Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A Writer's Responsibilities, or, Cate Versus Twilight

Back in June, my friend Mike asked me about Twilight. It went like this:

Mike: Have you ever seen the Twilight?
Cate: Believe me, sweetheart, you do NOT want to hear my opinions on Twilight.
Mike: Dude, they sparkle in the sun. Pretty much the best thing to ever happen to the vampire community.
Cate: Please stop talking unless you're going to tell me you hate Twilight with at least half of the fibers of your being.
Mike: Sorry, I've only seen the first two movies and I think they're cute, like The Little Mermaid or The Lion King.
Cate: Well, speaking as someone who's read all of the books and seen the first movie, I can tell you three things. 1) Stephenie Meyer is a terrible, sloppy writer. 2) Bella Swan is the weakest character I've ever read and an abysmal role model for girls. 3) The entire series reinforces rape culture in a way I haven't seen from anyone/anything. No joke, Bella and Edward's relationship fits ALL the recognized criteria of domestic abuse, and the series has done more damage (in my opinion) than Barbie dolls and Disney princesses combined.
Mike: Yeah, I don't analyze them, I just watch them.

Although I disagree with Mike about sparkling being the best thing to happen to vampires, I do appreciate daywalkers. But the point here, as you may have gathered, is not the vampires themselves. Rather, it's the way Meyer treats Bella Swan--and, by extension, each of the young women who find her story irresistible.

Of course, I'm not the first person to point out how ridiculous the Twilight series is, either in its written or cinematic form, nor am I the first to criticize the writing, characterizations, or lack of good life lessons. And Meyer is far from the only writer whose work or views on women deserves scrutiny (I am looking in your direction, V.S. Naipaul). But the fact is that Meyer, being a young adult (YA) author, has a certain responsibility to her audience.

Some people think that this is up for debate. I am not one of those people.

When I was in graduate school, I was lucky enough to study under Chris Lynch, whose work isn't known for its cheerfulness. For example, Inexcusable, his powerhouse of a novel, tells the story of a rape and its aftermath from the point of view of the rapist. Working with Lynch and reading his work taught me that not only is no topic out of bounds, as many YA advocates will tell you, but also that there is a great tradition of writers reaching out to teens through their works. Jack Gantos, Chris Crutcher, Lois Lowry, and Laurie Halse Anderson are a few examples of authors who tackle dark subjects that are pressing and important. 

After a semester spent with Lynch while reading all sorts of social issues-related YA novels, I decided that I wanted to be the kind of writer who pays attention to the message I'm sending to my entirely hypothetical readers. In fact, I was so fired up over finding his name in a Wall Street Journal article decrying "dark" YA lit that I sent him a congratulatory e-mail, writing, "I like working with dudes who write the kind of stuff that gets talked about. So thanks for being awesome."

Sarah Alderson, whose work I have never read, says, "Teenage readers are influenced by our words, by our stories. Make them count." This is my general feeling about the subject. Some authors take a narrower view, asserting that they only worry about being truthful. Libba Bray feels that "it would be dishonest of me to write a character without [...] flaws." But Bray's characters (in my limited experience) don't have the same flaws we see in Meyer's work. Bella is one-dimensional, a girl incapable of sticking up for herself, the kind of person who would rather act out in a reckless manner than face the fact that she is in a bad relationship. 

Other commentators think that telling a good story is paramount, such as Fiona Snyckers, who writes, "Teenagers, and indeed most children, have an uncanny ability to detect when they are being preached at, and their reaction to such preaching is almost always resentment. Nothing kills a book faster for a teen than the awareness that some adult agenda lies behind it." Of course, I agree that it's important to deliver a well-constructed story; every writer should strive to do so. But my gut reaction is that if you are preaching, you're doing something wrong in your writing. There is nothing bad about trying to convey a message; it's just that if your message isn't delivered thoughtfully and respectfully, with an understanding that teenagers have different sensibilities than adults, you need to try again.

Maybe I should be grateful that Meyer has given me--and others--an opportunity to figure out how we feel and strive harder to be good role models. In general, though, I'm just frustrated that I live in a world where abusive vampires are worshiped and good writing with a heart beating below it (pun only sort of intended) is banned--including, to my unending amusement/chagrin, my onetime professor's work.

Mike didn't mean to set off a debate when he asked me about Twilight. Meyer probably didn't mean to be so divisive when she wrote the series. Unfortunately, that's how Bella, et al, function in this world.


PS When I asked Mike if he'd mind me quoting him in this post, he was totally game. Thanks for the support, Mikey!

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Finish Line

During grad school, I was on the wrong end of a spectacularly brief but forceful lecture on the importance of finishing. The context: a short story was dragging on across the months without reaching a conclusion. The cause: I have a chronic inability to commit to short-term undertakings. I'm not a one-night stand kind of girl. I appreciate monogamy, novels, Quentin Tarantino films. Things that require a long-term investment (seriously, Jackie Brown clocks in at like two hours and forty minutes).

But my professor was right. It's important to finish what you start, be it a joke or just a jokey excuse of a story. So I've recently decided to make a commitment to my writing: if I start a piece (blog post, poem, story, essay), I have to see it through to the end. 

This doesn't mean that it ever has to see the light of day. It just means that I can't allow myself to stall out in the middle of something and give up on it. I may put it aside. I may revise what I've written and then proceed. But I may not throw it away. It has to end somewhere.

What kind of writing promises have you made to yourself? Are they more or less drastic than this?


Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Hurts so Good?

A couple of days ago, I cracked a nail while trying to bust open a stubborn pistachio. My nails break easily as it is, but the fact that I was trying to eat something healthy when this happened added insult to injury.

This is often how I feel about writing. When I try to sit down and produce something but nothing will come, or else whatever comes is sub-par, it's like breaking a nail: a little painful, a lot disheartening. My beautiful words, like my well-shaped nails, fall apart before me.

Because it's not difficult for me to get discouraged, I have to be very careful when I write. I cannot allow myself to give up over one bad page or even a few broken ones. There's no one fail-proof strategy except this: to keep going, even through the pain. That's how we get to the things we want, whether it's a little green nut or a finished story.


Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Adventures in Rejection: Seeing the End Result

From time to time, writers are required to pay a fee to submit their work to certain places. This usually occurs when one enters a competition. In return, the administrators will send the entrant something, such as the issue of a literary magazine featuring the winners of a contest, or a copy of the chapbook selected for publication. This is all fine and well; small presses get a bit of support and writers get to enjoy some new works by their contemporaries.

The problem comes in when you've not placed in the contest. You still end up with a book, but it doesn't have your name in it. This can be a depressing experience. How, then, to deal with the disappointment?

Sometimes when a lit mag comes in after I've failed to gain entree to their pages, I sneer at the cover and then check the table of contents to see if anyone I hate managed to sneak their way in. This is because I'm an incredibly poor loser as well as a spoiled brat and get cranky when I don't have things my way.

More often than not, though, I sigh and add the mag to the growing pile of things I need to read. Losing is part of life, and we all have to accept that fact. If we're lucky, losing will not bury us under a pile of depression but fire us up and push us to make ourselves better.


Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Dear Cate of the Past

As a follow-up to last week's post, I'd like to share a writing exercise I did a few months ago. The idea was to pen a letter to my younger self, and so much of what I focused on had to do with the aftermath of my anxiety attack. Here it is for you to read, and if you feel so inspired, try your hand a writing one for yourself; I found it incredibly therapeutic, and you might, too.

Dear Cate of the Past,

You are going to make so many mistakes. Your streak will start around the age of nine and keep going. As of this writing, at 27, it hasn’t ended. There will be dark days when you want to die because your heart is breaking, you’re convinced you screwed up that badly. But I promise you will pull through. A lesson accompanies each misstep; look for these guideposts, and they will lead you up the impossible, imperfect mountain we call life.

Know your roots. Don’t cut them off to be a flower in a vase, blooming for three days before losing your petals. Be a motherfucking tree. Keep Skuld in mind, because she is the embodiment of the thing you’ll have to tell yourself over and over: the future is an obligation. Ignore the thoughts telling you what a failure you are, and spit in their faces when you can’t make them stop. 

There are people in your world, however small it may be, who are misguided enough to consider you a role model. Stay strong for them when you can’t do it for you. Gird yourself against the banshee-howling nights, the wind-whipped days. Recognize that you’re hitting your limit before it hits you. When necessary, use this mantra: head up, shoulders back, walk tall.

Read all the books you want, and write your stories and poems--those are the things that allow you to breathe. Likewise, there is steel in your Motor City veins, so get yourself behind the wheel when things are overwhelming; the act of driving will center you, reinvigorate you. Go home when you can; dream of snow and hockey when you can’t.

Let those boys kiss you. Get your tattoos. Never leave the house without putting on a coat of mascara. And brush that dirt off your shoulder, girl, or you’ll miss the world rising up around you.

Your not-much-wiser-but-working-on-it older self,