Writing from Empathy

A friend (hi, Robin!) asked my opinion on a keynote speech delivered at the Brisbane Writers Festival. Lionel Shriver spent her podium time excoriating identity politics and the chilling effect she perceives as its aim and effect for writers of fiction.

In an exercise that would surely encourage her to pull out her hair, I’ll start by saying that the very term “identity politics” is being critically examined by those of us who love words and attempts to shape understanding by using the very best ones. Does the term put the onus on the marginalized to police the borders of their various marginalized identities? Does “empathy politics” move the responsibility to those of us who exhibit failures of empathy in our experiences with and/or portrayals of marginalized people? Or does the shift of focus just move attention back to the white cookie monster and away from those who could use a hand getting up to the podium Shriver used so comfortably?

This divagation isn’t merely splitting hairs or trying to create trouble for folks without the time or inclination to stay current on the most trendy (subtext: change is bad and why learn a new way if it will change again later?) language.

Shriver’s main complaint seems to be that she feels disallowed from writing freely anything that comes to mind. She defends this position with examples of people reacting badly to things she’s written and things other people have written. She uses these examples to build a mountain of reasons folks should let fiction writers roam free and then she plants a flag at the top of that mountain.

The flag says: It’s okay to write badly.

I know that most writing is not very good. Many, many of the books that are published are good in some particular way and bad in most others. They satisfy readers who read for that thing they’re good at. Some books have so many strengths that they’re lauded as Great Books, but even those will have weaknesses.

To take down the flag, I say this. If you write badly, expect to be criticized.

To tear down the mountain, I’ll need to say more. There’s a whole line of argument that I’m going to leave alone, which tackles the question of how, when, and why a person shouldn’t write a marginalized character whose life is outside the writer’s experience. I’m going to stick with the question of critique.

Shriver makes an argument that classics of literature were written outside the writers’ experiences. I haven’t read all the books she cites, but the ones I know worked hard–very, very hard–to understand the heart and soul of someone different from them. They saw horror and injustice and wrote from a position of empathy. They got things wrong (witness the changing understanding of what exactly John Howard Griffin achieved in Black Like Me) and they got things right. They wrote and they were criticized. And they lived.

A Russian author was recently killed for writing against Putin and the murderers claim they did it on orders. An Austrian Jew was killed in the 1920s for writing that expelling the Jews would mean the downfall of Austria. Stalin created a style and killed writers who didn’t adhere to it.

The folks Shriver holds up didn’t just live. Their books went on to become classics, at least in enough eyes to make it into her speech. The horrible chilling effect that is her whole premise didn’t keep the other writers she discusses from writing their works, though they were criticized in reviews. I myself once got a glowing review that bumped me down a star because my book was about Native Hawaiians and I am not Hawaiian.

Guess what. That’s cool with me. If the star system gets anyone anything, it tells purchasers what to pay attention to. This reviewer thought my work was great but that a Native Hawaiian who wrote a great book about their own culture should get more attention. I agree completely.

Even in what should be fun, silly Hollywood, guess who’s getting doxxed and hounded? Leslie Jones, not Kristin Wiig.

Danger meets trans folk who try to speak up or Black Lives Matter activists or any other person who tried to put the brakes on whole hog cultural appropriation and stereotype driven depictions. Danger that Shriver doesn’t seem to acknowledge in her self-righteous desire to protect the people she considers more important, more worthy of protection. Shriver treats the feelings and sales figures of white writers as though they should be untouchable.

Her mountain is built on stories of published books being criticized in the media. That mountain dissolves when you look at the base of it, where an entire industry assists mainstream voices who tell stories from points of view we find comfortable because we’re trained from early childhood to understand them. That industry has responded to a growing desire for other stories by asking the same old voices to make them palatable to the known consumer. It’s a sad fact that writing about a Nigerian woman is more likely to be praised and published if the writer is otherwise in the usual vein, e.g. US born and raised (UK, Canada, and Australia sometimes accepted), white, conventionally educated, and able to speak to others who fit the exact same description. It’s white people talking to white people about Nigerian women and claiming to use a Nigerian voice.

Shriver tries to come off like a “pure” writer. We’re here to take the flights of fancy, etc, etc. And she’s not wrong about the spirit in which most excellent writing is done. She is wrong about where that writing should take the writer, because she seems to think it should take them to publishers who open their arms in welcome, and to bookstores constantly refilling the shelves as their books sell, and to reviewers who use the same lack of reflection she wants from writers. Instead, that writing should take the writer to further, better researched and thoroughly fleshed out drafts that eventually become a book…if the writer has done a good enough job.

Writing from imagination only takes you so far. She talks about writing a high school killing spree involving arrows, and I bet you money she researched archery, fatal shots and wounding shots, and school security systems. When people try to disclaim responsibility for putting equal research into their characters’ cultures, probable formative life experiences, and day to day treatment in society, I hear them saying that those other cultures are not valuable and important enough to get right.

That’s simply wrong.

To build a new mountain, I say this. Writing with respect means being cognizant of what you’re keeping in and what you’re leaving out. The hardest job of the fiction writer is taming wild imaginings into something that works in a fundamentally linear fashion while hoping to spark something decidedly creative and perhaps even non-linear in a reader. The easiest things to leave out are those that you don’t care about.

The things left out can be a road map to what an author does and does not care about. A body of literature can be a road map to what a culture does and does not care about. The history of literature is the very picture of what humanity…literate, with leisure time and money for books or the ability to get to libraries…hmm. Did I derail that argument?

No. Fiction will always leave something out. It will always speak to some people and not others. What’s happening right now is that the people who are being ignored by literature are getting tired of being left out.

We are trained from infancy to understand, be comfortable in, and expect the conventions of white male centered fiction. As a sci-fi reader from way back, I vividly remember the moment when it occurred to me to question the absence of women in my favorite books. Next was to question those women who were present. Women who posed on pedestals, women who papered the walls. The glorified horse, the creator of motivation for the real, fully fledged characters. Women without any self-image at all, let alone one that includes suffering, balancing, or backlash in their body images, just to pick one aspect of being a woman in this culture.

I was not satisfied with how women were portrayed in science fiction. I started reading romance books in part to get some sense of who women were in their interior lives, to get to know women in the way I’d been trained to know men.

It hadn’t even occurred to me to wonder where the people of color were, let alone queer and trans folks, disabled and neurodivergent folks.

This leaving-out is the place where imposter syndrome is born. We’re all faking it, pushing our way into other people’s stories because the other option is to let go of our dreams and become wooden horses for others to ride.

Let’s build our own, real lives with anti-racism, anti-segregation, and anti-discrimination so deeply embedded that…wow!…we can’t write any honest portrayal of the world around us without including people different from us. And let’s do a good job of it, because guess what happens when we don’t. We hear about it, yes, but more importantly, we add to the skewing of self so many oppressed and left-out readers experience.

What I hear when I read Shriver’s words is this: the smallness of my life makes sense and reflects my values. I hear: I don’t want to work that hard on understanding my characters. I hear: I’ve been protected all my life from the pain of oppression and I don’t want to have to think about it in other people’s lived experiences.

I say: do better.

Heart of the Lilikoʻi’s Cover

When I thought of an image to represent Heart of the Lilikoʻi, I imagined the west side of the Island of Hawaiʻi. Unlike the lush jungle of the Hilo side, the Kona side is dry down by the water. It’s a black rubble desert, except for the small plants, so green it hurts the eye, that begin the process of turning lava rock into soil.

I imagined the black rock and a lilikoʻi flower, a dirty work boot crushing the flower.

I imagined black rock in a cutaway view that showed a human heart (anatomical, not romantic) with lilikoʻi rootlets growing into and through it.

I imagined black rock and the koa tree, a broken open, slightly rotten passion fruit at the base.

But I left Hawaiʻi for the last time in 2007. I wouldn’t be able to set up a photo shoot to get exactly the look I wanted. I’d be working with clip art and photo licensing website images.

Searching on Hawaiʻi got me a lot of exactly what I didn’t want, tourism-oriented images of grass skirts and surfboards. Stereotyping is hard to get away from.

Finally, I found a few images I liked. I pulled the links together and all my requests, my hopes, and my concise list of what I didn’t want to see in the cover, and sent it to my publisher.

Several possible versions came back, and oh, was I happy to see this.

The cover for Heart of the Lilikoʻi.

Heart of the Lilikoi 72 DPI

Lysistrata Cove: First Draft Finished

I just finished a first draft in 11 days.

And I’m not even exhausted!

The complete first draft of Lysistrata Cove represents a change in my understanding of novel-writing. After two books that took me years to write and edit, I know now that I’m, first and foremost, telling a story, and that I work best when I know what the story is, how it got started and how it ends. I tried to leave things open, so that I could do what authors talk about all the time and learn from my characters, but it just left me floundering eventually, hunting and pecking for the impetus to throw them over the cliff or the strength they’ll need to figure out they have wings and can fly.

James and I developed a story, capable of being told in a handful of paragraphs. Then I mapped the story to the dramatic arc, the three-act play, Campbell’s hero cycle, Hauge’s six stage plot structure, using all to some degree and some quite carefully. Using Scrivener, I broke the story into sections (folders): Enemies, Softening, The Fall, Point of No Return, Major Setback, Dark Night of the Soul, and Epiphany and HEA (Happily Ever After). I wrote a synopsis for each scene (individual documents), with 4-6 scenes in each section.

Only at that point, when I had exported all that into MS Word and had a detailed, 10-page synopsis, did I go back and start doing character sketches.

Then I sat down, after several months of thinking over all that, getting to know these people in my head, and started writing. In writing, I didn’t linger on setting descriptions. Lots of scenes take place in amorphous surroundings, which I’m fleshing out in the second draft. But I got the thrust of it down. It’s tight, spare, and plain, but it drives.

Now I’ll go back and add some lushness. I’ll bring the sensual aspects into flower and consider where (not whether) to add more sex. After all, all the best reviews of my work praise the erotic bits.

Blue Water Dreams

First word to completed first draft: 1 year

First word to publication: 9 years, 3 months

Heart of the Lilikoi

First word to completed first draft: 6 years, 2 months

First word to publication: 6 years, 11 months

Lysistrata Cove

First word to completed first draft: 11 days

First word to projected publication: 10 months

Sailing Life

It’s no coincidence that my first book was about a woman who wants to sail away.

I bought my first boat at 23 years old and left Seattle the next year. Starting in 1999 my life became one of traveling until I couldn’t anymore and then working until I could travel again.

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A few years back, I got my captain’s license, a 50 ton Master license to be precise, with the idea that it would make me more employable in new ports. Instead of getting me work as a captain, it has garnered me a new amount of respect in other ways.

I’ve done electrical work on other people’s boats and sold marine hardware. I much prefer the first.

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Without a home base, I do upkeep on my own boat wherever I am. Instead of sailing away for a vacation, I’m living my life at sea.

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My boat is better than 50 years old, so there’s always something to be done.

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Not all jobs are painless. Hauling myself down the anchor rode so I could remove it from the rudder entailed using the barnacled hull as a lever.

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Mildly keelhauled.

But even that work is a joy compared to stultifying in a port, wishing I was sailing.

This is the life for me.

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I Love Genre

I am a genre writer, when it comes right down to it.  I like beats.  I like pulses and plans and fulfilling the expectations I create.  Whether it’s romance or SF, I like having an agreement with the reader and working within that to surprise and delight them.

Fortunately, I know that doesn’t mean being inconsequential, ignored, or disrespected…at least, not across the board.  I read Snow Crash for the first time in a 400-level Frontiers in Literature course at University of Washington.  An excellent gender studies teacher introduced me to Patrick Califia in a course on Outsider Lit.  My Chivalric Romantic Literature course might have started with the French lais and English Breton lays and ended with Chretien de Troyes, but I knew that Nora Roberts was continuing to present heroic figures who prioritized love and honor over practicality.  And now I’ve found Bold Strokes Books.

I’m glad to be writing erotica, romance, and science fiction.  Whether or not my books “transcend” their genres, I find plenty of respect, attention, and consequence in exploring lives within these frames.

Thank you, to all the genre fiction readers out there.  May I continue to surprise you while fulfilling our agreement and delight you with the creativity I bring to the art and craft of writing.

49 Copies of Blue Water Dreams in US and UK Libraries

I started reading young and never stopped.  My dad fed me science fiction at what he considered an age-appropriate pace; I pulled random books from his shelves and got an accelerated education.  My school librarians learned to introduce me to series because I read so much and so quickly that I would be a pest if they couldn’t hand me at least five books at a time.

Town and air force base libraries had more to offer than my dad or my school.  They stocked things that would never fly for a school library and had a much wider idea of what might be a good book.  I devoured science fiction, romance, adventure, and more.  I dabbled in and turned my back on autobiography, biography, and war histories.  I developed the tastes that I’ve been broadening and refining ever since.

It’s not just the access to books.  It’s the space, filled with books and readerly accoutrements.  Lamps and chairs and tables to enable my passion.  Card catalogs and librarians and featured shelves.  The plainest of them still smell like books and the most ornate still turn one’s attention back to the books they exist to present.

I got on Goodreads today and saw again the link that reads Libraries.  Curious, I went to my book, Blue Water Dreams, and clicked the link.  It showed me the list of 24 library systems that have it.

This was so exciting to me that I clicked through on every one of them and discovered that some systems had multiple copies – as many as six copies – and that, even more exciting still, there were five copies checked out!

Oh. My.

I geeked out completely, made a list of all the locations that have copies, added them all up.  I have 49 copies of a book with my name, with my words, in 24 library systems, in something more like 45 individual libraries.  One put me in New Adult, some put me in Erotica, others stuck with Romance.  But I’m out there.

With excitement and joy, I share the list of libraries that have Blue Water Dreams:

On library shelves now in:

Chicago
Fort Wayne, IN
Fargo, ND
Bettendorf, IA
Los Angeles, CA
Hull, in the freakin’ UK!
San Diego, CA, currently checked out
2 in London…also UK.
3 in Santa Monica, CA
6 in 4 San Francisco libraries
5 in Kent County, WA – 2 copies checked out!
3 in Snohomish and Island Counties, WA – 1 checked out!
5 in 4 Seattle libraries – 1 checked out!
3 in 2 Minneapolis libraries (as New Adult Fiction, by the way)
3 in Louisville, KY
4 in Allegheny County, PA
2 in Fort Myers, FL
2 in Denver

The conservative town I went to high school in, Moses Lake, WA, has a copy, plus nearby towns of Ephrata, Omak, and Wenatchee.

I went to the Moses Lake Library for a lot of reasons.  I wanted books, obviously, but I also wanted to live in a bigger, wider world.  I wanted to know more and books held a lot of what I needed.  I wanted a quiet place where I could read in the public privacy one can achieve in a library.  I wanted a haven when the world hurt me.

I found all those things in the Moses Lake Library, and more.  I found respectful interaction with adults and the joy of reading to children and the honor of doing ESL tutoring for a Mexican banker turned agricultural worker.  I found a version of me that I carry to this day.

So thanks, libraries.  Thanks for being there for me.  And thanks for stocking this book about being queer and trans and in love, about being passionate and deeply caring about social justice and independence and working it all out to have everything when you think you’ll have to choose.

Thanks.

 

Review: $how Trans by Elliott Deline

Show Trans: A Nonfiction NovelShow Trans: A Nonfiction Novel by Elliott DeLine

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Elliott Deline’s new book, $how Trans, reads like a journal that has been edited to read like narrative. It’s a rollercoaster of a read. Deline interprets his own and others’ behaviors inconsistently – one minute flagellating himself for his desires and choices, another minute reporting them with eerie detachment, still another minute blaming all his problems on other people.

As the author of a romance book with a trans protagonist, I chose to write a world where things are a little bit better, go a little bit smoother than is usual in real life. I felt that folks could use a feel-good book where a trans man finds love and the conflict has nothing to do with his gender. It is a realistic trans* story in the same way that most romance is realistic, and important only if it succeeds in providing warmth and hope.

Happy possibilities and best-case-scenarios aside, there are other important trans* stories. This one doesn’t waste any time on how being trans* can be a blessing (not even in disguise) or what amazing lessons and perspectives a trans* person is given. Deline is handing over his experiences, edited and shaped but remarkably honest, and they are frequently painful. Banal or hypersensitized, his responses to events vary according to a complicated chemistry of anger and exhaustion, awareness and blockage, disgust and need.

The use of first person memoir to tell stories in which the person frequently blacks out – not passes out, but has memory blackouts – is both compelling and severely restricted. Deline remembers at least one instance of rape, but questionable consent is a constant thread throughout the book, and some crucial moments when consent might have happened are erased by Deline’s dark memory. Moments of decision, moments of pressure. These disappear into a shrug, Deline’s admission that he doesn’t remember what came next.

On the other hand, there are plenty of stories told in great detail that carry a similar weight of indecision, with Deline often bowing to pressure in ways that don’t feel like decision-making. Another thread through the book is that things just happen – sex, love, rejection – with Deline barely paddling either with or against the flow. In this tone, I hear the voice of an addict, and Deline uses the word himself about his relationship with sex. His struggle to exert his will over his life is as painful to read as it is chillingly realistic for so many.

There is no truth in this book but the author’s truth. No attempt has been made to balance or flesh out Deline’s understanding of events, except with his own changing perspective through time. In the scenes with Grindr hookups or the more regular sex trade partners, this doesn’t seem to matter. I’m only interested in what Deline is feeling and how he is experiencing his own desires and those of others. His descriptions of wanting something more nebulous than sex from them are compelling. Some of his strongest voice, moments when I can practically hear him speaking, is in the agonizing confusion of being inadequately gendered by sex partners who simplify him, deny him, or just use him and ignore his need for someone to understand his maleness and blend of masculinity and femininity.

The relationship he has with the object-of-love is beautiful and empty, formed of feelings and denied by them, as unwanted by the object as it is impossible to give up. In some of the most intimate description in the book, the object is brought only into soft focus. Deline doesn’t give us a well-rounded, complex character in the person. It is the image of love and of the lover that we see in the book. The person is specific only in that no one else affects Deline the same way. We don’t get to know this person at all and have no idea whether or not we would sympathize with their version of this situation.

It’s not about that, though. It’s about Deline’s experience of love and loss, love and rejection, love and hate. While the object-of-love is vague, Deline’s response to him is not. He feels his way through the relationship, his desire and yearning the strongest impressions provided us. This is where Deline’s authorial voice is given the reins and allowed to speak. He provides a little context with some nice descriptions of Santa Cruz, for example, but focuses on the feeling of being in yet another situation he doesn’t control. The hope he holds for this situation doesn’t outweigh the sense of doom I have as the reader. His hope is tenuous and depends far too much on other people. His pursuit and eventual loss use the same personal and interpersonal tools he’s been using in the rest of his life – assumption, unwarranted hope, and blind pushing. There is no way that this love will be the growth experience that changes everything for him. This is not a romance.

I sense that there is a lot of truth to the idea that Deline’s life has been made harder by some of the people in it. On the other hand, the way he moves toward a mode of blaming others makes me think of people I know who’ve gone into therapy and started looking for “causes” for their behavior or experience of the world. More than a reliable indictment of the people involved, I got the image of a person struggling to change. He admits to self-diagnosing his sex addiction and Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), which I find telling as a search for explanation more than a convincing diagnosis.

His desire to understand his own choices grows through the book and provides the bulk of the narrative continuity. I’m not certain he comes to a place of great self-knowledge, but he does find support from outside that helps him feel better about himself. Perhaps self-love will open the door to self-knowledge.

$how Trans was provided to me free for an unbiased review. I’m a tough grader.

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Winning Means

Receiving possession of the female reproductive organs?  Am I the only one who sees this?

 

Winner's Cup for Regatta
Uterine Glory