Misfits

something that fits badly, as a garment that is too large or too small.
a person who is not suited or is unable to adjust to the circumstances of his or her particular situation

It’s bothered Bird and me for years.  Every Christmas Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer comes on and every Christmas we wonder what on earth is wrong with the doll on the Island of Misfit Toys.

Turns out, according to producer Arthur Rankin, it’s psychological.  In a 2007 NPR interview, he said that Dolly’s problem was low self-esteem and doubting herself.  Depending on the backstory, it sounds like a similar situation to Jessie from Toy Story 2: after being rejected by her human owner, Dolly doesn’t trust her ability to be a good companion to another person.  She’s hurt and depressed.

Some people dismiss this as inserting modern psychobabble into a cartoon from 50 years ago.  This post claims that the alternative explanation is “as plain on the nose on your face” because the thing that actually makes Dolly a misfit is her lack of a nose.

I disagree.  For one thing, plenty of cloth dolls in that style and time period didn’t have noses, or eyebrows, for that matter.  And for another, the majority of the misfit toys are not simply missing something.  Some fundamental part of them has been replaced with something different that interferes with their traditional function.  The train has square wheels.  The cowboy rides an ostrich.  The bird swims but cannot fly.  (OK, the elephant has the addition of polka dots, but he’s also a white elephant, which suggests being historically unwanted in the first place.)  These toys are misfits because something in them has changed to the point that they no longer fit the mold, and something would have to change again for them to be considered “normal.”  It’s not a one-step fix.

That’s why Dolly’s psychological misfit-ness rings true (for me, at least).  She needs more than a few stitches or a new dress.  There is something about her, as with the rest of the toys on the Island, that fits badly, that is not suited to her situation.  The visibility or invisibility of her struggles does not alter their validity.

And even if the explanation was inserted later to cover up some forgetfulness on the writers’ part, I’ll take any opportunity to point to well-known characters in popular culture who can help me normalize mental health.

 

NaNoWriMo Declaration

Today is the first day of National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo.

For the past few years, I have promised myself I will “win” NaNoWriMo by meeting the goal of finishing a 50,000+ word manuscript.  The idea is not to edit, not to get a book published, but simply to write down the whole damn thing and get that first draft to exist at all.  The new year is the time for revising and querying.  November is for writing furiously, frantically, every single day, in an effort to get that draft done.

But I haven’t won.  I’ve abandoned all my past stories after a few days.  This year, though, relatively soon after NerdCon: Stories and with my PNWA and feminism publishing connections behind me, not to mention a bunch of free time on my hands, I’m swearing to at least write something every day this November.  I might not finish my manuscript.  It would be nice if I could.  But I will put words on the page once a day for this whole month.

Or at least I’ll try!

NerdCon Stories Part 3: Saturday

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I figured if there was anywhere to wear my Augustus Waters t-shirt, this was it.

Saturday morning began bright and early with a John Green Yoga Adventure hosted by YogaQuest MN.  This was basically like MadLibs with yoga poses: one of the instructors read a narrative in which the protagonists of Green’s novels found themselves outside their stories and tried to find where they belonged, while the other instructor led us through poses associated with each character name, certain nouns, and some verbs.  Whenever Hazel from The Fault in Our Stars was mentioned, for instance, we did Warrior II, because she is a strong female lead.

After yoga I ran back to the hotel for breakfast in the Executive Lounge (leftover perks from having to stay on the pullout couch in the Executive Suite!) before heading off to “Centering Women in Fiction: Removing Your Unconscious Bias.”  A panel of amazing women creators talked about internalized and learned biases that even we women have against ourselves, and how we can combat those by supporting (and even demanding) those stories when they do appear.  The girl power in the room was fantastic.  I also ran into Shayna from the feminist publishing panel the day before, so we sat together and chatted a bit.

When that panel let out, I went back to the expo hall because I wanted to try out the Depict-O-Mat.  Essentially, it’s some people in a box who interview you for a few minutes and then produce an impromptu puppet show starring you.  In mine, I was Queen of the Dragons.  Plus I got to keep the puppet!

After some lunch, it was time for our kaffeeklatsch with Saladin Ahmed.  Twelve attendees got to sit down with a featured guest at kaffeeklatsches (so called because there were coffee and tea available) for an hour and chat about creativity, process, and whatever else we wanted.  Though I didn’t actually talk, it was just nice to hang out and hear others’ thoughts on representation, writing, publishing, and reading recommendations.

From there, I dashed straight to the auditorium to get a good seat for the afternoon variety show.  This is also where I found Shayna again and she joked that I must be stalking her.

2016-10-15-16-55-45The variety show included a Q&A lightning round with a squid, a conversation between Nalo Hopkinson and Daniel Jose Older, a lip sync battle, and a talk by John Green.  All I’ll say about that talk is that 1. he made me cry again and 2. you should go read it.

After the variety show I went down to something called Story Circle, where we all literally sat in a circle and talked about nerdom.  I got to say some things about Arabian Nights and how cool it was to be at NerdCon: Stories in the first place, so that was definitely fun.

My last panel at NerdCon was “Breaking into Publishing,” which is pretty self explanatory.  I got some good notes, some good quotes (my favorite was “How did I break into publishing?  With a black ski mask at night.”), and some good motivation to actually finish my manuscript so I can start querying! (I also saw Shayna.  Again.  Really can’t blame her for thinking I was stalking her.)

And thus, knowing I had a shuttle coming at 5 am the next day, my NerdCon: Stories experience was over.

NerdCon Stories Part 2: Friday

After hanging up with Dad, I walked a few blocks to the light rail and rode it back to the airport to pick up my phone.  Fortunately I had a few hours before the first panel I really wanted to attend, so I wasn’t missing any of the convention as a result of my predicament.

Riding the light rail without my phone was surprisingly serene.  Public transportation in new cities always reminds me of taking the T on my visits to Boston and riding the Tube around London, and without any games to play or people to text, I was left to look out the window at the city around me.

Of course, once I got my phone back, I immediately began documenting the experience via Snapchat, Twitter, and texting.

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The wall of a parking lot right outside my hotel.  I wonder what melody it is.

Back at the hotel, I took one of Minneapolis’s many downtown skyways to the convention center, a convenience that made running back to my hotel room between panels much easier.  Unfortunately, I was too late to attend the Mental Health in YA Literature panel, but I was overjoyed to see that it was filled to capacity because so many people wanted to discuss that topic!  After checking in and getting my preordered t-shirt, I wandered around the expo hall a little and bought some typical convention center fare for lunch.  The tables were huge, so huge that you were almost forced to sit with strangers because it was too ridiculous to have a table for 10 all to yourself.  Thanks to this, I soon discovered one of the perks of NerdCon – social interactions aren’t as awkward because everyone is around the same level of nerdiness.  For instance, a random guy asked to sit at my table, struck up a conversation, and ended up showing me his short story.

2016-10-14-11-18-24After lunch I wound up in a panel on self-promotion, which was entertaining if not particularly enlightening.  All of the panelists claimed not to be good at self-promotion, which seemed like poor planning, but since I wasn’t terribly invested in the topic I just enjoyed the banter between the featured guests.

Then came A Brief Exploration of Feminist Publishing, in which I met several wonderful ladies who are also striving to both find women in writing and create their own content.  We talked about the point at which we first realized the divide between male and female authors, who our favorite women writers are, and the history of feminist publishing.  I loved my little group and our whole discussion was fantastic.

The Writers Panel with Ben Blacker was up next.  I made more new friends as we filled up a ballroom and waited for the interview to begin.  The interviewee?  John Green.2016-10-14-16-24-04

I will admit to quietly flailing in my seat and taking far too many pictures as John came out and introduced himself.  But as their conversation began, I found myself simply needing to listen.  I was so grateful that John was so generous in sharing his writing experiences of the past and present, and that he was willing to delve into mental health and personal balance as well.  One part in particular hit me in a visceral way, because he used a similar word choice to what I tell myself when I talk about my depression.  The interview closed with questions from the audience, which John answered thoughtfully.  (I will update this post with a link to the podcast when it is released.)

My first day at NerdCon: Stories closed with an invitation to dinner with one of my favorite bloggers from SnarkSquad!  Mari and I had connected over Twitter when I realized we would both be at the convention, and she was nice enough to include me in a dinner with a few other internet friends.  After dinner, I went back to my room, watched the end of the second Harry Potter movie on TV, and went to bed (a real bed, having switched rooms earlier in the day!).


Read about my travels to NerdCon: Stories here!  And read about my adventures on the second day of the convention here!

Review: What We See When We Read

This book is blowing my mind.

If you’ve ever had a lucid dream, or a dream where you suddenly became lucid and realized it was a dream, Peter Mendelsund’s What We See When We Read is a little like that.  Many of us readers claim to have mental movies of our favorite stories that played in our heads when we followed the written adventures.  We know these beloved characters like our own friends, like our own family.  Of course we can picture them!

But Mendelsund asks what their noses look like, and suddenly you concentrate too hard and the character suddenly becomes bits and pieces of specific description connected only by the hazy assumptions you make.

The book is as much a visual experience as it is a text, which is appropriate, considering Mendelsund sets out to challenge our concept of “seeing” when we read.  His text is creatively arranged on the pages, switching from black-on-white to white-on-black.  Some pages are blank.  Some have only one word.  Some squish the words together to literally illustrate his point about accumulating evidence about a mental picture as we progress through a book.  Illustrators’ interpretations of famous characters peer out from the book, sometimes half-hidden by more of Mendelsund’s words, or even by the descriptions from their own novels.

Reading anything else after spending a little time on one of Mendelsund’s chapters is like lucid dreaming.  You become very aware of the process your brain is going through to construct a mental image of the things represented only by printed characters on a page (or screen).  “Of course she has blonde hair, he said so, but what are her eyes like?” you think to yourself.  Mendelsund doesn’t just deal with physical characteristics either; he points out how the way we “see” characters changes depending on their actions as well.  Personally, I realized I had some placeholder characters in my head, a set of generic faces and figures that stand in and receive customization the more I get to know a character.

Even settings, which seem so obvious – it’s the background of all the action, of course I know what it looks like! – are revealed to be blurry at best, with a few stark details jumping out because they are motifs, or murder weapons, or somehow important to the plot.  My visions of Versailles (I’m currently reading America’s First Daughter and they’re in Paris right now) suddenly look like Impressionist paintings with a few photographs cut and pasted on by a two-year-old.

But it’s still magical that my brain can even construct that much out of symbols printed on paper.

Like any book that asks you to think about thinking, this is not something to tackle right before bed, or before you have to really use your brain for anything else.  But as a reader, and as someone who love to spread that love of reading around, I think it’s a process worth examining – and subsequently marveling at.  Because after all, Mendelsund only points out yet another reason that reading is amazing.

Review: The French Executioner

*Note: This is a review of a book I have already finished and therefore contains spoilers.  Proceed with appropriate caution.

Very few people cheer at the mention of Anne Boleyn.  At least, few people in the crowd at the conference dinner I was attending, where the panel of writers had just been asked, “Who is your favorite character in history, fictional or real?”  One author replied, “Anne Boleyn,” to which I responded with a quiet-ish “Whoo!”  I earned some weird looks, but apparently I also caught the attention of the author, C.C. Humphreys.  After dinner when I went to purchase a copy of his book and get it signed, he said, “Weren’t you the one who cheered when I mentioned Anne Boleyn?”

I grinned.  “She’s just so fascinating!  If I could have dinner with anyone living or dead, it would be her.”

So we chatted about the enigmatic queen for a few minutes, he signed my book “In honor of Anne,” and I went home.

And devoured the book in two days.

The book follows Jean, the titular French executioner, as he struggles to carry out his promise to Anne to bury her six-fingered hand at a certain crossroads in France.  The queen asks him to do this to prevent her powers from being used by her enemies, and enemies there certainly seem to be: an archbishop and his cronies chase Jean and his group of misfits (including a Viking!) all over Europe in their efforts to capture the hand and harness its power.

Now, as I told Mr. Humphreys, I am captivated by Anne Boleyn.  I have read everything from Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl to Antonia Fraser’s The Wives of Henry VIII, and she remains one of my favorite historical figures to examine and wonder about.  The impressive thing about The French Executioner was that, even though it takes place after Anne’s beheading, I found an entirely unique characterization of her.  Humphreys presents an Anne who even her executioner willingly recognizes and idolizes as his queen, but she’s not the manipulative, political strategist seen in other interpretations.  Nor is she an innocent, necessarily, a mere pawn in her father’s schemes.  Humphreys’ Anne, with her concern for keeping her power from being used for evil, is somewhere in between, and even though you know she has to die, and even though there are hints of something dark in her, you regret it.  You wish it didn’t have to be this way.

This connection to the characters is not limited to Anne.  Jean is conflicted about becoming a sort of accidental leader when he’s always followed orders himself.  His friends, mostly mercenary soldiers, must consistently decide whether or not Jean’s mission still aligns with their own interests.

On occasion, this devotion to characters leads the plot to some questionable places.  Conflicts from the core group’s past surface only long enough to send them on the next leg of their journey, then conveniently sink back into oblivion. I wished Humphreys would spend some of his excellently written descriptions on further developing the characters I was already rooting for, rather than presenting us with yet another obstacle standing between them and Anne’s hand.  The supernatural elements I believed – Humphreys has an incredible knack for the eerie and otherworldly – but some of the sidebar missions just felt like a stretch no matter how much I enjoyed reading them.  The characters drive the book, so that even when they somehow end up rowing on a ship for a while (honestly it seemed like Humphreys just had fun writing a sea battle) you still want things to turn out well for them.

In fact, the characters (and a new interpretation of Anne Boleyn!) made me so happy that despite the plot’s shortcomings, I gave it 4 stars on Goodreads.


Who’s your favorite historical figure to read about?  Have you read a great book about them that renewed your interest?  Do you think characters should drive the plot, or vice versa?  Let me know in the comments!

Convention

a meeting or formal assembly, as of representatives or delegates, for discussion of and action on particular matters of common concern

a rule, method, or practice established by usage

“So L. told me you do creative writing?” my coworker said/asked.  I looked up from my lunch in the workplace kitchen, slightly startled.  This coworker had always scared me a little.  But I’m always happy to nerd out a little about creative writing.

“Yeah, I want to be an author of long-form fantasy novels.  And maybe some historical fiction.”

She nodded, “That’s awesome,” and suddenly I found myself answering a lot of questions.  What was my writing schedule?  What podcasts did I listen to?  Who were my workshoppers?  What was my plan for getting an agent?  What was my timeline for finishing my novel?  What conferences had I been to?

“Actually, I’m going to a conference next weekend,” I said, and described it.  She waved a hand dismissively.

“Too many academics there.  You want to network at WorldCon or something like that instead,” she said.  “That’s where L. and I met Professor T. and A. B. – you know who that is, right?”  I could only shake my head as she barreled onward, completely overwhelming me with instructions as to how to make writing my career.  By the time she was done, I felt utterly hopeless.  How on earth was I going to educate myself on all these aspects of the publishing world?  And how had I ever thought I could be a writer when I was so ignorant?  I needed to catch up!

Then last weekend I went to that conference I told my coworker about.  My coworker probably wouldn’t have thought much of it.  I didn’t get any business cards, and I didn’t pitch a book idea to any agents or editors.  I had lunch and sat through panels with friends I had made the year before.  I chose seminars based on where I am in the writing process (very, very early stages).  I asked questions about things that interested me.  I nerded out about Anne Boleyn with a historical fiction writer.  Perhaps it didn’t do anything to greatly benefit my fledgling career, but the conference definitely benefited me.

Since announcing my intention to stay in our Small College Town and work on my writing while the Engineer finishes his degree, I’ve received a lot of advice about how to network (a terrifyingly vague term that still makes me cringe) and “start a career” despite my remote location.  But that’s never been what writing is about for me.  Yes, I’d love to write a bestselling novel, because it would mean other people wanted to read the same kinds of stories I’m interested in writing.  Taking time to write every day is more about seeing what I can do than about building any type of career.  I want a network of fellow writers and readers more than I want to memorize a roster of Who’s Who in Writing.

I do understand and appreciate the intentions of the people who ask me about my networking plans.  In many industries, connections are vital, and the earlier you make them, the better.  I realize it must seem like I’m approaching things a bit sideways.  This isn’t how convention says progress is made.  But I’m starting to value progress in my own head over progress on a society-based timeline.  At that conference, for example, one panelist said that his own shift in perspective came when he started calling himself a writer, even though he still had another full time job.  “Writer” was who he was, not just what he did.  That makes sense to me.  That is a step that feels concrete and real to me, even if my coworker might give me a pitying smile and say that until I can put it on my resume, I’m not really a writer.

I know that I am.  And that knowledge will give me the energy to keep working so the world can know it too.

So today I bought my ticket for NerdCon: Stories in October.  I’m going to meet up with the Commodore and talk about stories – written, filmed, recorded, sung, pantomimed, or any other kind of story – for a weekend.  And I’m extremely excited.  Maybe I’ll meet a future employer.  Maybe I’ll just have a really good time.  But I’m okay with either outcome as long as I can come home and write about it.

Review: The Transcriptionist

*Note: This is a review of a book I have already finished and therefore contains spoilers.  Proceed with appropriate caution.

Mom sometimes says that when I type, it sounds fake, like someone is just smashing the keys randomly to sound as though they’re doing work.  My speed is mostly due to practice – we took “Computer” every year in elementary school and it was always the same.  When I’d finished all the lessons (my least favorite was alternating between L and the semicolon key over and over), I’d try out the Freetyping section until I found a sentence that seemed to flow for me, then repeat it relentlessly until I could do it fast without mistakes.  I first broke 100 words per minute with 100% accuracy on the bizarre query, “Did you know there is a curious creature called the Platypus?”  (Even as a 6th grader, I doubted the capitalization of the creature’s name was correct.)  After that, I quickly realized that in order to keep up with my own thoughts, typing out my stories was much more effective than trying to scribble them down on paper (though I still take notes and journal by hand).

It is this love of typing that led me to pick up Amy Rowland’s debut novel, The Transcriptionistsince the title implied a theme of words and the channels we use to convey those words.  And I was right, in a way.  The eponymous transcriptionist, Lena, works at a New York newspaper, transcribing articles and interviews on tape and sending the words on their way.  She frequently describes it as being a mere conduit and letting other people’s words run through her.  Even in her conversations outside of work (which, initially, are few and far between), Lena quotes from literature she’s read rather than create her own sentences.  She worries that she is dissolving, drowning in Other People’s Words.

The book is a chronicle of Lena’s reaction to one “story so shocking” that it drives her to begin pricking, then ripping, holes in the bubble of words that suffocates her.  There are other characters who can be divided into two camps: those who do not understand what is so wrong with a comfortable, even easy, job, and those who acknowledge her fear and support her in getting unstuck.

There are animals in Lena’s world, too – a pigeon that never leaves the balconette outside her Recording Room window, and a lion that becomes depressed after eating the woman whose death becomes the shocking story that jolts Lena out of her torpor.  She also frequently dreams of a mountain lion from her youth that terrorized her farming community.  Lena’s relationships with these animals reveal as much about her as her relationships with other humans, yet not in a sappy or heavyhanded way.  The pigeon’s true significance is withheld until the very end, and the two big cats’ effects on Lena are far from straightforward.

I was riveted by the idea of someone’s agency suffocating beneath too many words, seeing as my own relationship with language has been one that allowed me to discover aspects of myself rather than bury them.  The only weakness in Rowland’s prose was her tendency toward verbose dialogue that didn’t seem real – but then again, given Lena’s propensity for letting Other People’s Words slip into her conversation, perhaps it was appropriate to the character, if a bit distracting for the reader.

Lena’s long-ignored fears bubble to the surface and carry the plot swiftly along in a brilliant example of how the struggle to change one simple life can be just as compelling as a sweeping drama.

4/5 stars on Goodreads


Have you read The Transcriptionist?  What did you think of it?  What is your relationship with words like?

Review: Daring Greatly

The Southern Belle introduced me to Brene Brown’s work our sophomore year.  She showed me Brown’s TED Talk on the power of vulnerability after a long talk about how we both deal with our emotions (spoiler alert: on my end, usually not well).  Ever since then, I’ve been on the lookout for more of Brown’s work.  When the Commodore and I finally made it to a local bookstore she’d been telling me about for ages (where I promptly set up a frequent buyer account and spent far too much money), I scooped up my own copy of Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.

Like Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (a book that changed my life), Daring Greatly brings devalued parts of our thinking to light.  Brown takes readers through the various strategies we use to avoid vulnerability, many of which were familiar to me (especially numbing).  And then she explains how dodging vulnerable moments adversely affects us.  It turns out, frustratingly, that while we avoid vulnerability out of fear of disconnection, vulnerability is necessary to truly connect with those around us.  We’re stuck, then, between the exposure of being vulnerable and the isolation of the very disconnection we were trying to escape.

Even as Brown outlines this uncomfortable truth, she admits that she’s frustrated with it too.  Which is comforting.

The title comes from a Theodore Roosevelt quote about being all in, about the arena of life and who really wins and why, about the people who “strive valiantly.”  Roosevelt says that “there is no effort without error and shortcoming,” which is something we don’t like to think about.  We’re supposed to make everything look effortless – our makeup, our fitness level, our accomplishments at work, our homes.  But when we’re vulnerable, we can admit that we’re actually “daring greatly” and that life is scary, but it’s worth it.

Brown describes years of conducting research and interviewing people who live “Wholeheartedly,” as she puts it, identifying trends in their behavior and attitudes that allow them to recognize the importance of being vulnerable.  She even gives examples from her own life, times when she shied away from vulnerability and times when she embraced the discomfort in order to live more Wholeheartedly.

My academic brain, trained as it is in editing and workshopping, wished for a bit more flow to the general style (the writing was sometimes choppy and the organization unclear), but other than that it was a thoroughly enjoyable read.  There were several parts that made me set the book down and stare at the wall as I absorbed the truth of what I had just read, parts that made me think, “me too.”  Teetering as I am on the edge of a new phase of life, I think this will be a book worth revisiting.

4/5 stars on Goodreads


Have you read Daring Greatly?  What did you think?  Do you think Brown’s work will change anything about the way you live your life or try to interact with others?  Share your thoughts below!

The Importance of Fluff

I had been reading nonstop, thanks to my all-English class schedule.  In my freshman frenzy of enthusiasm for focusing on my favorite subject, I had neglected to allow my brain some breathing room that first semester of college, electing instead to fill it with literature, articles, and essays.  All of these made for good reading that I waded into with a will.  But in my down time, I found myself unable to focus on the old standby novels I usually reread to relax.

One evening, the Southern Belle brought over a striped beach tote filled to the brim with paperbacks.  All their covers had images of flipflops and nail polish or a title in a swirly pink font.  I grinned.  It was a tote bag of fluff.

Fluff books are guilty pleasure books, the type of thing we hope our intellectual friends don’t catch us reading, the ones we might even pretend we read in high school rather than just last week.  Their plots are predictable, their characters often underdeveloped, and their overall style unpolished.  But fluff can overlap wonderfully with more stimulating reading matter.

I tore through that tote bag in four days.  It gave my brain a break from thinking critically about every written word I saw – reading was relaxing again.

Even now, post-graduation, I like to devour a fluff book like Royal Wedding every once in a while.  As much as I love thought-provoking literature, I never want to drown myself in it to the point that reading becomes a chore.