No One As Witness

Photo by rachjose, Source: morgueFile

Photo by rachjose, Source: morgueFile

I slogged my way through all five volumes of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, because he managed to invoke my deep commitment to his characters. I cared about the Stark children and their doomed parents, Tyrion, the transformed Jaime…I cared even about his most despicable characters, reading on in the hopes of seeing them eventually crushed by the same indiscriminate heel of Fate that beheaded Ned Stark and orphaned Arya. The HBO series capitalizes on that keen and deep portrayal of character in its frequent use of tightly-written, superbly-acted, richly-costumed and beautifully-lit scenes of intimate conversation and revelation between two actors.

But I don’t think I can keep going anymore. I only got through the novels by simultaneously ignoring and loudly reviling the despicable and unrepentant treatment of women throughout. My husband nobly bore the brunt of this disgust every night, as I verbally abused the author for his misogyny and lack of accuracy. Yes, you heard me. I am accusing Martin himself (not his characters) of misogyny, and I am calling him out for his incomplete and inaccurate portrayal of women and gender relations in ANY moment in history, imagined or otherwise.

In a recent New York Times article (“For ‘Game of Thrones,’ Rising Unease Over Rape’s Recurring Role,” May 2, 2014), Martin is cited as claiming that “he had an obligation to tell the truth about history and about human nature.” Except that he doesn’t tell the truth. Yes, one thing he says is true: “rape and sexual violence have been a part of every war ever fought, from the ancient Sumerians to our present day.” But Martin’s depiction of sexual brutality is consistently limited, inaccurate and deeply-biased — making it his truth, perhaps, but nothing near the truth.

In his fiction, and now in the series, no one stands as witness to this horrific treatment of women, and that is where Martin’s vision and accuracy fail. Martin claims that “certain scenes are meant to be uncomfortable, disturbing, hard to read.” But that is not in fact what he either attempts or accomplishes as an artist. At most, his depiction of the rape, subjugation and abuse of women achieves a sort of background eroticism in his work, because it is perpetually mired in the perspective of the rapists and the bystanders. The experience and voices of the victims, the naysayers, the comforters, the survivors, the brothers and the sisters, the change-makers — these are almost entirely absent (with the occasional exception of Arya Stark, Jon Snow and Samwell Tarly).

Photo by hotblack, Source: morgueFile

Photo by hotblack, Source: morgueFile

Over the course of actual human history, people have borne witness to rape and brutality – -cradling their mothers’ torn bodies, comforting a brutalized boy, marching through college campuses with lit candles to Take Back the Night, standing over their children and saying: “NO! I will NOT let you hurt them.” How do I know this is true, even in those feudal times Martin claims to depict so accurately? If it were not, we would still be living in those times today. The world that Game of Thrones represents holds no possibility of transformation, no one as witness to the things that must change — because they are too cruel, brutal and inhuman to survive against the collective will of humanity.

Will I boycott the show? Decline to buy the next book in the series? I don’t know. I am drawn to these characters and their destinies. There is no doubt that Martin has me hooked. In spite of my instincts, I have continued to read and to watch so far. To find out what happens next, to remain connected to these characters about whom I have come to care, I will probably squelch that inner recoil, swallow the bile, and keep going back for more. And in this way Martin with his art has replicated exactly the experience of rape itself: the confusion, the mixed allegiance, the blurring of self-protective boundaries and yes, the arousal, that occur when someone — usually someone we know and love — abuses us. The HBO writers and directors perpetuating this rape may read this blog and others, and perhaps tone it down a bit, just enough to keep us coming back for more — precisely as child molesters groom their victims, creeping past boundaries only to destroy them from the inside out.

When we consider rape as a society, every rapist — actual or imagined — is our father and our brother and our self, and every victim is our mother and our sister…ourself. Martin and his artistic partners at HBO are raping all of us, and we are allowing it. It won’t stop until we say no, walk away, and hold them — and ourselves — accountable.

Photo by plexium-nerd, Source: morgueFile

Photo by plexium-nerd, Source: morgueFile

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When Rejection is a Good Thing

English: Rejection

English: Rejection (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s been two years since I looked up from nursing my youngest, and realized that soon it would be time to figure out what I was going to do next. On the best of days, I can do about 80% of the stay-at-home parent thing—for the other 20%, everybody had better clear out of my way. We’ve managed fine by finessing our weekly schedule; I get just enough time away to maintain my sanity in this rewarding and challenging role of “mom.” But in four years, both my kids would be in elementary school. The time for me to find something else to do with myself was imminent. Dedicating my education and intelligence to ever more perfect stacks of laundry could not be my destiny.

So two years ago I made a decision. Instead of:

  1. figuring out what I wanted to do next,
  2. updating my training,
  3. getting a job, and
  4. learning to do a new job,

I would instead put all that time and energy into learning how to make money doing what I really love—writing.

There, I’ve said it. My naked ambition is on the table. Don’t worry, I’m not about to start asking you for money (although I don’t promise that I never will). I want to learn how to take the writing I do from the pages of my notebook to the pages in readers’ hands.

So there it is. After a lifetime of writing, I’ve finally owned up to what I am and what I want to be: a writer. A paid writer. The “paid” part is important. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve no interest in the money apart from this: if my writing brings in an income—any income—it justifies my time away from making school lunches and monitoring the bandaid supply.

Decision made, done deal, right? You know the answer to that. But I will say this, the last two years I’ve spent dedicated to this new future I’ve chosen are starting to pay off. I haven’t signed with my dream agent, no book deals, nothing like that. But the firsts are starting to pile up, and that feels good:

  1. First conversation (followed by many more since) in which I feel like my Fictional Husband (FH) understands that I really am a writer, and what that means for us.
  2. First time attending the Book Passage Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Conference (2012), now an annual event in my writing life.
  3. First time joining a writing group of strangers (Temescal Writers, my inspiration and my home).
  4. First solo writing retreat (look for a separate post, coming soon).
  5. First manuscript complete (closely followed by several more).
  6. First time submitting a manuscript to an agent.
  7. First time attending my regional meeting of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), and best of all
  8. MY FIRST REJECTION!

My response to this first rejection—a form email from an agency that I greatly admire and was certainly a long shot—might surprise you. Rather than feeling deflated or discouraged, what I felt was…initiated. I am now doing what I want to be doing: writing and working toward publication, with more or less success, depending on my expectations and time frame. I felt liberated. They don’t want it? I am free to find the person who does. I felt excited. Who will get the next shot at collaborating with me on the making of this book?

Being rejected means that I was considered. And that’s a huge accomplishment in my writing life to date. I can live with that, for now.

This article is part of the Writer’s Passage series, chronicling the journey of one writer into the rabbit hole of children’s book publishing.

 

Related Articles:

Facing the Inevitable Rejection Letter

Fallow

Fallow Field

So it turns out that I don’t write much in the summer. You’ve noticed.

Our family is now fully steeped in its current incarnation: Agent 006 in elementary school, about to start second grade next week, and the Birthday Girl (still three in spite of intervening birthdays which refused to have anything to do with her) in preschool twice a week. With the help of our marvelous babysitter, I manage to extend those few childless hours into a ten-hour-a-week writing practice (not including late nights and “I just have to go to the bathroom” quick ducks into the writing studio for stolen moments with the page).

But somehow children and travel have completely absorbed my time and attention this season, rolled up my writing practice like an old wool rug nobody needs when it’s hot out and the lawn sprinklers call us to summer’s baptism of heat. And it’s impossible for me to feel guilty about it. I know what’s really happening.

Summer is my growing season, but story doesn’t grow on the same schedule as the vegetal world. Travel, my children’s inches and appetites, long, sweet hours at the pool and beach–I can feel myself soaking it all in like the browning of my skin. The fields of my story lie fallow in the summer; the children and I play together in the rich dirt. My fields may look as empty as the pages of my journal or as inert as my blog statistics, but I feel small creatures stirring underground. I feel the bursting of seeds, straining toward the light of back-to-school fall routines. Soon, I will be able to water these fields once more with scattered showers of solitude. With just those scraps of nourishment, and the discipline of the hoe, the stories will grow forth again.

Please stay tuned for these new series of articles, and more, coming this fall:

Little Travelers: Tips for parents and kids on traveling to destinations near and far, exotic and quotidian.

A Writer’s Passage: Wisdom shared from the June 2013 Book Passage Conference for Children’s Book Authors and Illustrators, as it intersects with my life as a writer and mother of two.

The Beleaguered Kitchen: Ideas for creating nutritional family meals under duress

Bites from the Magic Apple: Strokes of parenting genius shared

See you soon!

Photo credit: Thanks to Paul Schultz for adding “Fallow Field” to the Creative Commons.

Imaginary Conversations With My Fictional Husband

A room of my very own, in the beginning     © amomnextdoor

A room of my very own, in the beginning © amomnextdoor

I think he said to me once, As long as you can cover the cost of childcare.

Another time he referred to my writing as a “hobby,” but a severe weather system moved in after that, and the thunderstorm that followed obliterated the word entirely from his vocabulary, if not his thoughts. I am the stay-at-home mom of two children under seven—I HAVE no hobbies. If I am writing, it is a necessary act. But how to get him to understand that—this man who reads neither packages nor instructions nor street signs? A steady diet of work emails, the New York Times and the occasional Lee Child bestseller does not exactly constitute a rich and vibrant literary life, from which to judge my scribblings.

But why have they come up for judgment at all? Another time, when a last minute business trip meant I wouldn’t be able to attend my writing group, I told him that I didn’t want my career to always come second to his when making decisions about our time and priorities, just because I earn less money than he does (in fact, at this point in my writing career, no money at all). He conceded the point, but objected to my use of the word “career.” A career denotes a salary, set responsibilities, a defined position in some organization. What you have, he said, is a business. Much as I hate the term, I conceded his point.

So now I am working on a business plan. And the first question that rises in me, like hot magma or the fury of Yansá, is this: why is it my job to cover the cost of childcare? When we married, I was working full time; my husband was jobless and getting his MBA. We paid for his education. Our child was born. I gave up my teaching career and salary, and instead worked full time from home taking care of our child, our house, and him, while he started two businesses. I was not compensated financially for this work. He did not claim the cost of childcare as a business expense.

(A mild digression, since I fear you may be asking, Who is this guy, anyway? I actually have some trouble naming this character–my husband–so central to my life. Many mommy blogs refer to a “DH”, or Dear Husband, but I am put off by the subtle implication of sarcasm in the word “Dear.” Especially since the term most often comes into play when referencing said character’s propensity to throw his dirty socks into the laundry hamper inside out, or put the can opener away in the wrong place. My personal nickname for my husband is the Big Man, because he measures in at a broad-shouldered 6’3”, can carry anything, takes good care of me, and scares the cat. But “The Big Man” has Orwellian overtones and an unfortunate acronym. I could call him more affectionately my BM, and that would be appropriate in so many ways, perfectly capturing the occasional constipation and effort of marriage, but new readers of my blog would definitely get the wrong idea.

I’d settle for Fictional Husband, FH for short, but that might lead some people to question whether this man—who dedicates his life to building wealth for his family, loving his children, and pleasing his wife—actually exists. I really do have a husband, it’s not just a blogosphere fantasy, but I guess it turns out that I’m also a bit of a bigamist. I’ve taken a second husband here in these pages and posts, an absolutely essential member of our family. My Fictional Husband, who does not, actually, exist or say and do all the things I report here, takes the rap for the man I love and married first. My FH is a necessary construct, because this society that underpays its women, undervalues its children, fails to protect and nourish its most disadvantaged members, has banned Art from its soul to worship Money instead—this society comes down pretty hard on both of us sometimes, and I won’t let that confine me, hurt him, or come between me and the man I love. So my Fictional Husband steps forward here in these posts to take up that burden for both of us.)

But back to money. Because that’s what all this really comes down to: time is money, my time in particular, more valuable than ANY segment of our society ever lets on. How do I carve out and protect time for my writing life, if I am not making money from my writing? How can I legitimately claim this as a valuable use of my time, when there are dishes to be done, bandaids to administer, stressed-out husbands to soothe?

Pat Schneider, founder of the Amherst Writers and Artists movement, gave a talk recently at the Pacific School of Religion about her life’s work and most recent book, How the Light Gets In. She spoke passionately about our culture’s tendency to define as writers only those who have had access to education (and money)—writers with MFA degrees, writers on this list or that list, writers with prizes and incomes and bestsellers. In her book Writing Alone and With Others, she suggests that “Art is the creative expression of the human spirit, and it cannot–it must not, for the sake of the human community–be limited to those few who achieve critical acclaim or financial reward.” (Oxford University Press, 2003).

So many voices are silenced when we believe that to be a writer we must sell our work. There is value in a drawerful of scrawled poems, in a stack of brown journals with black cloth binding, in the lists layered on a kitchen door, in the bits and pieces of blogs. And as women who write, we MUST believe that this activity–this art–is worth our time. We must tell that story–we must sell that story–to the men we marry, the men on the committee for the National Endowment for the Arts, the men in the legislature who decide how much money to spend on supporting the arts in our society, and to the children who want their diaper changed, or help with their homework, or another glass of water.

Ursula Le Guin writes in her essay “The Fisherwoman’s Daughter,” (Dancing at the Edge of the World, Grove Press, 1989) that “the artist with the least access to social or aesthetic solidarity or approbation has been the artist-housewife. A person who undertakes responsibility both to her art and to her dependent children…has undertaken a full-time double job that can be simply, practically, destroyingly impossible….the difficulty of trying to be responsible, hour after hour day after day for maybe twenty years, for the well-being of children and the excellence of books, is immense: it involves an endless expense of energy and an impossible weighing of competing priorities.”

I am lucky in my husbands, Fictional and real. They have worked hard to overcome the training they’ve received at the hands of our society, “the spite that so often a man is allowed to hold, trained to hold, against anything a woman does that’s not done in his service, for him, to feed his body, his comfort, his kids.” (Le Guin, 1989) Like many artists, I expect “to work against the total, rational indifference of everybody else” in the world, but at least I do not have to work against a “daily, personal, vengeful resistance.” (Le Guin, 1989) I have a husband who recognizes that I am a writer, and that writers must write. He has built for me a room of my own. There may be days when he wonders what I have done with my time, why the rice is burnt and the laundry festering in baskets. But like Le Guin’s husband, he brings to our marriage “an assumption of mutual aid,” (Le Guin, 1989) which daily brings to life the epigraph we chose for our wedding invitations:

“And feel a spirit kindred to my own;
So that henceforth I worked no more alone”

Robert Frost, “The Tuft of Flowers

To my Fictional Husband, and the real man who stands behind him, to all you stay-at-home moms and dads who managed to post to your blog today, to the art that feeds us and sustains us, that challenges and defines us, I dedicate this moment of my time.

Thank you for reading, for this moment of your time.

For Each Story, Somewhere A Reader

Photo credit: T. Voekler

Newspaper Reader; Photo credit: T. Voekler

I am not biting my fingernails. It’s such a little thing, this book of mine, meant for toddlers to chew on. But a select panel of readers are digging Draft 9 out of their mailboxes right now. I feel the tug of all two hundred ninety-seven words, all my hopes and meager skill tied like kite strings to my wrist. I wonder what it is I have managed to write, after all, and I wonder about the people reading it.

Whom can writers trust to give feedback on their work-in-progress? Continue reading

Scenes From Singapore

Singapore Parliament House @ the Heart of the City

Singapore Parliament House @ the Heart of the City (Photo credit: williamcho)

Singapore was a very difficult place for me to be. No doubt a huge part of that was being so far from my family. I loved the people I met and worked with, saw and tasted many beautiful and interesting things, but after about eight days away from my children, my body started to fall apart.

Last year it was my children’s bodies that deteriorated. I came home from ten days in Singapore to a daughter with a staph infection on  top of hand, foot & mouth disease, and a son with a burst eardrum. This year a bug bite attempted to attack my entire leg before the excellent medical care in Singapore intervened with a timely shot in the butt.

It was an incredible privilege to be invited across the world to teach a writing camp to young Singaporean writers. The kids were eager, adventurous and welcoming. My colleagues were industrious and intrepid about trying completely new ways of thinking about teaching kids to write.

These consummate hosts went to great pains to introduce me to the incredible sights and especially the exquisite cuisine of Singapore.  Although the relentless urbanity, devoted consumerism and polished presentation of this particular city were not to my taste overall, I did find a great many experiences to treasure during my two visits there. Continue reading

Together and Apart

Photo by U. S. Fish & Wildlife Services Headquarters

Photo by U. S. Fish & Wildlife Services Headquarters

New Readers: At the beginning of 2012, the author made a personal commitment to her health, her writing and her sanity: to walk first thing every morning, every day for the rest of her life. Sometimes it’s hard to wake up early enough.

I remember the feeling of being completely together with my children. Elbows sharp yet unknown inside of me, revealed when I finally held her on the outside of my belly, and recognized their shape with the intimacy of those last four crowded months. The feeling of a child hiccupping underneath my pubic bone, a steady, happy and reassuring tic. Hands fluttering, fluttering below my belly button, again so familiar to me after birth, in the way she held her hands curled up under her chin to sleep for the first three months of her life. His kicking and flailing familiar to me too, the way he can’t quite get enough space even now, wanting to be right next to me with his spiky knees and clawing hands.

Continue reading

Me! Two!

I cannot see your face in the mirror.

Standing behind you at the porcelain sink,

I lean forward so my arms circle you.

Your hair tickles my collarbone.

The green stool is pushed too far under the basin’s edge—

your feet balance precariously on its very back, heels in the air.

But you pushed that stool into place yourself, so I say nothing.

I carefully watch the edges of your scrunched up sleeves as you stretch for the faucet’s stream of water to make sure the water doesn’t creep up your arms,

soak your cuffs. You probably wouldn’t care,

but I learned handwashing from your brother, who always did.

If I put my hands below yours under the water you don’t mind.

Otherwise you say “Me!” and push back against me with your shoulders.

I turn off the tap, give you your soap first.

Lavender fills the small room.

Dissatisfied with your lather

you present your hands to me, thrusting them forward into mine.

I hold your right hand in my right,

your left in my left.

Neither of us speaks.

No sound but the soap as it slips and pops and slows the circles of my thumbs—

mesmerizing circles.

I don’t think about teaching you the right way to wash your hands:

the number of seconds, the length of the ABC song,

sequence of fingernails and wrists.

I feel your small hands submitted to mine like an offering—

slices of mango laid reverently on an altar,

a candle lit beneath a photograph.

These small hands that came into the world curled up under your chin,

remained that way for months

before you reached out to the world,

before you learned to push a flat palm out to say Back!

Stop! Or with a slight flick,

aWay!

Slow bubbles over your upturned palms

One fingernail cut crooked to leave a tiny triangle on one side

scratching at my skin as I massage the tips of your fingers the way I would knead your father’s scalp or rub my  mother’s feet

Thread my fingers gently between yours, softly separating them, not too far apart

Your head turns back and forth to watch my fingertips intently

palpate one hand, then the other.

Soap casts its spell over us both,

and for as long as you are willing

has the power to stop time,

here at two.