Tag Archives: journalism

Living with a Wild God #BookReview #Journalism #Memoir

Standard
Living with a Wild God #BookReview #Journalism #Memoir

Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything

by Barbara Ehrenreich

published by Hachette Book Group, 2014


Based on the title, I made some assumptions about Ehrenreich’s book, namely that it would be written by an atheist who wanted to investigate perhaps where religion comes from, how it influences us today, or why we still need religion in an age of mass technology. I use the word “investigate” because Barbara Ehrenreich is known most famously as a journalist. You’ve probably read all, or at least an excerpt, of Nickel and Dimed if you live in the United States. But I’m not sure what Living with a Wild God is. It’s not journalism. It’s not a memoir. It’s not fiction. It’s a hot mess.

Ehrenreich explains that when she lived in the Florida Keys she was asked by a library to donate her papers so they wouldn’t succumb to the mold so ubiquitous in that swampy area. The one thing she didn’t hand over, however, was a diary she wrote mainly from 1956-1959, when she was 14-17 years old. In the Forward, Ehrenreich explains that something “cataclysmic” happened to her, and she never wrote nor spoke about it to anyone lest they think her crazy. Like a good journalist, Ehrenreich makes some admissions:

It is true, I should further admit, that the narrative as I have reconstructed it lends itself quite readily to psychiatric explanation, or explanations: the tense and sometimes hazardous family life, the secret childhood quest for cosmic knowledge, the eerie lapses into a kind of “second sight,” the spectacular breakdown in my late teens.

Okay, so Ehrenreich admits there there are some psychological reasons that could explain this “cataclysmic” thing that happened to her (no details are yet provided)… but the entire book looks elsewhere for answers. Not a very useful admission if the author won’t explore it. However, we do get a background on this “hazardous family life.”

Ehrenreich’s first chapter, “The Situation,” describes her alcoholic parents and her original home in Butte, Montana. Ehrenreich’s father was a miner who crawled up the class ladder to become a white collar scientist after studying metallurgy. But it’s an uncle who really influences the author in this chapter: he explains that we’re all going to die, that it is a “great death march” we’re all doing. After the long Forward about the “cataclysmic” event, I figured “The Situation” would be about what happened. It’s not; the situation is that death lingers. Thus, the chapter felt dishonest.

living-with-a-wild-god

Chapter 2, “Typing Practice,” isn’t really about typing. Ehrenreich learns that when she writes, she thinks, and thus her diary begins. The author questions everything, such as why she learns about imaginary numbers in math class. Ehrenreich figures, “If you accept imaginary numbers without raising a question, you’ll swallow any goddamn thing they decide to stuff down your throat.” Chapter 2 also wanders: the parents are drunk, her mother believes Ehrenreich has some Oedipal yearnings for her father, the family is all atheists, she digs into science, and Ehrenreich tries a church. She writes in her diary — again, she’s 14:

Modern Protestantism…is a social organization, providing basketball, badminton, bowling, dancing and a Sunday fashion show. The most incongruous thing I ever saw in “our” church was a girl praying. I was startled, really.

This second chapter isn’t really about church or family. It wanders along with 14-year-old Barbara. The book you hold in your hands is middle-aged Barbara putting together who she was when she was a teen. In many places, I had to force myself to keep reading with the expectation that Living with a Wild God would be as organized and thoughtful as her previous books. Pretty much every moment while reading I wanted to stop.

Finally, in Chapter 3, readers learn what the “cataclysmic” event was:

So from a scientific perspective, what happened to me was that every now and then I simply stopped doing the work of perception and refused to transform the hail of incoming photons into named and familiar objects. There was plenty of input still pouring in in the form of sounds and color and lights, but it wasn’t getting sorted and categorized.

For a writer, Ehrenreich is being terribly vague. How does she experience whatever these …events… are? What does it look or feel like? By the end of the book, she mentions fire on one occasion, but the image is still unclear. Very briefly the author discusses “dissociative disorder,” but not to the extent that it clarifies what happens to her when she thinks she having some sort of religious experience as an atheist. Eventually, Ehrenreich is able to spit out that she feels “menaced by hazy sunlight.”

ehrenreich-18

Ehrenreich age 18, one year after she saw invisible angels.

After the biggest event to occur, though, the author is able to ask if she should tell anyone about her religious-type experience: “what would I have said? That I had been savaged by a flock of invisible angles — lifted up in a glorious flutter of iridescent feathers, then mauled, emptied of all intent and purpose, and pretty much left for dead?” Whoa! This quote is from page 163. That’s 163 pages into the book before the author is able to say in some clear language what her experiences are like — which is what the whole book is supposed to be about — and it’s so far-fetched and unreal that I don’t trust Ehrenreich anymore. What is the purpose of this book, I started asking. I’m not learning about religion, and I don’t understand Ehrenreich’s “experiences.”

And who is the audience for this book? The text suggests you must have prior engagement with Ehrenreich’s work, a firm grasp of science terminology, and be well-read enough to understand all the big words she uses: coterminous, apparatchiks, concatenation, sororal. I made the same complaint about vocabulary in my review of Bright-sided, but to heap on her personal history and physics, chemistry, and biology is too much. To whom would this book appeal other than Ehrenreich herself?

ehrenreich-today

Ehrenreich today, no less confused by angels and light and whatever else is “cataclysmic.”

Every chapter wanders around, from the author’s obsession with all things science to her inability to recognize that other humans have consciousness. Yes, as a teenager Barbara Ehrenreich didn’t realize that other people had thoughts and made choices. Her philosophical questions torment her until she’s like a poor Edgar Allen Poe character. Eventually, around 17, she quit eating and was putting cigarettes out on her hand. She believed she had “developed new powers.” At this point in the book, I’m worried for teen-aged Barbara and adult Barbara Ehrenreich. The girl is not convinced she should be alive or that other people are really there. She fantasizes about life in an apocalypse. The author, about 40 years later, can’t add insight or reason to her youthful self’s narrative — no motives, no probing into her behaviors, which is why I said that the author’s admissions in the Forward were useless.

The last couple of chapters read like a 10 minute lecture on what nonreligious types call Other or Others (something god-like that isn’t monotheistic). Using more sources and careful drafting, these two chapters, expanded into a book, is what Living with a Wild God should have been. Sadly, Ehrenreich thanks her editor in the acknowledgements for encouraging her to explore her old diary instead of focusing on a history of religion. Yeesh. Absolutely skip this disorganized mess and check out Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America or Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America instead. No one else in my book club came even close to finishing Living with a Wild God.

Nickel & Dimed #20BooksofSummer #journalism #nonfiction

Standard
Nickel & Dimed #20BooksofSummer #journalism #nonfiction

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich

published by Holt Paperbacks, 2008 (originally published in 2001)

Nickel and Dimed was written by a famous essayist, so right away she has credibility. Barbara Ehrenreich wrote 14 books of nonfiction before Nickel and Dimed, and she has a PhD in biology (though many of her books are not about science). Nickel and Dimed started out as a simple question during a fancy lunch: why doesn’t someone do one of those old-fashioned investigative journalism pieces on the working poor? Basically, she accidentally nominated herself.

nickel and dimed.jpg

Ehrenreich sets up parameters for her inside scoop:

  1. No using skills learned from her work as an essayist or her college education.
  2. Accept only the highest paying job, stick to it to the best of her ability, and no complaining.
  3. Live in the least expensive place possible, but stay safe.

She also decides to limit the discomfort she could have with some advantages:

  1. She always had a car, which was not paid for with her low-wage earnings (except gas).
  2. She would never be homeless — “no shelters or sleeping in cars for me.”
  3. She wouldn’t skip a meal, “cheating” if necessary to eat.

Ehrenreich acknowledges that being a single white woman in excellent health with no kids is not how the working poor exist. There’s not much she can do though, because no one’s going to loan her a kid, and she can’t take back years of health insurance and The Stair Master to make her fifty-something body reflect the deteriorating health of the working poor. I didn’t think it fair for her to have reliable transportation, but she claims that no one wants to read nonfiction about waiting for the bus.

Actually, I had the audacity to challenge what I thought of as Ehrenreich’s “wimpiness.” Would sleeping in her car one night kill her? Is one missed meal really a big deal? Then I remembered, oh yeah, it’s actually pretty dangerous to sleep cars due to criminals and police. And yes, Ehrenreich is working so hard at her low-wage jobs that missing one meal actually might cause her to pass out instead of suffer a rumbly tumbly. That was the biggest problem with this book, to me: I wanted her to really, really live like the working poor, but it’s impossible. Therefore, I wish Ehrenreich had further interviewed her co-workers once she completed her time at each job. Why not let them speak for themselves?

Nickel and Dimed is broken into three sections: “Serving in Florida,” “Scrubbing in Maine,” and “Selling in Minnesota.” The goal was to make it through a month and have enough money to make rent a second month. I found the most illuminating part of Ehrenreich’s story to be the housing issue. First, the working poor don’t have enough money to pay a deposit on an apartment, the first month’s rent, and that annoying application fee. Thus, they’re all living in pricey yet sordid motels that rent by the week in which people double and triple up in single rooms. Secondly, weekly motel rooms should have some sort of kitchen area because it’s serving as home. Most don’t. As a result, the working poor eat fast food or convenience store junk that doesn’t require refrigeration or cooking. People wonder why the poor are so fat; Ehrenreich’s book makes it easy to see why. If you think you know about being poor (and haven’t been poor yourself), Ehrenreich’s book still has something to offer.

Ehrenreich’s language is a lot harsher than I would expect from a journalist. I read Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America a while back and remember a clear, unbiased voice through the whole thing. Not true in Nickel and Dimed. This may be that Bright-Sided was not investigative journalism, which requires the writer to get out there, get dirty, and take some big risks. Here is a passage from Ehrenreich’s time as a maid in Maine:

The first time I encountered a shit-stained toilet as a maid, I was shocked by the sense of unwanted intimacy. A few hours ago, some well-fed butt was straining away on this toilet seat, and now here I am wiping up after it. For those who have never cleaned a really dirty toilet, I should explain that there are three kinds of shit stains. There are remnants of landslides running down the inside of toilet bowls. There are the splash-back remains on the underside of toilet seats. And, perhaps most repulsively, there’s sometimes a crust of brown on the rim of a toilet seat, where a turd happened to collide on its dive into the water.

How are my composition students, to whom I’m assigning this book, going to take this passage this coming fall? And at a Catholic college, no less. Sure, it’s unprofessional. It lacks all pretense of an unbiased attitude. But Ehrenreich’s passion creates an honesty that’s meant to make you angry for her — and the millions of other maids who do this job day in and out in the United States — and realize how dehumanizing low-wage jobs are.

The odd thing is that when Ehrenreich isn’t using angry language, her vocabulary can be complex. She often chooses a more complicated word over the simpler one. Is this her education showing? Should she have chosen more simplistic language and think of the low-wage earners as her audience? Then again, they already know what their lives are like… Essentially, the audience for Nickel and Dimed is the upper-middle class.

Another thing Bright-Sided led me to expect was sources — a lot of sources. Nickel and Dimed relies quite a bit on The New York Times (which I can already hear my students calling “that liberal media”) and a book about Sam Walton, the creator of Wal-Mart. Other sources include local newspapers from the three cities in which she worked, the National Coalition for the Homeless, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. There are a few books about maids mentioned, which emphasize that the services the big maid companies provide are to make your house look clean; almost no disinfecting happens. Therefore, readers must really rely on Ehrenreich’s experiences to be described fairly and honestly. Photos also would have increased Ehrenreich’s credibility, especially of those motel rooms that she describes.

My copy of Nickel and Dimed has an afterword in which Ehrenreich recounts some of the individual responses to her book. Many middle class people were surprised; the working poor felt like they finally had a voice. While the book’s 2001 publication doesn’t make it outdated, I’ve spent my entire adult life surviving a recession. And here are some fun facts:

  • I’ve had four low-wage jobs of note:
    • direct care worker, meaning I took care of mentally disabled adults
    • front desk clerk at a campground, which means checking in campers and selling day passes
    • pushing carts and bagging groceries at a grocery store
    • front desk worker at a college, which literally requires just sitting at a desk
  • Three of these jobs required me to show up 10-15 minutes early to work (unpaid). This can amount to a few hours of free labor per two-week pay period.
  • Three of these jobs provided zero paid breaks. I simply used the restroom or ate food whenever I wanted (which was allowed for 5 minutes at a time), but if someone needed help, I would be scolded  by management, customers, or fellow employees for having been unavailable immediately.
  • My husband had a part-time low-wage job at Best Buy  on the Geek Squad that gave him very few hours each week. Instead, they would randomly call and ask him to come in immediately, which meant we never left our home for fear of being too far away for him to get to work — otherwise, he would lose those hours.
  • I was once yelled at for clocking in at my grocery store job before putting my purse in a locker. I cost the company 30 seconds and thus was reprimanded.
  • My boss in direct care work would purposely pull employees aside and tell them lies about the other employees so none of us would trust each other. For an entire summer, my co-workers thought I was a spy for the owner of the company, whom I had never met.
  • The grocery store (and many low-wage job employers) only provided the schedule two weeks at a time, so you couldn’t plan anything.

When the majority of your adult life is lived post-9/11, poverty doesn’t surprise you, nor does low-wage work (if you can get it). While Ehrenreich’s jobs didn’t surprise me, I have a feeling her book will still shock my students this fall. I don’t know if there are more contemporary investigative journalism books on the working poor, but Nickel and Dimed is the cornerstone, and a must read.

Note* Thanks to this book, I intent to read Wal-Mart: The Bully of Bentonville (How the High Cost of Low Prices is Hurting America) by Anthony Bianco, which looks at employee treatment. There are numerous books on Wal-Mart, many dealing with economy, environment, and history, but I want more about the workers in particular.

20booksfinal

#20BooksofSummer

This book was read as part of Cathy 746‘s challenge to read 20 books between June 1st and September 5th. Here’s the roster:

  1. Harley and Me by Bernadette Murphy
  2. On Air by Robin Stratton
  3. Single Stroke Seven by Lavinia Ludlow
  4. Girls of Usually by Lori Horvitz
  5. Retelling by Tsipi Keller
  6. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  7. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  8. Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich
  9. Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America by Jonathan Kozol
  10. Terror in Taffeta by Marla Cooper
  11. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  12. Anne of Avonlea by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  13. Anne of the Island by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  14. Anne of Windy Poplars by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  15. Anne’s House of Dreams by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  16. Anne of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  17. Rainbow Valley by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  18. Rilla of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  19. Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher by Monica Nolan
  20. Fluke, or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings by Christopher Moore

Meet the Writer: Shabnam Nadiya #writerslife #interview

Standard
Meet the Writer: Shabnam Nadiya #writerslife #interview

I want to thank Shabnam Nadiya for answering my questions. You can find more about her work on her website or her tumblr, LitStop, which Nadiya says, “is more of a parking spot for bits and pieces from the books I’m reading.”

What was the first story you ever wrote about?
I had toyed with the idea of being a writer for most of my teenage and adult life, I just hadn’t been serious about it. I had numerous story ideas jotted down, and many false starts which still sit unfinished.  I still come across them sometimes in notebooks. I think partly because I was lazy, partly because I didn’t really believe I could do it, partly because I had no idea how to. Which is one of the reasons perhaps I veered toward translation: because the ‘how to’ part of the storytelling had already been taken care of.

The first story I actually completed was called “A Journey in the Night.” I wrote it in two days after I ran into someone I knew on a long-haul bus. The person had pretended to not recognize me and walked right past. I had felt a little bit hurt. At the time I would tend to think that I was a particularly unlikable person, and I was actively trying to be positive about myself and stop myself from thinking like that. So later, when thinking about the bus encounter, I tried to imagine scenarios in which someone’s rude behavior really had nothing to do with me; from those thoughts the story emerged.

What did you want to be when you grew up?
I’ve always wanted to be a writer as far back as I can remember. I wanted to be a journalist for a while (my icon was Nellie Bly), I wanted to be a science writer (Carl Sagan!), I wanted to follow in and go beyond the footsteps of Indian Bengali writer Nabaneeta Dev Sen and hop trucks all across Asia and write about it, I wanted to edit a magazine and a run a literary salon at the same time as writing my novels. The kind of writing I wanted to do changed as I grew, but the fact of writing was constant.

Do you think writing is taught, that we know how to do it instinctively, or both? Why?

I think it is most definitely a combination of both. I do think that innate talent is necessary, but I also believe that there are many ways to hone that talent. One of those ways can be to go to writing school. This is not to say that this is the only way to hone your talent—but it is one way.  I think my thoughts went immediately to MFA programs because there’s been so much talk in the past couple of years trashing and defending MFA programs; but when I really think about it, writing is largely an act of learning. Writers who do not go to formal school—and they are absolutely the majority—learn their craft through observation, reading (obsessively!), through the give and take of conversation and debate and community building. Which of these activities is not learning? We learn about the world, we learn about ourselves, we learn about the craft of writing in many ways. I was a writer before I went to writing school, and now that the school part is over, I’m still a writer. I’m glad I had the opportunity to attend an MFA program—but it would not have stopped me from being a writer if I hadn’t. 

What was your least favorite class at any point in your education? Why?

My least favorite class was a phonetics class I had to take as an undergraduate. The class itself was boring, and the teacher was fairly disrespectful of the students, where she made fun of their English accents (this was in Bangladesh where English is not our first language) or made inappropriate comments on their clothing. She decided to go after me, where she would call on me in class by saying things like, “You, the girl sitting in between two boys.” Or, “You, the girl wearing the short blouse.” It got to the point where she threatened to fail me at the end of year. She couldn’t, of course, because her class only counted for 5% of the total and it while it affected my total score, my passing or failing didn’t depend on it. I still marvel, however, especially now that I have been a teacher myself, at any teacher losing their professional calm to the extent of letting it become personal with a student.

Are you reading anything right now?

I am reading Margaret Atwood’s climate-dystopia The MaddAddam Trilogy, and marveling, as usual, at the imaginative reach, the range of distinctive voices, the tight control of time–moving back and forth and sideways. I’m also rereading a novel by a friend, Shaheen Akhter, called Beloved Rongomala (which is in Bangla but World Literature Today published the first chapter translated by Mahmud Rahman, which can be found here.

Are you writing anything right now?
I just finished the last story of my linked collection called Pye Dogs and Magic Men: Stories. Now I need to polish them all a little more, and send them out to my handful of trusty readers. Then, the big one: agent search time!

Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman #readwomen #bookreview @thelindywest

Standard
Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman #readwomen #bookreview @thelindywest

*Author photo from The Guardian.

Shrill (May 2016, Hachette Books) is a collection of 19 essays from comedian/journalist Lindy West, who writes for The Guardian and has pieces at many websites, such as JezebelNew York TimesGQ, and The Stranger. I heard through a Tweet that her collection was being published, and I was instantly drawn to what I learned: West is smart, precise, funny — and fat. As a fat lady myself, I wanted to know more. Rarely do fat female role models appear in the United States (um, or elsewhere), so I put a hold on a copy at the library.

After I got into the book, I realized that I’ve read some of West’s articles in the above mentioned publications. I don’t often remember a writer’s name when I read an online article, but the piece she wrote that I remembered clearly describes the time a troll created an e-mail address and Twitter account using West’s recently deceased father’s name to humiliate and torment her. And then he later came out and apologized to her, which never, ever happens. The main themes of Shrill are fat shaming, rape culture, comedy, abortion, and trolls, and they’re all examined through a feminist lens.

Anytime I read about feminism, I instantly compare the work to Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist. Gay is probably the most notable feminist of our generation. After reading Bad Feminist, I didn’t feel great. I was mostly confused and disappointed. It seemed like she was either telling personal stories, talking about how she likes things that most feminists feel oppress women (like Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”), and listing what she likes and hates (movies, books, etc.). I felt like Bad Feminist started as a listicle and ended up a book. Thesis statements? Not really. Organization? More like meandering. A call to action? I have no idea what Gay thinks feminists can do to move forward. I do not write to demean Gay’s book. But I do know that many other readers, according to Goodreads, found the same issues and are perhaps seeking a different contemporary feminist voice.

bad feminist

Yes, West is a white woman and Roxane Gay is Haitian-American, but both women talk about intersectional feminism, so West is a good alternative if you are also an intersectional feminist. Both women included personal essays that appeared to have little to do with feminism. Both are hugely into pop culture (especially Twitter). But I felt West’s writing was clearer, more rhetorically sound, and presented solutions to problems feminists encounter.

Some examples of West’s intersection feminism include the socioeconomic. She talks openly about her abortion (and created #shoutyourabortion to de-stigmatize abortion rights) and how she discovered, “It didn’t occur to me, at the time, that there was anything complicated about obtaining an abortion. This is a trapping of privilege: I grew up middle-class and white in Seattle, I had always had insurance, and, besides, abortion was legal.” Later in the essay, West states what privilege is, referring to the abortion clinic making her promise to pay her bill instead of charging her up front like they’re supposed to: “Privilege means that it’s easy for white women to do each other favors. Privilege means that those of us who need it the least often get the most help.”

West again touches on intersectional feminism when she discusses fat-shaming, which makes fat women feel like they don’t deserve anything. She argues, “Denying people access to value is an incredibly insidious form of emotional violence, one that our culture wields aggressively and liberally to keep marginalized groups small and quiet.” Throughout Shrill, West considers feminism that benefit her more than women of color, with disabilities, etc.

shirll

The best part of Shirll is that West helped me “figure out” my own feminism. While I feel that rape jokes are never, ever funny, I would not have an answer that appeased the folks who shout about freedom of speech, say “you’re just not funny,” or call you “too sensitive” for your claims. But West breaks it down. When she was younger, West constantly went to comedy clubs and saw rising stars (who are now super famous), like Patton Oswalt, Mitch Hedberg, Marc Maron, and Maria Bamford.

One night, a comedian was telling a joke about herpes, and everyone was laughing. Except West. She analyzes why she didn’t laugh. Because the comic wasn’t making fun of his herpes, the joke was designed to shame people who have herpes. Statistically, West points out, many people in the room have herpes. So why are they laughing? They laugh, she argues, because if they don’t, they will be outed for having herpes. The joke works “brilliantly”because there is no chance that people won’t laugh, essentially, because the comic was lazy enough to embarrass everyone into laughing. Those who don’t have herpes are now vindicated in their feelings that people with herpes are gross. This moment changed the way West felt about comedy, which led her into arguing publicly that rape jokes are not funny.

Rape jokes are not funny, West points out, because they come from a person of power profiting on the traumas of people with no power. She compares it to the CEO of a company getting up at the Christmas party and roasting the janitor for barely making enough money to feed his family. Similarly, a white man will most likely never be raped, nor will he fear being raped, nor does he have a game plan for how to avoid being raped and what to do if raped (women like me know these plans in detail). Therefore, the joke is funny to men. West was invited to debate Jim Norton on a TV show over the issue. If you know Norton, you know he’s a bit if a dark comic, and I’m not surprised he’s pro-rape jokes.

west norton.png

What’s interesting is that West’s rhetoric was sound, but she didn’t change Norton’s mind. Off camera, he said he agreed that it’s wrong to take advantage of victims, but he was more concerned about free speech for comics. Norton felt that comedy didn’t translate into real life — that people who believe rape jokes are funny won’t go rape people. West disagreed, and then something happened…

Jim Norton fans bombarded West’s Twitter feed, e-mail, the comment section sof her articles — all over the internet. They wrote things about raping her, thinking she’s too fat to rape, cutting her up with an electric saw, etc. Norton had to admit that his fans were being aggressive and translating the “right” to tell rape jokes into real-life rape threats. He even wrote an article asking his fans to cool it. This was in 2010. West notes that since then, the comedy scene has changed; comedians are changing their tune. Thinking about how speaking up helped, and how using the rape threats to make a point helped, changed the way I thought about treading the internet, and about the maxim “Don’t Feed the Trolls,” with which West disagrees. Why should women be silent?

West also argues that fat is a feminist issue. She notes, “You have to swallow, every day, that you are a secondary being whose worth is measured by an arbitrary, impossible standard, administered by men.” West also describes how as a fat child, she was so ashamed of her body that it kept her silent. Women, both online and in life, are silenced constantly. Heartbreakingly, West explains that as a child, “[she] got good at being early on — socially, if not physically. In public, until [she] was eight, [she] would speak only to [her] mother, and even then, only in whispers, pressing [her] face into her [mother’s] leg.” West doesn’t have these earth-shattering traumas to report (if I compare her to Jessica Valenti, for example, whose new memoir catalogs all the sexual trauma she’s experienced). Yet, she is affected for most of her life by fat-shaming and the way it shuts her down as a woman, helping me to think more about my own silences — and the voices we’re missing from other fat people. There’s no need to compare traumas (sexual, emotional, physical) and decide whose is worse by some made-up standard. Traumas that shut women down are all appalling.

No matter what she’s writing about, West is ridiculously funny. She starts Shrill by describing all the fat female role models from her childhood, a list that included Auntie Shrew, Lady Cluck, The Trunchbull, and Ursula the Sea Witch. There are almost none, is the point. But did you ever wonder why King Triton is so ripped? West writes, “History is written by the victors, so forgive me if I don’t trust some P90X sea king’s smear campaign against the radical fatty in the next grotto.” Oh, man! I almost died!


auntie shrew      lady kluck3      the trunchbull      ursula2


In a nutrition class West signs up for, back when she felt like she needed to lose weight to be somebody, the teacher tells the students that if they get hungry after breakfast at 7Am and before lunch at 1PM, they should have 6 almonds. If they’ve gone over their “almond allotment, try an apple. So crisp. So filling.” West remembers, “Then everyone in nutrition class would nod about how fresh and satisfying it is to just eat an apple.” Lindy West labels this scene…wait for it… “the Apple Appreciation Circle-Jerk Jamboree.” I laughed so hard about this I called my mom and read her the scene! My mom, too had experienced such a class years ago.

Here’s one more great line: West compares her first experience in first-class flying and compares her seat to the ones in coach: “It has succeeded at being a chair instead of a flying social experiment about the limits of human endurance.” I read this passage at work and started cackling, despite the dead silence of the building.

Sometimes I wondered if I found Shrill so terribly funny and relevant because I am a fat woman. I tried reading passages to my husband, who didn’t laugh as much as I did, but he’s also a thoughtful person who may dismiss the humor and feel bad, wondering instead if I’m feeling bad for having read about fat-shaming and rape. My verdict is you must read this book. Lindy West is a feminist who’s doing something; she fought –with results — the fat-shaming that became acceptable around 2005, rape jokes in 2010, and internet trolls who make the internet unsafe for women.

Something Wrong With Her

Standard
Something Wrong With Her

Something Wrong With Her: A Real-Time Memoir
by Cris Mazza
Jaded Ibis Press, 2013
390 pages
Includes soundtrack, Time Stroll, composed and performed by Van Drecker (with Mark Rasmussen on tenor sax)

“The writing of this book is the story.”

Reading Cris Mazza’s memoir is a truly jolting experience. There is so much going on all at once that the emotion there is nearly overwhelming. She makes it obvious to you what she’s thinking in present time, but Something Wrong With Her is also like stepping into the past with the help of journal entries, letters, doodles, textbook quotes, jazz terms, excerpts from Mazza’s past publications, and the memories and emails of her dear friend Mark. The book doesn’t really have an ending point because it’s alive; what she wrote about is still happening. Let me back up.

“I hope this book is more like jazz than like a novel.”

Something Wrong With Her begins as an attempt to find the origins of Mazza’s anorgasmia (the inability to experience orgasm) and ends up being a love story that spans decades. You may be asking, “Why didn’t she edit the memoir so it has more cohesion, or maybe do two memoirs?” Mazza acknowledges this in the introduction. Throughout the memoir she includes jazz terms (which she defines in footnotes) and uses jazz as a model for how she pieces together this large book: “A jazz chart sometimes provides only sketchy information: the key, the meter, the main melody, something that might only take thirty seconds to play if taken literally. But no one asks, ‘What does this tune intend to accomplish?’ as readers of book manuscripts sometimes insist upon knowing up front.” The jazz terms can be complex if you’re not a little familiar with that world, but if you don’t get all of them (I didn’t), you’ll be fine (I was). They basically enhance rather than create understanding. But let’s back up again–the memoir starts out discussing “frigidity” or “sexual dysfunction.”

As time and social attitudes change, the reasons Mazza assumes for her “sexual dysfunction” change, too. Before sexual harassment laws, Mazza was harassed, like many women, but what does this do to her sense of self and her attitude toward her sexual body? When a teaching mentor suggested she masturbate to relax a bit, or when her boss suggested they needed a secretary with great legs, these moments also changed Mazza–really, what do these moments mean? Who has the right to discuss her body (or comment on someone else’s, thereby comparing one body to Mazza’s), and what are the long-term effects?

“It isn’t all about sex. But my shit is all concentrated there.”

The treatment of her male peers also dig into Mazza’s sexual self-esteem when her male “friends” in high school ask to practice feeling up her body so they’ll know what to do with their own girlfriends. One boy pins Mazza down and plays a sick game called “see if you can get out of this one.” A number of times she is told that she has nothing to offer (sexually) or that she doesn’t put out when she should or that touching her is sinful. These may be moments with which Mazza’s readers can relate, but how did they affect Mazza differently? She believes this is love, that she is meant to enjoy the way boys make her feel because everyone else seems to be into it. There becomes a lifelong desire to appear necessary or be needed, which she accomplishes by working 40 hours a week in an office during college when she is only paid for 10. She constantly is assaulted by the question, “What is wrong with me?”

The one person who is there, from 11th grade forward, is Mark (yes, the Mark who plays sax on the soundtrack). What appears an obvious (to the reader) desire to express his love to Mazza, both verbally and physically, is mistranslated into assault in 18-year-old Mazza’s eyes. How is that possible? Further back we go…

Mazza explores her aversion to the human body, namely her own. She refers to her own breasts as “blobs,” covering them with a wash cloth while in the bathtub so that she need not see them. She even mistakes the discharge that comes with ovulation for a yeast infection that comes back every month. Mazza expresses through writing and quotes from writers like Erica Jong that the smell, appearance, and overall “dirtiness” of the female body is something with which she wants no part. Why would anyone want that part of her? The writing obsesses over this theme of what makes a person: her actions, choices, desirability, her sexual body? Mark’s desire for Mazza may be viewed as the overzealous nature of a teenage boy, or it could be interpreted as Mazza taking all her previous experiences with jerks from school and placing her fears between her and Mark.

“[My writing group seems] to want the book to confine itself to one purpose and drive toward that like a train that doesn’t switch tracks, barely even glances at the scenery rushing past, and certainly doesn’t derail, as [Something Wrong With Her] appears to be doing.” 

Mark and Mazza spend years dancing around each other, never “getting it together,” and a lot of that might have to do with the way Mazza becomes stuck when she feels she is in a place where she is needed. She continues working in the same office for years during and after college, always finding new ways that allow her to stay there when she should move on. When she is forcefully ejected from the office, she completely falls apart: “Basically, I was almost constantly crying, about to cry, apologizing for crying, crying because I’d had to apologize for crying (another childish behavior), and then crying because I didn’t know what I was really crying about.” Mazza frequently calls herself childish in her memoir, but this passage to me suggests that Mazza is apologizing for being alive–for “inflicting” herself on others by breathing in the same space. I’ve read there are some women who will bump into an object and apologize to it, and I can see this young Mazza being one of those women. It’s also in this section where a connection between sex and sexual desire and being apologetic comes together: IS something wrong with her, as Mazza questions, because she doesn’t function sexually like other women seem to? It seems that every time she reaches a pivotal stage of personal development someone awful is there to suggest to her that yes, she is broken.

The result is that this memoir circles around these key moments with inappropriate individuals, sometimes repeating the same passages word-for-word. Many moments are re-explored because Mark, who now has reconnected with Mazza (30 years later! Practically the stuff of fiction!), adds in his ideas about what happened and how their dance affected his life. Really, we see a woman trying to wrap her head around what on earth was/is going on, and this is why reading Something Wrong With Her is like existing inside another’s head for 390 pages.

An interesting point I learned is that Mazza has been trying to think through her “sexual dysfunction” for much longer than I might have supposed. Throughout the book she quotes her published novels and stories to demonstrate that her thoughts have been on sex, but she may not have realized what the reason or result was. When she writes a story using a scene that actually happened between her and Mark in a bar, she admits she implies that the fictionalized male possibly raped the woman in the past, and so things are complicated between them. Some stories are close to Mazza’s life but rewritten to be more sexual, when the author wasn’t having sex at the time she wrote the story. Also, Mazza admits most of her female protagonists have gone through name changes, significant if you consider the fact that Cris Mazza was not born with the name she now uses. Reading through Mazza’s interpretations of why she wrote what she did in stories that date back decades is interesting, like sitting down and interviewing her on her writing process. You may finish Something Wrong With Her feeling like you know Mazza, perhaps better than herself.

INTERVIEW with Cris Mazza about Something Wrong With Her–

PHOTO-CRIS-MAZZA-CROPPED

GTL: Revision can be one of the most frustrating parts of writing. How difficult was it to revise a “living memoir,” and was it difficult to know where it “ended”?

CM: Where it ended was a problem.  I thought I knew, but then while the MS was being read, or waiting to be read, there were other developments in the “real life” part of the memoir story.  That’s why I have dated boxed inserts and footnotes that are later than the date of the last chapter (which was in January 2010).  I decided I didn’t want to have that original “ending” be a false ending, or like a bombastic piece of music that just keeps coming to a finale only to keep on going afterwards.  BUT then, during a final revision, I did decide to add the last page after that ending, just because things in the “real life” story had developed so far, I didn’t want it to end on a note of that much uncertainty as far as Mark’s future was concerned.

Revising also presented the same kinds of problems.  Just fixing sentences or deleting surplus wasn’t difficult, but every time Mark read a portion, he would have new comments and insights too valuable not to include, so I would date them and get them in there.  Thus the scattering of all sorts of dates which I’m sure most readers won’t look at that closely.  Nor do they have to, unless they truly want to map out the entire evolution of our understanding of each other.  I’m not even sure I could do that, though.

GTL: While reading, I had an overwhelming sense of deja vu because many sections of Something Wrong With Her repeat, sometimes word-for-word. What made you decide to use repetition as a tool for telling your story?

CM: Partly I did it because the “core story” of the book involved such small events, partly because I was digressing so long before I answered the central question, partly because I found it interesting how much an event would change each time I referred to it or dramatized it, and partly because repeating and developing or playing with the main theme is how music works, particularly jazz.

GTL: In Something Wrong With Her, you quote one of your old journals. You wrote that you wanted people to read your work and then they “look at [you] afterwards, and [you] can see what [you] put on paper coming out in their eyes.” Have you seen this memoir reflected back at you yet?

CM: Yes, from Mark while we were finishing it, but he’s a jazz musician so things don’t come out his eyes, they always come back thought about, mulled over, and improvised to both echo the original idea and add to it (or ask a question about it).  I’m not sure my college-girl description of affecting readers has ever really happened like that with a published book.  Probably because I don’t hang out waiting for people to finish like I might have done then.

GTL: You quote many stories and novels that you wrote prior to Something Wrong With Her in the memoir because you realized that you’ve been “reflexively seeking to explain [your] sexual bankruptcy.” Do you think there will be a marked change in your fiction writing now that you’ve explored “sexual dysfunction” so in depth in this book?

CM: Good question, and time will tell.  Perhaps I will no longer be exploring that series of unresolved relationships with older men.  But I think human beings’ relationships to their sexuality and their own sexual pasts will always be an interest of mine.

GTL: Are you working on anything new?

CM: I started a project that could turn into a novella and series of related personal essays, concerning lifelong regrets, going back to pick up pieces, and (the novella) men in abusive relationships.

I want to thank Jaded Ibis Press from a reviewer’s copy of Cris Mazza’s book in exchange for an honest review. Full disclosure: I have stories published in two anthologies from Jaded Ibis Press.

Scoot Over, Skinny: The Fat Nonfiction Anthology

Standard
Scoot Over, Skinny: The Fat Nonfiction Anthology

Scoot Over, Skinny: The Fat Nonfiction Anthology

edited by Donna Jarrell and Ira Sukrungruang

320 pages

published by Mariner Books, Jan 2005

Donna Jarrell’s and Ira Sukrungruang’s anthologies (they also have a fat fiction anthology — see below) have become important to me. Fall of 2013 I taught from the fiction anthology as part of a Contemporary Fiction class. None of my students were even chubby, let alone fat, so the anthology meant little to them–at first. I found that some of them were so thin because they had obsessive parents. One young man’s father was obese and constantly trying to work it off. Another your woman’s mother was a personal trainer who warned over and over the dangers of eating the “wrong foods” and becoming fat.

However, when I read this nonfiction anthology, I felt a deeper connection because these were real people explaining in words that I often couldn’t put together the way they felt about fat. The authors are not all fat or obese; some are quite thin, but write to explain how they feel about seeing or being with fat people.

donna.jpg

Donna Jarrell

In “Letting Myself Go,” Sallie Tisdale weights about 165 lbs, a weight many fat people would kill to be. She is a frequent dieter. She notes, “The pettiness is never far away; concern with my weight evokes the smallest, meanest parts of me. I look at another woman passing on the street and think, At least I’m not that fat.” I myself have had such thoughts, and so Tisdale made me consider how I internalize the bodies of others.

Natalie Kusz writes in “On Being Invisible” that she takes up more space, but is less seen. She points out, “The fact is, the old racist attitude that ‘all black (or Asian or Latin) people look alike’ also applies to fat people, with the same main corollary: We look alike to other beings because they cannot see us at all.” I was surprised by this comparison and began to reassess the way I look at people I see who take up more room. Do I look away? Do I see these people as all the same because they have one shared quality?

“Tight Fits” by Ira Sukrungruang is more like a guide with examples. How does an obese person get around the challenges of getting into small places, like airplane seats or sacred temples in Thailand. The goal seems to be to avoid embarrassment, and I felt embarrassed that I’ve considered such tactics myself (only in different scenarios). The accommodations for others can feel endless when you are abandoned for being “too big.”

ira

Ira Sukrungruang (pretty much the only man allowed on Grab the Lapels so far)

Atul Gawande describes “The Man Who Couldn’t Stop Eating” from a doctor’s point of view. Gawande is always concerned that his patient will regain all of the weight lost after gastric bypass surgery. It turns out that he learns the patient is also concerned. Is this problem bigger than his desires? I really liked seeing the exchanges between the doctor and patient outside of the hospital because the doctor could give facts from a medical standpoint while still engaging with the human patient who fears for his life and wonders how quality it can be if he remains morbidly obese.

I thought it was a fantastic choice on the part of the editors to put Sondra Solovay’s piece “Now You See Me, Now You Don’t” right after Gawande’s essay. While Gawande describes the high success rates of G.B. surgery and how it is the best option medical science has, Solovay points out immediately that she had a friend who was 310 lbs looking happy in on the steps of a pyramid in El Salvador. And how that friend had G.B. surgery and died. What this achieves is showing readers that no matter which option is the best in terms of losing weight, they can all be dangerous. Should the 310 lb friend have continued her life at 310 lbs? A friend of mine who had G.B. surgery and became pregnant and then regained most of the weight pointed out to me that she cut up her insides to get society to look at her. She has a lot of health problems now, and I’m not sure how long she’ll be a mother to her toddler.

Steven A. Shaw celebrates being a chubby man in “Fat Guys Kick Ass.” This is mostly a list of ways that fat guys are better lovers and boyfriends who are stronger but more peaceful. This is a very fun-loving piece that makes me rethink what others feel internally. Not all fat people feel bad inside, I must remember.

Many other readers have commented on the remaining essays (written by giants like David Sedaris and Anne Lamott or that describe a thin person’s hate for fat individuals, like Irvin Yalom or the “hoggers”), but one that struck me was “Fat Like Him” by Lori Gottlieb. She was so happy when she didn’t know that Tim, who was on the other end of her email, was fat. When they are together, she is embarrassed that people will think she’s with him and she calls him a friend. At home, though, they have fantastic sex and she is very happy with him. However, I read that Gottlieb’s essay is mostly untrue. This could be the result of her stretching the truth, or it could be that her ex is humiliated, and why wouldn’t he be? This is the sort of thing that really requires prior approval since the situation is so specific (no one will not know who this guy is in real life whether we call him “Tim” or not).

Overall, this book made me assess myself and the way others perceive me and the way I perceive them, regardless of size, but with fat in mind.

My quick thoughts on the What Are You Looking At? The First Fat Fiction Anthology

The stories in this collection were really great. When I read the title of the anthology, my first thought was the Raymond Carver story “Fat,” and it was in there. BUT! I kept wondering…is this all there is out there in terms of “fat-fiction”? No one else writes any? Makes me want to write more of it…also makes me wonder if people don’t really want to read it and that is why I can’t get any published. Also, I’m really surprised that most of the reviews of this book comment that the reader expected this to be an uplifting anthology. It can be really difficult to turn a physical/psychological problem into something feel-good. I wasn’t expecting that at all.

Meet the Writer: Missy Wilkinson

Standard
Meet the Writer: Missy Wilkinson

I want to thank Missy for answering my questions! You can learn more about her at her website and over at xoJane, among other places. Missy is a journalist and novelist whose first novel, Destroying Angel, was recently published by Prizm, an imprint of Torquere Press. 
Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?

When I was four years old, our cocker spaniel had puppies. I was smitten with one I’d named Dearie, but my mom said we couldn’t keep her. So I wrote a moving, construction-paper saga of a girl and her puppy. I could barely pen my name at the time, and my illustration of a heart being ripped in half just looked like two blobs.

My mom didn’t let me keep Dearie. I guess I’m still trying to write a book that rewards me with a puppy’s unconditional love, or the literary equivalent.

Do you think there is a certain “achievement” a person must “unlock” before she can call herself a writer?

If you write every day (or most days), you’re a writer. It’s like with babies. They’re these little pudgy helpless caterpillars, but they see people walking and know they’re supposed to do that, too. And they struggle and fall down and get up until one day, they’re running, dancing or dribbling a soccer ball. They just keep going at it.

What’s it like to switch gears between journalism and fiction?

It’s pretty great to have the two outlets. I write fiction at my desk during downtime at the newspaper. So, when I open up my novel manuscript, it feels like I’m doing something kind of indulgent. That makes it less jarring to jump into the cold pool of a fictional world — although given the choice, I’d still prefer to dick around on the Internet. My journalism has improved my writing, too. I’m way more terse, clear and forceful. And years of writing on deadline has given me the ability to turn my writing brain off and on at a moment’s notice.

51rjMvjm7GL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

Did you do any research for your novels?

It depends on the novel. For the first two books, Hearts in Alien Hands and Spore Girl, of the Destroying Angel series (both unpublished as of now), I draw heavily from my life experiences and the city I live in, New Orleans. The third one is partially set in 19th-century New Orleans during a yellow fever epidemic. So, I spent a lot of time in library archives reading newspapers from that era (which are really crazy…everyone’s dying, there are all these mass graves and roaming dogs feasting on corpses and it’s so post-apocalyptic, but you know everything turns out OK because here were are). I do research if the story demands it, which is a pretentious way to say I do research if it’s a question I can’t answer myself, such as, “What would you find in an 1853 pharmacy?”

People are debating whether YA novels are for everyone or for young adults (about 13-18 years). Ruth Graham of Slate said adults should be ashamed for reading it. Elisabeth Donnelly over at Flavorwire says Graham is wrong. What are your two cents?

Wow, it’s crazy that this is even a debate. Why would anyone be ashamed of reading young adult literature? It’s what we all start with, where we all fall in love with story, how we become lifelong readers. This reminds me of the time I went to see Stephen King speak. He was touring for 11/22/63. I lined up, along with hundreds of other people, to hear him talk in a church on St. Charles Avenue. His craggy humor surprised me, but not as much as the effect he had on his audience. They asked him about these fictional characters with so much concern and love, they might have been asking about their own family members. When King revealed he was working on a sequel to The Shining, the audience sucked in its breath and then released an audible ooohhh. It was like watching a kid hold a wrapped Christmas present. The master storyteller transformed his audience into children. That’s what every great story does.

Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing (either in journalism or your fiction)?

I have a hard time sticking to one genre. I am in the querying phase (aka hell) of a young adult/new adult series that leaps between fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction and noir. Some agents and editors have said I need to define my genre, but some say it’s OK to be a shapeshifter. It might be easier to sell and market the series if I had a clearer niche.

Meet the Writer: Fiona Mitchell

Standard
Meet the Writer: Fiona Mitchell

fiona1

Fiona Mitchell is an author and journalist. She is the winner of the 2015 Frome Short Story Competition and has work published in the Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology for the second year running. She is the author of the blog Writing Mad. All links below take you to various posts on Writing Mad. You can also socialize with Fiona on Twitter and Facebook.

In one of your blog posts you mention writing many drafts—five, in fact—as the result of input from others. Do you ever get to the point when you feel like the novel isn’t even yours anymore?

Now I’ve gotten to the stage where I feel my book The Maid’s Room is the very best it can be. I recently opened up my first draft and took a look. There is a hell of a lot of waffle in it and the plot goes off on tangents, so people’s input has only helped me to improve it.

My story is told from three points of view, and the first useful piece of advice from a literary agent was that one of those characters wasn’t the right person to tell it. I chose another character, and she has been the trickiest of the three. Readers felt she was the weakest, so I kept rewriting her until I discovered exactly who she is. Editors, agents, other writers, and readers can make suggestions, but often they can’t tell you exactly how to make a story leap off the page. It’s up to you to find your own magic. So no, I still feel like the novel is my own; I couldn’t make the story or the characters sing if it wasn’t.

Do you ever feel like, “Hey, my draft is terrible and needs lots of help,” or is it more like trying to appease the suggestions of others when you revise? What’s the difference between needing validation and needing advice, basically?

The ultimate validation is a reader being moved by your writing. Let’s face it, that’s what we’re all aiming to achieve. In the early stages of writing, validation might come from friends or family, but when you’ve got your book to a stage where it’s pretty good, you’ll take it to the next level and seek out validation from the professionals—possibly an editor if you can afford it, if not, a writing group.

At this point I think validation and advice are interconnected. Sure, you want to hear that the entire manuscript is perfect, but what you’re more likely to learn is that certain things work, and others don’t. If an editor makes a comment, they are usually right. And, when more than one person says something doesn’t work, I’d take note and rewrite.

Every writer needs advice from other people because writing a book for months, maybe years, brings a certain amount of blindness, faults you just can’t see.

How can you tell if one of your books is just another draft away from good vs. something you should just quit?

That is a brilliant question, and one I wish I knew the answer to! Every time I rewrote The Maid’s Room I was that convinced it was ready that I’d fire it off to literary agents who’d requested the full MS. I’d then feel utterly dejected when they turned it down.

I haven’t given up because I’ve had a lot of encouragement from editors and agents along the way, so I know I have a marketable book.

I have quit things before, though—a book, short stories—but it’s funny how certain characters you’ve created start cropping up in your thoughts and won’t leave you alone; you just have to return to them.

I was lucky enough to win the Frome Short Story Competition last year.

But that story didn’t just happen. I wrote it, and my husband said it didn’t work, confirming what I thought too. I knew there was a grain of something special in the story, though, so a few months later, I went back to it. I rewrote it a few times then one night read it again and came up with the last line in one of those Eureka moments.

Quitting isn’t always the end of something. You might put the character you created into another story. If you have really strong characters they don’t just die.

Your husband reads your drafts. What’s that like? What happens if he doesn’t like your writing? What happens if he does?

I know loads of people say it’s a bad idea to let your family read your work, but for me, it’s a great starting point. My husband, Mike, is honest about my work and is brave enough to say when something’s rubbish. He’s liked The Maid’s Room from the beginning, and although it’s taken an editor to really shape it, he’s given me useful advice on dialogue, chronology, and humour.

It’s nail-biting when he’s reading something new. I want to magnetise my reader, draw them in, and hit them where it hurts, so when my husband, says, ‘I don’t think it really works,’ I haven’t done my job.

I do feel a bit grumpy afterwards, I must admit. But then the flame of the idea takes hold again, and I end up recreating it.

When Mike likes something, I feel pleased. It feels as if the work is complete in some way.

I read that you love Trainspotting (oh, god, me too!) and love writing that is in dialect. For those that don’t know, Trainspotting is by Irvine Welsh and written mostly how Scottish folks sound. Here’s an example: 

“People think it’s all about misery and desperation and death and all that shite, which is not to be ignored, but what they forget is the pleasure of it. Otherwise we wouldn’t do it. After all, we’re not fucking stupid. At least, we’re not that fucking stupid.” 

I’m also in the middle of reviewing a book written entirely in Black English and love the language. But, in the advice you received from an editor about writing, authors shouldn’t do dialect to such a large extent. Any opinions on why editors feel that way? What makes dialect so magical?

I am a big fan of dialect in fiction. It probably has something to do with the fact that I adore hearing the way that people speak, the nuances of their language, the unconscious repetitions. I particularly love the way kids jumble words too—aromatic rice becomes ‘romantic rice’, that type of thing. I think dialect helps you get into a character and imagine their voice in your head. It works particularly well in short stories.

In The Maid’s Room, some of my characters speak Tagalog. Having them think in broken English didn’t work because they would be thinking in their mother tongue. It was an error to write them that way.

Some early readers loved this; most hated it. When a literary agent took the trouble to explain how this type of language kept her at a distance from the characters, I sat up and listened. The characters still have quirks to the way they speak, and certain phrases they use, so even though they now think fluently, they each still have a unique voice.

What do you personally get out of maintaining a blog about writing?

Sometimes writing a post helps solidify something in my mind like my recent post about How to Start Writing a Novel.

Do you start with a plot or a character, for instance? I came to the conclusion that it’s a bit of both.

I love hearing opinions and ideas from other writers. Through my blog, I’ve connected with lots of other writers, who seem to be at a similar stage to me—having agent interest, but still holding out for representation.

It’s so encouraging when other writers get representation, a publishing deal, or decide to go it alone and self-publish. It’s inspirational.

Writing a blog helps me to stay positive. And of course, it’s writing, which I love doing in most forms, from freelance journalism to fiction.

For more information about Fiona Mitchell’s work, visit her blog!

Meet the Writer: Debra DiBlasi

Standard
Meet the Writer: Debra DiBlasi

I want to thank Debra for answering my questions. Debra is also a contributor (along with yours truly!) to the all-women-authors anthology, Wreckage of Reason II: Back to the Drawing Board. She has won many awards for her writing, including the 1991 Eyster Prize in Fiction, the 1998 Thorpe Menn Book Award, the 2003 James C. McCormick Fellowship in Fiction from the Christopher Isherwood Foundation, the 2008 Diagram Innovative Fiction Award, 2008 Inspiration Grant from Arts Council of Metropolitan Kansas City, and three Pushcart Prize nominations, among other awards. She was a finalist in the Heekin Foundation’s Novel-in-Progress. Her books include:

  • Drought & Say What You Like (New Directions, 1997)
  • Prayers of an Accidental Nature (Coffee House Press, 1999)
  • The Jiri Chronicles & Other Fictions (FC2, 2011)
  • What the Body Requires (Jaded Ibis Press, 2013)

What was the first story you remember writing about?

I wrote poems before stories.  Very bad poems about animals, usually dead ones.  I grew up on a farm surrounded by many different kinds of critters — dogs, cats, birds, fish, horses, pigs, cattle, and a superior cast of wild animals from skunks and raccoon, to foxes and coyotes—all of them inevitably meeting their demise, of course.  Ergo my early expertise as a eulogist. The first story I recall writing was for a Social Studies class in grade school, though I cannot recall which grade—probably fifth. We were studying Mexico, its people and landscapes and resources, and we’d been given a list of words like maize, hacienda, oro, senor and rio with which we were to write a story.  Mine was quite long, an adventure about a conquistador’s search for Mayan gold. The teacher gave me an E+ and scribbled something red and very nice about me being a fine writer with a vivid imagination. E, by the way, stood for Excellent.  In those days, our schools used the grading standard of E (Excellent), S (Satisfactory), M (Mediocre), I (Insufficient), and F (Failure).  Sometimes I think we should go back to that standard, at least in college, so that the students whose work is C (Mediocre) but think—and sometimes insist—that it is A (Excellent) more clearly understand what’s expected.

The fact that I remember quite well my first story and the how it came to be and the teacher’s comments suggests just how much influence teachers can have on a student’s course in life.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

In chronological order:  veterinarian, rancher, “movie star” (that’s they were called then; not “celebrity”), war correspondent.  I stuck with the last occupation but switched it to journalist after Saigon fell, ending the American-Vietnam War the year I graduated from high school.  I went off to University of Missouri-Columbia with the intent of getting my B.J. (yes, an unfortunately abbreviation) but got sidetracked into creative writing for a couple of years after I look a poetry writing class as an elective.

Once I’d taken all of the poetry writing courses available, including graduate level, and one fiction course (that I did not particularly love), I decided to switch back to journalism for “practical” reasons, as in “Debra, you can’t earn a living as a poet.”

I studied in the University’s then famous J-School (which Brad Pitt also dropped out of) for only a summer and a fall.  When I actually attended class, I did very well, especially in the writing courses—well enough that, when I dropped out for various reasons related to finances and general uncertainty, one of the professors looked me up at the restaurant where I was working to talk to me about re-enrolling.  But I just didn’t know what I wanted yet.  I was 20 years old and there were too many possibilities spread before me.  I was like the cat sitting in front of a box of mice when the lid is lifted: she doesn’t catch any mice because she wants all of them at once.

Case in point:  After I moved to Kansas City, Missouri, I eventually enrolled at Kansas City Art Institute where I took my BFA in painting.  Then, after traveling around Europe, I moved to San Francisco to work at increasingly higher management positions in advertising and magazine production, all the while writing articles for an arts and entertainment magazine. I took a course in novel writing at San Francisco State University where I realized my autodidactic reading knowledge exceeded my professor’s; I left the M.A. program.  I really loved my job as advertising productions manager at MacWEEK Magazine but had begun publishing some of my short stories.  I was getting up at 3am to write in a diner near my office in the Financial District.  After the major earthquake of 1989, I peered at my life 20 years thence and saw: lots of money but no art.  So I quit the corporate world, moved back to the Midwest, took a low-level secretarial job (9am-5pm versus 8am-9pm) and began concentrating on my fiction and visual art.

The rest is a long path with a few roadside attractions, but essentially undeviating.  I have no regrets.

Do you think writing is taught, that we know how to do it instinctively, or both? Why?

Having taught, for quite a few years, creative writing (particularly: experimental forms like hyperfiction and mixed media writing, nonfiction, and composition for students with learning disabilities), I’m convinced there are teaching methods to direct a student toward better writing and, most importantly, to make that person a better thinker. The creative writing workshop, however, is definitely not one of those methods.  It’s a sloppy format for lazy teachers who don’t really want to work hard. Example: One of my former colleagues complained to me—when my course was waitlisted at 18 students and his course, with an enrollment of only eight had just lost two more students — that I had all of the talented students and he didn’t want to teach anyone who wasn’t talented. My response to him:  “So, what you’re saying is that you really don’t want to have to teach.”

Really teaching creative writing requires (1) understanding and valuing the idiosyncratic aesthetics of all students to help them improve their strengths and reduce their weaknesses, while not making them write like you; (2) creating a curriculum of carefully designed assignments that teach specific elements of creative writing, like structure, musical syntax, and (significant) meaning; (3) daily improvising on-the-spot exercises that push students into learning and understanding aspects of writing and thinking that they lack; and (4) assigning reading material that complements all of the above.

Having said this, however, I would add, with emphasis, that the best writing teacher is the process of reading as much intelligent and diverse writing as you can.  Also, the best writers keep writing, and exploring, and educating themselves in history, all of the sciences, technology, global politics and socio-economics, and philosophy.  That’s something I see gravely lacking in MFA and PhD creative writing graduates.  They’re too specialized; they cannot intelligently discuss much outside of their specialization with a sophistication necessary to evolve the discipline—and the human.

On a final note:  Literary theory is its own art form; reading it does not make better creative writers, only better literary theorists.

What was your least favorite class at any point in your education? Why?

I took only one class that drove me insane with boredom:  American Romanticism.  Not because of the subject matter but rather because of the professor.  Prof. Dickinson could take an otherwise fascinating writer like Henry David Thoreau and transform him and his writing into watching paint dry.  (There was a rumor in the English Department that the professor had been married four times and three of his wives had committed suicide. Hmmm.)

Are you reading anything right now?

I’m reading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking because I’m…

Are you writing anything right now?

…working on one of my memoirs, The Way Men Kiss.  I finished the first draft of this collection about ten years ago. Recently I promised myself that when I moved to Hong Kong (I’m living here now) I’d spend mornings writing for myself rather than answering emails and sweating over the increasingly complex management of Jaded Ibis Press.

The Way Men Kiss is one of three memoirs in the works.  The writing is fairly straightforward; i.e., not an experiment in syntax, like another memoir-in-progress, Otherwise, from which comes “Olbers’ Paradox,” my syntactically-perverted essay included in the recently published Wreckage of Reason II:  An Anthology of Experimental Prose by Contemporary Women Writers).

TWMK covers the year I slept (as in, fucked) my way across Europe after my first husband, a pathological liar, left me for other women.  (Yes, plural: women.)  Some people might call my poor Grand Tour “revenge fucking” but it was not.  I adored these men, every one of my lovers and my friends who had arrived in Europe from so many parts of the world.  They were the salve to my wounded heart.  The book explores much of who they were then, and who I was then—very young, all of us, and untethered to obligations of any kind.  Audacious travelers on the same unpredictable road to a constricting future that would present itself to us soon enough.  Soon enough we’d be less free, and older, and already nostalgic for the wilder days and nights.  But until then:

“Kamal grazed on me.  And I, lover of men, grazed on Kamal.  We might have made love right there on the park bench along the Champs-Élysées, in view of amused passers-by, had Kamal not then slid his hands under my bottom and picked me up and carried me out of the light into the warm green darkness of the park, to a big shadowy circle of briers, conveniently hollow in the center—an intimate lair smelling of rabbits and black dirt and green-waxy ceiling of leaves.  We climbed inside and kissed more deeply and groped more desperately.  And then we could not help ourselves:  We made love right there, on the dirt amid the thickets of that Champs-Élysées park, on that warm September night in Paris, so many years ago.”

—from the title essay, “The Way Men Kiss”

Bright-Sided

Standard

brightsided“Keep Calm and Stay Positive.”

“Everyday is a second chance.”

“S.M.I.L.E.–See Miracles in Life Everyday.”

“Positive Mind. Positive vibes. Positive life.”

I ask myself, what do positive quotes teach us, other than “every day” and “everyday” are used interchangeably without fail? Barbara Ehrenreich, a highly credible journalist with 16 books under her belt and whose work appears in college textbooks, must have asked a similar question before she started writing Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America. Published in 2009 by Metropolitan Books, Bright-Sided is the examination of positive thinking, both in the individual and how it became a product, and how positive thinking developed and changed the American landscape. Ehrenreich uses personal anecdotes, along with dozens of sources, to examine the bad side of happy. Early on, Ehrenreich defines “positive thinking” for readers, establishing her key term so that everyone works with the same definition. This move demonstrates the willingness to reach out to her audience and clarify the abstract term.

Bright-Sided is an academic text, though the content affects the average American–especially the blue- and white-collar workers. The diction is complicated at times, and I see the moves Ehrenreich makes to integrate and effectively use sources. Of course, I am an English professor, so understanding rhetorical moves is part of my job. However, I can see how the book would turn off some readers for its level of difficulty.

Bright-Sided is a book many will shun for the subject matter alone. Americans love happiness. But Ehrenreich’s credibility is not to be pushed aside. First, the author’s impressive resume establishes her credibility; she is someone we should listen to because she’s devoted her life to uncovering unfair practices in the United States. Secondly, the author isn’t only a journalist; she has a PhD in biology, from which she lends expertise to examine happiness peddlers who claim that biology and happiness are related, and explaining equations that don’t actually work in the laws of science. Thirdly, Ehrenreich uses personal anecdotes from her experience with breast cancer.

The author describes the way cancer patients are told that a positive attitude can help their survival rate, but then supports her theory that positive thinking is useless by quoting studies that find positive-minded patients are no more likely to beat cancer than those who aren’t. The only people who benefit from positive attitudes in the cancer ward, says Ehrenreich, are the nurses and family members, who are worn down by sadness and death.

The author also investigates breast cancer charities and how they (possibly unintentionally) infantilize women. Everything is pink, supporters buy teddy bears, and female patients are given care packages that include crayons. Ehrenreich wonders if men are given the same tools of self-expression. Though there aren’t as many studies and quotes in this section, the author’s curious attitude and personal experience make her argument believable.

One thing many “positive thinking” coaches tell their clients is to avoid the news. Ehrenreich furthers her argument that positive thinking is undermining American by pointing out that news allows its consumers to make change, petition, or even maintain awareness. Sure, you may be sad, but you can also send money to funds after a natural disaster, for example, to help those in need. Ignorance doesn’t benefit anyone, except the ignorant person. Looking at news consumption helps the author solidify her point that Americans are weakened by the desire to be happy no matter what.

After her personal anecdote and researching the business of selling happiness, Ehrenreich steps back to look at the source of positive thinking in America: Calvinism. People were so depressed due to their restrictive religion that practically forbids happiness that their feelings manifested in bodily illness. Now, here is where things got confusing for me. If a positive attitude doesn’t lead to a more healthy physical state, why does depression cause bodily harm? I never found a satisfactory reason in Bright-Sided, but that may be due to the book getting more complex. Take this passage, for example, a response to “New Age” positive thinkers bringing quantum physics into the happiness debate:

In the words of Nobel physicist Murray Gell-Mann, this is so much “quantum flapdoodle.” For one thing, quantum effects comes into play at a level vastly smaller than our bodies, our nerve cells, and even the molecules involved in the conduction of neuronal impulses. Responding to What the Bleep Do We Know?, which heavily invokes quantum physics to explain the law of attraction, the estimable Michael Shermer notes that “for a system to be described quantum-mechanically, its typical mass (m), speed (v) and distance (d) must be on the order of Planck’s constant (h) [6.626 x 10 to the -34 power joule-seconds],” which is far beyond tiny.

If you stopped reading my quote, I’m not surprised. I have a basic understand of biology, but here Ehrenreich is asking the reader to follow along with a basic understanding of quantum physics, which I haven’t studied, nor do I recall learning about in physics class back in 12th grade. Who is the audience, I ask? Perhaps the author had faith that her readers would take her interpretation of Shermer’s quote (“which is far beyond tiny”) as is, and I understand that she’s basically saying that quantum theories can’t be applied to happiness because our bodies are too big (for what, I’m not sure), but I do know that I don’t like guessing at what an author means.

After her exploration of quantum physics and Calvanism, Ehrenreich discusses mega-churches. Here, I was engaged again. The thing I like best about Barbara Ehrenreich’s work is that she doesn’t only research her topic, she gets in there—good old-fashioned investigative journalism. So, there she is, in the mega-church, a place I find ridiculous for its distant relationship to church, a point Ehrenreich gets to. Mega-churches don’t have crosses or steeples or communion. They’re often set up in old warehouses, staff hundreds of people, and break out feel-good guitar music. The “pastor” isn’t necessarily a religious person, but rather a spiritual peddler. There is no requirement of seminary school or Bible study or anything, other than how to SELL. Selling happiness is what it’s about. The author brings in some bemusing and amusing claims from religious leaders of mega-churches, such as the “pastor’s” wife who didn’t have money for a plane ticket and prayed (or yelled at?) God to make that plane ticket ready when she got to the airport or else. The plane ticket is an example of the “laws of attraction” principle that positive thinkers apply to happiness. If you want it hard enough, if you think about it excessively, the thing you want (money, job, love, etc.) will know you’re putting your vibe out there and come to you. Ehrenreich isn’t poking fun at the woman; in fact, the author is always a bit distant, a requirement for a good journalist whose job is to deliver information, not distort it with personal bias.

At the end of this 235-page piece, Ehrenreich really hits her point home by looking at contemporary America, including how businesses bring in positive-thinking coaches and buy positive-thinking books for each of their employees, amounting to hundreds of books for some companies, causing works like Who Moved My Cheese? to hit the bestseller list. The funny thing is I remember my mom’s boss giving everyone Who Moved My Cheese? and reading it myself. Such books convince readers that being fired is just a “new opportunity” and that anger or sadness for losing a job is “whining.” We’ve shamed ourselves into being happy, essentially, and also made ourselves more careless:

Robert Reich once observed, a bit ambivalently, that “American optimism carries over into our economy, which is one reason why we’ve always been a nation of inventors and tinkerers, of innovators and experimenters….Optimism also explains why we spend so much and save so little….Our willingness to go deep into debt and keep spending is intimately related to our optimism.”

Again, Ehrenriech uses a source to support her claims that the desire to be happy all the time is weakening our country. In fact, she has 16 pages of end notes, for which I am impressed. When I look at my course textbook, essays are published without so much as a citation, for a reason unknown to me, but I do know that giving credit to sources bolsters Ehrenreich’s credibility and demonstrates the huge amount of research that went into the topic.

Lastly, the author looks at the flip side of the argument: if we shouldn’t be happy, are we supposed to be sad? No, the author argues. While these are polar emotions, they are not the only ones. Diligence is what keeps us from making stupid decisions. Notice how animals are always on alert, the author notes, and that if danger presents itself, animals in a group sound the alarm. The goal is to “see things as they are.” She notes the emphasis in college on critical thinking, which involves asking questions to get to the truth of things, and I can verify that lessons on critical thinking are in every Composition textbook I see. While I appreciated Ehrenreich’s response to how people should be, I wanted to see more of her sources. Mostly, she offers brief examples, such as how pilots don’t “hope” they can land the plane, and that politicians don’t cross their fingers to win an election; they work hard to make the reality they most desire happen. It’s in this final chapter that the author pulls way back on studies and anecdotes and hopes—maybe just a little—that her readers agree with reality as a better option than blind happiness.

*This book was procured from my public library. I have no personal nor professional relationship with the author.