Tuesday, August 26, 2014

An Angry Young Woman Grows Up

When I was in my early twenties, living alone in my very first apartment, I spent my days chasing a creative writing degree and working my ass off in a preschool. My nights nights were devoted to poetry slams, reading insane amounts of  Pablo Neruda, working the local poetry open-mic circuit, and writing. Poems, mostly, but also also a fair amount of short fiction.

One of my friends at the time, a much older poet who happened to look a lot like Pablo Neruda, said my work was good but that it was "angry young woman" poetry, so it was hard for him to identify with it. Looking back, I think he was just trying to say something nice about something he couldn't understand.

When I look through the overflowing and torn folder that holds the writing from that period of my life, I realize I was an angry young woman and that my target audience was not tender-hearted fifty-year-old males. I had a bone to pick with the world, and words were my weapon.

I've changed a lot since then. I grew up. I realized that poetry isn't my passion. I got married and had a kid. Sometimes I can hardly remember the girl I used to be. But I still have a couple of things in common with her. I'm still mad as hell, and words are still my favorite weapon.

There are times when I feel overwhelmed with the world. I can't believe that there is so much hostility, hatred and injustice out there. Sometimes I feel like I'm being crushed under the weight of bigotry, misogyny, and ignorance. It makes me angry that women don't have a voice in their own healthcare. It infuriates me that the color of someone's skin determines how they are treated by law enforcement and society as a whole. Rape culture is alive and well as women are told to restrict their actions to avoid becoming victims.  Gay marriage is still controversial.

Although today is Women's Equality Day, there is still a lot of work to be done before women (and people of color, and the LGBTQ community) are truly on equal footing.  I look forward to the time when there will no long be a need for such holidays as Women's Equality Day. One day, we can all see and treat each other as equals, and I won't stop being angry until that time comes.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

A Writer's Forgotten Dreams

When I was in junior high, I wrote my first novel. It was a story about a girl whose father was murdered and she was kidnapped by the murderers. Turns out her dad was a bad guy who did bad stuff and when crap went down, he ended up taking a swim wearing a pair of cement shoes. I wrote it long hand, on loose leaf paper during study hall and lunch. After I got a cheap typewriter, I spent months teaching myself how to use it. Eventually, after lots to tears and correction cassettes, I had an error-filled (but typed!) manuscript. Oh, it was beautiful, that stack of eighty-two typed pages. It proved that I had what it takes to write a book from beginning to end. It was proof that I could be a writer if I tried hard enough. It proved that my dream of being a writer wasn't stupid. There was only one thing left to do: get it published.

I went to my town's only public library and checked out a woefully out of date Writer's Market. Back at home, I flipped directly to the Publishers section and wrote down the addresses of a few publishers that would accept unsolicited work. At that point, I didn't understand what an agent was or why they were important. Mostly, I thought agents were something you had to pay for, like a lawyer or therapist, and that gave wealthy aspiring writers the upper hand. The whole thing seemed unfair to me and I wanted no part of it. Youth is full of misconceptions.

My school counselor was impressed that I had written and then typed a novel, and he gave me permission to use the faculty copier to make a single copy of it. The smell of paper, fresh and warm from a copy machine, still makes my heart hammer with excitement.

I deliberated a long time over which publisher to send the only copy of my baby to. I don't remember who I picked or why I picked them, but I can recall that dropping my book down the mailbox chute felt like abandoning my beloved dog. I was pretty sure I'd have to barf into the bushes before I got home. Good thing for every homeowner along my route, lunch stayed in my belly.

Weeks later, I got a personal reply from that publisher. I don't recall who sent it, but I do remember how kindly worded the rejection was. She said that, unfortunately, they no longer accepted unsolicited manuscripts (damned out of date Writer's Market!), but that she had taken it upon herself to read my novel. She said it was promising for someone so young and that I shouldn't give up. She said it could use some polishing and that maybe finding an agent would open more doors for me. She ended the letter by saying she felt confident that I would go far in my writing career if I kept at it.

I was crushed. All I could see was the rejection. The nice stuff, the encouraging stuff, didn't register. It didn't occur to me what an amazing person this woman was for taking the time to read all eighty-two pages of my poorly written, unsolicited manuscript and then to take the time to craft an encouraging rejection. My good fortune was completely lost on me.

Life continued. I went to high school, got a job, went to college, got married, and had a baby. Somehow, that memory of my first submission and rejection got buried. It wasn't until just recently, when I started the process of querying agents for Average Simon, that I remembered. It's sad that something so huge was shoved to a dusty corner of my mind and left to rot. But I'm grateful, too. I'm grateful querying brought the memory back. That recovered memory is as much of a gift as the long lost letter the publisher sent to me.

The years have taught me that writing, from the first draft to the querying stage, is full of hidden gifts. Forgotten emotions. Abandoned memories. And that, sometimes, it can take decades to remember that your dreams are worth chasing.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Well, Why Not?

Being responsible for another human is, quite possibly, one of the most difficult things a person can do. The job is full of sweat, blood, tears, snot, and vomit. It’s full of stress, worry, heavy lifting, and sleepless nights.  I suspect that’s why some parents feel the need to be heavy handed disciplinarians or to indoctrinate their children in a specific, often monotheistic, belief system. Filling a child with the fear of punishment, eternal or fleeting and earthly, goes a long way in making a parent’s job a little easier.
As atheists, my husband and I don’t have religion to help us scare our child into behaving the way we want him to. And as rational people who completely eschew physical punishment, we don’t have the fear of physical threat to coerce him into acting or not acting in a certain way. What we do have is words. Lots and lots of words. We also employ logical consequences and are open and receptive to hearing our son’s point of view on any given topic.
Well, Why Not?All this sounds great in theory, but in practice, it’s not always tulips and wine. There are times when I want so badly to cross my arms and say “Because I said so. Don’t argue.” It’s exhausting to have to rationalize every parenting decision I make.
Before I answer a question or refuse to grant permission, I ask myself “why not” and if I don’t have a solid reason, I don’t say no.  Sometimes I really have to dig deep to find out I don’t have a particular reason for him not to play on the computer, and sometimes I have work at it to get to the root of why I don’t want to extend his bedtime to 10:00. But in the end, all the digging and questioning I do in my own head serves to make me a very deliberate parent. It also helps pull emotion out of the equation, which is especially necessary if my son’s emotions are already running high.
The side effect of parenting him with “why not? instead of “no” is that sometimes he questions absolutely everything. But, since I say “yes” as often as I possibly can, he usually won’t push an issue if I’m sticking to my guns. He knows that I always have his best interests at heart and that if I take firm stance on a subject, it’s probably for a pretty damned good reason and fighting me on it won’t get him anywhere. He learned from any early age that some things I’ll bend on, and some things I absolutely won’t.
When he was a toddler, he hated his car seat and would do everything in his power to prevent us from buckling him in. Obviously, not being buckled in wasn’t not an option, so my husband and I told him that it was “non-negotiable.” By the time the kid was 20 months old, he was using the phrase “non-guh-gosh-able” For all sorts of things. Sometimes in the right context, sometimes not. With tears streaming down his face, he’d let me buckle him in and say “It’s non-guh-gosh-able” with such heart wrenching emotion that I wished we could just stay home. As the ice cream truck tinkled past our house, he’d run outside in nothing but his diaper and shout “Ice Cream Man! Stop! It’s non-guh-gosh-able!”
As he grew older and learned both the proper pronunciation and usage of the word, he was able to participate in discussions about why isn’t wise to go out in the snow without shoes or why it’s a good thing for him to clear his own place at the table. When he was about 9, he got his hands on a bunch of index cards and wrote up a little speech about why we should re-instate the allowance we had taken away. He made his case beautifully, and we re-instated allowance. Since forever, my husband and I have encouraged him to question authority, us included.
Now we have a full-fledged tween-ager on our hands, complete with occasional hormonal attitude and irrational thinking. But, even when he’s stomping around with a case of the Pre-Teen Grumpies, I can usually talk him through it, though it’s not always easy. Sometimes my wonderful, intelligent, intuitive boy pushes my patience to the very limits of human tolerance. Sometimes I yell. Sometimes I overreact. I’m a parent, not a saint. But after we’ve both had time to calm down, I make a point of sitting down with him and talking. We talk about making good choices and about how our words and tone of voice can hurt others. We talk about our hard limits and our soft limits. We work together and negotiate.
Some things are negotiable, but giving my son the opportunities to speak and act on his own behalf will always be non-negotiable.

This blog was originally posted on GroundedParents.com where I am a contributing blogger.