It’s been a few years, and there’s a chill in the air. When the time comes and my current books are launched, they may have to include a new paragraph on the copyright page. To whit:
This whole work is about me — my story about as much of the world as I’ve experienced. The world is vast. Imagining, let alone claiming, that I’m trying to speak for or in the voice of you or your family or your kinfolk, tribe, culture, religion, conspiracy theory or whatever you identify with or as — well, that’s about you and the alchemy of storytelling. If you find yourself in this work and dislike what you find, don’t make it about me. Write your own story. That’s where you’ll find what you’re looking for.
I’ve been struggling a bit with my emerging writer’s identity. I realized that, while I have many clear ideas for children’s books that I could be pitching and selling quite readily, that’s not my primary motivation right now. I’m so full of secrets that I need to tell. This is very scary. What if they get me in trouble? What if no one cares?
In this mood, I think about Bobby McFerrin, the musician who got famous for his song, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” He is one of the bravest artists I have ever encountered. I remember the first time I saw him in performance, online in a video recorded after he’d repudiated “Don’t Worry.” He stood before a huge audience on an empty stage with nothing but his self and a mike, and brought the universe of human music down to earth. Every person in that dark audience, including me, was persuaded to enter his dream with dancing hearts.
And in this video, look at how he rejects the efforts of the people behind him to turn what he is doing into mere amusement, that old shuckin’ and jivin’ for the Man. The audience, after that first spontaneous tonal jump, is 100% with him, learning what he has learned, delighting as he delights. The men in the chairs — you feel sorry for them. They’re trapped in a nervous, tittering hell of their own making, while McFerrin and his happy flock are playing in Paradise.
Earlier in my life I turned my talents to making a living. Now, with the wolf farther from the door, I have space to make art. Dark stage, invisible audience, just my mind and my words. Cue the spotlight. Here we go.
One’s commitment to a series (books, shows) and other repeated experiences rests on two things, surprise and satisfaction. Either one or the other, depending; when it comes to book and TV series, I prefer surprise. When the thing offers no more surprises, no twists that I didn’t predict, then I’m out. Others look for satisfaction: “Package delivered, just as expected.” These two aren’t warring; they’re equal companions, in different measures, in all persons. One holds you up and one carries you forward.
Sometimes life feels like a bad series. Nothing satisfies, and the only surprises are blows. Your little ship is cracked and breaking and your sails are torn. In this state, your limited energy is spent on just not sinking, never mind catching wind, and getting out of the doldrums seems impossible. But you’re a ship and meant for going places. You have to fix your sail. How?
Ask for help. Pray for a windfall, to God or the universe — just enough blessing to make the extra effort worthwhile. Then, cast a line into your future — some interest that a slightly-stronger you might pursue. Let that pull you forward while you fix all the holes. And then, one day, your sail will lift, then swell. And you’ll be ready to put your hand to the tiller and your eyes on the horizon and go.
Jacques’ speech in As You Like It by Wm Shakespeare (Act II, Scene vii) reinterpreted
All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one woman in her time plays many parts, Her acts being seven ages. At first, the infant, Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms. Then the crosspatch helper, with her ideas And tightly braided hair, pulled from her play and set Unwillingly to work. And then the lovesick, Sighing like a furnace, fizzy with delight When her eye’s fancy returns a look. Then a Mother, Full of strange life and bellied like the moon, Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel, Claiming the better method Even in the night’s wee hours. And then the Karen, In fair round belly with good capon lined, With eyes severe and hair of formal cut, Full of wise saws and modern instances; And so she plays her part. The sixth age shifts Into the spare and careful yogini, With spectacles on head and purse on back; Her youthful size, resumed, covered in skin Too dry and loose, and her woman’s voice Turning again toward childish uselessness, A melancholy sound. Last scene of all, That ends this strange eventful history, Is second childishness and mere oblivion, Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
For the past five-and-a-half months I’ve been living in a dream world of my own making. I miss it.
When I was a child, I read to escape. Escape from boredom: our TV was a tiny black-and-white with no cable, I didn’t like sports and my school friends lived scattered and far away. Escape from company: I like quiet but I was in the middle of six kids and my parents liked to entertain, so I would retreat with a book to my bedroom or, if that wasn’t safe enough (I shared rooms with an older or younger sibling until I was 15), to the assured solitude of under-the-guest-room-bed. Escape from pain: in the worst year of my childhood, I read hundreds of folk- and fairy-tales, craving the triumph of the youngest over the oldest, the poor over the rich, the dreamer over the doer, the weak over the strong, whether through magic or the hero(ine)’s own, surprisingly sufficient nature.
One of my favourite writers, Diana Wynne Jones (may she rest in delight), said somewhere that she started writing for escape, too; that she and her sisters were insufficiently supplied with books to read and so she had to write to relieve the privations of not-so-benign neglect. I didn’t envy her lack but I did wonder what it would be like to be that motivated. I wanted to write so badly but couldn’t seem to stick to it. My notebooks were full of sparky ideas, beginnings and endings; I constantly described things in my head, in beautiful sentences that went nowhere; I wore myself out trying to figure people out and cast them as main characters in their own stories. I wrote good letters, all this time, and I helped many, many writers of stories see their way through sticky bits to the best story they could create, as an editor of children’s and YA fiction. I learned so much.
Finally, I got a job where I could create and write short works and be paid for them immediately. I went through hard psychic times, in which I figured out a few things about myself; I was seized by a story idea that wouldn’t let me go and which I worked on for over two years while I figured out a few more things about myself, including the probability that I have ADHD (diagnosis pending). With that last discovery, I’ve been able to forgive myself for “wasted” time and really get to work, using all the skills I’d gained so far. While I was working on my YA science/speculative novel, I discovered that I could get lost in writing the way I do in reading. I can wrestle with the angel of attention and win its blessings: total absorption, suspended time, surprise and delight and, finally, a finished project — beginning, middle and end.
The title of my novel is Otherwhere. I think there is going to be a sequel.
P.S. I have been blown away by this photographer, whose Instagram posts have often captured exactly and eerily what I imagined for my invented lands.
One of the main characters in Otherwhere, the novel I’m writing, is presented as gender-indeterminate. I’ve been using they/them and it’s hella awkward. I’m a skilled craftsperson striving to make my prose as clear as possible, and some of my readers still say it’s confusing.
Otherwhere is an SF novel involving a world of three gender categories, so this is pretty key. As a reader, I get impatient with having to learn rafts of vocabulary to get along in an invented world, so I chose to go with the now-familiar they/them substitution. I included the neologism “themself” because it seemed strange to have a self-reflexive pronoun be plural when the character it referred to was obviously singular. It mostly worked.
Then I changed my mind. I admitted to one of my readers that I was making a point. We all know that they/them is an imperfect solution. I wanted to prove how imperfect it is. I was proving it — but was it at my story’s and reader’s expense? I’d invented names for the third gender category (par for children and twane for adults); it now seemed logical that I should do the same with its pronouns. I wanted something simple and easy on the English-language ear and tongue, and I settled on eh/em/ans. Then I went to work.
And discovered that I wasn’t done with they/them as neutral third-person singular pronouns. Let me show you:
Vesca frowned and looked at her hands, thinking. “Have you ever met someone who just does what they want, without hesitation? When you challenge them, or take exception, if there’s injury of some kind, they apologize and make amends if they can. But this woman … she wasn’t like that. She didn’t seem to feel she’d done anything wrong. No one in her community would give her a child, so she took one. From a stranger, so no House in her community would be offended. She talked like it was logical … clever, what she’d done. Like we were stupid for not seeing that.”
Now, the rule I’ve put in place in my world and my novel is that, until a character has been formally introduced, their pronouns must be third-gender/neutral. I tried replacing they/them with my invented pronouns in the paragraph above and found myself thinking, Wait. Who am I talking about? The meaning of what I was writing had changed — because it turns out that, although using they/them as singular pronouns is natural to English grammar, it is necessary and specific to ONE situation. In the paragraph above, Vesca is talking about an indeterminate, hypothetical someone, not an “actual” person, and they/them is absolutely correct. We use they/them as impersonal personal pronouns: referring to persons but still belonging to the group that includes it, this, and that. We use they/them when it feels rude to use “it.”
That’s why using they/them as gender-neutral singular personal pronouns feels awkward and wrong: because we’re coming from a place where this usage is wrong. In conversation, where we have an actual person in mind, we can manage it. In writing, where our minds are already working full-time on suspending disbelief or following a train of thought, this new usage is especially challenging.
However, we’re stuck with it, because invented pronouns are even MORE awkward, especially in writing. Rereading my draft, I found myself struggling with my own inventions, because, unlike the few-and-far-between nouns I’d invented, the pronouns called attention to themselves constantly. I believe this has been my difficulty with invented vocabulary all along: it’s a visual-mental distraction that burdens the reader with too much decoding, thereby disrupting understanding and sympathy.
That’s why I changed my mind and changed em/en/ans back to they/them/themself.
Our parents fail us, and we in turn fail our children.
Take your eyes off the road for just a second, or focus too narrowly, and you fail.
We get behind the parenting wheel with directions we have written ourselves: avoid this pothole, don’t go down this road. And then we fail our children other ways, all unaware: casually or sadly or cruelly, though rarely with malice.
What we have done to them or failed to do is irrevocable and cannot be erased. When we realize what it is that we have or have not done, we see the bloody fingerprints everywhere, upon the babes in our arms to whoever they are now. But only to a degree: there are strange lights and shadows where our children (have) travel(led) that confound our gaze — valleys where they walked amidst enemies, looking for friends.
I am “defecting to the typewriter”. I believe in the luck of my children, who have not devoured me; I believe in the luck of my husband and lover, who keeps a free woman. (Thank you, Carolyn Kizer!) As of March 1, 2021, I am a writer only. The first day went great. The second day started earlier and with even more enthusiasm. Here’s a little bit of what I’m working on:
In dole service I was a little more judgey, because I was older and looking for something — evidence, reasons, a clue. Dole service has a element of choice to it, at least until the choices become who you are. I was working in a market, once, wrangling folding tables and sweeping floors. It was the kind of market where the hard goods are second- or third-hand and the groceries are all past their best-before dates. A frowsty-haired woman named Brinda had a table there, displaying gloriously scented bruised pineapples and small piles of limp or desiccated vegetable items I didn’t know the names of. I bought avocados from her. I only knew one thing to do with them, a kind of creamy, spicy spread, and the very soft, beginning-to-blacken ones she offered suited that purpose. We got to talking about journeying and I said I was thinking about going home for the solstice festival.
“Oh, I never go otherwhere for something,” she said. “I just go, and see what there is when I get there.”
“Why?” I asked.
She squinched up her face as if tasting something sour. “You gotta to leave at the right time, and get the hops timed just so,” she said. “Weeks in advance, sometimes, you have to plan. And life’s not like that; you can’t count on things staying the same for long.” She shook her head. “Too chancy. I go when I want to.”
I didn’t know what to do with that. I felt sorry for her mysteriously stormy, precarious life so prone to falls. On the other hand, her reasoning felt itchy. Wasn’t it more unsettling to go any otherwhere at a moment’s notice than to go with planning and purpose? So what, or who, was chancy here?