Personal: Haven’t the foggiest what you will find here

Twenty years ago, I was a poet.  Longer ago than that even.

I began writing poetry in high school, as a teenager, took the gift of the Writers Market book for poetry my parents gave me each year and sent my words out.  Sometimes, people even published them.  And when I got on the Internet in 1990, and then joined a BBS which will not be named, I wrote my words there too.

I didn’t just write them.  I used them.  When I was in pain.  When I was angry.  When I was wrathful. When I had desire I did not know how to meet the consequences of; when lovers ignored me; when the politics of friendship confused me; when the cruelties of the Internet made me certain I was supposed to stop talking and just didn’t know how, I wrote and wrote and wrote.

Some more things got published.  Some more things got rejected.  I won some contests, performed at some poetry slams, got email from people I didn’t know: the father who shared one of my poems with his son after a first heartbreak; the man who worked at NASA and sent me pictures of the sky.

Eventually, the BBS died.  And eventually, I stopped writing, not just poetry, but everything.  It was easier; boys were more willing to date me; I could pretend I was normal, and there was a lot of lucrative to be had in the office drag dot.com glory of the late ’90s.

Eventually, though, I got back to words, or admitted, more readily, that I had never left them.  The boys were gone anyway.  So were the dot.coms, and the century, and the World Trade Center.

But while I came back to fiction and non-fiction, I never really came back to poetry.  I published something in Rattle on accident because of a friend, and I envisioned a poetry project or two I never felt able to execute on.

My brain has changed, and, by-and-large, it’s not something that really bothers me.  I’ve enough to do, as arguably evidenced by my complete inability to keep up with NaBloWriMo this nearly over month.

But in April of this year almost gone, an old friend from those days of being the girl who posted poetry on the Internet, found a stack of print outs from that BBS of my work.  She asked me if I wanted them, and I said, why not?

Until today, I hadn’t opened the envelope.

Some of the work I remember.  Some of it I don’t.  Much of what I’ve allowed myself to read has made me cringe.  In many cases, I am more interested by the evolution of my signature files on the pages as my sign-off migrate from Sinead O’Connor (“there is no other troy for me to burn”) to Kristen Hersh (“’til i wake your ghost”) to U2 (“i must be an acrobat, to look like this and act like that”) to things I no longer even know the source of without Googling (“you knew how easily i bruised; it’s a soreness i would never lose”).  Apparently that last one is Erica Jong.

It’s a weird stack of paper.  A hard read.  I don’t know if it tells me I was the poet I remember, that my resume says I was; or if I really wasn’t.  So few of these things would I say now, or say this way.

But there was one thing I did, a lot, when I was sad, and that was to write on this BBS, in the third person, about Little girl (“Little girl got to be pretty for a year…. Little girl has long legs.  Little girl has useful hands”). These were not poems, they were not meant as art.  They were pain and wrath and a desperate attempt to explain my feeling of being an object and to deflect — through a demonstration of my grief and otherness — cruelty that these posts, frankly, only invited.

I thought they were lost forever.  They might well have been, if not for my friend’s printouts and her offer to send them to me.  I’m grateful to have them now, to see the record, not of the writer I was, but of the girl I was at an age when I was discovering how the things I made people feel made them see themselves and the way I allowed myself to carry, or not carry, the consequences of that.

All of this really happened.  I was a writer, in that I wrote words that sometimes meant something to someone, often not in ways I intended.  And I suppose, I am one now, essentially in the same way.  But, wow, those two things aren’t really joined in time or subject or style or narrative technology.

There isn’t really a lesson in this, for me or for you.  It’s just 50 pages of words I don’t know if I’ll ever share with anyone ever again.  But once I did.

If anyone ever offers you an envelope from your past, say yes, I think.  Open it eventually.  Recognize that even when you were silent, you were always speaking.

The title of this entry is the opening of the note my friend enclosed with the printouts.

Valerie’s Letter Day

It’s Valerie’s Letter Day, and so I’m posting it again, the way I always do, despite the fact that I have not reread the graphic novel in years or rewatched the movie ever.  Mainly, because I’m afraid to.

Both forms of the story hit at sort of terrible moments in my life.  The college situation, when I first read the graphic novel, I’ve talked about before to probably the fullest extent I’ll ever want to; it leaves out a lot.  The day I watched the V for Vendetta film, alone at a crappy theater in Chelsea, was the day I got sick.

At I first thought was food poisoning, what my baffled doctors suggested might be anything from gall bladder disease to cancer, and what ultimately turned out to be my far less scary but seriously unpleasant celiac disease.  But, for the first week, before all that happened, I thought I was have a psychosomatic reaction to the film’s long montage-based sequences of medicalized torture as political punishment.

When I read Valerie’s Letter, I know grace, poetry, survival, and pride.  When I engage with its larger context, however, I just feel afraid.  As much as that’s terrible, it’s also probably should be.

I’ve whispered I was born in Nottingham in 1957, and it rained a lot to myself more times than I really know how to explain.  I’ve wished that to be something I’ve been less needful of, and over time, it’s even been true; the world as I experience it today is, as relates to Valerie’s letter, barely recognizable from 1989.  And as glad as I am of that, that we have roses (again) and that Valerie never quite was, I am also remain so damn glad of that sentence about a place I’ve never been and a year fifteen before I was born.

I don’t know who you are. Please believe. There is no way I can convince you that this is not one of their tricks, but I don’t care. I am me, and I don’t know who you are but I love you. I have a pencil. A little one they did not find. I am a woman. I hid it inside me. Perhaps I won’t be able to write again, so this is a long letter about my life. It is the only autobiography I will ever write and oh god I’m writing it on toilet paper.

I was born in Nottingham in 1957, and it rained a lot. I passed my eleven plus and went to girl’s grammar. I wanted to be an actress. I met my first girlfriend at school. Her name was Sara. She was fourteen and I was fifteen but we were both in Miss Watson’s class.

Her wrists. Her wrists were beautiful.

I sat in biology class, staring at the pickled rabbit foetus in its jar, listening while Mr. Hird said it was an adolescent phase that people outgrew… Sara did. I didn’t.

In 1976 I stopped pretending and took a girl called Christine home to meet my parents. A week later I moved to London, enrolling at drama college. My mother said I broke her heart, but it was my integrity that was important. Is that so selfish? It sells for so little, but it’s all we have left in this place. It is the very last inch of us…

… But within that inch we are free.

London: I was happy in London. In 1981 I played Dandini in Cinderella. My first rep work. The world was strange and rustling and busy, with invisible crowds behind the hot lights and all the breathless glamour. It was exciting and it was lonely. At nights I’d go to Gateways or one of the other clubs, but I was stand-offish and didn’t mix easily. I saw a lot of the scene, but I never felt comfortable there. So many of them just wanted to be gay. It was their life, their ambition, all they talked about… And I wanted more than that.

Work improved. I got small film roles, then bigger ones. In 1986 I starred in ‘The Salt Flats.’ It pulled in the awards but not the crowds. I met Ruth working on that. We loved each other. We lived together, and on Valentine’s Day she sent me roses, and oh god, we had so much. Those were the best three years of my life.

In 1988 there was the war…

… And after that there were no more roses. Not for anybody.

In 1992, after the take-over, they started rounding up the gays. They took Ruth while she was out looking for food. Why are they so frightened of us? They burned her with cigarette ends and made her give them my name. She signed a statement saying I seduced her. I didn’t blame her. God I loved her. I didn’t blame her… But she did. She killed herself in her cell. She couldn’t live with betraying me, with giving up that last inch.

Oh Ruth.

They came for me. They told me that all my films would be burned. They shaved off my hair. They held my head down a toilet bowl and told jokes about lesbians. They brought me here and gave me drugs. I can’t feel my tongue anymore. I can’t speak. The other gay woman here, Rita, died two weeks ago. I imagine I’ll die quite soon.

It is strange that my life should end in such a terrible place, but for three years I had roses and I apologized to nobody. I shall die here. Every inch of me shall perish…

… Except one.

An inch. It’s small and it’s fragile and it’s the only thing in the world that’s worth having. We must never lose it, or sell it, or give it away. We must never let them take it from us.

I don’t know who you are, or whether you’re a man or a woman. I may never see you. I may never hug you or cry with you or get drunk with you. But I love you. I hope you escape this place. I hope that the world turns and that things get better, and that one day people have roses again. I wish I could kiss you.

– Valerie

Kindle Worlds: Not bigger on the inside

Today Amazon announced Kindle Worlds for Authors, which is a self-publishing tool to allow authors of fanfiction to monetize their work as long as it adheres to certain guidelines, including no porn, no offensive language, and no crossovers.

It’s not the first time someone’s tried to make money at the corporate level off fanfiction and it won’t be the last.  As a big believer in the idea that creative people deserve compensation for their creativity and that as a legitimate form of storytelling fanfiction should not be considered a pale shadow of traditional professional writing, I’m not even, necessarily, inherently opposed to the idea.

But Amazon’s project raises a bunch of compelling questions that we’ve been hurtling towards for a while now, especially as fanfiction has increasingly received positive, mainstream, and significant news coverage in outlets like Time Magazine and a property of The Washington Post.

Question 1: To what degree does Kindle Worlds suggest that fanfiction can only be legitimized through the eradication of fan culture’s gift economy?

Question 2: Fanfiction has significantly changed our media culture.  Kindle Worlds isn’t just capitalizing on it, but arguably represents an attempt to shape it.  Is this a feedback loop in action or an attempt to stop the catalyst that is fan work?

Questions 3: The contractual terms of Kindle Worlds are the sort traditional professional writers would be strongly advised against signing on to.  Is fannish work worth less?  Should it be?

Question 4: Fanfiction has, arguably, always been about the option to use use all the tools, particularly those often discouraged by corporate content production (e.g., sexuality), to tell story.  If the toolbox is limited, whether a given writer would choose to use all the tools or not, is it fanfiction or is it some other form of derivative (vs. transformative) work?

Question 5: How will fan readers view/treat fan writers who use a tool like Kindle Worlds? And how does that impact our communities, hierarchies, and barriers to entry?

Please play in comments below.

Girls Write Now: Fanfiction workshop follow-up

While it was a week ago, I did want to follow up on my talks at Girls Write Now last week, because it was a ton of fun, and I did promise the program participants and their mentors I’d update with some relevant links and a summary of what we talked about.

One of the things that was really fun was none of us were talking about justifying fanfiction.  Rather, we talked about both how fanfiction is entirely legitimate as an end in and of itself, but also how it functions as a gift economy, a mode of criticism, and a way to approached and even produce salable work.

We looked at the idea of given circumstances for character and story development — which is the notion that a person has certain key traits and reactive patterns and that a lot of fanfiction is taking known quantities (characters) and changing their given circumstances to see what happens.  We also talked about how playing with other people’s universes is a great way to learn cadence and voice and certain stylistic techniques.

We covered Harry Potter, One Direction, Buffy, the Whoniverse, Teen Wolf, and Game of Thrones. I mentioned Glee (but am pretty sure I mostly got side-eyed for that), and Ellen Kushner‘s novels (Swordspoint is where to start, and The Privilege of the Sword is the YA-ish one with the female protagonist).

We also talked about published incidences of fanfiction, including Wide Sargasso Sea and an anthology about fictional sexual encounters with celebrities called Starf*cker(Yes, the star is really in the title, and just so the girls in the program know, I was happy to say fucker in front of you all, but imagined a mentor or two might not have approved.  But I’m sure you can handle that).

We laughed a lot (thank you!) and great questions were asked about using personal experiences in storytelling and about how fanfiction can be used to highlight the stories of characters from backgrounds and experiences that are often marginalized.  In both groups people wanted to know if I’d ever met creators of work I’ve played with in a fannish context (yes, and that’s ranged from neutral but slightly weird to totally awesome).

Mostly, though, everything sort of boiled down to the joy and necessity of narrative — how it’s something we assign to the randomness of our own lives in order to make sense of it, and how it’s in imitation of that that we also learn to tell stories whether fiction or non-fiction.  In one of the sessions this led me to mentioning a Clive Barker quote I couldn’t really remember, but thanks to the wonder of the Internet, I can tell you it’s from the prologue to his novel Sacrament and is

I am a man, and men are animals who tell stories. This is a gift from God, who spoke our species into being, but left the end of our story untold. That mystery is troubling to us. How could it be otherwise? Without the final part, we think, how are we to make sense of all that went before: which is to say, our lives? So we make stories of our own, in fevered and envious imitation of our Maker, hoping that we’ll tell, by chance, what God left untold. And finishing our tale, come to understand why we were born.

On that note, some more links I promised people in the room are below.  Additionally, if there are specific resources you’re looking for that have not been mentioned here, please ask in comments, and I’ll see what I can find; I know some of the girls I talked to were particularly interested in anime-focused fanfiction archives, which was just one of those things I have no answers on.

Fanfiction.Net — Sometimes we call this the pit of voles, and quality can be challenging, but it’s there and it’s been there forever.  I don’t actually recommend it as a starting point for reading and posting fic, but it may work for you.

The Archive of Our Own — a great place to post and find fic to read.  Still technically in beta so you have to request an invite.

LiveJournal — no longer the hub of fanfiction (or anything else) it once was, but was definitely a vibrant pace that has/had a lot of fic communities.  Depending on your particular interests it may still be a good choice for you.

Tumblr — while I often derisively describe this space as blinky not thinky, Tumblr has lots of people posting fanfiction on it, as well as lots of people telling stories through visual modes and doing criticism too.  Organizationally it’s hard for conversations, but it’s grown on me as a way to be exposed to lots of random content on lots of different things.  As such, it’s sort of inspiring in a pattern recognition sort of way.

If you were at this event, please feel free to say hi, ask questions, leave comments, or just be excited about your fannish obsessions below.  For now, I’ll leave you with a quote that just came up on my Tumblr dash

That’s the nature of any creative activity — you’re mostly going to be rejected.

That’s from The New Yorker’s Bob Mankoff at a recent TED salon.  He’s the magazine’s cartoon editor today.  But when he first changed careers to become to a cartoonist he submitted 2,000 cartoons to the The New Yorker in his first year.  Every one was rejected.

As long as you’re writing stuff, you’re a writer.  Many days, that’s hard enough.  Keep making stuff as long as it makes you happy and even sometimes when it doesn’t.

Meanwhile, if you are interested in becoming a mentor for Girls Write Now or are a high school student eligible to participate they are still taking applications for next year’s program through June 15 (I’d sign up to mentor in a heart beat if I weren’t on the road so much).

The Great Gatsby: Horror, property, and nostalgia

When I was a baby my family rented and lived in a guest cottage on an estate in East Hampton until one day, the neighbors poisoned our dog.  I don’t remember this, but it’s one of several stories I’ve heard about why we came back to the city, my entire life. And I can’t talk about my relationship with any iteration of The Great Gatsby without mentioning both this and my years in private school where things like old vs. new money (assuming you had either) and East or West Hampton mattered pretty desperately.

For what it’s worth, Gatsby has never been a book that I’ve liked.  It’s characters are viciously flat, its plot too neat, and its point, as argued in high school literature classes eludes me as clear or clearly good. Money, instead of corrupting good people and true love, seems merely a symptom of internal disease. And the notion of social climbing and its attendant passing as poisonous suggests, unsettlingly in book that’s also filled with racism, that people are better off if they stay with their own kind.

Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation of the book (with a script penned by himself and long-time collaborator Craig Pearce), resolves none of these things, but eschews all romance except that of nostalgia in order to showcase Gatsby for what is has always been, a horror narrative plodding inexorably towards its perhaps necessarily obvious end.  Daisy is positioned as an object, not only by her suitors, but by herself, too startled or sad to react fully to either the desire (her arms hang limp at her sides, her face freezes in nearly every on screen moment of sexual content) or to the wealth possessed by both Gatsby and her husband, Tom Buchanan.

Gatsby, for his part, is so wound up in his narrative of possession, he doesn’t see her, and aggressively and insistently insists she rewrite her own emotional history simply because he cannot fathom her having existed in any moment in which they are separated.  Buchanan, meanwhile, for all the ways in which he is repellent (in a remarkable performance by Joel Edgerton), at least manages to place Daisy as a key accessory in his own self-invention, which is as vivid, if not as creative, as Gatsby’s.

Nick Carraway, however, is of course the central raconteur of both Jay Gatsby’s construction and that of the narrative. But he is no everyman. Rather, he is only poor in contrast to the wealth around him, and his startlement and collusion and and in the drama that unfolds at his doorstep is also presented as an act of passing.  In the walk-up Buchanan rents for Myrtle and later at the barber shop, he must pretend to be more worldly and normative than he is in regard to booze, women, and business.  He’s no good at it though, and the night he stalks around one of Gatsby’s parties brandishing an invitation in order to prove he belongs proves, in fact, only the exact opposite.

While Carraway is well-handled, if uninteresting, the script misses a major opportunity to address long-standing scholarly speculation on his possible sexual interest in Gatsby, when homosexuality is not present on the list of diagnoses with which we are introduced to the character.

Luhrmann has always excelled particularly in the construction of the onscreen party, and in this film that construction is shot through with a profound menace embodied often, but not exclusively, by Jordan Baker. As an audience member I did not feel the desire to get lost in the night’s out presented, but to cut through them like her naked back, a shark in a sea of lesser and far more uninteresting creatures.

The obsession with personal commerce (prostitution narratives are explicitly and implicitly present in all of Luhrmann’s work) that I expected is certainly present, but disturbingly muted. No one seems to notice what they are buying and selling and nothing and no one is cherished for it, making the commerce present one of several elements that unexpectedly lend this film a surprisingly mature air.

Just as I cannot engage Gatsby without noting my own biography, I cannot engage this film without noting Luhrmann’s. Surely something personal is implied even if it is not actually present in a man who grew up in the middle-of-nowhere Australia and now runs a playground of creation out of a historical mansion in Sydney choosing to take on a story that is about the invention of persona to ends eventually lost sight of.

The music, which much has been made of, felt not nearly as intrusive or surprising as most reviews I have encountered have noted.  Frankly, after having listened obsessively to the soundtrack of the last week, there were many songs I couldn’t even find in the course of the film, and I often wished for music to be a more present element, even as silence is employed to great effect in one pivotal scene.

In particular, I remain most puzzled and haunted by Lana del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful” because neither youth nor fading looks seem to be remotely present in the fears of the characters. As such, it seems to serve as peculiar and really gutting commentary from some place outside the events of the film in a way that lends to the sort of melancholy maturity of the piece as a whole.

The use of 3D is at times remarkable, especially in the opening of the film, where it leads us literally back into the past as the gold logo border of the film recedes into the the screen and then sets up the deeply haunted feeling of the film through wisps of fog and a lens flare you can practically touch. My own ability to track effectively in 3D remained present, giving the film a flickery quality, which annoys me about the technology, but at least worked for the period setting.

Aside from Catherine Martin’s always exceptional design work, the other visual element that must be noted here is how great a debt this construction of New York owes to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in architecture, in the narrative presence of the financial markets, in the congestion and flow of crowds, in the choreography of work, and in the presence of a biplane, the crash of which seems inevitable, but never arrives.

Like the rest of Lurhmann’s work, The Great Gatsby is a celebration of the idea of the creator — here, again, the writer in particular. This is most clear, perhaps, not in the presence of the words of the novel on the screen as Carraway writes his story, but in Lurhmann’s own cameo in the film, where he plays a waiter who serves Nick and Jordan at their rooftop appointment.  Here, the director places himself explicitly in service to the writer character and the author’s avatar, in a coy and delightful wink at, at least, the over-interested members of the audience.

While not unflawed — the film drags in places much as the book does, and grapples somewhat clumsily with the racism of the source material — Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby manages to be a haunting, and at times even shocking film, that makes its audience drunk and then shoves it, as the unbelonging outsider, unceremoniously out the door, leaving the viewer uncertain as to what degree they should feel relief.

Girls Write Now: Wildcard Workshop

This Saturday, I am getting up much, much earlier than I normally do on Saturdays to talk about fanfiction and how it can contribute to a writer’s creative process and professional life at a workshop held by Girls Write Now.

Girls Write Now is a non-profit organization that matches teen girls from NYC public high schools with professional women writers for one-to-one mentoring, genre-based workshops, public readings, college prep activities, and scholarship and publication opportunities. This seems like an amazing thing, and if my life weren’t already so over-scheduled and constantly in-transit, I’d sign up to mentor in a heartbeat.

The event (actually two, I’m doing a morning and an afternoon session) is only open to girls currently in the program and their mentors.  But I wanted to share this in the context of fan and transformative works being taken seriously, and also to let people know that Girls Write Now is out there.

Deciding you want to write for a living is weird, no one knows what to do with that, and the standardized-test focused school system doesn’t help.  The idea of an organization supporting girls through story and for story is massively exciting to me.  If it’s exciting to you, I hope you’ll consider getting involved in Girls Write Now or whatever similar programs may exist in your community.