Friday, November 13, 2015

Not Queer Enough For You? On Gatekeeping in the LGBTQ Community

This is long, but it’s very important to me. Bear with me.

As some of you know, last month I made a post on Twitter and Instagram on October 11, National Coming Out Day. It explicitly stated that I am demisexual (I’ll explain what this means further down) and pansexual (meaning I can be attracted to any gender). I’d posted passively about my sexuality a few times before, but this was the first time I was unambiguously clear about it.

Coming out online was more terrifying than I expected. I’m someone who is very true to myself and proud of being open about all aspects of my identity, so I thought coming out wouldn’t make me too nervous. I was wrong.

I’ve been out to myself for almost a year, but it took me until the past couple of months to post anywhere about it. Part of the reason for that is that I was worried I didn’t “count.” I thought people wouldn’t believe I was who I said I was unless I’d dated a woman, rather than just had a crush on one. But slowly, I gained confidence. I found encouragement from members of the community, both in my physical life and online. “If you’ve had romantic/and or sexual feelings for multiple genders, you’re welcome as a member of the queer community,” they said. I fit that bill, so I breathed easier.

Needless to say, coming out puts you in a vulnerable position. I knew that beforehand, and I certainly felt that after I’d pushed it out into the world. I reminded myself that any negative feedback I received would probably be from homophobic people, anyway, who I didn’t need to concern myself with.

I definitely didn’t expect negative feedback from a fellow member of the LGBTQ community.

*flag waves menacingly*

A couple of days later, I received a message from an old friend who is part of the community. Here’s a direct quote from it: “From what I’ve read, it feels like you fall more into the ally/support category than a member…It’s one thing to SAY you’re pansexual, demisexual, gay, bi, and another to actually be in it…Being emotionally, sexually, physically intimate with someone of the same sex, someone who has no sex, someone who is intersex whatever, it’s one thing to say you’d be okay with it or open to it and another to actually do it.”

Note: the purpose of this blog post is not to senselessly bash this person. Part of why this message devastated me so much is because this person is an old family friend, someone I’ve enjoyed spending time with and discussing mutual interests with. Maybe she has no idea what kind of line she crossed. But it represents a larger problem in the LGBTQ community, so I feel that it’s important to talk about.

Now. The message. There are so many hurtful, problematic elements to this.

First of all, this person did not come equipped with some magical list of everyone I’d ever been attracted to and everyone I’d ever dated. Aside from a brief conversation about my engagement, I hadn’t spoken to this person in almost two years. I’d never spoken to her about my sexuality in my life. She only knew the genders of two of my previous partners, who were both male. Apparently, she believed that this knowledge, along with “what she’d read” (she was referring to articles I’d posted related to the LGBTQ community) was enough to justify her assumptions about my sexuality. This was so wildly presumptuous and insensitive that I couldn’t believe I was reading it.

Secondly, it’s ironic that this person approached me with my ignorance about queerness in mind, because in her message, she demonstrated that she has no idea what demisexuality is. Demisexuality has nothing to do with what gender or genders you’re attracted to. Demisexuality is part of the asexual spectrum, which encompasses people who do not experience sexual attraction often, or who do not experience it at all.

I can only experience sexual attraction to someone who I already have an emotional bond with. Before I knew there was a word for demisexuality, I defined it as, “I can only have sexual feelings for already-established friends.” This doesn’t mean I feel sexually attracted to someone and choose to abstain from sex until I trust them—this means I can’t feel anything sexual towards them at all if we don’t know each other well. I’ve never seen someone walking down the street, or a picture of someone I’ve never met, and thought, “I’d bang that.” I can’t relate to that. In fact, I’ve never been sexually attracted to someone before knowing them for at least a year first.

It is perfectly possible for a woman who is only interested in men or a man who is only interested in women to be demisexual. I’ve been experiencing demisexuality since puberty started, thanks.

Another problem was that she assumed my fiancé is a man.

My fiancé, Danny, is neither male nor female, but nonbinary. They use they/them pronouns rather than he/him or she/her. This is how Danny describes their gender in their own words: “I know I have broad shoulders, thick eyebrows, a beard, and other ‘masculine’ crap, but I’m not a man. Equally, I’m not a woman. I’m nonbinary, simple as that.”*

Also the cutest nonbinary person you ever did see.

If I were to say to myself, “I don’t count as queer because most people assume my partner is a man,” I would be invalidating Danny’s gender. People might insist we have “passing privilege,” meaning people can see us walking down the street together and not scoff at it. But the idea of “passing privilege” is a long-standing biphobic concept, or, for those who don’t know what biphobic means, discriminatory against people who are not strictly straight or gay. Beyond that, how exactly is it a “privilege” for Danny to get misgendered constantly?

I can’t use Danny’s pronouns in most normal conversations because many people a) have no idea some people use they/them as pronouns or that people can be neither male nor female, or b) think nonbinary is a “fake” identity that originated on tumblr (it didn’t). To those latter people, I’d recommend listening to an actual nonbinary person’s experiences regarding their gender before jumping to conclusions like that.

Anyway, here’s what happens every time I talk to one of these people about Danny: “My fiancé studied abroad in London and I joined my fiancé there in April. Oh what does Danny study? Danny studies English, and Danny minors in Creative Writing. Th…*mumbles* used to minor in Computer Science but Danny decided to switch over.”

Good thing “fiancé” and “Danny” are both words I enjoy using. But still, I walk away from these conversations wondering if anyone noticed how ridiculous I sounded because I was trying to avoid using any pronouns.

Some might ask, why not just use “he” to make it easier? Because that feels wrong and invalidates Danny’s actual gender. It feels like I’m talking about someone who isn’t Danny, because the Danny I know isn’t a man. If you’re straight and cisgender (meaning not transgender) and/or can’t imagine what this is like, think if someone said you had to refer to your girlfriend as a “he,” or your boyfriend as a “she.” It would feel wrong, wouldn’t it? Like you’re completely misrepresenting the person you love.

It’s even worse when people make references to Danny’s “maleness.” This sometimes happens in the context of someone speaking about our relationship. A lot of these statements are meant as compliments, but they end up making us both uncomfortable because they make incorrect assumptions about Danny’s gender. Examples include:

“As long as you’ve got your man by your side, you’ll be fine!”

“Don’t you just love a man who can do [x activity]?”

“We should have a girl’s day, no boys. Sorry Danny!”

“I know you’re not taking your husband’s last name, but the kids will have his name, right?”

“I know you’re an independent woman and all, but when it comes down to it, I’m sure you’ll look to your husband to financially support you when the kids come along.”

Sexism aside, this makes me want to scream every day, “WHAT MAN? I DON’T HAVE ONE OF THOSE.” Which wouldn’t be entirely fair, since most of these people have no clue they’re saying anything harmful. Society is mostly to blame for reinforcing the idea that you can only be a man or a woman, that someone is a man if they look a certain way, that a straight relationship is the default, etc.

The point of all this is, is this not a queer experience? Is this not a struggle against heteronormativity? Are these not microaggressions that make daily life more difficult?

Luckily, the person who sent me the message backed off a little after I mentioned Danny’s gender (although she didn’t back off entirely, and I wish she had). She said she’d messaged me out of concern that I was jumping on the “fashionable LGBT bandwagon.”

And here’s where I talk about gatekeeping.

If I had only ever dated men, and had only experienced romantic and/or sexual attraction to people who aren’t men without dating them, this would not have been enough for the person who messaged me. Despite my crushes on women and nonbinary people, I wouldn’t have “counted.” A lot of people in the community hold this opinion, that if you’re not “queer enough,” any queer feelings you’ve had don’t matter. This is damaging and needs to stop.

Can you imagine if people held this opinion about straight people? I have a friend who, last she told me, is confidently straight but has never been with anyone. Does that give me the right to tell her all her attractions to men have been invalid because she hasn’t been with any of them?

Gatekeeping, or barring people from a community because they don’t meet some arbitrary criteria, is unnecessary and harmful. If someone knows the definition of pansexual and feels it matches them best, then they are pansexual. They might stick to that identity or later realize that a different one fits them better. Regardless, if they say they’re pansexual, believe them. No one understands their sexual and romantic feelings better than they do.

As for this “fashionable LGBT bandwagon” nonsense...

Look how fashionable!!! (Source; statistics are as of 2013)

I disagree that people are changing how they identify themselves because of a trend. Yes, more people are coming out nowadays. There are also more resources now and there is more acceptance of LGBTQ people than there used to be. Maybe more people are coming out now because the environment is safer. Maybe more people are coming out because they feel encouraged to be open to what they feel rather than assume they’re straight because it’s the default. “Straight until proven gay” is itself, I argue, a homophobic mindset. It keeps LGBT identities locked in place as “alternative,” as “other.”

TL;DR: Don’t assume anyone’s sexuality. Don’t assume anyone’s gender. Don’t lecture someone about whether or not they belong in a community. And definitely, definitely don’t act like you understand someone better than they understand themselves.


*I had Danny read this whole post for accuracy before I made it public.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

In Defense of Miley's Nudity

Miley Cyrus is a hot topic these days. Makes sense--she draws attention to herself, she behaves in a lot of controversial ways, and she's no stranger to making bold statements. She also makes a lot of people angry.

People like to mention her to me because I worked with her, whether they're strangers on the Internet or various people I interact with in my regular life. Often, they will make some negative remark about Miley, perhaps to see how I will react or expecting me to agree.

Though I support much of what Miley does, I don't endorse all of it. The biggest improvements she could stand to make involve educating herself about race, the role racism plays in society, and how she has contributed to it. She's participated in a lot of harmful cultural appropriation. The way she responded to Nicki Minaj's criticism of the VMA's choice to omit "Anaconda" from the Video of the Year lineup demonstrated ignorance and irresponsibility as a feminist. Since Miley wants to fight so hard against sexism, homophobia, and transphobia, she should add racism to that list and recognize how all of these things can overlap.

But when people bash Miley in front of me, it is never about this. It's always stuff like, "Good thing you don't dress like her!" and "You wouldn't associate with her now, right, with her waving her vag all over the place?"

This makes me so uncomfortable.

The only concern I have with this picture is, "Isn't she cold??"

First of all, buried in those statements is the implicit understanding that I'm better than Miley because of the lifestyle I've chosen. It's a backhanded way of giving me approval for not showing too much skin, staying away from drugs and parties, going to college, etc. There's nothing inherently superior about those things, though. They just reflect my personality, as Miley's behaviors and modes of self-expression reflect hers.

Unfortunately, I'm very familiar with getting this kind of attitude from people. In high school, I had an unusual group of friends. We were a bunch of misfits who didn't share much in common beyond a few interests and what people might call "troubled" emotional lives. I was the academic kid in the group, the one who liked to read, cared about her grades, and planned on college.

Every so often, an adult, such as a teacher or another student's parent, would say to me, "Wait, you're friends with them?'re so smart/put-together/pleasant!"

If they thought I was put-together, well, I'm glad the ruse was working. But how was I supposed to react to this? People decades older than me who I often admired fueled my compliments by stomping all over my friends first. I had real reasons to care about my friends. I didn't view them as being beneath me or undeserving of my attention, as others seemed to think I should. I just viewed them as different. So these comments made me feel gross.

I feel similarly sick when people speak to me about Miley in this way, like I narrowly avoided her satanic influence or something. Here's another thing, though: it's not just that I dislike people insulting someone I used to work with. I also actively support much of Miley's exploits. Yes, including the way she parades around the world half-naked.

"Don't worry, Miley, I'll distract the haters with my questionable hairstyle."

It's easy to feel like people in our culture are terrified of naked human bodies, especially what many people think of as "female" bodies (bodies with breasts and/or vaginas aren't inherently female, since people who identify as male or nonbinary can have breasts and/or vaginas, too). A lot of the time, they automatically equate bodies with sex, and sex with indecency/sin/teenage pregnancy/take your pick. When they see a naked body, they shield their eyes. They condemn the naked body, this thing that everyone has, as inappropriate. Sometimes something to be ashamed of.

My question is, why? The only reason I can see for covering your eyes around a naked person is if they've asked you to look away because they're not comfortable with you seeing their body (which should always be honored). But if they're letting it all hang out there on purpose, who cares? Treat them like you would any clothed person. If you can wrap your mind around that, it becomes so much less awkward and no longer taboo.

When traveling in England earlier this year, I witnessed about fifty naked people on bicycles zooming down the streets of Canterbury. My first impulse was to avert my eyes, like some others were doing, but instead, I reminded myself that they were just bodies. Nothing to be afraid of. So I watched them on purpose. The more I looked at their bodies, the more normal they seemed. It legitimately didn't bother me that I was surrounded by all these naked people. It was awesome.

I feel like Miley is challenging this social norm, and I think she's doing it on purpose. She knows how weird people get around nudity and she's decided it's bullshit. I loved watching her on Jimmy Kimmel recently because while she's trying to continue with the show, Kimmel can't get over how much of her breasts are showing. He comes off as childish. She just treats her exposed breasts like a normal thing, which is what they should be.

I scrolled past this picture earlier and found it no more offensive than someone's beach selfie.

This means a lot to me personally because of how many years I spent ashamed of my body. Once puberty hit, I hid myself in long pants and oversized sweaters because I didn't like how I looked. I wasn't comfortable in my skin, and I specifically hated my arms, stomach, and thighs. Skirts, shorts, and dresses were out of the question unless I wore tights and a jacket. For visits to the beach, I donned a one-piece bathing suit that I quickly covered with a T-shirt and shorts. I was damn stubborn about it, too. I lived in Southern California, for crying out loud, and I always refused to take off my sweater, no matter how hot I was.

Women, or people perceived as women, are not helped through this process by school dress codes. My shame was encouraged by dress codes proclaiming that tank tops and skirts higher than the knee would sexually arouse my male peers and "give people the wrong idea." Not only was I uncomfortable with showing my body because of how it looked, but I also thought, "I don't want to seem like one of those types of girls. I want people to think I'm dignified. I don't want people to think I'm a slut."

Dress codes were teaching me that certain parts of my body were wrong. They were teaching me to look down on other girls who chose to show those parts of themselves, to see them as undignified, to assume that these girls didn't respect themselves. Dress codes were teaching me that as long as I was not like them, as long as I was a good girl and covered myself, people would approve of me, and I would be allowed to approve of myself.

Fast-forward to now. Around the time college started, I tried shorts without tights and dresses without jackets. Last year, I bought my first crop top, and now I own several. Every time I walk outside wearing a crop top and shorts, like I did today, I feel so empowered. I feel proud of my body and excited to show it off. That doesn't mean I'm comfortable walking around nude--I'm personally too modest for that--but I will champion and respect anyone who wants to do so. I admire people, like Miley, who can do that.

I never looked this happy in high school pictures.

So yeah, come to me with your complaints about Miley's cultural appropriation problem. I will agree with you. But please don't gripe about how naked she is and expect me to nod my head along with you. As far as I'm concerned, Miley can dress however the hell she wants. I hope we as a society eventually reach a point where the naked human body is no longer stigmatized and people aren't encouraged to be ashamed of them.


Saturday, September 5, 2015

"How Do I Talk To Teenagers?" You're Already Asking The Wrong Question

They said, "All teenagers scare the living shit out of me!!" - My Chemical Romance, "Teenagers"

I primarily write YA fiction. There's this misconception that writing for teenagers means you have to dumb your writing down. You know, pluck all the "big" words out of your prose because teenagers couldn't possibly understand them. Make sure your themes aren't too complicated, because those selfie-stick-toting high schoolers won't get it. Insert as many pop culture references as you can, because young adults can't relate to anything else.

Like that My Immortal story. That was popular with kids, right?
That paragraph might have been dripping with sarcasm, but even still, it felt gross to write. Mostly because a lot of people actually hold these patronizing viewpoints and often don't understand why they're a problem. Sometime during adulthood, they developed the unfortunate habit of perceiving teenagers as this alien demographic with their own indecipherable language and set of behaviors.

Hey, wow, maybe talk to teenagers like they're regular people. Because they are.

I think one reason a lot of people freeze up when it comes to talking to teenagers is because they don't remember being a teenager well enough. They see how far they've come emotionally and intellectually and, as a result, the people they were as teenagers seem juvenile, stupid, annoying, out-of-control, etc. in comparison. In other words, they don't give their teenage selves enough credit. It's easy enough to do--I only stopped being a teenager three years ago and I do it sometimes.

But when you start applying your critical attitude toward your teenage self to teenagers in general, you create a blind spot in your empathy. You stop listening to them. And a lot of people think they're justified in doing so, because they're "older" and have "more experience" and are "more mature." Only the first of those three is true every time.

Maybe I'm at a weird advantage because of my strangely vivid memory. I remember an astounding amount of detail about my 4th birthday party--not because someone repeated it to me later, but because I retained it. I remember the miniature train my parents rented for kids to ride on, and actors dressed as Prince Charming and Cinderella arriving at my house with an inexplicable pet ferret (which scratched me), and how embarrassed I felt when the teacup-patterned dress someone gifted me was too big. I also remember being 5 and thinking, after some adult had spoken condescendingly to me, "I will never forget what being five feels like."

"Mom, this is Freud's Interpretation of Dreams. Not that ego and id stuff, dumbass."
On top of that, my brain tends to categorize my memories according to age and year, an easy task since I was born in January (e.g. age 12 always = 2005, age 6 always = 1999, etc.). Ask me about pretty much any significant memory I have, as well as some insignificant ones, and I can name how old I was/the year. When did I get into Harry Potter? Age 8/2001. When was my first kiss? Age 14/2007. When did I get upset about leaving my friends' house and say the word "bam," which my dad misheard as "damn," leading to a heated conversation about where I'd heard that word until my dad realized I was quoting something Prince Eric said in The Little Mermaid? Age 5/1998.

For some reason, it took me a while to figure out everyone's memory doesn't work this way. I was floored when I heard a friend in his late teens say he "couldn't remember anything before age ten." I'm similarly surprised when people say things like, "The kid said he was like, 8, or 12. Same difference."

Uh no? Half the time, you'll say a 7-year-old is 7 and they'll be pissed you didn't specify that they're actually 7-and-three-quarters, thanks. You might roll your eyes at that or think it's cute, but honestly, that stuff matters to kids. The year between, say, ages 7 and 8 is enormous because 7 years has made up their entire life so far. It was especially important to me, since I've always looked younger than I am. And I knew that if someone mistook me for being 6 when I was actually 8, I wouldn't be taken as seriously (yes, kids pick up on that).

The real danger this creates is people misremembering how old they were when they were exposed to something, which leads to unnecessary censorship in the name of "saving the children." I'll ask people how old they were when they started swearing (or their peers started swearing), and they'll say, "I dunno. 14? 15?"

Unless you were unusually sheltered, you're a few years off the mark. I regularly heard peers swear around me at age 11 because, like a lot of people, I went to public middle school. If you grew up in a household where adults didn't worry too much about swearing around kids, you were exposed to it at an even younger age. So there's no need to freak out when the word "fuck" appears several times in a YA novel.

Same goes for sexual urges. They start early. People seem to forget that at the very beginning of puberty, your sexual urges aren't normally directed at anyone. They just kind of exist and you figure out why they're there, what to do about it, etc. But when a lot of people think "sex," they think "with someone else," something a child is definitely not ready for. They think that means young people need to be sheltered from even the idea of sex in a variety of ways, which is one reason sex in the media is more taboo than violence, and why that horribly ineffective thing called "abstinence-only education" exists.

Relax, people. I started having sexual urges at, again, age 11, but I wasn't on the hunt for a sexual partner. In fact, I felt no desire to do that for another six years. So when you're afraid to talk to a 13-year-old about sex because you're worried you'll "introduce something they're not ready for," you're flat-out wrong. They've felt these things already, and they'd benefit a lot more from respectful answers to their questions than being told they're not old enough to be feeling what they're feeling yet. Plus, there's the Internet. They've probably Googled it.

"I have no idea what a vagina is and it should stay that way" - a 16-yr-old according to abstinence-only educators, probably
With all this in mind, I'm always confused by people who treat YA literature like this lesser form of art meant for brains that can't handle anything too intellectual or mature. I once suggested to someone in a writing workshop that her novel read more like a YA story than an adult one. She said something like, "Oh, no, it's way too hardcore and bloody for teenagers." Really? Have you read The Hunger Games? Or, like, turned on a television? You know Spongebob regularly explodes into multiple pieces on his show aimed at little kids, right?

There's another element to this: too many people posit that having more life experience means that their experiences are more valid, better informed, superior to a teenager's, etc. In reality, there are millions of teenagers who have experienced something that you, hypothetical adult, have not.

Did you grow up with married, heterosexual, cisgender parents? Meet the kids who grew up in two households because their parents divorced, or who had one or more gender nonconforming parents, or who had two moms. Did you spend your adolescence in a suburb in Florida? Meet the kids who called NYC their playground, who went camping every weekend in Colorado, who went through grade school in Egypt, who bounced from place to place and never had a real hometown. Teens scroll through Facebook, go to Disneyland, start their own gardens, fight in wars, involve themselves with politics. Name any experience that isn't, I don't know, "turned 85," and some teenager, somewhere, has done it.

If you want to talk to teenagers, respect them as you would respect any human being. Don't assume they're inferior to you or brush off what they say because of their age. See what you can learn from them. They're not a mystery and they're certainly nothing to be scared of.


Monday, July 20, 2015

Writer's Block Exists, But Not in the Way You Think

It's pretty common knowledge that writers (or any other type of artist) need a kick in the pants every so often, and usually that kick needs to come from themselves. Artists are great at getting themselves into creative ruts and flailing helplessly when they realize there's no easy way out. And it can be so tempting to stay in that rut, because while there, you have no artistic responsibilities and can just hang out.

I'll just be down here.

But if you stay in the rut for too long, you realize it's boring as hell. Not being expected to do anything can make you feel useless. If you're an artist who invests a lot of their identity in said art, it can also lead to a slight existential crisis à la, "Why am I even on this planet if I'm not doing [x]?"

This year, I've spent a lot more time in creative ruts than I usually do. I'm no stranger to these ruts, of course, and I don't think any artist is. But the ruts of 2015 proved a lot harder to get out of, and, thanks to a number of circumstances, my willpower was no match for how steep they were.

Why am I even calling these ruts? Why am I not calling it writer's block? Because I don't think writer's block exists, or at least, it doesn't exist in the way most people seem to understand it. When I hear people complain about writer's block, it often comes in the form of, "I can't think of anything to write about. I'm sitting there and nothing is coming out."

Oh, something could come out, all right. All you have to do is think of words and type them onto the page, or scribble them into your notebook or napkin or stone tablet or whatever you use. Your problem is that nothing good is coming out.

Well, duh. That's, like, 75% of writing a first draft. Like I've said before, writing involves wading through a lot of shit before you can get to the good stuff. It's about not judging yourself and trusting that you will be able to look at it with fresh eyes later, to clean up the language and cut out entire sections that aren't working. It's about not being afraid of your own failure because nobody gets it right the first time.

To me, writer's block is less about your creative abilities no longer working and more about some paralyzing fear holding you back from writing at all. It is incredibly hard to push through this, and sometimes, you have a lot working against you. A major event could disrupt your life, whether it's a positive or negative one; you could be battling mental illness; your living conditions might make it more difficult or outright impossible for you to work on your art. But there's a fine line between giving yourself a break because of an obstacle and not pushing yourself to work when you know enough pushing would get you where you need to be.

Clearly, I am still struggling to find this line.

As many of you know, I'm writing a YA fantasy series meant to be four books long. I've written books one, two, and three, but shortly after finishing the third, I took a step back. I didn't want to start book four until I was fairly satisfied with the first three. Book one was polished thanks to a significant rewrite I undertook with it after becoming more familiar with the publishing industry. I was happy with book three, since it was my most recent work and written by a much more mature author than the other two.

But book two was a total mess. So, last year,  I promised myself I would revise the thing before drafting the final book in the series.

I'd been avoiding revising book two for a while, and only recently did I start thinking about why that was. Drafting it had been a messy process. I'd stumbled through the first ten chapters with no idea how to organize it, the last section was plagued with overblown tangents, the main plot got lost in a tangle of subplots. But I also wrote that book during the most difficult emotional period of my life. As a result, the book includes some of my best writing, but also made me not want to look at it.

Re-reading the first several chapters, I had no patience for the miserable kid who'd written the original draft (the me of several years ago). I called her stupid and annoying, cursed her for the monstrosity she'd left me with, and laughed at all her amateur mistakes. Revising her prose proved exhausting, which made it easy to slip into a rut. At some point, I tumbled into the rut and stayed there.

To be fair to myself, I've been up against a lot this year. My last semester of college took a toll on me. I was dealing with a school newspaper fiasco that left me disillusioned with my university and with universities in general. My significant other was studying abroad, and the separation was, to put it mildly, hard. I was teaching a class and my mental health was suffering worse than it ever had during college. Throughout that last semester, I revised book two in small bursts, but not in any sustainable way.

Then I graduated and went to Europe for two months, as my Instagram account can attest to. It was understandable that I didn't revise during this period, since 1) I had no time and 2) I had nowhere to go. Most of my time in Europe was either spent at my significant other's flat in London, which housed like seven other people and not very many rooms, or in an AirBnB, someone else's house. I wasn't about to demand a room I could revise in for two hours every night. Through all of this, I promised myself I would start revising as soon as I got home.

Guess what didn't happen.

We arrived home super jet lagged and not wanting to do anything but laze around the house. I could barely find the energy to move. It's fine, I told myself. The family trip to Alaska is soon. You'll start revising there. Then we got there for our two-week vacation and I found myself repeating the same process every day. I'd announce that I was "planning to edit" later, occupy myself with other, less demanding tasks, and become more and more anxious as the day's hours dwindled. The closer I got to midnight, the more excuses built up. I'll do it in an hour. Okay, half hour. Actually, I can't tonight. I need to spend more time with my siblings. Or I'll just finish this quest in this video game. Tonight isn't a good night because--

These weren't valid excuses anymore. I was stuck in the rut. I'd been there for so much longer than I was used to and couldn't figure out how to get myself out of it. Worse than that, I started to tear myself apart for continually succumbing to whatever was stopping me. I criticized myself every day for it. It didn't exactly do wonders for my self-esteem.

Then one day during our trip, we visited a rocky beach. I was climbing out to one of the larger rocks that was more difficult to reach, since it was further out in the water than the others. I made it there without a scratch, despite the slippery stones I had to step on and the incoming tide. Boy was I proud of myself for being a badass and succeeding in an outdoorsy activity that made me nervous. I was still celebrating on my way back to the beach when I slipped on the barnacle-encrusted rock. I landed right on my butt and earned a cut on my palm, which would later bruise.

Asshole barnacles.

It was a shallow cut that barely broke the skin. It wasn't even that big, and there wasn't much blood. But what did I do? I, a 22-year-old woman who has always had a low pain tolerance, started crying.

I didn't cry in front of anyone who wasn't understanding (just my significant other, who is very pro-feel-what-you-feel), but still, I felt humiliated. I'm not very patient with myself when it comes to having an emotional reaction I don't consider reasonable. If I'd had it my way, I would have jumped back up all Mercutio-like and said, "Ay, ay, a scratch, a scratch!" But I cried, which definitely did not match the badass-outdoorsy-warrior mood I'd been indulging in a moment before. I felt ashamed.

This, of all things, made me remember why I was writing my YA fantasy in the first place.

My YA fantasy's main character has been thrust into a combat situation that doesn't match her personality at all. She, like me, is prone to crying for every reason under the sun, whether it be physical pain, interpersonal, frustration, anger, etc. Her best friend is a much more conventional warrior, and tears from her are pretty rare.

But there's a reason my main character has the spotlight instead of her friend. I want to show her fighting for her life through tears. I want her emotional outbursts to fuel her rather than indicate weakness. Through these books, I want to show people that emotion can lend us enormous strength though it may seem to hinder us. I am working against our culture's criticisms of "excessive" emotion and how it encourages people to suppress it. I especially want teenagers of all genders to read these books and feel validated when they cry. I want them to see crying as a source of power the way I couldn't as a teenager.

There is no way I'm gonna be able to do that unless I sit down and revise book two, damn it.

And you know what? When I got back to it, I thanked my younger self. Even though she didn't really know what she was doing, she'd fought through the muck to get words down during the hardest time of her life. Sure, it's a lot to revise. But without her, I wouldn't have anything to revise at all. She stayed out of her rut long enough to write this craptastic first draft. I am so proud of her.

So it took an assful of barnacles to get me out of my rut this time. Well, it didn't get me out on its own. It just threw down a rope. It still took me a few days to haul myself out of there and get down to business. Now, finally, I am revising again, and I feel much more comfortable with myself. I feel I'm doing good, important work that I hope will someday benefit other people.

Writer's block may be tough to deal with, but thinking about it in terms of fear instead of a short supply of creativity gives me a lot more control over how I handle it. I'm always better when I'm working on my craft, and I'm happy to be back on board.

If you have any methods for getting yourselves out of artistic ruts, let me know in the comments. I could sure use more ideas.


Saturday, May 23, 2015

I Don't Regret Giving up Acting: Some Darker Sides of Being a Child Actress

Today my sister directed me to a video in which Dylan Sprouse, one of the twins who starred in Disney Channel's The Suite Life of Zack and Cody as well as its spin-off The Suite Life on Deck, explains why he and his brother quit working for Disney in favor of pursuing degrees at NYU. I'm not sure if the Sprouse twins have quit acting for good like I did, but I'm always glad to see stories of other actors deciding to stop working on a project that no longer makes them happy.

Nice dorm room.

It was especially nice to see this from someone my age who worked on a Disney show similar to the one I was in (though, of course, my role was very different from theirs--I was only in 11 episodes of Hannah Montana while they starred in both their shows as the main characters). I recommend watching the video because it provides excellent insight into how the show business industry can mistreat its workers, even high-profile actors like Cole and Dylan Sprouse.

However, I'm mostly here to talk about the title of the article: "Former Disney Superstar Reveals Why He Walked Away from Being Rich."

Before I even clicked the link, I thought, "Oh boy, here we go."

When you stop acting, one thing a lot of people like to talk about is money. "Why would you give all that up?" "Do you know how many people would kill for that kind of money?" When I was 17, my freaking therapist brought it up. I told him about my recent decision, based on the negative emotional toll it was taking on me, to quit acting. He said I'd "basically given up the lottery" and should reconsider my decision.

Needless to say, I never went back to that therapist, and it gets on my last nerve when people make similar comments nowadays. Isn't "do it for love, not for money" a commonly taught after-school-special-type value? Like, why are people baffled by this?

I'm pretty sure it's because when most people imagine a Hollywood actor's life, they think of the glamorous bits. They think of people all over the world knowing your face and being interested in your life. They think of the money, of your hair and make-up always looking perfect, of getting to portray interesting characters that millions of viewers will enjoy and possibly connect to.

I can understand wanting these things, sort of. I have never been interested in the world knowing my face, but that might be because the world has known my face in some capacity since I was 10, so I didn't have much of an opportunity to hope it would happen. I don't like wearing make-up--I don't feel like myself when I wear it and it's physically uncomfortable. I guess having perfect hair all the time would be nice, but it would probably mean having to get up earlier and sit in a chair for hours, so I'm fine without it.

The last part about portraying characters is something I definitely understand, especially as a writer. Providing the world with characters it can relate to is something I still want to do, and the reason I got into acting in the first place. I think the most successful actors hold this value close to their hearts, and it's what keeps a lot of them going in this difficult business. If it had been important enough to me, I would have continued, but I discovered writing offered a medium for characters that I preferred (I talked more about this a few years ago).

The money has definitely been helpful. I never want to understate how thankful I am for the money I made. Without it, I would be knee-deep in student loan debt right now instead of never having to worry about tuition money again. I wouldn't currently be on vacation in Europe. I wouldn't have gotten to attend the Midwest Writers Workshop in Indiana for the past two years, where I have made incredible writer friends. The exposure has also been amazing. If I hadn't acted, barely anyone would be reading this right now, and I certainly wouldn't have thousands of amazing Twitter followers.

But show business is very, very difficult. The hard parts factor heavily into every actor's decision about whether or not to stay in the industry. It's important that people be aware of how tough it can get, especially when those people want to criticize someone for leaving acting behind.

I'm going to limit these points to acting as a child, since that's the only experience I can speak to on this topic.

For one thing, you have to spend a lot of time away from home, family, and friends. I was lucky that, when I wanted to start acting, I already lived in Los Angeles. That's where most auditions happen and where a lot of the production studios are. I was also lucky that my first acting project (Cheaper by the Dozen) was filmed in Los Angeles. After a day of work, I got to come home, sleep in my own bed, and see my friends on the weekends.

However, with The Pacifier and Cheaper by the Dozen 2, it was a different story. Both required going to Toronto, Canada for three months because filming in Canada is cheaper, and fairly common. For Pacifier, which filmed March-July of 2004, this meant leaving my elementary school three months early and never coming back, because I was in fifth grade and would switch to middle school in the fall (I finished my schooling on set). It meant seeing the disappointed look on my best friend's face when I told her I would be spending the rest of the school year thousands of miles away from her.

The worst part, though, was being separated from my mom. Up until Pacifier, I hadn't been apart from my mother for longer than the two-week periods my siblings and I spent visiting family with my dad (my parents divorced when I was 9). It's not as if she could up and leave her job to join me in Canada for three months.

She visited once, for a week or so, but that didn't feel like enough to an 11-year-old craving her mother's comfort. Every time I watch the scene where Lulu opens the door and screams in Vin Diesel's face, I cringe a little, because my mom left to catch her flight minutes before I filmed that scene and I'd just spent time crying.

I also remember crying over my mom in the hair-and-make-up trailer a few times. One of the make-up artists, Katie, was so sweet about it. I had trouble keeping my eyes open whenever she put make-up under them, so she offered to tape pictures of my mom above the make-up mirror for me to look at while I tried not to blink.

I can't imagine doing this now, as an adult. It would have been impossible to graduate from college in a timely manner, since I would have had to keep taking semesters off. I admire those who can do both at once, like Emma Watson, who graduated from Brown University last year. But I'm nowhere near as high profile as she is. She had a lot more agency when it came to things like negotiating with her university and picking-and-choosing which roles she wanted to play, and when.

I'm sure production companies would have been more willing to work around Emma Watson's schedule than they would be with someone like me. This is of course not meant to underestimate the incredible amount of work she put into acting and getting a degree at the same time. It just wouldn't have been possible for me.

Then there's being separated from loved ones. The only several-months-long block of time I spent away from all my loved ones since I stopped acting was when I studied abroad in Ireland (which JUST LEGALIZED GAY MARRIAGE, BY THE WAY!) in August-December of 2013. I was mostly fine and made wonderful friends while I was there.

But by December, I wanted to go home so much I started feeling guilty about it. Didn't people always say that when you studied abroad, you'd "never want to leave?" I loved Dublin and couldn't have chosen a better place to study, but I missed my family enough that I looked forward to it being over--even though two weeks into being home, I wished I was back in Dublin again. Being separated from your network of loved ones is hard, even when you're crazy about what you're doing during your time away from them. I'm not interested enough in acting to regularly put up with this kind of isolation.

Another problem is people like to criticize actors for how they look, especially when those actors are women. And when you're a 12-year-old girl who's only just starting to become physically aware of herself, this is devastating to your self-esteem.

I, unfortunately, used to frequent the message boards on my IMDb page. Sure, my parents warned me that people on there would probably say some not-so-nice things, but again, I was 12. Any kid that age who knew people were talking about them on the Internet would read it. After Cheaper by the Dozen 2 came out, I remember how I felt when I saw a thread titled something like, "Can you say FAT?" It was full of people commenting on how much weight I'd gained between Pacifier and Cheaper 2.

Here's what I looked like.

I was already feeling self-conscious about my weight. My mom told me it was related to starting puberty and that my body was in the middle of figuring itself out. That didn't make reading the thread any less upsetting. I read the whole thing through frustrated tears. Then, because I felt the need to defend myself (and because I was a 12-year-old who didn't understand how the Internet worked), I responded to some of the posts under an alias. Which of course led to more attacks on my weight.

Now that I'm more educated about how the industry and Western society works, it makes me angry that "fat" was intended as an insult and that I was encouraged to see it that way. What if I had been larger than this? What if I had continued to gain weight? What if I was currently 300 pounds? It wouldn't be anybody's business and it wouldn't be something to criticize.

This wasn't an isolated incident. Some more I remember: "Has anybody noticed her butt getting bigger?" "Well she looks...different here" "Someone told me she gained a lot of weight in Hannah Montana, does anyone have pictures?"

There are probably a lot more, but finding them would require combing through the IMDb message boards for them, and I'm afraid it would be too upsetting. Yes, I'm 22, it's been 10 years, and it would still be too upsetting.

This is another aspect of acting that would be hard on me today. I've never worn make-up regularly. Very rarely, I wear it to special occasions, but even that has been dropping out of my life, mostly because I realized I was putting on make-up due to social pressure to appear more feminine. I enjoy the way I dress, but it usually isn't up to "fashionable" standards, and I prefer comfort over style most of the time. So when I see tabloids bashing celebrity women for "daring" to leave the house in sweatpants and without make-up, I'm horrified. I'm angry. And I feel better about leaving the industry behind.

One more anecdote before I move on to my next point. When I was 15, I attended some event that involved getting interviewed at the end of a short red carpet after publicity photos. I had my mom do my make-up because I figured they'd expect me to wear it. I was wearing a cardigan and jeans, which, for me, was dressing up. In high school, I hated jeans, instead preferring to wear baggy clothes that hid as much of my body as possible.

Me in high school, wearing a typical high-school-me outfit

At the end of the red carpet, I heard the people being interviewed before me answer a question about their favorite Christmas traditions. Socially anxious, 15-year-old me prepared to answer that question next. Instead, the question I got was, "Do you have any beauty tips?"

I stood there in stunned silence for a second, partially because my plan had gone awry, and also because I had no idea what the hell kind of beauty tip I was gonna give. Use shampoo? Brush your teeth? Bathe occasionally? I said, "Uhh, be yourself" and dashed out of there.

There are thousands of other reasons working in show business takes a toll on child actors, but I don't want to make this post too much longer, so I'll leave you with one final point: being a young person with this amount of exposure can be legitimately scary and not age-appropriate.

By scary, I don't just mean "it's creepy that so many people know my name and what my face looks like." I mean scary like the time my sister got a text message from some guy asking if he could speak to me when I was 18. He'd somehow tracked down her phone number and used it to try to get in touch with me. Worse, I recognized his name. He'd been leaving weird, obsessive comments on anything I posted online starting from when I was 13 and onwards. And he still was fixated on me.

I spent the day terrified. I didn't know what this guy was capable of. He'd found Wendy's phone number, so for all I knew, the next step was figuring out where I lived. Luckily, that didn't happen.

When I was a kid, I got fanmail from guys asking me to be their girlfriend. I remember someone telling me they'd printed out every picture they could find of me and put them up in their room (I must have been 13 or 14). Around the same age, I saw someone on the Internet ask if any nude pictures of me existed. I came across comments like "I can't wait until she turns 16" and "counting down the days until she's legal."

This was disturbing enough as a child and a teenager, and relatively speaking, I was never a very well-known actress. I can't begin to imagine the nightmares big-name celebrities have to deal with on a regular basis. No wonder they need bodyguards. If I continued acting and became more successful, I would have to readjust my life to make room for this nonsense. I am very happy keeping that stuff as far away from me as possible.

I hope this post provides some perspective on how the positive parts of show business can be overshadowed by the more detrimental ones. Really, I admire people who stay in this industry and put up with all this. It means they really love what they're doing and they're committed to their art. If writing involved all these things, would I still pursue it? Absolutely. But that's because writing feels like my calling, and acting doesn't.

I hope this helps people understand better.


Wednesday, April 29, 2015

I've Been M.I.A., But I'm Back With a College Degree!

This blog is something I treasure. It allows me a platform to write my thoughts on topics that are important to me in long form, and then to distribute those thoughts to a large audience. It provides me with a place to practice my writing, which, to a young writer trying to sell her fiction, is valuable no matter what the medium. It also produces instant feedback from readers and gives me the opportunity to interact with them.

So why haven't I written anything here since June of 2014? Why have I been neglecting something so important to me for almost a year?

Well, a number of life-changing things have happened to me in the past ten months. For your convenience, here's a chronological list:

  • This person wandered into my life and made me fall in love. Rude. I would recommend following said person on Twitter and Instagram though, since both include quality content (Danny is both an amateur photographer and sassmaster).
  • I went to the Caribbean on a family vacation and met some donkeys. The donkeys in Bonaire are morally offended by any form of journalism and so refused to allow me to write a blog post in their country.
  • I started my senior year of college, which is the primary reason I wasn't updating this blog. Because of how draining senior year was, both academically and emotionally, I actually fell behind on everything, including writing/editing/revising my novels, reading for pleasure, keeping up with the publishing world, etc. Even playing video games started to feel like exerting too much effort.
  • During my senior year, I taught a class on Leo Tolstoy, one of my favorite classic authors. If you're interested, we read Anna Karenina, selections from War and Peace, part of his essay "What is Art?", and The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories (a compilation of his shorter works), using the award-winning translations by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. The class was small, but a big academic and personal success. It also took a lot of work, as you would expect. If you're into beautiful prose, expertly crafted characters, and emotions in general, I recommend you read all of these things.
  • I ended up smack in the middle of a censorship controversy at my university (which, now that I no longer attend the school, I am comfortable stating is the University of Redlands). I was co-editor-in-chief of the student newspaper The Bulldog Weekly when, midway through the year, our student government decided to cut our funding. Suspiciously, this came after we published an article that didn't make the university look very good. My co-editor and I wrote about it here, but I plan to write a blog post talking more extensively about this as well.
  • I graduated from college, earning my bachelor's degree in Writing Fiction: Listening, Absorbing, and Creating, which is a combination of the literature, creative writing, and psychology fields. If you're wondering why my major sounds made up, that's because it is. During my undergrad, I was part of an incredible program called the Johnston Center for Integrative Studies that allows students to design their own majors, which requires a lot of extra thought and self-motivation. I have a lot of negative feelings toward my university right now because of the whole newspaper drama mentioned above, but I can't speak more highly of Johnston and it will always have my heart. So, if you're considering the U of R, DO JOHNSTON.

And now I'm doing some traveling in Europe as a sort of graduation gift to myself. But what comes next?

Originally, I had planned to pursue a master's degree immediately after finishing my undergrad. Senior year helped me realize that I'm pretty burned out on school, at least for now, so I'll be spending the next year focusing on my novels, catching up with the publishing world, pleasure reading, and keeping up with this blog. I'm so excited to finally have time to participate in these things again, without having to schedule them around homework.

After that? We'll see. What masters degree would I want to pursue? Many might think I'd go for a creative writing MFA. I considered that at first, but now I know that's not the path I want to take. I have many reasons for this, which I hope to discuss on this blog at some point in the future.

What about literature? Tempting, but I think I'd rather indulge in all the pleasure reading I can in the years to come. Pursuing a masters in literature means committing myself to whatever my professors list in the syllabus. While I'm sure they'd assign some excellent reading, it means another several years of not having time to read purely for pleasure. Also, the niche I'm most interested in learning more about is Russian literature, and I'm pretty sure that requires learning Russian. Which would be great, and I would love to do that eventually! But I'd prefer to focus on getting my writing out there first.

If I'm going to pursue a masters in anything, my ideal choice (for the moment) is a masters in publishing. I'm really interested in becoming involved with publishing from the editorial side as well as the author side, and I've looked into some publishing programs that seem like excellent networking opportunities.

So, expect more posts from me now. I don't have homework taking up my time anymore and I'm looking forward to posting my thoughts somewhere less restrictive than Twitter. For those of you who have stuck with this blog, thank you so much for reading. For those of you who started following me within the past year, welcome, and I'm glad to have you!

I hope this is the beginning of a fulfilling and educational new era for this blog. Keep an eye out on Instagram for photos of England, Ireland, Scotland, and more!


Friday, June 6, 2014

No, I'm Not Embarrassed: Good Lit is Good Lit

When I woke up this morning, there was rage all over my Twitter feed. I couldn't find the source, but it seemed to have something to do with YA readers being shamed for, well, reading YA. What's new, right?

I went about my day normally. Later, a friend posted the link to the offending article, and I read it. It's called Against YA, with the tagline, "yes, adults should be embarrassed to read young adult books." It argues that by reading young adult literature, adults are missing out on more "important" literature, namely literary fiction. Such readers are apparently selling themselves short by choosing "escapism" over more complex, ambiguous works only found in the adult section of the bookstore.

This article reeeaaally got under my skin, for a number of reasons.

(Side note: I'm not entirely comfortable with posting the link to the article, since I know controversial articles love to generate more traffic, and I'm contributing to that by posting it. But it's not fair for me to present my argument without offering up the other side, so there it is).

If you follow this blog, you know I write YA fantasy. You might also know that I write YA contemporary, and adult contemporary, or what the writer of the article calls realistic fiction. I am interested in a variety of different perspectives and audiences, so I don't feel comfortable limiting myself to just one category or genre. Naturally, then, I don't limit myself as a reader, either.

I used to. You'll know from some of my past entries that I used to limit my reading to realistic, literary fiction, particularly classics (yet I was writing YA fantasy?? Yeah, I was still figuring out the whole read-the-genre-you-write thing...don't worry, I learned). I agreed with this woman, mostly because I considered most YA books to be carbon copies of Twilight, which I disliked. I looked down on these books because I thought people used them for escapism. I, too, thought YA limited itself to "instant gratification" and shirked the harsher realities my classics offered me.

There are so many problems here.

First off, there is nothing inherently wrong with escapism. The reason it used to give me pause is because I thought people who sought out escapism wanted to ignore the problems in their lives, and thus never deal with those problems. I thought if you wanted to escape, you were weak, and your real life would fall apart around you.

My prejudice against YA was probably wrapped up in this mindset. But how unfair is it to assume that someone who wants a little escape is going to let their world go to pieces? There's a difference between wanting to get away for a little and being seriously dysfunctional. Also, I'm a hypocrite--what the hell do I play video games for if not for the escapism? The graphics? It's definitely not the graphics.

Secondly, the generalizations about YA listed in this article make it clear that this woman has not read widely in the YA category, or at least not widely enough to appreciate its many nuances and opportunities for complexity. According to her, YA is full of hunky dory protagonists who never self reflect and always get a perfectly tied-up ending. YA is meant to be pleasurable, she says. It's fluff. It doesn't let you empathize with people who aren't like you. It's easy on the heart and satisfying.

Right. That's why The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which she mentions in the article, leaves us with a good feeling. Wait, never mind. It ends with the main character suffering a serious emotional breakdown thanks to a traumatic event from his past. The readers are left wondering how he will cope with this latest relapse, and we don't get to know. If Katsa had never self-reflected in Graceling, never confronted an upsetting emotional reality about herself, she would never have won my respect. Boy do I wish the end of The Amber Spyglass was "easy on the heart and satisfying," because then I could've avoided the overwhelming panic and indignation I felt when I realized what was going to happen (I kept flipping the pages back and forth as if that would change it). If we're counting Harry Potter, I managed to empathize with Severus Snape. Last I checked, I wasn't a bitter, thirty-something-year-old man with greasy hair and an unrequited crush he really should have let go of a long time ago (yes, I'm being critical of him here, but feeling empathy for someone does not eliminate your ability to criticize that person. I felt sad for Snape, but I could still see issues with his behavior).

Or, let's take the book I'm reading right now: Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein, which follows a girl in her late teens who is placed in a women's concentration camp during World War II. The narrator has a captivating voice. The characters are interesting and respond to trauma in their own unique ways. The author does not shy away from the gruesome realities of a concentration camp, nor does she give us closure about what happens to everyone (oh, look! Ambiguity!). It is frustrating and, at times, sickening to watch these characters endure what they have to endure. It is not "pleasurable"--the only "pleasure" I could think of getting out of this book is being glad I'm not the one in a concentration camp, but I wouldn't call that "pleasure." I am not reading it to feel better about life; I'm reading it because I want to see what happens to these girls.

But, Morgan, wouldn't you ultimately get more out of a piece of literary fiction? Doesn't this book pale in comparison to those classics you love? Aren't you an adult?

Ah, there you are, Ulysses by James Joyce, which I spent last month reading with a class. I knew you'd come in handy.

When it comes to literary fiction, Ulysses is about as literary as you can get. It contains made-up words, nonsensical sentences, literally hundreds of obscure references (many of which are crucial to the experience, so have fun looking them up!), confusing narrators (who the hell is talking in this paragraph?), and stream-of-consciousness prose that is sometimes impossible to follow. Also, every chapter is written in a different style. Every time you think you're used to how Ulysses operates, boom! It transforms into a different monster.

Many people who haven't studied it closely or approached it blind think the book is a load of nonsense and isn't worth it. But I loved the hell out of this book. If you have it, or next time you visit a bookstore, flip Ulysses open to chapter eleven, the music-themed chapter. The chapter has a freaking overture made out of language. What does that mean? It means it operates like a musical overture, which plays a collection of sounds that will later appear throughout different parts of the performance that is to follow. Except Ulysses does it with words. The overture is made up of of a page and a half of short phrases that, in some form or another, appear in the chapter. As you read, you find yourself playing "Where's Waldo"--"Ah, there's the reference to the first line of the overture! Look, that must refer to line twelve!" It's mind-blowing and exciting. It makes you re-think how we use language and how stories are formed.

I also love the hell out of Rose Under Fire so far. I feel a rush of anticipation every time I sit down to read it, just as I did with Ulysses. How is it possible for me to sincerely enjoy such different books, especially one on top of the other? Because I understand that these novels are aiming for different effects, and those effects are equally legitimate. Rose Under Fire places compelling characters in a terrifying situation. It wants me to feel their reality and stress over the characters' fates. Ulysses challenges my expectations as a reader and demands that I pay just as much attention to the language as I do to plot and character--probably even more attention. These are both great goals. They are both stimulating. They both make me feel something.

Of course, if the article angered me as a reader, it angered me as a writer, too. I took most issue with the writer's claim that "[YA readers] are asked to abandon the mature insights into [an emotional] perspective that they (supposedly) have acquired as adults."

If this is what YA is about, then evidently, I haven't been reading YA. I've seen plenty of observations and epiphanies in YA literature that some adults never even think about or achieve. I have stated that there is nothing wrong with escapism already, but as someone who does not personally read for escapism, I tend to write against it. The novels I write (about and for teenagers) depend on mature insights. They feed on them. They could not exist without them. The more you follow my main character, the higher and higher she reaches for these insights, though sometimes she'll flinch away from them, too, because they're painful and she's human.

To argue that YA forces you to do away with adult emotionality negates everything I've been writing for, and negates a sizable percentage of the feelings a teenager experiences. Because many of the things teenagers feel are very real, very adult feelings. That's part of why adolescence is so terrifying--emotions aren't simple anymore. The feelings are new, but that does not make them lesser. As for adults who think reading about these "first" experiences is a form of regression, well, most of the adults I know would benefit from revisiting the roots of these emotions. That "first" feeling laid a foundation, after all.

Are you a literary novel? Give me feelings. Are you a YA novel? Give me feelings. Grip me by the heart, book, and I will love you, because feelings are the whole damn reason I'm here.


Saturday, May 17, 2014

Update: Why You've Been Hearing Nothing but Crickets from Me

Hey readers!

I just wanted to give you lovely people a quick update about why I seem to have completely vanished from my blog (I'm sad whenever I remember I haven't written a blog post since February). I spent a month after writing my Frozen post editing my third novel until it was in fine enough condition to have people actually read it, so my priorities during that period were that and schoolwork. During April, the finals crunch really set in. Now I'm taking a month-long class dedicated to reading Ulysses (by James Joyce) and practically nothing else.

For those of you who haven't heard of the book, Ulysses is an extremely experimental, dense, and complicated novel and takes a lot of energy to simply read, let alone respond to and discuss. For instance, last week my friends and I spent nine or ten hours reading a chapter that was eleven pages. Eleven pages. But I love the thing. I'm only halfway through, but I get the feeling it'll be up there with War and Peace for me (which is a huge honor).

I've still managed to be fairly active on Twitter, so during the next month, you can find me there (usually rambling about Ulysses). Once the summer starts, I should be back to updating this blog, which I'm excited about. Just because I haven't been updating doesn't mean I haven't been getting ideas!

See you in June!


Friday, February 28, 2014

My Love/Meh Relationship with Frozen

Pretty personal post ahead. But I thought it was important to share on this blog, since it is closely linked with the role fiction can play in one's life and in one's identity.

If you've been on the Internet at any point over the past three months, you definitely haven't encountered this totally obscure Disney movie, Frozen. On the off chance you do know which movie I'm talking about, be warned that this post contains spoilers.

The moment the movie came out, every other person I talked to told me I needed to see it as soon as possible. People said it was the best Disney princess movie since Beauty and the Beast. I practically knew all the songs before I actually saw the thing. Two of my college-aged friends have seen the movie in theaters five times. I thought, whoa, this movie must be Pixar-level amazing. So I walked into the theater with extremely high expectations...

...and walked out confused. Disappointed. My sister agreed with me. The movie was trying too hard to be Tangled--the Sven character was completely interchangeable with the horse from Rapunzel's film. Out of all the jokes in the movie, one made me laugh. One. Even then, it was just a little "heh." I couldn't stand Olaf (I feel so bad saying that, because he's cute and sweet, just not funny to me). Elsa rubbed me the wrong way. Much of the plot "twists" were incredibly predictable. I was glad Disney finally subscribed to a type of "true love" that wasn't romantic, but I just wish I hadn't seen it coming from a mile away. Don't even get me started on Disney's choice to make Hans evil. Why were people so crazy about this movie?

Well, big deal, right? I don't have to love a movie everyone else is, for some reason, obsessed with. I participated in the cultural phenomenon and now I can move on. I tend to be a harsh critic of movies in general, anyway, so this shouldn't bother me so much.

But then there's this:

That is a picture of me and my sister, Wendy, above the movie's sister characters, Anna and Elsa. It's great that Anna is the younger sister and Elsa older, because as far as my sister and I go, the personalities match us almost perfectly. If someone had told me, "Hey, they're gonna make a movie about an older sister who has emotional issues that she doesn't know how to control and a sweet, optimistic sister who has complete faith in her," I would have thought the scriptwriters were spying on my family.

Remember, I wasn't a big fan of the movie. But the fact that I wasn't a huge fan kept bothering me, long after I'd seen it. Part of it may have related to the fact that I felt left out, since everyone else latched onto it. But I've come up with a couple more reasons that the bitterness stuck with me:

1) I'm mad that this movie didn't come out in the 90s.

Ariel!...and Eric. Belle!....and the Beast. Kiara!...and Kovu. These are the main characters of some of the Disney movies my sister and I watched (and acted out in front of the screen) as kids. Notice something about these movies? They're running low on female characters. This meant that, unless one of us wanted to be one of Gaston's fangirls or Lion King 2's evil Zera, only one of us could be "the girl," and the other was stuck being the boy. Because I was the bossy older sister, I usually got to be the female character, to Wendy's dismay.

Sure, we could have come up with our own characters, which we did. But it was fun to pretend we were characters we could see onscreen. These movies had merchandise, soundtracks we could sing to and toys we could play with. This stuff stretched the worlds further, made the fictional playground bigger. Wendy and I had a few sister movies to choose from, of course--she was the Hallie to my Annie (The Parent Trap remake), the Mei to my Satsuki (Totoro), the Mary-Kate to my Ashley (I'm not gonna list them all). But did these movies offer toys you could play with, or outfits, or dolls? Totoro has some, but not of the sisters.

If this movie had come out when we were kids, my poor mother probably would have purchased half the Frozen merchandise in the Disney store. We would have had Elsa and Anna dolls. We would have danced around singing "Do You Wanna Build a Snowman?" and "For the First Time in Forever (Reprise)" together. We would have dressed our little brother in white and called him Olaf. Heck, we would probably have started asking people to call us Elsa and Anna (we would sometimes ask people to call us by our middle names, which are close enough--I'm Morgan Elizabeth, she's Wendy Anne).

Is it immature of me to whine about how my childhood lacked Frozen? Absolutely. My childhood had plenty of wonderful things, and I'm thrilled for the little sisters of the world who get to grow up with these characters. I'm just a little jealous of them, too.

Here comes the bigger one:

2) I saw too much of Elsa in myself.

Recall how I said Elsa rubbed me the wrong way. I also mentioned that I was the bossy older sister, kind of flippantly. But I say that with some pain.

Emotions have been a big...thing for me for much of my life. If my novels are ever published, you will see what I mean. I was always the temperamental kid in the house. I had a hitting problem that I took out on my siblings. In high school, I had meltdowns. And over the past three or four years, I realized my out-of-control emotions could hurt people. I didn't know what to do about it. I tried telling myself not to explode when I felt a freak-out coming on, but that didn't help. It usually made it worse. This all leads up to the present day, when recently, a counselor told me I punish myself for feeling things too intensely.

 This scene looked familiar.

I told my friend, who is the number one Frozen fan, about this counseling session. Later on, she said to me, "If you punish yourself for your emotions, why didn't you like Elsa?"

Hm. Well, Elsa had a resolution. I'm better than I was a few years ago, but I still haven't really resolved this yet.

One thing I knew people were wild about was Elsa's song, "Let it Go" (which I now enjoy, though I don't think it's musically or lyrically strong enough to be Oscar-worthy--the best thing about it is Idina Menzel's voice). That's when she uses her icky feelings to construct her castle, which I could easily tie to my own novel-writing. I knew Elsa was bothering me, but I couldn't articulate why at the time. Some part of me must have been thinking, or rather feeling, "Let it go, huh? It'd be nice if it were that easy."

 Pictured: not me.

I kept thinking, no, she can't win. She's still hurting people. How can this song be so triumphant when "letting it go" isn't actually the answer? The whole country or whatever Arendelle is has been plunged into eternal winter because she's cursed with emotions that overpower her--I mean, ice powers. Later, when Anna tells her this, she acknowledges this herself: "I'm such a fool! I can't be free! No escape from the storm inside of me!"

I identified so strongly with Elsa that she repelled me. That happened to me the first time I read Dosteovsky, too. I pride myself as someone who is willing to look at her flaws, but sometimes, I guess it gets too close and I start pushing things away.

And I have an Anna. I have a sister who loves me even though I bossed her around and hurt her. I pushed her away plenty, especially during my last two years of high school. Sure, our relationship is great now, but I can never undo any of that stuff.

 (And she would still probably do this for me).

Is it possible to love a character and not like the movie so much? I think so. That's how I feel about Holly Golightly--Breakfast at Tiffany's is otherwise not so great (please read the book; it is so much better). After three months of not understanding my reaction to this movie, I've settled on this stance. Frozen? Meh. Anna and Elsa? Love.

And if you see yourself in a character, don't hate him or her. This goes double if you see yourself in another person you meet--I know of so many people who see their own traits in another and so decide they dislike that person. Treat that character or individual with empathy and kindness. You may learn something about yourself.

Maybe one day I will let it go. If not, I've still got that bitchin' ice castle.