Friday, February 26, 2010

I DO believe in fairies--I do! I do!

A few months ago, I was tucking The Midget in bed and out of nowhere, she burst into tears. Hard, fierce tears, the kind that defy interruption by language or hugs. I could only hold her hand until the storm subsided and she could speak again.

"Mom," she sniffed, rubbing her nose across my forearm, "I just want it to be real. Magic and fairies."

I hugged her and snuck a handkerchief into her hand, and told her the same story I've told her half a dozen times, the story about seeing the little ball of light dancing in the cemetery, the one the cat saw, too. I don't know if she believed it, but I did, and that was what mattered. The strength of my belief let her go to sleep that night.

As strange as it is to admit at age 31 and as a die-hard materialist, there is a part of me thatstill believes that magic is real, that ghosts could exist and that I saw a fairy in the Gardiner cemetery. It that inherent insistence upon believing in the impossible that feeds the words within me. It the core dissonance that shapes my song.

Will anything ever change my mind about all these impossible things? I doubt it. No matter how hard I've thought about the evidence, I have stubbornly resisted giving them up. I feel certain it's because they do exist. I know they do. I have met the Faery Queen, riding her white horse. I have seen a girl become possessed by a demon and vomit up green goo. I have battled the powers of evil with my rowan wand and read magic back into the world from the Book of Light. And with a trip to the library, I can do it again.

I guess what I believe in is the power of books. From the moment I slip inside the front cover, I am no longer myself and I no longer live in Portland, Oregon. I am absolutely absorbed in the world created by the story, and the lessons I learn in those pages, I take to heart. The part of me that remembers the tale believes entirely in the mysterious things within that world.

I tell myself that's all it is. An imagination, fed by books. A love of all stories set in the implausible worlds of fantasy.

But about that fairy. I did see a dancing ball of light in the cemetery, and it was Equinox, a magical time of year. The cat saw it, too. And we don't have fireflies in Oregon.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Grows shoots & leaves

Sometimes, when I'm wondering why I don't have more to show for all the time I spend in front of the computer, I have to remind myself that as a beginning writer goes, I've only just begun. Yeah, I started writing novels (actually writing them, and not just starting them and forgetting them) 6 years ago, but I didn't go hardcore until about two years ago. That was when I was walking home from the grocery store and realized that I was willing to stick with my sometimes underwhelming day job if it meant becoming a real writer.

And so in the middle of editing book number two, I started writing flash fiction and then expanded it to short fiction and now I try to balance my time pretty evenly between short stories and noveling. I'm very glad I did, because I think I've learned more writing short stories than I learned writing novels, and the lessons I learned didn't hurt quite so much. I've also learned more about the business end of writing in the last 8 months--since I found Twitter--than I did in all the book and blog reading that I did in the previous 30 years of my life.

I feel pretty good about the last year of production. I feel like I'm working hard, learning a lot, and getting faster and better every day. Part of what's helping things is the great group of people I've stumbled across. From my supportive friends and family to my writing buddy, Sue, to the Seshat Tribe of Awesome (a virtual writing group of great spec fictionists), I feel like I'm soaking up rays of genius and love every day. It sounds mushy, but it's true. All the great vibes are rolling off of these folks and going straight to my brain.

So I guess you could say I'm a lot like a plant. The seed was pushed into the ground long ago, and tender care helped me sprout. Now, by absorbing radiant energy, I'm finally sending up shoots.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Quick hi

Dear Blog:

Don't worry, I haven't forgotten you. It's just that my to-do list had babies and the internet at my favorite cafe failed me. Want to make a date for tomorrow?

You're such a sweet blog. Thanks for being so understanding.


Sunday, February 21, 2010

Defining beauty, defining power, defining ourselves

A few days ago, I cut my hair. It was a pretty drastic change (see before & after pics), and it made me think of my last major haircut. I was working at the museum and there was one family who came in pretty regularly, with three wonderful girls who liked me a lot. And the one girl saw my haircut and said that it was a big change, but I was still beautiful anyway. She looked so pained when she said it that I knew she was trying to be diplomatic. She was at that age, I think, when what it means to be beautiful is to have long hair.

To most girls, beauty is a function of being a woman, and to children still developing a sense of gender, the genders are painted with very broad brushstrokes. A woman has long hair. A girl wears pink. Men have short hair. Boys wear blue. Men are handsome; women are beautiful. Women decorate themselves and color their parts to accentuate their beauty. To kids, this all makes a lot more sense than any explanation of biological parts.

But as we get older and begin to work out a finer sense of what it means to be a woman or a man, we struggle with ideas about masculinity and femininity. The basic notions of a child become restrictive. What if you are born with a uterus but you don't like pink? What does that mean? What if you have a face that is never, ever going to look symmetrical, no matter how much foundation you cake on? These are questions that girls wrestle with as they grow up (boys have their own issues to work through), and into the middle of all that wrestling come the artillery shells of hormones and lust, throwing all the questions and definitions into the harsh light of lust.

Once lust is involved, the problems become more difficult to solve. Because there is a certain kind of power a beautiful woman can wield over a man, a power that generations of blond, buxom teenage girls have used to their advantage. It is the power of the trophy wife. It is a power that does not make a person stronger, but only allows them to better manipulate others. Girls watch prettier, more glamorous girls get doted over and see that power and beauty and being a woman are all wrapped up together in a horrific Gordian knot.

For some of us, that knot is too difficult to work through. I was one of those girls who looked at the muddle and just decided to turn my back on the problem. I wore goofball outfits, got ridiculous haircuts, and reveled in my personal integrity. I tried to become strong in my own way, learning as much as I could, developing a sense of humor, and looking down on all those blond babes with the boyfriend shelling out jewelry.

But now that I am strong, an educated woman with plenty of opinions I'm not afraid to share, I also don't worry so much about being mistaken for one of the babes. I can have long hair if I want to, not because I need to look like a girl, as my first-grade daughter believes she must, or because my hair is beautiful and I need it to look gorgeous (what can I say? I have good hair). I can have long hair just because I like it. And I can have short hair because I want to have short hair, not just to prove that I am too cool and tough to be "girly" (which is probably why I wanted short hair when I was a teenager). It's just hair.

I can say that now, because I have lived with myself and looked at myself long enough to appreciate the good features and the bad ones. I have people in my life to tell me I am beautiful. I am not afraid that I need a man to give me power. I think I might have finally worked out for myself what it means to be a woman. It is bigger than hair; it is bigger than pink; it is bigger than beauty. But it's also big enough to hold all of that in its warm arms.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Meet you in the Gold Room

Wow. It's Wednesday, and Wednesdays, I update the blog. Ohmygod, I have nothing to say! Everyone's going to hate me and no one will read my blog ever again! Oh nooooo!

Okay, panic-attack managed.

Actually, right now I am thinking about zombies. Over the past week, I've been working my way through The Living Dead, an incredible anthology of incredible zombie stories. At least three of them have made me tear up. They are *that* good. Many have filled me with awe and joy and a wonderful appreciation of the human condition. Yep, and they're zombie stories.

I just want to point out that loving spec fiction never comes back to bite you in the ass. No matter what crazy thing they think up next, fantasy/SF/horror writers are always working to stretch our collective imaginations. Occasional trash finds its way through, but even the writers who are struggling to maintain control of their story and who write paint-by-numbers characters can often give us moments of wonder. (Twilight, I'm looking at you.) Speculative fiction is good for the parts of your mind the reality sometimes bogs down. It is the literary equivalent of haute couture--sometimes impractical, sometimes unwearable, but always fascinating.

Literary snobs can stick with their Pulitzer-prize winners, but I'll be in Gold Room*. Looking for tear-jerkers.

*PDXers will know the Gold Room as the genre fiction area of Powell's Books (Burnside store & mother-ship). If you don't live in Stumptown, make that one room your number one vacation spot this year. Don't both with Voodoo Donuts; the line's too long come summer-time. ;)

Monday, February 15, 2010

When the lightning strikes

Since I spent the weekend celebrating my Sweetie-Pie's birthday, I thought I'd take a minute to talk about him.

<- This is John.

Almost every picture of John is bad because my hands are perpetually shaky. In our house, 90% of the pictures are pictures of The Midget, 8% of the others were taken by The Midget, and the remaining 2% are either ruined by my inability to take a photograph or are pictures of my butt. This photo of John is thusly a cherished image.

Most images of John are self-created. He is a painter who, like my beloved Frida Kahlo, is inspired by his own features. I like to watch his various caricatures appear, their familiar details warped into mythos and largesse. Like Frida, he plays up the same features until they become symbols, something more significant than a lengthening hairline or cluster of curls.

The most wonderful thing about John isn't his ability to wield a paintbrush, but rather the size of his heart. Almost five years ago, he adopted The Midget and I, giving us each a place in his magical world. I had known him, slightly, for about two years. At one point, maybe our second meeting, I shook his hand for the first time. It was as if lightning struck my fingers, and for a moment, I felt as if I floated above the face of the world.

Sometimes I still feel that way.

I am glad the lightning led me to John. I am not the cleverest girl; it might have taken me years to figure out how utterly amazing this quiet man is. Luckily, I know it now, and I couldn't be more delighted. Sweetie-Pie, you make my life sweet.

Friday, February 12, 2010

My native vocabulary

After a lovely chat with a friend last night, I had a realization about my childhood: it was quirky. Not bizarre or difficult or memoir-worthy, but certainly a little different from most of my friends. My childhood was out of sync with its time. For example, here are some words that I grew up using that most people have had few opportunities to use:
  • Root Cellar (as in "I need to go down to the root cellar to get some potatoes for dinner.")
  • Draft horses (as in "Tom and Jerry are the good team of draft horses; that damn Lady is too stubborn to work with another horse.")
  • 2-room schoolhouse (as in "I was one of twelve kids in my 2-room schoolhouse. It was really heart-breaking when that school had to close.")
  • Cork boots, often called corks (as in the sign on the front door of the restaurant where my mother worked: "Please remove your corks before entering the building.")
  • Bookmobile (as in "I wish the bookmobile came more frequently than every two weeks. I only checked out 55 books last time, and I had to read The Odyssey when I ran out.")
  • Gypo logger (as in "My dad likes being a gypo logger better than working for one of those big companies, especially since he lost his job in Alaska.")
And in the midst of using all these words, words that colored my life with a certain turn-of-the-century (and I mean the 20th century) tint, I was going to my friend's house and playing Nintendo games. Some of those 55 books (one record stack, checked out in the heart of summer doldrums, contained 125 books) were Sweet Valley High and the rest were probably Dean Koontz and Charles de Lint. We had a VCR. I listened to Milli Vanilli, Motley Crue and Paula Abdul on my cassette player. We even watched tv--although reception was so bad we had to imagine the people weren't purple and sometimes we lost audio in a flurry of static.

So I primarily feel like an ordinary child of the late-80s. But at times, I feel a kinship to the people of a generation or even two generations before my own. It's as if they speak my native tongue, a language I have almost forgotten but can still recall a few odd words.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

What writing means to me

I know there are people out there who have published projects and then for one reason or another, stepped out of the writing business--Poppy Z. Brite stands as a good example. For writers like Poppy, writing came to mean something dark, something that made it slinging words lose its zest. And I can understand completely because sometimes for me writing means:
  • Feeling terrified that I will never be good enough, that my ability to write will always remain on a level that fails my dreams;
  • Drinking so much coffee my stomach cramps, because when I'm high on caffeine, the words come so sweet and fast;
  • Missing television like a lost friend;
  • Having more in common with people I know from Twitter than friends I've known half my life;
  • Feeling guilty that I don't devote more time to writing and reading;
  • Resenting my friends and family for taking me away from writing and reading;
  • Missing out on time with my Sweetie-Pie;
  • Giving up the dulcimer and martial arts and yoga and neglecting my plants.
But then, there are other things about writing that makes it impossible to even imagine taking a break from it. Because writing also means:
  • Never needing to be bored when I'm alone;
  • Feeling that surge of excitement when I solve a plot problem;
  • Losing myself so deeply in a story that I feel as if I have abandoned my body and am sweeping through a world beyond this one;
  • Getting excited about a new way to use a word;
  • Being part of a small, very focused group of people who are exciting and fun and stimulating in a way no one else has ever been;
  • Giving myself a challenge every single day;
  • Looking into the folds of my mind to find the meaning that binds my self and thoughts together;
  • Elevating the mundane into art;
  • Doing the one thing that I know I have created myself to do.
When I look at the two lists, I see sacrifice weighed against bliss; time weighed against meaning; ordinary weighed against divine. For now, I can give myself up to it. I will be strong enough to go to the words and spin them out of my self until I have no more to spin. May the winding be long and the words many.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Stories really are like children

I hear that "giving birth" metaphor all the time from writers (usually male) who try to compare the pangs of writing to the pains of childbirth.

Those guys are talking out of their buttholes.

I have written books. Other than the lower back pain caused from typing at the kitchen table, I can't really complain about the creation process. Sure, there are difficult choices and hard moments where I struggle to express myself. But it's nothing like going through labor and delivery. Squeezing another lifeform out of your body--a lifeform that you are terrified will turn out to have the wrong number of limbs and your uncle's nose--is an exercise in fear, discomfort and a strange hysterical bliss. If you want to draw parallels to writing, you can, but I pretty much guarantee that with all the fluids going on, childbirth is way more disgusting.

But people who feel that their books and their stories are like their children are totally right. Have you ever watched the mother of an only-child? She flutters around, offering stimulating activities and unwanted hugs. She counts each serving of vegetables that crosses her sweetling's gums (and stays down). She studies the pages of every parenting advice magazine and acts upon the gems she finds. When her little love-apple strays out of her sight, she panics and runs in circles, calling her baby at the top of her frantic lungs.

The mother with three children, however, functions completely differently. She sweeps through the room without concern for choking hazards, concentrating her prowess on critical moments, like imminent leaps from the upstairs landing. Kids are encouraged to read to each other, and if lunch is peanut-butter-jelly sandwiches for the fourth meal in a row, well, at least they are eating. When her children are out of sight, she sighs with relief and tosses back a shot of Jack, followed by two cups of coffee.

The simile is simple. Writers are like parents. The writer with one or two projects to nurture dotes all her energies upon those projects. Each story is given every ounce of attention, its submission process planned and watched with obsessive care. When the rejections come, they strike her core. And more often than not, the writer goes through round after round of revisions, polishing within an inch of her life.

But once that writer has put a handful of pieces out in the world, she begins to be more cautious with her energies. If a story trips, it will get up again and try another venue. If a piece has gone through two drafts and a good round of proofreading, it's ready to send out. And if a friend disagrees with the phrasing of a sentence, the writer shrugs it off. She has the confidence to tell the quirks of character from the truly awkward moments.

I have one daughter, and we keep a chalkboard in our kitchen to track how many servings of fruits and vegetables each of us eats. She had five today. I have five stories this month that I'm sending out for submission or critique, and about a dozen in retirement from last year. And you know what? They probably didn't eat a single vegetable today. But I have faith they'll grow big and strong anyway.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Hey, it's February 5th!

And that means it's WRITE YOUR @SS OFF WEEKEND! I expect full reports come Monday.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Why I'm a Feminist Girl-Woman-Fury-Bitch

When I was young, 8 or 9 or so, I prayed and prayed that I would wake up and be a boy. It was easy to see that being a woman meant getting the raw end of the deal: I just had to look at my mother, who raised four children and is still taking care of the fifth and original baby (my dad). She worked hard every day. She was at our constant beck-and-call. She had no control of the checkbook or where she made her home. And worst of all, she was always in charge of cooking and dishes.

As I got older, Dad struggled with running his own business, and Mom got a job, things changed a bit. After Mom became our main breadwinner, life was different for her. Sure, she still did most of the dishes, but for the first time I knew her, she was in charge. And it was wonderful for me to see. I realized that being a woman didn't have to suck--it was powerlessness that sucked, and as long you had money, you could have power.

To this very day, I feel personally outraged when I hear about anything that reduces a woman to a powerless state. When I read a story about women in Africa being denied education, I see red. When I see an article about girls in India being sold into sex slavery, I cry. Because inside me is still a fragile little girl who isn't sure she ought to love herself. Because I am a woman. Because being a woman looked like a prison sentence.

I am lucky that I live here in Oregon, sheltered from the storm of woman-hatred that pervades the world around me. It is miraculous that at this moment, I share my life with a (male) partner who treats me like an equal,and that together our income allows us the freedom to explore the creativity our intelligence yearns toward. Sometimes I remember that it's a precarious position. The safety and security of my life is dependent upon social structures supported by the economic strength of my nation, an institution currently more flimsy than ever. It could all come tumbling down any time.

And if it did, I sometimes comfort myself that technology has given us a remarkable leveler. For millenia, men have been able to control women because they are bigger and stronger and more able to inflict harm and death. But you don't have to be bigger or stronger to pull a trigger. If society collapses and the PAW arrives (that's post-apocalyptic world if you don't know), at least I know that my daddy taught me how to shoot.

So I will write story after story and book after book about mothers and daughters and young women finding their way in the world. I will spin out creations that say that women are strong and that their minds are keen. I will do my damnedest to promote the empowerment of the women in the world.

And I promise myself I'll make it to the range more often.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

A trip down memory lane

So I was revisiting some of the oldest posts on my blog--I mean, the prehistoric ones from my first year of blogging (2004!). And this one cracked me up. We lived a very different lifestyle back then (tv? steak?), but Fiona is still the same awesome kid.

chef baby

We must watch too much of the Food Network. Today I had some vacuum-packed steaks out on the counter to defrost, and Fiona was playing with them. She just kept turning them over and over, saying: "Flip. Flip. Flip." I explained the steaks were for dinner, and she became very excited. When I tried to sit her in her high chair, she insisted on bringing one of the steaks to the table with her. She continued flipping it for a while in between bites, then began drizzling tomato soup over the package. She was very careful to cover the entire surface, and I heard her mumbling: "Good eats."

At least it wasn't "BAM!"

PS: I asked her if she was making a sauce and she said "Ooooh," which is Finnish for "yes." Then she flipped the steak and sauced the other side with equal care. She rubbed her chicken salad into the mess and ate some of it and then left the thing to marinade. Thank goodness it was vacuum sealed! I just washed the package off and put them all in the fridge, far from little fingers.