challenges you. Read books that poke at you, so you can poke at your own work-in-progress. It’s no bad thing to feel a little off balance while writing.

Step Six:
Beta read for other writers. When you beta read or crit, you’re firing up your critical faculties. Then you get to bring your sharpened critical mind to your own work-in-progress. Win for them, win for you.

While writing my last manuscript, a YA contemporary, I read:
  • ·      A biography of cancer
  • ·      A high fantasy
  • ·      My favorite Chronicles of Narnia book, The Silver Chair
  • ·      Two beta reads for writing friends who kick ass and write in vastly different styles.
  • ·      Golden Age Mystery Not by Agatha Christie

 Reading is essential to writing. Go forth and saturate your neurons. And write.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

I Like My Books Like I Like My Music

If you tell me, “This book will break your heart,” I’ll scoot my chair a little closer to you, the better to hear your book recommendation.

If you tell me “It’s a tough read, complicated and devastating and exhilarating”—halfway through your adjective parade, I’m downloading the book onto my Audible app.

That’s how I take my books. Challenging and emotional and difficult.

That’s how I take my music, too.
I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

My husband makes fun of me because I can forgive somewhat boring music in a song, but I cannot forgive boring lyrics. Words are too important to be empty containers for the lowest common denominator.

That doesn’t mean I gravitate towards the nastiest, grittiest books I can find (just like I don’t stream Norwegian Death Metal 24/7. Or, frankly, ever.) It only means that I look for books that resonate.

David Arnold’s MOSQUITOLAND broke my heart. A 16 year-old girl on a journey to reach a distant mother who needs her. Put like that, it’s nothing special, but the images and emotions pulled out of me by the descriptions (some ridiculous, like the couple on the roof of the gas station; some deeply poignant like the box in an old woman’s hands) were etched into my heart forever.

No, not really. ‘Etched into my heart forever’ are definitely lowest common denominator words. So overblown, they’re meaningless. What I should have said was that MOSQUITOLAND made me think about the profound good that exists in ourselves and in others even when we don’t believe in it. And how damaged lives can be perfectly enough.

I create a playlist for every book I write, and some books, like MOSQUITOLAND, that I love and want to re-live with music. I did it for ELEANOR & PARK by Rainbow Rowell and also for SERAPHINA by Rachel Hartman.

It’s possible that I stood at a recent Savages show and thought, “Park would love this show. Eleanor would probably think it was too loud.”

Good music and good books have the same elements. Heart, yeah, but not twangy-twangy-woe-is-me-heart that you’ve heard one thousand times before. It has to have authenticity and be stripped down to a vulnerable place where you can’t dismiss it.

And Voice. Music and books have to have singular, arresting voices, pitched so exactly right that you can hear it above the cacophony of every day voices. (Just so we’re clear, the every day voices tell me to eat more cake and watch old Murder She Wrote episodes. That’s not the voice I’m talking about here.)

Finally good books and music need Brains. Possibly zombies eating brains, I won’t rule any genre out, but mostly the kind of brains that plot out a narrative with twists and reversals that make you snap back your head, read a line again, listen to the same verse twenty times, to pry out meaning.

So, how do you like your music and books? Are your tastes the similar in both, or do you read slasher horror while listening to the Bee Gees? (That sounds pretty good, actually…)

Friday, March 25, 2016

How to Not Stop Writing

Stop writing.
Give up and don't start again.
Stop doing the thing that makes you crazy and hurts your heart and makes you a misery to be around.
Stop writing.

It's easier to start writing than to stop - that's the way of any addiction, right?
But I'm not going to tell you lies.

I'm not one of those people who have to write. I don't feel that if I didn't write, I'd die.

I'd be fine. I have a job I love and am good at. And I can paint and draw and dance and sing for the pleasure of being creative. Writing is something I choose to do, as hard as it is.

I could stop.

Last year around this time something happened that almost made me stop writing. I failed at something pretty spectacularly. It was, to put it mildly, devastating. And I didn't know if I could recover the blow to my writing ego. Worse, I didn't know if I wanted to. You see, if I stopped writing, all of the negative feelings would go away. I wouldn't be open to failing that way again.

Fast forward to today and I'm writing again, still. I wonder, how did I do it? How did I not stop writing when it would have been so much better for my happiness?

1) Happiness isn't everything.
2) Writing makes me feel new things and scary, amazing things that I have forgotten how to feel.
3) The "What if..." habit is a hard one to break once you pick it up.
4) I have people. Squad. Wonderful, brilliant humans who tell me to shut the f**k up and start writing because THEY want to read the worlds I create.
5) My husband does not take no for an answer when it comes to believing in me. He's a stubborn son of a bitch (sorry, mom-in-law.)

That's how you do it. That's how you keep going. You just do.

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