Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Why I Write Fiction

Someone asked me recently what got me into writing. The question stumped me. I said something about writing the stories I want to see in the world, etc. That's not my true reason though. My reason starts with Star Wars.

Stories and books (and legos*) crowded my childhood. Seeing Star Wars 4-6 was a big experience for me. It was the first story that made me feel something bigger. A call to be a hero fighting against the bad guys. The lightsabers and starships peppering the landscape were an added bonus.

According to Star Wars, there were lots of bad guys and evil and people who needed help. There was always another battle. That was the way life worked.

But anyone could be the one to save the world. Anyone can make a choice--choices are the only control we're given over life. That's how people worked.

I wanted to be one of the heroes. 

The empire and the rebellion showed what was possible and what was crucial when it came to heroism. It held essential facts, like:

  • Every hero has humble beginnings but dreams of being something bigger.
  • Developing your powers will be hard and painful.
  • Heroes always disobey their mentor at some point, discovering wisdom the hard way.
  • Bad guys can become good guys with the right motivation.
  • Sometimes mentors are wrong, and sometimes mentors lie.
  • Loss can make good guys decide to do bad things.
  • Every individual has a superpower, a skillset by which they get through life.
  • Every superpower has its drawbacks.
  • People who claim they don't care usually do.
  • Bad guys have friends too. People afraid to ask for help lose.
  • Victories require sacrifices.
  • There is always a point where strength runs out.
  • Family is powerful, even if you don't know who they are.
  • Each individual decides what kind of character they'll be.
  • Most importantly, good wins over evil.

Stories teach us the way of things. What I learned first in Star Wars helped me decide who I wanted to be and how to become her. There's no greater power than that.

Telling stories of my own was a natural next step.

I started creating Star Wars stories to see what happened if. Through those characters, I could experiment with the choices we make. It gave me a framework for boundless creativity. From there, it turned into a desire to tell those same types of stories to other people. What I gained I wanted to pass on. I wanted to inspire. I wanted to tell truths.

Yeah, Leia, that's how writing feels for most writers.

There were plenty of fandoms that played on my imagination through the years. The more I read, the more ideas I had. The wrappings of each story were beautiful and diverse. Yet the core of each story was the same.

Every book is a different facet of bigger things.

Stories get at the truth of us, but truth is an esoteric concept humans never fully understand. So there are always more stories to tell.

I write fantasy to turn the power I see in the world into legends and wonders. I can take the things we can't make sense of and make some sense of them. I can inspire readers with normal people like us who go on epic journeys. I can make something lovely about possibility and darkness, reflecting the things I've seen.

Star Wars remains the first story that inspired me. It gave voice to something deep in my programming and gave me terms by which to figure myself out. Now it's my turn to write that story for someone else.

Word count: 609.


* Mostly Star Wars sets, duh. By the way, if you're thinking all this was why I got so excited when The Force Awakens came out, you're probably right. Also the reason for my goal to watch it 16 times in 2016. It's only April and I've seen it 8 times, so that's not unrealistic.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

A Journey of Writing an 'Other'

The protagonist of my current fantasy manuscript is a trans woman. She lives an agrarian life tending a herd of llama-sheep and processing wool. Until she is selected to free her people from their conquerors.

I want to get Carra right. I don't want to damage the trans community (plenty of books already have), and I want her to be, well, her. A trans, outgoing, llama-hating, stubborn, sometimes-insecure, charismatic, feminist woman.

Credit: Heather Ruiz.

Writing the so-called "other" is hard. Any protagonist I write is different from me, and I use empathy to put myself in her shoes and understand her. But with marginalized identities, writers must take care to avoid denigrating or stereotype-enforcing images.

Writing about oppressed groups when you've never experienced their oppression is hazardous at best.

I called on a lot of resources to learn about trans women's experiences before I even started plotting: trans friends, trans blogs, articles from trans writers about trans experiences, articles from trans writers about how to write trans characters, accounts about body dysphoria... I haven't found a trans woman who can read the draft when I finish, but that'll be a vital part of my editing process.

That's a long list of research, yet I could still get it all wrong. I am cis. I've experienced prejudices, but never transmisogyny and transphobia.

Here are some of the questions and lessons from my research.

1) What does normal life mean for my trans protagonist?

My impulse is to write Carra with the same voice and awareness as my other female protagonists. She's a woman, and I understand women.

While that's true, it leaves out some vital pieces of her day-to-day experience. Physical transition is impossible in her world, so what kinds of body issues might she face? What worries or habits might she have? How would she handle others misgendering her?

On the other hand, many trans readers complain that writers let these questions take over the narrative. Trans issues become all-consuming, and protagonists lack the dimensions of having other concerns.

I need to balance her trans identity with her other identities, like friend and leader. This isn't an either-or: Carra is both a hero with a hero's problems and trans with a trans woman's problems. Those identities can and should coexist.

2) Should I include transphobia in the story?

On the one hand, transphobia is a real and constant threat. On the other, I want this story to be about Carra helping her people, not about prejudice. Trans lives include more than just trans issues.

The question goes deeper because I write fantasy. I can eradicate transphobia from Carra's world if I desire. Would that help our world by showing readers what an accepting society can look like? Or disrespect the trans community by ignoring their real-world pain?

The answer is: yes.

Books have the power to change our internal narratives. It's important to show how things could be. But erasing a social issue simply because "it doesn't fit the plot" and "it's easier" is careless.

Trans Americans lose their lives to hate crimes every year. Most people turn a blind eye to that: a writer's job is to challenge this status quo. At the same time, many trans writers want to get away from the old coming out or persecution narratives. They want to see trans protagonists having lives beyond trans issues.

Thus Carra experiences discrimination from some quarters (like one friend) and not from others (her mother). Discrimination doesn't overwhelm the plot. She tries to lead without any prior experience. She deals with discrimination for being female. She endures life-threatening betrayal.

These aspects of her life matter as much as the transmisogyny she faces.

3) How many trans characters should I have?

Besides Carra, the manuscript had a non-binary character in a major role. I wondered: will people think I'm overdoing it?

Screw what people think: I looked at actual data. According to surveys 0.3% of people are transgender--though there are innumerable reasons why those stats may be too low. It's a starting point.

Carra's hometown has over a thousand people, so it's strange if she's the only trans person. Since there's no reason to be in the closet in her society, there could be a dozen trans folks or more.

The clincher for me was hearing how trans people seek out other trans people. It happens with any identity: I have queer, Christian, and writing communities. Trans people have trans communities, among others.

One trans writer was blunt: if your trans character is alone in the book, you did it wrong.

I added more trans characters.

Ever time a writer portrays an "other," some will feel they didn't do it right (even if the author is from that community). I can't show the entire breadth of trans living in a single protagonist: some people's experiences will be left out.

Having multiple trans characters helps. They have different personalities and experiences. But even if I get them all right, someone will say I did it wrong. As Claire Light says: "No matter what you do, it's [considered] wrong... Welcome to a tiny taste of what it's like to be a [marginalized person]."

I write diverse characters because diversity is reality. My writing diversified when I began identifying my own white heteronormative thinking in high school. My next protagonist was Latino. Not on purpose: he just was.

Carra's transness is part of who she is, as much as her womanhood or tenacity.

The "other" is a ridiculous moniker for another person. Someone with a unique story worth telling.

Word count: 914.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Tweeting Teaches Writing Skills

Bring up social media in my company and you'll get an earful on why Twitter is superior to Facebook. 

I've been on Facebook since '06, and stopped enjoying it in '08. The post length increased until you could write a whole essay as your status. We swapped authentic life-sharing for political antagonism, trite quotes, and a culture where politeness is underrated. We can talk about ourselves, our views, and our experiences as long as we want.

Twitter, by contrast, maintains a 140-character limit: just enough for a sentence or two.

In a tweet, distilling your central message is vital. There's no time for commentary, wordiness, or self-involved monologue. I have to decide what's important to say, and then I'm done, like in a face-to-face conversation where you take turns speaking.

This taught me, first of all, that profundity exists in small nuggets of wisdom. You don't need long words and lots of paragraphs to communicate world-shaking truths.

Second, you don't need to repeat yourself. American speakers tend to be long-winded: topic sentence, thesis, example, re-worded thesis. But we don't have to use that formula. Readers only need a one-sentence thesis and an example. Trust your listeners to pick up on your meaning.

Last of all, every word is beautiful. My appreciation of that has grown. Don't use three words when you can use one. The secret is, you can always use one.

My short stories course in college had a 200-word limit on essays. We had half a page to discuss how Edward Jones manipulates readers' expectations in "Bad Neighbors," or whether Raymond Carver's editor masterminded his minimalist style. I learned the value of a single word and the weight of picking the right one.

Twitter is great practice for writing of any length. Good novels consist of thousands of tweets. Brevity is a lovely, undervalued skill.

Which is why I keep a word count: 307 words.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

A Geiger Counter for the Soul

Over the past few months, my ongoing depression hit a particularly low place. Depression is a symptom of ignoring my problems: running away and successfully avoiding what's in my heart. I can't feel anymore, and in that numbness depression settles like a cloudy friend.

It makes me ache and makes me angry. It makes me anxious for no reason. And it keeps me from writing.

That's why I've hardly been on the blog: there are no words inside me. The words come from my heart, and I've left that so many miles away I don't even know what it's trying to communicate. There is no passionate authenticity from me. If I try to write, all that comes out is anger or insincerity.

I'm going to have to find myself again if I want to survive this. But that involves tracing a trail that grows colder by the day and finding the place where I first ran away from myself. Then I have to reconnect with my heart and feel whatever awful things made me run away in the first place. I ran away because something(s) wounded me: I do know that.

I know all this in some parts because I have a very smart doctor, but also because of books. Like the titular Geiger counter, books shed light on each ion of my heart and count them even when I don't want to be counted, showing me two things.

The first thing happened when a friend gave me Amy Bai's SWORD for Christmas. Three siblings/cousins become magically connected: the Queen, the Lady Captain, and the Bard. As they fight for their country, this soul-bond is surprisingly useful, uncomfortably intimate, and the most excruciating thing they experience. One of the three tries to cut themselves off from the others, and the ensuing mayhem affects everyone around them.

This book gave me tingles. It made my chest ache, as if it was hard to breathe, as I experienced alongside them the pain of loving.

It left me feeling alive.

Alive in a painful way. Feeling their suffering made me feel my own. It made me feel what I'm trying not to feel. While it didn't bring me any closer to understanding the source of my pain, it reminded me what it's like to feel things, and that was amazing.

I had a difficult, emotional week afterward, like detox. I slipped back into numbness because I still haven't rooted out the problem. But it gave me the sense that I can get there, to a healthier place.

The second thing I learned when my creative writing ground to a halt. Stories are piling up in my head, but I can't seem to write them down on paper. When I work up the courage to force words out, they are well-crafted in literary terms, but they're missing the heart that makes them come alive.

My characters fight and talk and sing and walk, but they don't feel quite right. My numbness and emotional disconnection shows up in them. There's some emotion(s) that I'm afraid of, and that fear keeps me from writing any emotions well.

That's what made me realize I'm running away from something.

Some of what's holding back my writing is fear of being known. I'm afraid of people seeing this part of me, whatever this is. There's something I'm trying to hide from myself and everyone else.

I should've recognized that feeling right away. It's the same shame that sent me tumbling into depression my second year of college, when I fell for a certain girl, fell so hard. She was so amazing. I was so ashamed people would discover I wanted to spend all my time with her--wanted to spend the rest of my life with her.

So I should know what shame-fear tastes like. Fear of knowing, fear of risking. Perhaps if I write my next story for myself, with no audience in my head, I can create a space to write freely and start figuring things out. Not sure I know how to do that, but it's worth a try.

Because I still don't know: what are the feelings I'm running away from?

I know coming out was part of it. Coming out, being honest, was freeing and enabled me to have more authentic relationships. But it also brought with it sharp wounds from people close to me. I thought I was ready for the rejection. You can never be ready for that feeling of betrayal from family or friends.

But there are other things from before coming out. I've been depressed for some years. Sometimes it appears to recede. I'm able to find joy in experiences and people, and seemingly climb out of the depression for a week, a month, maybe two or three. But it keeps coming back.

The world is a dark place as much as it is a beautiful place. There are things to be angry about, sad about, and hurt over. There are probably multiple reasons why I feel this way. The one I can identify thus far is shame, and so stripping shame away is my first objective.

I know that life is better than this. I've been happy and un-depressed. I'm a thoughtful person and tend to mull over big, deep questions about life and the universe without pulling myself away from the dark precipices out there. But despite this wily mind, I know what peace feels like. I still get glimpses of it in my prayers, and I'm running towards it with everything I've got.

Which, granted, isn't much. But it's better than running away.

I apologize for the poor writing and scattered stream of thought. I'm so tired of caring what people think. I wanted to write this post, but I didn't want to spend all the effort to make it pretty. My life is messy and these feeling are raw and in process. If my messy life has to spill out on the page, I'm okay with that.

Word count: 938.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

I Didn't Want to Be Princess Leia

Spoilers for The Force Awakens.

For me and my little brother, Star Wars was a giant playground for the imagination. As soon as we saw Episode IV, our play became inhabited with lightsabers and broken hyperdrives. An unending stream of faceless badguys chased us through maze-like starships, and our bravery sometimes resulted in lost limbs, replaced with cybernetic enhancements so cool Luke Skywalker would be jealous.

I always dreamed of Force powers. Sometimes I'd stare around my room at night trying to imagine that I had nudged the clock just a little bit to the left.

Luke had everything I wanted: the Force, a lightsaber, and a battle to fight.

Han Solo had the persona I wanted. I wanted to be the independent rogue, sweeping in to save the day and swooping out again before anyone could induct me into the Rebels. I wanted a ship of my own that I could love, live in, and fix with my two hands so I never had to depend on anybody.

I never really wanted to be Princess Leia.

I can't remember the number of times I rescued princesses or distressed damsels and dons in my play, the number of times I recreated Luke's heroic swing across the breach with Leia in my arms. I was always a war hero. Never a princess.

Don't get me wrong, Leia is awesome. I loved the way she has it all together when the boys come to break her out, takes action to rescue frozen Han, and watches out for herself on Endor.

But Leia isn't the hero. We all know that. The protagonist of this story is Luke. In my stories I, like all of us, wanted to be the hero.

The other problem is that Leia is powerful in a certain way. She's good at command and collecting and assimilating information. She's a strong woman who wears her hair in ornate up-dos just because and constantly dresses in skirts even though she always ends up running at some point. She speaks forceful truth with biting elocution, the only politician most of us will ever cheer for.

Leia even takes her power back after being turned into a sex toy, killing the slug who enslaved her without help from anyone.

Leia Organa is totally a feminist icon.

But there are many types of women. The reason we have side characters is because people are different: other characters will think, do, and react differently than our protagonist. There are many different women, and so there need to be many kinds of female characters. We need different kinds of women in stories so that all of us get to see ourselves somewhere.

Yet most sci-fi, even the best stuff, from Star Wars to Stargate SG1, shows a bunch of different personalities and one lone female in the mix. Men can choose from a myriad of heroes like themselves, but women have only one to get behind, like it or not.

Princess Leia is strong and awesome, but she's not me. She's too pretty, doesn't have Force powers or lightsaber skills, and doesn't get down in the dirt enough. Her job is to command a fleet, not fire a weapon.

And then we got Rey.

She's dirty and rough and lives by herself, finding her own way in the world. She knows technology like the back of her hand and figures out how to drive the best ship in the galaxy in the span of a few minutes while being chased by TIE fighters. A halo of frizz surrounds her face, she's smudgy and oil-stained, and she gets visibly sweaty.

And she has the Force. Her don't-mess staff skills translate into some pretty kickass lightsaber moves for a beginner. She's the protagonist and the new Luke Skywalker of this trilogy, and she also slips seamlessly into Han Solo's old chair.

Rey is everything I wanted to be.

Every time I watch her race across the screen, I want to cheer and happy-cry. I so rarely see a mirror of myself in movies. I do rejoice at every strong female character and still love watching male heroes doing the jobs I imagine I would do in their shoes. I grew up thinking that constantly translating male heroism to my female existence was life.

But it's magical to see the heroine you always pictured yourself as waltz across the film.

Of course, Rey might not be your type like she is mine. She might not be the kind of woman you, or your mom, or BFF, or daughter wants to be, or the kind of woman you want to date. That's fine. There's room for both Princess Leia and Rey in this galaxy--room for Padme and every other woman who dreams of being a hero in her own different way. Maybe, in the coming years, room for all of us in movies, too.

If you're a princess, not a scavenger, Star Wars: The Force Awakens still has something important for you. It shows something we almost never see: an unobjectified woman.

Nothing about Rey is meant to be either attractive or unattractive: she's not a sex icon and not an anti-sex-icon. She's a girl who cares about down-and-outers whether human or not, who stays faithful when others don't, and ugly-cries when her friends get hurt. The question of her sexiness isn't something I can even fathom, any more than I could answer the question of whether John McClane of Die Hard was sexy. That's not what it's about. 

It's something I wish I'd seen before the world taught me to view my body through the eyes of others. Maybe that's what makes Rey particularly special to me: she truly is what I wanted to be, back before I understood female bodies are social currency.

Now, who's ready for Episode VIII?

Word count: 967.

Friday, January 1, 2016

The Statute of Limited Survivors

I grew up never questioning the statute of limitations on rape cases. It was just a fact. I was told sometimes people falsely accused other people of sexual assault (though no one ever told me that only 5.9% of reported assaults were provably false--or that an estimated 67% of assaults go unreported, so the number of fakes by comparison is miniscule*).

The statute of limitations is supposed to rule out those fake allegations: because why would you report a crime twenty years after it happened?

Then I experienced my own assault and understood.

I don't know if there's a single other crime that leaves such shame, fear, and stigma behind. When someone gets robbed, nobody says, "You weren't protecting your house well enough," or "I'm not going to get you presents anymore." But when someone is assaulted, people instantly ask if and how it could be true. They wonder if you're partially to blame. If you're a woman, you're no longer valuable because you've lost your virginity, and if you're a man, you've lost your masculinity and any claim to be a "real" man.

No other crime makes you feel so entirely powerless, unable to keep yourself safe but also unable to say what others do with your body. You have no control over the parts of you most vulnerable. Most personal. Every bit of your agency is taken away from you.

The helplessness and de-empowerment of rape, sexual assault, and sex-trafficking are what keep survivors from speaking up. It's what allows our abusers to keep coming back and using us. It's what keeps us thinking we are worth nothing, we are broken, and giving sex is all we'll ever be good for.

In the weeks and months after an assault, most of us are trying to forget it happened. We're hoping nobody will see it on our faces.

Asking a survivor to not only remember every vivid detail day after day, but to do so in front of others who will remember and report it in the news so all your friends and family can remember and never forget--that feels impossible. Terrifying. All your power taken away all over again. You lose control over the information about you, stripped naked for the world to see.

Compound that with the fact that 80% of survivors (and 93% of child survivors) were raped by someone they know: it may not be safe to speak up, or they fear getting someone they respect in trouble. Backlash from family and friends could lose that survivor their entire support network, leaving them alone when they need people most. (If you doubt that fact, you should research how even many churches, who claim to look after the vulnerable, fall to victim-blaming whenever someone dares to rock the boat and speak up about a congregation member sexually assaulting them.)

Jill Filipovic wrote yesterday on the few reasons thrown out as to why we have a statute of limitations--and then dispelled them. (I highly recommend reading her brief article before you go do anything else.)

The fact is that trauma, stigma, and cultural disbelief are stacked up against survivors. Nobody wants to admit they're a victim.

If you overcome fear and PTSD symptoms and get yourself in a safe space after the time limit on your rape expires, you have no recourse to take. The accused can only be vilified in the court of public, which, frankly, is worse for everyone since survivors are doubted and shamed too.

Tell me again why 34 states have a statute of limitations?

Word count: 595.

* There are an estimated 2 false allegations for every 10,000 rapes.

Image: Shame by Gabriel.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

A Review of Happiness

This year didn't turn out anything like I expected it to. We moved back west, but we didn't end up where I thought we would. I had some surprising writing successes, but didn't write the novel I was planning to write.

My new city at night.
By and large, the unexpected things have been positive. I got into an exercise routine which fits my life and I'm able to maintain long-term. I got a kitty (okay, that one I expected). I found a doctor, was diagnosed with depression, and am taking medication.

Last year I posted my desires for having a healthy 2015. Not steadfast resolutions, but goals to aim for:

Living in the moment is the one goal I didn't do well on. I continue to put pressure on myself to be more, and I sunk a lot deeper into depression this year. I hit a point in August or September where every week was worse than the one before it, October worse, November worse... I found a doctor and we're seeking solutions, but some days I still feel like I've hit a new all-time low.

I had to back off of writing. That ended up being good for me. I have a new work routine starting next week that will require less of me each week, giving me time to live and do other things, hopefully enjoying the moment more.

The second goal, being authentic, was very purposeful for me: I knew I wanted to talk about my bisexuality here on the blog--coming out to the world in one big bang. It's like ripping off a bandaid, right? My authenticity has had surprising rewards, and it's also caused surprising and unsurprising hurts. But I still believe my honesty was the right thing, and I'm much happier being able to express myself without the fear of outing myself.

Most of all, authenticity deepened my relationships, and that's 100% worth it.

When it comes to loving my body, I feel like I've had a stellar year. I maintained my weight, even through the stress, depression, and days of barely getting myself to eat. I love how I look, and I'm less afraid to vocalize opposition to beauty norms. Or buzz off all my hair!

But I also got on an exercise routine that's actually working for me. Soccer, running, and biking carried me through different parts of my life, but I've had trouble keeping up in adulthood. A long walk every afternoon was good, but not enough.

I discovered that my problem was--surprise--overachieving. I want to work out every day and do all the things! But that's not realistic with a job and a life. So I work out three times a week. Important commitments used to eat into my work-out time and make me feel guilty, but devoting just three time slots is doable. Turns out the key to forming an exercise habit is to work around your life, not interrupt it all the time.

I may still need to relax with the perfectionism and excessive work ethic, but I did learn to relax with the people-pleasing. I considered that my stretch goal for 2015, but I've come a lot farther than I expected. Sometimes the desire to appease people still wells up, but I think I've become less a pleaser and more a peacekeeper, which I'm happy with.

The real reason I got better about that was coming out. Living in the south and running in so many Christian circles made it rough. People were upset and couldn't articulate why; people were concerned about how others would view them if they accepted me as a friend and human being; people shut down in conversations, afraid to talk with me about anything deeper than the weather.

I could not please all those people and be authentic about the kind of person I am. Nor could I please them without being untruthful about my views. I couldn't please them while supporting the overwhelming number of closeted Christians who came to me hurting and desperately in need of honest friendship. I had to choose between pleasing people by being deceitful, or rocking the boat.

I learned that when you don't please everyone, the world doesn't end. Pleasing people and loving them are different. My people-pleasing came from guilt, believing that everything bad was my fault, and from fear of conflict. Loving people comes from caring about them and being focused on their needs, rather than my own. It feels a lot healthier.

So I achieved my goals plus a few extra: I read the Bible over the course of the year, something I try to do every other year but which gave me special comfort this year. I also survived Christmas sans family, both sets of our parents being several thousand miles away. I thought it would be depressing and lonely, but I found I can be just as festive by myself as long as I have twinkle lights and Pandora's Christmas station. It was a good lesson in loving myself, my life, and my little family unit of two-plus-cat.

Did your year go as planned, or did the unexpected take you by storm too? Did you achieve a goal you really wanted, or did you discover new ones to shoot for? Share in the comments.

Happy holidays and blessed new year.

Word count: 912.