The stereotype I put on myself (a post for stigmama)

Between dealing with the short story contest and Lama Mama work, I haven’t been online as much as I’d like to be for the past week. Next week looks busy, too.

(The fundraiser happens November 8th. The deadline for my Top 20 short story picks is November 6th. The contest received 245 entries. Each entry can be up to 5500 words–approximately 22 pages–and I will read each one. Oh, and my daughter has a soccer tournament next week, too.)

I will reply to comments left on my blog posts, but be patient: my brain can only handle so much! And I miss getting to read all of your posts as well.

Also, I wanted to let you all know that I have an essay published over at Stigmama.com. Here’s the opening: 

Getting diagnosed with a mental illness is a little like putting on glasses when you’re near-sighted. Suddenly, the world zooms into focus: past events defined, current behaviors clarified, the up and down zig-sag of moods explained. A correct diagnosis makes sense; it’s not some arbitrary set of numbers slapped on a medical chart.

For me, it was a new view of the world. Now I viewed the world from the perspective of a bipolar mama-to-be, and that world looked scary.

Stereotypes.

Read the rest here.

Categories: mental illness, writing | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Do we need trigger warnings on classic literature?

Irony: putting a trigger warning on a post about trigger warnings. Irony aside, it’s only fair to give a warning that I’ll mention a particular episode of my bulimia as part of this story. So if this is an issue for you, feel free to read something else.

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I was an art history minor in college. I loved all my art classes, with one exception.

Contemporary art and issues.

I don’t connect with most contemporary art, or the art doesn’t connect with me, or we fail to appreciate each other’s vision and see only the other’s blind spots. (As if “art” is as human as I am!)

That semester was a particularly lonely time for me. I was recovering from a nervous breakdown and mono, and was still wrestling with depression. I also had no one in my life who loved art like I did, no Christian to help me puzzle through the ideas and issues thrown my direction. I muddled through.

I made it through abstract expressionism. Jackson Pollock and paint drip paintings. Messy, but no problem.

I made it through pop art. Andy Warhol and soup cans. Yummy, but no sweat.

Then, halfway through the semester, the visual slides took a darker turn. The works embraced controversy, desiring it like an object of lust. Sex. Violence. Ugliness. Deliberately provocative pieces that punched traditional ideals of beauty in the gut.

One afternoon, the professor flipped to a slide of a work by Cindy Sherman. Sherman is known for dressing in costumes and different guises and creatively photographing herself in various locations. It’s a challenge to the notion of a fixed identity, rather than a true “selfie” or “self-portrait.” Many are disturbing. This particular one focused on eating disorders, the ideal image of the feminine, and how far some of us will go to become change our image, though our self-image never matches the ideal image.

In the photo, a pair of sunglasses lies on a beach towel.

Reflected in the dark lenses is a woman—Sherman in another of her disguises—vomiting.

I flinched.

Suddenly, I was back there, at my old college, wrestling with bulimia again.

I swallowed hard and kept silent during the hybrid lecture-discussion.

Another slide, this time by Andres Serrano (of Piss Christ fame). I don’t recall the exact image, only that it was grotesque and violent. I shuddered and looked away.

I may not remember the image, but I remember the feeling it created in me: a sickening sense of personal violation.

My face must’ve betrayed my revulsion, because the professor caught up to me before the next class. He apologized for showing the offensive slides.

“They’re important works,” he said, his brow furrowed, “and I feel like I have to show them. I know they’re offensive to your religion, so would you like a warning before I show a rough slide? Or you can slip out the door if you need to. That’s okay, too.”

I was grateful and said, “Thanks, yes, that would be great.”

Not only had he explained his position and why he had to show these slides, but he showed respect for my personal convictions and feelings. Plus, he gave me an option that wouldn’t embarrass or offend me. He must’ve guessed, rightly, that I wouldn’t leave a class mid-lecture without permission.

From then on, if the next slide was graphic, he gave a warning. “Next slide’s a little rough,” he’d say, and I’d duck my head and take notes. This helped me handle the troubling subject matter.

Recalling this incident made me think about the idea of placing “trigger warnings” on certain reading material, such as classic novels. Think about some of the literature that’s commonly assigned in upper level English classes. There’s a lot of disturbing elements.

Ancient Greek tragedies and mythologies are filled with incest (Oedipus & family), rape (all those human women unlucky enough to attract the attention of Zeus & company), and violence (the battle scenes of The Illiad), not to mention the slaughter of children by their mother (Medea).

That doesn’t include the sexual innuendos (common in comedy, from the ancients to Shakespeare to Restoration lit to present), adultery, suicide, racism, sexism.

It’s not that these pieces are bad literature. Quite the opposite. One of the reasons that the writings have survived is how brilliantly the authors have grappled with the truth about humanity, often the brutal and ugly parts no one wants to see.

Some people need to see it: they’re hiding under a rock, pretending that the world’s as pretty and sterilized as a Thomas Kincade print. They aren’t naive, but willfully ignorant.

But others should not, because they know all too well that the world can be a terrifying and grotesque place. Those people need to be shown that beauty exists, too.

An official warning label plastered on the cover of Oedipus Rex might not be appropriate. But a clear indication of the text’s contents from book reviewers or novel blurb writers might be. Then the reader can judge for himself whether to read.

In a classroom, I think teachers should allow students to skip certain books (or flag the most disturbing sections, at least) if the student says that the content is problematic (meaning, triggering, not just difficult!) for her.

Obviously, this is a difficult subject, and not one that is easily resolved.

Any thoughts? What would you do, if you were a teacher wanting to discuss a text that might cause problems for your students? What would you do if you were an author of such a text?

(Photo credit: alice10, morgueFile.com)
Categories: writing | Tags: , | 18 Comments

Communication failures, lack of empathy, and domestic violence

“What is communication?”

That was the question our professor posed to us, the honor students of Communication 101. Our assignment was to draw a diagram of how communication works. There’s the sender and the receiver and the message, to be sure, but beyond that, what happens?

  • Have people communicated if the message is misunderstood?
  • What about nonverbal actions? (Silence can be a powerful message. So can laughing, flipping the bird, and scowling.)
  • What if the message is conflicting? (Like when someone says no when she’s signaling yes (or he thinks she’s signaling yes. Or vice versa on gender or message.)
  • What if the words operate on more than one level? (Literal versus figurative.)
  • What if the other person cannot understand the message because of personal limitations?

Has communication still happened? Or is it a failure?

A huge issue for communicators is the inability to see and hear how their message is perceived by others. Most of us know only our own personal viewpoint. We also tend to surround ourselves with people who are like us in significant ways: similar socio-economic class, similar racial and ethnic profiles, similar political views or spiritual inclinations.

(In my experience, those who do not and who deliberately seek out people different from themselves, have a higher level of tolerance and respect for differences. They often wind up finding those equally tolerant people from the pool of “different” people available. Good intentions, though, and the conversations are far more likely to be productive than, for example, the inevitable explosions between a militant, intolerant atheist and an equally militant, equally intolerant Christian who breathe the same air.)

A communicator sends a message.

What happens?

The message is received by others, but it is not understood in the same way by everyone.

Those from a similar viewpoint hear the words and the intention.

Those from a different viewpoint don’t hear the intention behind the words. Nor do they interpret the words in the same way.

For example, when my first boyfriend broke up with me, he said, “I don’t love you anymore, but you’re still the person at college I care most about.”

Here’s what I heard: I don’t love you, but I’m still the person who cares about you the most.

Twisted? You bet.

In my opinion, the best communicators are aware that not everyone will receive their message in the same way. They step into other people’s worlds. Then they turn their message around, examining it from different viewpoints. While they may not change their message, they may change how the message is conveyed. Words, phrases, actions: these are modified to clearly communicate with others.

Contrast the ideal communicator to what happens in this video. It’s an older one, but it illustrates my point.

One issue with these men, I think, is that they cannot put themselves in another’s position and hear how the words sound to someone not from their background. The joke about domestic violence—Divorce, never. Murder, often!–might possibly be humorous to someone in a loving marriage where violence is not, and never has been, an option. (Possibly, not certainly.)

But the joke sounds horrible to a domestic violence victim whose spouse has attempted to murder her. Threatening, even. Many of us would agree: this joke isn’t funny. But because these men never been in that position, they can’t imagine that the joke might be interpreted any other way.

Last Sunday, I ran headlong into this issue at church. We were discussing the theology of total depravity. As several men talked about how we’re without the ability to do good, deserving of God’s just wrath, and worthless, I had that tumbling feeling inside, telling me that I need to say something.

I heard their words on two levels.

1. The theological level, the level all these men were operating on. I know how we can’t save ourselves and why we need Jesus. I get that. I’ve read the Bible. I get it.
2. The real world level. I was aware that this type of theology has been used to oppress others. I know that if I were being abused or had been abused, the words “we’re worthless” would twist in my mind to become justification for that abuse: I deserve to be beaten. I deserve to be raped. Or molested. Or beaten. I deserve every horrible, unjust thing that has happened or is still happening to me. None of that is true, but that doesn’t prevent these lies from being heard.

I know this because I’ve listened to victims’ stories.

I know this from being discriminated against by certain males at my Christian college.

I know this, simply by being the “other,” an outsider who observes.

When I got a chance to speak—I had to interrupt—my words came out wrong, which happens a lot in my verbal communication, especially when I don’t know the listeners well. (I become nervous and flustered, intimidated and fearful lest others pounce on my words and interrogate me, cross-examination style.) I don’t think that the men understood what I was saying.

Communication failure. How frustrating.

It was equally frustrating that I sensed these particular men couldn’t understand. They could not see how words can be both theologically correct and result in literal death. 

They couldn’t understand that no matter how well-intentioned the message was, or what other truths were conveyed, or how beautifully articulated, if the messenger did not have empathy for the hearer’s condition, the hearer would only hear a lie: I’m worthless.

Communication failure, ignoring word connotations.

Empathy failure, ignoring other people’s perspectives.

Church failure, ignoring the practical consequences of theology, and as a result, perpetuating sin. 

It’s unintentional, at least at this church. Don’t worry, I won’t keep my mouth shut at church. I may have failed to communicate this time, but I’ll keep trying.

Categories: Christianity, relationships | Tags: , , , | 12 Comments

Now you know we don’t all think alike

In Nadeem Aslam’s novel of post-9/11 Pakistan and Afghanistan, The Blind Man’s Garden, he writes an insightful and tense scene between Mikal, a young Pakistani man, and an American interrogator. Although Mikal has entered Afghanistan with the intention of helping civilian victims of the war, he has been captured in a compromising situation and is now suspected of collaborating with al-Queida.

The American gestures toward a poster on the wall of the interrogation cell. It shows the blazing Twin Towers on 9/11.  He asks,

“How did you feel when it happened?”

“It was a disgusting crime.”

“Most of your people didn’t think so. They were pleased.”

“Now you know we don’t all think alike.” The man’s eyes have not left his for even a fraction of a second. “How many of my people have you met anyway?”

“I have met enough of them here.”

“Do you want me to base my opinion of your people on the ones I have met here?”

–Nadeem Aslam, The Blind Man’s Garden, p. 170

I was profoundly moved by this exchange. Here’s why:

  • Notice how each man refers to the other’s fellow countrymen: my people, your people. It sets up a dichotomy between self and other, one that cannot be bridged, one that makes it easy to appropriate a victim’s role and deflect all guilt onto the other.
  • Notice the assumptions made about the other’s fellow countrymen, based on little more than wartime interactions between enemy countries and his personal interactions with suspected terrorists.
  • Notice, too, that while Mikal recognizes that the American interrogator’s assumptions about the Afghan people aren’t correct, he isn’t entirely open to the idea that not all Americans think alike. He asks the hypothetical question at the end, but really, he has formed an opinion of Americans based upon those he’s met in his country.  And it’s not favorable.

At another point, Aslam notes, “The logic is that there are no innocent people in a guilty nation” (page 6). I’ll note that this logic (in this case, at least) could apply to both nations, and this attitude could equally apply to both nations as well.

My point is not to start an argument (or even a discussion) of the war against terror, 9/11, extremist Islam, American interrogation techniques, or just war.

It’s to call attention to how we view people different from ourselves. Not just those of a different race or gender, the ones we might encounter at the grocery store in the cereal aisle, but the ones who are our enemies. Or ones from those countries that our country considers as our enemy countries.

Does everyone from a particular country or religion think alike? We know that’s not true of us–we’d laugh if someone said all Christians or Americans are alike!–but do we recognize that in other people groups?

 

Categories: quotations | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Llamas, Saints, and Gone Girl: Do you manipulate your image?

file000283466689How do you see yourself? How do others think of you? And to what extent is their view of you shaped by your conscious manipulation of your image?

Why am I thinking about these questions? Three reasons: sanding furniture, a murder mystery set in a monastery, and Gone Girl. (What can I say? My brain connects strange things, and I may spoil the Gone Girl plot twists if you’re unfamiliar with the book and movie.)

A Saint Without a Miracle

The murder mystery in question is Louise Penny’s A Beautiful Mystery. Inspector Gamache is tasked with finding the murderer of a monk in an isolated monastery. The monks are in the Gilbertine order, so named after Saint Gilbert of Sempringham. As in all of Penny’s novels, the whodunnit is only part of the story. There’s past tragedies and relationship issues between Gamache and both his boss and his second-in-command; there’s profound thoughts on religion and music, seamlessly intertwined with the plot and characterization.

As Gamache reads a biographical plaque about St. Gilbert, he’s puzzled, then startled: the man appears terribly boring—long life, no miracles—but for one short footnote: he was charged with aiding the current archbishop, who had fallen from the king’s favor. That archbishop’s name? Thomas Becket.

His image (dull, boring, run-of-the-mill monk) changes when that one fact is revealed.

How do we view others? It depends on how much we know, and there are always parts of a person, even those closest to us, that we never know.

An Unreliable Narrator

Or should that be narrators? Gone Girl’s points of view alternate between Amy and Nick, a couple in a troubled marriage. When Amy disappears, Nick is suspected of her presumed murder.

Between Nick’s self-justifying version of events, we read entries from Amy’s diary. According to her, she’s afraid of his temper. The tensions in their marriage run high. But has it resulted in murder?.

Halfway through, we find that Amy has lied. She isn’t dead.

She’s disappeared—deliberately framing Nick for her murder. Every detail has been planned in advance: the diary entries, the blood traces on the kitchen floor, a fake pregnancy, the scavenger hunt and clues she always plans for their anniversary. She casually tells us that she’s always thought she’d be good at murder, because most murderers are caught because they aren’t patient. She is patient.

Everything she tells us is unreliable. She is consciously manipulating her image to give her power over others, including the reader.

Moreover, our view of other characters is manipulated by her. The ex-boyfriend, his mother, her parents, her former roommate, the neighbor, Nick, his mistress: all are viewed by her with that same hostile and disdainful attitude. Unreliable. And because Nick is unreliable as well, it’s hard to know what is the truth about any of the characters.

Diary Amy is different from Real Amy (she tells us, I hope you enjoyed her), but is the Real Amy telling us the truth about herself or other people? Or is that, too, a manipulation on her part?

Most people don’t manipulate their image like Amy Dunne. She’s a sociopath, right? We’d never be that hostile, that disdainful, that cruel in our view of others, right? We aren’t like her, right?

Right?

A Llama Sanding Furniture

Actually, that should be L.A.M.A. It’s an acronym for the title of the group of do-almost-everything women for our daughters’ school, and our biggest fundraiser takes place in November. Southern Tradition features upcycled furniture for sale, donations that are sanded, painted, and beautified beyond recognition. There are various booths selling particular pieces, each booth with a slightly different focus and “their” own furniture to sell (usually along with other items, such as jewelry or clothes or baked goods).

So for weeks, the Lama Mamas have spent every Tuesday sanding furniture. Got to get the gloss off the wood, I was told, because paint and primer won’t stick to glossy wood. It’s dirty work. I come home coated in sawdust and sweat, and it ain’t pretty.

One day, a few weeks ago, the volunteer coordinator asked me to help someone else. She had lots of pieces to sand, no helpers for her booth, and a crazy schedule that prevented her from being present each Tuesday. I agreed to help.

Then I was shown the furniture. Chairs. Dining room chairs. Chairs with spindles.

Those are the detested pieces, the object of every Lama Mama’s dread, the pieces that no normal Lama wants to sand.

Why? Those wretched spindles. There are little crevices all along the curved legs, and they are difficult to sand with an electric sander. So the unlucky Lama has to sand each spindle by hand. And these particular ones had spindles on the back of the seats, too, narrowly spaced.

There were five or six of these chairs. I spent all day sanding them. In the late August heat, no less. By myself, refusing all help. “No, I can handle this,” I said. “I’ll do it. It’s okay.”

Notice what I was doing?

Pulling an Amy Dunne, that’s what. Letting other people see my selflessness. Of course, I’d be happy to sand. Of course, I’d be happy to do it. Of course, I’ll take care of it.

Letting other people feel sorry for me: all those terrible spindles! I feel so sorry for you!

Saint Laura of the Spindled Chairs, martyrdom by sandpaper.

(Incidentally, I became sick afterward, too, paying for my heroics with a severe allergy attack that wouldn’t have happened had I not insisted that I would do all the chairs. Serves me right.)

My original motives weren’t bad; I wanted to help.

But it became manipulation of other people’s image of me.

If I had told the other Lamas how I felt or let someone else help, wouldn’t my image have changed? It would be the reverse of Gamache’s perspective of Saint Gilbert.

I wouldn’t be a selfless martyr, or even the person who can be relied upon to do the hated task. I’d just be an ordinary person who complains when she’s coated with sweat-and-sawdust and who’d rather be novel writing than sanding spindles, thank you very much.

Unlike Amy Dunne, I wasn’t doing it consciously.

But it was still there.

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(Photo Credit: peachyqueen, morgueFile.com)

Categories: appearance, relationships | Tags: , , , , , , | 8 Comments

What fictional characters taught me about myself

file0001137653514Sometimes what we most dislike in others is also within ourselves.

It’s as though the other person’s character mirrors our personal fault. We recoil, revolted, from this ugly monster in the mirror, and promptly refuse to believe that it is a mirror at all. It’s only that other person. They are the problem. They have the ugly monster attached to their hearts.

Not us. Not me.

I shut my eyes and chant la-la-la, a child who believes that what can’t be seen or heard must not exist.

The ugly monster—whatever shape or form it takes—may actually exist in that other person. Pride. Self-absorption. Manipulation. Abuse of power. Lust. Arrogance. It is monstrous, revolting.

Or not. Minor quirks, even personality traits, can quickly become a source of irritability and contempt.

  • The over-analyzer who parses each word in a Sunday school lesson.
  • The self-absorbed conversationalist who chatters exclusively about one topic: self (or children, or weight).
  • The person for whom every conversation must come back to a particular pet topic, like Ahab obsessing over the wretched, malicious Moby-Dick, and attributes the worst possible motives to everyone who holds a different view.
  • The take charge person who bosses everyone—including his superiors—around.

Dealt with once, these faults are not so bad. Dealt with multiple times, the faults grind against our nerves.

But what if these traits also exist in me? What if I looked in that mirror and saw my own faults before anyone else’s?

_______________________________________________

After I wrote a couple of drafts of my first novel, I posted it on a writing critique website. Some reviews were ignorant, others were generic, and still others were malicious and nasty. A few were productive. But it was the responses to the main characters that caught my attention.

People liked Monroe, the loud-mouthed radio host. They liked Lucy, his bipolar daughter, except when they hated her for being a jerk to her friends. But Claire, the wife and mother—they weren’t certain if they liked her or not. Then they were certain: “We don’t like Claire,” they said.

I was disconcerted. Of all the book’s characters, Claire is most like me.

And they didn’t like her.

And I didn’t know why.

And, I suspect, neither did they. They responded vaguely to my questions: too passive, too withdrawn, too introspective, always dwelling on the past. They didn’t give examples or solutions, only answers that didn’t satisfy me.

I felt indicted somehow by their thoughts about my character. If they didn’t like Claire-who-was-me, then they didn’t like me, either. I hadn’t intended to put myself in the book, nor had I intended to create an unsympathetic character. I found her sympathetic—I knew her past, present, and future—and I thought other people would be sympathetic, too.

I hadn’t thought of her actions in negative terms. Now that others had pointed them out, I saw what they meant. Claire was passive. She wasn’t doing anything interesting. She was sitting around, mulling over the past when she needed to take action. If this was the real Claire, I didn’t like her, either.

And the mirror revealed itself.

It wasn’t just Claire who was passive, withdrawn, and self-absorbed. I was, too.

Recently, I’ve thought of novel characters who I disliked. The protagonists of Return of the Native. Ophelia in Hamlet. Several protagonists of contemporary novels that I’ll leave unnamed, but I didn’t finish because the characters didn’t do anything, only navel-gazed and spun in circles around themselves.

All passive. Withdrawn. Self-absorbed.

The mirror again, this time in others’ writings.

I’ve started my fourth novel (is that possible?!) and I’m in the character-development stage. Years ago, I found a great article by David Corbett about how to craft compelling characters, and I pulled it out again. During the writing of Novel #3, I had put both my protagonist, a young female who has survived forced prostitution, and my antagonist, a young male who is stalking her, through Corbett’s recommended process. Both characters are stronger now as a result.

We can draw some material from those in our lives, Corbett writes, but “We will also have to draw from our own lives, at least as a starting point, to fathom a character’s inner world.”

To explore those emotional triggers, he recommends writing down these incidents in our character’s life—and our own:

Moment of greatest fear

Moment of greatest courage.

Moment of greatest sorrow.

Moment of greatest joy.

The worst failure.

The moment of deepest shame.

The moment of most profound guilt.

The moment of most redemptive forgiveness.

Feel a little uncomfortable? So did I, especially when I realized how alike my antagonist and I are. Not the heroine, but the villain. Ouch.

And that mirror pops up, once more. Exploring those characters revealed things about me, things that I didn’t realize but needed to wrestle and repent and defeat.

Finding it in a novel is an odd thing.

On the one hand, it’s fiction. This is only a figment of someone’s imagination, squiggles and dots on paper. So it isn’t as threatening as it is when the same trait appears in an actual person. There’s not a relationship being affected. It’s safer, a bit, when a novel confronts us with the truth about ourselves.

On the other hand, it’s fiction. It’s easier to dismiss as coincidence—as I did with Claire—or throw the book at the wall—as I have done with several nameless books. When it’s a real life person, the threat is larger. Our response is crucial, because a relationship hangs in the balance.

Will I acknowledge the truth, or will I deny it?

(Photo credit: monosodium, from MorgueFile.com, modified by me)

Categories: writing | Tags: , , | 7 Comments

When prejudice isn’t real

Once upon a time, I met a woman who didn’t like me. I thought she didn’t like me, at least. She never smiled at me, rarely spoke to me, and generally didn’t seem thrilled at my presence in our Sunday school class.

Obviously, she didn’t like me.

Obviously, there was something wrong with me for her to dislike me.

I racked my brain for what was wrong. Had I offended her? Was I too honest about my bipolar disorder? Was I too quiet or awkward or— too something, some defect without a name and therefore without a solution?

Years passed. I shrugged it off. There were other people in the church who did like me, despite this nameless defect, and I consoled myself with their friendship.

One year I had this woman’s child in my VBS pre-k small group. The woman (I’ll call her Anna) pulled me aside on the first morning. “Daniel” (not his real name) “is still wearing pullups. Usually he can make it to the bathroom, but I’ve packed extra ones in his bag.” She sighed. “We’re working on toilet training, but he’s been in the hospital so much with a catheter in . . .” Another sigh. “It’s hard.”

Oh my.

“Oh, and I’ll have to come by about ten o’clock to hook his G.I. tube to the medicine bag, let it run for about twenty minutes so he gets all the food in his system, and then come back and clean out the tube.”

Double oh my.

I had known that three of her four children had a rare disease. It was a frequent prayer request at church. I had known that they were often in the hospital, travelling to see specialists, and trying to find what the best treatment would be. I had known all this.

But at this moment, listening to her schedule, knowing that the family went through this routine multiple times a day, looking at the dark circles under her eyes, it struck me: She’s not unfriendly. She’s tired.

It wasn’t about me. It never was.

As it turned out, one of the other VBS leaders was a former nurse and Heather volunteered to hook Daniel’s G.I. tube up and clean it out afterward, so Anna could have a four hour break. The look of grateful delight on Anna’s face was almost painful to see. How could I have missed the obvious?

How? For starters, I was focused on myself and my problems.

I was so self-conscious about my mental illness that it became a filter by which I judged others’ behavior toward me. I interpreted any negative (or even neutral) behavior through this filter, and believed that I knew their motivations when I didn’t. Moreover, I had allowed this misinterpretation to influence my behavior and attitudes toward them.

I think most of us do this. We have some aspect of our identity that we are sensitive about. It could be anything from the trivial to the important aspects of our humanity. We believe that others judge us for these things.

Please hear me out. I am not saying that prejudice doesn’t exist. It does. Prejudice is real. People can be hateful, judgmental, arrogant, and intent on shoving others down to prove their own superiority. People may be judging us.

But not always.

People can be prejudiced and not realize it, and unintentionally hurt us with careless words, or they might be aware of their prejudiced nature and not care. When confronted, they might be stunned into silence or defend their behavior or tell us things like: “It was just a joke. Get over it!” “Here comes the P.C. police with their political correctness crap.” “What’s your problem? Everybody says that.”

Or they might apologize, and ask how they can make things right between us. That’s the best case scenario. (It’s probably also the hardest one because it requires work from both of us. Things like forgiveness and listening and grieving the past are difficult but worthwhile.)

All of these responses are possible when someone is truly prejudiced. But is the objectionable behavior really prejudice to begin with, or am I assuming it is?

In thinking about prejudice and stereotypes, I’ve realized that I need to be careful. Sometimes, what I see as negative behavior toward me might be a product of my perception, not a reflection of reality. I need to think first.

  • Did they mean this in the way I interpreted it? What was their tone or body language during this incident?
  • Is it really negative? Would another person interpret these words or behavior in a negative light? (This is a big one for me, because my mind can distort things; I usually ask my husband or mother how they interpret the issue.)
  • Is there another possible reason for their behavior? (Even if I don’t know the person, can I think of other reasons for this person to behave this way?)
  • And, if I know this person well (and not just “this type of person,” which is a stereotyping on my part), is this a pattern of behavior or is it out of character, possibly resulting from a bad day (or lack of sleep, or hormonal imbalance, or issues with medication, or other stressors)?

Sometimes, it really is prejudice against me.

And sometimes, it’s not about me at all.

Categories: relationships | Tags: , , , | 32 Comments

Judging a short story contest and advice to a young writer

Judging fiction is difficult. This observation comes from a woman who spent several hours reading through twenty-seven short stories, all submissions to a writing contest. That would be me.

Remember how I stressed, sweated, and trembled over submitting my resume to a literary journal? (And wrote multiple blog posts about it to bolster my courage.) I didn’t receive the position as blog editor, but they promised to keep me in mind for other volunteer positions.

I thought that was a nice line in a form rejection letter. They were serious, and offered me the chance to serve on the panel that selects the semi-finalists for their annual short story contest.

The semi-finalists will go to a different panel, and the finalists will be judged by a guest writer. I have to narrow down my “yes” selections to twenty.

Currently, I have eighty-five submissions to read, and the deadline isn’t until the end of October. (The journal editor expects around two hundred submissions.) So I’m pondering short stories now, not resumes, and the works in consideration are by anonymous writers, not me.

Years ago, one of my professors told the class that he knew what grade a paper would receive after the first paragraph. (Cue horrified gasps and protests.) He read all the paper through, of course, and on rare occasions, he was wrong.

Literary agents have said they know if the novel is strong by the end of the first page (often, the first few sentences). Ditto for the query letter. (Cue angry protests from writers.)

I agree.

Let me be clear. I am reading each story.

Let me be equally clear. I know, within a paragraph, if the writer knows the writing craft. I’m not a professional anything, but I’ve read high quality fiction for decades. I recognize it. (I can’t necessarily write it, but I can recognize it.)

Let me be brutally honest. Most of the submissions are not winners. The stories aren’t ready for publication, and the writers aren’t mature enough in their craft development to realize it. This is clear within the first page, if not the first paragraph.

Let me be painfully honest. This hurts me. Each time I press the “no” button on a submission, I’m silently apologizing to the writer: Forgive me, I know this will hurt, but I have to do this.

I recognize the mistakes because I have made them, too.

Poor formatting. Stilted prose. Misuse of words. Grammatical, spelling, punctuation errors.

Melodrama, throwing rape or molestation or murder like Frisbees, when the subjects deserve serious exploration. A confusing plot. Or no plot at all, only a character lurching from one event to another, searching for a story.

The thinly disguised memoir pieces, usually from people who haven’t dealt with their past.

The young writer trying to write from the viewpoint of a middle aged or older person.

The highly educated trying to write like country hicks.

The middle class trying to write about the upper class or lower class, and unintentionally twisting the characters into caricatures, where the rich are all self-absorbed and drive flashy cars and the poor all have beer cans littered around the living room and the word “reckon” on their lips.

Trust me, I’ve made all these mistakes, and I still make these mistakes. That hurts.

Also trust me, as a judge, I hate knowing that each of these writers stressed over their stories, fussing like a new mama over her newborn, and believed that their story was ready for submission. Like hearing the declarations of a mama who believes her baby is the prettiest in the church nursery, it’s hard to shake my head and say, “No, it isn’t.”

I know that somewhere, these writers are sitting by their computers and anxiously waiting. Stressing, heart racing when they check their email accounts.

I also know the devastation when a form rejection arrives. No matter how kindly worded—and it will be kind from this particular journal—that rejection hurts. Why didn’t they say yes? the crushed writer wonders. Why can’t they tell me what I did wrong? A sentence or two, anything!

I wish I could tell you, dear writer. If I could, here’s what I would say:

It gives me no pleasure to vote “no” on your work.

But it isn’t ready. You aren’t ready. Your craft isn’t mature enough to write what you want to write, what you hunger to write.

This is about the writing, not you as a person. Always remember that.

I want to give you advice, from one growing writer to another.

I would tell you what I liked in your work. That turn of a phrase. That germ of a compelling conflict, the one that could grow into a strong story. That insight about your character, about humanity.

I would tell you what I think needs work.

I wouldn’t lie. Writing well is hard work. It is not without its pleasures and rewards, but it is difficult.

And most of all, I would tell you this:

Keep writing.

If it is your passion, keep writing.

If you are willing to invest hours and years to learning your craft, keep writing.

If you feel God laying a hand of blessing upon your work, keep writing.

If it leaves you in tears and devastates you and rips your heart from your chest, wrestle that bloody, pulsing mess onto the paper and keep writing.

If you are willing to take that heart on paper, the pulpy, bleeding first draft, and cut it apart, dissecting and slicing and analyzing, only to hurt through the same painful procedure with each successive draft, keep writing.

Don’t ask me about talent. That has almost nothing to do with publishing success.

Talent is cheap.

Hard work is expensive.

But no one else can tell the story you can. No one else can do this hard work for you. You have to do it. You.

Keep writing.

Categories: writing | Tags: , , , | 13 Comments

How to create an enemy

(This is a repost from February 2011.) 

One year ago, my hometown was rocked by two school shootings within one week. At 2 p.m., Friday, February 5, a fourteen-year-old boy shot a fellow student in the head. At 4 p.m., Friday, February 12, an assistant professor opened fire at a faculty meeting, killing three of her colleagues.

I don’t know what either alleged killer thought they would accomplish with their actions. Clearly, though, in their twisted logic, both the boy and the woman considered their victims as their enemies, worthy of death.

I reacted with a mix of sorrow and anger and fear and bewilderment. How could they kill those other people in cold blood? I wondered. I would never do that, never kill someone.

Or would I?

Recently I read The Moses Expedition by Juan Gomez-Jurado. In the preface, he included a poem by Sam Keen entitled “How to Create an Enemy”, which describes in vivid terms how humans make others into their enemies. We take our own hateful traits and project them onto others, destroy their individuality, and twist each person into a caricature encompassing all that is negative. Then the poet writes,

When your icon of the enemy is complete
you will be able to kill without guilt,
slaughter without shame. 

You no longer see a person as a person, no longer see our common features, no longer see that we are all a tangled mess of heart, mind, spirit and body. When you strip a person of their humanity, it is easy to make them your enemy. Enemies are to be fought, defeated, and killed. It becomes a simple matter to shed blood.

It isn’t difficult to see this idea played out on battlefields, in mob lynchings, and during genocides. It was obvious when planes crashed into the Twin Towers or when the gas chambers and crematorium in Auschwitz worked day and night or when blood soaked the soil of Rwanda.

But not all killings are as blatant as that. We can kill others with our words and actions. The only difference is that those victims live. Our words, sharper than any knife, more destructive than any bomb, have wounded their souls, yet left their bodies intact.

Church business meetings filled with people intent on defending their points at the expense of other’s souls. Political finger-pointing by talking heads on television. Gossip at the office water cooler or on Facebook or during Wednesday evening prayer group. On a more intimate level, words have divided husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers, sisters, and friends.

We strip them of their personhood, seeing instead an enemy filled with evil qualities. In less extreme cases, we see only their flaws and irritating qualities and weaknesses. Then we stone them with our words, bent on destroying the badness within them and tearing them apart as people.

And often, what we hate in them also resides in us.

In college, a boyfriend and I argued before the first of our three breakups. (Yes, three.) Two days before, I had told him I thought our relationship was moving too quickly (true), that we needed to slow down (doubly true) and I needed a break. (My friends heartily agreed.)

The next day, he ignored me.

The next day, I exploded. “You totally ignored me! You shut down and wouldn’t talk to me and acted all pouty because I hurt your feelings and—and—and—” I sputtered, too angry to find words.

“You do that too,” he retorted.

There was a pause before the argument resumed. He was right. When I’m hurt, I tend to shut down and avoid talking to whoever I’m angry with. It’s as though I would rather lose a friend than confront them. The very thing I couldn’t stand in him was present in my own heart, and I couldn’t stand that. So I delved into my darkest self and found words to devastate him as surely as a gun or knife would.

It was easier to see him as the enemy than to see how I am often my own worst enemy. It was easier to point the finger at him than look at the fingers pointing back at me. It was easier to strip him of his individuality and paint him as a stereotypical jerk than to deal with him as a complex, flawed, and broken image of God, just like I am.

And after I had cast stones and painted distorted portraits, he was no longer himself but the enemy.

Then I could find my cruelest words and kill without remorse.

 

Have you ever made an enemy? If so, how? 

Categories: relationships | Tags: , , , | 8 Comments

Why Ebola should not be a metaphor for unbelief

Metaphors are the balance beam of the gymnastics competition.

Image and words combine. The literal and figurative nod to each other, teammates and competitors alike. The word muscles are strong, the imagination precise, the confidence soaring as the writer leaps into a word performance that stuns the judges, the readers.

One fraction of a centimeter off, and even the strongest gymnast wobbles, stumbles, falls. The words fail.

Virginia Woolf writes that any successful essay should be “exact, truthful and imaginative.” The same might be said of a successful metaphor.

In the middle is the easy routine. Anyone can walk across a balance beam if she has two stable legs, just as most people, given the adequate vocabulary and adequate grammatical proficiency, can express an idea on a literal level.

Others can do more: a handstand or cartwheel, an overused image or an easy idea. Cliches are easy to perform safely. No risk. No gain. No imagination turning in mid-air, no surprises backflipping over the ideas. Why bother? She might as well lie down on the beam of cliched expressions and nap.

On one side, the writer falls into obscurity. It’s unclear what she means. There’s no precise image in the reader’s mind, and probably not in the writer’s mind, either.

On the other, the writer falls into inaccuracy. The image may be present in the reader’s mind, but it’s misleading (even if the writer doesn’t intend it to be). It’s untruthful.

For a metaphor to be truthful, it must illuminate something deeper within its subject, something we may have seen but not articulated, or may not have seen at all. For example, Maya Angelou writes,

“If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat.”

Touch the blade. See the rust. Watch the bare throat, the quickened pulse throbbing beneath her skin. Do you feel her vulnerability?

A good metaphor rips apart our perception of a thing and reveals the reality, bloody and raw and alive. When I read Angelou’s words, I sensed a deeper truth about relationships and race, and felt horror and sympathy for any black girl in this position. I hadn’t seen it that way before. I wanted to protect her. I hadn’t felt that way before.

Now compare this, from tweet by John Piper, a prominent pastor:

Yes, yes, let us give and pray and risk in the battle against Ebola. And yes, yes, even more against the Ebola of unbelief.

What deeper truth is revealed through this metaphor? Nothing.

It’s not even an accurate metaphor. Unbelief springs from within our own hearts, while Ebola is spread by human-to-human contact. I will never catch unbelief from another person; an Ebola patient’s body did not develop the disease from some cell mutation or birth defect or revolt of the body against itself. The comparison isn’t precise.

It’s a misstep as the tweeter reaches for the cliched comparison of a spiritual condition to a physical sickness. (Think of how many times writers refer to the “cancer of unbelief” or some other such spiritual word. It was meaningful about the time cancer was named. Now it’s a cliche.) Ebola was in the news, wa-la! it was the “Ebola of unbelief,” rather than the “cancer.”

Metaphors matter.

Language is important.

People can be hurt, physically hurt, when the medical terms, diagnosis, and language of suffering are flung haphazardly through our vocabulary. The urgency of the situation is lost. The suffering isn’t described.

It’s easy to ignore a suffering person when I don’t understand the need to act now.

When I was first diagnosed with depression, I heard a friend say, “I’m so depressed.” When I asked why, he described his “depression”: a bad day. Not suicidal thoughts. Not despair. Nothing that wouldn’t end after a day or two. He had appropriated a medical diagnosis (depression) to describe something that was definitely not a sickness.

My feelings weren’t hurt. What did hurt is that many, many other people had heard me say “I’m depressed” and believed he and I were describing the same feeling. We weren’t. I didn’t get the help I needed, in part because the word “depression” has been misappropriated and misused.

Think of how many times we’ve heard “oh, I could just shoot myself!” from someone who wasn’t suicidal but was aggravated with herself for a stupid action. Hearing it over and over and over lessons the impact of the words until we may not know when a person is using the expression figuratively or is in a crisis.

The Ebola epidemic is a crisis. It calls for immediate action.

“The Ebola of unbelief”?

That metaphor is no doubt intended to convey the dastardly nature of unbelief.

Instead, it minimizes the truth of the crisis, rather than revealing it. In those words, do you feel the pain of the sick, the heat of the fever, the smell of bodily fluids, the stench of decaying flesh, the agony in the marketplaces and schools and homes, the gloves and protective gear and isolation wards, fear clenching its grip around the human hearts? Do you feel compassion for the sick, sadness for the grieving? Do you feel moved to action?

Or do you feel nothing?

It’s a shame. Piper is a gifted communicator with a wide circle of influence. I disagree with his opinions on many issues, but I still respect him as my brother in Christ. He’s been given a gift with words and the gift of influence, and I fear that he is misusing it.

I read his tweet, and instead of seeing Christ and the call to love my neighbors, I’m busy watching the missteps and falls as his language falters. He jumps, and in landing, misses the beam entirely.

The words fail.

The truth is minimized.

And people continue dying.

 

(Tim Fall had an excellent post on John Piper’s tweet, one that takes a different approach than I do here.)

Categories: Christianity, writing | Tags: , , , , | 9 Comments

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