Sometimes I Fly

I’ve always wanted to be a bird. In eighth grade I took my first trip in a plane. I squirmed with joy during take-off when it was everything I had dreamt.

I was flying.

One of my most common reoccurring dreams has always been being airborne. I’m surprised to find myself aloft, then I remember. That’s right. I always knew how to do this. I just forgot I knew. Sometimes I get details of what works, like I have to hop twice on my left foot before I jump off, but those recipes for flight have never been the same twice and not one has worked the next morning.

I keep on flying in my dreams.

When I got drunk in college, it made the room spin and made me laugh but the best part was when it made me feel like I was soaring through the air. After I graduated, I talked a friend into sky diving with me and even though I was scared, I was exhilarated, too.

Once I got my first real job, it came with this new thing called discretionary income. I signed up for flying lessons. I did fake emergency landings in fields and got okayed to fly solo. Sunday mornings, I’d drive to the little airport and spend my drinking money on an hour of airplane rental instead.

And I flew.

Then I got older. I had babies. They cried at changing cabin pressure when it made their little ears fill with pain and vacationing by car was better. I dreamt about flying, but not as often. When the dreams came, I was alone, moving silently through the air over wilderness. Maybe it was because I traveled a lot for my job, through busy airports on crowded flights, in seats that kept getting smaller. Claustrophobia kicked in. I decided conference calls worked fine.

I didn’t fly often.

Time takes some things, and it gives others. I now travel to places I’ve always wanted to go. The planes are crowded, but they’ve shown me the Andes from thirty thousand feet, and the island of Madeira sparkling in the twilight of a frothy Atlantic.

These days I write. When a sentence comes out perfect, I suck in my breath knowing it’s the best it can be. The sensation feels like flying.

When I edit my work, sometimes my words reform themselves beyond the original, and the outcome makes me laugh or cheer or cry. I am flying, then, the way I’ve always known I could, the way I was meant to do. Sometimes the realization makes me cry even more.

It’s amazing. Sometimes I fly.

I write because it’s cheaper than therapy

It turns out you can buy a whole collection of “cheaper than therapy” t-shirts and most of them make the valid point that doing something physical, or doing something you love, is good for your mental health. I guess the remaining ones (mostly about chocolate, wine and beer) make the point that the occasional indulgence is helpful too.

Most people I know who write, do include “writing as therapy” as one of their reasons. Sometimes it is the main one. I’m no exception. Writing anything is an outlet for me, and it is one of the reasons I blog, and at times keep a journal. In some ways the journal is the best mental health tool, because it is a place where I can explore my own issues without giving any thought to a reader.

However, fiction provides a sort of veil between my raw emotions and a make believe story while it allows me to delve deep into issues that might never surface in something more contained like a journal. Creating a plot has a certain non-linear element of surprise to it that can take me exactly to the places where I least want to go.

When I started my first novel, I promised myself I would do my best to write without fear. Some of that entailed pretending that no one I knew would ever read my book. (I still have to pretend that sometimes.) I got the chance to go to Ireland in the middle of my first novel, and toured the Jameson distillery. I was surprised to learn that every bottle of Jameson contains the two Latin words “Sine Metu.” Without Fear. Well, Mr. Jameson and I seem to have things in common.

I have a theory about writers block. So far, in my case, it is caused by one of two things. The first, and easiest to solve, is that my body needs something and I’m ignoring it. Usually it’s sleep, but sometimes it’s food or water or even a trip to the bathroom. My brain will eventually cease to create until I care for myself.

The other is that I want to go somewhere with the story and I’m censoring myself. Occasionally it’s because I have another direction I want the plot to go, but more often it’s because something deep within wants to take the story into territory that bothers me. I’ve learned that my muse becomes silent until I relent and stride into the dark forest that is scaring me so.

There, I find the demons that have my particular number, and as we stare each other in the eye, I become a little stronger and they become a bit less terrifying. As I write them into the ordinary, I turn them into creatures of the light.

The forest is huge and the creatures are many, so it’s not like this writing thing is a quick road to complete mental wellness, at least for me. But I do recognize that writing forces me to confront my worst of everything, and with the confrontation comes a measure of understanding.

While looking for information for this blog, I found a great post written by “The Angry Therapist” on tips for dealing with life if you can’t afford therapy.  I found the entire article worthwhile, and some of it surprising and wise. I especially liked tip seven: share your story.

A final word about therapy. Several people I’m close to either see or have seen a therapist and each one of them has benefited from it. It is, I’m told, expensive and hard work, but with the right therapist and the right attitude, it can be life altering. So please understand that I don’t mean to claim here that writing, or any other activity, can or should replace therapy when it is needed, or even wanted.

Therapy may be something I’ll try someday. Much as it may help me, I’m confident I have enough garbage in my head that writing for my mental health will always be an option for me. Besides, I have six other fine reasons to write, and there are four of them I haven’t given much thought to lately. One of them I’m kind of secretive about, and it will be the subject of my next post.

(Read more about why I write at at The Number One Reason I Write Books, Nothing cool about modest ambitions, My Eye-opening Second Reason for Writing,  I love to be loved , Remember My Name and What’s the Point? )

A better word than courage?

While I was thinking through my idealistic first novel about how telepathy could bring about empathy, compassion and peace on earth, I was already formulating a far different story about the times and circumstances when understanding a point of view is incomprehensible, and when even the most vulnerable need to find the strength to stand up and fight.

I was moving my emotions into the coolers colors that, to me, denoted the “but what about” response to all the good cheer of peace and joy and hope that my first three books were encompassing. In order to write about the one, I had to write about the other.

The word I wanted to describe the theme of my fourth novel was somewhere in between desperation and bravery. It was a word that would call to mind

the children and elders in a village grabbing kitchen knives and pitchforks and fighting in their own front yards with their hearts and souls to preserve what was decent and good in the face of indisputable evil, and, against all odds, triumphing.

I called it courage, but that only scratches the surface of what I was trying to convey. Is there a word for this situation? If not, we need one.

(For more thoughts on words we need, see A better word than loyalty?, A better word than peace?, A better word than joy?, and A better word than hope? )

Top Requirement for a Superhero

I love superheroes. And, I love it when women in fiction are strong and capable. But, for some odd reason I’ve never been much of a fan of Wonder Woman.

It could have been the tiara, way back when, or the silly skirted costume. This original heroine was before my time, but her image lingered, and it made her appear to me like a secretary out of the 40’s hustling to get her really angry boss a cup of coffee.

More likely it was the goofy boots and lasso I saw as a young girl. This modernized Wonder Woman had a faintly Texas air about her, and I wasn’t big on cowboy stories. Was I judging her by her appearance? Sadly, yes. I didn’t know much else about her, though, because although I read comics and watched superheroes on TV,  somehow her stories were never there. Her image was all I had.

Then I became a teen-aged feminist, and Wonder Woman became a sex object. Well, not totally I’m sure, but her outward appearance took a sharp turn, so once again I wasn’t interested in her. I preferred my heroes not to look like that they were prepared to do a lap dance in some sort of kinky bondage strip club.

Finally, I outgrew superheros for a long while, as I tended to the challenges of life in my own real world. It was only when I picked up my laptop and started to write books that I discovered how much I had missed heroes with superpowers.

Didn’t give Wonder Woman much thought though, until I caught an interview with the director of the upcoming movie. Really? Someone is making a movie about Wonder Woman?

It sounded interesting, and I went. And I loved it. Not because she was a woman, though that was nice. Not because she was strong and heroic, which of course she was. And not because the whole rest of the movie was basically done with taste and class, though I thought it was, too.

I loved it because she had what I need to see in every hero I appreciate. She had heart. Compassion. Kindness. Ethics. Morals. A desire to make the world better. All those things that all the guy heroes I liked had all along, and maybe she had it too but if all you get is an image and an occasional bit in a fight scene, then there is no way to show that heart is there.

I walked away loving her concept of “it’s not about what they deserve, it’s about what you believe.” That’s a great way to run an army, a country, or a world. In fact, I like that idea so much that all my other blog posts this month will be about letting beliefs shape actions.

I love superheroes. And, I love it when women in fiction are strong and capable. But, my favorite hero of them all is now Wonder Woman.

(For more Wonder Woman inspired thoughts, see Believe, It’s About What You Believe, I believe in appreciating those who protect us. All of them, and Believe in Tomorrow.)

 

 

The Amazing Things I Get to Do

I jumped out of a helicopter today without a parachute. I used my ability to see the future to save my mother’s life, I stared down two villains at gunpoint, I orchestrated a corporate take-over and I played with penguins. It was a great afternoon.

Years ago, I loved to read fiction and I still do. However, in recent years, that same energy has gone into  my writing  instead. Writing is hard work, and stories don’t always go as well as the writer would like, but when they do, the feeling that you are doing what your characters do is even more compelling.

These people live in my head. I know far more about them than will ever appear in my book, and when they set foot in Antarctica or on a beach in Brazil, I am there with them.

Because many of my characters have superpowers, I get the added bonus of doing things I never could in real life. Today, I wrote this scene about one of my characters who can “travel”, that is, have conscious out of body experiences.

Vanida had never used her energy body to travel to someone who was on an airplane, so she was alarmed when she ordered her body of light to seek out Yuden and found herself rising thousands of feet into the air and moving westward. It took effort not to panic and snap back into her physical body which was resting quietly on the beach in Brazil.

She was glad she had persevered, though, once she sighted the tiny plane approaching, and realized why she was where she was. The skill with which her energy body matched the speed and direction of the craft amazed her, and allowed her to cross through the metal as gently as if it had been sitting on the ground.

Tonight, I will go to sleep dreaming about flying through the air, matching my speed to that of an airplane and passing gracefully through its walls. It should be a night of sweet dreams.

Am I writing sexist science fiction?

daxI’ve been a feminist since I was a teenager; longer than that if you consider wanting to be the chief science officer on the star ship Enterprise as a sign of early feminism. And yet, like other like-minded authors of speculative fiction, I struggle with feminism in my writing.

My first problem is that I define feminism as the radical notion that women are people. This means that some of them (women, or people if you prefer) are foolish. Some are selfish or incompetent, and a few of them are downright mean. All of them have flaws. I believe that to make every female character, or even most of them, models of virtue is to not treat my female characters as people, but rather as carriers pigeons for an ideology.

I recently stumbled on an online group discussion about a book I read years ago. Dreamsnake (a multiple award-winning 1978 science fiction novel written by Vonda McIntyre) defied the stereotypes of the genre way back then by putting a gutsy lady hero in the middle of a broken world. I wanted to like this book so much. But I didn’t, at least not all that much.

dreamsnakeThe main character Snake seemed two dimensional to me. She was everything a feminist hero should be, which was great, and she was never anything else, which kind of bored me. The rest of the women in her post-apocalyptic world were equally unwavering in their strength and capability. There may have been exceptions (it has been many years since I read the book) but my lingering impression was of a cast of characters carefully crafted to make a point. Interesting, but not engaging.

So, my female characters are all over the place. Most of my protagonists are strong women, but my novel y1 features a gay male shape shifter, and his friends.

I remember being so excited when a blog called The Future Fire agreed to review the book, and being so disappointed when the reviewer remarked “I do have to say, I am not really impressed by the depiction of women here. Of the two main female characters, one is shown to be foolish and unstable (where have we seen those words before?) and the other a child-like creature who runs from one daddy figure to another.”

y1-final-smallNo, I wanted to scream. That’s just two of the characters. What about capable Chloe? Resilient Raven? They are just as important to the plot. But of course one of the things you have to learn when you write books is not to scream at your reviewers, even in your own head, no matter how much you think they are missing the point. You just try to make your intentions more clear in the next book.

The other problem I have with my own sense of feminism and writing, is that I want my world to feel real to my readers. Sadly, our cultural stereotypes are internalized from childhood whether we like it or not, and they color our sense of what is believable. A writer can easily have one top surgeon at the hospital be female, and I think a good story ought to have a few of them. However, if the writer insists on making well over half of the doctors female (and more than half of the nurses male) then today’s reader will struggle to settle into the plot. This works fine if gender is supposed to play part in the story, or in the world-building. But if it isn’t, then you’ve got a bright light shining where you don’t want one, and you have to choose between making your point and engaging your reader.

A while back I read a fascinating article on a blog called Mythcreants entitled Five Signs your Story is Sexist.  This wonderful and helpful post included such gems as

“Patriarchy conditions us to think of men as normal and women as special exotic creatures. That’s why in many stories, particularly stories written by men, characters are only women if the storyteller thinks they have to be.”

Excellent point. If every female in the story is someones girlfriend, sister, daughter or mother, I think a good storyteller should seek out a few other characters and change their gender. You know, the helpful bartender who notices something that saves the hero can be a girl, and no, your hero does not have to fall in love with her. She can even be an old woman.

Here is another gem.

“Because most of us have a very skewed sense of what ratio of men to women is normal, the only way to ensure equal representation is to actually count them up and tally the total.”

This is an exercise well worth doing. While I think that a writer may not be able to achieve “equal representation” without making gender an issue in a novel meant to be about something else, I bet writers of all genders will be surprised by how far we all lean towards predominantly male stories. Yes, we can lean less that way and still tell a tale that sounds like it is real.

I’m already working on the novel I hope to write after I finish my 46. Ascending series. My protagonist will be a she, of course, and I already know that she will be smart, capable and kind. That part is easy. Now I’m working on what she doesn’t do well, developing the ways in which she is vulnerable. To me, those traits will be what makes her story interesting, and also what makes her fully human.

We need to talk about this, just maybe not so much

img_3163I’ve started working out at a gym (again) and this time around I’m facing a challenge I haven’t seen before, and it involves breast cancer. No, I don’t have it and let me go on record as being against cancer of all types and firmly in favor of a disease free life for everyone. However ….

Someone in the gym has decided to put cute little pink sticky notes with hand-written statistics about breast cancer at eye level on the machines. I suppose if these had been in place for a week or so I might have ignored them, but it’s been almost a month now and I’m getting tired of averting my eyes. img_3161Nothing written on a sticky note is going to change my health care practices. However, I have emotional attachments to women who have died from this awful disease and to others who have bravely fought a battle that they are losing. These notes put me in a funk every time I see them. I’m fine with educating people. I’m not fine with badgering them.

trump-assult-scandalEnter sexual assault. Most women I know have experienced it in some mild form, including me, and too many of those I love have had experiences that were disturbing enough to continue to haunt and challenge them. I wish healing for them, and safety for all women. I recognize that to ignore the problem is not to solve it. I welcome honest dialog and a world striving to be better. However ….

It’s hard for these brave souls to move on, or to even have a good day, when almost every newscast addresses the topic, and half of the available entertainment feels compelled to have a scene, episode or back story about the same. When is comes to the news, a lot of this is tied to the presidential election and the way that events are unfolding. We all can’t wait for the election to be over, and for me this is just one more reason.

27-15As far as the entertainment industry goes, if I want to be positive then I think that they are striving to be relevant and, at their best, helpful. After all, I wrote a book about human trafficking with the best of intentions. When I am in a less charitable mood, I am sure that some others are only capitalizing on what they think will sell, and I understand with some sorrow how I could be accused of the same.

So I get to write a book about human trafficking but you don’t? Who decides when enough about a subject is enough, or whether the handling of a difficult topic is sensitive or exploitative?

I can’t answer that question. I do know that I never want to see ugly topics like disease and assault (and poverty, racism, domestic violence, homophobia, child neglect, human trafficking, war, and gun violence) swept under a giant collective carpet. Awareness can lead to solutions. But I also think it is fair to consider how toxic the atmosphere can become once we are fixated on a difficult subject, especially for those struggling to recover from emotional wounds that get strained a little every time the subject arises.

There are no easy answers here; just the age old need to step back from what we are doing every once in awhile, and to look honestly at our own motives and to consider the feelings of all others.

I do know that when difficult topics are handled with warmth, compassion and even a little humor, it helps. That can be a hard thing to do, and successful examples are rare.  This video, put out by the Thames Valley Police about a year ago relating the issue of consenting sex to having a cup of tea, handles a difficult subject as well as anything I have ever seen.

 

(For other oblique election commentary see my posts Everything is Going to Be Alright,  Our brand is crisis?, and Is it over yet?)