Tuesday, May 31, 2011

What's Up With the Texas Bashing? (and other setting related questions)

Lately I've noticed a lot of Texas bashing going on - some of it hidden behind backhanded compliments that seem both idiotic and narrow-minded. In just the last week I've seen nearly a dozen people on facebook post articles, videos, or updates expressing their amazement that Texans can be anything but right-wing religious fanatics that hate everyone else.

I've read people's comments that they can't believe how hospitable and friendly Texans were when they visited, because how could their actions be in such direct opposition to their politics?

I've read how shocked people are that, when posed with a gay-bashing waitress (in a set-up for the Dateline show What Would You Do?), that Texans would actually stand up against the verbal abuse.

There seems to be some feeling out there that Texas is just one big Westboro Baptist Church (which I might add is NOT in Texas, is not affiliated with any Baptist association, and can hardly be called a church in either its mission, beliefs, or organization).

To say I'm flabbergasted is hardly the right word.

Let's just put aside the fact that Texas is the second largest state in the United States, and it would be highly unlikely that every single individual in that state conforms to some state-wide religious or political belief system.

Let's start with the fact that people out there believe that because someone is of a certain political party (in this case, Republican, but it certainly goes both ways), that that person is of some lesser moral character. That there are people out there who believe that if you have voted for a certain political candidate, you are unable to be a compassionate, kind, or intelligent human being. That there are people out there who believe that if another person disagrees with an issue, such as gay marriage,  they will think that degradation and humiliation of those who believe in that issue is acceptable, and even participate in it.

We have ceased to be individuals to each other and have become nothing more than caricatures, and evil ones at that. We like to slap labels on each other and then define an entire person's worth, personality, humanity, religion, values with that label.

If you are for socialist medicine, you must be lazy and want the government to do everything for you because you don't want to work for it yourself.

If you are against socialist medicine, you must be elitist and think only the wealthy deserve good medical care and not care at all about the poor who can't afford good health care.

Oh how easy to slap that label.

It's gotten enough for me to stop checking facebook so often, because people I know - real friends who I know love and care for me as a person, who genuinely think I am compassionate and kind and intelligent - will go online bashing an entire political party I belong to, or the entire Christian church, or even an entire state in which I was born and in which I lived several adult years. And in their bashing, they will lump every single person who agrees with the politics or faith or even music choice of that group, into a single curse word.

People will take the worse example of a person associated with their anti-beliefs and try to say everyone on that side of the divide stands hand in hand with that example. If a pastor turns out to be an adulterer, all Christians are hypocrites. If a senator turns out to be morally corrupt, all members of that party are corrupt. If a political candidate spews untruths, all people in that party - whether or not they support that candidate - are idiots and liars.

I get so tired of it all. And honestly, sometimes I'm hurt by their words.

I could stop here. I could rant on. But as the bashing this week seemed centered on Texas, it made me think about Texas, and about living there, and about why I chose to place my debut novel there. And the truth of the matter is that I needed readers to bring those stereotypes to the story.

When I set up the plot of Some Kind of Normal, I knew I needed a family fighting not just science, but fighting a community that put faith above science, and the deep south was perfect for that. I chose Texas because I've lived there, and I'm familiar with the culture and the lingo and the food and the churches and the landscape. I could have probably placed the book in any number of states, but Texas was what I knew.

But what I also knew was that, despite what everyone's perception of Texas was, the individuals in Texas are just like people everywhere else: people who care about others, who are fierce about their ideals and values and opinions, but just as fierce about their family and loved ones, even if there are differences. I wanted the characters to be more than stereotypes. I wanted them to first seem to fit the reader's pre-conceived notion of southern baptists, but then break from that into a collection of individual characters who are flawed in many ways, and loveable in many ways, and somehow - despite the fact that the reader may be opposed to their religion, or politics, or birthplace - people that the reader might relate to.

What about you? What do you think of the judging of people based on a label tacked on by a political, religious, or geographical association? Should books embrace that stereotyping, or seek to dispel it?

Friday, May 27, 2011

What You Remember May Not Be True...

After writing yesterday about sometimes confusing what is real with what I write, I found this absolutely fascinating article about research that's showed that sometimes our most vivid memories are not actually things that have been experienced, but things that we only think have happened because somewhere along the way, the image was put into our heads by someone else (advertising, in the case of the article, but I think it could work for reading and writing as well, or anything we immerse ourselves in).

It's crazy. And scary. But mostly wildly interesting.

The article is here.

Go read. I'll see you on Monday!

Have a great weekend - and a great holiday for my fellow American friends!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Realness of Our Imaginary Worlds

Last year I sat with a group of people who were talking about those they knew with cancer. One spoke up that a good friend of hers had a son just diagnosed with leukemia and they were getting medical treatment at Johns Hopkins University.

Without thinking, I nearly jumped into the conversation with: "I know a fantastic doctor there."

Then I realized, Oh yeah. I made him up. He only exists in my head, in my book.

The thing is, this wasn't the last time that's happened to me. There have been other conversations where I've told someone how great Johns Hopkins is, as if I personally had experience with the doctors and treatment there. I have nearly told people that there is a cure for diabetes with adult stem cells that is in stage two trials.

Perhaps it's normal, after spending so much time researching and writing, to feel that what we have created is in fact real instead of imaginary. I have walked parts of the Johns Hopkins campus, but I have never been in or around their medical facilities. I do not know anyone who has gone through diabetes treatment trials of any kind. I do not know a boy with a turquoise Mohawk.

And yet, I feel like I do.

There are moments when I channel the bitterness of my newest protagonist, as though I have taken on her abusive history and angry persona. I wake up thinking I might start the day with coffee from the coffee-shop one of my characters owns before I realize that it, too, is just part of my imagination.

But I can tell you the color of the wood of the round tables, the pattern of the overstuffed chairs, the smell of coffee and mocha and baking bread all blended into a perfect atmosphere. Those details aren't even in my book, but I know them.

The short story I most recently wrote is the closest I've ever gotten to real life. The characters are blends of people I actually know, the situation one similar to one I saw a friend go through. Though the story is fictional, I have blurred the lines enough that even I have to stop and think about what is true and what is not. The characters are as real to me as the people that live in the real world on whom they were based.

Am I alone in this... this momentary forgetfulness of what is true and what is made up? I like to think that if it feels that real to me, it will feel that real to readers. One can hope, right? :) Or should I just be waiting for the crazy train to pick me up?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Every year on this weekend, the military hosts a joint service air show at Andrews Air Force Base, near where I live. We've gone the past few years to enjoy the Thunderbirds and Blue Angels and other show and stunt planes and jets, but this year, there was an even bigger draw. The Memphis Belle was there.

I was in college in the Navy ROTC when the movie Memphis Belle came out. In case you don't know the story, it's based on the true story about a young crew's - kids, really - last bombing mission in World War II on the B-17 bomber, Memphis Belle. They received fame by being the first crew to complete 25 missions intact - before the 25th mission was flown.

That movie came out the same year we went to Iraq for the Gulf War. It brought war to life for me.

One thing I'll never forget in it is the ball turret gunner - a guy who sits in a small plexigalss bubble that hangs below the plane and rotates for better aim of the guns.

Here is the real one:

In the movie, the airman who sits here is well aware that he is encapsulated in a space that might as well have a target on him. He is young and fearful, and rightfully so.

I don't remember if it's in the movie or not, but I know this movie in some way introduced me to the Randall Jarrell poem, Death of a Ball Turret Gunner:

From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from the dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
I don't always understand poetry, but I love the feel of it in my heart, and when it resonates by making some personal connection, even more so. Seeing the plane firsthand makes it all the more real.

The ball turret is very much like a womb in the belly of the bomber; the only way in to drop into it through a hole. No way to move, no way to communicate on the long flight to the mission. How easy it must be to fall asleep there, lulled by the hum of the engines and the vibration of the movement. 
And then to awaken, in the middle of the war, the opposing guns aimed at you.

Sometimes we write to help others understand. And sometimes, it's the real things that make the writing come to life. 

Friday, May 20, 2011

In Which I Get to the Book About the Drag Queen with Goldfish Boobs

I don't think of myself as a non-fiction junkie. Really. I write fiction. I think I read fiction. I think this is mostly all I read until I look at my reading list from last semester to sum it up for my advisor, and realize that nearly HALF my reading list was memoir. HALF!!!

Let's just admit it: I have a memoir problem.

And now that my reading for the semester is done and I have three weeks stretching in front of me to read whatever I want, you know what is on my nightstand? Three memoirs. Sigh.

The thing is, it isn't even about reading the truth, because I don't believe most of what's in these books anyway. When people - anyone and not just authors - look back at their lives, they see it through a filter. A lens of emotions and perspective and information that came later. They make up dialogue - some of which may have happened in some form but not exactly that way, and some of which is what they wanted to say or have said to them. Authors have to create plots and story arcs and timelines that work for readers, making interesting things of what might be dull, leaving out the seemingly meaningless.

But people - especially nearly real people - are interesting.

Take my newest book... one that, if you've read this blog for a few months you might recognize:

I Am Not Myself These Days... the story of the seven-foot-tall New York Drag Queen who sashays around the city with goldfish in his clear bubble bra.

I honestly laughed about this book for days after blindly buying it without having any idea what it was about. If you knew me in person, you'd know this is completely NOT what I'd pick up, even if it was memoir.

But now that I'm nearly done with it, I can say it is not funny, and I am not laughing. Which is not to say it isn't a good read, or that I can easily put it down at midnight when my eyelids are drooping, because I can't. Despite the amount of R-rated language, which tends to turn me off, the story itself is riveting. But depressing and sad, because under the makeup and fun costumes and active nightlife, this writer is an alcoholic and possibly a drug addict, in a brutal and unhappy relationship, with a job he  can barely get sober long enough to do.

But, and this is a pretty big but, I don't believe half of it is real. I just don't. The author writes about a period of time in his life where he pretty much is drunk nearly all the time. He's drinking 3-4 glasses of vodka (which sounds like "glasses" rather than "shots") an hour for nine hours at a time. He blacks out often, sometimes on park benches, sometimes in subway trains, sometimes in stranger's houses whom he can't remember. And yet, he can remember details of the nightlife when he's 18-glasses of vodka to the wind, conversations, impressions, emotions. He can describe vividly the crowd and the music even as he describes himself as unable to stand upright without a wall and slurring his words so badly he can't be understood.

There are also lines of coke and the occasional crack and meth. He's beat senselessly at least once, being kicked in the face and head so brutally he passes out. He survives weeks on end with less than an hour of sleep a night. And yet he recalls it all with a sober clarity that defies explanation.

In fact, the fact that this guy can survive at all is a mystery.

There are other things in the book I question as well - aspects of a seedy underground where people pay thousands of dollars to be tied up naked and belittled and beaten to escape their CEO-lifestyle, for one. Not that I don't think some of this exists, and I do realize I lead a very clean, sheltered life, but the levels at which some of this occur - and the rate at which they reoccur - feel exaggerated for effect. And trust me, when you're a seven-foot-tall drag queen with goldfish in your boobs, there's not a lot of need to exaggerate other things.

The thing about this book is that it would have been fascinating as a novel. As a memoir, I don't buy it all, and I can't even identify with the parts I might believe. So the genre label here doesn't really help for me.

The funny thing is this: last night, while winding up the book and reading the "Author's Path to Publication" in the back, his mentor and first reader was James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces that I wrote about yesterday. Irony? Maybe. And maybe he should be glad Oprah never came calling at his door.

(I can't say I'd unequivocally recommend this book. Clearly the subject matter - and often the accompanying language - is not for everyone. I would have said it was not for me. But it is well-written and easy to get lost in and despite my wariness about it, I do have to say it was an interesting read.)

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A Million Little Pieces: Frey's Interview with Oprah

On Monday, Oprah interviewed James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, and previous guest whom she'd once put on a pedestal (and her book club) and then later shamed and belittled.

Although I don't normally watch Oprah, I recorded this one and sat mesmerized through it, at first just wondering why James Frey would show up here, a third time, after such a humiliating second round, and then coming to a point of not only feeling empathy for him but feeling as if his situation could very well have happened to many of us writers.

For those who might not know, A Million Little Pieces was published under the genre of memoir, a supposed true recounting of a drug addict's road to recovery. After selling millions of copies, The Smoking Gun uncovered evidence that much of the book was fabricated, and eventually James Frey admitted he'd made most of it up.

What many people didn't know was that Frey never intended to write this as an autobiography. When he signed with an agent, they marketed the book to publishers as a novel, but no one would bite. Saying the events were true, however, proved to be the catnip needed to lure bids in.

What the publisher said to the agent and what the agent said to Frey may never be clearly known, but what is clear - and should be to most of us writers - is that Frey wanted his book published and trusted the people around him - professionals in the business. Though he takes responsibility now for marketing the book as truth, I can't help wonder if more blame lies on the shoulders of the the people with authority who convinced him the book was autobiographical enough to sell as memoir, who capitalized on his dream to be published.

In his interview, this is what he said:

From 22 to 31 I was trying to teach myself how to write a book. I didn’t go to graduate school, I didn’t ever have a writing teacher. I just sat in a room alone for years trying to write a book, trying to figure out how to write a book. Trying to figure out if I could do it. What book did I want to write? How did I want to write it? It was a lot of years of work. And then I wrote a book. I wrote a book and I had a chance to publish it. It wasn’t necessarily how I imagined it, but I wanted it published, I wanted it out in the world. And I said yes. 

The books reviews and ratings plummeted after the revelation, which I find interesting because it shows how a label means more than the story. If the book is a good story, should it not be a good story no matter whether it is true or not? Is it entertaining if true, but not if the facts are altered? Is a story only inspirational if the events and people are faithful to history?

I get it that people felt duped. They bought into the idea that this man endured root canal without anesthesia, that he fell in love with another addict that died, that he himself managed to get clean on his own. Readers want drama and triumph, and Frey gave it to them. For some, that wasn't enough.

But, as Frey points out in his interview (humbly, I must add), memoir is a murky genre to begin with. Writers manipulate events all the time to create a more cohesive book that flows better. So much so that since Frey's book was first published, an entirely new genre has popped up: the creative non-fiction.

Would that label have saved Frey's reputation? Who knows. The fact is that the book more closely resembles a novel than non-fiction, and though Frey knew that, the deeper he got into marketing the book, the less he felt he could make that public. But, unlike Greg Mortenson's book Three Cups of Tea, Frey was not raising money for a non-profit organization with his book. Frey was merely selling books - the same thing fiction authors do every day.

What I found fascinating in the interview was Frey's explanation of the writing - of why he wrote the book the way he did.

When I sat down to write the book, I didn’t think of it as a memoir. I didn’t think of it as a novel even... I wrote the book without any respect for what is fact or what is fiction, what category it should be placed in…I was trying to create a work of art…I’m more influenced by artists than writers. When you look at a Picasso self portrait, let’s say, you look at a cubist self portrait that Picasso has made, it doesn’t look anything like Picasso, or if it does, in ways that might only make sense to him. So when I was writing the book, I was thinking about it like that.

I don't want to come across as justifying the actions of Frey or his agent and publisher. I'm just saying, I'm a lot closer to understanding how easily something like this can happen.

Monday, May 16, 2011

What I Learned from Disney About Writing

So last week I truly took off. No computer. No internet. No emails, texts, facebooks, or tweets. For seven days I went cold turkey.

Of course, it didn't hurt that I spent the week here:

Yeah. My family and I took off for warmer climates to thaw out from the winter and get to know each other again. And ride a few rides. And eat... a lot.

It was an amazing time to just spend with the kids without books and computers and deadlines and homework - theirs and mine. We talked a ton, laughed even more, and though I thought being off-line would possibly kill me, I loved it.

But there's no getting away from writing when you're a writer, even if it's only in your head. Looking around at Disney World is a education in vision and persistence, and what Walt Disney did with his small kingdom could be a lesson for us writers too.

So here's what I learned:

  • Cleanliness is important, whether it's total lack of trash in the streets or spelling errors in a manuscript. People will judge you on it.
  • Pick at least one thing (a setting, a character, a subplot - or a castle or tree in the middle of the park) and make it extraordinary.
  • Market yourself wherever you have the opportunity. There was a joke on the jungle cruise, as we headed into a dark tunnel: "You never know where this will lead. Of course, it's Disney so it'll probably end in a gift store." 
  • Details make a difference, even in the places you think few people will notice.
  • Don't be afraid to keep revising something if it has a kink in it.
  • Be passionate about what you are doing.
I'm sure I'll think of more later, but my brain is sunburned. :) I missed you all last week. I'll try to catch up in the next days.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

It is FInished

 I did it.... I finally finished my first semester of my MFA program.

21 books read, 12 craft analysis papers, 1 short story written and revised 5 times, 110 pages of my novel extensively revised, including over 5,000 words cuts and nearly half that amount added back in in new scenes.

It's been exhausting, crazy, amazing, unbelievable, and fun. I've grown in ways I never imagined and absolutely LOVED my faculty advisor (who is Craig Lesley, and if you are interested in some great and unique literary fiction, check out his books here).

I have a month off and then it's back to residency in Oregon, which I can't wait for! For the next week, though, I'm taking some time off. I've got some cleaning to catch up on of course, but mostly I have family to get to know again. I'm getting off the computer - off blogs, facebook, twitter, and email - voluntarily - and spending some good time with my family and my camera.

When I come back, hopefully I'll have stories to tell, and pictures to share. :)

See ya in a week!

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Road to Rejection is Paved With Good Intentions

I've been working on a novel for over a year now. In fact, the first draft was finished nearly a year ago. In the meantime, I've been revising. And revising. And revising.

It's been eye-opening... but sometimes painful.

Over the course of revisions I have several people read sections of it, many of whom read the first chapter. Several of these are my very talented writing group. One of those people is a published author. One of those is a critically acclaimed author and writing teacher who is my phenomenal advisor this semester at Pacific University. Everyone has seemed to indicate I've got that first chapter down.

Then, this weekend, I was browsing a website of a major publisher. Perhaps I should mention I was browsing this website because I had just read a book published by them and was certain they could not have been a reputable publisher because this book was SO poorly written. Agonizingly poorly. And yet - turns out the publisher is a real, valid, traditional publisher with a pretty big name in the industry.

Anyhoo - on that website there were submission guidelines and helpful hints for writers, one of the top of which was this:

DO start your story with action or dialogue; DO NOT start with your character driving in a car back into town musing over why they left and why they're coming back.


Do you know how my book starts? A girl driving back into her hometown.


So now, even though I've had so many people tell me this first chapter is a great opening and develops the character well and sets up the tension nearly immediately, I feel my stomach bunching up.

If I send the opening pages for submission, will it automatically get rejected because it starts this way? Not that I would ever send it to that publisher above, but just the fact that they mention this as their top pet-peeve and thing NOT to do in a submission, am I setting myself up for failure?

I'm just not sure I have the heart to go back now and rewrite that first chapter yet again. At least not right now. I'm going to keep plowing ahead and finish this eighth or ninth set of revisions, and then maybe I'll have the courage to re-evaluate. But I don't feel better knowing I did the one thing they say not to do.

If I am STILL doing all the wrong things, am I hopeless??