You Two Should Feel Very Lucky and ugly sexiness

My short story “You Two Should Feel Very Lucky” went up in Iridium Zine in April. I didn’t write a blog post for “Borrowing Ark Sutherland” earlier in the year because I already vented lots of blustery thoughts about it in the author interview for Luna Station Quarterly (which you can find here). But I also have lots of thoughts about this one.

My relationship to this story has changed somewhat between its writing and its publication. The reason for this might seem a bit tangential–I lost weight. Not a lot of weight, but enough to bring my body into legibility for a general audience. I was never heavy enough to experience the strongest cruelty of the informal social regulation that lays over all interactions between our bodies and other human beings, but I was heavy enough to feel ashamed when I ate in public. And I grew up heavy. I grew up ugly. Disheveled and often unshowered if I’m being totally honest with you. I didn’t pluck my eyebrows until I was seventeen.

The experience of living in that body and living in my current body were very different. I didn’t lose weight to love my body more–I loved my body already. I lost weight for other people. People smile at me more often. I fit into more clothes. I plan to lose enough weight that I can enjoy myself if I go to an onsen someday. Enough weight that when people’s gazes cut my way I never have to think, is it because I’m fat? And I could say, for my health and so on, but honestly, I was young enough to have no health issues related to my weight; my movement and the internal sensation of my joints and muscles don’t feel any different. In essence, all I did was purposefully normalize myself.

At that time, I had also stopped shaving my body hair. But the terror that shot through me when I went through US border security in a tank top and had to lift my arms for the indifferent young TSA agent was a dent in my confidence. I might still go back to au naturel; I liked honoring my second-wave Dykes To Watch Out For lesbian foremothers, and I spent less precious time in the shower. But at this moment I can’t handle it. It leaves you vulnerable and too seen. It stings like a nerve open to the air in a worn-down tooth.

The things that I escaped by normalizing myself are the results of a body-surveillance that I was thinking a lot about when I wrote “You Two Should Feel Very Lucky.” In the beginning, I thought of this surveillance as being about womanhood, but I no longer think that’s central to it. Certainly women are more heavily surveilled, but people will bring down the brunt of their judgement just as quickly on men with inconvenient and unattractive bodies. (Every neckbeard joke ever tossed out on Twitter by girls with perfect eyeliner still pricks at me. I’m not trying to one-up their oppression credentials or whatever, I just want to make a note.)

In fact, I think the surveillance is most centralized and intense on people of all genders with “marked” bodies, in the sense of the opposite of unmarked. Many of them are people with visible disabilities, which is not an experience I can speak to. But there is a category adjacent to that category, the “neckbeard” category, of “voluntary” ugliness, “fixable” ugliness, that betrays an unwillingness to conform to standards of public viewability and is, therefore, deeply offensive to many who believe that they have a right not to view bodies that surprise or alarm them.

So–in some ways this story used to belong to me and now it only belongs to a past me. But even though I no longer look like a person who should have written a story about being in a bad body, the experiences I had and didn’t have as a possessor of that neckbeard type of ugliness shaped me intensely. And probably it belongs to a future me as well. I’m very aware that my public legibility as a young, able-bodied, normal-weight white woman with her eyebrows plucked is fleeting and will be gone before too long. We all get old, and for all I know I’ll end up spliced in a teleporter too.

One last thing is that other than the strangenesses of living in an illegible body, when I was writing this story I was thinking about us ugly people loving each other. It astonished me when I read somebody express, on their 2009 sex-positive queer poly feminist blog (remember those?), that you didn’t have to be sexy to have good sex. Isn’t it bizarre how it had never occurred to me? That sex and love more generally wasn’t something that happened for a camera, or for an audience, or for surveillance. That you didn’t have to self-check for ugliness when you were undressing alone in your home. That you could be ugly and still find joy in your body, and appreciate the body of another ugly person.

When you kiss somebody, you don’t experience them as a visual object. You experience them through your skin. There’s no ugliness to the touch. I guess I thought that was worth writing about too.

 

 

Yes, you should do NaNoWriMo!

The most wonderful time of the year! I haven’t participated in National Novel Writing Month in many years, but November 1 always brings the flood of good tidings across Twitter that catapults me back to the nervousness and excitement of the years I did participate.

I wanted to send off a little note of encouragement to anyone who’s unsure if they’re cut out for NaNoWriMo, a little bit late to catch those of you who might be starting to waver. Don’t think I don’t remember how that first weekend feels when you fail to catch up to the word count you promised yourself. But even if you do fail, what you’ll get out of NaNoWriMo is still valuable, and it’s more valuable the more you do. Here’s why:

The point of NaNo isn’t actually to write 50,000 words. You know this. The hundreds of thousands of words I wrote over most of my years of NaNo were, I say with the greatest possible tenderness toward my preteen self, dreck. But, like all dreck, and like my current dreck, and like your dreck, they were on the page, which is numerically better than Pulitzer-worthy prose that’s not on the page because one is better than zero by an infinite margin. Your dreck is better than an unfinished David Mitchell novel. How’s that for an ego boost?

Last year, I rolled my eyes to see creators I otherwise admired poo-poo NaNoWriMo for this reason. Sniggering about how it encouraged writers, especially new writers, to write for quantity instead of quality. When you think about it, this viewpoint is really weird. I guess the idea is that nothing good could possibly come out of the absurd licentiousness of . . . sitting down to write a certain amount every day. I mean, 1667 words isn’t even that much for some people, and it’s certainly not so much that it’s obviously unachievable without sabotaging all your prose beyond salvageability–which is I assume what these folks were concerned about and why they are far superior to me and you and our pitiable ilk, etc. Quantity of writing and quality of writing aren’t skill trees you have to specialize in. You can do both, or one and then another.

Certainly, I enjoy writing much more when I’m focusing on finding new, dense, tasty ways to express ideas. But what I’ve found is that a daily word quota, any daily word quota, forces me to find that kind of beauty in areas I might not have otherwise. My quota wavers between 750 and 1500 words when I institute it (I guess I’m a bit frail of constitution for NaNo these days). And when I enforce it on myself, it makes me look at the next chunk of a story and think, “I have to write this today–so how can I enjoy writing it? What can I focus on in this scene that’s vibrant and telling and interesting and surprising, so that I don’t just keep having people look at each other meaningfully all the time?”

So you should do NaNoWriMo to finish a book, sure. But the real rewards of the month are the methods you learn to motivate yourself and write the next 1000 words rather than closing your document and going to watch Stranger Things, which, really, they absolutely sabotaged somebody’s NaNo dreams this year, didn’t they. Is there some kind of blood feud between Netflix and NaNo that we should know about?

If I could offer one tip to brand new and newly returning NaNo writers, especially those of you who aren’t sure you’re going to be able to get through the month, it’s just to reflect on your thought processes when you stretch yourself to the limits of your creative energy. Think about how you can work with your brain to get that extra 500 words. Take a mindful moment to feel what you’re feeling when you really, really want to stop writing, and learn how you can get just a little bit more worthwhile writing out of yourself every day. Keep a writing journal–where you can vent your sorrows, but also where you can consider why some scenes are harder than others, why you’re bored with some plotline, why that easy 3000 spilled out of you so cleanly.

I think that’s why you should do NaNoWriMo, even if you don’t win, and even if you write dreck. It’s always valuable to step out of your comfort zone and see what you find there.

 

What’s wrong in all my first drafts

The stuff I’m editing right now is totally inscrutable to me. Even though I wrote it. I mean, I wrote it a while ago, and it’s quite weird, and it’s on that edge where you seriously can’t tell if it’s good or bad. So I’m trying to do more reflection as I edit, hone the lens as it were, and maybe someday I’ll be able to tell if this is an interesting story or if my past self was doing serious drugs. But, you know, drugs that caused her to write a first-person voice who can’t stop going on about weird math.

As I barrel through edits, I notice that there’s some second-draft changes I’ve been making a lot across stories lately. Some of them are good? Some of them are just kind of weird?

The first thing I do–I almost always have to chop at least one entire scene. Usually it’s because it was taking too long to do something that should have been done in two lines. Then I nail those two lines onto the end of the dialogue in the previous scene or the next scene.

Usually I know what scene is getting cut before I even finish the story. But I can’t just not write that scene, because it always seems like the next logical step when I write it. I probably couldn’t even write the scene after it, the one I want to keep, if I didn’t write that middle scene. Thanks, weird middle scene, and goodbye.

The other most important structural change I always make is shoring up the ending. When I finish writing, I’m usually so relieved to be ending the damn story that I just want to be done, and the last 500 words is a vaguely related collection of deep-sounding reflections. Honestly, not sure I have managed to upgrade many of these endings from “vaguely related collection of deep-sound reflections”, but maybe they’ll get there someday. And practicing endings is one of the specific reasons I wanted to write more short stories, so in the long term, this is a positive!

There’s also prose changes I’m always making:

  • I cut the preposition half of a bunch of phrasal verbs (like cutting “up” from “looked up”.)
  • People are always looking at each other in my first drafts, so I have to get them to do other things.
  • Dialogue has gotta be more interesting in the second draft.
  • Every time I see “There was” or “It was” I’m like, could this literally be turned into one adjective in the next sentence? (“There was a red table, where Lee sat.” should be “Lee sat at the red table.” Please, past Meg.)
  • I think more about the unreeling of time in every sentence. Like, when I’m writing a first draft I just want to get an action down, so I use a lot of “Lee kissed his teeth after Alex gave him a real mean look” or whatever. But I’m trying to be more strict about communicating the actual passage of time with sentence construction? Thinking about ways to do this a lot, and reflecting on the section about time in Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, actually. Hmmm.

The booby prize: I find that I liked much longer sentences in July than I do right now. And this is almost definitely just because I’m reading The Shipping News. Here’s the start of the chapter I just read (p. 219 in my edition, which is the one with Kevin Spacey on the cover):

Quoyle jumped down the steps. He would drive. But walked first down to the dock to look at the water. The boat charged against the tire bumpers. The waves pouring onshore had a thick look to them, a kind of moody rage. Looked at his watch. If he stepped on it there was enough time for a cup of tea and a plate of toast at the Bawk’s Nest. Clean up the oil piece then down to Misky Bay to the marine archives. Check boats in the harbor. Supposed to be a schooner there from the West Coast.

Just trust me, after a couple hundred pages of this you look at the subjects of your own sentences like “What are you even doing here? I don’t need you, bud!” It’s contagious. Someday, when I’m reading another book, I’ll probably look back on these sentence subjects with fondness and miss them terribly.

 

 

 

 

 

Mesmerize, magnolia, masochism, and other anachronisms

A while back I was kindly tagged in a tumblr post where somebody was saying that they found my babbling about conlanging interesting. (Thanks, person! I’m really sorry I’m about to make an example of one of your opinions.) In that same post, on a different conversation topic, they mentioned that they found it really annoying when people in historical fantasy said “Okay” because it was anachronistic.

This is a hard pill to swallow for me, I said as I defensively covered all the times in my first draft that “Okay” appears because I didn’t think about it much and wrote the first thing that came into my head. To start off, language is not constructed such that you can easily tell what words are actually anachronistic. Some people are devoted enough to get serious about anachronism in their prose–Mary Robinette Kowal said on Writing Excuses one time back in the day that she has a database of Regency-era words and in her later drafts she coldly eliminates all anachronistic language based on earliest etymological attestations like some kind of “okay” executioner. But many people who will complain about “okay” are probably not that serious! They may well have used words such as “mesmerize,” “magnolia,” and “masochism,” which are not only first attested well after 1700, but are based on the names of specific human beings; your conworld may have foxes as we’ve all accepted that we have to take some shortcuts, but I doubt it had the author of Venus in Furs.

And more importantly to this post, Kowal is writing about English. Kowal has a specific year in which the novel takes place. I am not writing about English! I am writing about Sobonese. “Okay” is exactly as anachronistic to Sobonese as “satire”, “palm tree,” and “the.” None of these words exist in the novel! English doesn’t exist! There is no “corresponding year” to compare etymologies against to even begin to lead words to the guillotine. I guess we can try to compare technology levels, but that gets so hopelessly granular and painful so quickly. Carts never really came to West Africa, even though they had some animals that could pull carts, and the wheel, and trading empires, but there’s carts in my novel right now because otherwise everything would be too bloody inconvenient. (Upcoming: An agonized post about whether my book should have carts?) So do I cut from the fourteenth or fifteenth century?

I don’t want to take away “mesmerize,” “magnolia,” or “masochism,” or indeed “okay.” That’s my point! Words are the keys to very, very specific locks. I am willing to put a flag in the ground that says there is nothing in the English language you could write to replace, in one word, the sweet-scented, milk-petaled, silky-smooth luxury and decadence of “magnolia.” “Magnolia” is a beautiful word and you should be allowed to use it. Words are technologies; they didn’t have camera dollies in ancient Scandanavia but nobody’s suggested Vikings should be told entirely through roving storytellers in stripey pants.

I mean, the actual reason is that for some people “okay” just ruins the atmosphere, and I take atmosphere very seriously; if you can pick every word, you may as well pick words that motion at things you want the viewer to look at. Which is why even though there’s no Polynesia to bring yams from, Akoro (the West African – inspired plane in Geometry of Ashes) has yams. I could make up a convegetable for them to have instead, but that throws away the valuable sentence real estate that could have pointed to West Africa to point instead to I’m really into ecology and have made up a whole vegetable ecosystem. That could also be cool, but it’s not this book. I think this is worth thinking about, because you get to pick whether you value what each “okay” is doing more than its alternative; whether you need to unlock okay and all right just won’t do. Because the meaning of “okay” is all bundled up with every social distinction ever layered on top of “okay.” It’s young and casual and carefree. There’s certainly people in your conworld who, if they were raised in Ontario, would say “okay” rather than “all right.” So why should they say “all right”, since they aren’t saying anything in English in the first place and you only have so much page space to make people understand who they are?

And in general I feel like there are books that you might want to allow to overbalance toward easiness and sacrifice atmosphere. I’ve thought I’d do this with a book about a hunter-gatherer society because people are so reluctant to think, what if I lived in a family band and travelled across a desert my whole life? My hunter-gatherers would shamelessly say “cool” and “okay”. Because you say “cool” and “okay” and we need a little extra wedge to get open a shell we aren’t familiar with and squeeze inside.

And, anyways, that’s like the fifth metaphor I’ve mixed in this post, so my credibility on prose writing is, I recognize, not excellent.

 

 

 

How to finish the first half of your book (if you are also me.)

Go to your local university library and take out some books. Read the books. Write down what you find in the books. Keep a bibliography. Put it in your journal. Re-read your research.

Buy a stack of post-its. When you hear a good word or your research gives you a good but brief phrase, write it on a post-it and stick it on your wall.

Here is some found poetry based on my post-it wall:

balafone
mucilage
umbrella, or shade
libate, verb
meeting, noun
carved box; delegation
clay; python
centres where griots are trained
museums of the historical word
in general, shade

Listen to “Eleggua” as sung by Ibeyi about 700,000 times. Or, like, something that relates to your book I guess. But since you’re also me, just listen to Eleggua again.

When you find yourself mindlessly scrolling Tumblr, don’t castigate yourself; but do ask, Do I actually want to be scrolling Tumblr right now or do I want to be doing something else?

Keep a writing journal. Most of the time you will write in it, “This is trash.” That’s fine. This is my writing journal word cloud at 100k:

wordcloud

Thanks, Wordclouds.com. Prescriptivists can pry “like” from my cold dead girly millennial fingers.

Start writing a silly second book about pretty boys kissing.

Don’t go back and fix that thing you need to change. Just keep writing. Make a comment in your document to remind yourself it has to change; also make comments to write down future plot points before you forget and the fruits of your Wikipedia harvest in important research areas such as sheep-harvesting vocabulary and traditional Nigerian bridge architecture. Re-read your comments.

Accept that your book is not doing what you want it to. When you figure out what it wants you to do, decide you’ll do that in the second draft.

 

Two-tined forks

At my university there’s a little gallery of materials that our art history professors have used to teach. Among the displays of potsherds and fabrics there’s also a couple of sets of cutlery.

twotinedforks
Count ’em. (This particular fork is 18th c. Scottish.)

(I feel bad skimming over the fabrics–they’re astonishing ikat blankets from fieldwork in Borneo. Weaving is called the “women’s warpath” in the area the cloths are from and cloth and wood are contrasted as feminine and masculine materials. Women dye the threads before they’re woven, thread by thread, and we’re talking cloths that would cover your wall. Then they can be used for lots of sacred purposes, including, lest one think that “warpath” is a cutesy euphemism, cradling the decapitated heads of enemies brought back by male warriors.)

But this is about cutlery. When I write, “Baron von Past picked up a fork,” I would assume that fork looks much like a fork I have in my house, except maybe it’s rougher and made out of wood. My mental image is actually one of those soft-tined, cutesy camping forks like maybe you could see laid beside a quinoa bowl in a lifestyle magazine. It definitely has three tines.

Nope. And why should it? Why shouldn’t it have four tines? Just because all my forks have three tines means nothing. Where did we even get that extra tine?

This seems like a big problem for writing historical fantasy. And especially writing historical fantasy for an era that’s never been in your cultural orbit, since odds get better and better that your assumptions are wrong the farther you stray from England circa 1800. I’m sure historians have written extensively about this but I’m no historian; I’ll hope to read some words from them later and respond to my own post with takeaways from the papers I review. But in the meantime, this comes up often enough to make a poor amateur stress about describing anything. For instance, I learned that hand fans are one of the objects associated with the òrìṣà Ọ̀ṣun (a spirit/goddess/entity/facet of the universe), and thoughtlessly started to doodle a paper folding fan. Nope!

dp287237
From the collection of the Met museum.

“Why is it metal?” I thought. Then, “….Why not?

I’m focusing a lot on objects because it’s so easy to contrast the assumption with the reality, but of course, the knottiest examples of this problem concern much more intangible things.When I write about Baron von Past’s marriage, I’ll probably be sharp enough to catch that “bride is dressed in white dress” is an assumption imposed by my understanding of marriage and have them exchange bracelets or something instead of rings. But this isn’t enough. The fantasy marriages I would write in this framework are just reskins of modern Western marriage. I may still carry a lot of assumptions about Western marriage into Baron von Past’s attitudes toward his marriage and his wife; about his wife’s attitudes toward him and their marriage; about what is acceptable within their marriage to their community and what isn’t; what they’ll do together, what they’ll do apart. When I started writing about marriage in Geometry of Ashes, I really didn’t recognize the extent to which marriage means something different in different cultures. And because nobody ever creates semantic networks of what they mean by “marriage” in books where they briefly discuss marriage, I’m still only scratching the surface and it’s difficult to articulate. Here’s two anecdotes from Igbo books I found very striking:

In Things Fall Apart, of course, Ekwefi remembers running away from her first husband to join Okonkwo. I’ll just repeat the passage; it’s on page 99.

She had married Anene because Okonkwo was too poor then to marry. Two years after her marriage to Anene she could bear it no longer and she ran away to Okonkwo. It had been early in the morning. The moon was shining. She was going to the stream to fetch water. Okonkwo’s house was on the way to the stream. She went in and knocked at his door and he came out. Even in those days he was not a man of many words. He just carried her into his bed and in the darkness began to feel around her waist for the loose end of her cloth.

I still haven’t close-read Things Fall Apart, so if there’s something I’m about to say that contradicts the wealth of scholarship, let me know. But here’s some assumptions I had made about marriage that this passage shows us are not true for Ekwefi:

  • Marriage is either forever or it takes a lot of work to break. I presume that Ekwefi went through some kind of divorce proceedings after this but apparently they weren’t arduous enough to make it into the text. (Imagine me writing the word “presume”, then looking back over my writing, sighing and putting my face in my hands.)
  • You wouldn’t marry somebody just to be married. Clearly there’s economic incentive for Ekwefi to marry Anene, but I think our Western assumption is that you would marry a rich man for his riches, not because you have to be married and he’s the best option. Marriage is something you opt into–even though implicit cultural pressure might suggest otherwise–not something you must have, like a job.
  • Taking a lover outside marriage demands secrecy. It’s not like women elsewhere in the book aren’t judged for supposedly having lovers outside their marriage, but at the same time, it doesn’t seem like Ekwefi is planning to have Okonkwo be her side guy. The pattern of extramarital sexual relations we’re used to in the West is of, like, an executive who’s banging his secretary and stringing his wife along. Rather than keeping a lover in secret, she just leaves her husband.

Here’s a second one: I don’t currently have a copy of Male Daughters, Female Husbands on me, but in it, Imi Amadiume explains that in the language under discussion (Nnobi Igbo dialect), the female slaves of a woman are called her “wives.” She clarifies that this relationship is probably not sexual. This is an interesting one because I actually suspect this ends up at pure synonymy, so I don’t want to draw strong conclusions from it. (Imagine if an Igbo blogger studying English-speaking cultures declared that because English men call their penises “cocks” they must have subliminal connections between penises and roosters that suggest they think their penis wakes people up at the break of day.) But, this case isn’t so absurd as that, and “wife” and “female slave” are at least the same category of thing (human women). So, similarly, although I assumed the following things, we can maybe think that for Nnobi Igbo speakers they are not necessarily intrinsic to marriage or at least for “wifehood”:

  • Marriage is an equal economic exchange between two families or an equal emotional exchange between two people. Elephant in the room: we can construe this synonymy as suggesting that wives are in a position of servitude to their husbands. This is anathema to any Westerner, but I keep coming back to thinking of marriage as labour. Maybe you have a boss who expects certain things from you, but in return, you expect certain things from him. You can be friendly with your boss, but he’s still your boss. You might think your boss is the best boss on earth, and sing his praises to all your friends, but he’s still your boss. In this case, your boss doesn’t pay you, but has responsibility to care for your well-being. And (coincidentally or not?) this is also the arrangement as far as I can tell in most West African traditional slavery. This isn’t to say any of that isn’t unjust, but boss-employee relations are still accepted by the majority of Westerners and really how just can we judge the average boss-employee relationship to be?
  • Marriage is a specific relationship, not a type of relationship. It doesn’t mean “a love relationship to another person.” It means this specific love relationship to another person. You wouldn’t say “I married my dog” even though you have a love relationship with your dog, live with your dog, and sleep in the same bed with your dog. But if we believe that the word for “female slave of a woman” and “wife” have a meaningful semantic relationship, which remember we aren’t convinced of, that means that “being a wife” is a category of relationships in this translation; “wife” is a category of people at one end of a power relationship.

Now imagine going through this process for every word and concept in your book and you start to understand why people might slap a new skin on Western marriage and call it a day. But maybe, like me, you’re insufferably pedantic, I said as I realized Ekwefi also calls a pre-dawn time morning, dragged my nails down my face, and highlighted each instance of “morning” over the last 200 pages of novel.