Tabs and Follow Me

March 18, 2018

Chicago Writers Association Conference

The Chicago Writers Association Conference was last weekend.  I was my first writer's conference, so it was pretty exciting.  The things I learned will probably take a few weeks to explore, so today I'd like to tell you about the most immediately beneficial parts, which are the meditation and mindfulness practices of Kelly Harms.  Here are some things that I found helpful.

1. "Deep work" is when you get in the flow of writing and it's all pouring out of you.  This is opposed to to trudging through the writing bog for hours and hours.  You can get the same amount of work done in a shorter amount of time if you do deep work.

2. The way to get into deep work is to separate it off from your other activities.  It's the "don't half-ass two things.  Whole-ass one thing" idea.  If you sit down to write, but you're still thinking about your day job or your e-mails or you kid or whatever, that distracts.  So start writing time with a beginning ritual like meditating.

3. My beginning ritual (I made it up.  It works for me) is that I lie down (if I'm at home) or sit in lotus pose in my chair (if I'm at the library) and listen to five minutes of rain sounds through my headphones.  While listening to that, I imagine that the sound is the sound of all the tension in my muscles and the distractions in my head pouring off me.  I go through my major muscle groups and release the tension I'm holding.  I let go of any thoughts that crop up other than the sounds of the rain, my breath, and whatever muscle group I'm relaxing.  Then, when I'm all nice and emptied out, I imagine that the rain is gold--the color of creativity (your rain might look different)--and it's filling up all the hollows in my body emptied out when I let all the tension drain out of me.  And then five minutes is up and I'm get some really solid writing done.  It's a little counter-intuitive to spend the first five minutes of your limited time not working, but when I only have an hour to work, taking five minutes to get in the zone means I get more done in those remaining 55 minutes than I usually do in a couple of hours.

4.  It's important to tell your body how much time you're going to write and then stick to it.  If you tell your body that you're going to write for two hours, and after a half-hour you get interrupted, your body stops trusting that you're going to have time to write.  I talked to Kelly Harms about this after her talk, because most days my free time is during nap time, and who knows how long that'll last.  Her advice was to err on the shorter side.  Tell your body you're going to work for half an hour and then do it and feel good about yourself.  If he's still asleep when you're done, you can work longer, but don't promise anything.

This is really working for me.  A lot.

March 13, 2018

We Wear the Mask Review

This week's book is We Wear the Mask: 15 Stories of Passing in America, a collection of personal essays from people who "pass" in different ways.

I came into this book with an understanding of passing that came mostly from my trans friends.  My trans-men friends who look stereotypically male don't get as many micro-agressions when they walk down the street.  People don't openly stare at them when they ride the bus.  Strangers don't stop them and ask about their genitalia.  People don't freak out as often when they use the restroom.  People assume they're cis-men and grant them the privileges (which here translates to "basic human decency") that cis-men enjoy.  I also had an understanding that light-skinned brown people can pass as white for access to the privileges that white people enjoy (again privileges that everyone ought to have.)  My son is white-passing, and he's going to have the privilege of not getting searched at airport security the way my husband is every single time he flies.

I viewed passing as access to the resources and respect that everyone should have in the first place.

So I found the forward of this book to be jarring when Brando Skyhorse is quoted: "Passing is when someone tries to get something tangible to improve their daily quality of life by occupying a space meant for someone else."  So the space "meant" for cis-men isn't "meant" for trans-men?  The space for white people isn't "meant" for brown people?  I am bothered by this.

I was thinking of it as punching up, because while I think anyone who wants access to white spaces should have access, I don't think anyone who wants access to, say, Native American spaces should be granted access.  And that's where Skyhorse is coming from.  His parents were Hispanic until his mother decided she was Native American and raised her son that way.  It's a fascinating story, and it didn't fit with my understanding of passing.

This anthology has a number of essays from people of color passing as a different ethnic group.  Achy Obejas is a proud Cuban, but while living in Hawai'i, no one had any concept of where Cuba was or what it was like, so they would say, "That's like Puerto Rico, right?  So you're Puerto Rican."  

This is one of the main take-aways of this anthology: there are two parts to passing.  One is altering your appearance or actions in order to fit better with a group, and the second is that how well you "fit" is decided by other people making assumptions about you.  Sometimes you don't have to alter anything about yourself for people to assume things, like when Patrick Rosal is mistaken for a waiter at the National Book Awards.  If you fit into someone's stereotype of a group, they'll mentally put you in that group without you having any say in the matter.  On the other hand, Rafia Zakaria, a Muslim American, talks about how she passes through US customs and Pakistani customs by changing her clothes, one to emphasize her American-ness and one to emphasize her Muslim-ness.  She's working her knowledge of what other people expect, what other people want to see.  She's not lying.  She's both American and Muslim.  She's just pushing the aspect that will help ease the experience and thereby passing.  

There is also talk of how if you don't fit into someone's stereotypical box, their ideal of what a group is like, they get angry.  Strangers angrily ask about my non-binary friends' sex, because they don't fit in the neat boxes that people have created for "man" and "woman."  People in Hawai'i didn't have a concept of Cuba, so they put Obejas in the Puerto Rico box.  I'm reminded of my mother-in-law's story about visiting the US back in the 60s.  While she and her father were taking a train, the white conductor told them to go sit in the "colored" car.  They moved to the colored car, where the black conductor told them to go back and sit with the white people.

I'd like to end with a quote from Gabrielle Bellot's essay about her experience as a trans woman.
"And it can be difficult, though it is necessary, to learn that passing is not our goal if we identify as binary transgender women, as I do.  We are women, no matter what we look like, even if not all of us can pass for a woman by the statistical norms of what cisgender females look like.  There is nothing inherently wrong with wishing to pass visually, aurally, or otherwise as cisgender; but we do ourselves an intellectual disservice if we fail to realize that the language of passing implies both temporariness and trickery, and aiming to be recognized as women, regardless of what we look like, is  much greater goal."

Next week:

February 28, 2018

Blood, Bones, and Butter Review

This week, I read Blood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, a memoir by Gabrielle Hamilton.  I've been researching kitchen culture in high end restaurants, and the internet recommended this to me.   The internet shouldn't have, because that's not what this book is about (and if fact does a big old time leap as soon as she gets her restaurant set up, jumping over everything I went in wanting to know).  But my disappointment has nothing to do with the quality of the book.

Gabrielle tells the story of her life as it relates to food.  She starts with her early childhood with her French mother who cooked elaborate meals for a family of seven on a tight budget, and with her father who threw huge, themed parties.  She talks about waitressing at The Lone Star Cafe, where she was brought up on charges of grand larceny.  She talks about the grueling hours and stifling menu constraints of catering.  She talks about traveling the world to learn to cook from little bistros all over Europe and Asia.  And then she talks about running a restaurant while trying to have it all with her green card marriage husband and her two small kids.

The prose here is gorgeous.  It's not just her descriptions of food that impressed me (although I always love great descriptions of food), but she also throws in these very pointed and specific details that are instantly relatable.  For example, she describes her face tightening when hit by the heat from an oven, where I've always thought of heat expanding the pores on my face.  Those are opposite images, but somehow they're still the same thing, and I know exactly what she's talking about.

The chapters are thematic, almost as if the book is a collection of essays put in sort-of-chronological order.  As I said, there's a chapter on her deciding that she's going to buy the vacant, filthy restaurant space down the block without knowing anything about running a restaurant, and then the next chapter starts with the restaurant having been open for a year or two and she's a guest star on the Martha Stewart show.  It's a leap.  She speaks of her mother early in the book with rose colored adoration, but the next time her mom shows up, Gabrielle hasn't spoken to her in twenty years and is desperately trying not to become her.  The book follows Gabrielle's relationship to food rather than other character arcs.  There's some implicit assumptions here that we know who she is and that her restaurant is famous, an assumption most people going into this would know.  For that reason, it shows moments that are emblematic of a whole, it tells stories as examples that the reader can generalize out into a larger picture. 


Next week: We Wear the Mask: 15 Stories of Passing in America.

February 20, 2018

Strange Practice Review

This week's novel is Strange Practice, by Vivian Shaw.

Dr. Greta Helsing is one of the few doctors in London for supernatural patients.  When a cult of guys dressed like monks with glowing blue eyes and knives coated in everything that would make a monster cringe, start coming after Greta's patients, a rag tag band has to put a stop to it.

I really liked everything that had to do with Greta's medical practice.  I'm a sucker for stories about supernatural creatures with mundane needs that still require some specialization.  There's a gray guy with chronic bronchitis, and a ghoul who needs anti-depressants.  When she's at her practice one day it's mostly folks with the flu and one woman who needed birth control.  I am all about that.  Tell me more.

On the down side, there are just so many dudes in this story.  So many dudes.  A few female characters (three?  two?) other than Greta have speaking roles, but they're in the background or on the phone and are usually to show that someone is looking after Greta's practice while she's taking care of this cult nonsense.

The guys in the rag tag gang shift between Greta-father-figure and Gretta-love-interest and back.  It's weird.  And there are three dudes who are all filling that father-figure/love-interest niche.  Three.  (That's either as many non-Greta female speaking roles there are or more than the number of non-Greta speaking roles.  I can't remember.) One of these dudes I found insufferable.  One of them was only insufferable some of the time.

And don't get me started on the 50 pages of my life that happened between when I said, "You should ask the ghouls.  I bet they know everything," and when the ghouls stepped up and volunteered all the information because no one ever asked.  This overlaps with the 50 pages between where I said, "You should just cut the power," and when the ghouls said, "Did you know you can just cut the power?"

I wanted more ghoul babies with ear infections.  That was a definite high point.

Next week: Blood, Bones, & Butter, a cooking memoir by Gabrielle Hamilton.

February 13, 2018

A Face Like Glass Review

This week's novel is A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge.  I liked The Lie Tree (also by Hardinge) so much that I added a bunch of her other books to my to-read list.  Although it didn't hit me as hard as The Lie Tree, I was not disappointed.

The underground city of Caverna is ruled by the thousand-year-old Steward who spends his life seeking out marvels that will make his aging and numb soul feel again.  So Caverna is filled with magnificent craftsmen who make magical perfume and wine and animals, all in an effort to please the Steward.  Neverfell, the cheese master's apprentice, appeared in the cheese master's caves at the age of five.  Since then, she has not been allowed to leave his tunnels and she has had to wear a mask whenever anyone visits or deliveries are made.  When one day, she breaks the rules and sneaks out of the cheese tunnels, she gets swept up into a complicated chess game of duplicitous courtiers, the cold-hearted Steward, and a deranged master thief, all because everything she feels shows on her face--something unheard of in Caverna.

The world building here is pretty fun.  They live in a huge cave system, lit by little plants like Venus fly traps.  Whenever someone is in the area, they feed off the carbon dioxide, producing oxygen and light.  There's a whole branch of society who are cartographers, who map the cave systems so the city can expand and so people can know if they can dig through walls without collapse or hitting a cave full of noxious gas.  But cartographers are all crazy, to the point where everyone else sets timers, only allowing themselves to listen to the cartographer for five minutes before they go crazy themselves and want to take up cartography.  There's magic cheese that give visions of the future and wine that makes people forget very specific memories.

And then there are the Faces.  Everyone uses their face kind of like a mask.  The lowest echelons of society only know about four Faces, which are all "listening subserviently" or "politely interested."  They don't have Faces for grief or anger.  The courtiers can learn hundreds of Faces, which they pay facesmiths small fortunes to learn, but even then, they sometimes run into situations or feel emotions for which they don't have a Face.  Everyone puts on Faces as they see fit, so there's no trusting anyone by their winning smile or gentle eyes.  Neverfell trusts everyone because she doesn't know better and it gets her into loads of trouble.  There's also the fact that she's never learned to fake an expression at all and everything she's feeling shows on her face, so she's used as a pawn who everyone knows can't lie.

Add to this the memory wiping wine and there's no telling who's telling the truth or who believes the thing they're saying.

But the big surprise of this book was that things just kept happening.  Neverfell gets a whirlwind tour of all the nooks and crannies of Caverna because she keeps getting shuffled around.  She gets kidnapped and arrested and bought and given jobs and rescued, so the reader gets a broad view of this society.  Its hard to expect what will happen next.  "Okay, so she's here in this new place, so she's going to spend a few chapters learning to adapt to this situ--oh wait, now she's somewhere else."  I was sure the plot of the book was going to be about her melting the Steward's heart with her wide-eyed enjoyment of novelty, him putting the people trying to use her in their place, and then the city in general becoming a nicer place to live as he became more benevolent, but no.  That cuts off abruptly about half way through and becomes something different.

Everyone has a plan, and there are plans within plans that rely on other people doing their own plans.  At one point it turns out that everything so far had been one guys plan, and I had to lie down and go back through it and think, "Wait, really?  How on earth would you plan that?  Why would he plan that?  What's going on?"

It's not boring.  And even though it doesn't have a plot that's easily traced or explained, everything I was presented with was cool.  And even though the plot keeps jumping tracks, that puts Neverfell's character arc, which is a steady, gradual build, into sharper focus.


Next Week: Strange Practice, Dr. Helsing MD has a practice for vampires, by Vivian Shaw.

February 11, 2018


My friend Meg from my critique group introduced a bunch of vocabulary words at our last meeting, and I have found one particularly helpful this week.  That word is Narratee, or he receptive target to whom a narrator tells the story.  This can be another character in the story, a character in a frame narrative, or a reader/listener that the narrator imagines writing/speaking to.

When we talked about this at critique group, it seemed pretty self-explanatory, especially since usually my narratee is the same as my implied reader (or whoever I imagine reading my story).  The narratee and the implied reader are the same person, who is a stranger whom my narrator does not address directly. 

I saw this as a restriction that you have to think about when you decide to do something like using diary entries or letters.  In those cases, you want to get information across to your reader, but you have to keep in mind that in a letter from your main character to their sister, the sister is already aware of all the background and saying something artless like, "as you know, our parents died four years ago in a car accident," is pretty silly.  So a writer has to get creative in how they address the gap between the narratee and the implied reader.

But then I started work on a short story, where my initial idea was "a woman at The Moth open mic explains that there are different kinds of werewolves."  And once I got going, I realized that the opposite of how I had understood this concept was happening.  My narrator is telling a story where when the audience (the narratees) need information, she can straight out explain how things work.  This is perfectly acceptable in live storytelling events.  You can say, "For those of you not familiar with Starbucks, it works like this..." And it works because the audience either
  • doesn't know the information but needs it to understand the story and is therefore appreciative
  • does know the information already, but understands that others in the audience might not and can wait while it is explained
  • does know the information, but finds the explanation amusing because it's familiar
So, since the narratee in this situation is not one person with a set experience, but a group of people all coming from different places, it allows for some wiggle room.  

As I've moved through the process of writing the draft of this story, if gained a few layers (thank goodness) and I've thought a couple of times about if it would serve the story better to drop the whole story telling event framework and make it more like my usual short stories.  But then I would lose that direct address.  "I know you don't know about werewolves, so let me explain."  Info dumps like this are generally frowned upon unless there is some direct address, so losing that direct address to a specific group of narratees would require a re-write and a re-thinking of how the information is presented.  Plus I would lose the joke that the narrator is supposed to be telling a true story, but gets up and talks about werewolves.

February 6, 2018

Eliza and Her Monsters Review

This week's novel is Eliza and Her Monsters by