Books on the Shelf 1.9

This is the ninth installment of my aptly-named series “Books on the Shelf,” in which I take any title or object from one of my lovingly alphabetized shelves and write a short post about it.

Seth to… well, Seth, I guess (plus some mass markets)
Completed ratio: 6 to 8

The mask in the center of the picture, the one with the eyebrows painted on, was created specifically for my face out of plaster. There was a cast and there was lying on the floor very still for like 30 minutes and it was a whole thing. I wore the mask in a production of Oedipus Rex several years ago, when I got to play the very best role I’ve ever played and will likely ever play: the Shepherd.

For real. The Shepherd. Hear me out.

The larger play about the tragedy of King Oedipus is a foundational work of Western literature in which we see the gradual tightening of the screws until Oedipus breaks. It begins with a plague. Someone suggests that the plague has struck because they’ve never caught the man who murdered their former king, Laios.

The Shepherd gets one scene. One. Oedipus summons him to explain his part in the mysterious tale of Laios’s murder. The Shepherd resists and resists and does everything he can to give Oedipus a way out from hearing the truth. Oedipus insists, though. He has sworn to find the murderer and cut out his eyes, and he won’t stop until the murderer is found.

What’s so brilliant about the Shepherd is how efficient and tight an arc the character has. In my copy, he appears on five pages. In those pages, he goes from being no more than a powerless old man playing up his unreliability, to a captive who’s been cornered and is scrambling for way out, to a vengeful actor who strikes down his king, knowing that it will cause the only society – the city – he’s ever known to collapse.

When it becomes clear that he must either tell and watch his world collapse, or keep his secret and be killed now, the Shepherd makes a choice. If he’s going to die, at least he’ll choose the manner of his death. Then, for once in his life, he rises up. He takes down a whole city with his words.

SHEPHERD:
I pitied the baby, my King,
And I thought that this man would take him far away
To his own country.
He saved him – but for what a fate!
For if you are what this man says you are,
Then no man living is more wretched than Oedipus.

It’s a glorious moment to play.

I’d love to hear about other great turning points in the stories you love. Movies, plays, novels, all of it.

Masks and Words

In April, I set aside my writing work* to make room for my sewing machine, and I sewed a bunch of masks for family and friends. Making masks seemed like one of the few things that those of us who are not healthcare or grocery workers could do to help, and I’m glad I did.

If you still need a mask, may I suggest that you do not order one online right away? Instead, look for local businesses and individuals who are making masks as a way to keep themselves afloat. I know of some house cleaners who are sewing masks to make ends meet, and at least locally, Zips cleaners franchises are doing everything they can to keep their people employed by selling handmade masks.

I’m glad to make way for these folks – and also to spend what little spare time there is with the stories I’d like to tell.

*This was an option for me because I’m currently fortunate to have gainful employment apart from my writing.

Books on the Shelf 1.8

This is the eighth installment of my aptly-named series “Books on the Shelf,” in which I take any title or object from one of my lovingly alphabetized shelves and write a short post about it.

Polk through Scalzi
Completed ratio: 12 to 20

Would you like your very own Hedwig baby owl?

Here she is, up close:

Hello, I have a letter!

I recommend a nice boucle yarn for the body, for some floof.

Also, about that Cursed Child script. Did you know that the first thing actors and directors do when they get a script is to ignore the stage directions? Okay, occasionally they pay attention to things like “she exits,” or “he pukes,” or something like that.

But “His face goes white,” like in Cursed Child? Nah. If the dialog doesn’t communicate it, then it’s not there.

I understand why they put stage directions like that in here. It’s mostly prose readers who are buying this “script,” and they needed to give folks a little something to hold onto, to make it feel like a fun reading experience as opposed to studying a map, which is what scripts kind of are.

As a theater kid who’s crossed over to prose, though, I snobbishly wanted less of that stuff. Oh well. Maybe I can send someone an owl or something to complain.

Books on the Shelf 1.7

This is the seventh installment of my aptly-named series “Books on the Shelf,” in which I take any title or object from one of my lovingly alphabetized shelves and write a short post about it.

Miller through Parker
Completed ratio: 9 of 27

Anybody who’s talked books with me in the last year knows that my favorite book of all time is Madeline Miller’s Circe. I’ve read it twice now. Each time, the ending has left my chest buzzing.

I’ve gone back to certain passages over and over again as I’ve worked through one of own novel drafts. There’s one sentence that I have even copied into my notes, and I have referred to it many times:

My chest felt heavy, and my throat had begun to ache.

Not the one you were expecting, was it? But look at it: both precise and concise, it shows the physical sensation of tremendous emotion as Circe’s father Helios is dropping her unceremoniously onto the island, preparing to abandon her. It’s short, and the rhythm is nearly iambic. It’s simple.

Circe is a book with a beautiful story and beautiful language to back it up. I hope you’ll read it if you haven’t already.

Books on the Shelf 1.6

This is the sixth installment of my aptly-named series “Books on the Shelf,” in which I take any title or object from one of my lovingly alphabetized shelves and write a short post about it.

Le Guin through McSweeney’s
Completed ratio: 2 of 20 (oh man…)

I really hope by the time I make it to installment 2.6 that this shelf will look very different. I’m aiming to read more books that I already own in hopes of paring down and making room on the shelf for books that have value in my collection. I mean – really – I need to either read the McSweeney’s issues or get off the pot, y’know?

For now: Station Eleven is awesome. Love it. I accidentally bought it twice, even. (Since remedied.) Read it if you haven’t already!

Edited to add: I write most of these posts and schedule them in advance. I offered the Station Eleven rec before our actual pandemic set in, so follow it only if you’re in a place where that’s something you can digest. Oh, and I’m nearly finished reading Elizabeth McCracken’s Bowlaway, which will raise my completed score for this shelf to 3 of 20. Contains the amazing description of a character “wearing the kind of cabled Irish sweater designed to camouflage sorrow and poverty.” (That’s known as an aran sweater, btw.)

This isn’t about the pandemic.

Well it is. And it’s not.

I wasn’t going to post anything about the pandemic, because currently, we’re all being flooded with emails from corporate entities eager to tell us about how they offer 5 days of sick leave and a bottle of hand sanitizer to their employees (or they will once it’s not back-ordered for three months). But not saying anything made it seem like I write all my posts weeks if not months in advance, schedule them, and then walk away (actually that is what I do), and don’t actually wish to engage meaningfully (I do want that in fact). So let me try to be slightly less tone-deaf to the massive global anxiety and threat that’s currently upon us, like even more upon us than climate change which is very much upon us as well.

I’m sitting on my bed right now listening to traffic. My city is issuing a shelter-in-place order today, but there’s still a decent amount of morning traffic noise. Our bedroom’s at the back of the house, and the house backs up against a busy street; it’s the only way we could afford the place. Still, though. I thought by now, we’d have less traffic noise.

This city has a huge traffic problem. We’ve become like L.A., in that much if not most smalltalk begins with a gripe about the traffic and what route you tried to get here, only to find that it didn’t save you more than 15 seconds but you did get to see a new variety of overgrown lawn and speed bumps as you wound your way through the labyrinthine mazes surrounding Rundberg. It turns out, if you remove — I don’t know, eighty percent of our traffic? We still have a lot of traffic.

In the moment in which I’m writing this, we’re hunkered down. My family and I are absolutely among the lucky ones, meaning that we have jobs today, shelter, food, and each other, even if that means yelling matches about screen time limits and sheer exhaustion at 9 p.m. after spending 14 hours (I typed 114 at first and that didn’t feel wrong) as a worker, teacher, parent, cook, and laundress. (Not a housemaid. My husband is vacuuming more than either of us has vacuumed in the last five years, thank goodness for his efforts, and we’re both doing just so much, but I’m not cleaning a whole lot.)

We have it good, and it’s still stressful. We’re worried a bit for ourselves in that way of knowing things could be terrible for us in the future but we can’t wrap our heads around it exactly, and we are, like everyone, worried for friends and family. The numbers suggest it’s likely that someone we know and love will fall ill. We may lose someone we know and love, even though everyone we know is currently healthy. (Not quite, actually. We are acquainted with one of our town’s positives, but she’s recovering well thankfully.)

Meanwhile, that damn traffic noise.

Here’s my prediction, for what it’s worth. Things are going to get real quiet here today, but not silent. We’ll still see the rot that’s left and the neglect and the suffering around us, perhaps better than we’ve ever seen it. We’ll see how the system (and yes, I’m using traffic as a metaphor) is set up so that there’s never really any moment of peace. There’s gonna be some clarity, though. We might even get a chance to see what really needs to happen to get us where we need to go. That we’ll do that? Ehhhhhhhhhhhhh. But when at least some of the traffic goes away, we’ll have a better view of the road.

I’m just finished reading R. Eric Thomas’s Here for It, a nutty little book that is at times hilarious enough to make your abs hurt. It’s also astute and thoughtful. A black gay Christian man, Thomas makes no bones about things that are wrong with this country, but he also says, “Anything good in this country has had to be wrestled free.”

Y’all take care. Stay safe, stay away from people if you can. Look for the silence, or at least the reduced noise, and see what you learn from that. When we find ourselves again in some new normal, maybe we’ll have found some better routes.

Books on the Shelf 1.5

This is the fifth installment of my aptly-named series “Books on the Shelf,” in which I take any title or object from one of my lovingly alphabetized shelves and write a short post about it.

Hicks through Lee
Completed ratio: 11 of 28

Short commentary this time. Right there in the middle, in the shadows, is Gay Gavriel Kay’s Ysabel, which takes place in Aix-en-Provence, France, where I was extremely lucky to spend a semester abroad during my undergraduate years.* In particular, some of the plot hinges around the Celtic ruins at Entremont, which I toured with one of my classes. The book even includes a wolf attack along the Cours Mirabeau, which is hilarious and awesome when considering that my two biggest memories of the Cours Mirabeau include watching the annual student demonstration in support of teacher pay, and the time I was walking north to cross the Cours Mirabeau on a chilly November morning and in my way was a city workman spraying a high-pressure hose on the sidewalks to clean off all the grime and, because this is France, dog poop. He looked up and saw me standing there, trying to figure out how I’d get across the street without getting dog poop sprayed all over me. At once, he turned off his hose, held it up in the air, and offered me a low and most aristocratic bow. “Mademoiselle,” he said, grinning from ear to ear.

Oh, France.

As a sincere fan of Kay’s work, I actually find some of his other books to be stronger, but I hang onto this one because it unearths memories I would have otherwise dismissed of a place that’s fascinating and beautiful. It adds a delightful layer of imagination to the region’s actual history, which extends thousands of years into the past.

* I recently read Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things, in which she talks about how her own college experience had nothing to do with studying abroad on her parents’ dime, and everything to do with working multiple jobs so she could pay her own way. “It was all I could do not to sock her in the gut,” she writes of the college friend who had it easier. I didn’t appreciate at the time how lucky I was. For real: apologies to everybody who justifiably wanted to sock me in the gut back then.

Books on the Shelf 1.4

This is the fourth installment of my aptly-named series “Books on the Shelf,” in which I take any title or object from one of my lovingly alphabetized shelves and write a short post about it.

Gardiner through Hemingway
Completed: 15 of 21

I’ve noticed something about Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy: a lot of wannabe sci-fi/fantasy writers love to hate on it. It’s become sort of a thing where everyone sits around in a circle and names things that are just so bad and everyone rushes to agree. It’s a good way to show how much one belongs in the in-group.

For my part, however, I admire a lot about the trilogy, often for the exact reasons other people dislike it. One of the most common complaints I’ve heard is that Quentin is an unlikeable hero, that he’s too wishy-washy, that he doesn’t learn anything.

Ready for a strong opinion? Folks don’t like Quentin because most of us are Quentin.

Early in the third book, The Magician’s Land, Quentin has returned to Brakebills as a teacher. In the first book, as a student, the faculty were never able to determine his magical discipline. So early in book three, he goes back to Professor Pearl Sunderland, who has a knack for discovering people’s specialties.

She figures out what it is, and he wonders why nobody was able to figure it out the first time, when he was 18. She tells him,

…I couldn’t find your discipline last time because you didn’t have one yet. I always thought you were a bit young for your age. Personality is a factor – maturity. You were old enough to have a discipline, but emotionally you weren’t there yet. You hadn’t come into focus.

As uncomfortable as it is to admit, I identify with that late-bloomer quality. Grossman consistently hones in on the very real granules of personality located in his characters – the ways their intelligence and enthusiasm does not protect them from mistakes, anxieties, actual violence, and heartbreak.

My love of the trilogy is also bound up with a personal sense of discovery. Reading The Magicians signaled my return to reading sci-fi and fantasy after a roughly fifteen-year break. I quit reading it because, in the late 90s, I became fed up with the rather consistent sexism in the books that took up the most real estate on the bookstore shelves. And, while I love a good medieval European setting, there are other stories out there, too.

I turned to literary fiction and to dramatic literature. I worked in the theater for a while before switching careers for financial reasons; I still review shows regularly. I even wrote a mystery novel which is so far in the trunk that it has justifiably gone the way of some former laptop’s hard drive and has ceased to exist on this quantum plane.

Then I had a kid. Turns out, it’s much harder to spend seven nights a week at the theater once you’re caring for a small human being. (Actually, it’s much harder to do everything once you’re caring for a small human being.)

When mine was a newborn, I discovered one thing I could do while breastfeeding was have a hardback book open on my lap while my hands were trapped. The Magicians was the first sci-fi/fantasy book I picked up in about fifteen years, and holy crap you guys, the genre changed a lot in that time.

Let it be said that there were absolutely writers of diverse backgrounds working in the 90s who were artistically and intellectually ambitious and accomplished. As a high school kid, I just didn’t know about them, and the genre appeared monolithic enough that I assumed there was no place for me in it. There was even an upper-level course at my university in science fiction, and I was excited – until I found out the syllabus included no women, and all white people. (Maybe Ursula K. Le Guin got on there? Don’t recall. I didn’t sign up for the class.)

After The Magicians, I discovered Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons, Sophia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria, N. K. Jemisin’s work, and plenty more. It was like the joy of a kid with unlimited birthday gifts. The skill and imagination of these and other writers have transformed speculative fiction. For a prodigal fan of the genre like me, it’s as if it happened all at once rather than over the course of several years.

I admire all these writers for forcing a place in the genre for different kinds of stories, and amazing ones at that. I include Grossman in that, too, for stepping far outside the last century’s expectations for the genre. With Quentin’s obsession with Fillory, he captures the childlike obsession so many of us felt for our favorite stories when we were growing up; the way we hold onto that adoration secretly, even as we try to push ourselves beyond it; the disenchantment of discovering that the worlds of our imagination are flawed in ways we hadn’t allowed ourselves to admit; and what it means to return to those lands and rebuild them from scratch.

Should I have persevered and joined the writers and fans who made it possible for new writers with radically new visions to find an audience, rather than given up on the genre? Perhaps, but in all honesty, I wasn’t yet articulate or mature enough to do the sort of work that would have made a difference. As Professor Sunderland would say, I hadn’t yet come into focus. I’m only grateful to find out what part I might play now.

Books on the Shelf 1.3

This is the third installment of my aptly-named series “Books on the Shelf,” in which I take any title or object from one of my lovingly alphabetized shelves and write a short post about it.

Drayden through Friedman
Completed ratio: 10 of 23

(Yeah, I know, the mass markets throw off the alphabetizing scheme. I was running out of room so I stacked them. Trust me, it hurts me more than it hurts you.)

I read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 in high school, I think. Then, a few years ago, I reviewed a local production of Bradbury’s stage adaptation of his own novel. Bradbury was a pretty decent novelist, but not so amazing of a playwright. Sucker-punch: it was staged in December 2016, when everything was, well, that particular flavor of insane.

But you know what? Read the comments section on that review I linked to. No really, do. I’d seen a journalistic think-piece not long before saying that when a journalist actually engages politely with a somewhat angry commenter (I’m not talking about misogynistic trolls or that sort of thing), it can have good results. So I tried it this time, and guess what: it worked! Dude was pretty grumpy at the outset, but we wound up in a mutually respectful, interesting conversation.

That’s the very tiny glimmer of hope I have to offer today. Please accept and nurture as needed.

The Milford Method, Reconsidered

The Milford Method of critiquing has become so ubiquitous at writer’s conferences that it’s become the default. It’s also terribly flawed, and it needs serious reconsideration.

There’s a lot to be said for the Milford Method, of course. Let’s pretend there’s a brand-new writer who’s never attended a critique group before. He has his short story pages. He’s absolutely sure they’re the best thing ever, and once he’s corrected a typo or two, it’ll be a straight shot from here to the New Yorker. He’s got his degree (or whatever), he’s read some classics, and there’s not a chance his work is anything less than brilliant.

According to Milford, writer-dude takes his place in the circle and the other writers in attendance take turns giving him feedback, offering both praise and suggestions. He has to stay quiet and must not argue. Good thing, right? Writer-dude needs to learn how to listen, and humility’s an easier pill to swallow if you don’t embarrass yourself by arguing back before you’ve had a chance to consider the criticisms. The moderator finishes up with what is (one assumes) a more authoritative critique, and writer-dude finally gets to respond with thanks and maybe some more questions. Then writer-dude can go off and ditch the critique, or not. Hopefully, he’ll make revisions, and maybe someday the New Yorker is not out of sight.

It’s good to be forced to listen.

Here’s another scenario, however. A person of marginalized identity – let’s say, a non-binary writer, or a writer of color with a disability – also attends the critique group. They’ve already crossed into a space in which they feel foreign. They’re sharing work that’s specific to their experience, but not shared by anyone else in the circle. Their work gets hammered because nobody else finds it credible or honest. “I don’t see how a character in a wheelchair could pilot a spaceship,” says one person, and there are nods. The writer has to listen. It keeps going.

After, the writer has their chance to respond, but – according to the description of Milford that I linked to above, and to the standards typically applied – the writer should “avoid defensive explanations, justifications, synopses or clarifications about the story.” So the writer has to contend with a heap of problematic critiques, and may not defend themselves. The critique group becomes not so much a helpful tool as a trial by fire, a means of toughening up the writer, thickening their skin against abuse – or else weakening them until they decide there’s no place in the community for them.

These are both examples on the extreme, but how many of us have experienced snarky critiques and had no recourse? I’ve had a guy really run roughshod over my work before because he “will never be able to relate to a story about a mother and a daughter,” as if we’re some alien species, or as if I haven’t read countless stories about boys coming of age, or about fathers and sons, or about men and their troubles in love, etc. Milford put me in a position of having to just listen, and what could I say?

I’ve also had a recent Milford critique experience in which I broke the rules at the end. The chapters that I brought to the group engage with questions of faith. After the rest of the attendees had finished their critiques, the two moderators took their turn, and each took significant issue with my treatment of religion, with the clear assumption that I don’t know anything about the religious experience (if the singular can even be used). One moderator wondered aloud if I knew anything about religion, or if I’d spoken to anyone who is religious. The second spoke a bit angrily, remarking that speculative fiction has for decades treated religion as intellectually inferior and regarded atheism as ascendant.

Then it was my turn to respond.

I explained that the work at hand was in many ways a response to a crisis of faith I’d experienced following a very difficult stretch of time. Turns out, I am a member of a faith community (although if you’re wondering, I really don’t know exactly what I believe, which is basically just being honest because nobody really does, we’re all just working through stuff). I took some comparative religion courses in undergrad, and I’ve attended services from a variety of faith traditions, both in an academic context and as a personal guest. I am actively reading works of theology, in part to give nuance to how I depict characters of faith in my work, but also to try and understand more about myself and the world around me.

Both of the moderators – for whom I continue to have only the highest respect – backed off their critique of my handling of religion. It was a case in which, I believe, they’d each brought their own context to the two chapters, and when they didn’t see their own experience reflected, they reacted negatively. They assumed that, like most people writing in the speculative fiction space, I had no experience of religion.

That isn’t to say they were wholly wrong in their remarks. I’ve since returned to the chapters with an eye to see how I can clarify certain moments and at least delay a religious reader’s knee-jerk negative reaction until later in the story, when more texture is revealed.

However, had I said nothing, they would have carried their assumptions about my work and about me forward for the remainder of the conference and beyond. In fact, I believe my later interactions with them were better for my having spoken up and explained my own context. Our conversation about the work was better for it, and I learned more from them.

Milford muzzles people. Sometimes that’s okay, but sometimes it’s really not.

So what are the alternatives?

I come from a theater background. In my community, we’re strongly influenced by the many graduates of a particular MFA program who have either stuck around or returned. The standard for staged readings around here is that you have some actors read the script. There’s a strong moderator, often a director or dramaturg, who actively guides the conversation. Audience members respond to the moderator’s questions – such as “What do you remember most?” or “What was confusing?” – rather than launch their feedback in a free-for-all. The moderator also ensures that the playwright doesn’t go off on the audience afterwards or some other really awkward and embarrassing scene that everyone will sooner or later regret. The audience members also talk to one another during the discussion and may even debate a point among themselves.

The playwright is forced to listen, but the playwright is also protected.

Mary Robinette Kowal’s ABCD method offers another, very different option that I’ve voluntarily adopted when critiquing other people’s work. You mark A for awesome, B for bored, C for confused, or D for disbelief, to mark your reactions, and that’s pretty much it. That’s a totally different direction, but it’s worth considering.

So many writer’s groups and conferences have inadvertently carried forward the practices of an earlier era when half of being a writer was showing how thick a skin you could grow, and how big of a passive-aggressive asshole you could be. In some places, that’s still the dominant mode.

It doesn’t have to be. What’s gained by proving how tough you are? How’s the work better because you’ve survived a truly cutting takedown and kept your mouth shut?

Just like drinking yourself stupid every time you sit down to work is perhaps counterproductive, so is voluntarily walking into a situation in which you are defenseless. The alternative doesn’t have to mean listening to new writers protest that nobody understands their work and they aren’t reading correctly. There are other ways of critiquing that build a writer and their work up while still preserving the act of listening that’s so vital to growing as a writer and as a person.