Monday, October 25, 2010

The Boys From County Hell

Recently a friend who’s been reading my blog asked why I only write about the things I think and not about things I do or stories about my life. It’s a good question. And while the obvious answer is that I’m trying to maintain some privacy, the bigger picture is that it’s not easy to write about the people you love.

But since it keeps coming up, I have two stories for you about my brothers.

The first brother story is simple:

While walking home from first grade in the wintertime some older boys walking behind me started throwing snow balls. They hit the back of my coat and I ignored them, but finally one hit the back of my head and I turned around. That was when they stopped laughing and looked shocked and horrified. “Oh shit.” one of them said “Oh my god.” They ran up to me, brushed the snow off my coat and hat and out of my hair, asked if I was okay and did I need them to walk me home? “Please,” they said, “don’t tell your brother.” This sense of guardianship is very likely the reason I’ve never had any accurate sense of my own height and weight. And while our politics and values often drastically converge, while this brother called me by no other name than “little bonehead” for twenty-five years, (even going so far as to make me a Christmas present of a racoon skull with the words “little bone head” decoupaged all over it). He’s also clearly the reason I’ve rarely had a sense of limitations. If a little girl can instill horror in neighborhood thugs just by turning around, if she can become a woman who accepts skulls as presents, she can move through the world differently.

The second brother story is more complex but doesn’t involve animal bones:

Years ago, driving to the ocean with my younger brother the two of us were captivated by the site of forest fire. Trees black as soot, stunted and narrow and shaped like coral stood beside the tall green canopy of pines and maples that flanked the road.

That’s amazing my brother said and I nodded. It was otherworldly. An outgrowth of Heironomys Bosh’s hell sprung like an oasis inside the neat chuck of remaining forest that hadn’t been turned to highway.

My brother, who was paying for this trip, was a businessman who lived in Manhattan and worked seventy hours a week. He was so overextended he sometimes fell asleep in the shower while getting ready for work. The two of us talked on the phone often in those days when he was driving home, about books and politics and if there was some kind of unifying theory that could make things right in the world. I urged him nearly every day to quit his job, a job that would in just a few hours see us basking on the beach and eating lobster on the pier. This was the first vacation I’d had in more than five years. I had at the time an 11th grade education and had just been laid off from my job landscaping gardens on the campus of a lesser Ivy League school in a small gray town unreachable by trains. I was raising my son, collecting unemployment, writing and freelancing.

Which of us was, at that point in our lives, the domesticated forest and which was the site of the fire was a question that played out silently while we drove.

My brother supported my writing and he supported me when I was out of work and it made me feel simultaneously like a complete failure, and like a very loved, very lucky person.

I have lived between these brothers my whole life. One, now a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who has sleeve tattoos, three children, a dog, a house in the suburbs, and his own unfinished manuscript; the other, now a bio-ethicist, who lives so lightly on this earth and in his skin and so heavily in his mind, his ultimate goal is to own nothing, to move with his wife into a Volkswagon camper van with a couple changes of clothes.

Fraternity and diversity are what I know most deeply of family. My brothers have made it possible for me to know what it feels like to love unconditionally a businessman and a soldier. And this is no small thing, to see behind the curtain of the dominant culture of men and corporations and war, and to know that they are built on the intentions and talents of individual boys.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Deviant Characters

I've been teaching Orson Scott Card's craft book Characters & Viewpoint in my Creative Writing Topics course this semester. It's a rather helpful book on craft (a rarity, if I do say so myself) because it is clearly-written and full of practical advice. Card doesn't use his book to show off his literary zeal, but rather poses his theories on writing in a very digestible manner. In one section, he speaks to the necessity of making a character believable and likable. In a way, this is necessary to all genres. After all, in nonfiction and poetry, the authorial voice or narrator must be just as likable or seductive as the protagonist in a good short story.

I'm curious, however, how this pertains to the social deviants we find in literature. The people who we follow into story, but would never want to meet in real life.

One famous example is Humbert Humbert from Nabokov's Lolita. This book is controversial because the writer, many claim, was making his deviant character too likable. Readers didn't want to relate to this guy, and yet there was something very human about him--he wasn't a two-dimensional character. People either love or hate this book, but very few people have criticized the writer's ability to craft remarkable prose, and to translate a powerful message.

To me, the challenge of making a character like this one that will translate well on the page is raising the stakes for the writer. I think it adds an additional challenge, but if done well the prose will have something even more powerful than just a character we can relate to as readers, it will portray a genuine glimpse into another's world, albeit fiction. Any thoughts?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Oh, I Would Not Give You False Hope

I get asked a lot of parenting questions these days and questions about being a single mother. I think this is partly because many of my friends and peers are having their first kids or raising toddlers, while my son is nearly grown—a brainy, wiseass musician entering college who is sweet enough to send me things like youtube videos of Mr. T singing “I pity the fool who don’t love his mother.” I also get asked about parenting because of the kind of writing I’ve been doing this last year, particularly So Much Pretty—which examines family and community life and the lives of children, looks at how these things are impacted by broader economic, and cultural issues.

I talk to friends about children. But I have never written about my child. This isn’t because he’s not a charming, interesting, well adjusted guy, but because until very recently, he was too young to consent to being a subject. And this may be the crux of any parenting philosophy I have. A concept that has more to do with the cultural landscape than the nursery. I have also never written about single parenting for the same reason. The fact is you can’t get informed consent from a child to write about his or her life. And there is an enormous conflict of interest in being the parent and the writer when it comes to these topics.

Chris Cleave, best known for his brilliant novel Little Bee, put it best in explaining why he would no longer be writing the popular “Down with the Kids” Column about his children for the Guardian. In discussing his son Cleave said:

“…his brilliant insights are becoming revelatory of him as an individual, rather than of the condition of infancy in its universality. This is a magical and a fragile time; it belongs to him alone and isn’t mine to redistill and reinterpret.”

I’m always shocked when I read the kind of intimate exposure to which parents who blog subject their children. And I would urge parents—especially mothers, many of whom have become a whole demographic of “mommy bloggers” to avoid entirely the aesthetics of this trend which exposes the personal lives of children and overrides their autonomy while failing to address the issues that directly and intimately impact the way we are able to care for them—like economics, health care and sexual politics.

The practice of blogging about children has also gone a long way to increase the sense of children as accessories to adult lives, stories to tell, mannequins for cute clothing and representation of financial or cultural status, vessels to be filled with life lessons, or contrawise precious little Buddhas that have taught us humility by throwing up on our Brooks Brothers jackets. The fact that many parenting and mommy blogs sell ads to diaper, food and toy companies has eroded the intimacy of family life, and particularly children’s lives making them vehicles for commerce; ways to sell the products of large corporations whose vested interests are rarely in line with creating a safe and acceptable future for children.

In March The New York Times did an excellent job looking into the trend of mommy blogging and the commodification of childhood in a piece titled “Honey, Don’t Bother Mommy. I’m too Busy Building my Brand” that can be found here:

Cleave is right in saying that our children’s lives belong to them to interpret. And I would go a step further. We need to reclaim the private intellectual and emotional space of parenting. Contemplation, not continual outside affirmation and commentary is essential for real bonding with the people to whom we gave birth.

Loving your child is about being present, about being conscious of the things that will shape their lives inside and outside of the home. We live in a world where several million women and a smaller number of men are blogging about their children and that’s an amazing thing. But a majority of these blogs are really about the parent—the exasperated anecdotes that mask the unaddressed feelings of powerlessness and fear at the heart of being a new parent awash in emotions. The terror that you child might be hurt or that your child might hurt someone else is at the core of raising another human being. Exposing the intimate details of your child’s life to the world may allay some of that anxiety by elevating them to celebrity status—but it is ultimately counter intuitive.

So I am asking you—“mommy (and daddy) bloggers”—who are looking for community, affirmation and support, during the trying time of raising infants and toddlers, folks who want to show the world how much you love your children. Look to the concrete issues you can support that will make care and love manifest. And blog the hell out them.

Here are a few good resources:

National Center for Children in Poverty

Human Rights Watch

Convention on the Rights of the Child

Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media

Union of Concerned Scientists (citizens and scientists for environmental solutions)

….and like I tell my friends, it can’t hurt to get rid of the television.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Woman Blazing: Q & A with Want Chyi, a Fiction Reader here at Our Stories

Want Chyi fell in love with the written word when her older sister read her A Wrinkle in Time when she was sick, doing all the voices. She received her MFA in fiction from Arizona State University, and has taught composition and creative writing in Indiana, Arizona, Illinois, and Singapore. In the spring of 2008, her students nominated her for a teaching award. They continue to send her philosophical musings, to which she eagerly replies. In the summer of 2008, she received an international teaching fellowship, and has been the international fiction editor of Hayden's Ferry Review. She currently resides in Chicago, IL, where she mentors adolescents in professional and creative writing. She is at work on her first novel, and her favorite character from A Wrinkle in Time is still Charles Wallace.

Here's a short Q & A we had recently with Want about her teaching and her own writing process.

Could you tell us something about your creative writing teaching? What have you found most enriching about it? 
Teaching's just a beautiful way of locating yourself as a writer--of understanding and reinforcing what you love most. When I'm in the classroom, I'm reminded that we could all be watching television or checking Facebook-- (and I get plenty of students who write with that level of inattention and frivolity)-- but instead we're determined to create a whole new world. And we're doing it together, which is truly the best part. Even the students who write like they're surfing the 'net (just looking to share an anecdote, some titillating piece of gossip to pass the time) have something to offer: the self that isn't about impressing someone. And I love that. I love coaxing that out in the form of a story, with plot and character. And I love when they offer it on their own. There's nothing like seeing the truest part of someone emerge in their writing, with encouragement from people they most likely didn't already know. You can see how they change once they hear someone talk about their work. 
For me, it's a way to fill in the blanks of writing itself, which is ultimately a solitary activity--wonderous and private, but also lonely and claustrophobic. It's a beautiful way of getting to know someone. When I'm with my students I feel young and old at the same time, like I'm hearing a song from when I was a teenager. It can be difficult and disconcerting, but I love it. It's my favorite form of nostalgia because it puts my memories, my past to good work. I meet them on the first day and certain impressions form. I take in their hair, their clothes, where they sit, how they speak, and I think I know them. But then they start to become more than names, faces, postures and outfits, and my idea of them changes. Then changes even more when they turn in their writing, start commenting on each other's work. And I get to learn what they're like: what they fear, what they rebel against, who they want to impress, what they believe in. I try to understand the whys of all that through their work.
And I am reminded of how I began, what I'm still struggling with. I'm always stunned at the stories I get. Teaching marries writing with people, two of the things I love and struggle with the most. That's what is most enriching to me. I have to face myself over and over. I get to learn more about wirting, about people. It's the best character study in the world.
Could you tell our readers and writers a little something about your own writing process? When is a draft "done" (if ever) for you?
It's hard to say if I have one! It's so fraught with hair and madness. In an interview I did with Alison Bechdel, she put it best: When setting out to make a chair, say...she will carve out one leg and start putting gold leaf on it before she's even put the other pieces together to make it into a chair. And that is totally how I write. I will compose one sentence and then quibble over one or two words for hours, and then stress out about the fact that I've only written one sentence out of the whole frickin' story. Granted, it worked for Alison: her graphic memoir Fun Home is in the top two nonfiction pieces I have ever read, and has won innuerable awards. Sadly, I don't think it will pay off quite the same for me, but I don't know how to write any other way. So no: a draft is never done for me.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Q & A with Jen Knox, Senior Editor here at Our Stories

Jen Knox earned her MFA from Bennington's Writing Seminars and works as a fiction editor here at Our Stories and a Creative Writing Professor at San Antonio Community College. Some of her publication credits include Eclectic Flash, Flashquake, Foundling Review, The Houston Literary Journal, Metazen, Midwest Literary Magazine, Short Story America, Slow Trains, SLAB, Superstition Review, and Quiz & Quill. Forthcoming work will appear in Annalemma Magazine. 

Jen grew up in Ohio and lives in Texas. Her second book, To Begin Again, is forthcoming in 2011. Jen is currently (and perhaps will always be) working on a novel entitled Absurd Hunger. For more information, or to read an excerpt, please visit:

Here's a short Q & A we've had with Jen recently about writing and in particular about Musical Chairs.

 Q: Jen, first, let me say how happy I am for your success with Musical Chairs. I think a lot of our readers and writers would be interested in knowing more about the process you went through in writing it. Did its shape and dominant images evolve organically? What kind of dominant impression do you think the text ends up conveying?

A: The shape and structure of Musical Chairs is episodic, as I think is the case with many memoirs. This resulted, for me, because there were certain images from my past that seemed to mark major transitions in my life—these images did surface organically, yes, and they were the scenes that fed the rest of the story. They were also the scenes that I remembered most vividly from my past. Musical Chairs opens with a scene in which I begin to suffer panic attacks, which were insanely difficult to depict. I actually spent many hours meditating on that time, attempting to find an accurate way to portray the very real and intense fear one feels when suffering from a panic disorder.

The story itself evolved from there. What confused and intrigued me about my own affliction was that panic arrived in my life at a seemingly uneventful time. My days then consisted of waking up early, working at a bookstore for eight hours, going to college at night and studying. I was reconciling with my family, dating the man who would later become my husband, and I was wholly content. Yet there I was, panicking in the midst of this peaceful, quiet life. So, as we writers do, I began to write to examine this strange occurrence. I began to write an essay that explored the nature of panic disorders, and soon, I became consumed with finding the causation. Because I was minoring in psychology, I spent this time poring over various psychological theories in an attempt to self-diagnose. (This didn't work. I eventually found a very competent therapist and began to meditate, which, along with patience and time, did remedy my ailment.) Although my panic began to fade, slowly, over the next few years, my curiosity about its nature did not wane.

The episodes that make up my story emerged as a result of this psychological curiosity, as I revisited my rather tumultuous past as an awkwardly shy child who ran away from home, became a stripper, and abused alcohol for many years, and I revisited these times to try and figure out what combination of things led the illogical fear I felt so many years later. In this way, my entire memoir was a sort of investigation into the nature of panic, trying to find a sort of personal equation for it.

As for the latter part of the question, I can honestly say that my intention seems to hit and miss with readers. As the writer, the impression I want to convey is not "Here's my survival story," or even, "Hey, look at me!" But, the word memoir sometimes works to invite readers to respond to the writer, rather than the writer's story. My story, I believe, is an exploratory tale, a woman's desire to figure out the nature of her own anxiety, then to retrace her family's behavior and the sociological input that led to this anxiety. Judging from the varied reviews and response I have received, some readers relate to the psychological aspects of the text whereas others (even those who like the book) just see it as a survival tale, a cautionary tale about runaways or a commentary on class. My original goal was not to share what I survived but to share a little insight into the nature of trauma and how it affects the mind as well as a person's ability to adapt and change. But the story definitely lends itself to other conversations.The beautiful thing about serious readers is that they will always bring personal experience to the stories they read (I know I do), so I'm heartened by the range and depth of reader responses.

Q: Margaret Dawe of Wichita State's MFA faculty once told me never to let family members read your work. What are your thoughts on the writer's relationship as a member of a family? How do we fit in?

A: I'm a firm believer that no one should read my work as I'm writing it, at least not until I have a solid draft.  Outside influence too early tends to stifle my writing. At the same time, once I had a completed draft of Musical Chairs, and I was thinking about pursuing publication, I felt obligated to share what I had written with my family. My reasoning was two-fold. First, I wanted to tell my story as accurately as possible, and I didn't wholly trust my memory to be accurate. Some of the details in my book were actually supplied by my family members.  As an aside, I was also worried there might be points of contention, things I remembered that my family remembered differently.  This is where it can get tricky, and why Dawe might have advised as she did. In fact, there was a point of contention between my father and me about one specific detail, a piece of dialog I included. He didn't remember saying a very crucial line in the story. I remembered him saying the words so vividly that I couldn't compromise the line.  As a result, I included a short digression that explained our contention in the text: "My father and I would argue over what he said..." which not only solved the problem, it also gave him a voice in my work.  

The second reason I wanted to share my work with my parents before publishing came down to the fact that I wanted to respect their privacy. I asked both of my parents if there were any details about their lives that they didn't want me to share, and lucky for me, there were none. This is a personal call, and I realize that telling a family story is not always such a well-received venture. But I felt it was important to honor all those people I identified with actual names (aliases don't work so well when one is writing about his or her parents). For those I did not have the opportunity to ask permission, I changed specific names and locations to protect their identities. The personal stakes are much higher in memoir than in fiction, and the backlash can be fierce, so it's my opinion that a writer should share the manuscript with anyone who is exposed by the work. If not, protect identities. If you're not willing to do either, my best advice is to hire a good lawyer and brace yourself for the personal backlash. 

Musical Chairs @

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Beginning of Men

The Beginning of Men

Cara Hoffman

The recent trend of declaring the “end of masculinity” is gaining much purchase recently, such as in the piece that ran September 20 in Newsweek Magazine asking us if it was time for a “new macho” and Hanna Rosin’s well researched article “The End of Men” which ran in the July/August issue of The Atlantic. I have few disagreements with Rosin’s thesis or with Newsweek’s piece which discuss trends with which we have long been living—the accomplishments of women, the politics of the household, and men’s struggles to understand their identity in a world where women are beginning to dominate in classically male professions, and girls outstrip boys academically and socially from pre-school to college. These are indeed trends that every parent and every partner should be aware of.

But I’m concerned that we are declaring an end to something, and heralding a beginning of a brave new era for women before we’ve fully looked at the causes of men’s failures. I’m concerned that these failures are being linked to the achievements of women. When in reality this is a story about men and other men.

Men are not demoralized and emasculated by women’s successes, nor are they simply a weaker sex that managed to hide this fact for centuries because of backward laws and cultural mores preventing women from fully contributing to society. The story of men’s failures lies in a topic so obvious, so part of our everyday lives, we look straight though it. Masculinity throughout all of human history has been linked to acts of extreme criminal violence and to the socially sanctioned potential that exists in every man to use force instead of language or compromises to get what he wants.

The aesthetics of violence, especially violence against women permeates American culture as entertainment, and the reality of violence is broadcast daily on the evening news, with men always cast in their all too familiar roles of rapists, murderers, wife beaters and pedophiles, soldiers or terrorists. The primary indicator that a human being will be prone to violence is not poverty or even a history of trauma, it’s gender: a Y chromosome.

Depending on your sources either one in three or one in four American women is raped in her lifetime, usually by someone she knows. Close to one and a half million women are physically abused by their spouses annually, and three women a day are murdered by their boyfriends or husbands. Men commit 100 percent of rapes, 92 percent of physical assaults, and 97 percent of stalking offenses against women. Men also commit the majority of violence against men including 70 percent of rapes and 86 percent of physical assaults. It does not go without saying that these are just the reported cases. Nor does it go without saying, when we talk about the percentage of women who are raped and murdered, we are also talking about a corresponding number of men that live among us who are rapists and murderers or boys who will become these things.

Like many women I’ve been close enough to brothers, friends, boyfriends, husbands, sons and colleagues to see the ambivalence and fragility in masculine identity. To see what violence, enacted and received or observed does to men; the facts in the news and the facts learned in history class that can’t help but carry with them the connotations of irrationality, and deeply histrionic, anti-social behavior; the sense that something should be done but maybe that something is too private too inextricably linked with their own bodies, to begin to approach it.

Men are crippled by the idea of what they are. And who can blame them? Their bodies fill prisons, battlefields and graveyards. And these facts that surround us, that permeate our lives, and form the basis of an inordinate amount of entertainment consumed in our country, are not lost on those who share the same bodies and are learning what to do with those bodies, learning what it means to be men. Neither are these facts lost on girls and women that are coming of age in a world so recently free of the kinds of prejudice that prevented them from equal standing in their own homes, schools, and workplaces.

As women are taking on more of the roles traditionally held by men, the depiction of women’s behavior in media is becoming increasingly more violent. Only in this instance the violence is playing to a much different audience. An audience that has a long cultural and often deeply personal history of trauma. The message of female on male violence resonates not simply as ‘cool’ or ‘powerful’ or ‘the way it is’ with women but as inherently political, evening a score, leveling the playing field of fear.

Where once women were seen in fiction as plot devices, reasons for men to kill one another in stories so cliché (and so common) you could simply fill in the blank: “I killed him because he raped/killed/stalked my wife/sister/girlfriend/daughter,” now women are doing the killing themselves.

The popularity of Steig Larson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is certainly evidence of how pleasing an idea women’s retribution is. And the recent movie Salt, staring Angelina Jolie, makes it clear that action roles and their implicit subtext are not just for boys anymore. But perhaps the best example of this new aesthetic, and the resistance to its meaning is the controversial, comic-book-based film Kick Ass—a movie that got a lot of attention because of a cursing little girl, and was equated with kiddie porn by the New Yorker because of a scene in which the main character dressed in a school girl uniform. While Kick Ass was unprecedented in its depiction of a pre-pubescent girl assassin, the writing about Kick Ass still managed to discuss the character as if she were a victim—and the actress as if she were being exploited, not introducing an new paradigm of power. What was missed entirely in the reviews and criticisms of Kick Ass was the fact that a little girl—someone who shares identity, shares the morphology of the victims we read about and hear about and know all too well, gleefully murdered dozens of men, shooting most of them at point blank range in the head.

How we could begin to discuss the academic, social and emotional failures of boys and men without discussing the real and fictional murders, rapes, and beatings carried out by men is a mystery. The confusion and self-loathing and sense of powerlessness that comes from either affiliation with abusers and aggressors, or with apathy and inaction is a part of the masculine experience. Just as fear is a part of the feminine experience. And we do not like to talk about these things. But we need to. Because these are the kinds of feelings that breed violence. If there is to be any honest discussion about a “new masculinity” it needs to start here.

I don’t want to see an end to men. I want to see a beginning.

Friday, October 1, 2010

recent afghanistan-related news

The video game Medal of Honor will be changed to prevent players from assuming the viewpoint of Taliban fighters: New Video Game Changed .... Liam Fox, Britain's Defense Secretary, said, "At the hands of the Taliban, children have lost parents and wives have lost husbands." American soldiers are reported to have given input to the video game's designers.

In another story, a US soldier describes murdering Afghans for fun: Soldier Describes Murder of Afghan for Sport in Leaked Tape.