What is luminous, really?

Before we get started, I need to warn you that this post might get a little catty. But I’m warning you. And I promise to throw in a “bless her heart,” so it will all be okay. (And before you ask, no, this does not make catty behavior acceptable in the real world.)

Whew. Now that that’s out of the way…

I just finished reading Emma Cline’s The Girls for a book club. I picked it up, and talked my way into this book club, because I feel like I’ve been in a bit of a reading rut. I’ve not been reading as much as I’d like to and, when I do, it tends to be lesbian romance. (Which isn’t bad. It’s good to keep up with the genre in which I write and I love the books. Love. That said, it’s not my only interest and I don’t want to have literary tunnel vision.)

Anyway, The Girls was the “it” book of last summer. Reviews called it “luminous.” (Not unlike the praise for Stephanie Danler’s much acclaimed Sweetbitter, which I could not bring myself to read).

I started reading and, for the first sixty pages or so, I was hooked. Cline is masterful at imagery. She wields adverbs in ways that make my hear flutter. She plays with the male gaze and creates a gaze of her own–female and unapologetic even as her protagonist acquiesces to the male (gaze and more). And she has a talent for evoking the mind and meanderings of female teenage existence and her regretful, middle-aged counterpart. I was at once nostalgic and uncomfortable, in that perfect mix of awe and envy.

After those first sixty pages, though, it started to grate on me. I couldn’t decide if it was the subject matter or the language. It was too…too. Too MFA. Overwrought. My partner really liked and I started to panic. I actually went online in search of reviews that might validate my ennui. Fortunately I found some. This made me feel better, enough so that I finished the book and sipped an IPA while discussing it with a bunch of really smart teachers who had interesting things to say about its strengths and weaknesses.

But, even now, I can’t get rid of this nagging feeling. Did I not love it because it wasn’t as good as all the hype promised? Or, much more worrying, has my reading palate become one-dimensional? Worse still, am I just jealous of all the attention? I don’t know. But the nagging has remained and makes me question who I am as a woman, a reader, and a writer. Not in an existential crisis sort of way, but still.

Part of me feels badly for even saying all this because the two authors I’m thinking of (Cline and Danler) are both young women writers and the world needs more amazing and wonderful female voices. Voices that evoke all sorts of things, demand attention, don’t apologize. Voices like theirs, bless their hearts. (See what I did there?) And here I am, aloof and nitpicking. But I go back to that feeling that I’m not critiquing their actual voices. My very problem with books like these is that they are processed and packaged to be young/fresh/ingenue. You know, luminous.

Maybe, at the end of the day, there’s nothing wrong with that. That specific packaging is simply not my cup of tea. The same way that romance isn’t everyone’s thing. Or fantasy. Or memoir. I just…I guess I’m just tired of the value judgment that seems to come with it. The fact that some (seemingly arbitrary) work gets picked up as the new luminous thing and is all over the New York Times, the New Yorker, NPR, the Slate Culture Gabfest. Are there really not enough great books that we all have to get on the same wagon? And for the love of all that is good and holy, does that wagon always have to be luminous?

Okay. Rant over. Thank you for indulging me.

Ring My Bell

I admit it. I’m a sucker for positive reinforcement. And I don’t mean those grand rewards for hitting some major goal. I mean the most basic Pavlovian type system–small, frequent, consistent treats tied to specific behaviors.

Example: I love Scrivener. I love that I can see my whole outline. I love that I can move scenes around with ease. But I swear I’d use it if it offered nothing more than that little bar that goes from red to green as I reach my daily word goal. And the big bar of the manuscript total? Swoon.

I’ve decided I’m so into positive reinforcement, I should try to apply it to more areas of my life. Case in point: exercise.

A few years ago, I was in the best shape of my life. I wasn’t skinny; I don’t think I’ll ever qualify for that adjective. Still. I was a bit lighter than I am now. More importantly, I had stamina and flexibility. I did two to three dance classes a week, I walked more days than not. I felt fit and limber and it was lovely.

And then life happened. A bad ankle sprain kept me from dance class. A new relationship sent me into a state of happy nesting, complete with lots of great meals and wine. And I started writing.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m happier than I’ve ever been. And I love that writing has become an almost-daily routine. I’ve got three books published, a fourth written, and a fifth in progress. I’ve made friends with other writers and readers–a whole magical community of people I didn’t know existed a few years ago. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Not even for pencil skirts and skinny jeans and a strong core.

But who says I can’t have it all?

No one, but I’ve not actually been good at doing it in recent months.  But it’s January and a good time for leaf turning and all that. Which brings me to Pavlov. I decided that uber fitness goals, while nice, don’t have that Pavlovian je ne sais quois. I needed something more immediate. Small. Preferably shiny. Enter stickers.


You heard right, stickers. I went to the craft store (for another, slightly more legitimate purchase) and raided the scrapbooking aisle. I got stars and flowers and little owls. And now, each time I exercise, I get a star in my planner. I’m not going to lie, it’s almost laughably satisfying. I’ve got five stars and an owl (for weekly word goals) so far in January. Not to mention 15,000 words of my new manuscript and spaghetti arms from flailing around to belly dancing videos.

Laugh if you want. I am (laughing at myself, that is). But I’m not ashamed to take all the help I can get. But that’s another life lesson (and another post). What about you? What gives you that extra little oomph? Or, as good ole Pavlov would say, what rings your bell?

The Power Woman Paradox

I woundn’t say I’m a high-powered woman. I don’t run companies or cities or even the college where I work. I’m more middle management. In practical terms, this means I hear a lot of complaints and make a lot of consequential, if not earth-shattering, decisions. Like, so many decisions. All. Day. Long.

I would also say I’m a competent, relatively independent woman. I don’t change my own oil, but wouldn’t be afraid to try if needed. I enjoy being handy and have a decent grasp of most domestic tasks. And we all know I love to ride the tractor. 

And yet.

And yet, in spite of these things, I sometimes crave being told what to do. No, that’s not right. I’d argue it is precisely because of these things, I crave someone else calling the shots. 

This isn’t a foreign concept, really. I know many women who come home from ten hours of being the boss who are crippled by the question of what to have for dinner. I know others who seek out the role of submissive in sexual relationships because it’s the one place they can cede control entirely. (And doing so is a huge turn-on.)

This week, the college where I work is closed. It’s a magical chance to get a break from the office without having to use vacation time. I always have high hopes for the week. I imagine myself in this nirvana of perfectly balanced productivity, relaxation, and fun. In reality, I often find myself restless, yet lazy–lounging on the sofa, fretting about the fact that I haven’t accomplished much of anything.  

It’s completely unstructured and, apparently, I don’t do well with that.

I took to Facebook today in search of some direction. I wanted to write 10,000 words this week and had barely scratched the surface. Friends and fellow authors jumped in with a wonderful combination of motivation/encouragement/finger wagging. It helped. Public shaming/cheering can be super helpful. I banged out 2,000 and feel like I’m back in a groove.

And yet.

And yet there’s a little part of me that wants something more. A writing dominant. That’s probably too suggestive, but you know what I mean. An external force besides my submission deadline to keep me in line. A stern voice to tell me to sit at my computer and not move until I’ve hit so many words. Someone to reward me when I’ve reached my goal. (And maybe even dole out some sort of punishment if I don’t.)

Perhaps I’ve over shared. But something tells me I’m not the only one. Being a woman in charge can be a lot of pressure. And while I’m sure some of my compatriots would be happy if someone simply decided what’s for dinner, I think  there are more than a few of us who wouldn’t say no to a nice bit of direction now and then. As far as this femme is concerned, it sounds like so much more fun than making a schedule.

Lessons and Leaving

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I just finished the final round of edits for Crescent City Confidential. Because the book is set in New Orleans, I decided to dedicate the story to the Southern women who taught me a great deal and helped me become the woman I am today. Grandmothers and aunts and cousins, teachers and nuns and neighbors. These women taught me about resilience and grace, perseverance, and not being afraid to be smart, or strong.

And then the election happened and everything about that felt cheap. I felt betrayed. Betrayed by some of those same aunts and cousins and neighbors and friends. But even in that darkness, I knew that the lessons I learned were still there. Things like believing in myself, social justice, and not being afraid to stand up for what’s right.

Perhaps more than anything else, they taught me it was okay to leave. That I needed to leave. It was a lesson I didn’t fully understand until much later—that staying was tantamount to a death sentence. Every single day of my life, I’m profoundly grateful for having left.

What started out as going away to college turned into a full and satisfying life in a place I didn’t know existed and with people I couldn’t even imagine as a kid.  I can’t fathom what my life would look like had I stayed. I may have never come out; I may have never taken myself seriously as a writer. I might have gotten married and had kids and aspired to a (little pink) house in the suburbs and vacations (down at the Gulf of Mexico).

Without these women, I’m not sure I would have been brave enough to imagine something else.

But they saw something more. And even though they probably never fathomed that I’d live in New York and be a dean at a college and write lesbian romance, they sensed that I was different, needed something different. They laid the groundwork and offered the encouragement that set me on my way to becoming me.

I think the process of becoming is at the core of all my books. As much as my characters find love, they find themselves. This is definitely the case with Crescent City Confidential. Both Tess and Sam have strong feelings on who they are and what they want. Their identities have been shaped by family and geography and life circumstances; they are happy, but not complete. They fall in love, sure, but they also become themselves—more authentic, more whole.

It feels ironic now that I set this story in Louisiana, the place I needed to escape from. As I write this, I’m here visiting my mother and godmother. I feel a bit like a stranger in a strange land, counting the hours until I go back to my life a thousand miles away.

But I like to think I’ve come full circle. I know I’ll never again call Louisiana home, but it will always be part of me–messy, contradictory, infuriating, enchanting. I’m not ashamed or afraid of it. It’s mine.

I like to think maybe there’s a little girl somewhere with a big bow and a feeling she can’t quite put a finger on, a feeling that tells her she doesn’t belong. She might not be the next lesbian romance writer, but maybe this lost little girl turned romance writer can show her there’s more to life than the world she knows.

In the meantime, you can pre-order Crescent City Confidential from Bold Strokes Books. Catherine, Claire, Dr. Rosser, Dr. Landry, Mrs. Kurtz, Sr. McFayden, Cindee, Laura Lee, Leslie, Sara and all the rest of you fabulous women, this one’s for you.

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To My Family and Friends Who Voted for Trump

First, I’m not about to yell at you or call you names. No, really. I’m not a yeller by nature. Besides, I also know doing so will make matters between us worse, not better. And I’ve committed to making things better. So I’d like to give you some context and ask for your help. Okay? Okay.

Let’s start with the premise that you voted for Trump/Pence in spite of, not because of, their hate-laced, misogynistic, xenophobic, and homophobic speech and actions. If you’re in the “because” category, we probably don’t speak anymore and you’re unlikely to happen upon this. But I digress.

Here’s the thing. You may have voted the way you did for a million reasons. I’m not going to try to haggle with you over all those reasons. But whatever those reasons, the reality is that you voted for a man who bragged about sexually assaulting women. A man who thinks it’s okay to psychologically abuse and use shock therapy on LGBTQ kids. A ticket endorsed by the KKK.

That baggage is now yours. You don’t get to pretend that isn’t part of the platform your voted for. You don’t get to assume that I or anyone else will give you the benefit of the doubt. In our eyes, in my eyes, you are now suspect.

I know that seems unfair. It is. But it’s no more unfair than a Muslim woman being expected to denounce radical Islam every time someone of Middle Eastern descent commits a crime. No more unfair than a black man being pulled over for driving through a white neighborhood. And, to a lesser degree, it’s no more unfair than me having to decide whether or not to come out every time the plumber or the lady at the nail salon asks about my husband. So welcome to the club.

I know, it feels like I’m yelling. I’m not. I’m laying the groundwork to ask you to do something really important. I’m asking you to be vocal. Be vocal about the things you don’t want me to assume about you.

Don’t tell me you’re okay with marriage equality. Tell your friends and coworkers and the guy at the gym who makes a comment about faggots. When someone you know makes a racist or sexist joke, call them out. If you don’t know what conversion therapy is, find out and speak out against it, up to and including a phone call to the Vice President you chose.

It might feel like I’m asking a lot. I am. But I want to believe that however much you and I disagree on matters of trade or taxes or even national security, we are both on the side of decency, humanity, and equity. I want to believe it so badly. And it’s the only way I know how to start reconciling the cognitive dissonance that has consumed me for the last few days.

And it matters now. It matters so much. I’m not being dramatic when I say that people feel–physically, literally–unsafe. I do. And I’m a middle class, feminine-presenting, white woman. I’m about to visit my mother in Louisiana and I’m dreading it. I’m afraid. (And I feel guilty for being afraid, but that’s another post.)

The stakes are so high. And you, more than me or any of the other liberal queer folks who are freaking out right now, have power. You’re in a position of influence that I don’t enjoy with other conservatives. You can draw a line in the sand between yourself and the people who are setting fire to the rainbow flags on people’s houses. Because if you don’t, those people will feel even bolder, thinking that they are somehow in the majority. That their hatred and their violence is acceptable.

We can’t let that happen. You can’t let that happen. I beg you. Please do your part so that doesn’t happen.

The Gifts We Give Ourselves

Today, my friend Nell shared–eloquently, thoughtfully–her recent struggles with a pernicious variation of writer’s block. She talked about about a recent reading she did that involved a feeling of detachment from her writing. It was something along the lines of thinking: hey, that’s good/did I really write that/will I be able to write that way again? (She said it way better.)

My response to her was a lesson I learned from Minnie Bruce Pratt. I had the amazing fortune to take a course with her once and, in a meeting about my writing, I lamented the need to buckle down and write every day. She promptly corrected me, saying that writing should be a gift I give myself. No matter what else is going on in my life, no matter how unimpressed I may be with my words in the moment, writing is essential. It’s part of who I am. It’s something I should not–cannot–live without.

After sharing this nugget of wisdom, fate–in the form of Facebook memories–reminded me that five years ago today I danced at the Westcott Street Festival. And by dance, I mean belly dance. And by belly dance, I mean on a makeshift stage in front of an audience in broad daylight. No really.

My first reaction was to smile. It was an amazing day. And then I felt badly. I’ve not danced in earnest much since that day. It started with a sprained ankle, probably the worst sprain I’ve ever had. (I actually sprained it two days before the festival and probably shouldn’t have performed but really wanted to and likely made it worse in the long run.) So I took some time off to heal. Then A. and I started dating and we were living an hour apart and it became so easy to skip class if it was a night we could get together. Then I got a new job and moved to Ithaca. All good things. Great things. But they were such good things, I made less time for things like dancing.

I tried to get back to it a couple of times. My last attempt came just as I began writing in earnest. The forty-five minutes I had each morning devoted to exercise became my writing time. And, as noted above, I’m not about to give that up.

So exercise in general, and dancing specifically, fell by the wayside. And all my talk about getting back to it has come in the form of “I need to make myself.” Do you see where I’m going with this?

Here’s the thing. I was never a good dancer. But for a couple of years, and during a difficult time in my life, I was a dancer. It made me feel good–body, mind, spirit. It made me feel sexy and good about my body and brave and silly and quintessentially feminine. So I came home from work today and I danced. And I was painfully reminded that, while never really good, I was way better than I am now. But I did it. And I told myself it was a gift.

I don’t know if this will work, but I’m going to try it. It fits in nicely with my life goals of being grateful for the little things, self care, general sassiness, and Ann Taylor pencil skirts. (I know I shouldn’t be focused on the last one, but I have some really cute ones that are too snug right now.) I’ll let you know how it goes.

What gifts do you give yourself?

Name that Series–GIVEAWAY!

You may know that I’m embarking on my first series, a set of four books set in Provincetown. Winter’s Harbor, my first book, kicks things off. I’m working on Summer’s Cove now, with Spring’s Wake and Autumn’s Light slated for release in 2018.

It’s all very exciting with one major exception–I don’t have a name for the series as a whole. And, as I’m sure you all know, Provincetown Tales is taken.

That’s where you come in! I’m looking for ideas and I’m not too proud to beg. Or barter. So here’s the deal. Comment below with your idea and, if I use it, you’ll receive a signed, advance copy of Summer’s Cove and the chance to name a character in one of the final books. You want this, right? Right.

Entries will be accepted until 11:59 p.m. EST on Sunday, September 18th.

 

How do you solve a problem like Aurora?

My family dynamic is…unique. Without going into all the details, let me just say that, as a child, I often felt like I was being parented by committee. And even though I wasn’t a bad kid, there were many family meetings held to figure out what to do with me. These meetings were no joke. Our family meetings come complete with agendas and adherence to Robert’s Rules of Order. In hindsight, I know that I was fortunate to have aunts and uncles who cared for me, but the situation wasn’t without its challenges.

The most recent of these family meetings, which I didn’t attend, included discussion of the fact that my mother had requested and received a copy of my latest book. Since she lives in an assisted living facility and doesn’t possess much of a filter, there was some concern that she’d create an awkward situation by over-sharing. Since I had been more than a little hesitant to share it with her in the first place (a common sentiment among romance writers, I’ve learned), I swallowed my irritation that this warranted inclusion on the agenda. It was fine until I was copied on the self-congratulatory email my uncle sent about encouraging my mother to finish reading, then promptly throw my book in the garbage.

My first instinct was to quietly acquiesce. The intent, surely, was not malicious. And the last thing I want is for my mom to find herself in a difficult or awkward situation because she was trying to be proud of me. That gave way to anger and a desire to hurl pithy insults. Tempting, but not really my style. I settled on a terse request to have the book sent back to me, complete with an offer to pay the postage.

All of this unfolded over the course of a weekend during which two members of our local community died suddenly. I wasn’t close to either of them personally, but both their lives were cut tragically short and the impact of the loss will be felt for a very long time. As a result, I was left feeling selfish and petty for letting such a trivial thing get to me in the first place.

This morning, I had a conversation with a colleague about the death of one of the individuals and he noted that seeing the outpouring of memories and love made him think about his own work and his legacy–how important it was for him to do something that made a difference.

That conversation gave me a much needed moment of clarity. It helped me to see that, while my own indignation may be irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, the issue itself isn’t. There are people–people in my own family–who believe that stories of love between two women are unseemly, if not downright dangerous.

And for every one of them, there is someone else who still lives in secret, or in shame, because those other people exist and are vocal about their disdain. This morning, I was reminded of why I write. Those are some of the people I’m writing for.

I write to celebrate love. I write to give myself and others happy and uplifting stories that mirror our lives (or maybe slightly idealized versions of our lives). I also write so that those who are still living in secret or fear might read my books and feel a little less alone.

I refuse to let good intentions or rationalizations diminish the meaningfulness or legitimacy of my work. I also refuse to let them bring me down. This weekend also reminded me that life is short and never certain, and that living with joy is the best thing we can do for ourselves and each other.

I decided that, when I get my mom’s copy back, I’m going to donate it and a copy of all of my books to the public library in my hometown. Boom. Instant joy.

Represent (-ed, -ing, et. al.)

One of the many (many) awesome conversations I had at the GCLS con included the ups and downs of joining and participating in Romance Writers of America, a.k.a. the RWA. It can be a bit of a sensitive topic. As vocally supportive as the organization is of LGBTQ romance, many of its members are not. And of those who don’t object to us, many would never consider reading our work. Even on a good day, it can feel like an uphill battle. That can feel even more daunting from the warm cocoon of GCLS, where lesbians and queers and our stories are front and center.

But even then, or perhaps especially then, we need to show up. If we want to be visible in the mainstream arena, we have to be there. We have to climb on and go for a spin, arms in the air, for all the world to see. It might be uncomfortable, but we must. They aren’t going to come looking for us. If we want to be represented, we need to represent.

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Not a week later, I got my copy of the Rochester Review, the alumni magazine of the University of Rochester. My second novel, Built to Last, is included in the “Books and Recordings” section in the back. As an undergraduate and young alum who spent more time daydreaming about writing than actually writing, seeing my name–my book cover!–on those pages was a dream come true.

And yet. And yet, had it not been for a chance conversation with a former colleague who is now one of the magazine editors, I’d never have submitted it. Don’t get me wrong, I’d wanted to. But I was squeamish, a little embarrassed. There were serious books there and mine was just a romance. Just. A. Romance.

For all my carrying on about the importance and legitimacy of romance in literature, and the importance and legitimacy of lesbian stories in romance, I can still be my own worst enemy. I still giggle and break eye contact when I tell someone what I write. I talk about how important it is to represent our lives and our stories and our genre, but I still chicken out.

Sometimes. I’ve gotten much better. But there’s still more to do. Of course, if the people I met at GCLS are any indication, we’re in good shape. Talk about represent. I’m still a little giddy to be in their ranks. And, as we’ve already discussed, far braver than I used to be.

P.S. If you can, but haven’t, send your book covers and blurbs to your alumni magazine. You might be the first, but I’m absolutely certain you’re not the only.

 

And for Once It Might Be Grand

In my tiny Catholic high school, each senior got a full page in the yearbook–our senior photo and a quote of our choosing. Most girls picked something philosophical that made them feel smart, or a line out of a country song. I, in the throes of my Beauty and the Beast obsession, selected a line from Belle’s opening song.

And for once it might be grand
To have someone understand
I want so much more than they’ve got planned.

The choice caused a bit of a stir in my small circle of friends. I was the valedictorian, after all. I’d gotten a scholarship and would be attending a good college (in the North, even). Everyone fully expected me to be successful. And, most likely, to find a nice boy and get married and have babies. For a girl in south Louisiana in the 1990s, that was pretty much what one aspired to. So what could I possibly mean? What else was there?

At the time, I struggled to articulate what the “more” was supposed to be. I wasn’t in the closet. Well, unless you’re referring to the clueless closet. But I knew. I knew there was something that I–even with my healthy imagination–could not yet fathom.

At the GCLS awards on Saturday, as I sat listening to tributes and acceptance speeches and looking around the room at literally hundreds of lesbian (and bi and trans and ally and queer) women, that quote hit me like a giant cartoon anvil to the head.

I’d found it. At seventeen, I didn’t even know it existed. And, oh, but it was grand.

Spending three days surrounded by writers and readers and lovers of lesbian literature filled my heart. Knowing I am a legitimate, published author–a member of the Bold Strokes Books family, no less–made me both happy and proud. Seeing so many smart, talented, wonderful women recognized for their work filled me with joy and gave me something to aspire to.

After the awards, there was a dance. Dressed in my flouncy new dress, I kicked up my heels and had a fabulous time. I did the macarena. I led the conga line. For reals. I also danced with Lee Lynch (you know, to Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now,” like you do.) I joked that my polka-dot dress make me wild. I think the dress helped. The vodka tonics did, too. (Thanks, Maggie and Fiona!)

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Photo credit: Nell Stark

I like to say that life is too short to be self-conscious. I’m better at actually taking that advice sometimes more than others. This was definitely one of those nights. Sprinkled with fairy dust. Magical.

So to everyone who was there–in person or in spirit–thank you. Thank you for being an amazing community and for welcoming me with open arms. Thank you for for helping me become what seventeen year old me could only begin to imagine. It’s so so very much more than I had planned.