Mark Twain said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
I was writing about an upcoming workshop I’m offering in May–GIVE RISE TO WONDER–when I tuned into a webinar in which the author used Twain’s almost right v. right word as a jumping-off point for his presentation. It inspired me to think about how I might approach this topic with writers (and with myself)
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Yet another mass shooting at a school. Yet another slew of hate-filled comments on social media and in the news by Republican politicians and their supporters. Yet another “Our prayers are with all of you,” from a Godless president. My outrage is volcanic.
(What follows is a long post.)
As soon as I wrote my title for this post I immediately thought of After Eight dinner mints that were all the rage at dinner parties in London when I still lived in my home city.
Instant association is for the most part how a writer’s mind works. It’s how a lot of people’s minds work, I know. But for the writer instant word association is part of storytelling, whether they write fiction or non-fiction, because all writing tells a sequential story of images. Association is imagery.
The deepest desire of a reader is to be transported to a place they have not yet experienced. This happens in a number of ways. But I believe (and amazingly Stephen King also believes) that what draws readers to an author is their voice.
Which leads me back to the title of my post.
At 8.00pm EST next Wednesday, 8 February, I begin teaching a five-part live webinar series on the writer’s voice. I’ve called it Voice on the Page. I’ll be teaching through SavvyAuthors, an online venue for writers looking for classes to make their writing publishable.
If you’re a writer and reading this post, and would like to strengthen your voice in your writing, please join me at 8.00pm next Wednesday and for four more Wednesdays until the 8 March. I won’t be able to offer you After Eight mints through your screen but I will be offering insights into why your voice can never be wrong.
And it turns out that there’s a story behind the design of the After Eight image. You can read it here.
Like most controversial stories, this one began with a Once Upon a Time that lasted for approximately five seconds, before all Hell broke loose. As my response to this particular Once upon a time is quite long I will post it without further preamble.
Inside the Underbelly of a Facebook Whale
I posted the original Facebook link that sparked the whole controversy to my wall a few days ago.
Yesterday a post in the Guardian–Meg Rosoff sparks diversity row over books for marginalised children–appeared.
A post the American Indians in Children’s Literature blog regarding author Meg Rosoff’s comments on the Facebook link above was (as I learned) a response of Call-out Culture. *
* Briarpatch Magazine defines Call-out Culture as follows. “Call–out culture refers to the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and language use by others. People can be called out for statements and actions that are sexist, racist, ableist, and the list goes on.”
I confess, as I read the list on Briarpatch, I felt as though I was reading a list from the House Un-American Activities Committee…the particular line of that feeling being brought on by, “and the list goes on.” None of which is to say that bigotry or prejudice in any of its nefarious forms should not be called out. But, in all progress towards a greater humanity, should we not remember our humanity above all else, and not allow it to be overshadowed by political rectitude?
Here is my response to the post on the American Indians in Children’s Literature post linked above, which the moderator and owner of the blog permitted to publish.
Let me begin by saying I am not white. My parents were from Goa, India, my father emigrated to London in 1949, my mother followed in 1950. I was born a year later, lived there until I was thirty. I have since lived in the United States. I was an extreme minority during my growing years in England. Central London had so few Indians, that from the age of three until eleven, I was the only brown-skinned child in first my day nursery and later the two primary schools I attended.
I happened to read the thread that has generated this blog response because Laura Atkins (whom I do not know) appeared on my Facebook home page. She had mentioned Meg Rosoff and because Meg is a Facebook friend (and a personal friend), I suppose Facebook decided I should also get to know “a Laura Atkins” (as Jane Austen might have written it).
Although Laura’s posting of Edith Edi Campbell’s post and the ensuing thread appeared on my home page, and I was able to read all of it, I was not able to comment. Therefore, I hope, since the comments are moderated, you will permit my observations; which will be at variance with many of those who have already commented here, and possibly be in disagreement with that of the blogpost writer.
First, I would like to quote what was actually said because that seems to have been like touchpaper to dynamite. And, second, I would like to share my own very definite experience of growing up a minority in London where racism is always simmering under the polite veneer of British pleases and thank yous. (As an American friend once said, “The British are born saying, ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you.’”)
Here is what Edith Edi Campbell said:
I would say there are so few books for queer black boys, but there are just too few books for all our marginalized young people.
Here is what Meg Rosoff wrote in reply:
There are not too few books for marginalised young people. There are hundreds of them, thousands of them. You don’t have to read about a queer black boy to read a book about a marginalised child. The children’s book world is getting far too literal about what “needs” to be represented. You don’t read Crime and Punishment to find out about Russian criminals. Or Alice in Wonderland to know about rabbits. Good literature expands your mind. It doesn’t have the “job” of being a mirror.
Anyone who knows Meg Rosoff, who has met her, has spent time with her, who has read her books, will understand that she speaks first and foremost for the freedom of a writer to write what speaks most personally to them, and strongly advocates against writers being forced to meet marketplace demands and agendas. With her “The children’s book world is getting far too literal about what “needs” to be represented” she was not saying anything against anyone; she was merely stating the obvious that every writer battles against—the marketplace demands that stifle real creativity.
If her first comment is read without imputing to it any malice towards Edith Edi Campbell, or anything against the author whose book Ms. Campbell seemed happy to be promoting; if one had given Meg Rosoff as much the benefit of the doubt of good intentions as many on the thread seem to have given themselves, and accorded to Ms. Campbell, perhaps a great deal of the emotionality—and, frankly, unnecessary ad hominem attacks and vitriol against Meg Rosoff—might have been avoided. And, instead, a truly thoughtful discussion on diversity in children’s books could have ensued.
Meg Rosoff is in a position, as an esteemed children’s writer—her debut novel, “How I Live Now” having won the Guardian Children’s Fiction and the Michael L. Printz Awards—to speak knowledgeably about children’s publishers, the marketplace, diversity in children’s books, and more. Her own several books are diverse in subject matter and characters and have won numerous awards. But such a fruitful discussion would be predicated on giving her first comment to Ms. Campbell’s post the benefit of the doubt.
As for myself, growing up in London I was both subjected to racism and privileged because of my parents’ ethnicity. Countless times, as I walked down the streets of central London where I lived, people would spit on the pavement just where I was about to step and tell me to go back to where I came from. Racism came my way often in the form of an interrogation at a party, where the polite “interrogation” would proceed thus. “Where are you from?” London. “No, where were you born?” London. “No, I mean, where are your parents from?” India. “Ah, so you’re not from here.”
On the side of privilege, my father, F.N. Souza, pioneered post-independence modern art in India. He is considered one of India’s leading modern painters and he was considered an important British artist during his tenure in England. His work is on display and in permanent collections of major museums around the world. My mother was an haute couturiere who dressed among other women of privilege the editor-in-chief of British Vogue. In this respect I grew up privileged in spite of the colour of my skin and the prevalent racism in England.
I read everything when I was child, every book I could get my hands on, including many books written for boys. I loved every single one. I really cannot think of a single book that didn’t leave me awestruck. And, yet, I never read a single book about an Indian girl growing up in London who faced racism. Granted, it probably didn’t exist, but I didn’t need to read such a book in order to discover who I was, and I don’t think it would have taught me about who *I* was. Because unless the little brown-skinned girl in that book also had my very unusual parents, I am not certain how I could have identified with her.
This is not an argument against writing such a book, but it does exemplify that while a black male child who believes he is queer might be lit up by coming across a book that has a protagonist who “mirrors” his inner life, it is equally possible that such a child will find himself without ever reading such a book. Or will not identify with that protagonist at all. But if that same child reads as many great books as he can—“The Silver Sword,” “Huckleberry Finn,” “The Compleet Molesworth,” “Treasure Island,” any number of contemporary books for boys (or for girls if he prefers, or both)—he will find himself.
Isn’t that the purpose of all the “mirroring” that was so passionately defended on Ms. Campbell’s thread—for a child to “find” him- or herself?
Reading transported me to worlds I would never otherwise have known. They were filled with characters who were silly, or snooty, or bad-tempered, or kind, but ultimately they were brave. And they prevailed against evil. I didn’t care what colour their skin was. What I understood was this: Regardless of my skin colour I too could prevail against evil, just as my favourite characters did, if I discovered how to be brave.
And, finally, it is not as if we still live in an age where little black boys who believe they may be queer have no role models of male black queers in society at large these days.
No writer has a single narrative within them, as their life. We are all deeply influenced by our ethnicity, our culture, our socio-economic status, our religion, or dismissal of it, and so on. As writers we have entire universes at our disposal; and so many more dimensions that make up who we are. This depth and complexity of being an individual, and of being simultaneously part of a familial as well as a social culture is what allows great writers to mine material for their greatest works—the whole of that living diversity within themselves.
If they are then Black and Queer and decide to write a children’s book for queer black boys, they’ll do it because they want to (which was the author’s point of the book in question and not because “diversity is a trend”). This, by the way, was also Meg’s point, but she was shouted down. She listed the subject matters and types of young people she’s interested and passionate in writing about, all of whom are vastly different from her own sexual preference and ethnicity. But that comment was entirely glossed over.
What she tried to say, and eventually gave up, was that the marketplace cannot create an agenda for writers and then expect a great book to be the result.
Isn’t that the subject we should be discussing, and doing something about, instead of wasting our limited and precious time in vilifying a fellow writer?
I met Yvonne Durant at Brasserie Cognac, my favourite neighbourhood restaurant, the night before last Thanksgiving. I had finally made the move, the day before, to an apartment I purchased on the east side last summer.
We had (and have) yet to file the paperwork to the building for the proposed renovations.
By October it became clear the renovations were unlikely to begin before this summer, if then. So I gave the landlords of the west side apartment I’d occupied for ten years my required 60 days’ notice and relocated the other side of Central Park. Knowing I will have to move again once the renovations commence, it was quite a procedure to decide which items to unpack, and which ones to put into storage until the renovations are complete.
Yvonne was seated at an adjacent table. She struck up a conversation and I was charmed by her quiet elegance, easy demeanour and conviviality towards someone she had never seen before.
I have come to the conclusion that I am not a social animal, at all. I can be sociable–especially with friends and family members I love–but I really prefer solitude to crowds. I would never start up a conversation with someone I don’t know, even if the person looked intriguing. Never is an exaggeration of course, but it’s rare for me to initiate a conversation with someone I haven’t met before.
Since that night at Cognac, I’ve had the pleasure of running into Yvonne at another local restaurant about a week before Christmas and then, a couple of weeks ago, she came to my apartment for dinner.
Grammar, syntax and spelling are strange beasts, and often disagreeable bedfellows. They evolve as culture does; and, as we all know from first-hand experience, very few of us like change, least of all the evolving kind.
However, I have a feeling that in ten years—maybe even five—we will start to see “u” as an acceptable alternative to “you” in formal writing, along with other texting abbreviations. Many new words and expressions that technology continues to inspire–and to direct–the current generation to invent have already begun making inroads into every day usage. The Oxford English Dictionary and other notable lexicons have begun to include them as acceptable forms of the written or spoken word.
New spelling, as an outgrowth of texting, is something I’ve been reflecting on for a while. I have a feeling we are on the cusp of a Neo-Chaucerian Age–where language is about to make a paradigm shift, the likes of which we have not seen since the 16th Century. I think about how technology is driving us to change the way we spell–and perhaps even change the meaning of–words Shakespeare invented. Words that since their invention have been the cornerstone of the modern English language.
My friend Seth Michael Donsky’s work in progress is called Irregardless, because one of his characters–not quite Mrs. Malaprop but, like her forerunner, a graduate of the almost-but-not-actually-real school of words–uses “irregardless” practically as her trademark. Each time she’s corrected by another character she retorts, “You know what I mean!” And, in fact, we do. (Yesterday, Seth told me that in some online dictionaries, irregardless is rapidly becoming an acceptable alternative to regardless; so that, very soon he fears, it will no longer be a valid joke in his play.)
I don’t spend a lot of time parsing grammar when I write even though, among a variety of jobs I’ve held, I have been a copy editor and own a much tagged edition of the Chicago Manual of Style. For me the most important thing about the function of grammar is that it frames my internal and external perceptions and precepts in a way that makes them accessible to other people.
This image of the latest–and last–printed edition of the Chicago Manual of Style is here because I adore azure blue. All the editions of the Chicago that I’ve owned and own have covers of fire engine orange–not my favourite colour by a long shot.
If Lesley Gore can cry at her party I can post a pretty cover of a pretty useful book. It’s my website and I’ll post if I want to, post if I want, post if I want to…. (It’s the ultimate postmodern reprise.)
I love Yvonne’s blog post title Yesterday Were National even though it’s apparently incorrect grammar. It has for me a musical ring to it.
I’m terrible at haikus but anyone who loves to write them, feel free to share your best riff on Yesterday Were National Grammar Day.
I realized I was overwhelmed by the number of ideas I have for writing about different things and consequently wasn’t writing at all. So I got out my trusty notebook and began writing the list. Lo and behold an epiphany (I was going to say great revelation but I realized you can’t measure infinity, and likewise can’t measure the light in an epiphany) about my fantasy story. I love it so much I think I’m going to use it! Then I came to a kind of full stop. I didn’t know what happened next–the juice, so to speak, stopped, as if the power had suddenly been turned off. So I went away and ate my baked pear and when I came back I thought, “It’s all right that I don’t know what happens next. This is that moment Meg Rosoff talked about in Salem, where you can put your character into the car and have them drive the road home. But when they get there, whoever’s waiting at the door should surprise you as well as your character. So I am going to leave my moment at the point at which it has arrived for now and see what happens when I come to write it up as an actual scene.
One of the other pieces of writing that’s been on my mind since talking with my friend Seth’s friend, Jeremy, at the surprise birthday party is my roman a clef. And whether I want it still to be a roman a clef or a memoir. I was so surprised at how fascinated Jeremy was to hear about my parents, and that I want to set it in London, during the swinging sixties because that’s my strongest memory of everything to do with my parents, I came away from the conversation with a very different sense of how I might want to write it. What I was most struck by after that conversation was the “voice” in which I recounted various stories about my parents, and his partner’s reactions to some of my mother’s dresses and designs that I have in my Facebook photograph albums. (Jeremy’s partner, Tim, has just finished learning how to make patterns because he wants to be a couture designer.) I realized that in many ways the voice in which I recounted these stories to a relative stranger was the same voice that appeared naturally in the tribute to my parents…a more objective voice when I’m talking about my parents as artists, than when I’m talking about them as my parents.
The third thing I’ve been thinking about are my blog posts. I began writing them again at the beginning of the year because I needed to become agile again after almost a year away from writing, in how I think about and produce it. What I have observed is that I begin with one point and then somehow other things intersect as I’m writing, and I see them merge with the original idea in ways that are interesting to me. They become non-conventional mini-essays on things that intersect in my mind. Meaning, I don’t have a thesis that I then proceed to expand or defend. So I want to keep developing this place of where things intersect, as I was never particularly good at writing conventional essays; and perhaps as I go along with this project I may become better at both. Also Where Things Intersect will become the new subtitle for my personal writing space because I’m going to take my real writer made up worlds and use it for my work site.
The fourth thing is my work website that’s being designed and that I am now very excited about. I am finally certain about how I want it to look and why. I was deeply inspired by Patrick Corbin’s website which I came across when I was searching for information about him to add to a post I began last week, and which I will get back to, hopefully, this week. What I absolutely loved about Patrick’s website was the space and power of the image within this space, which drew me in and voluntarily forced my thoughts to recede into the background, and allow the stark simplicity of his page and portrait to flood my mind. It creates in me a kind of wonder of how something so simple can simultaneously be so powerful.
My web designer Lori Whiston has already built a prototype of the home page, which riffs off of Patrick’s website aesthetic. The first layer looks promising. I’ve been running everything by my coterie of secret writing friends–not that they’re actually secret: they are known to many on Facebook and in real life.
Now that I’ve written it all out in my notebook I feel the way Dumbledore must have felt whenever he poured his thoughts into the pensieve–more room in the brain to think about the present moment and what to wear to BAM tonight (that’s me, not Dumbledore. I’m certain his only dilemma would have been, which pair of socks).
A few weeks ago a friend posted this picture on Facebook and asked whether it bothered anyone else? My friend is humorous, she writes humour, but it’s not always obvious to me when she’s being ironic. I asked, “Does it bother you?” I didn’t get a reply. Then other Facebook friends piled on with comments that, although funny at times, were written to ridicule whoever had come up with such an ignorant sign. Guffaw, guffaw. (In their defense, not that they need any from me, I am certain their conscious intentions were not meant to ridicule the person who had written the sign, but the sign itself. But, I ask: in this instance, can we actually separate the two? If it were any group of FB people other than writers commenting, perhaps I would have had an entirely different emotional response to the whole thing.)
I have to admit it bothered me. I felt like an outsider on this thread, and although I am certain my friend, and even the Facebook friends who posted their comments, plus other friends in real life would say, “You’re making a mountain out of a molehill.”; and Mark Manson would say, “Your giving away one of your fucks when, really, who gives a fuck what all those other people were doing?”; the truth is, I did give a fuck. And I was right to–but it was for the wrong reason.
I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, but today it came to me: There is such a thing as True Fiction–it’s called a Roman à clef.
A roman à clef is “a novel about real life overlaid with a façade of fiction.” [Wikipedia entry on roman à clef.] Now, maybe, the sign in this bookshop or thrift shop or wherever this bookcase of books for sale resides was wrong in its naming of these particular books. But no one, and certainly not I, on that thread of writers mentioned the possibility of true fiction being a legitimate category.
Now, it is very likely that ridiculing the notion anyone could think “true fiction” is a real category pricked my personal sensibility. Because I am attempting to write, among many other writing projects, exactly that: True Fiction, a roman à clef, using my parents’ extraordinary talents and lives, together and apart, as a jumping off point to write about my time as a teenager in London during the “Swinging Sixties.” (Which, along with fashion and music, also generated the term “Swingers”.)
So what did I see again for myself today when I remembered roman à clef ? I saw the importance of trusting one’s instincts and not becoming intimidated by the crowd.
“What?! You?! Intimidated by the crowd”? I can hear the incredulity of people who know me on Facebook, and in real life.
“Yes, I.” I am intimidated by a great many things. Feeling like an outsider, even though I hate to run with the crowd merely for the sake of company, triggers this most strongly. Because I grew up an outsider in my home country–being a brown-skinned girl in a then predominantly white, largely xenophobic, country, whose monarchs had colonized the greater part of the world before the sun finally began to set on the Empire.
When I watch something like this glorious performance by Sarah Connolly it awakens mixed feelings inside my body and heart. On the one hand, I remember standing in the gods at the Royal Albert Hall for the last night of many a Prom, singing, with all my heart, Rule Britannia. On the other, I was always an outsider in England, because of the colour of my skin. Always. I can’t count the number of times people asked, “Where are you from?” And when I said, “London,” the questions would escalate from, “No, where were you born?” [“London.”] to “No, where were your parents born?”
I have this sense that if we were able to see our internal culture through a specimen of our bone marrow under a microscope, mine would be British through and through, in spite of my parents’ ancestry. I don’t know if this is because all outsiders attempt, on an unconscious level, to assimilate themselves so fully that they will “pass”; or if it’s because, by and large, in my family home the most important thing was talent and the future it could create; rather than the past and what tradition naturally carries within it: something unchanged and passed down from generation to generation, with the goal of preserving it forever.
My parents were all about breaking with the moulds of the past and creating their own. They were often outsiders–foreigners–to the majority of English people who didn’t know them. But, in the wisdom of Mark Manson, they didn’t give a fuck. And, so, the only real culture I know is that of my birth country and not the one of my ancestors.
Things have changed in England, a bit, it’s true: there are now too many people “of colour” for things not to have shifted a little. But the underlying belief that the Empire still exists, and that people of colour (a strange turn of phrase) are somehow intellectually inferior, still pervades my home country. But, I digress.
Trust in oneself. That’s what I felt strongly to write about today.
Perhaps the realization “True Fiction,” under the banner of roman à clef, was triggered by an email I received this morning from my playwright friend, Seth Michael Donsky. [Take note, Marta Pelrine-Bacon, this post could well be about hidden motives, although I have an actual post to write about that particular topic. It’s certainly a post about Meg Rosoff’s colander.]
To help my friend understand that he knows exactly what he needs to know in order to write the play he wants to write, I suggested an old writing exercise to him before Christmas: In his case, take any play he admires, and type or write out the whole thing, including the stage directions. For a while he argued he didn’t want to waste his writing time to do this. I understood, because he has a crazily busy schedule. But I really believe in this particular exercise. And so, eventually, after a certain amount of persuasion on my part that the benefits would outweigh the loss of personal writing time and, in the long run, return rewards to him in spades, he chose Noel Coward‘s Hay Fever.
Sometime last week, as he was transcribing Hay Fever, he had a major breakthrough with his own play. Then, this morning, he wrote that although he wasn’t yet convinced he could write this or any other kind of script, he no longer believed that he couldn’t.
That was the whole point of doing the exercise: To understand and experience for oneself, how powerful the subconscious is–that it will give us everything we need, in order to express the creativity that we, uniquely, have appeared in the stream of Life to realize and share with Life itself. That everything we need is already inside us. Not the thing itself; that has yet to be born and fully realized. But the wherewithal to make it happen is inherent in every human being. I am so proud of my friend for having the trust in himself to do this exercise, even if it began as blind faith and trust in another.
Trust is the bridge that leads us across the uncharted waters of our own creativity, to the possibility of producing something that is uniquely us.