Motherhood, Reading, Writing

Some thoughts about forgiving our mothers and ourselves

I unintentionally read two books last month that were both, at their core, about toxicity in mother-daughter relationships. Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half and Adrienne Brodeur’s Wild Game are very different types of stories. TVH is a novel about two light-skinned Black twin sisters who choose different paths in life—Desiree living life as a Black woman, and Stella choosing to pass as white. It moves forward through time until we see how their choices impact the lives of their daughters. Wild Game is a memoir by a woman who, when she was 14, got wrangled into being a co-conspirator in her mother Malabar’s affair with a family friend. The affair goes on for more than a decade, fully absorbing Adrienne in the drama and lies throughout her adolescence.

I might not have dwelled too long on either of these stories if I hadn’t read them back-to-back. But both Stella and Malabar tell extraordinary lies to keep their secrets safe, and it comes at great cost to their daughters.

It’s sort of a given by now that our mothers will hurt us in some way at various points in our lives. Little comments about our appearance, the choices we make, and the people we love can all add up to big, swollen pain. Times when they paid too little attention, times when they clamped down too hard. As we age we begin to see them as human, capable of both vast love and error. Even so, we swear to do better by our own children.

For me personally, sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. My biggest regret so far in my daughter’s short life has been calling her shy in front of another adult when she was about two or three years old. I can’t remember a time during my childhood when my outgoing mother didn’t apologize to others for my shyness, causing me to intuit that shyness was a bad thing, meant to be overcome, compounding layer after layer of anxiety about my anxiety. Even though I now carry with me the knowledge that introverts are important and necessary members of society, I still experience that gut-twisting fear in large groups that I’m not talking enough, not contributing enough.

My daughter has run up to me on a few occasions and asserted that the cats hiding from her in the closet are “a little shy, like me!” I don’t really think she comprehends that she has grown out of her shy phase and is now just a cyclone of wild, talkative energy. But when she claims to be shy, I don’t correct her. Instead I tell her, “And that’s ok. I am too.”

I will surely misstep in a myriad of other ways as she grows. I hope I can find the strength to apologize. So many of my friends have commented on the apologies we rarely, if ever, received from our mothers. An acknowledgment of our suffering, even if it was petty and small. Maybe that was a standard of parenting toward the end of the last century—like a car accident—never admit fault. Or maybe that’s just part of being human, a natural resistance to being in the wrong.

In The Vanishing Half and Wild Game, neither Stella nor Malabar ever offer their daughters the apology or the reckoning they yearn for. But still their daughters love them and chase their approval and try to know them. In some ways this seems sad. As a daughter, I mourn the lack of righteous comeuppance for these women. In other ways, I think thank god. As a mother, I will have room to make missteps and, most importantly, room to atone.

Motherhood, Writing

New essay on Motherwell

I wrote a thing. It’s about the wacky emotions I’ve been experiencing as a one-and-done mother during this pandemic. Are you lonely? Because I’m lonely and my kid is lonely, and I start thinking maybe I should have another baby because my brain is broken and THAT’S WHAT MAKES SENSE TO ME RIGHT NOW.

It’s all insanity, and you can read about it over on Motherwell, which is one of my favorite online mags for thoughtful parenting writing.

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Writing

Writing over fear

It goes without saying that this has been a really, REALLY hard time for basically everyone on earth. We’re all stuck, literally and figuratively—moored in our homes, the progress of our lives halted. I recently wrote about losing my job due to the pandemic, and the relief I felt from the simple act of putting words on the page made it clear that writing was the only thing that would keep me sane through all of this.

But I knew I needed to work on something new—something completely different from the multiple manuscripts on my laptop that have racked up dozens of rejections over the years. Those, in my mind, were symbols of the same sort of thing I was currently experiencing: stasis and failure.

I knew what I wanted to work on. Romance novels had been calling to me for a long time. The first book I ever read with explicit sex in it was Judy Blume’s Wifey, which I stole from my mom’s little library when I was about fifteen and read with the door closed, hiding it under my bed whenever I left my room. There was a lot I didn’t understand about that book at the time. But one thing that hasn’t changed between then and now is the instinct to read such books in private. Ebooks have made it a lot easier to read these lascivious tales when and where we want, no closed door or stuffing-under-the-pillow required. But if anyone were to ask me (pre-pandemic) what I was reading on the train, I still would have had a smooth lie ready to go.

I don’t think I’m alone in my puritanical upbringing, my childhood devoid of any discussions about sex or sexuality. It’s a fairly standard American thing—being raised on abstinence, carrying this odd shame with us into adulthood, discovering various forms of sexual entertainment, enjoying them, but never uttering a word to anyone about it. I’m not sure what the actual fear consists of. Am I afraid people will think I’m less intelligent or less morally upright if I admit to enjoying reading erotic literature? Or is it just a lifetime of shapeless anxiety tsk-tsking me inside my head?

Regardless, I’ve spent a good amount of time thinking about what I want to do next, and how I’m afraid to do it. But then, last month, the incomparable Janelle Hanchett hosted a virtual writing workshop in which she was asked about how she overcomes her fear. Her response was simple: I’m still afraid. But I have lost faith in fear as a reliable guide for my life.

It was everything I needed to hear.

So, because my fears are often so unreliable, I’m writing romance. And there is sex. And I will be afraid of what people think. And I will do it anyway.

Because the greater fear I have right now is what will I do if I don’t write it? What will I do while I wait to see what’s next? And how long will I be waiting?

I want light, and fun, and no way to back out of it if I panic (which I will). So I’m serializing my first adult romance novel on Wattpad and will—hopefully—be updating it with a new chapter each week.

Read. Enjoy. Share, or keep it to yourself. No shame either way.

A Terrifying and Beautiful Place:

http://www.wattpad.com/story/219627349

Writing

Writing By Hand in Wisconsin

Last week slipped away from me in a frustrating fashion. There were so many great presentations from the Women in Publishing Summit that I wanted to blog about, but then I found myself approaching the weekend and needing to prepare for my ladies’ retreat to The-Middle-of-Nowhere, Wisconsin. I say that in the most loving way possible because it was beautiful and quiet and open and just what I needed.

I mean, LOOK at this little farmhouse.

And the view:

And this DESK:

Everything about it screamed sit down and write. (It helps my productivity if a setting bosses me around a bit.) And that little ladder on the right? It leads to a tiny nook that satisfies my inner 8-year-old.

I didn’t grow up with a treehouse, so this seems as close as I’m likely to get to the magic of private, aerial spaces. Also, it was pretty hard to haul my thirty-year-old carcass up there, so I see now why you sort of age out of this particular magic.

This lovely rental home is just outside of New Glarus, Wisconsin, which is a surprisingly adorable town with Swiss charm, a top-notch brewery, and all the requisite cheese curds for a proper visit to America’s Dairyland.

Living in Chicago, I’m accustomed to the ordered houses and apartment buildings pressed close together like boxes on a pantry shelf. My eyes expect to see bodies moving up and down the street regardless of what time I look out the window. So there was something refreshing, then alarming, then almost thrilling about turning around in a complete circle and seeing no one — just flat, white fields broken up by plumes of dried grasses and wispy winter trees. Rather than looking or feeling dead, it seemed calm, waiting, knowing even better than us that spring always cycles back again.

It was the perfect place to pause, take a breath, and write a bit. My job and my daughter demand so many pieces of me, and the writer piece falls behind the shelf too often. But for one weekend, it took priority.

I didn’t feel like taking my laptop, which is my standard writing implement, so I dug an old notebook out of my closet and toted that instead. I often forget how tricky hand writing can be; it takes longer (for me), and you’re left with a bit of a mess on the page.

Lines are scratched out, carets stick my afterthoughts in, and question marks litter my areas of doubt.

But at the end of an hour, when I had perhaps written one decent sentence, quilted together from the salvaged remnants of the cuts, I thought about what that would look like on my computer.

It would have been a line and a half, and I would have released the long-suffering sigh of someone doomed to always see time move faster than progress.

Yet there’s something about getting to view every curvy line signifying a nope, and each convoluted arrow leading to a wait, this! It shows me the very real work I’ve done. The silent task of sliding the puzzle pieces to the front of my mind and snapping them into their ideal fit. The unseen effort of self-editing, finding the balance between word vomit and refinement.

It’s a mess, but so is the inside of my head.

Sometimes a physical representation of a mental struggle is all you need to feel validated.

So thank you, New Glarus, for the mac ‘n’ cheese pizza, the cracked pepper cheese curds, and the space to think on the page.

Writing

Picking Your Publishing Route

One of today’s presentations from the Women in Publishing Summit featured a panel of women who run their own publishing businesses, be it a traditional press, hybrid press, or a self-publishing service.

These ladies all emphasized how important it is to figure out which type of publishing route is best for you as a writer, and how that decision has a lot to do with your intended audience.

If you’re looking to write something with mass market appeal and sell a million copies, then traditional publishing is probably already on your radar, and for good reason. The Big 5, or even smaller, independent presses have the resources to develop and market your book to mass audiences. The drawback is that you lose some creative authority in the process, and it often takes over a year from the time a book deal is made to the time it stands upon a bookstore shelf.

Self-publishing can look like a lot of different things, but it generally involves a massive DIY project on your part. Many companies exist to help with the steps though – editing, cover design, marketing, etc. It all comes down to how much you’re willing to do yourself. The benefit is that, upfront costs aside, this route has the highest royalty payout.

Hybrid publishing is exactly what it sounds like: a mix of aspects from traditional and self-publishing. You may be expected to provide upfront funding for things like editing or cover design, but you have access to the publisher’s platform, providing you with support and extra perks, which may or may not include a distribution agreement.

If your book is niche, like a Polish cookbook or a guide to knitting clothes for cats, it will likely only appeal to a small demographic, and you’re better off seeking a small press or a hybrid publisher. These businesses will guide you through every step of the process, but you will maintain more creative control, which is important when the subject is so specific. You are likely an expert on your topic, and you should be as involved as possible in the development process.

Another factor is how willing and able you are to build your own platform. These days, all publishers want you to do some of your own marketing, whether that’s blogging, tweeting, attending conferences, or hand-selling your own book at events. If you’re unprepared for this, a hybrid publisher may recommend you self-publish and build your platform before you attempt hybrid publishing. Since they’re making an investment in you (albeit not as large an investment as a traditional publisher), they need to know you’re savvy enough to sell your own books.

When going the hybrid or self-publishing route, beware of scams or shady practices. Always do your research before submitting to a publisher to make sure they seem legit. Some red flags include an urgent request for you to sign a contract right away, or a one-size-fits-all model. A publisher should always be willing to create a plan tailored to your specific needs.

The presentation ended with each panelist providing her top few tips for writers looking to explore their publishing options, and I’ve outlined them below.

Gail Woodward of Dudley Court Press:

1. Be clear about why you are writing your book (i.e. define your purpose).

2. Be clear about who you are writing for.

3. Be clear about whether amateur or professional publishing is right for you.

4. Start marketing now and keep marketing as long as you want to sell your book.

Elizabeth Turnbull of Light Messages Publishing:

1. It’s never too early to start building your platform.

2. Craft a good pitch for your book.

3. Do your research to determine whether the presses you’re submitting to are a good fit for you and your work.

Teri Rider of Top Reads:

Have a great cover that fits your market and genre. You want it to look like it could sit on a shelf with other books in your genre. To this end: hire a book designer, not just a regular graphic designer. A book designer knows exactly how every cover and flap should be laid out.

Kate Stead of Old Mate Media:

Decide if you want to make a money investment or a time investment. Hybrid publishing will require more of a money commitment, while self-publishing will require a large investment of your own time.

Annalisa Parent of Date with a Muse:

You’re not alone in this. There are a ton of people who help writers through every step of the process. Reach out for the help you need.

Writing

Write What Scares You

Today kicked off the 2019 Women in Publishing Summit, an online conference catering to the ladies who write, edit, design, market, and do anything else in the service of creating books and getting them into the hands of readers.

The presentation I focused on today was Joan Dempsey’s “The Value of Highly Contentious Topics in Fiction.” It drew my interest because most of what I write centers around those hot-button issues that tend to draw debate and ire.

Dempsey’s advice was this: write what scares you. Don’t be afraid of your readers’ response to you exploring contentious issues.

“[Stephen King] gets hate mail,” Dempsey says. “He gets people writing to him and berating him for being racist or sexist or homophobic… because he writes characters who embody those traits. He does it so well that people believe Stephen King is those things, when what he has done is embody those characters so fully and so fearlessly.”

I’ve been plagued by concerns about misrepresenting people of color or people with a different sexual orientation or gender identity. I don’t want to be another straight, white person who thinks she knows what these different walks of life entail.

But I always come back to the fact that we have to try. Because if we don’t, then we’re implying we’re not even interested in having the conversation. We’re so afraid of getting it wrong, that we neglect representation.

So, let’s write on, sometimes getting it right, other times getting it wrong, either way getting some hate mail (or hate tweets). Let’s be humble enough to know we barely know anything, and cocky enough to say we’re going to try anyway.

Writing

‘Story of My Life’ Book Covers Are My New Reason for Living

I’ve just discovered the Story of My Life book covers Instagram account, and I don’t think I love anything more.

This is one of my favorites:

It’s speaking to me on many levels this week because a) I engage in hypothetical arguments in the shower on the regular, and b) The shower is where life slows down just enough for my brain to dwell on a tricky plot point I’m struggling with. And this past weekend I finally figured out how the third point of view in my latest WIP is going to factor into the plot.

I’d been writing this third perspective that I considered cutting so. many. times. He just wasn’t quite fitting into things very well. But I finally argued it out (literally, I was talking out loud to myself/the tile) and came up with a rough plan of how his story line will weave into the plot of my other two characters. Voila! All it took was dozens of gallons of hot water down the drain.

Sorry, environment. I’m part of the problem.

These will make me feel better: