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Why Caleb, Now?

I just posted the first episodes of a new novel, CALEB IN MINOR KEY, at Radish Fiction, a place where writers post new works for free as well as for a small fee.

I’m excited. But I’m also nervous. Caleb is biracial.

Here’s the book blurb:

All Caleb wants to do is rule the world with music, but he’s torn between warring parents. Should he stay with chaotic Dad, fight it out in a racist small town, and come up hard like his idols? Or is it time to move in with controlling Mom and try a rich college town where there’s a chance at fame?

There were other titles for this blog post, such as “What White People Must Do/Must Not Do” and “I Wake Up White Sometimes, But Rarely.” Or, “What Do I Get to Write, and Why?”

Why write a biracial male character when I’m a white female whose ancestors are Italian, German Swiss, and Scottish?

  • Because I heard Caleb’s voice and saw him with his dad. And that meant in my world, the story had to start. The white redneck father in a small town, the black lawyer mom in suburbia, two different locations and racism in both, struggle in all for Caleb. And through at all, a young man’s search for identity through his music. (Some argue that some white authors are trying diverse characters to be trendy. I’m writing a unique individual who’s occupied my head. I’ve written diverse characters in my books since the early ’90s–not as types, not to fill a space or requirement, but because they live and breathe just like my white ones. They exist, they are, they demand to be heard. A feverish and demanding place, the writer’s imagination!)

    Caleb in Minor Key

  • Because I refuse to write an Anywhere, USA, default-white landscape. I’ve read a number of YA books where one has to assume a character is “white unless otherwise specified.” I hate that. Not sure who lives in that world, but it’s not me. We need diverse books written by everyone. White people do not get to sit back and write only white characters and assume that’s the best or safest route.
  • Because racial injustice makes us all sick, and it needs to be openly dealt with via art, conversation, and honest dialogue. Everyone has a role in making our society well.
  • Because Radish is a serial fiction platform where fans of my other work or new readers can access Caleb’s story for free. (Some argue that if I publish this book in traditional or indie channels, I’ll take someone else’s place at the table in a historically white industry. Radish is application-based but doesn’t offer a severely limited number of seats like traditional American publishing. And if the last ten years of indie publications have shown us anything, it’s that many have chosen not to attempt the narrow pipeline, which can sometimes squeeze out meritorious books, while putting harsh rules on talented folk of all backgrounds.)
  • Because I need to grow. Radish is a place where readers can experience Caleb and tell me what’s working and what’s not. If they feel like it. Or not. Either way, I’ve hired a sensitivity reader, and I remain open to helpful feedback if people have the time and interest. (Some argue that certain whites demand that people of color “fix” their writing for them, which is so strange to me. I don’t expect anyone who’s not expressly hired in this capacity to step up and assist me just because they represent a certain demographic. I welcome helpful critique, but I don’t require or expect it, from anyone.)
  • Because what we call white or black or any other color denies the multi-faceted, colorful rainbow of personality.  Each person I write aims to surprise. If all my characters, whatever demographic they might represent, are so individual that they can rise above their labels, then I’ve succeeded. Does my queer teen girl obsessed with Christiane Amanpour, does my German-Russian immigrant grandmother, does my South Carolina-born-and-bred bluegrass redneck talent leap from the page, just like Caleb? Then let Caleb be his own strange and wonderful self among these white folk.
  • Because I’m the only one who knows exactly what I’ve lived, who I’ve known, and what I know now. Or how I came to know it. Some may look at my picture and think they know exactly how my life has gone. Thanks for playing, but you don’t know. And if I do this novel well, those ready to judge need to trust that I got my information from living some interesting life and knowing a whole range of people who make my life rich.
  • Because my story is an entire work, not one line on a page. If someone says to me, “But you can’t write that,” then I sincerely hope they’ll follow up with at least one suggestion of what I should write instead. If someone chooses to step out in judgement, then I invite them to see how the person, place, or thing I’m portraying doesn’t exist somehow, somewhere. If my white privilege is showing, I hope they tell me with specifics. I hope they take the story as a whole, because you never know how my Chapter 7 might just balance what you deem a troubling illustration in Chapter 2. Have you seen the entire landscape of people and how my characters evolve? Is there empathy, realism, honesty, and respect for each character? Give the whole book a try before you make a declaration.
  • Because I keep putting myself in places beyond my comfort zone. I read, I hang with people different than me, I travel. Living in California and North Carolina, teaching in several different secondary schools, and traveling a lot of places has taught me that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in my philosophy. It’s a good place to start when writing.
  • Because I’m an artist who walks in others’ shoes. I can’t stop, and I never want to. 

Join me at Radish (download the free app) and then join me at my Facebook page and leave me a comment.

For more meditations on this subject, check out Mary Anne Morhanraj’s post on this subject, or Justine Larbalestier’s post, “How to Write Protagonists of Colour When You’re White.”

Ask and Ye Shall Irritate…And That’s Okay

“Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.” Matthew 7:7-8

Image found here at Emergency Dentists USA

 

Whether you believe in Jesus or Buddha, Dale Carnegie or The Secret, chances are you fall into one of two categories: either you’re a fan of positive thinking or you feel pressured by the perpetual optimism, fake or honest, of mainstream culture. American culture is rife with reinvention, new beginnings, and belief in the cult of renewable self. Try, try, and try again. And if you’re a writer, you can’t escape trying. Either you try all the time, or you will never get published: end of story.

We all get that Negative Nelly never sees the light and that Pollyanna, though she may be misguided (stupid, even), appears to have a much better time. And Pollyannas not only like what they’re gotten but believe they might even get better. It’s all good. I would imagine Pollyannas believe they have the right to ask. I’ve been called Pollyanna, so I might as well speak for her.
I’ve always been a squeaky wheel. For that, I get stuff (contest wins, an agent, blog respondents) and grief (rejection, anger, or “no”). When you ask, you will inevitably irritate some.
Writing is about demanding attention. Our words say, “All eyes on me.” I’ve never had trouble with that, being a teacher and an amateur actress. Call it ego and insane confidence, but you must believe you have a right to be seen and heard. Some writers fear irritating agents and editors so much, they never even knock. So you don’t deserve a space at the table? You don’t need a moment in the sun? There’s room for everyone. Everyone.
Writing is about asking for help. I ask my writing pals Bob and Gordon to take yet another look at my manuscripts; I ask my writing groups to hear odds and ends from various unfinished manuscripts; and let’s just say my parents should be canonized. They’ve read more drafts of HOW WENDY REDBIRD DANCING SURVIVED THE DARK AGES OF NOUGHT than any person should.
There’s only been one time I’ve asked and paid a person to give me feedback and that person has gotten irritated with me and my manuscript. Note to Self: editors who are easily pissed off probably hate the job. Or are pretending to edit. Yep, I cried post critique. But I’ve never cried once in all the hundreds of rejections I’ve seen in the last several years. Perhaps because in all those nos, no one seemed particularly irritated by the asking. I guess I’m a people pleaser at heart and always wonder, “Wow, did I do something to piss this person off?” Um, you can waste a lot of time at that particular task.
Because sometimes my desire for speed, change, success, etc. can be a bit bull-in-the-china shop, I have to pay close attention to whether closed doors, no response, etc., is a sign I should stop or a sign I should persist. When my gut tells me, “It’s the principle of the thing,” I persist.
  • Principle #1: I query because I have a story that needs to get out there. I asked about 150 times, and I did receive.
  • Principle #2: I ask because I am worth something. I am worth the investment. Therefore if I ask for a raise, a loan, a reimbursement, or help, it’s not a request I should apologize for.
  • Principle #3: I ask because I desire to grow and change. Seeds can’t be nurtured without water, soil, light, and time.
  • Principle #4: I ask because I’m angry. Something needs to evolve; something needs to change.

On the latter, I realize I’m usually mad about something. I’m asking because I find the system broken or unresponsive; I ask because no one is paying attention; I ask because no one will tell me no forever.  Maybe it’s a spirit of Italian vendetta (I’ve got Calabrian ancestry, granddaughter of an immigrant) that gets me raring to go. I don’t think this is particularly good for my blood pressure, but it does lead to interesting situations and great story ideas. Anger got me to the page several times and my best stories emerged. Another good motivator is empathy…but that’s another post.

My argument assumes we’re following the etiquette of asking. Polite in the wording, considerate of the askee’s time, appreciative of a response given. Not kicking off a request with a critique (author Laura Maylene Walter shares a funny story about that–see her #7 in this post). And even if you are the essence of politesse, you must still give your query permission to irritate. Don’t obsess on the wording too long or risk psyching yourself out; you may never get to the door in your kid gloves and proper hat. Why worry about dressing to see the Queen if you’re too afraid to seek an audience?

So if the blowback is ugly or disproportionate to the request, ask yourself if the irritated party falls into one of these archetypal categories. Even the most seemingly professional, laudable, famous, authoritative folks can fall into any of these slots:
  • The Martyr: This person’s attitude is, “What, you’re asking me for something when I work too damn hard around here?”
  • The Jealous Freak: “I can’t believe you have the nerve to ask when OBVIOUSLY you have it made and OH MY GOD THERE ISN’T ENOUGH TO GO AROUND!!!!”
  • The Sluggard: “I have no desire to fulfill your request because I would rather surf Overstock.com and waste my time tweeting.”
You’re dealing with people who either need therapy for workaholic obsession, who’re severely addicted to the scarcity model, or who got where they are with too much luck and not enough sweat.

The writer who trashed my manuscript back in the day? I think she falls into all three.

Whether you desire a grant or 30 minutes of writing time a day or whether you crave an editor or a retreat or an agent–all of it is worth the asking. Are you willing to make someone mad as you do?

And if you aren’t asking, is it because you picture the red and spittle-flecked face of someone’s anger or the frigid gaze of disdain? The condescending stare of those who say, “You think you need something? Whatever! Suck it up and do without. Everyone else does.” No, they don’t. It’s a tiny few who are scouted from their writer’s garret, yanked from an isolated office or mountain hideaway, who squirrel themselves away without asking for help. Other writers are out there knocking. So reach. Ask. Keep your hand there.

Jesus was talking about prayer in Matthew 7:7-8. I’d say that’s an apt description of writing: asking, begging, railing, wondering, pleading, invoking, imagining into being.  Novelist Milan Kundera writes, “The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything….The novelist teaches the reader to comprehend the world as a question. “

What will you ask today?

Writing Prompts:

  • What question does your story, essay, poem, or novel ask?
  • List requests you’ve made of others lately.  On a scale of 1 to 10, rate the reasonableness of the request, the gall or arrogance of it, or the scariness of it. Talk about the number you chose.
  • Tell a story about asking or receiving, or both.
  • Which piece of writing has a right to see the light? To be heard by others? What is keeping it squirreled away?
  • How will asking help your writing grow and change? Set three goals that require you to make some requests in the next three weeks.
  • Write a story where The Jealous Freak, The Martyr, or The Sluggard stars as a foil to the hero or heroine.
  • Write a poem titled, “Ask.”
  • A man walks into a grocery store and makes the oddest request at three counters: the deli, the bakery, and the produce department. What does he ask? How do the store employees respond?
  • A woman’s last will and testament presents a bizarre request that requires her children to do the opposite of what they want. What is that?