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A Prayer for this Sunday

Yesterday I marched with people whose heads had just been bowed in prayer. Who said Amen to the words of an imam, and a pastor, and a rabbi. We marched peacefully for love and justice.

A marcher at Raleigh’s February 11th Moral March. Photo by Lyn Fairchild Hawks

We own the words freedom, America, and patriot like anyone else. God, too. God is ours.

Many Americans are rising up to take back our faith in all these things in the public sphere. Privately, we have worshipped and sung and believed in all these beautiful words. But for many years, we’ve let those who act out of fear and hate to hijack these words.

No more.

God bless America that rises up to protect the people. God bless America that seeks liberty and justice for all.

 

 

Why I Will March

Sometimes you have to find a way to get in the way…or get in trouble…good trouble…necessary trouble.
—John Lewis

“Tell me why you are marching,” a friend said.

My heart is full of so many reasons. Crafting a poster is hard.

Diane Nash and C.T. Vivian lead a demonstration in Nashville. Credit: The Nashville Tennessean.

Black leaders march down Jefferson Street at the head of a group of 3000 demonstrators and heading toward City Hall to protesting the Z. Alexander Looby bombing. Leaders are Rev. C.T. Vivian, front row left, Diane Nash of Fisk, Bernard Lafayette of American Baptist seminary, Curtis Murphy of Tennessee A&I, back row center, and Rodney Powell of Meharry. (Jack Corn / The Tennessean) 4/19/1960. Image found here.

I have carried these reasons with me for a while.

This Saturday I will march

  • For survivors of sexual assault silenced by misogyny
  • For my Muslim brothers and sisters who worry for their safety
  • For the Black Lives Matter movement
  • For Diane Nash and John Lewis and their repeated, courageous ACTIONS
  • For my Latina sisters and their families who are immigrants and those who have been here forever, all of us making this country great every day
  • For my friends and family with pre-existing conditions, i.e., health concerns and challenges that shape their daily lives
  • For my LGBTIQA friends and family whose wonderful selves, voices, and expressions must be seen and heard
  • To say yes to the beautiful diversity of this country
  • To say yes to the respect, civility, and grace that the Obama family embodies
  • To say no to the FearMongerer in Chief
  • To say no to the Republican majority, who are repealing health care and are abandoning our citizens once again
  • To say no to propaganda and fake news that destroyed one of our first female candidates for President and that infects our public discourse
  • For journalists out there doing the right thing every day
  • Because facts matter
  • Because words matter
  • For democracy

For integrity, eloquence, and inspiration, please see the Women’s March Guiding Vision and Definition of Principles.

#WhyWeMarch

Racism Is Over…Right?

What bothered me a bit with the world building was I just felt like the school Wendy attended was racism central. I know that racism is a huge problem is some places, but it just felt a bit over the top in the beginning of the book. Luckily, about a third of the book in, the over the top racism thing stops, and the world building becomes more believable.

— from a review of my novel, How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought.

How well did my novel capture race relations in a North Carolina high school? An author can fail at making a setting real or at making readers care about a character’s situation. The reviewer didn’t buy my portrayal of a world where white girls at Wendy’s school would say:

“This place has gone goth, ghetto, and Mexican.”

“I don’t see race. I think the people who always talk about it are the racists.”

Also unbelievable to the reviewer is an English class that would debate whether the n-word should be censored from a Huck Finn text—or debate whether the school itself is racist.DSCF1143

Perhaps the issue is characters talking about race too much. Maybe the reviewer’s point is that racism can be seen and heard but not necessarily discussed with the frankness or detail my novel uses.

Perhaps the issue is subtlety. The argument this reviewer makes against my fictional school, “racism central,” is that I should have captured the more subtle ways racism plays out.

But is it subtle if it’s your race that feels the discrimination? I’ve had few experiences with prejudice, and 99% of the time, it’s not been because I’m white.

Read Chapter 2 of my novel and see what you think.

Then ask yourself: What was the racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic composition of honors classes at your high school? What happened in your class when you talked about any literature where race relations were depicted? Which authors did you read in English class?

Who got suspended at your high school? Was it a mix of genders, races, and economic classes, or did it tend to be certain groups?

I wonder where this reviewer grew up and the demographics of the community. I wonder if there are any schools in the area that are desegregated but not integrated, where “separate but equal” lives on in its 2014 manifestation. Many schools are no longer Little Rock’s Central High School of the 1950s, but listen to today’s Central High students speak on the lack of integration:

Nearly Six Decades Later, Integration Remains a Work in Progress

A black side and white side of the cafeteria. If we aren’t truly integrated yet, what is the work left to be done?

When I read a book that touches on race, I might find my critique saying, Dear Author, Racism is still a real issue. Please render it more believably. I’m less likely to say, Racism is over. Please let’s talk about something else.

I see racism every day. Any racism is “over the top” to me. And as easily as we want to wish away a book’s portrayal of social injustice, I also wish it could stop so easily in real life.

Obama’s election didn’t solve racial hatred or resentment. It didn’t stop the fact that your grandparents survived Jim Crow or your grandparents helped keep it alive. It doesn’t change the fact that some institutions, run by certain cultures and genders, keep certain myths and prejudices alive. I’ve seen racism in my workplaces—white people confusing black people with one another, faces I can’t imagine could ever be confused. I’ve heard patronizing statements or questions asked about the education and competency of people of color, despite an excellent track record of performance. I’ve seen people make decisions–I’ve helped make decisions–that are ignorant of certain constituencies needs because I assume every grew up and thought like middle-class, white me.

Even last night’s playoff footage–the interview between black Richard Sherman and white Erin Andrews–can’t be seen without the racial lens all Americans bring. Why else would Twitter go wild with such racially-laden language that Erin Andrews had to step up and tone things down? Perhaps we could talk about football and sportsmanship only…but we can’t, because this is America, and we have a racial history in all things. I like how blogger Tommy Tomlinson takes a wider, athletic view of the landscape as he discusses the behavior–and context–of Richard Sherman, my fellow Stanford grad.

These small stresses every day—what is the long-term impact of these judgments and barriers on people reminded daily they wake up black or brown or yellow, not white? Does it become “over the top” after years of facing different treatment? I can look at the rate of heart disease in some communities and wonder how those trends happen. Is it purely genetics? 

The point is to ask.

Acknowledging white privilege is not about browbeating whites or white people’s self-flagellation. It’s not about lumping all whites into one box. As a grandchild of immigrants who struggled hard to survive in the United States, who escaped war and privation to reinvent themselves here, I have some opportunity for sympathy, to better understand stories of those families who had fewer choices or life-and-death choices. (You can read about Katherine Schlegel Fuoco, my grandmother, here.) I don’t empathize with enslavement, but I can try to imagine. Acknowledging both the points of commonality and the points of difference is where I can begin. I can face facts of my ancestral privilege and wonder why.

A white person’s job isn’t to sound the gong of how horrible whites are. My job is to resist prejudicial habits and grow sensitivity and empathy. It’s my job to examine the tape of judgment playing in my head when I recoil at something, feel superior to anyone with what King called “the drum major instinct,” or want to separate people into categories. Ask why, right away, and wonder if my judgments are sound. Ask if I would treat someone of a different gender or race or sexual orientation differently in this same case. Ask. Think. That’s a start.

Racism is over, right?

Racism is over? Right on. Thank you, Dr. King, for articulating so well that dream we pray one day shall come to be, this dream that needs time, love, and labor still.

See my other posts on the topic of race relations in America.

Thoughts on Seeing Dr. King’s Memorial

My Grandma is a Racist?

How The Help Helps

 

 

 

 

You’re So Pathetic…Let Me Kick Start You!

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

— Albert Einstein


We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.
— Albert Einstein 

Image found here

Ever looked pityingly upon a fellow human and thought, “Oh, you’re so pathetic”? This person might be one who plays the victim; one who willingly lies down like a doormat; a person who runs his car into the same ditch again and again and when stuck in a rut, cries up to you for help, saying, “Why me?”

The problems and the response of these individuals forever remain the same. The complaints always strike the same chord. The response you have is also the same: you wanna shake ’em.

(Of course I would never behave that way, we think. The mote in someone else’s eye is so much more compelling to spot.)

But the pathetic behavior of human beings–our tendency to keep knocking our heads against the same door–is a lesson about what we ought NOT to write and why we drop certain books. As my agent has coached me, we don’t want to hear about Wendy’s woes for too much of the book before we see her take action. Having just seen Lisbeth Salander kick a– and take names in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, I’ve taken a few notes about powerful characters and why we need catalyst behavior in our stories.

Here are some tips for kick-starting your characters into New Year’s resolutions of new behavior. Get them off their I’m-such-a-sorry-soul track and into action that forces them out of their consistency, their comfort zone:

  • Write a chapter that ends on a cliffhanger and forces your character to choose Door A or Door B. Originally, I thought HOW WENDY REDBIRD DANCING SURVIVED THE DARK AGES OF NOUGHT would be a wovel (web novel) where I’d enlist readers help, giving the readers the vote of Door A or Door B? at the end of every chapter. That forced me to write a compelling first 50 pages, where each chapter ended at a crucial point in the action–either a defining moment, where the reader must digest something big, or a cliffhanger, a moment where the reader says, “Hmm, just a few pages more.”
  • Have your character encounter a person who is a foil–opposite in thought, action, family background, speech–and makes your character highly uncomfortable. In my novel, Wendy runs into two foils within the first 20 pages: her sworn enemy since seventh grade, the local Paris Hilton popular girl, and an evangelical Christian/BMOC, the school’s quarterback. The differences between Wendy and these two are great enough that sparks automatically fly.
  • Make a list of your characters’ intellectual and emotional traits and color code them by theme. For me, I could list the following characteristics for Wendy: gifted, highly verbal, analytical, argumentative, and all of those I might color blue. Another set of her characteristics are shy, defensive, suspicious–color those yellow. Then there is her angry and rageful side; there’s the sad and suicidal; there are the traits of creativity and her passion for research and writing. Red, green. I now have a rainbow. Does the plot of your story test every color in your characters’ rainbow?
  • Make a list of heart-clutching moments that can turn your character’s comfort zone upside down. In “How to Make Your Novel a Page-Turner,” Writer’s Digest author Elizabeth Sims gives some fantastic advice to keep the reader engaged, awake, and caring. She advises that your protagonist must survive tests of heart-clutching trials. You might want to print her list and keep it near your computer).

I’m not saying great art can’t be about the pathetic, dithering, wondering, worried, and paralyzed folk. Doesn’t Holden whine and wander for much of Catcher? Doesn’t Emma pound her head against a wall with well-intentioned but mistaken match-making in Jane Austen’s tale? Doesn’t Hamlet have a bit of trouble taking action? Doesn’t Lily Bart fall from grace for the entirety of The House of Mirth (and so very gracefully)? But what’s interesting about these stories is that we a) like the characters, b) believe the characters are doing the best they can, and c) enjoy watching them get into all kinds of scrapes avoiding the truth they refuse to see. It also helps that these authors (Salinger, Austen, Shakespeare, Wharton) were masters of scene and summary, style and image. If we can bring all that to the page, by all means, let your characters sit tight in the same spot for a few more scenes!

There’s also a distinct artistic choice to catalog the repetitive trials a pathetic, dis-likeable soul for many pages for the sheer art of all of the above–but frankly, I can only handle it with Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” A poem can contain just the right dose of pathetic, and then my tastes lean toward active heroes for the long haul of a novel.

In everyday life, pathetic behavior is understandable. After all, society often demands conformity. The road not taken is not what the neighbors and in-laws and family advise. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t alarm the neighbors. Color inside the lines!

But that’s everyday life and many of us don’t want to read about that. Gimme a break; gimme a hero, dark or otherwise. Iago and Lady Macbeth and Ewell might leave rack and ruin behind them, but by God, they did something before they died. Meanwhile, the Othellos and Macduffs and Atticuses left the world better than they found it. And it was fascinating to watch.

Writing Prompts

  • When are you most pathetic? Why? Write the stream-of-consciousness of your pathetic thoughts and paralyzed behaviors, letting someone enter inside your head in these moments.
  • Look at Elizabeth Sims’ list of heart-clutching moments for characters. In what situation have you found yourself in your life? Write that scene from memory with all the sensory detail you can muster.
  • Now rewrite that scene with a different beginning, middle, or end. Write it the way you wish things had gone; write it with you having different character traits or responses in the moment.
  • Write about someone who is your foil and how this person brings out the best or worst in you.
  • What are your least desirable traits of character? Your most admirable? In what situations have you seen both emerge? Write parallel scenes from your life where different sides of your character have been most evident. 
  • Can your protagonist be accused of being pathetic? When? Why? If you can’t see it, ask yourself where your character takes a new, significant action in the novel that he or she normally would not take. Now count the number of pages from page 1 where this action occurs. If you’re over 50 pages, go back and write a catalyst scene where your character is forced to do something seemingly “out of character” but required by the heart-clutching moment.
  • Find your favorite novel and pinpoint chapter ends that insist on page turns. See Sims’ list (the section titled, End Chapters with a Bang), and categorize the craft at work at the end of these scenes. Now turn to an end of one of your chapters–or all chapters in the first 50 pages of your novel–and see if your chapters accomplish the same thing.
  • What is the most appealing and least desirable characteristic your protagonist has? Have you let your protagonist show both those characteristics? Where? How? If not, write a scene where both traits emerge.