Just a quick jump onto the blog to say I’m thrilled that my short story, An Unexpected Season, has been shortlisted for Lip Magazine’s Rachel Funari Prize. The story is one of my rare ventures into purely literary fiction — no robots, or magic, or any other genre elements! Well, actually, now that I think about it, there may be a little. But just a touch. Congratulations to all the other short-listees. The winner will be announced at the Emerging Writers Festival on 17 June.
A story I wrote recently came back after some time away on submission, rejected but with several rounds of comments. I’m usually glad of comments, even if the piece is ultimately declined. It’s a chance to learn, to really see your work through someone else’s eyes. Sometimes, of course, the comments come from a parallel universe which appears to have very little in common with your own.
One of these recent critiques struck me. Where’s the conflict? it asked. Why doesn’t the character grow and change? These are valid concerns and good questions to ask, especially if you are to avoid the dread vignette. But conflict can take many forms. Life is not all about arguments and violence. Conflict can be something perceived only by the protagonist, something internal. So can growth and change.
Perhaps I’ve counted too much on the recognition of experience. The reader’s understanding, without too much being stated, that this is how the character would feel, that this is the conflict she would be experiencing.
I’d argue, too, that not everyone grows. We become stuck in our ways, despite the evidence, despite the prods the universe gives us. That’s part of the human condition, often a sad part. I’m tempted to add that the need for overt conflict is a very male trait, though I’m not sure if that’s entirely true.
I’m rewriting that story. But not too much. Sometimes the quietest things are the best.
Onwards and upwards.
None of us are truly good, most of us aren’t particularly trying. But there are good actions, good intentions. I’ve been wrestling with how to write about them without making them boring or schmaltzy. (not for this current story, but perhaps for the next) Marillyne Robinson does it. And possibly, on a lighter scale, so does Alexander McCall Smith. The TV show Rev manages it too, I think.
There’s an easy fix: the complicated character who does something good. My daughter wanted her nose pierced recently and, because we were on holidays and I, apparently, had made a vague promise in the past, we ended up following Google to the nearest available place. Me, with the articulated thought that if we didn’t like the look of wherever it was we were heading, we didn’t have to go in.
100 metres north, up in a dodgy lift, and we came to a small shop. We were greeted by a woman with multiple piercings (no surprise), wearing a goat’s head ring, a goat’s head necklace and a T-shirt which read something like Drink Coffee and Worship Satan.
I smiled and handed my youngest child over to her. And, as it turned out, she was the most helpful, reassuring, patient body piercer (if that’s the correct term) I have ever encountered.
So that, or something like it, was an easy story.
But we are so drawn to the bad, to the outre, to the shocking, that everything else is so easily passed over. And to be deeply good is profoundly difficult. A life’s calling and never attained. Perhaps the writing of it should be equally difficult. I will let my subconscious cogitate some more.
I’ve just put aside a short story which has failed to find a home. It was something true and honest, maybe a little too honest, maybe a little depressing, and, at least for now, it’s going back in the drawer. It was about a woman who, despite a magical discovery, only gets older and more unhappy. She does find something to hold onto in the end, though not necessarily something someone else would want or understand. Yep, maybe too depressing.
N.K Jemisin has written an interesting piece Tricking Readers into Acceptance about something similar, or at least the ways in which she strived to make readers accept a protagonist who was an “unlikeable fortysomething woman of color”. As Jemisin says, “The problem is that readers have been trained to like women less. Writers have to work against a weight of deeply-embedded societal bigotry which literally, actually causes readers to have trouble empathizing with anyone who’s not a straight cis white guy. We see this empathy failure everywhere and not just in fiction.” Be warned, there are major spoilers for those who have not read The Fifth Season. Jemisin makes lots of good, strong writerly arguments and I very much admire her work. I did notice that many of the comments were from readers who said that they emphasized with this character from the start. But then they too were women.
Speaking of great writing advice, Ursula Le Guin is responding to questions over at Book Cafe. And if, like me, you are in the mood to read more prickly women characters, Tansy Rayner Roberts is doing a series on SF Women of the 20th Century. This link is to her article on Octavia Butler.
Image via HJS Designs
I can’t stop thinking about Catherine Nichols’ article Homme de Plume: What I learned sending my novel out under a Male Name.
My first reaction was … I want to say disbelief, but that’s not quite right. Something more akin to weariness, something like really, still, again? And then I thought about one of my writing classes. The tutor was a woman, a much loved, insightful, published author. But she did favour the boys! And it took me a while to get my head around that. A person I admired, whose opinions I cherished who, nonetheless, was more laudatory of male writing, more critical of female. And someone who, I think, though I’m truly guessing, would be horrified to realise this bias.
And then there’s this interesting article by Jessica Norell which discusses some of the workplace experiences of transgender people. The same person, different gender perceptions, different treatment.
It’s tempting, but I don’t think I’m quite prepared to submit using a male name. Though I have thought one up that matches my initials. Just in case.
HOW TO BE A POET
(to remind myself)
Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill — more of each
than you have — inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.
Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.
Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.
(Found via the inspirational Brain Pickings)
2014 was a strange year for my family. An underground kind of year for me, though one in which some writing matters crystallised. I’ve been braver in some ways, less brave in others. Marooned, for a while, by the vagaries of misfortune. If you’re in need of some writerly insight/shoring up (and who isn’t from time to time) try The Atlantic’s 2014 roundup of advice. But for everyone, no matter your passion, Chuck Wendig’s post on being both big and small may resonate. Big in intent and purpose. Small in humility and graciousness. (Be warned, Wendig is fond of a swear word or two) Courage, then, for 2015. Courage, hope, and determination. May 2015 be the year you sing your own song, one of your choosing and creation.
PS The beautiful photo at the top is Landscape through Dragonfly Wings by Emili Godes from the website of the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya of Barcelona, http://www.museunacional.cat And because we have dragonflies everywhere at the moment, I’ll add a humbler, more domestic version:
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about writing it’s that when I start writing about a garden, I’m just playing for time. Not that I realise it in the moment, but later, yes, it’s because I’m stuck.
Of course, a grand book about a garden may yet reveal itself. A heartbreaking story set in a struggling vegetable patch. A wry commentary on the contemporary condition based on one woman’s struggle with a bush turkey and several possums. Nup, when my characters wander into the garden, it’s time to take a break and rethink.
My daughter is finishing her last year of school and we, her parents, have been asked by the school to write her a letter outlining her “redeeming qualities”. Implying, however unintentionally, that there is something to redeem. And in a final year of school where stress, work, general teenagerness and more stress have taken their toll, I suppose that is a reasonable assumption. It would be so very easy to list her annoying qualities. After all, the title of this blog sprung from a morning spent trying to find lost items in her room.
But then, it’s always easier to point out faults. The positive has an alarming habit of sounding schmarmy and false. (Especially for my kids who regularly reply to my attempts at encouragement: Well you have to say that, you’re my Mum) Where are the words of admiration, hope, blessing, understanding I want to write? I feel completely inadequate to this task. My first draft reads a little like a letter to myself when I had just finished school. 12 long years where I hated almost every moment. But my daughter is not me. She has flourished where I floundered. Perhaps that is all I need to say. That, and the fact I’m truly glad that the days of hunting for school socks are over for one child at least.
I came across this wonderful illustration and it seems to sum up a few of the thoughts I’ve had lately on gender and writing. There’s been a lot written about the under-representation of women in the broad literary community. Most recently, I came across Jack Heath’s post at Literary Minded. I applaud him for his decision to read only women for a year. (Despite my support of the Australian Woman Writer’s challenge I still find myself being seduced into reading by books written by men) I quite liked his idea that women use outfits as a means of making a statement. I suspect this may also be true of domestic tasks. But as much as I support efforts being made to bring some equality to writing, I always feel a little puzzled by many of the conversations. I have to remind myself that that’s how I’m seen, as first and foremost a woman. I’m thinking of Jane Caro’s comment that a group of men is just a group of people, but a group of women is … a group of women. I confess to using DJ rather than Dorothy-Jane as my author name, but that’s mostly because almost everyone ends up calling me DJ no matter how I introduce myself. It just seemed easier. (I did end up with a pink book cover, however) I’m thinking wishfully of Ian M Banks’ The Culture and the way in which its members are able to move from one gender to another, and sometimes become genderless. Perhaps that is the only way in which to make the point moot. Not for the first tine, I want to live in The Culture.