Some Thoughts on Your Resistance to “Trigger Warnings”

20 May

UPDATED: A sensitive reader suggested I’m violating my own wishes by using such strong language—vitriol, even—to discuss this issue. I would suggest said reader revisit point #10. But sure, here you go: TRIGGER WARNING: If you somehow might have a post-traumatic stress response because a lady yells at you on the internet, you might want to be careful reading below. It’s hard to tell what trauma you would be in recovery from to make this happen, but sure, why not. Also, at the end I describe, very briefly and without any detail at all, having been held captive one night in college. Please be advised that if you are triggered by angry women or vague descriptions of padlocks, this post might upset you.

Everyone else, carry on.

Probably I don’t need to say any of this. Probably you should just go read this fabulous piece by Jacqui Shine on XO Jane and think a bit harder about your bullshit, since you clearly have no idea what it is to suffer trauma or be triggered. But I’ll go ahead and say it anyway, just to get it off my chest.

1. Poor you and your imaginary academic freedom. If you teach at a university in the US, particularly a public/state school, you’ve struck a bargain that requires you to actively ignore said bargain in order to maintain your dignity. Your employer institution allows you to think that you have something called “academic freedom” so that it can pay you less money than it would generally be required to pay someone of your education and experience on an open market. You accept “academic freedom” and a certain illusion of autonomy in lieu of payment for services rendered. You agree to pretend you don’t have a “real” boss, that you’re in charge. And look, I understand that you have to kid yourself about this to go on pretending that your job is something noble and empowering, and that if you didn’t believe those things, you’d have a really hard time getting out of bed in the morning. But “academic freedom” is not a real thing. It hasn’t been for a very long time. Meanwhile, the more you whine about a hypothetical concept infringing on your “academic freedom,” the more you sound like a right-winger who thinks he’s being persecuted every time someone disagrees with his preposterous, loud, boorish assertions.

2. You do not work for a venerable institution of higher learning.* You work for a large corporation. If you teach at a state school, your bosses are everyone in the entire administration, plus your state legislature and the governor. Take a look up that chain of command. When’s the last time it failed to get anything it really wanted? Right: never. And the students and their parents are your customers. You don’t have to like that, but it’s true. That horse has been out of the barn for ten years. I mean, have you seen what public school boards do to reading lists? Your syllabus is next.

*With some notable exceptions. But if you’re at a state school, even a selective, rigorous one, you’re not one of the exceptions.

2.5. Let me put this another way: Performance enhancing drugs. Had each of the major sports leagues resisted self-regulating with testing and suspension systems, more and more government time and media attention would have been devoted to ‘roids and all their glory. (See also: film ratings, the Comics Code, every single voluntary concession any corporate or organizational entity has ever made.) Resistance is futile. You can add a mild statement to your syllabus inviting students to speak with you personally about material that might trigger severe anxiety responses for those who’ve survived serious trauma, or you can add the statement that your bosses will eventually force you to add. Or worse, you can persist in your childish resistance and end up in a system where everything you include in your syllabus—every single reading or viewing assignment—must be pre-approved by those bosses. Sounds fun, no? Just grow up and add a fucking trigger warning. It’s not that hard.

3. You must be fucking kidding me about this “sanctity of literature” bullshit. Explain to me how adding a simple statement like the one described above and then—God forbid!—having an actual conversation with a student impacts the sanctity of literature in any way. Never mind. You don’t have an answer to that question. The answer is that you’re too narcissistic to think that anyone’s perspective on that highfalutin art form but yours is valid or useful. You were, evidently, born in the ivory tower. But again, the only real threat to literature here is if you end up prohibited from teaching it because you couldn’t do so responsibly. Keep in mind that you don’t get to decide what “responsibly” means. Your bosses and customers do.

4. Great literature doesn’t necessarily have to contain elements that trigger trauma responses. The idea that literature and trauma are somehow linked is the same ignorant classist sexist bullshit that asserts that you have to go on safari to write a decent story. It directly devalues books that are domestic in nature, books about work, books about family life. You know, the stuff that a really wide variety of people who are not Hemingway write about.

5. Even great literature that does contain potentially triggering material does not have to be a trigger. Look, I’m glad I read Beloved. The haunting scenes alone changed something of the shape of my imagination. But I still throw up in my mouth a little bit every time I think about mossy teeth—even just the words “mossy teeth.” As someone who had been subject to a pretty miserable sexual trauma, Beloved was never a triggering text. The fact that I knew that I could talk to my professor about the text before class discussion if I needed to made an enormous difference to my ability to engage the text in the first place. There were plenty of classes I simply dropped because I could clearly see that texts would not be discussed in a supportive learning environment. I probably missed out on some great books. Your students will too if you continue to be an arrogant ass.

6. Refusing kindness to others makes you a smaller person. Let’s put this another way. One that strips away the feminization that lets you dismiss the trauma response. Let’s say you have a student who was captured in combat and tortured. Perhaps his PTSD has gone untreated because he’s been socialized to believe that it’s sissy shit (see the linked article in the first paragraph). Meanwhile, you’re hell-bent on teaching A Constellation of Vital Phenomena in your contemporary lit class or novel writing class or whatever fucking course it’s your great privilege to be assigned to teach. Do you really expect that soldier to read the Landfill scenes without the potential for serious psychological damage? Do you really expect him to sit through a class discussion of them? If you do, you’re a bigger douchebag than I could possibly have imagined, one whose self-importance and commitment to his tiny miniature narrow-minded worldview are the only infallible things about him. Meanwhile, how the fuck would it degrade the value of that book to say, in your syllabus or accompanying materials, “This is a book about war. It depicts war graphically in some cases. Please see me in office hours if you expect to be unable to encounter that material thoughtfully and critically,” and to have an actual conversation with your student in your office hours (which, face it, you probably blow off on a regular basis which is probably why you don’t want to deal with it in the first place) to help guide that student safely through the text? It would not degrade the text. The book would still be a fantastic book. It would only allow access to it for someone who otherwise may not feel able to read it.

7. What the hell is this macho bullshit about toughening students up, anyway? What do you think you are, a boxing trainer? How did some mythological masculine toughness become the standard of good education? It’s a half-assed justification if there ever was one.

8. Unless you’re totally a rebel, you add required statements about disabilities of all kinds to your syllabus, anyway. How is this any different? Unless you don’t believe that PTSD is real or disabling, in which case, fuck off with your mid-twentieth-century ignorance.

9. You’re being a melodramatic drama queen. I keep seeing posts and comments where people are essentially telling survivors of rape, war, and abuse to “grow up.” Are you fucking serious? While we’re at it, why don’t we just lock them all out of the academy, and only let in perfect people whose upbringings have been spotless and flawless and charming. They’re so much more mature than the rest of us, right? Never mind that the GI Bill built the modern university system, and without it you and your callous friends probably wouldn’t have jobs. (We don’t even need to talk about the fact that you’d likewise exclude 1/4 of all female college students by this same metric, because if you’re telling rape survivors to grow up, you’re probably Todd Akin anyway, and probably think that girls should be at home in the kitchen barefoot popping out babies.)

10. If you think that PTSD and discomfort are the same thing, you’re a smug privileged fucking idiot. Go stand in the corner and rethink your whole life. While you’re at it, find a way to develop a capacity for empathy. It’s what separates some of us from lower life forms. And it is, as we all like to point out when it’s convenient, the central lesson of reading fucking books in the first place.

Let me tell you a story. My first semester of college I went to a party with a group of trusted friends. A friend of a friend, someone I’d been told I could trust, offered me a drink. A heavily roofied drink, it turned out. I don’t remember very much of what happened after.

I read a lot of books in the following years, most of which had your desired intellectual impact. I naïvely prided myself on my intellectual and emotional toughness, buying into the same gender-stereotyped bullshit that has been driving this entire discussion. I managed to complete bachelor’s degrees in technical writing, creative writing, and literature, plus an MFA in fiction, without being pitched backward into the blackness of that experience.

Then three women were found chained up in a basement in Cleveland. And I remembered a moment in the middle of a night when I pounded with all my strength on the inside of a padlocked door while a friend of a friend who I was supposed to be able to trust sat on the other side of the room and laughed. I remembered a moment of desperate thirst with no water, of scratching at my hands in some bodily manifestation of desperation. I remembered the bruises I found all over me the next day, some of them the indentations of a man’s teeth.

I remembered my tremendous guilt when a friend told me years later that he’d done the same thing to her. I remember thinking that if I’d told anyone, maybe it wouldn’t have happened to her.

But you are happy to endorse a world so hostile to mature conversations about such trauma that you scoff at the notion of including one unobtrusive sentence in your precious inviolable syllabus. Bully for you. Grow the fuck up.

A Birthday Post

23 May

Today I am 39. By any child’s estimation, at 39 I should have accomplished the things I wanted to accomplish, attained the things I wanted to attain. When I was a child, I had serious doubts that I would live this long. But I am just starting out.

I was born on a Thursday, eleven days late. My assigned due date, May 12, was both Mother’s Day and my parents’ first anniversary. I was stubborn even then—I showed up when I was good and ready. My mother used to recite that “Thursday’s Child” rhyme about how doomed we are. Did I feel doomed? Sometimes. I’m not even sure I know anymore what “doomed” might mean.

What I thought as a child that I don’t think anymore: You should be celebrated for overcoming hardship. Now I think too many of us wittingly create our own adversity and want a cookie for transcending it. Everybody gets a break, and nobody else ought to be judging. We should help each other when we can. But no. You don’t get to be a hero for dodging a bullet that you fired. The drama isn’t what makes a story good. This probably sounds like one of those cryptic, compliment-fishing status updates. I’m talking about the people around me when I was growing up, and about the tendencies I had to figure out on my own about twenty years ago. How you accept an inheritance or you don’t.

Despite my occasional panic about my own mortality, my life is still a project.* I still think I’m going to lose the 30 pounds I’ve gained since college this year, that I’m going to get better at various aspects of life, that I’m going—someday—to get my shit together. It should go without saying that as a child, I would have expected to have my shit together by now. Except that I’m pretty sure I never expected to lose it. When my mother’s friend called me “stringbean,” because I was such a skinny kid, I’d think (maybe even say), “I’m never going to be fat.” But come on. We ate chips and salsa for dinner on a relatively regular basis. Or popcorn.

It doesn’t matter if you know better, what to eat, how to behave. Sometimes you default to a habit. One of mine is binge eating. There is almost no circumstance under which a bag of Chili-Cheese Fritos survives more than a day in my house. It’s been a long time since I could crash diet for a few weeks and feel restored, back to some prior self. I am almost 40; peak physical condition without intense devotion of time and pain is a thing of the past. Yet I can still imagine it. I spend too much time imagining it, imagining other ways in which life is a project to accomplish instead of a series of days to experience. My angst over my schlumping past-peak body isn’t so much a central feature of that series of days as it is a really terrific example of an attitude, a way of being. And not a particularly helpful way of being, either.**

At what point is a habit—good or bad—a part of who you are? Or any feature you carry forward, willingly or resentfully? When do you stop looking for what you can change? Where is the balance between acceptance and being a better person? It’s a cliché, but I tell myself that what I want in life is peace, on a day-to-day basis. I get better at that—at peace—over time. I get more willing and able to say what I want with accuracy and precision.

But it’s taken a really long time. I get mad about how long. I feel like I know so many people who hatched from adolescence right at this point, ready to name who they are and demand what they want and write big, juicy novels and ferment their own small-batch whiskey or whatever. How many of the last 39 years have I wasted on bullshit—other people’s and my own?

This is probably a pretty unoriginal lament. Not breaking new ground here. But I happen to be the kind of person who needs to understand how things work. I’m sort of incapable of just agreeing that things work and leaving it at that. So how—I’m asking far too late, I know—does this adult life thing work?

Except for the aching knees every morning, I don’t feel old. For a long time now, I’ve kind of looked forward to my forties. I have an image of myself, my hair tied up in a knot, wearing good shoes. Doing what? I don’t know yet. Before long, I suppose I’ll find out.


*With much gratitude to Patricia Henley, who told me that the mortality-panic is a feature of being 40-ish, and will pass.

**Another useful example: Spending entire semesters doing nothing but wishing for them to end.

Trying to Make Sense of Steubenville

17 Mar

Like most people I know, and most people you probably know, I’ve been to some boozy parties where instances of bad judgment outnumbered good. In my case, those parties were all in college, because I didn’t go to parties in high school. Except for a matter of degree, I have some doubt that the parties were substantially different, especially those I attended as a freshman with other freshmen. We were all pretty young, even by the time we weren’t teens any longer. By the time I was old enough to set legal foot in a bar, I’d done enough heavy drinking to find the whole thing kind of passé.

And like at least 25% of the women you know who attended college, I experienced sexual assault. On one of these occasions I was roofied by a frat boy who became, in later years, well known for drugging women and locking them, via enormous keyed padlock, in his frat house room. This wasn’t one of the countless nights I engaged in binge drinking. Neither were any of the other nights when incidents that fall on a spectrum between coercion and assault took place. On the nights when I was truly out of control, somebody always took me home and put me to bed.

And yes, we all knew the rules: Don’t go out alone. Use the buddy system. Whatever other bullshit you’ve been told that makes you responsible for keeping another person’s appendages out of your body. This was the heyday of the Take Back the Night march. We played along. Dismal things still happened, because whether or not we followed the rules, we got hurt—the guy with the padlock was a trusted friend of a trusted friend; on the night when he locked me in, he physically shoved my friends out the door; he was able to hurt us again and again because, in our shame, in our habit of seeking our own responsibility for the things that happened to us, we didn’t tell each other. The rules we give girls to “avoid rape” are simple lies of social control. They have nothing to do with rape; they’re about telling girls and women how they’re supposed to behave. Their only meaningful outcome is the collective silence, born of self-blame, that lets a young man with a padlock on his door and a healthy supply of hallucination-inducing chemicals with which to spike drinks do what he does over and over again.


The Steubenville trial hinged on just how drunk that poor girl was. Just a little drunk, and she must have consented, despite the fact that she distinctly recalls, during the one chance she had, saying no. Blackout drunk and it was an undeniable rape. It’s pretty clear here that in the usual he-said/she-said circumstances of a rape trial, these boys wouldn’t have even been charged. Lots of attention has been paid to the use of texts and tweets in the trial—and I’ll concede that I find their delivery, the actual testimony, endlessly interesting—but it seems to me that the focus on level of intoxication, on the possibility that her status as blackout drunk insured conviction—is a remarkable factor. Hasn’t it been the case, always, that the more drunk a woman was, the less able she was to call what happened to her a crime?

I’m also struggling with these words, accuser and victim. (You can probably tell by some of the awkward diction in that last paragraph.) Accuser, of course, is a nice men’s-rights dog whistle implying that the woman* in question has any choice about what happened to her and about the narrative that unfolds afterward, that she had agency in the events at hand far beyond what is actually the case, and that her primary identity is as someone who makes an accusation, not as someone who pursues legal recourse for herself and for her attacker’s future targets. Victim, while more accurate, implies that a woman has no agency whatsoever—which is generally true during the course of a rape or sexual assault—and that her lack of agency will follow her indefinitely, will define who she is. Probably people better educated on this point than I am, who’ve seriously studied this stuff, have a better word for this. But if they do, it hasn’t entered the public lexicon yet. We need a new word.

A few years ago, when two boys attempted to argue in almost identical research essays that 98% of all rape accusations are false**, I had an out: The papers were so dismal that I didn’t exactly have to take on the content to deal with the problems. When I did challenge the assertion, their explanation was that women who report rapes are looking for attention. I said, “Do you know what comes with that attention? Social ostracism, a public and accusatory airing of her full sexual and social history, accusations of lying and manipulation? Would you seek out that particular variety of attention?” One of the students, the one with some potential, looked at his feet, ashamed, and said, “I guess not.” The other kept smirking the same smirk he’d smirked all semester. So 50/50 on the making an impact? More importantly, this is the legacy of socially conservative anti-woman rhetoric: a sense among boys and men—the ones who believe it, anyway—that they can and will take what they want from women when they want it, that women are mere functionaries in a world that should cater to them. And in the case of the believers of the men’s rights bullshit, a sense that, because they perceive that world as catering a little bit less to them than it used to, they should take things from women, that it’s their responsibility to do so, to teach the women and the rest of the world a lesson.

This, of course, is not what sex is for. The thing about Steubenville that I can’t figure out—that I’ll never figure out—and therefore that scares me the most is how these boys see this as a context for sex. To be completely crude: How does this circumstance result in sexual arousal? I understand the dynamic of teen boy groupthink, of the ways they one-up each other to establish dominance, and the roles deviance and pranksterism play in that dynamic. I also understand that rape is power-fueled, that it is a function of one human exercising power over another; I understand how that power can beget arousal. I even understand, to an extent, the need to document and disseminate evidence of behavior that breaks the social rules. And I’ve read again and again about how the widespread availability of any kind of porn you might want to see has impacted the way people think about sex, especially those who’ve grown up in an era when they’re likely*** to encounter degrading sexual imagery long before they find themselves in actual sexual situations. But I can’t figure out what makes boys like these think that this is what their sexuality is for, and to believe it so fully that their bodies participate.

I’m obviously not going to make sense of anything here. And I’m sure somebody will poo-poo that last paragraph in some suggestion that it’s naive to think that boys can’t get aroused anytime they like, but hello, I know a few men. I knew some boys once upon a time. Those generalizations, like all generalizations, are for idiots who aren’t interested in thinking. This is a complex and difficult thing, and it’s nowhere near an isolated incident. It’s not about them not knowing it’s wrong—it wouldn’t have happened if they didn’t know it was wrong. Its wrongness is part of the appeal. So what do we do? Really, I have no idea. What do we do?

I have felt for a few years now that our culture and our politics are beginning to swing around to something more closely resembling sanity. I think we’re headed back into another era when it’s reasonable to publicly stand up for women, when those who shout us down when we do so are pretty widely recognized as fringe idiots. I think we’re headed back toward Take Back the Night marches. It was during an era like this, in the early and mid 90s, when I was introduced to feminism, and when feminism became a driving force in my life. I’ve seen more student essays about women’s rights, about rape and sex trafficking and gender roles, than I have since I started my current teaching position nine years ago. I think that the anti-woman forces have finally pushed their rhetoric too far. So I have just a little hope that we’ll be okay. But I also know that before long, our beliefs and behavior will swing back in this direction, and we’ll be asking the same questions and fighting the same fights all over again.


*I’m using woman as a default here in acknowledgment of the overwhelming statistical likelihood that if you have been raped, you are female, and also because the dynamics of our mainstream socialized genders are pretty important here. If you have been raped and you are not a straight, cisgender, cissexual female, the circumstances of your situation/case are even more difficult to discuss in anything less than a 10,000 word treatise.

**The FBI’s own statistics on this count consider up to 8% of reports to be false; only 24% of reports result in arrest and prosecution. That leaves 68% of reported rapes completely unresolved in the justice system, alongside the 75% or so that are never reported because, well, see above.

***Obviously, such material has existed for practically ever, and those who wished to seek it out have had the chance to do so for practically ever, but if the internet fear machines are accurate at all, both boys and girls are now likely to encounter such material before they’ve even hit puberty.

The Next Big Thing: Bryan Furuness

4 Mar
Photo by Miriam Berkley

Photo by Miriam Berkley

Hey, everybody. Great to be here. Thanks to Victoria Barrett for not only tagging me in this game, but letting me hop on her blog. You can read VB’s take on the Next Big Thing questions here. Or you can, you know, scroll down about eight inches. Tickle your touchpad twice. But can I tell you something that isn’t in her post? Can I offer you some bonus material, reader? Last summer I got a chance to read a draft of her novel, Four Points Gin, and let me tell you: it is amazing. It’s my favorite kind of book—smart and suspenseful, with beautiful lines and a taut plot. I can’t wait to see it in the world.

My other privilege here is to tag a couple of writers to pick up the Next Big Thing banner. I’ll hit up Edward Porter and the poet Doug Manuel. If I were drafting for the writerly NBA, I’d trade up to take both these guys. High ceilings, y’all.

Okay, enough preamble. Onto the questions, which I answered about my novel that comes out this spring

What is your working title of your book (or story)?

The Lost Episodes of Revie Bryson

Where did the idea come from for the book?/Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I know that I’m combining two questions here, but really, they both have the same answer.

The first thing that came to me was the mother’s voice. I got obsessed with this story (“The Sears and Roebucks Catalog Game” by Lewis Nordan) about a mother with a big imagination who flips through the catalog with her son and makes up wild stories about the models. Her voice is loopy and seductive, and you find yourself getting sucked into her world, just like her son who can’t get enough of her stories.

I read that story over and over. I typed it out. Then one day, when I was driving home from work, a woman’s voice came into my head. I heard her say, “Growing up, Jesus and Lucifer were best friends. They went to the same school, where they both ran track. They made mostly B’s. Lucifer could wing a ball so fast only Jesus could catch it. Their mustaches came in looking good, not all feathery and wispy like the other boys. They had that brooding look down cold. People called them two peas in a pod, brothers separated at birth, you know.”

I whipped the car off the interstate to write those lines down on the back of a receipt. That became the voice of Rosalyn Bryson, a mother who makes up Bible stories to tell her son at bedtime. Though the lines didn’t make it into the final version of the book, that was the start of the The Lost Episodes.

What genre does your book fall under?

Erotic Superhero Horror. Literary fiction.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Tyler Perry, playing everybody. Or maybe the robots from Transformers. Those guys have more range than you might think.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

After years of listening to his mother make up Bible stories, twelve-year-old Revie becomes convinced he is the second coming of Christ; but when his mother runs away to Hollywood, his faith is shaken.

(Okay, that semi-colon was totally a cheat, but it was the only way I could get the essence of the book into a sentence. Otherwise I’d have to write, “It’s like the Bible meets TV!”)

It's got a motorbike, so you know it's badass.

It’s got a motorbike, so you know it’s badass.

Do you have a publisher for your book yet? Who? Was the book agented?

Black Lawrence Press, an imprint of Dzanc Books, is the publisher. Erin Harris of Folio Literary Management is the agent.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Ah, geez…It depends on what you would call the first draft. I don’t mean to be evasive; it’s just that this project was so squirmy for so long.

I wrote a bunch of Revie stories when I was thinking about this as a story collection. Then I thought it would be better as a novel-in-stories, so I threw about half of those stories away and wrote new ones. After that was done, I saw a major flaw that couldn’t be band-aided, so I burned it all down and started over as a novel-novel.

How long did it take me to write the first draft as a novel-novel? About six or eight months, I think. Which might seem short until you consider that I’d been working with the material for several years already. And would continue working with it for another several years and enough drafts to make you cry.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Thumbsucker by Walter Kirn was one of my models. It’s a funny, episodic, coming-of-age book. Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bible! by Jonathan Goldstein has a lot of smart and hilarious takes on Bible stories. And then there’s The Book of Ralph by John McNally, which is also funny (see the pattern?) with a kid character and a Chicagoland kind of sensibility.

Blue II, Butler's mascot, loves him some lit-ra-chuh

Blue II, Butler’s mascot, loves him some lit-ra-chuh

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Oh, if only I knew, dear reader! I would pique it all the live-long day. Pique, pique, pique, right up until you slapped my hand and told me to stop piquing at it, or it would never heal. Then I’d cover my face with my hands and you’d apologize for making me feel so ashamed, at which point I’d open my hands and say: Pique-a-boo.

Here’s a more serious attempt at an answer from Julianna Baggott, author of Pure, who had this to say about the book: “Years ago I read a short story that burrowed in so deeply I had to track down the author—one Bryan Furuness—and proceed to beg and bully him to write a novel. At last, here it is—as beautiful and hilarious, as crushingly tender and brutally hopeful as I’d ever hoped for. I cannot recall the last time I read a novel that made me bark with laughter and then break into tears. What can I say? I love these characters, this world, this wonderful, wonderful, wonderful (breathlessly awaited) debut!”

The first few chapters are up at Goodreads, if you’d like to take a pique.



The Next Big Thing: My Turn!

25 Feb

Thanks so much to Sybil Baker for inviting me to participate! Sybil’s work means a lot to me, since she’s given me such great material to edit in her novel Into This World, so I’m always excited to see (and share) more about her process.  Read her answers here:

Next week, you can read answers from Bryan Furuness right here, from Barbara Shoup at her blog, and from Jill Stukenberg (link coming soooon!).

If you know me on the internet, you probably know me more as an editor than as a writer. But of course I came to everything that Engine Books does and stands for through my own growth and practice as a writer. I’m torn about what to write about here, since I have a completed novel that’s floating around some offices, waving its hand in the air, begging to be picked, but I also have this new thing that I’m a little bit giddy about.

Hmmm. New thing? Finished thing (that’ll probably end up getting revised again before it heads out into the world)?

New thing. Let’s do the new thing. Answers below are ridiculously tentative and squishy. This thing is just barely a zygote.

What is your working title of your book (or story)?

Ghost Road

Where did the idea come from for the book?

Unlike most of the work I’ve done since college (which is to say, the work that has the remotest chance of being any good), this book is really personal for me. A few years ago, my mother went on this weird divesting binge–she pulled the old photographs out of the ancient, wax-bound albums (does anybody else still have those?), sometimes peeling the backing. These were pictures from the years she spent married to my father. That marriage ended in 1980. The photos were those fabulous 70’s prints with the rounded corners, all faded to a perfect sepia.

She was going to throw them away. Which: no.

So I took the photos. In the earliest ones, both my parents were much younger than I am now. At several points, I didn’t exactly recognize them. Who are these people in these photographs tending to this ugly, giant-headed baby? (Truly, I was a hideous child until I was at least 3.) The point of Ghost Road isn’t so much to find out as it is to create a new story about a family living in the same place and time, in some of the same situations as my family did then. Some of the episodes I’m exploring are lodged in my memory–I believe they took place–but these memories are unreliable at best. As I child, I could never distinguish my memories from my dreams. Others are invented wholesale. Most importantly, though, the points of view the novel’s exploring are entirely products of my imagination, and I don’t think, when I’m done, that this family will likely end up resembling the one I came from much at all.

What genre does your book fall under?

Literary fiction/realistic fiction/novel.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Oh, gosh. I have no idea. I don’t usually picture things like book covers or movie adaptations any more. Besides, I doubt they cast babies quite that unappealing.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

During the summer of the US bicentennial celebration, Diane, Jack, and their children move to a farm in rural Boone County, Indiana; over the next five years, their lives will change in ways they cannot predict or prevent.

Do you have a publisher for your book yet? Who? Was the book agented?

It’s really just an icky cluster of cells at this point. I do have editor crushes and agent crushes. But I’m keeping those to myself. My first novel, Four Points Gin, is in the process of meeting people who I hope will fall in love with it and represent it. Should that happen, I hope they’ll fall in love with this one, too, and stick with me.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

In the past, I’ve been sllloooooowwwww. I took ten years, off and on, to write and rewrite and re-rewrite Four Points Gin.  This material has come faster for me, because it’s image-driven and the characters’ voices are deeply embedded in me, as they’re the voices of the place I came from. I don’t write straight through, and it’s hard to predict how long it will take me to stitch all these moments I’ve been drafting together. But I wouldn’t say ten more years. Maybe one or two, if I really get on it.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Oh, I think that’s a crappy trap of a question. Do I have the hubris to compare myself to some literary great? Do I pick one of my sort-of-peers? The truth is, I can’t think of another book I’ve read that this resembles for me. Not because it’s the most original thing ever written, but because whatever books it resembles I haven’t read yet.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Well, that’s mostly the same answer as where the idea came from, except to add that I think we have a very unhealthy relationship with nostalgia, culturally speaking. The glorification of the past that saturates our political and media discourse makes me a little bit queasy. I know that the years from 1976 to 1980 are not the years they’re holding up as ideals, but I wanted to explore the past in a way that feels more honest to me. So far, this is a dark book. It’s been dark enough, at a couple of junctures, that I had to stop writing and step away from the manuscript to regain my perspective.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

The manuscript will be image-driven and lyrical. I’m doing everything I can, including lots of research, to keep those images accurate to the lived experience of that time. For example, did you know that a Dust-Bowl level cloud enveloped the Southeast at one point in the late 70’s? Me, either. Our TV and movie depictions of the late 70s don’t much resemble people’s lived experiences of those years, I think, though I know there’s wonderful literature already that does. I hope, by the time it’s done, that this project will be able to join that literature’s ranks.

“It has nothing to do with men.”

5 Dec

I wrote that sentence in a recent comment thread on a Facebook post, one wherein I had the bad taste to complain (indirectly, but still) about my weight. I should probably say, for further context, that my weight is actually pretty damn average–even on the stupid BMI calculations, I’m at the top end of the “healthy” portion of the chart.

I wrote, “it has nothing to do with men,” in response to a comment by someone I love who attempted to console me by asserting that men would just have to deal with the fact that women’s bodies change and fluctuate, etc. When the idea of men being a factor worth considering was introduced to the conversation, I may have actually tipped my head, perplexed, and stared at the screen.

I shouldn’t be perplexed, of course. One less kind and supportive version of this line of thinking manifests as “What the fuck are you doing in a bar if you’re married?” The implication of either comment, and all the comments in between, is that women make decisions about what to wear and where to go based on the anticipated reactions of men–usually strangers–and based, further, on the (deeply flawed) assumption that men are going to notice the outcomes of those decisions.

Specifically, on the FB post, I was bemoaning the fact that all my swimwear was ill-fitting. We’re going to Mexico in a week and a half. Nobody wants to lay on a beach in ill-fitting swimwear. This particular crisis has been resolved by Andrew, as most of them are. He bought me a spectacular new suit. Part of what perplexed me about the introduction of men to the conversation was the idea that I would give a single fuck whatsoever what anyone except Andrew thought I looked like in a swimsuit, much less anyone in a particular part of Mexico I’ll probably visit this once and never again. Will I be trolling the beach for sex while my husband naps nearby on a towel? And if not sex, why specify men?

I don’t mean to beat up the loved one who made the comment. I think her comment expressed a far more common perspective on this stuff than my own–the dominant perspective, in fact, in the culture I grew up in here in the Midwest, if not US culture in general.

For much of my life, I haven’t had an answer to the obvious question this raises: If it has nothing to do with men, what does it have anything to do with?* Until now.

Why do I want to be thin? Unless he’s an atrocious liar (he’s not), Andrew doesn’t particularly prefer me at the weight I carried when we met sixteen-ish years ago. And as for extra-curricular attractions, I feel at this point in my life that even if I somehow lost Andrew, the last thing on earth I’d be interested in doing is re-entering the dating scene, which sounds like the worst nightmare I could conjure. So why the expensive haircut, the self-loathing over a few pounds that usually go unnoticed by anyone but me anyway? Why would I mind ill-fitting swimwear?

Probably this is obvious to people with better emotional foundations than mine. But it was a bit of a eureka when I figured it out. Almost every change I would make in my appearance and lifestyle, given the resources to do so, has to do with a disjoint between the person I am and the person I had imagined that I would become.

The person I had imagined I would become has a little bit more dignity and class than I have. She can wear whatever style of clothing she prefers, but chooses elegance over T&A every single time. Her clothes may be slim-fitting, but are never tight. There’s never, ever any flesh oozing out or straining seams. She appears, always, to be composed, self-contained. Her nails are done, her hair brushed, her skin free of scrapes and scabs. She never, ever wears cheap shoes. She feels comfortable in just about any setting that doesn’t involve gratuitous vulgarity. She is basically never embarrassed or ashamed.

This is probably not a person I’m capable of becoming. Shame and embarrassment, in one form or another, are pretty deeply embedded in me. And those twenty pounds I’d like to lose? On me, they look sloppy. This isn’t something I think about other people, at any weight, that their bodies look sloppy. But the extra twenty pounds I’m carrying around make me too, well, round. A little too voluptuous, too sexualized. A little bit, if I’m honest, vulgar.

We all know, of course, that judgments about self-control make up the heart of fat-shaming. Without any consideration of individual lives, proponents of fat-shaming discourse assert that if people who are overweight just had a little more self-control, they wouldn’t have to be fat.** That being fat isn’t necessarily a problem for everyone, and that not being fat isn’t an option for everyone, whatever you mean when you say “fat,” just hasn’t occurred to a lot of people. At my most generous, I think this perspective represents a serious failure of imagination. At my least, I think it’s ignorant and deliberately cruel.

All that said, by even our most deeply flawed “objective” measure, I’m not fat. And yet: I’m not that graceful, composed woman I’d imagined, either. In order to become her, I’d have to reduce my calorie intake to about 1,000/day, maintain that for several months, and never let it rise above 1,500 or so again. I know these numbers from experience, just as I know from experience that they are entirely unreasonable.

Is it worth noting that I haven’t mentioned any men (particular or in general) in the last five paragraphs? Maybe it’s not. But for years–nearly twenty of them (there’s that number, twenty, again)–I’ve been trying to name this thing, to answer that question, what does it have to do with? The answer has existed for me, always, in images and impressions, but not in words. It makes me a little sad to name it, to subject it to the control of language, but I don’t know why. You would think that doing so might help me counter it with something more manageable, more real of my own, but I know that it won’t, that it will push against me, now, from both realms. 

*If you’ve ever been a very young woman with very short hair living in a medium-sized town in the Midwest, the fact that decisions about your appearance aren’t designed to attract men is a given. So, no. Nothing to do with men.

**It may be worth noting that I spend much of my professional life surrounded by teenagers, and that this perspective is widely held among people whose metabolism has not achieved its adult patterns yet. When I was 19, I lost 12 pounds in a week once, prepping for a formal dance. This is not a realistic expectation of any full-grown adult human being.


23 Nov

I resist declarations of gratitude.

Though I understand, in everyone’s hearts, they are not, declarations of gratitude always seem a little boastful to me, each one a tiny little humblebrag. This isn’t about the declarations themselves. It’s about me.

I understand how much I have, and how many strangers’ backs the things I have were made upon, carried on. Still, I want things. When I was a kid and everyone else seemed to have things I couldn’t have, I learned this behavior fast. And not only because most of the kids I knew had more stable homes than I did; they also had more permissive and reasonable social lives than mine. By the end of high school, I wanted their grace, their ease in conversation, their freely-given laughter born of connection with other people, connection fostered by kindness in their own lives and lots of practice. It was this wanting, more than wishing for their toys when we were children or their clothes as we approached adulthood, that dug itself in.

Now, so much later, I have all the things I could ever have known to ask for: A house I love, beautiful clothes, an expensive haircut. Great shoes. But on most days, in most situations, I still lack social grace. I don’t know what to say when you give me a compliment, or tell me something meaningful about your life. I do know that, more often than not, what I say ends up being the wrong thing, too revealing or too impersonal, too detailed or weirdly off-topic. Classically, perfectly awkward. Most of the people I’ve been closest to in my life have been people who’ve pursued a friendship with me, even when I crawled inside my shell and hid from my own social ineptitude. Dogs learn best, I’m told, between the ages of five weeks and five months. My hands are aching as I type because the dog yanked me all over the place this morning on his leash, chafing my fingers as I tried to hold on: We didn’t get him soon enough, so teaching him good leash behavior is turning out to be kind of hellish. During what window of time should I have learned to connect fully with other people? How hard is it going to be now?

Tom Andrews’ achingly beautiful poem “Praying with George Herbert in Late Winter” contains some of my favorite lines, including one for which I named my little fiction press. And this: “I can say/there is a larger something/inside me. I can say,/’Gratitude is/a strange country.’ But what/would I give to live there?” I have been angry for a really long time about the obstacles placed in my path not by God or fate or any other such mysterious force, but by the people who should have been taking care of me, who should have been teaching me to take care of other people, and of myself. This self-pity is pointless. In the house where I live, Andrew and I have rescued every surface with our own hands. The work I do is entirely dependent upon a cultivated inventiveness and will to create that was, in turn, initiated by all that wanting–I taught myself to build the life I wanted, understanding early on that no one was planning to give it to me. But the ability to do so depended entirely on my being born in a place where that was possible, without disability or prohibitive illness. Still, there’s the anger, and gratitude is a strange country. What would I give?

Dog Update: Things Are Getting Normal

22 Oct IMG_0619

Pretty soon, these updates are going to get really boring: Dog is cute. Dog catches frisbees. Dog gets overeager and occasionally someone hisses.

So, here’s where we are now: aside from the fact that Mosley pretty much hates all humans with whom he isn’t well acquainted, we’re down to pretty normal stuff. He yanks on the leash. He doesn’t want to go outside without me much, and when I leave him out alone for a while, he pees on the side of the house. We had two accidents overnight last week, but those are the only two in the past few weeks. You’re not going to believe this, but they happened on the only two nights when Andrew didn’t ask the dog to please not mess in his den before bed. Every other night, Andrew has presented this request; every other night, Mosley has abided.

We have a clicker, a boatload of treats, and a dog nanny. We have some training tactics, and maybe will do some classes later. We have a head-collar, but that just makes him an asshole, and he still yanks on the leash, nearly yanking his own head off in the process, so we’ve given up on the head-collar. (Plus, we think it left some scabby skin behind his ear, so: no.) What we need are a few doggy play-dates and a good way to begin to introduce him to strangers so he stops the maniacal barking every time he sees one.

Did I mention that Mosley hates small dogs? I know this isn’t universal, because he used to live with a rat terrier, but yow, small dogs. They set him off. The other day during our walk, this mole-man looking guy with a little dog sneaked up on us from behind. (Which: on a public sidewalk, you shouldn’t have to announce yourself, I know.) Of course a crazy barking fit ensued. I’ve never seen Mosley

even nip at anyone, but when he gets to barking like that, you’d swear he was a vicious fighting dog. And this, I’m pretty sure, is the worst I’ve ever heard him. (Okay, the time the creepy utility guy came to the door and knocked really loud and Mosley got so scared he pooped was pretty serious.) So I’ve got him trapped between myknees, holding his collar as he barks his ass off, and Andrew hears Mole Man say to his ugly little sausage of a dog, “Don’t worry. I’ve got something to protect us.” And, hey. I saw a loose pit-bull down the way attack a lady and her two dogs one afternoon. I get that. But it still made me want to let him loose, or to bite the dude myself. So yeah: I guess I’m dog people now.

Anyway, if we take him to a dog park and he goes off, people are going to be pissed. If we take him somewhere around people, both he and the people are going to be pissed. (Holy hell did he have a fit one Saturday when we tried to take him to PetSmart, just to see how he’d do.) So short of asking everyone we know to come over on a revolving-door basis, this is one we still have to figure out.

He also needs more dog time. He’s used to play time with dogs from his foster home and from his days spent at his foster mom’s office for about a month, before our dog nanny took over. We’ll probably take him back there for a few hours to play from time to time, but we really need to find someone whose dogs want to come over to play, or who want Mose to come to their house for a few hours a week. Because not-small dogs: he loves them. So there’s a project, as well.

The relationship with the cats is coming along. Here’s another reason he needs some dog time: He wants to play with them, so he chases Griffin around. Griffin thinks this is not at all funny, but he keeps coming back, so I suppose there’s no damage done. The general pattern is a lot of sniffing on everyone’s part, much less active avoidance, and regularly increasing curiosity. Mosley seems to genuinely like the cats, perking his ears and wagging his tail when they show up, following them around slowly, and often laying down in a very dog-submissive posture when they approach. Most importantly, he is not afraid of the cats, the cats are not afraid of him, and the kitties’ eating, sleeping, and hanging-out behaviors have returned to their pre-dog patterns.

In all, I think this has been an incredibly quick stabilization. Mosley is affectionate and patient, and seems happy. If we don’t prepare him for bed (and the couch for him) by 11:00 or so, he jumps on it and goes to sleep anyway. I’m pretty sure neither of us has had to tell him to go to bed since that last update. He’s a ridiculously fast learner, picking up new tricks in a matter of two or three practices, and learning what to avoid (eating the cats’ food, for example) in almost no time. (Today he walked around the area where the cats eat, nibbling up spilled kibble, and didn’t touch the bowls or what was in them.) So I have no doubt that we’re going to get over these last few hurdles and move along just fine. Meanwhile, here’s some video of our amazing dog catching a frisbee. Twice. (Did I mention that he came with this skill?)

Dog catches Frisbee. Twice. from Victoria Barrett on Vimeo.

Dog Update: Four Weeks In

8 Oct dog1

We’re still letting Mosley bark freely at the neighborhood teenagers. That’s bad, isn’t it?

So, in other interesting news, all that advice about showing him who’s boss? Doesn’t work for this dog. This dog wants love, not authority. In the last two weeks, he’s fallen almost as much in love with Andrew as with me. Because Andrew decided to start getting down on the dog’s level, hugging him, talking softly to him instead of trying to provide the structure that’s supposed to soothe his pack instincts. As usual, hierarchical behavior is overrated.

So, let’s see, what’s up? We’ve lost count of the number of times Mosley has caught his frisbee in mid-air. Neither of us has lost any more shoes to dog bombs. Mosley goes to bed happily, in his den (our library) every night between 11:00 and midnight. Last night he went outside for his before-bed business and got tucked into bed without me. The cats will sniff his nose and paws at length and hang out near him, but I wouldn’t call anybody friends yet. But Mosley sure wants to be their friend. When he sees them, he gets very quiet and gentle, wags his tail slightly, sniffs them back. A couple of times the mutual sniffing has freaked one of them, Griffin, completely out, and he’s taken off running. Know what a dog does when you run from it? So that hasn’t been particularly helpful. Still, there’ve been a number of evenings when we’ve all hung out in the same room together, both cats, the dog, Andrew, and I. Considering that our house is a 1920s bungalow, with a couple of rooms as small as 10 x 10, this is a pretty impressive feat, I think.

And here’s a detail I find hilarious: When he has peanut butter, he finishes off by methodically licking the fur on his front legs. Only with peanut butter. I think he’s cleaning it off his tongue, then cleaning it back off his legs, slowly. He seems like a pretty smart dog, no?

You can tell things have gotten easier by the fact that I’m running out of stuff to say. It’s still really hard to get up at 7 a.m., even more so now that it’s cold. Sometimes he refuses to act right on the leash, and there I am getting dragged all over the neighborhood before it’s even fully light out. He’s an absolute terror to the resident squirrels–I’ve heard two scream while he was chasing them recently, though I continue to hope for everyone’s sake that he will never catch one.

Oh, welcome home! Andrew just came in the front door after spending a day with his dad in St. Louis, watching our Cardinals lose. Note to self: Use the back door. ‘Cause the barking fit he just threw was ear-splitting, not to mention that he tinkled all over the floor and had a little turd scared right out of him.

Two Weeks as Dog People

23 Sep dog-car

It’s been two weeks and two days since Mosley came to live with us. I am now almost accustomed to the recurring odor of dog fart.

He’s a pretty great dog! He caught a frisbee in his mouth, plays fetch very nicely, and wears himself out chasing squirrels. (Though I do feel bad for the squirrels, who used to have free reign in the yard.) He’s not afraid of storms, even when they bring golf-ball size hail. He has now gone to sleep three nights in a row without protest barking. And he hasn’t growled at Andrew in at least a week. He and the cats are slowly making their way toward each other–we’ve had lots of sniffing, a little bit of hissing, and some tail-wagging. (And one mishap where we let the dog and one of the cats outside at the same time, which resulted in–you guessed it–the dog chasing the cat and the most intense puffing and hissing I’ve maybe ever seen in a lifetime as cat people. But the dog wasn’t hunting the cat. The dog was playing. The cat was…not playing.)

On the other hand, he’s been expelled from two different doggie daycares already. He’s fine with other dogs. He doesn’t actually like people. So that’s been tremendously stressful. The first time we took him, I watched the phone all day. We thought he was going to be fine. Turned out the PetsHotel people couldn’t deal with him so they left him inside a cage all day, alone, without walking him or taking him out to pee, he had messed on himself when we got there, and they didn’t bother to call us until 6:15. There’s not actually anything we could have done about it if they’d called earlier, but what if we could have? So we were not pleased.

I know that I can’t get an accurate picture of his behavior because I’m his security blanket–the minute I walk into the room, he calms down–but he can’t be that hard to deal with. He’s a 40lb dog who’s ridiculously food-motivated. Get a treat, get down on his level, and chill the eff out.

We tried another daycare on Tuesday. We took him first on Monday for an evaluation to make sure it would be all right, and he did fine–they took him to the back with the other dogs, and he was a bit shy, but all right. So I wasn’t thrilled when they called less than 20 minutes after we dropped him off on Tuesday morning to say–you guessed it–that they couldn’t work with him and he was miserable. They were kinder, though–when we got there to pick him up, he was outside in the play area by himself, and the lovely woman had been trying to play with him, even though he wouldn’t have it.

We’ve found a good short-term solution to the problem. The woman who fostered him is keeping him for us on the days we have to work away from home. When we dropped him off on Thursday, he was so excited to see her that he peed.

But here is the problem: Mosley needs to be in the same room with me. He usually won’t leave the back deck if I’m not outside, and he won’t walk on the leash with Andrew yet. He’s become very loving toward Andrew, and hasn’t growled in well over a week. But I have to be there for him to do, well, anything, and I didn’t exactly plan to take care of a young dog alone. I had imagined that I might walk him in the morning, and Andrew could take him out before bed and tuck him in, but that’s not happening. Last night is the first night of uninterrupted sleep I’ve had since we brought him home. But that’s progress, right? It’s only going to get better from here. Right?

For the long term, we’re going to have to find a person. Ideally, this person will be female (dog’s preference), and will come here to visit him in the afternoon while we’re at work twice a week, and sometimes house- and dog-sit for us when we’re away. And we’ll have to pay whomever we hire to come spend time with him while I’m here before we can leave him to her care, since it would be a disaster to have him freak out when she comes in on a given afternoon. I’ve been looking into a few resources, but really, it’s like a much less intense version of finding childcare. Which is to say, tiring and stressful. It’s no doubt true that one minor factor in our not having children is our lack of support network. I hadn’t quite realized that I also needed one to have a dog.

Still, all told, he seems very happy here with us, even though he’s got a little patch of poison ivy on his tummy and maybe
sort of still happy-tinkles on the floor now and then. He jumps on me badly enough that once or twice he’s almost knocked me over, but lovingly so. That’s all going to subside, at least a bit, in time and with a little training. (He can catch a frisbee, for shit’s sake. Certainly he can learn to stop knocking me over.) I’m sure the last week has seemed harder than it really was because I’m not getting enough rest, so I’m not quite lucid. I’ve only had less productive weeks when I’ve been sick, and I’m completely disorganized. It’s a lifestyle change, in the way that an effective diet is a lifestyle change: Now I am a person who gets up at 7 a.m. and takes a fairly long walk. Okay. That works. I just have to get the rest of the day to work, too.


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