Why We Need Disturbing Stories

Though I’m a huge fan of The Handmaid’s Tale (the novel by Margaret Atwood and the Hulu series), I wouldn’t say it’s easy to watch. It is violent, brutal, and traumatic. I cry at least once every episode. Season One gave me nightmares twice.

When Season Two started streaming, the people who care about me couldn’t understand why I was so excited to put myself through that again. Often, when I ask friends or acquaintances if they’ve seen it, I get answers like, “It’s too disturbing.”

Yeah. It is disturbing. And that’s exactly why I watch it.

I’m not a sadist. I think that’s important to note before moving on.

I believe that there is value in experiencing disturbing stories. Not that all disturbing stories are inherently valuable. They’re not. It depends on why we feel disturbance.

For me, one of the reasons The Handmaid’s Tale is disturbing because I am female. Watching strong women suffer because of their gender is traumatic. However, in many parts of the world, and all over it historically, women have gone through horror because of their gender. The fact that I am only experiencing these things via story means I am privileged. And I hate that. It should be a basic human right not to experience sexual or physical violence or torture or forced subjugation because of one’s gender. But that’s not how things go. Not historically, and not now.

The Handmaid’s Tale emphasizes with alarming clarity how close we are, right now, to this level of repression. This too is disturbing. But we must remind ourselves where we have been and where we could wind up if we aren’t vigilant, outspoken, and strong, if we don’t take action when we encounter discrimination of any kind.

The eeriest component of the governmental takeover described in Atwood’s dystopia–as well as an infamous real-world example: Nazi Germany–is the willing blindness of citizens to the signs of oncoming horrors. Living in comfort, undisturbed, humans desire to continue to be undisturbed.

Our distractions are abundant. We carry them with us in our pockets, in our palms, on our wrists. Meaningless celebrity interviews and cat videos are a click away. We can choose oblivion, to self-medicate with a comedy that’s a little sexist/racist/whatever, but it’s so funny, we give it a pass. We would rather be comfortable in our privilege than deal with the implications of a rape joke. We would rather not think.

If we sleep walk through our lives, we won’t notice injustice or discrimination. The realities of The Handmaid’s Tale could become our reality.

Musician and composer Tod Machover said,

Works of art should be stimulating. They should wake people up rather than acting like a sedative.

Our level of sedation is so high, we need to be shocked awake. We need to be disturbed, affected, and changed.

The Handmaid’s Tale wakes me up. It’s a challenge, and a call to arms. If I opt out because of my discomfort–the discomfort of identifying with characters and imagining going through their pain–what will I do when confronted with suffering in the flesh?


Do You Have Anything to Offer?

I recently had the privilege of being able to hear one of my favorite opera singers perform live.

Maybe not a sentence you expected to read today. Believe it or not, I was an opera singer in a past life. It didn’t work out, which was probably for the best. Anyhow, I still sing, teach voice lessons, and take huge delight in seeing professional musicians at work.

This was Joyce DiDonato, a fabulous mezzo-soprano, singing with the Kansas City Symphony. I had tickets in the second row. Spit-zone close. I could go on about how amazing it was to watch her back breathing, the shape of her lips, etc. etc. But that would be a different blog.

Joyce DiDonato, Photo: Simon Pauly

In the afterglow of the concert, I was searching around for her online and came up with a lovely interview she did with Living the Classical Life. She told the story of how, as a young singer, a prominent and established musician told her she had nothing to offer as an artist.

Can you imagine?!

After some time passed, DiDonato started to try to figure out where this criticism had come from. And she realized something that totally revolutionized her approach to music as an artist. She was portraying perfectly what an “Opera Singer” should look like, walk like, talk like, and singing her arias like “Opera Singers” should. She had left herself completely out of it. There was nothing of Joyce in her art.

If we are trying to be what we think is expected of us, to produce what is expected of us, we will have nothing to offer. The writers I consider important (Dickens, O’Connor, Lovecraft, Fitzgerald, Calvino, Dillard, LeGuin, Peake) all sound so incredibly like themselves. This is their strength: not that they can write a fantasy trilogy, a shocking short story, or invent a new form of fiction, but that they are doing what they do. What they want to do, what they can do, and they are saying it in their own voices.

DiDonato took several years to figure out what she wanted to say. Now she is celebrated internationally for her skill and for her activism. She consistently emphasizes the humanity of the characters she portrays. She holds masterclasses with young singers. She works with prisoners at Sing Sing. She is trying to bring peace to the world. What she wanted to say is, I think, that everyone deserves compassion.

And she earned the platform to say this by choosing to forgo the image of who she thought she was supposed to be. She is Joyce, 100%.

I think this question of identity, especially for a young artist, is super important. We can’t create anything new if we’re trying to emulate another artist. We can’t create anything interesting if we’re caught up in the imaginary rules we’ve made for ourselves of what a “real artist” should do, say, think, or feel.


Questions To Think About

What does the market want?

What would be an instant classic?

What would people think is “cool”?

How can I be more myself in my work?

What persona is getting in my way?

What is stopping me from believing who I am is enough?

What do I want to say?

What do I have to offer as an artist?

Novel Writing, Consumerism, and the Skill of Waiting

We belong to an impatient culture. We don’t wait for anything if we can help it, and if we have to wait, we tap our feet, sigh, and complain.  Sitting and thinking that doesn’t lead to immediate action is “wasting time” or “naval gazing” or “daydreaming.”

We have lost sight of the value in waiting.

You know how sometimes it seems like the universe contrives to make you notice something by bringing it to your attention multiple times in a short span of time? (For example: After not hearing it or thinking about it for YEARS, I heard the phrase “like putting lipstick on a pig” three times from three different places, in one day.)

This idea has been haunting me lately:

A very common mistake in novel writing is to start writing before you are ready.

And (like “lipstick on a pig”) it’s coming at me from different places…

In his book Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction, Benjamin Percy writes that he sits with his novels for a year before doing any actual writing. He creates character boards, takes notes, makes maps, and thinks–for a year. When he does actually start writing, he knows his characters and their world inside and out.

Ursula K. LeGuin claims that writers get “grabby” in her book The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination. Writers get the first notions of an idea, seize the idea, and begin to write too soon. She insists on the importance of waiting to discover the rhythm of the piece you’re working on. This has to do with discovering your protagonist fully (LeGuin knew she had discovered her characters when she could identify ways they were different from herself…an interesting idea…), the syntax of your sentences, and the overarching pattern of the larger story. Once you have the rhythm, she says, it’s almost impossible to write a wrong word.

LeGuin waited. She sat at her desk, listening for the voices of her protagonists, their cadences. From the outside, it looked like she was being lazy. Wasn’t she a writer? Why wasn’t she writing? She was wasting time. Daydreaming. Put some words on the page, already!

In my typical process, the early stages of any piece are writing: experiencing events as the sentences unroll themselves into scene, dialogue, and description. The kind of sentence and its quality don’t matter much. I write only what’s necessary to spark an idea in my mind.

I don’t want to plan it out, I want to live it, right now, in this moment. I don’t want to get to know the characters, I just want to know everything they do. I want to peel them open like cadavers, not understand them as humans.

I want the story, and I want it now.

I write half-assed dialogue, skimp on description, and pay no attention to mood or subtext.

This mindset is all about my experience. It’s selfish. Impatient.

I could make a case that it’s a result of living in this fast-paced, hyper-consumeristic society, in which convenience trumps quality. But finding somewhere to place blame doesn’t help me be a better writer.

I can see the negative effects of not waiting before writing clearly in long pieces I’m working on. My lack of understanding–my lack of respect–is like anemia: it’s weakening everything in the story.

I wish I had come across this idea years ago.

I also wish there was a more definite way to know when you had done enough sitting in silence, listening to the echoes of your imagination, a way to know when you were ready to put aside the markers and glue and pick up the laptop. I wish there were steps to follow or bumpers, like in bowling, to keep you moving in the right direction.

If wishes were fishes, we’d all swim in riches.

If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

If wishes were stories, we’d all be Stephen King.

LeGuin says that writers must be able trust themselves. We need to know our own skills, our intentions, and believe in our ability to carry them out. We must also be able to trust the story, that it will emerge as something greater than we could have planned.

Maybe if we learn to trust our work, and ourselves, and ignore the howls of society (hurry hurry do write finish sell publish market fame fortune repeat) we’ll be able to sense when we are prepared to enter into a long story.

Waiting is doing something.

This is a countercultural idea. This is a countercultural writing process. But I wonder if the more we listen, the more sure we become. The less noise we allow in, the more we can hear of what counts. With patience, the profound.

I’ve been sitting on a really cool cyborg pirate story for a while now. Rather than grabbing it by the horns, I think I’ll try sitting with it first. Getting to know it. Building trust and listening and waiting.

Write it? Maybe next year…

In the wake of Ursula K. Le Guin’s passing

As testimonies, tributes, and memorials flood the internet, many refer to the product of Ursula K. Le Guin’s writing career, her art, as a body of work.

I am fascinated by the phrase.

In leaving her physical body, Le Guin draws attention to that other body, the one she built with words. The body she created, the wake of her living, is extensive, dense, gorgeous, precise, urgently important, and breathing.

In library shelves, old hardback novels, stained by the fingerprints of generations of readers. On bookstore displays, pages crisp and fresh, smelling of new ink. Dog-eared on bedroom nightstands, piled together with co-conspirators of every genre.

It is right to mourn the passing of a person of such integrity, wit, intelligence, talent, dedication, discipline, someone who has influenced whole generations, and worlds, with her art. We should be grief-stricken. We have lost a giant.

And yet, she is not gone. Not totally. Her body of work now stands in for her person. It is not a fair trade, bound pages for a soul, but it is a glittering legacy. Every time her words are read aloud, mentally, heard, understood, pondered over, she grins and winks. She whispers in our ears words of power, passion, truth, and imagination. In this way, she is not dead at all, and never will be.

Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die. 

“Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep,” Mary Elizabeth Frye


2017 in Books

Ya’ll have seen that Weight Watchers commercial, right?

*clears throat*

*activates Oprah voice*

I. Love. Books.


I inhale them the same way I do bags of potato chips: whole, and in as few sittings as possible. If I get ahold of a really great book, and it’s 400+ pages, there’s a good chance I’ll get eye strain before I finish.


Dangers of the vocation.

In On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King wrote, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” In order to write well, to develop skill, taste, and writerly abilities, to fill the creative well, writers need, desperately, to read.

I also love book lists, pitting myself against the MOST IMPORTANT NOVELS OF THE 20TH CENTURY, or the BEST KIDS BOOKS OF ALL TIME, and seeing if I can identify FIFTY BOOK COVERS EVEN ENGLISH MAJORS DON’T RECOGNIZE.

I also love book recommendations.

So I thought I’d post a list of the books I read in 2017, as a (moderately) unique way to “define” and reflect on another 365-day twirl around the sun. These are in the order I read them. Italicized books are re-reads. Bold books are recommendations/favorites I would read again.

(NF = nonfiction, SFF = sci-fi/fantasy, YA = young adult, F = fiction)

  1. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo (NF)
  2. A Storm of Swords, George R.R. Martin (SFF)
  3. The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame (YA)
  4. The Habit of Being, Flannery O’Connor (NF)
  5. Trigger Warning, Neil Gaiman (SFF)
  6. The Gift of Being Yourself, David G. Benner (NF)
  7. Mr. Palomer, Italo Calvino (F)
  8. The City at World’s End, Edmond Hamilton (SFF)
  9. Iron Council, China Mieville (SFF)
  10. When We Were Orphans, Kazuo Ishiguro (F)
  11. The Eye of the Heron, Ursula K. LeGuin (SFF)
  12. The Annotated H.P. Lovecraft (SFF)
  13. Finch, Jeff VanderMeer (SFF)
  14. Grace (Eventually), Anne Lamott (NF)
  15. Annihilation, Jeff VanderMeer (SFF)
  16. Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino (F)
  17. Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn (F)
  18. Hero of a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell (NF)
  19. Authority, Jeff VanderMeer (SFF)
  20. Acceptance, Jeff VanderMeer (SFF)
  21. Magic for Beginners, Kelly Link (SFF)
  22. Kindred, Octavia Butler (SFF)
  23. Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather (F)
  24. Cinder, Marissa Meyer (SFF YA)
  25. Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury (F)
  26. The Sandman, vol. 1, Neil Gaiman (SFF)
  27. Anne of Green Gables, L.M. Montgomery (F)
  28. Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi (F)
  29. Some Assembly Required, Anne Lamott (NF)
  30. Anne of Avonlea, L.M. Montgomery (F)
  31. Night, Elie Wiesel (NF)
  32. After the Locusts, Denise Ackerman (NF)
  33. One of Ours, Willa Cather (F)
  34. rash, Pete Hautman (SFF YA)
  35. Borne, Jeff VanderMeer (SFF)
  36. More of Less: Finding the Life You Want Under Everything You Own, Joshua Becker (NF)
  37. Strange Library, Haruki Murakami (SFF)
  38. IQ84, Haruki Murakami (SFF)
  39. Basho: The Complete Haiku (NF)
  40. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick (SFF)
  41. Mr. Pye, Mervyn Peake (SFF)
  42. Journeys of SImplicity, Philip Harnden (NF)
  43. Titus Groan, Mervyn Peake (SFF)
  44. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis (SFF)
  45. Revelations of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich (NF)
  46. A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess (F)
  47. Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust (F)
  48. Entering the Silence, Thomas Merton (NF)
  49. Lud-in-the-Mist, Hope Mirrlees (SFF)
  50. Thrill Me, Benjamin Percy (NF)
  51. Six Wakes, Mur Lafferty (SFF)
  52. Scarlet, Marissa Meyer (SFF YA)
  53. Cress, Marissa Meyer (SFF YA)
  54. Sea of Rust, C. Robert Cargill (SFF)
  55. Fairest, Marissa Meyer (SFF YA)

Not sure I can top the sheer number of books in 2018…

But I’m ready to try.


Happy New Year.

Write Like a Child

Recently, I taught haiku to a group of elementary students. I started the lesson on the defensive, expecting groans, complaints, poetry bashing, and a general unwillingness to participate. I tried to counter some of that up front by telling the students I loved haiku  and that I expected them to be respectful of that.

I gave a brief history of the form. We read three poems by Matsuo Basho and discussed the basic rules for classic haiku. I gave them some concrete steps to begin (choosing a season of the year, then an image in nature particular to that season, as well as some kind of simile/metaphor or observation they could make about that image).

And then? They started writing.

Never written a poem before? No problem.

Never heard of haiku before? No problem.

They just went for it. Pencils scribbling, erasers squeaking. The most common question I got was, “Is this good?”

Not only did they jump in without second thoughts, they offered their newborn poems up to me for assessment. They were not afraid of being critiqued.

There’s an amazing 2006 TEDTalk by Sir Ken Robinson (watch it here if you haven’t seen it) about how we lose this ability to create with abandon as we grow up. He points to the format of our educational systems, the vulnerabilities we inherit as we struggle to find identity, and the social constructs in place around us. The end result: we lose that part of us that’s willing to take creative risks that might not pay off or will open us up to criticism.

We outgrow some fears, monsters in the closet, for example, only to grow into new ones. Fears of rejection, inadequacy, worthlessness, or inconsequentiality.

I used to stare at my closet doors, at the cracks that showed the deep inner darkness where, I could imagine vividly, monsters and murderers hid. The more I pictured this, the more afraid I’d become. I eventually found a fix. I’d hook a hanger across the handles. It might stop whatever was inside from getting out, and if nothing else, the sound of it jangling around would alert me and give me enough time to get away.

The more we think about the things that scare us, the more power they gain over us. The best way to get the monsters out of the closet is to ignore the thoughts of monsters.

It’s not that we should stop caring what other people think of our work. It’s that we shouldn’t fear feedback, or attach our self-worth to others’ opinions. We need that outside critique to guide us to successful completion.

We can’t endlessly fear that we don’t know what we’re doing. We need to start. We need to work. We have to take notes, draw pictures, meditate, problem solve, and write. We will learn by doing.

The fears I’m talking about are all very real. It’s not just our imaginations playing games with us. It’s not that they aren’t worth being afraid of, or that if you do fear them you’re a coward. It’s that we shouldn’t allow our fear to take over, limit us, dictate what we can and cannot do. 

By the way, the haiku my students wrote? 100% inspired awesomeness. I was totally blown away.

At one time, we all knew how to create fearlessly. We can do it again.

How to Write Fearlessly, Like a Child:

Consider what you would write if you weren’t afraid.

Stop thinking about your fear.

Write it.

Why is Writing So Hard?

You’ve set aside a couple of hours to write, and you’ve been looking forward to it all day. You finally get home. You get your snacks, your tea or coffee, settle down to write, and…  You can’t find the mental energy to begin the process of writing, or stay in the groove long enough to be productive.

This lack of mental energy shouldn’t be confused with writer’s block or some other problem. It occurs simply because our writing brainpower is limited.

Every creative act requires us to make decisions. These decisions, conscious and un-, take a toll on the brain. It can only make so many in a day.

Writing requires TONS of decisions. In an hour, a writer makes hundreds if not thousands of decisions. Simply putting one word after the other means a decision: choosing what word comes next. And the English language in particular has many synonyms and shades of meaning to choose from. Then there’s the big-picture decisions. Character description and development. Dialogue. Scene. Overall plot. Subtext. The list goes on.

The problem is, our brain doesn’t distinguish between creative decisions and daily decisions, like what to wear, what route to take to work, what to eat, and etc. So when a writer sits down to write after a long day, her brain is likely already close to the maximum decisions it can handle in a 24-hour period. She has decision-fatigue. This makes engaging in the writing process extremely difficult.

Some famously creative people deal with decision-fatigue by cutting down on decisions. Steve Jobs, for example, had a uniform–the black turtleneck and jeans–so that he wouldn’t have to decide what to wear in the morning. Those were decisions he could spend on something more significant than his appearance. Routine ways of beginning the morning and schedules can also help.

Others choose to engage in their creative work first thing, before any other decisions crop up, demanding to be made. Sheila O’Connor, author of Sparrow Road and Keeping Safe the Stars, gets up in the morning and goes straight to her writing space. She doesn’t talk to anyone or interact with anything involving words. I don’t think she even gets dressed. Straight to writing, no questions asked. That way, her freshest, best decision-making energy is spent on her work.

It’s important to be aware of where our decision-making energy is spent.

It’s also important to know when a decision must be made, and to make it firmly.

Writers (myself included) often get ourselves into trouble by trying to put off decisions. Because of decision-fatigue or sheer wishy-washiness, we don’t want to commit to a certain character’s motivation, reaction, or an event in the plot. We want our options open. We keep writing, thinking we can come back later and clarify. Meanwhile, without a solid backbone of made decisions, the work that follows becomes spongy and disintegrates.

Even if we are managing our decision-making energy well, sometimes the fear that a decision is wrong holds us back from committing to it. It is almost impossible to know if the option we choose is the best one. Even those that feel right in the moment can be wrong.

But we have to choose an option. We can’t predict the result; we have to try the decision on and see what happens. Even if we lose pages of work on wrong decisions, we haven’t wasted our time. We come away from them knowing more about the world and the characters in it.

Writing, making endless decisions–it’s hard. Understanding the way our brains works can help us make the most of our writing time, and being willing to make decisions fearlessly helps us move forward, even if it sometimes feels like we’re moving backward.

If you want to learn more about the science behind creativity, check out Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. He goes into much more detail about this concept and many others that can give you a leg up in your writing life.