the pesky issue of POV

For a long time I didn’t like first person POV. I didn’t trust it. I didn’t think an entire world could be shared through the eyes of a single person.

It wasn’t until I read the first novel in the Dresden Files series that I began to take first person POV seriously. I realized how voicey a narrative could become by telling the story from one person’s viewpoint. (More recently I read Not Otherwise Specified by Hannah Moskowitz. The voice in that book absolutely blew me away.)

As you may know, I’ve been struggling to write lately. My Pitch Wars entry didn’t get any agent love during the agent round, and there’s been little movement on the query front. (I’m still far from the 90+ rejections touted by many published authors, but each rejection I’ve received can get to me anyway. That being said, I’m so appreciative of each one that’s been personalized, that’s offered advice, that’s helped me think about my story in a new way.)

Then I read a post about Surviving Nearly There. It spoke to me. Really spoke to me.

First of all, if I’m honest with myself, I’m not “nearly there” yet. I’m nearly to “nearly there.” I’m close. I have over half a dozen WIPs floating around in my mind. I have two completed novels. I honestly believe I have what it takes to write–and eventually publish–more than one book. That’s the place I want to be in when I get an agent.

But I’m not there yet. And that’s okay. It’s okay because I’ve realized I need to take this time to find my own voice. To experiment with ideas I’ve either shunned or been too afraid to try. To explore concepts, issues, character qualities that scare me. To learn things about myself in the process, both good and bad.

My current challenge to myself is changing POVs. Writing a short story as first person. Re-writing part of a completed novel as first person. Experimenting with some second person, just for kicks. No one else has to read these words.

As Robin LaFevers said in the blog post linked earlier:

Give yourself permission to write as if no one—not your mother, not your sister, not your spouse, not even another living, breathing soul—will have to see it. There is great freedom in slamming that door shut while you write.

I need some of that freedom in my life, and I’m going to take it for myself. Because I’m the only one who can grant it.

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“Are you religious?”

The question “Are you religious?” bothers me for a lot of reasons, most of them related to the assumptions people make about me the instant I respond.

1) In my experience, most people who phrase the question like this (to my face) associate “religion” with “Christianity.”

What I want to do is throw a neon sign in front of them declaring there are more religions than Christianity. (And I’m not talking about the different denominations within Christianity here.) The people who practice those religions matter. So do those who follow polytheistic religions or religions with no deities. Those who are agnostic. Those who are atheist.

I’ve seen others get written off as lost causes or somehow lesser because their form of religion, their brand of Christianity, whatever, didn’t stand up to snuff in the eyes of the speaker.

2) Non-Christians and “fellow” Christians alike often assume I’m going to put Christian-associated beliefs ahead of science.

The age of the Earth. The existence of global warming. The likelihood of life on other planets. Apparently I’m supposed to deny these and other concepts rooted in scientific fact if I take on a Christian label.

To the other Christians: what the hell kind of faith do you have if you must ignore physical laws to keep God in a box? Why can’t you change your perspective and consider the option that maybe God’s working with the laws that govern the universe? And why do you seem convinced that I’ll become “less” Christian because I’m a scientist?

And the occasional atheist or agnostic friend has assumed that I only follow science to pass classes or get my research done but don’t actually put much stock in the physics I’m studying. (I’m not kidding.) Because to be Christian means to be someone who can only have faith and thus can’t handle science. Because to be Christian is to be stupid, to ignore facts in favor of perceived fiction.

Said friends have written off those who follow other monotheistic religions–Judaism and Islam specifically–for the same reasons. Because you can’t simultaneously be a scientist or any other type of independently thinking human and also believe God exists.

3) I often disagree with the platforms of most politicians who claim to be Christian.

This has never been so apparent as right now when the GOP moron level is over 9000. Seriously, Ted Cruz, WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU. Thankfully President Obama knew exactly what to say to him. (Apparently Cruz is going to introduce a bill banning Muslim Syrians anyway. Maybe John Oliver can find some choice words for him too.)

4) I’m not straight.

I’ve wrestled with not being a typical girl for most of my life. Sure, growing up I had crushes on boys and figured I was normal enough for a while aside from hating pink and preferring guns + throwing balls to cooking + sewing + any activity that screamed femininity, but then puberty hit. In my teens, I denied I felt any sort of attraction to other women. That, combined with my overall lack of interest in physical intimacy beyond cuddling and kissing–I’d talk like I wanted it, but deep down I knew I was parroting words in order to fit in–made me feel broken and wrong.

It wasn’t long ago that I finally admitted that I’m bisexual. A more accurate label is biromantic demisexual, but “bisexual” is faster to say and requires less explaining (usually; I’ll save the bi erasure rant for another day). The #reliqueer conversations on Twitter are both uplifting and sanity-supporting. They helped me come to terms with myself as a queer person who holds religious beliefs. Because people associated with my religion are largely responsible for terrifying things like gay conversion therapy, which of course perpetuated the whole “I’m broken” train of thought.

(For the record, I’m also not out to more than a handful of people I know. My husband is the only family member who is aware.)

5) The attitude toward faith in literature, particularly in YA.

Shannon Hale posted a fabulous–and somewhat depressing–string of tweets today regarding the general reaction to any faith-related practice in YA novels. So many people have faith in some form of religion, so many kids and teens are trying to figure things out, yet we’re not giving them places to look for examples, mirrors to see that it’s okay to have faith, that they’re not stupid or weak or finding an easy way out.

I want to read more books that do this. I want to promote books that do this. I want new and established authors to write about this. (Personally, I’d love to incorporate religion into the YA contemporary idea currently developing in the back of my mind, but we’ll see if that happens.)

6) It’s uncomfortable for me to answer this question.

Some Christians are convinced that to be religious you need to go to church regularly and give money to charity and say your prayers a certain way etc. etc. I’m not saying any of these things are necessarily bad. But please don’t equate my “level” of Christianity to how frequently I sit in church on Sunday. I’m not religious because I think checking off a bunch of boxes will send me to heaven when I die. I’m religious because there’s something deeply, intensely personal about my faith. It’s something that informs the way I think, the way I interact with others, the way I see the world, and I hope it makes me a better person in the sense that I’m kinder to others and (ideally) to myself.

This doesn’t mean I approve of forcing beliefs down others’ throats. Whether you’re a religious person trying to convert someone or you’re an atheist demeaning people of faith because they have faith, others aren’t going to change their minds because you’re telling them they’re wrong, and they’re not going to gain any respect for you. I get angry when atheist friends constantly voice their anti-faith platforms on social media, and I get angry when religious friends constantly voice their religion-driven hatred of other lifestyles. Whether you’re one or the other doesn’t excuse your rudeness and your inability to have a conversation with people different from you.

My take? I’ll respect the people who, regardless of their faith or the lack thereof, come to the table with open hearts, open minds, and the ability to have honest discussions about religious and non-religious topics.

In the end, when people ask me the “Are you religious?” question, this is what I’d like to say:

I believe in loving people. I believe that loving people is tied to not just giving of myself but to listening to people, to doing my best to understand how they are different from me and how those differences can be good, positive, wonderful things. I believe in a God of love, and I’m doing a damn poor job of following my faith if I’m not loving and respecting others too, no matter how similar or different they are from me.

struggling to find balance

Today I woke from a dream in which I (the professor) found myself in my classroom with a bunch of expectant faces and realized that not only had I not finished grading their homework, I hadn’t even started putting together the exam that apparently I was giving that day.

Yeah, the student nightmares of sleeping through a test don’t end when you find yourself on the other side. They simply become different beasts.

But that made me think about all the things I’m doing “wrong” right now as a professor. I could be focusing more on research manuscripts (the journal articles we write–and revise–for publication that are extremely important for peer reviewing our research, getting our research out there, and getting tenure). I could be focusing more on the classes I’m teaching this semester and next semester. I could be focusing more on research proposals (large bodies of preliminary work we compress into a few pages to ask funding agencies for research money–lots of rejections there too–that tend to only get finished and published if we get funded). I could be focusing more on learning the ins and outs of administration in my department and at higher levels so that I have a better sense of what I can and can’t do as a student advisor, as a researcher, and as a teacher.

I’m doing those things during the work week, but I could be putting more effort into them (my nights and/or weekends). Where is that effort going right now?

Writing.

Writing for audiences I don’t have, hoping for an agent I don’t yet have, struggling with doubts and insecurities I always will have (unless I get over some of them I HOPE I GET OVER SOME OF THEM).

I’m also doing a lot of waiting. Waiting for feedback from critique partners and beta readers who do have my book. Now, I am so freaking grateful for these people. I can’t stress this enough. They’re taking up their free time to read my words and respond to them. They have lives, jobs, deadlines, so many distractions aside from my little MS. They have no obligation to do this, and all I can give in return is my undying thanks as well as feedback on any writing of theirs they ask me to read.

That doesn’t make the waiting easier when you’re wondering why you do this in the first place. I feel like a mediocre professor and a mediocre writer right now. You’d think I’d focus on being a professor–the job that pays–and give up on writing for a while.

But dammit, I’m greedy. I want to do both. I want to be good at both. Right now, though, I’m struggling with the how.

Considering the fact that I schedule my work days, it might be time to schedule my writing time and my non-work-day research time too. Except I need to be willing to try schedules and watch them fail and change them based on what worked and what didn’t. And failure is exhausting. Picking yourself back up from failure is exhausting.

If you have any tips on picking yourself up from failure, I’m all ears.

empowerment

1. to give power or authority to; authorize, especially by legal or official means

2. to enable or permit

This is a running theme in my writing.

I’m a relatively young female geoscientist, officially becoming an assistant professor this fall. I’m not the tenured white male in an ivory tower. I encounter sexism frequently. I see even more online, in the media, in other professions where women are the minority. I watch women put in more hours to “prove” that they’re good enough to play with “the boys” even as they’re paid less than their male counterparts. (Women, if you get a chance to negotiate your salary when offered a job, DO IT. Make every effort you can to close that damn wage gap.)

Women can be smart, driven, innovative, strong. I want them to know that. I want them to know they can use their brains for anything they want. In fact, I want to infuse my future students — regardless of gender or skin color — with the idea that their minds matter. That they’re capable of using those minds to achieve great things.

I want to empower them.

The same is true of my writing. I don’t want the color of my characters’ skin to matter (even though I know it does). I don’t want their sexuality or gender to define them (even though it will in the minds of many readers).

These characters are people. People like you and me. Sure, some of them are in a setting that allows for “powers” or other abilities abnormal in the real world. But that doesn’t change their personhood, their humanity. The relationship struggles they face are real. The crushing insecurity, the self-doubt, the guilt. The victories, the rushes of adrenaline, the tears and the laughter. They’re people.

I write to empower. I learn about myself by writing (and reading far more than I write). I learn about the world around me. I delve into the lives of my characters, of characters others have created, and see their situations through their eyes. They surprise me. They do things I wouldn’t. (I do things they wouldn’t.)

By learning, by getting to know more people from increasingly diverse backgrounds, by writing such people, I intend to show real, flawed individuals getting opportunities, meeting others, and fostering relationships that allow them to step forward. To do things they wouldn’t do otherwise. I provide chances for them to make hard decisions regardless of whether or not they do make those decisions.

In short, I work hard at my job and my writing to empower my characters. My colleagues. My readers. My students. In empowering them, I empower myself.

today I met my old self

I’m moving out of state in a few months. Part of every weekend is now spent trapped in the inevitable, unenviable process of going through closets and boxes and then getting rid of stuff. That takes a while, especially when I fall into a well of memories and spend far too much time at the bottom rather than clawing my way back out.

Back in undergrad, at some cost to my sanity and GPA, I earned a writing minor alongside my physics major. Today I found a piece I wrote for one of those classes. It was a personal, non-fictional essay. Neither essays nor non-fiction (when unrelated to my scientific research) are my thing, yet I was shocked by the naked self I’d presented for the “world” to see. While I don’t fully agree with the symbolic language preferences of the professor of that course, the flowery phrases and comparisons had a striking way of depicting my conflicted feelings regarding a family member thanks to good old family tensions. Reading it again now became all the more poignant because that person passed away about three months ago.

More than the pictures I stumbled across, more than the leftover scraps of notes passed in class or the cards given to me for one holiday or another, this little essay revealed some aspects of what I was like back then, what I thought about, what I focused on.

Maybe someday I’ll post a more polished version of this piece on here and let more than my old professor and classmates read it. But, for now, it’ll serve as a stark reminder to me to keep writing. I’d like to be able to look back on this week, this month a few years from now and once again meet a version of my past self.

Creative parenthood

Over the years I’ve realized that writing a novel is, in many ways, much like raising a child. A child you can safely ignore for years at a time, but a child nonetheless.

I nurture an idea, a setting, a world. I name characters (an often agonizing process that will be the subject of a future post!) and then watch them grow, develop, interact with others, and frequently make decisions I hadn’t expected. Just last night I finally put words on the screen to represent a scene that had been in my head for weeks, yet one of the major characters involved had a completely different reaction than the one I’d envisioned. Reading it again today, I realized that reaction was the right one, the one most in character. I created that character; why isn’t she behaving like I thought she would? Because I’m getting to know her better with each and every sentence I write. Don’t kids surprise their parents and other adults in their lives in a similar way?

I’m physically and mentally exhausted after completing the first draft of a novel. I still recall with perfect clarity that feeling of leaning back in my chair after hitting the “save” button. I stared at the ceiling as adrenaline left my body in a rush, leaving me limp yet giddy. I grabbed my phone and texted a few friends, likely spelling things wrong or accepting the wrong auto-corrected word in all my excitement (I hate making typos). It’s like giving birth, albeit to a far lesser degree.

I’m proud of my writing, and I want others to share in that pride. I’m not sure what the equivalent of a picture of a daughter at soccer practice or a son performing at a recital would be for a novel, but I still have the desire to post the little things documenting a book’s progress. Perhaps tweets like “Today I killed off a character!” or “I finally figured out why [character’s name] hates snakes!” would come close.

I must end with the caveat that I’m not a mother. I do know many mothers (and fathers) and have the utmost respect for the decisions they make and the efforts they exert on behalf of their child or children. I understand that writing is far different from actually shepherding another human being from infanthood to adulthood. However, I still pour myself into my writing and discover more about myself and those around me in the process. After all, the best kind of story, whether one I create or one from the mind of another, is one that inspires me to become a better person, and children often do the same for those around them.