The Style and Strangeness of Kurt Vonnegut. With grasshoppers.
This book was weird. But in a good way.
The narrator had a very blunt, direct way of saying things. He goes into every little detail, from his dog taking a shit, to his polish ancestor’s homosexual love affair, to the vice president of the United States getting oral pleasure from his wife. He uses certain styles of repetition in a poetic style, similar to what I saw Vonnegut do in Breakfast of Champions.
The story is half LGBT YA coming-of-age story, half apocalyptic sci-fi. I loved the way those pieces fit together, and I love that the main character is bisexual, a rare thing to see in novels.
As long as you aren’t thrown off by a story that takes very weird and unexpected shifts into sci-fi territory without much warning, you should love this book.
I write fiction. My fiction includes characters who are just as emotional, flawed, and complicated as anyone in real life. And people in real life curse.
The subject of swear words in writing came up recently at my Rowan University Seminar class. My classmates and I are making preparations to go to the graduate symposium, where we will be giving presentations based on our Master’s in Writing thesis projects. For most of us, these projects are novels and memoirs (except Steve, cause he’s a rebel like that). As part of these presentations, we’ll be reading some of our work out loud. And some of our work has curses in it.
After a brief discussion, we seemed to reach a general consensus that reading a chapter that contains cursing in front of the audience is fine, as long as it’s not like a scene from the South Park movie.
In the last few days, I’ve also seen some people tweeting about this subject, asking questions like, “Is it okay to write curses in a YA fantasy novel?” Answers tend to vary, though what I most commonly hear is something along the lines of, “Yes, if it’s in character for that person to curse, and it’s not excessive.”
I’m not going to talk at all about censorship, about the infamous Clean Reader app, or about the distinction between the target audience in a Young Adult vs New Adult vs Adult book. Instead, I’m going to talk about death.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that death is worse than cursing.
No, no, bear with me!
I’m a fan of the webcomic Erfworld (stick around, I’m going somewhere with this). I’ve been reading it almost since the day it launched, back when it was hosted on the Order of the Stick website. Erfworld is a world filled with magic, where many things are puns or cute, child-like interpretations of normally serious things. For example, there are giant stuffed animal “cloth golems” and dragons that spit bubble gum. And in keeping with this cute, child-like theme, there’s a magical effect across the whole world that prevents people from cursing. If you try to curse, you’re booped out, just like on cable TV. The very gods of this world prevent foul language.
Throughout the course of the comic, the gods DO allow a lot of other things: war, death, destruction, betrayal, scheming, manipulation, and KISS impersonations. They don’t censor any of that. They don’t save people from being killed, even when it’s by being eaten by a dwagon, being torn in half, having your head blown off, or being caught in a volcanic eruption. A lot of people die in this comic. By the thousands.
At least one very vocal reader pitched a huge fit on the Giant in the Playground forums (since Erfworld was still hosted there at that time). They said that it was very inappropriate to say the word “fuck” in a comic, particularly in one that is geared towards younger readers (mostly teenagers, I imagine). The response to this complaint basically said that it’s ridiculous to be angry over a bad word being used when you just finished reading a comic where the climax involved thousands of people being killed in a magically-induced massive volcanic eruption. Nobody complained when Parson Gotti ordered the spellcasters under his command to commit mass-murder. But they complained when he said the word “Fuck.”
And, ironically, Parson’s speech to the gods at the end addressed exactly that same point: that it’s hypocritical for them to censor his language, when they allowed the real obscenity of war and death to go on.
This is why I’ll never censor any of my language. My novel, Manifestation, contains two uses of the word “bitch,” eleven of the word “damn,” seven of “shit,” and thirty-six uses of various forms of “fuck” (including one use of “fuck-buddy”). That’s a total of fifty-six uses of the most common curse words in a 240 page novel. And it contains 76 uses of various forms of “die,” “died,” “dead,” and “death.” A lot of people die tragic deaths, and every once in awhile, one of the survivors curses.
Which of those things do you think has more meaning and impact? Which would you not want your children to repeat? If your answer is “the cursing,” then, well, I think you should consider what that says about you.
Death appears in literature because we all, as mortal humans, need to come to terms with it. Sometimes we experience it in real life, when a friend or family member is tragically taken from us. Other times, we see it in movies, TV shows, and books. When that happens, it gives us the chance to think about the meaning of life, about how much our loved ones mean to us, about the importance of holding on to the connections you make in life, and about how to cope with the horrors of war, murder, and disaster. We think about how we would react in the same situation, when we see a family member die right in front of us, or we witness a fatal car crash, or our homes are attacked by terrorists. It brings up a lot of emotion.
And I think it’s perfectly natural for someone in that situation, whether it’s a real person or a fictional character, when faced with something they don’t know how to handle, to stare death in the face and say, “Fuck you.”
Manifestation is available in paperback format through:
Today my father and I had a very strange experience.
First, we gathered up the remains of dead plants from all over the yard. We used high-tech machinery to relocate the remains to one particular part of the yard, where we gathered them in neat, but gruesome little piles.
Then we took some other plants, which were still alive, and pulled them from the dirt. These plants were undesirable, and had to be removed to make way for other, more desirable plants. The plants we removed were relocated along with the dead plants, and I presume they will soon die as well.
Some of the plants were hard to pull out of the ground. So we used a more lethal method of removal. I used a battery-powered plant-zapping chemical ray gun to poison the plants so that we could await their demise.
When we were done with eliminating and removing the undesirable plants, things got even weirder. My father had purchased a large quantity of dirt, which he hauled home in a trailer because it was more desirable than the dirt he already owned. He had also acquired new, store-bought plants that were superior to the plants already growing all around the yard. In fact, these plants were so superior that he refused to put them in the dirt alongside the other, inferior plants. We used special wooden containers, filled them with the newly purchased dirt, and placed the superior plants inside them. The dirt-filled containers now sit outside on top of the inferior dirt.
After that, we used crude hand tools to dig up and loosen the inferior dirt in a particular location that had been predetermined as the most ideal location for the next stage of our venture. We pulled up the dirt, loosened it, and packed it back down in the same location. A small volume of the dirt was removed. We also cut parts of a nearby plant that grew under the dirt, since they were interfering with our work, though we left the rest of the plant where it was.
Next we took some rectangular concrete slabs from an undesirable location and relocated them to the newly prepared, more desirable location. We did this so that we could place another container on top of the slabs. We then filled another container with some of the dirt we’d just dug up (rather than the superior dirt from earlier, even though we had plenty of that left) and placed this container inside the other container on top of the concrete slabs.
We then left the container-filled-with-dirt-within-another-container where it was, so that new plants could be added to it at a future time.
The entire time, I was unable to determine what made the undesirable plants so inferior that warranted their destruction and removal for the superior plants. But my father was quite satisfied with the results.
Gardening is weird, man.
Manifestation is available in paperback format through:
Every writer I’ve ever known tends to look down on their own work. We see only the flaws, we fear the critics, and we worry that our readers won’t like our work. Most of the time, people explain this away simply by saying that it’s hard to put yourself out there. It’s hard to work on a book for two years before you know whether anyone will like it. It’s hard to watch your book sales and think of the future and wonder if you’ll ever achieve success.
When these subjects come up in conversation with my writer friends, I usually just assure them that their fears are quite common. In fact, I read a book during my studies at Rowan called The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear. It was all about these common fears and how they happen to everyone, even the bestselling authors out there. It also gave advice on how to work past those fears and push forward, instead of letting them hold you back.
But I’ve been thinking today about where that fear comes from, and whether there’s a better way to combat it. And I’m reminded of what I learned about Symbolic Interactionism.
If you’re not familiar with it, Symbolic Interactionism is a theory that discusses how language shapes meaning, and how the words we use can help shape our perception of reality. I’ve discussed it before in some of the other articles on my blog. One of the aspects of Symbolic Interactionism says that a person’s “‘response’ is not made directly to the actions of one another but instead is based on the meaning which they attach to such actions.” For example, if I tell a certain friend that I think her writing is really good, she won’t necessarily take the words at face value. Instead, she might attach additional meaning to the words, such as by thinking, “he’s saying that to be nice because he doesn’t want to hurt my feelings.” When we attach such interpretations to something, it alters how we perceive the words and how we will react and respond to them.
Related to this is the concept of the Looking Glass Self. This is a concept that states that we imagine how others perceive us and what they think of us, we react to that perceived judgment, and we develop our sense of self based on it. An important part of this is that we don’t react to how people actually think about us, but instead to how we imagine they think about us. You can see this all the time in people with body image issues and other types of poor self-esteem. Someone might say “You’re beautiful,” but the person hearing it might not believe their words. Instead, they might look at their own flaws, whether it’s being overweight, too tall, too short, or anything else, and think that those flaws are what someone else will see. They then imagine other people judging them based on those flaws, and their self-worth becomes hinged on those imagined judgments . . . even if they’re completely untrue.
A writer looking at their book–whether it’s a first draft, a critique draft, or a finished manuscript–goes through a similar process. You can get a fan who raves about the book, loves the characters, and is eager for the sequel, but the writer might not hear all of that. For example, I once got a 5-Star review where the reviewer raved about almost everything, but said they didn’t like the main character. My self-appraisal through the Looking Glass Self led me to imagine that they judged the entire book (and me as a writer) through that one aspect, I became temporarily fixated on it, and it led to me doubting myself as a writer. This led to that fear I mentioned earlier, which can be difficult to push past.
Based on all this, it occurs to me that as writers, we might sometimes need to do more than just “push back the fear.” Working past it and understanding that it happens to all writers is one thing. But it’s another thing to realize that our fears may be due to entirely imagined judgments. And those imagined judgments can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy . . . if you think that you’re going to fail, there’s a good chance you will.
The best way to counter all of this, in my opinion, is to do more than just accept the fears and work past them. Instead, it’s important to think critically about where those fears are coming from, and consider whether they come from an inaccurate self-reflected appraisal. If you think that your writing isn’t up to par, what makes you think that? Is it only because you hear a voice in your head filling you with imagined judgments? Things people never actually said? If that’s the case, it may be possible that you are basing your fears on what you think people will say, rather than what on they actually say. Or on a small piece of the puzzle that doesn’t impact someone’s overall perception of your work.
Look at your writing for what it really is. Not for what you imagine others might say.
Manifestation is available in paperback format through:
I don’t have a lot to say in this post, mostly because I’m physically unable to type most of it without being overwhelmed by anxiety. You see, I live in a constant state of being afraid to tell people who I really am. Being closeted like this isn’t fun. But since I constantly see people making horrible hurtful attacks against anyone who doesn’t conform to the binary heteronormative standard, I end up having to keep silent.
So here’s the short version.
I suffer from serious depression, and its roots are directly tied to the issues I won’t be getting into. My depression has led to suicidal thoughts in the past, and one actual suicide attempt. I am forced to suppress certain aspects of my identity in order to avoid conflict, and that is a daily struggle. It becomes a bigger struggle when certain individuals who claim to be defending marginalized groups do so by excluded other marginalized groups.
Don’t make assumptions about who someone is. You have no right to label another individual. Maybe they’re not who or what you think they are. And maybe if you actually understood who they are, you’d realize that all of the assumptions you’ve made about them are completely wrong. Making assumptions about anyone in any situation is bad, but it’s even worse when those assumptions don’t apply by default because the person in question isn’t even a part of the group you’ve lumped them in with.
Maybe the way you make those assumptions is part of why they wish they could stop pretending to conform. Maybe the exact way that you label them is part of what they hate about themselves, because they hate being seen by that false label, and want to show their true inner self. Maybe you make it harder for them to ever come to terms with their true self because of your irresponsible behavior. Maybe you’re silencing them and making them even more afraid of ever speaking up.
And maybe, once you learned the truth about this person, you’d realize how wrong everything you said to them was, because it was all based on your perceptions of the person; perceptions which aren’t true. And just maybe, that’s all the more reason not to make broad generalizations about any one group, because the person you’re talking to might not actually be a part of that group after all.
Maybe they’ve actually had to fear for their life just by being out in public. Maybe they’ve had panic attacks. Maybe they sometimes regret ever trying to be themselves, because being who they are means being a target. Maybe they’ve broken down crying in a parking lot because they were too afraid of the people inside the building. Maybe they’ve heard stories about people just like them being assaulted, murdered, or worse just because of who they are.
Labels are bad. Corn is good. I found my corn today, and it’s the only reason I’m able to write this right now. If you don’t know what I mean by “corn,” you should read this article on depression, which pretty much sums up my life.
Next time you think about accusing someone of not understanding your perspective, stop and think about theirs. It may not be what you assumed. They may have gone through things you could never understand.
And maybe they see brave people who share their true selves and fight for equality, they build up their courage, they’re almost ready to speak up, and then you destroy that by attacking and silencing them based on your flawed perspectives and false labels.
So tonight on Twitter, I started the #NonWritersSay hashtag because I was talking to some of my writer friends about that common experience we all share: being misunderstood by non-writers.
It’s something I see every day, especially in my tutoring job at Rowan University. I constantly hear students complain that they “hate writing” and how they never think they’ll be good writers. Then they trudge through the effort of writing a 3-4 page essay. When I tell them I wrote a novel and it’s 100,000 words long, they inevitably say things like, “How can you write so much?” or “Was it hard to write?” or “Is it any good?”
I hear the same things from other sources as well. Friends will ask me “Do you sell a lot of copies?” or “How much money does it make?” without realizing those questions are kind of awkward and they make me uncomfortable.
Or non-writers who don’t understand the process of writing and revision will ask me things like “Why does it take you so long?” or “Why do you need to revise so many times?” These are questions that pretty much every writer has to deal with, and sometimes it feels like it’s impossible to answer. You want to shake the person and say, “Because writing is HARD!” Writing is a lot of work. It’s a full time job. And for most of us, it’s a full time job that you have to do while working another full time job to pay the bills. But you keep on doing it, because you have goals.
Most non-writers I know don’t understand the time and effort it takes to plot out a novel, go through several drafts, get it critiqued, get it edited, and get it out there into the world. I know people who write on roleplaying sites as a hobby, churning out a couple of pages a week and never revising them. They casually mention how maybe they’d like to turn their roleplaying characters into a book someday. That’s not to say you can’t do that; my novel, Manifestation, stemmed from characters that started off as part of one of those roleplaying games. But turning them into a book takes a lot of dedication, hard work, sleepless nights, and stress.
Sometimes I feel like people who are doctors, lawyers, engineers, accountants, bankers… anything that isn’t an “art” field, don’t really understand. Art is hard, and it leaves you poor. I imagine painters, musicians, and sculptors often feel the same way we writers do. As if they have to pour everything they have into something they’re passionate about, only to accept that it might turn out to be a failure. So many books get written, only to be rejected by publishers. Or they get published (whether traditional or indie) and never become bestsellers. And that’s hard to deal with when you put years of your life into a project.
Which is why I’m glad I know so many other writers on Twitter. I love being able to talk to them about my writing, to share my experiences with them, and to know they go through the same thing. It’s therapeutic. It makes me feel like I’m not alone.
Though of course, there is one very important thing that #WritersShouldSay: “You should be writing!”
So I’m going to try to get off Twitter for a little while and get some work done. These novels aren’t going to write themselves.
Manifestation is available in paperback format through:
As I’ve mentioned a number of times recently, I’m currently working on my Master’s Degree Thesis Project for my MA in Writing at Rowan University. My project is one of the sequels to Manifestation, which will eventually be published some time after my graduation. I’m working on the third draft, making revisions based on feedback from my professor, my classmates, and a second professor who serves the role of “project reader” (each student gets individual guidance and advice from a different project reader, in addition to our main professor who works with all of us). The advice I’ve gotten, across the board, is extremely helpful and insightful.
It’s also really difficult to work with, at times.
See, sometimes you can get a really good piece of advice, say to yourself, “Hmm, this is a good point, I should fix this,” and then have NO idea how to actually fix the problem at hand. For example, I’ve recently received some advice that my WIP has some issues with pacing, and that the story needs to keep moving forward, instead of being slowed down. This makes a lot of sense, but it leaves me a bit uncertain how to proceed. It’s likely that I’ll need to simply cut some scenes that don’t support the overall narrative, but it can be hard to make an objective decision about which scenes need to go. Or I might need to rearrange some chapters to reorder how events play out, so that there aren’t extended slow-moving sections. But that can also be difficult, since it requires an analysis of the overall structure of the story, rather than looking at any scene individually.
Usually, I find I need to take situations like this one piece at a time. I find it more productive to look through the feedback I’ve received and pick-and-choose what I’m going to address right away versus what I’m going to deal with later. It’s kind of like having a To Do list and tackling the easiest tasks on it first, in order to shorten the list. I find a shorter list far less daunting, and at least I can feel like I’m making progress. This works far better for me than staying jammed on a single issue and never moving forward.
It also allows me more time to figure out what to do. When I’m working on one issue, another will be in the back of my mind, simmering. By the time I’m ready to address it, I’ll have had time to figure out some new approaches. Sometimes that makes it a lot easier to come to a final decision. Or sometimes the answer will come to me unexpectedly, usually while I’m in the shower. In any case, setting it aside until I’m ready seems to work far better than dwelling on it.
It can also be helpful to write a blog post about it, because that lets me get my ideas out and keeps me from dwelling on them. Which brings us to where we are now.
Hopefully, before the end of the weekend, I’ll be able to make some serious progress. If not, I’ll just have to keep muddling through it until things start to click. Wish me luck.
Manifestation is available in paperback format through: