Green Privilege

Oh wow, it’s been awhile since I posted. My other writing projects are going so well, I just haven’t felt like blogging much. But I want to take a moment to say a few words about cannabis. And Netflix.

I rely on cannabis. It is by far the best medicine I’ve found for managing my anxiety disorder. I’ve used it nearly every day since 2008. I’ve smoked it in joints, in bongs, in pipes, in bubblers. I’ve vaped it, eaten it — I’ve even dabbed a few times. Compared to insulin or my allergy medications — the other medicines I rely on — it is fun. So much colorful paraphernalia, so many silly names for strains. My goodness, it comes as candy!

But there’s a dark side too. A history of oppression, motivated by racism and greed. Lack of protection for patients in their apartment rentals or their jobs when using legally within their state. A phenomenon I call canna-bigotry, when ordinary people or, worse, doctors, can’t see past the plant. When researchers or science journalists do a shoddy job in their work to confirm their own bias. Is cannabis damaging me in some way, even as it helps me hold down a job and pay bills and taxes? I don’t think so, but I don’t actually know. No one does.

But as my home state of California hurtles onward toward full recreational legalization, I find a disquiet brewing in me. Radio DJs talking openly about using — alright, that I dig. Billboards for dispensaries popping up everywhere — eh, good for them. Finally coming out of the shadows. Safe. Legal. I’m not wholly comfortable with them just out in public like that, any more than I am with billboards selling alcohol. Kids can read billboards too, after all, and unless they have epilepsy or cancer they have no business using the stuff until they are eighteen.

Stories of people who have been involved in the black market for cannabis — mostly people of color — being kept out of the new white market. That’s more troubling. Come on, cannabis has a culture and it is diverse.

But the most disquieting thing so far is Netflix. Today is the last day you can buy Netflix-branded strains at Alternative Herbal Health Services in West Hollywood. And I don’t mean someone else decided to start naming their strains Poussey Riot (inspired by Orange is the New Black) or Prickly Muffin (inspired by Bojack Horseman). NETFLIX THEMSELVES are in on this one. For three days only, they are advertising their new show Disjointed by selling nine strains of cannabis at this “pop-up event”.

I feel like I should be excited. What other new, cool things are unbridled, white market capitalism going to bring to cannabis? But…this is my medicine — I use it because my brain chemistry is not normal. And this is a thing that has gotten countless people, disproportionately of color, thrown in prison. It still gets people denied housing, jobs, and respect. Just five years ago, Daniel Chong, a college student, was kept in a holding cell for five days with no food or water because he had been at a pot-infused party in my own home city of San Diego. He broke his glasses, carved, “I’m sorry mom,” onto his own arm, and then ate the glass in an attempt to end his suffering. And now Netflix wants to cash in with their trendy strains for three days?

This is what privilege looks like. Ableist privilege. White privilege. Poussey would riot, alright.

Just…let’s get the nuts and bolts ironed out before we run too far with this new fun thing called Legal Cannabis. Let’s make sure patients don’t get turned down for a job or kicked out of their apartment because of a drug test. Let’s make sure patients can use in multiple states, not just their own, so they can travel this great nation like everyone else with their medicine in their luggage. Let’s make sure formerly convicted non-violent users and sellers are able to get in on this business. Let’s make sure formerly convicted non-violent users and sellers are all released from prison, and their right to vote is returned. Let’s make sure prices don’t go up and up and up, driving the poor and sick back to the black market because state and municipal governments want those sweet, sweet cannabis business taxes. Let’s make sure good research is being done into how cannabis helps people, and how it hurts people. My God, let’s make sure hemp is being grown for use as paper, fiber, and food again!

Then maybe we can all Netflix and chill.

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On Writing Mental Illness in Speculative Fiction

I’m not sure if write what you know is the most common piece of writing advice out there, but it’s got to be in the top three. And taking that advice, one of the themes I usually include in my work is mental illness and wellness. I struggle with it. I have an anxiety disorder, and I am no stranger to depression either. And a lot of people in my life deal with depression, anxiety, bipolar, and a smattering of other more arcane diagnoses.

So you’d think mental illness and wellness would be a natural pairing with my interest in creative writing. Especially since writing is one of my favorite coping mechanisms. And yet, I have found it to be an incredibly difficult theme to handle. It takes a deft touch to handle a suicidal or deeply anxious major character without the reader losing interest, or disliking that character.

I think that’s the nature of mental illness. It’s a stopping force, and a story (and the characters in it) need to go go go. Especially in speculative fiction. Maybe Holden Caulfield can mope around in his depression for a hundred pages, but Harry Potter sure can’t. Which is probably why Potter doesn’t seem to have PTSD despite nine years of abuse and neglect at the hands of the Dursleys.

That said, mental illness is something I’m going to keep including in my stories. I want to write about it, and I need to write about it. The trick I’m working on now is keeping a plot moving even when my depressed or anxious characters would rather just hide in their rooms all day. Through trial and error, it seems like the key is to not let a character’s state be static. If a character is struggling with mental illness, they need to be either getting better, or getting worse.

Which isn’t how mental illness works in real life. It’s a never-ending slog of medication, therapy, and maintaining healthy habits (like exercise, writing, and knitting) while avoiding unhealthy behaviors (like overwhelming myself with my own expectations). “Better” or “worse” is something that can happen quickly, but more it can take months. Or years. So it becomes a balance of mentioning the slog, but keeping it “off page”, and then forcing the depressed or anxious character into action through events out of their control.

The young necromancer spent years repressing his unsettling, unwanted powers. But outlaws just kidnapped his little sister. So who cares about upsetting people any more? It’s zombie time! He’ll just have to deal with his issues later, once things settle down and several months fly by in a brief passage.


It’s not easy to get that to work over the course of a novel. But I like how it’s turned out in a couple of short stories I’ve written (links below). Check them out if you’re interested in finished examples of my writing theories in action, or if you just enjoy short speculative fiction and have a few minutes.

“Saint Peter” — an artificial intelligence reaches out to a suicidal young man in an attempt to save his life. I posted this one not too long ago, but here it is again anyway.

“She Swallowed a God” — a family’s dysfunction and mental illness reframed as a fairy tale. This one is a flash fiction contest entry that didn’t win, but I really like how it turned out anyway. So there.

Art & Lit Dump #2

Today brought the news that Mr. Trump’s new budget will slash funding for the arts if passed. So to stick it to The Orange Man and go high, here are some drawings I did and some short works of fiction I wrote last year. Enjoy!

ART:

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“Column” and “Unguent” are in ink pen. Both were inspired from nouns I got from Give Me A Noun (Art Dump) — Unguent happened to be the name of a D&D character my husband plays, unbeknownst to the person who gave me that noun. So that was convenient. “Heidi”, “Benson”, and “Killer” are in India ink and watercolor. They were gifts for my sister and her wife. They are portraits of their pets. “Honey Glowfang” is ink and art marker. It is an in joke from the same D&D campaign as Unguent, and was made as a label for a gift of homebrew honey cider. My husband brewed the cider, and did the calligraphy.

 

WRITING:

SAINT PETERThis short science fiction story popped into my head wholly formed, and I wrote it all down in one go.

THE BARROW WITCHLosing entry for Fiction War Fall 2016. Eh, I still like it. The requirement was a story of no more than a thousand words inspired by these words: “I can’t leave her now. She’s already gone.”

SYMPATHETIC GESTAPOThis writing exercise was given to attendees of the 2016 Pima Writer’s Workshop by Michael Carr, an agent from Veritas Literary Agency. Writing exercises aren’t something I would normally share, but the subject matter seems appropriate.

Darkness and Light

It’s a dark time of year. The nights are longer, the days are darkened by storms, and Seasonal Affective Disorder is raging. Not only that, but it’s been a dark year. We’ve lost what seems like an unusual number of beloved celebrities (David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Prince, Gene Wilder, etc.), and if you’re paying attention to politics and world events you are probably feeling frustration, anger, perhaps even despair.

You’ll notice I’m using “dark” in both a literal and a figurative sense. Actual, physical darkness, the absence of light and sunshine. And emotional darkness — uncomfortable feelings of loss, sadness, and rage.

To stick to the literal for a moment, it has also been a dark year in that darker skinned people have often dominated the news. Black Lives Matter rose to prominence. Native Americans managed to at least postpone ecological and spiritual disaster on their lands in the forms of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Latinos and Muslims were undeservedly blamed for our country’s woes by the GOP and their leading candidate, our President Elect.

And it’s been a light year if you look at Donald Trump. His glass towers filled with gaudy gold rooms. His candy floss hair and orange skin. He’s a badly-aged sun god, and that’s not what Evil is supposed to look like. Evil is a Dark Lord, in a Dark Tower, with dark skinned, dark haired, black-clad minions.

That’s what fantasy tells us, starting with Tolkein. Dark is bad. Light is good. The Dark Lord Voldemort. R’hllor, Lord of Light. We know we’re not supposed to turn around and apply that to real people, people who come in all shades from albino to ebony. But can you really avoid it, when it’s that ingrained?

That’s what my rabbi asked at services this past Friday Night. She asked a room of largely light-skinned, dark-haired people to consider breaking with that metaphorical use. It’s not even part of our culture. In Judaism, everything starts in the dark. Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, starts at sundown, as does every Jewish holiday. Before God said, “Let there be light,” there was only darkness. Before a plant can grow, its seed must be planted in dark soil.

Dark is comfort, closeness, time to gather round and rest and enjoy. We build ritual huts called sukkot for the festival of Sukkot, temporary structures that field workers once used to rest in the shade during harvest time. The creamy white pages of Torah are given meaning by black Hebrew letters. The days turn, the seasons turn, and without that turning we’d be stuck in either lightness or darkness for too long, to our detriment.

My rabbi asked her congregation to decouple our thoughts about light and dark from the metaphorical baggage they have accrued in the English language. So, at this physically dark time of year, I would like to echo her plea. If you’re a writer (and with social media, we are all writers), don’t fall into the hackneyed temptation to create yourself a Dark Lord or a Lord of Light. Don’t lean on that tired old metaphor to color your prose, your poems, or your posts. Because with that aging sun god entering our White House, we are going to need a much more nuanced understanding of good and evil to get through the year ahead.

Happy Chanukah, Merry Christmas, and peace and love to all.

Master of None Reviewed

This critique is dedicated to my good friend Zack, who asked for it. And as always, spoilers ahead.

You’d think love was all about the chase. That’s what I get from books, television, and movies anyway. Someone’s relationship is always just starting, or ending, or nearly ending before being renewed. And I understand why. Storytelling is the delicate art of maintaining tension. Where is there more tension than in the transitions of love?

But being in a long term relationship, I do sometimes want to see that represented. And without the relationship being undone in the eleventh hour.

Which is why Aziz Ansari’s Master of None disappoints me. The show took an episode or two to settle into itself, and I sometimes got the impression that Ansari, as “Dev”, was talking to himself instead of having a dialogue with the other characters. But these are minor flaws that do not detract from the show at its best.

And at its best, it’s quite good. Ansari plays to his strengths — physical comedy, and his nuanced second generation American viewpoint. Dev seeks work as a comedian, and ends up taking a part in a bad horror movie, providing Ansari the chance to die hilariously. Dev asks his immigrant parents (played by Ansari’s actual parents) about their childhoods, and their stories are at once harrowing, poignant, and still funny.

Even the romance arc of Master of None is strong. The love interest, Rachel (played by Noël Wells), has good chemistry with Ansari, and is very funny in her own right. Their relationship becomes a vector for more comedy, with Dev and Rachel embarking on small adventures. An uncomfortable taxi ride to buy Plan B. An early date in Nashville, because there was a deal on tickets there. Conversations about feminism, and relationships.

It’s a lot like Louie, or Maron, with insightful or even critical moments interspersed between the laughs. And sometimes it’s all mixed up.

One episode focuses on the grandfather of Dev’s friend, Arnold (Ed Wareheim). Dev and Arnold decide to visit Arnold’s grandpa, as it would be a nice, responsible thing to do. Dev and Arnold are first bored by the old man, but once he starts telling war stories they are enthralled. Then they meet grandpa’s companion — a robotic plush seal named Paro, who manages to be both adorable and deeply unsettling.

As Paro is a warm, fuzzy absurdity, most of Master of None has a warm, fuzzy quality that is less common in Louie, and absent from Maron. Of the three main characters, Dev is the youngest, the freshest, and the least jaded. Dev’s flaw is naïveté rather than wizened bitterness and depression. In many ways, it is a welcome change.

Which brings us back to where Master of None lets us down. Despite Dev and Rachel’s penchant for adventure, they pass up on the great adventure — growing together over time. Their relationship gets a little stale, but rather than work through that they suddenly break up.

It’s a sad ending, in no way funny, and that casts a negative light on all the preceding episodes. I can’t rewatch the show to enjoy the good times between Rachel and Dev, because I know it’s all just going to fall apart over nothing but uncharacteristic insecurity at the end.

I like Ansari’s comedy, and I wish him well with season two of Master of None in 2017. But I urge him to remember his strengths, and play to them. And while poignancy and deft handling of nuanced material is within Ansari’s comedic capabilities, a serious breakup from a serious relationship without any comedic twist really isn’t.

Find Other Writers

Hello again! I’m back to blogging. Did you miss me? (All five of you?) I didn’t mean to go on hiatus, but I’ve been through a weird, unsteady, totally blocked time in my writing journey. I sent my novel out, got rejected, and got hit with some other, more personal issues at the same time. It took me awhile to figure out how to move forward again.

I’d say more about it, but there is already a glut of information out there. So many blogs and Twitter feeds and Pintrest boards dedicated to writing advice. So much overwhelming and sometimes contradictory information. So I’ll keep it simple.

Ordinarily, writing is a solo activity. But if you’re stuck, and get rejected over and over, you’ve got to get beyond your circle of friends and family. Find a bunch of writers, and ask for help. Go to a writer’s workshop with an option for a manuscript critique. Enter a flash fiction or other writing contest that provides critique in return for your entry fee. There are local writer’s guilds, and bookshops and libraries sometimes have readings or other events that bring writers together. You can take a continuing education class, or join a writer’s group.

There is so much help and connection out there, and the best thing about it is meeting other writers. When I went to my first writer’s workshop earlier this year, it was wonderful to walk into a room full of people like myself, with my quirks, my obsession with story form and well-turned phrases. And everyone was so positive, so kind. I’m a life-long introvert, but I felt comfortable enough around my fellow writers that I found myself acting like an extrovert.

I can’t promise that reaching out to your fellow writers is a sure path to success. But it sure is nice to not be alone any more.

Don’t Publish Your First Draft! Go Set a Watchman Reviewed

I wasn’t going to read Go Set a Watchman. My interest was piqued enough by the sketchy circumstances surrounding its publication that I read “Atticus Was Always a Racist: Why Go Set a Watchman Is No Surprise” by Catherine Nichols over at Jezebel, which I thought told me everything I needed to know.

Then Harper Lee died, another round of articles came out, and for some reason I thought, “Okay, fine, I’ll read Watchman now.” I do like to be Well Read after all, and I was in need of another book at the time. I guess news as advertising works.

So I read it. And my first impulse was right. It was not worth my time. It is not worth anyone’s time.

It’s a goddamn first draft.

This isn’t news. It’s there in the Wikipedia. Harper Lee wrote Watchman in the 1950s. She used this manuscript to attract a publisher, Tay Hohoff. Hohoff really liked Lee’s work — she described Watchman by saying, “[T]he spark of the true writer flashed in every line.” But she also noted that it was, “more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel.”

So Hohoff helped Lee through several drafts, until Watchman became To Kill a Mockingbird. Along the way, the focus of the story changed. Watchman is about Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, a young woman, coming to grips with the fact that her paragon father Atticus is merely human after all in rather dramatic fashion, against the backdrop of late 1940s southern race relations (which were shockingly bad). Mockingbird, by contrast, features Scout as a child who observes Atticus’s struggles as a white lawyer defending a black man in court in the early twentieth century south (when race relations were even worse).

It is true that at one point there were two sequels planned for Mockingbird, and if Watchman had been edited it might have served as book three of that planned series. But it has not been edited. As a result, there are some big issues. Tom Robinson, the black defendant, is found guilty in Mockingbird, but acquitted in Watchman. There are passages copied from one book to the other. Some characters are more thinly conceived of in Watchman than in Mockingbird, which is weird for something marketed as a sequel.

But the worst offense in my mind is the ending of Watchman. It is completely outdated in a way that no part of Mockingbird is. Jean Louise is dismayed by the overt racism of Atticus, her pseudo-boyfriend Henry “Hank” Clinton, and diverse other characters. She does not remember these characters being so racist during her childhood, and doesn’t understand what has changed. She fights with Atticus, Hank, and her uncle Jack about it, and eventually comes to an understanding with them. And part of that understanding is a good laugh at the notion that most people would ever marry outside of their race.

Maybe that was one of the more centrist positions on the issue in the 1940s and ‘50s, but as the key plank in Atticus’s bridge across the philosophical gap between himself and his daughter it is groan-worthy. This is a book about race published in 2015. It was predestined that people in mixed-race marriages would read it, and they did, including myself.

I don’t know why Lee didn’t edit Watchman, whip it into shape at least a little for its twenty-first century audience. I imagine she must not have been capable — the soundness of her mind was extensively questioned when news of Watchman’s impending publication first surfaced. I can’t imagine she simply didn’t want to expend the effort.

Whatever the reason, Watchman remains a first draft, an early version of a thing that got better. Yes, the focus and plot are substantially different from what it became. That doesn’t make it a stand-alone object, worthy of being contemplated on its own.

And while it could be argued that seeing a Great Novelist’s creative process laid bare is instructive, I argue otherwise. You learn writing by reading a lot of finished texts (both ones that you love and ones that you hate), and then by writing your own. Lee’s process is only meaningful to me because I already know it, and can relate to it. I have learned nothing by seeing Lee in her proverbial underwear, and I don’t even have the benefit of voyeuristic thrill. I just feel mildly embarrassed for her.

Alright. I guess I could have learned that Atticus Finch was a racist all along. But like Nichols said, if you paid attention, Atticus always was.