Revising update:

It turns out, dear readers, the book I’m writing isn’t the book I thought I was writing, and it’s going to be a much bigger, deeper, more interesting book when it’s done, but that won’t be for a while because I have to add and change and do a lot of things to it and this sentence has been going on for a while now but it’s important and I have to follow my stars and work at the edge of what I’m capable of so just stick with me, my friends, and I’ll tell you a really good story.

The end.

Revising, verb

I just got the following email.

“I’m really curious, because you’re making the revision process sound like pure unmitigated hell in a blender. Why is it so rough?”

COME SIT BY ME AND I’LL TELL YOU ALL ABOUT IT

It’s hard for a few reasons. I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing, that I’m not doing enough, that somehow I should have managed to emit a completely coherent novel on the first draft because I should be that good, and if I am not that good I am nothing.

That’s the most hellish reason. It is also the most inaccurate, and I’m trying to be harsh with it and gentle with myself on that basis. I have never revised a novel before, of course it’s going to take a while. Of course I am not good at it yet, I’m just starting!

The second reason is that progress feels slow. It’s hard to budget time when this is the part of the process where I stare into space, occasionally reaching out, groping blindly for a pen, to scribble something like the following:

“mash chs 11+12”
“Cater the hell out of this catastrophe?”
“ch 18 ends with that string of texts from E to C”
“ch 5 PARIS (remember to write this)”
“second BJ–redundant???”

Art isn’t easy.

Identifying problems and plot holes and ways the story needs to be made better is hard! Chapters 21, 23, and 28 have nothing in them! Literal nothing! They are blank voids, potholes in the land of plot! I made no notes to myself about what goes there, but I know something has to! Past Miranda had so much confidence in Future Miranda. It’s very sweet, the amount of faith she had in me. I kind of want to kick her now.

I’m not beating myself up for not writing a perfect novel in one go. Besides, the first draft is perfect. It got the story and the characters out of my head and onto the page, and that was exactly what it was supposed to do. Finding the gaps in my own writing is in its better moments really interesting. I am terrible at describing people. You could read the whole book and not know what hair color anybody has. And I swear to GOD if any more characters look any more heatedly at any other characters the sprinkler system in Buckingham Palace is going to go off. Does Buckingham Palace even have a sprinkler system? Do I need to know that? I don’t actually need to know that, but that’s twenty minutes of googling I didn’t know I had to do…

For those more mechanical problems I just put a flag on that page. I know I’ll come back to it and make the writing work. I know how to do that.

Fixing the bigger problems–the inconsistencies in how people behave, the places where I jumped the gun, chapters that only have 228 words in them–there are two of those, a second act that is introduced and resolved in basically three pages–is daunting. And, to use my friend’s delightfully descriptive phrase, it’s hell in a blender to understand that I can’t fix all the problems instantly, and that I don’t even know how to fix some of them yet. I know I will, but it takes time. I just finished disassembling the plot, making a catalog of everything that happens in the book, and now it’s time to go ahead and figure out how to put all the pieces back together again. Then it’ll be time to add in new pieces, and smooth out the whole thing.

And the thing is, when it isn’t making me scream internally, revising is about the most fun I think I know how to have. The sharp-eyed focused marathon of making it better is just as exciting as the sheer breathless sprint of creating it in the first place. There is a lot of satisfaction in making this book match the picture in my head, which itself has changed so much from the initial “The Plot So Far” document I wrote in an hour in Argo Tea back in August.

But it’s effort. It’s hard to quantify, or communicate about. It’s effort that feels like I’m an idiot, when in fact I’m thinking really hard and coming up with solutions and cackling madly. Maybe I should tweet those parts more often so you don’t worry I’m going to throw myself in the river or something.

It just seems less triumphant to tweet “OMG I lay on my back on the floor with my eyes closed for 45 minutes and now I totally know what to do about that longing look on the bridge in Paris in Chapter 5!#amrevising”*

Writing a book is like building a rope bridge across a chasm. The first draft is when you throw the guide ropes across to the other side and tie them off, and get all your cross-pieces in roughly the write order. Revising is when you inch out along the ropes to fit the cross-pieces, and discover that you don’t have enough pieces of wood, or that they’re the wrong size entirely, and realize that you don’t know how to build a bridge at all, and are probably a mollusk. But you have to do it anyway, so off you go.

Bridge_Astore
Now it’s off to write a timeline so I don’t accidentally have one character declare their undying love for another several pages before they meet.
*Still need to write Chapter 5.

The Price of Admission

The Price of Admission

Action movies. My loves. My dearest cinematic joys on this earth. The lingua franca of many of my relationships and friendships, my stock in trade. Recently, I can’t stop noticing how women are treated in them even in movies lauded for treating women better than other movies treated women recently. Something inside me snapped. I no longer want to see them any more with the same kind of excitement I used to feel. Good job, Hollywood! It only took fifteen years for you to break me. There are still many reasons for me to go to the movies, I still love going, I’m thinking about starting an actual movie reviews bit soon. But there are things I don’t want to watch any more.

I don’t want to see the one woman who speaks belittled. I don’t want to see her hurt. I don’t want to see her pressed up against a villain with a knife to her throat as he makes pronouncements or threatens her to get to Our Hero. I don’t want to see her smacked around or thrown into a wall or murdered for having sex with someone. (As direct cause/effect in the narrative, or as moral judgment of the meta-narrative, or even just because whatever the hell, there was a woman, and we need to show something about this dude, so… he hits her? Yeah? Good. Men who hit women are Bad Mans. Except when the good guy hits women, that’s because he needed her to shut up or needed to look tough or you know, just, whatever. Don’t be so sensitive. It’s just a movie.)

Of course we buy their love story. He's condescending, she's impatient. Match: made.
Of course we buy their love story. He’s condescending, she’s impatient. Match: made.

I saw Mission Impossible: The One With The Giant Plane Stunt a couple of weeks ago, and spent the whole movie waiting for Rebecca Ferguson’s character to be sexually assaulted. The entire two hours-plus of movie, and all I could think was “Does it happen now? Is it going to happen now? The pace has gotten a little slow here, are they going to put her in peril now? Maybe now?” It’s not a particularly nice place to be, guys.

Tried to rewatch the first two Transporter movies the other night. Couldn’t get through either of them. These are movies I loved, these are movies I referenced as being of quality. I have the same reaction thinking about many of the action movies I’ve seen over the years. I have devoted precious brain space to thinking about how action stars are created and their careers and arcs maintained over multiple movies even when they aren’t in the same series. I have nursed crushes on the men who star in them. I’m not ashamed of this, exactly. It’s like the end of a mediocre relationship. I’m upset that I wasted so much time on something that didn’t deserve me.

Spoiler alert: they fuck.
Spoiler alert: they fuck.

The price of admission to an action movie is understanding that I’m going to be scared in a way my cis male movie-going companions are not going to be scared. I’m going to be anxious the whole time. The price of admission is knowing that I have to laugh when women are the visual butt (or bust) of the joke. That I have to go in with a hard heart and clenched jaw, because I know what’s coming for me.

Women in these movies are portrayed as either blocks of ice who know how to punch, and are punished accordingly, or as useless wads of dryer lint there to be stared at and laughed at if they try to do anything. Especially when it’s something that, if you squint, looks a lot like something the male protagonist would be applauded for doing. Sometimes they’re actually helpful and good for the plot and are made sympathetic. I worry the most for these women. Kate Mara’s character in Shooter, for example. She was great, and she was raped and tortured at the hands of the film’s villain. Unnecessarily. Gratuitously. The movie had already established him as beyond redemption. They just wanted to show a woman shaking and traumatized at the hands of her attacker. I think she maybe gets to shoot him in the chest? Maybe that’s how he dies? I don’t remember exactly, that movie in particular upset the hell out of me.

This is necessary. Instead of fridged, she's dishwashed. And by dishwashed, I mean raped.
This is necessary. Instead of fridged, she’s dishwashed. And by dishwashed, I mean raped.

And, for all that, I love these movies. I’m a biased observer for them. I’m an apologist. When I see the latest Jurassic Park movie, yanking feminism and gender relationships back to a particularly poorly conceived Spencer Tracey/Katherine Hepburn movie, I want it not to be true. I want to think that I’m watching something subversive, that I’m in on the joke with the film’s creators, but I’m not. I’m on the outside, and I am meant to be on the outside. I’m going to be kept there with sexual assault and sexist jokes, with cinematography that highlights these meaningless secondary sexual characteristics on my chest (I’m looking at you, Joss Whedon) instead of my face.

Three movies, all put out in the last three years, have delighted me. I could watch them over and over again and never watch any others. Pacific RimJupiter Ascending, and Mad Max: Fury Road. Those movies understood my presence in the theater, though two of them were not explicitly catering to it. They welcomed me, in fact. They gave me respect. Me. Not “women.” Not “feminism.” Not a generalization or an abstract socio-political construct or movement.

Me. My self.

Saving the world. Fully dressed. It could only happen in science fiction. (And yet, so rarely does.)
Saving the world. Fully dressed. It could only happen in science fiction. (And yet, so rarely does.)

All three are speculative. The levels of personal agency, narrative importance, and actual exploration of some facet of womanhood reached in the very occasional sci-fi movie are pretty much unheard-of in straight action movies. I can think of one that can squeak in on the very barest suggestion of a technicality, but really, if we still have to go back to Demi Moore shaving her hair off in a military drama from 1997 (in a film where the presupposed foregone conclusion of her brutal rape is used as a lesson for her teammates rather than herself) I’m comfortable calling misogynistic bullshit when I see it. Which is often.

There is some room for apologists like me to wiggle. MI:PLANE STUNT OMG DID YOU SEE WHAT HE DID is a case in point. The woman does not become Ethan Hunt’s sex prize du jour, she drives off into the sunset and what one assumes is an extremely lucrative retirement. There have been a few others lately that surprised me pleasantly with how much not-rape they contained. Most are still as trope-y as ever, woo the Crazy!Uterine!Killers clubmembers and the Mostly!Useless!But!Still!Fuckable girls and the Bitch-Who-Will-See-The-Error-Of-Her-Bitchy-Ways-And-Get-On-Board-With-Smooching-The-Minimally-Adequate-Hero bitches and the Why-Is-She-Even-Here-Oh-Right-We-Live-But-To-Die-So-That-Your-Rage-Might-Flourish ladies. You all know exactly who I’m talking about with all of these. I bet a rolodex of characters is spinning in your heads for each of those types.

But at least I die horribly, right? (The image title
But at least I die horribly, right?
(The image title “one crazy woman” was what this downloaded as. I left it alone for reference and interest.)

So, sure, I’ll keep going. I’m interested in a couple of franchises and in the development of the genre as it careens here and there trying figure out what the hell it’s doing. I’ll be more critical of it more loudly, and if you don’t like it, blow it out your ear. There are still things I like, car chases and explosions and gorgeous locales. But I’m not going to pretend, even for a minute, that these movies don’t have problems. Huge problems, and I don’t mean how that particular gun doesn’t fire bullets that do that particular thing. (The laws of physics, as you might surmise, are not my greatest concern at the present time.)

There’s a higher price for admission to every piece of media, when you’re not a white straight cis man. The price is not seeing yourself. The price is having to watch hackneyed, vicious portrayals of yourself and then having to defend why you didn’t absolutely love everything about said portrayal. If you can’t really accept that, we can’t really have a conversation. I’m not annoyed at you in particular for it, and I don’t need you to defend it to me. I already enjoy these movies. But that isn’t a band-aid over critical engagement, and I’m not going to slap it on there any more.

Tonight at dinner.

There are many things I did not say at dinner tonight while interacting with a man I had never met before. He was obnoxious, impressed with himself, rude, sexist, and more interested in making sweeping, incorrect generalizations than in conversation. He changed his argument and the direction of the conversation every time he was challenged on any of those many sweeping generalizations. It was faux intellectualism taken to truly astounding heights. Also, he managed to insinuate at every opportunity that I, the only woman in the conversation, didn’t know what I was talking about. Following is an incomplete list of the things I did not say.

“If ‘society’ were reset,’ in your words, and we were all ‘dumped naked in a field with no tools,’ I’m pretty sure our first response would not be to kill each each other. Your first response, based on your behavior so far, would be to look at my breasts.”

“You are not an expert about something because you have the most baseline cynical opinion possible about it. Everything you have claimed the intellectual high ground on so far is something that I know for a fact someone at this table knows more about and is more thoughtful about than you.”

“I did not start paying attention to your conversation with [friend] again because you ‘were done nerding out.’ I am a nerd. I am not interested in combative pedantry, which is what you were doing.”

“I have, in fact, read Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I just told you that I have. I have read many things, actually. My breasts do not interfere with my vision or my ability to decode language. So when I finish quoting the scene you are laboriously trying to explain to me, it’s not like I’ve done some amazing trick.”

I know this might all seem petty. I know. But I felt, for the first time in a long time, that I was being shut down, over and over, for nothing so heinous as challenging a man who seemed to think that he deserved to be talking by virtue of his maleness, where maleness correlated to rightness. I, as woman, was supposed to sit there basking in the attention, gratified that he would be choosing to share his thoughts with me. Gratified, and appropriately impressed by his intellect.

In closing, I leave you with one of the most powerful set-downs in the history of modern cinema, delivered by a woman in a bright pink muppet sweater, the subversive epitome of femininity.

Thank you, and good night.

Older Men, Teenage Girls: An Essay in Three Parts

This post is long, and deals with uncomfortable situations involving minors (including me). They happened a long time ago, and didn’t cause lasting damage to me, although I don’t know and can’t speak to anything that might have happened to anyone else. I was very lucky.

1)
When I was in summer camp the year I was fifteen, there was a counselor, a wonderful, thoughtful guy named Stephen, who patiently and with a little bit of horror in his eyes lived through being subject to our affections. One day, as we were hanging out at a picnic table discussing writing, one of my friends (who had a huge crush on him) said that she didn’t think the age difference between a fifteen and a nineteen-year-old was so big. To his credit, he didn’t bang his head into the table or run screaming or anything. He just said that there’s a lot of life experience that happens between then and now. What about people in their twenties? we demanded. Twenty-one-year-olds date twenty-five-year-olds all the time. He, still patient, ever-patient, said that it didn’t matter so much after college, but that when you’re still in high school, you’re in a very different place. I am still grateful to him for that conversation. Not so much because it changed anything, but because it put a quiet, non-parental voice in my head, a voice from someone close enough to my age and my perceived “cool” levels, that maybe some of the other things that were about to happen involving me might, just possibly, be on the wronger side of things.

2)
Later that summer, I was part of the costume crew at a theater running a fairly expensive and (in its own mind, at least) prestigious youth program. The techies were all men in their late twenties, good-looking, etc. I had an uncomfortable (for both of us) crush on one of them, but he kept mostly to himself, away from the shrieking, hormone-fueled, slightly confused, sexually frustrated on a molecular level, roiling mass of teenager that had infested his theater. There was another one, though. I’ll call him Jon. The average population of any high school musical production is going to be heavy on girls, and teenage boys were, as they have always been, a combination of terrified and consciously oblivious that is very frustrating then and in hindsight a survival mechanism for the good of the species. Jon spent a lot of time with a few of the girls. He was at least thirty, and came across as funny, smart, and interested. The attention made us feel good, you know?

I got a weird vibe off Jon, kind of. I spent more time with the techie guys than the girls in the show, and he was a little too friendly when he was friendly, but he was all business a lot of the time, so it seemed okay. I know Jon and I talked. I know I must have been flirty, it was what I did. I liked using my words, and here were a couple of older guys who seemed to like talking to me. There was a rumor that the old lighting guy had been fired because of “something happening” with a girl our age, but we were safe. He had been fired, and she wasn’t involved in productions here any more. (That was mentioned sideways, like maybe she had been culpable, too.) Of course we were safe! How could we not be safe!

One afternoon, it was in a break between scenes. It was me, two other girls, and Jon sitting in a clump on the darkened stage. One of the girls, a thin blond wearing plaid shorts, was talking about something, and she said something funny. We were all laughing, and Jon put his hand on her thigh like it was the most natural thing in the world. Another time, he and I were in the wings killing time between scenes, and my hair color came up. He asked if “the carpet matched the drapes.” I, in a reckless display of ingenuity and ignorance, shot back with “What do you think?” I had no idea what that meant until I got home and asked one of my friends. When my friend told me, I was aghast, but it wasn’t any dumber or weirder than the questions the guys my age were asking me, so I let it go.

Few days later, he pulled me into him, wrapped us in one of the wing curtains, and kissed my neck. I was surprised. This wasn’t a thing that grown men were, you know, supposed to do to me.

Holding me in that old, dusty black velvet, he said, “You’re seventeen, right?”
I blinked. It hadn’t occurred to me that he might not know how old I was. I felt myself start to smile.
“Think again.”
His arms stiffened. “Sixteen?”
Now my smile was real, if tremulous, and just a little bit vicious. Remembering it now, I am sick to my stomach like I was at the time.
“Think again.”

I had not, up to that point in my young life, seen the color actually drain out of someone’s face before. He immediately let go of me, untwisted us, quietly falling all over himself, saying he was sorry, that he thought I was older, that it was a joke. I’m pretty sure he called in sick for several days, and didn’t come near me again the rest of the time I worked on that show.

I haven’t told that story much. I was lucky, I know I was. He’d been assuming I was legal, which made me nonprosecutable fair game, even though it would never have been fair. He was nearly twice the age he thought I was, and twice the age I actually was. He’s forty-one, now, and I hope he still feels ashamed of himself. Hell, I hope he never did anything worse.

3)
So when I listen to talk of James Franco messaging with a seventeen-year-old girl who got her picture with him, I think about being seventeen. I think about being half in love with a dozen different movie stars, playing and replaying fantasies in my head that somehow magically involved me being older, or sometimes they didn’t. It was strange, because my historically minded self reacted with revulsion whenever I heard about marriages where the groom was so much older than the bride. Some fantasies aren’t supposed to come true.

Would he have messaged a twenty-one-year-old? Or a twenty-seven-year-old? Or a thirty-year-old? Or a thirty-five-year-old? Somehow I doubt it. These interactions are age-specific and they are all about power, and the assumption is that the man has all of it. Also based on the idea that there is some kind of secrecy, that he is protected because she won’t say anything. He told her not to tell. Sometimes she will. Not always, but she will. I am so happy that Lucy Clode did.

I didn’t say anything about Jon at the time. I didn’t tell my parents, I didn’t tell the director of the show, or the director of the program. I didn’t want to disappear, like that girl who’d been involved with the lighting guy disappeared. I was protecting myself against questions about my own behavior (which was probably verbally questionable) and against the embarrassment, and in the process I protected him. I should have said something.

Post it everywhere when anyone does something that makes you uncomfortable. I don’t care who you are, or who they are. Tell everyone. Shout it. Make fliers. Paper the world in our discontent and our vulnerability and our power. Tell them to think again when they go to seduce us, to take advantage of our limited experience and boundless desire to be older, to control our fates, to be like the older girls. The hardest part is the first part: telling ourselves to think again.

Knitting through.

Things are hard right now, my friends. I’m casting around for some kind of distraction, some kind of destruction, something to take my mind off, or at least away. My options are limited, since I don’t actually want to make bad decisions.

So this time, I’m taking up my knitting needles and working on a thing of beauty.

I knit because it lets me remain in my head while blunting the sharp edges of distress. It calms me, interests me, the repetitive motion is soothing. I am always getting somewhere. One more step in the spiral, one more link in the chain. It’s a labyrinth, built and explored by my fingers. It’s a path, a journey, there is a beginning, middle, and end, and so much can happen along the way.

A dropped stitch, an error in the pattern, a lapse in concentration. Terrible fates to befall one. I don’t use markers to portion the way, and I don’t weave in lifelines in case something goes wrong and I have to rip back. I just pick up needles and yarn and go. Of all the parts of my life, I am least anxious about knitting.

That doesn’t mean that I’m not anxious. Worry over whether I’m using the right needle size can plague me, fears that the product will be too big, too small, it won’t feel right, it’s not soft enough, it’s too stiff, too loose, it can take me an evening of swatching and choosing to make sure it’s going to be right. (And this is in the least anxious bit of my life. I think I need lavender oil, or maybe gin.) But once I get it right? (“Right” is, of course, subjective.) Once I find the combination, it unlocks my enthusiasm and I fly.

I’m flying on the project I’m knitting now. It’s so gorgeous, pattern complicated and engaging. The colors in the yarn look like fallen leaves from oaks and maples. The yarn even makes this wonderful crunchy, dry-leaf sound as I slide it along the matte gray needles. It’s a lace shawl, but I’m knitting it in heavier yarn. It’s going to be very big when it’s done. A roof. A house. A safe place. An autumn day to spread over me whenever I want one.

So this is me. A maker of beautiful things, in sadness, grief, in confusion and need. Dancing through my days as well as I can even though my heart is heavy. Wrapping the yarn around the needles like my arms around the ones I love.

Addiction, loss, and what he wore.

There’s this weird movie I watched once. I think my mother got it from Netflix back when you actually got DVDs in the mail. It’s called Next Stop Wonderland and it’s an odd. cross-class love story between a woman who does something office-like, and a man who works at an aquarium. The two best things about the movie are a subplot about a puffer fish and the woman’s ex-boyfriend, a Green Peace activist and later stock broker played by Philip Seymour Hoffman.

That’s the only movie I have ever seen him in.  He’s dead now, apparently of a drug overdose. He was 46. Another hole left by addiction. A rip in the lining, and lives fall through.

Craig Ferguson, in an amazing monologue about his history with alcohol, has said that he was a sick man self-medicating with alcohol, and that on one occasion it saved his life. Watch it here. It’s worth it. Really. Twelve of the most important minutes you will ever spend on YouTube, I swear.

We all lose when a man dies alone from something as avoidable as an overdose. We all lose when kids have their lives wrecked by the same chemicals they are using to make it livable inside their own heads, whatever the reasons are. The world gets dimmer every time another person’s light goes out.

Addiction is not a choice. It is a genetic mental condition. Treating it as such would materially change the way the medical and judicial establishments handle people who are suffering from it, and that would be an amazing thing, it would change so much for the better and save so many lives. The culture of drug availability and addiction in Hollywood is shameful, and I hope this draws some attention to it. If that life asks so much of these people that they need to turn to drugs in order to survive it, then maybe that life needs to be examined and modified, because it’s exploitative and wrong to treat people in ways you’re not allowed to treat racehorses.

But there is another side to this. A very difficult side, and one that seems to be very unpopular at the moment. From the same Craig Ferguson monologue:

“You have to be responsible for your actions, sick or well. You have to be responsible. We’re all accountable. You have to be…it’s your responsibility to deal with the condition you have, in whatever way you can.”

People reacting from addiction are still responsible for what they do. The emotions those actions inspire are real. Gaps and heartache and anger and fear, and addiction is an evil, frightening thing to have in one’s brain. It is a tragic, horrible thing that Philip Seymour Hoffman died, and at the same time I am angry at him for dying like that. It’s anger borne of helplessness and heavily impacted by grief for what addiction did to someone in my family, and I won’t apologize for it.

I wish he had remembered that he wasn’t, didn’t need to be, alone, that it wasn’t hopeless. That there was more love to have and more movies to make, or maybe he could have gone and been an elk rancher, or a batik dyer, or a world class hair stylist. Because he wasn’t done. Because he lost his life, and we all lose every day, in millions of ways because of addiction, and it’s not impossible to get through it and live in vigilance against it. It really isn’t impossible, and nothing has to end that way. There is more waiting on the other side.