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Love, Danger, and “Thought Experiments”: A Conversation with The Dissenter

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A few weeks ago, Portuguese YouTuber Ricardo Lopes asked me to be on his wonderful show, The Dissenter. I was kind of surprised, since a fiction writer like me seemed a bit off the beaten path for him. I’d already watched several of his “Dissenter” episodes and knew he had a particular interest in the sciences; one that included anthropology, neurology, and psychology to name a few disciplines. His roster of interview subjects was impressive, too, at times reading like a who’s who of world-renowned brainiacs – ranging from Gad Saad to Noam Chomsky.

“So, you want to go slumming with a mere fiction writer?” I asked him.

“I love fiction,” he said.

Ricardo and I first met on Twitter of all places, where we got into a conversation about Tolkien, Game of Thrones, and what people actually want from a story. I was so impressed by his unrelenting curiosity, his broad knowledge and infectious open-mindedness. Quite simply, he’s fun to talk to.

On his unconventional, conversational-style program, he conducts long-form, penetrating conversations that aren’t only for other eggheads. They’re for people like us, who simply love to learn and aren’t afraid not to know the answer. Or more to the point, aren’t afraid to get an answer that may not fit comfortably into our worldview.

That’s what’s great about Ricardo. He’s fascinated by the counter-intuitive, will offer an unpopular opinion, or even go off the rails if need be. He wants to know. He wants to understand. He knows two opposing things can be true at once.

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Long story short, when we actually sat down to “do this thing,” I knew it would be a rare treat for me, and, I hoped, for anyone listening. 

We talked about the role fiction plays in helping us create alternative realities that encourage us to understand ourselves and others better, and help us weather difficulties. These “thought experiments” as Ricardo calls them, allow us to safely explore disturbing, even horrific circumstances like war, the mind of a killer, a dangerous attraction, the worst thing that could possibly happen in our lives.

By dallying in these dark places, we may even recognize the folly of our most reckless fantasies, or be empowered to take calculated risks. Far from being a threat to our emotional well-being, “thought experiments” most often encourage personal growth and the development of empathy. We agreed that no writer worth her salt can afford not “to go there,” as they say. It’s why people buy our books for heaven’s sake. And why we write in the first place. 

Ricardo and I also talked about lovers and love stories, how much we both hated the final season of Game of Thrones (although he says anything after season 5 was at best a disappointment and at worst an abomination), why the classic novel, Lolita, which many revile as glorifying pedophilia may actually be a terrific cautionary tale against it, and how agonizing experiences like illnesses or acts of violence, despite their obvious shortcomings, can be powerful instruments. Ones crucial to our evolution as human beings. They can create a master from a hobbyist, a general from a grunt, a saint from a sinner. If they don’t destroy us in the process.

So, please, join us for this conversation. You’re going to love it. And if you don’t, you’re going to love hating it. Either way, you’re not going to be able to get it out of your mind so easily…and that’s the point of a great conversation, isn’t it?

“Dare to know.” –Emmanuel Kant

The Dissenter: What people want from fiction and the art of worldbuilding

And if this gave you something to think about, please consider become of patron of Ricardo’s on Patreon.

The Dissenter on Patreon

Get Marooned on Savage Island!

Savage Island proposalIt’s launch week for Savage Island, the teaser novel for my epic, new fantasy romance series, Breath (coming soon, folks). I’ll bet a pint of my blood you’re going to love it (it is Halloween season, after all).

I want to give all of you Cold followers the heads up on Savage Island’s debut price of $2.99 (ebook) and $11.99 (trade paperback). This price will only be offered until Sunday! After that, it’s all going up to the regular retail price, so do get your discounted download or copy before time runs out.

And just to sweeten the pot, I’ve got a Savage Island Swag Contest for you! Here’s the skinny: Email me with the first sentence in Chapter 9 of Savage Island and I’ll throw your name in a hat (and yes, I do use an actual hat) for a drawing that could win for you some awesome book swag! Things such as this COLD mug:

Well, that was a much bigger picture than I anticipated 🙂

You’ll also recieve signed trade paperback copies of all of my fiction, and a couple of other fun surprises! So do make sure to get your copy or download of Savage Island if you haven’t already – and get your name thrown in that hat!

Click here and get marooned on Savage Island for a while!

Some people fall in love. Others fall through time.

The island of Niue, 1944.  On this remote island, deep in the South Pacific, about 1,500 miles from its closest neighbor, it hardly feels like a war is on.  Angelie, a 17-year-old Australian girl, is waiting out the war on the island, where warm tropical winds blow through her hair almost as gently as native islander Will Tongahai’s eyes graze her body.

But the arrival of an African archaeologist and his German consort unsettle the inhabitants of this tranquil isle, and Angelie begins to wonder if the war hasn’t finally reached their shores.

As Angelie and Will are drawn to the suspicious pursuits of the new visitors – an ancient statue, a fantastic myth – a series of vivid dreams about deserts and long forgotten prophecies ensnares them. The lovers discover that their destiny, one forged thousands of years earlier, is not only bigger than their prospective future together, but makes a mere world war look like child’s play.

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Boys to Men: Some Thoughts About This Marvelous Transformation

Manhood. It almost feels archaic to write such a word. It’s become a muddled term, seeming to have as many definitions and contradictions as there are coffee beverages offered at Starbucks.

But despite all the opposing interpretations of what manhood should or does mean – from treatises on “toxic masculinity” to the men’s rights movement; from domineering fictional fantasy lovers like Christian Grey in the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise, to men who bare their souls the way sweet, sensitive Noah does in the blockbuster novel and film, The Notebook – I don’t think this manhood thing is all that difficult.

It may indeed seem we have a polarized view of what a man should be nowadays. If we’re to trust the media, we might conclude that men are confused and women are angry. Or perhaps it’s the other way around? At our core, I don’t think women’s expectations of men or men’s expectations of themselves have changed all that much, though. Certainly some aspects of the way men and women relate to one another have been reshaped dramatically. The sexual revolution forced us to look at one another anew, struggle through a fresh way of defining courtship and marriage. We’re still not done sorting it all out.

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Photo by Pavel Nekoranec on Unsplash

When it comes to the fundamental tenets of manhood, however, those remain remarkably intact. I see them everywhere – on the left, right and center, in books, movies, news segments. In atheist reasoning and religious dogma. In whatever political football is being punted on whatever given day. Certainly in the way I raise my son, love my husband, and approach constructing both male and female characters in my work.

Classically male virtues are ones of courage, fidelity, industry and duty. These are ancient tenets of manhood that still linger today. The Romans were a bit more specific, placing humor, mercy, frugality, wholesomeness (health), honesty, dignity, and a host of similar traits on the roster of model masculine attributes, but they ultimately concluded that the sum of a real man is one who lives a life of virtue, plain and simple. One who aspires to answer to his better angels. And while today we may have differing ideas of how to arrive at what constitutes a virtuous life, I think the essential elements of what we value remain refreshingly stubborn.

Yet from a purely romantic perspective, all this virtue business is a bit dry, I’ll admit. Cute as they were in their togas and gladiator outfits, the Romans weren’t particularly romantic in nature, and neither are our current pundits and politicians for that matter. If we want to understand what a woman craves from a man, how a man is just dying to be seen by a woman (and the world), we’ll do better to keep our eyes trained on fiction.

Anywhere from the legend of King Arthur to Jane Austen will do, if you want to stick to the less ancient classics. Both the Arthurian legends and their more modern literary cousins are damned good at clearing away the cultural debris and getting to the bones of what a man should be. Mid-twentieth century writers such as Kerouac, Hemingway, Stienbeck, even Salinger and gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson have shown us what deep down a man wishes he was like, sometimes at his wildest and most tried and true. More recent scribes – Diana Gabaldon, Maggie Shipstead, Nora Roberts and Amy Harmon – offer a more updated and feminine view of the kind of man a woman goes nuts for, and a man follows around like a good dog. The Tonto to his Kemosabe.

But all of these authors, even the most manly man wordsmiths among them, seem to understand that women’s expectations of men boil down to one crucial element from which all of the other virtues quite naturally flow. A woman wants to be the center of her lover’s universe. No matter what and forever. She wants him to be that immovable force.

That is the key maxim of every work of fiction that trains its eye on a pair of sweethearts, but it’s not only romance novels that draw attention to this fact. Such a sentiment hovers unspoken in almost every genre. Even in high testosterone spy thrillers, players like James Bond – a man who finds a new paramour in every adventure – adheres to this dictum. Is he not prepared to give his life for even the most undeserving damsel in distress? The gangster’s moll, the double agent, the fellow assassin?

As I endeavored to delve into lovers and love stories with gusto in my fiction this time around, I gave a lot of thought to how much a romantic story really does hinge on the creation and evolution of a man worth falling for. After all, if a man is going to make my female protagonist the center of his world, that world better be interesting and worth living in. It better be one of virtue.

As a mother, I’ve been downright obsessive at times about the kind of boy I want to raise to manhood and unleash upon humanity, especially on fellow members of my sex, or even of his same sex if he’s so inclined. I’ve tried to bring that same passion and self-interest to my stories, aiming to cut through the dither and disorientation that surrounds the conversation around men and manhood these days. Build from scratch the kind of man we all want in our lives, and in the lives of our sons and daughters.

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Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash

I knew I needed to feature rituals that usher a boy into manhood and then unveil opportunities for my male protagonist to fulfill his promise, earn his place among the adults in the room, and ultimately, even lead them. “When” is a seriously underrated concept in my view, and rituals have historically played an important role in our development, giving us the ready, set, go! signal we’ve been waiting for. The one that dares us to put our virtues into play. Make them more than mere ideals.

From baptism to filling out a draft card, ceremonies and other officialities have let us know that ready or not, it’s time. To step up, to fight, to finish, to make love, to marry, to make a decision. About who we are and what we stand for, what we’re willing to do and risk everything for.

And that is the crux of what makes up a man in the end, is it not? His decisions. His ability to make them and stick to them, accept responsibility for their outcome. A man’s ideals may tell him how he should behave, his rituals may let him know when it’s time to employ those ideals, and fate may offer him an opportunity to take action, but it’s by his decisions that he’ll be judged and remembered.

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Photo by EVREN AYDIN on Unsplash

“The women take care of a boy’s hair until his hifi ulu,” Ku whispers. He’s come up next to me, too, and I’m glad for his company. 

“Of course with Will, that’s been a no go. He hasn’t let a woman touch his hair since well before he left for England. Except for Oliana, of course.”

That just about stabs me through the eye.

“Of course,” I say.

Sure enough, Oliana takes up the scissors and lifts up one of Will’s ribbon-wrapped locks. She takes a first snip right above where the ribbon is tied up top and holds it high for everyone to see. There’s a big cheer and Will meets my eyes, so I swallow hard and give him the best and biggest smile I’m able. This is his day and I’m not about to behave like a jealous harpy.

One by one, each of the women and girls take a turn cutting off a beribboned lock of Will’s hair – something they get to keep for themselves as a memento of the occasion, and symbol of their role in making a man of Will. –Savage Island

The hifi ulu, the Nuiean hair cutting-ceremony that acknowledges the passage of a boy into manhood is real and I chose to feature it in my upcoming novel, Savage Island, precisely because of how important I feel such rites of passage are to young people. On Niue, until a boy’s hifi ulu, the women of his family take care of his long hair – brushing, braiding, doing whatever is necessary to keep it in shape. After his hair is cut, the implication is that the boy must begin behaving like a man, not only caring for his own person, but getting himself mentally and physically prepared for caring for a family and for others who may need him down the line. It’s a lovely ceremony, and crucial to my protagonist Will’s journey, as from that moment on, the responsibilities of manhood will fall on him in a way he never expected or could have ever dreamed of.

 

Savage Island…coming October 1, 2019

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Tonight’s Lecture Will Be on the Creative Process (whether you like it or not)

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Last week at the dinner table, my middle daughter (age 15) performed a cheeky, dramatic reading of a sweet love scene I wrote for my upcoming fantasy-romantic novel, Savage Island.

“Will’s kiss is wild,” my daughter cooed. “It’s like the wind Aunt Kitty is so afraid might sweep me off the tops of the arches.”

She stared directly at her 17 year-old brother as she hammed it up. But he would have none of it. He remained fixated on his food, moving his potatoes around with his fork.

“The kind of wind that blows my hair this way and that,” she continued. “Scoops the breath right out of my rib cage. Every stroke of his tongue – ”

“Please stop!” her brother shouted. “Do you have any idea how much this disgusts me?”

I knew that last bit was for my benefit, even before he looked my way. “Mom, I just picture you at your desk…sitting there…biting your lip as you write…and it’s horrible.”

I’m sure just about every parent can related to this admittedly awkward exchange (awkward for my kids, anyway). What child isn’t revolted by the idea of a parent having any kind of sexual awareness? What parent hasn’t heard one or more of their children express icky discomfort at the prospect of good ole mom and dad being real live human beings who brought their little bundles of joy into existence by reproducing the way real live human beings do? I suppose for children of writers, actors and artists who might address the act of falling in love or lust in their work – this type of evidence, one that isn’t merely circumstantial, but chronicled in detail – is mortifying.

Still, I figured this cringey domestic moment could also be an interesting segue into a conversation about the form and function of creativity. I forget how opaque the creative process may seem – even to those who live with artists. Few people outside the realm of painters, writers, musicians and their ilk have anything more than a rudimentary understanding of the way it all really works.

And for good reason. The creative process is complicated and difficult. It also happens largely inside our heads, so the many steps between the spark of an idea and something you can actually hold in your hand and experience remains hidden.

That’s why I thought it might be helpful if I tried to articulate some of those missing steps for my kids – especially my son, who seemed to fear that I sat around all day having sexy fantasies and then scrambled to jot them down before he got home from school.

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Photo by Christal Yuen on Unsplash

“Writing fiction,” I told him, “is not as literal an experience as you seem to think. Storytelling is one part memory and another part alchemy, and while I might start with a personal fragment – of an old acquaintance, an experience or observation, even a fantasy – from there it takes on a life of its own.”

“Great. Thank you for clarifying. Are we done?”

“No, we’re not done,” I scolded. In fact, I proceeded to ramble on and will try to capture some of the things I said by employing a hodge-podge of what I recall from my dinner table lecture, and bits and pieces I’ve written about the creative process in the past. Over all, the gist of this will be informative. I think. And interesting. I hope.

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Photo by Mervyn Chan on Unsplash

Here goes.

The weird goulash of anything and everything that’s ever caught my attention might offer some great raw ingredients for a story, but without something to bind it together, give it structure, it’s just a creative goo. For me, that’s where the role of myth comes into play.

Mythology, I believe, connects just about any work of fiction. It’s the bones that hold up each and every discordant part, providing architecture to the stories we endeavor to tell. In the case of Savage Island, it’s in the way my lovers approach one another, in their motivations, and the trials they’re put through in order to earn what is arguably the most sought after objective in the history of mankind – true love.

Seems to me all fiction writers throw a pinch of mythology into their stories, whether they know it or not. My own myth medley draws heavily on the Greeks, Grimm’s Fairytales, Hans Christian Andersen and the Bible. But I see the influence of myth everywhere. Thriller, sci-fi, fantasy, romance, horror, even dragon porn (yes, there is such a thing) borrow from bygone tales first told thousands of years ago. They indulge in narratives that touch on prodigal sons, jealous gods, heroic warriors and fallen angels. On evil witches, wise old shamans, prophecies and destinies.

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Image by Greg Montani from Pixabay

Once this brew of legend and cold eye reminiscence has been cobbled together, something resembling a proper fiction emerges. At this point, I clarified, I’m still not “done.” This is when writers sit down to bless the work with our senses – color, smell, taste, a little music for the ears. Quirks and eccentricities. These are the seasonings, if you will.

Stuff like this:

A bloke about my age starts to thump his palms on his nafa – bum-bu-bum-bu-bum – and the hair on my arms stands up. Son of the friendly woman from the post office, he’s long limbed and built like he should be tall, though he’s a fair bit shorter than me. His sister, can’t remember her name either, stands next to him all plump and pretty. She’s got a shock of curly black hair that hugs her skull like a bathing cap fixed with floppy rubber roses, and starts to sing Haku Motu. Out of tune. –Savage Island

From here, I followed my son into the kitchen, speaking loudly enough so that my daughters, who were clearing the table, could hear.

I stumbled through trying to decode the basics of the editorial process – something that’s still a bit mysterious to me, and involves a fusion of intuition and practice. How a writer reads her first draft with cohesion and natural progression in mind, for instance. What I’ve written has to make sense in order for it to come together; it has to move at a certain pace to have a reader turning pages. Otherwise, I know damned well the work will die. That’s why with very, very few exceptions, if a work of fiction is created by merely the act of transferring fantasy from brain to paper, it’s probably a hot mess.

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Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash

Because fantasies serve only our own desires.

Even when I’m writing one of those precarious love scenes, the ones where I’m taking a deep breath, conjuring every sweet nothing I’ve ever taken seriously – I’m not writing my fantasy. Or literally placing myself into the story. I’m crafting a scene, choosing my words carefully and from a whole host of possibilities. I’m thinking about the light, what scents might be enticing to my characters. Whether a girl from the desert might find the smell of a flowery perfume heavenly or overpowering? These impressions are part of a world built intentionally and meticulously. From the ground up and with a tremendous amount of love and passion. My fiction, I explained to my son (the girls were making Tik Tok videos together by this time), is no more a reflection of my fantasy world than are he or his sisters. And that’s the very reason it means as much to me as it does. It’s real.

At last, my son glanced my way again. “You know you lost me way back at ‘Bill’s wild kiss,’ don’t you?'”

Will’s wild kiss,” I corrected him. “My character’s name is Will.”

“Whatever,” he mumbled from the back hallway, as I heard him heading upstairs.

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Photo by Carli Jeen on Unsplash

Savage Island…coming October 1

Under the Spell of the Moon on Savage Island

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Glenn Miller was the king of swing until his plane disappeared over the English Channel in 1944. He’d been in London, broadcasting both entertainment and counter-propaganda when he got on a single engine plane to Paris, never to be heard from again.

When I was a little kid, growing up in the late 1970s amongst the schizoid dichotomy of flash and frowzy bad taste, I came across one of Glenn Miller’s albums in my grandparents’ sparse record collection. One that consisted almost entirely of polka. Miller offered me zip and glamour from the get-go. A sense of style that had gusto and a yen for a time that seemed better to me somehow. Clear and dignified, populated by people with a back bone, who dressed up for life. Fixed their hair, tipped their hat. People like my grandparents, but minus the polka.

Even when my hip, older step-sister, the one who had an actual disco dancing outfit complete with purple satin pants and Candies stilleto sandals, mocked me for listening to what she called “La-la music”, I would not be deterred.

“Did you know he scored sixteen number one records and had sixty-nine top ten hits?” I challenged her. I’d scavenged that information from the Encyclopedia Britannica. “That’s more than Elvis and The Beatles.”

“Who cares?” She said. “Nobody listens to them anymore either.”

Glenn Miller’s music was ubiquitous throughout the World War II era, which is also the era in which Savage Island, my new novel debuting at the end of September, takes place. I guess that’s no accident. I return to that time again and again in my fiction. It’s my go-to, the place where all of my ideas are somehow born.

There was one song of Miller’s in particular that I couldn’t get out of my mind as I was writing this fantasy-inspired wartime romance, the first in an epic new series that not only spans the globe, but takes place over a period of some six thousand years. And it wasn’t In the Mood or Chattanooga Choo Choo –both of which blasted out of dance halls coast to coast during that time, urging everyone to tap their toes and forget about the war for awhile. No, for this fan girl of the 1930s and 40s, the song that inspired the deepest nostalgia and had me up late into the night writing love scenes filled with longing and punctuated by first times was Moonlight Serenade. Miller’s most romantic melody, it has a slow groove that compels you to wrap your arms around your lover and sway. There’s a note of sadness and mystery to the tune, too, because like any great wartime love song, it doesn’t just celebrate the moment…it also hints at goodbye.

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And there’s something else that it does, using its advantage almost unfairly. Giving us a thrill and chill that seeps its way into our consciousness like a cool mist on a waterfront.

It offers the moon. Literally, figuratively, transcandentally.

If jazz was the music of an era – fresh and new, dancing tip-toed with the brazen singularity of a dandy, the moon is, was, and ever shall be the poetic figure of eternity. It promises so much, showing us mere mortals the closest thing there is to God’s face. It’s a serene and sublime fixture in a turbulent universe – one that has looked down on us since before the birth of the first man, and will stay with us until the last one takes his final breath.

There’s a reason we make wishes as we stand under her bold, blue light.

Miller had to have had this in mind when he was writing Moonlight Serenade. With his classic ambition, he was aiming at creating something that was for the then and now, but strived to hang around a lot longer than that. It’s a piece of his imagination that he wanted to linger after the war had ended and everyone had gone home. That might haunt subsequent generations the way Miller’s sudden disappearance and presumed death haunted the last months of that long and brutal war.

Every artist understands such an aspiration. The need for our work to cast a shadow, leave an echo and an ache. Even self-admitted commercially minded artists like Glenn Miller, who once said, “By giving the public a rich and full melody, distinctly arranged and well played, all the time creating new tone colors and patterns, I feel we have a better chance of being successful.”

But if it was just success he was after, going for the moon, so to speak, he would have never added an almost mystical, heartsick element to his lunar homage. He might have let the song remain sexy and simple, with the kind of mystery that might leave you wondering what color garter a lady wears under her skirt, but not what sacred marvels make up her soul.gondolier-2018052_1280

Perhaps in part because of Miller’s influence, my childhood memories of sitting on a shag carpet and listening to Moonlight Serenade, I’ve often used the moon as an inspiration in my fiction. Most recently, as the moon follows my lovers through history, through each life they’re born to, helping them find one another time and again. In Savage Island, the specter of our one and only satellite winks at these two unsuspecting hearts, offering glimpses of shadow memories – of all the times they’ve met, loved and lost each other. Of all the times they’ve basked in the lunar glow, standing hand to hand, leaning in for a kiss.

Moonlight Serenade helped me ground my characters in the present of the tale I was allowing to unfold. Illustrating what was at stake in 1944, and articulating the very themes of honor and purpose and struggle and devotion that had woven their destinies together forever.

Yet it was the actual moon that gave them to each other in the first place, in their first life many millennia before Glenn Miller’s music first crooned and crackled out of a ham radio. And it’s that very moon that can rip them away from one another again, just as easily.

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Daniel Lincoln on Unsplash

(Excerpt)

Will walks onto the rock plank and stands on its brink, his silhouette stamped onto the face of the very moon that’s inked onto the back of his neck. His head is turned away from us and facing out towards the sea.

Ah’kwarah’a,” I call out to him. The words just spill out of me and I cup my hands over my mouth, my heart batting away in my chest.

“What’s that gobble-dee-goop?” Ku asks me.

Will cocks his head and I know he understands. Even if he can’t possibly. Even if I’ve never known the words I spoke and can’t imagine where they came from. I only know they were in my dream, and I wrote them down this morning as soon as I opened my eyes.

They mean, I was born for you.

Savage Island, coming soon…

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The island of Niue, 1944.  On this remote island, deep in the South Pacific, about 1,500 miles from its closest neighbor, it hardly feels like a war is on.  Angelie, a 17-year-old Australian girl, is waiting out the war on the island, where warm tropical winds blow through her hair almost as gently as native islander Will Tongahai’s eyes graze her body.

But the arrival of an African archaeologist and his German consort unsettle the inhabitants of this tranquil isle, and Angelie begins to wonder if the war hasn’t finally reached their shores.

As Angelie and Will are drawn to the suspicious pursuits of the new visitors – an ancient statue, a fantastic myth – a series of vivid dreams about deserts and long forgotten prophecies ensnares them. The lovers discover that their destiny, one forged thousands of years earlier, is not only bigger than their prospective future together, but makes a mere world war look like child’s play.

Keeping the Faith

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Photo by Joseph Chan on Unsplash

I’ve been watching the demonstrations in Hong Kong, and to a lesser extent in Moscow with great interest, as readers of this blog might imagine. It’s been incredibly emotional for me to see the citizens of Hong Kong wave the American flag and sing our national anthem in their protests against the mainland communist regime that’s been cracking down on them slowly, but surely, since Britain relinquished their former colony to China nearly twenty years ago.

It’s difficult to describe what this means to someone who comes from a family of political refugees. Whose mother still clenches her fist and talks about what she experienced as a political dissident in a communist country. What escaping and coming to a democratic nation, one with a constitution by and for the people meant to her. It’s become almost passé, hasn’t it – such sentiments?

Yet, the truth of the matter is that the freedoms we take for granted and even deride at times are precious to those who are in acute risk of losing them. It’s good to be reminded of that every once in a while.

“You have no idea what it was like!” My mother still says at our dinner table at least once a week. “Nobody here – they don’t know and they will never know until it happens to them.”

I certainly hope it never happens to us.

And I desperately hope that the people of Hong Kong and the people advocating for more democracy in Russia won’t be squashed by their state, or largely ignored by a world which sympathizes, surely, but simply doesn’t have the political will to do anything but feel really bad about what’s happening over there.

“We have our own problems,” we say. And we do. Only ours over here in the West seem to be self-inflicted right now.

Our political screaming matches, our crisis of confidence – those seem to have shaken us to the core, making us doubt our very foundations, every institution we’ve ever built, each step we’ve ever taken. I pray we can shake off this temporary insanity soon. I long for us to embrace one another again, be grateful for what we have and reach out to those within and without our communities who are struggling. Who might look to us for inspiration and help.

I believe we will, because I believe in the raucous symphony of democracy. What we have is a pain in the ass to be sure. Democracy, by its very nature is flexible and forward moving. It requires a willingness to change, and to take responsibility. Personal responsibility when things go wrong. When our elected leaders disappoint us. When we fall short of our own expectations.

And it requires faith.

The Writing Life

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Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

My youngest babe recently asked me how it was that I started writing about “all this stuff” in the first place. It’s hardly an unusual question, and often comes from folks who genuinely like to write and are even quite good at it, but somehow never find the time or mental space to take it up as more than a here and there kind of thing.

Or are too timid about their prose to ever consider showing it to anyone.

The fact is, a lot of folks think up fantasy scenarios and might even dabble in getting their thoughts down – in a diary, perhaps. But “congenital” writers somehow manage to make writing a complusive habit. Despite the fact that many of us writer types are very interior people, we seem to feel the need to have others actually read our work, too. It’s quite a conundrum.

This girl is always full of questions (and she’s a great writer, too)

“I’m not just asking about the made up stuff,” my daughter clarified. “I mean when you write about Nana and us and all of that. Were you writing about real things, too, when you were little and showing them to your friends and teachers?”

This seemed simultaneously fascinating and mortifying to her. She’s already heard her brother and sister complain about how some of their classmates have read my books and worse – looked up my blog. A girl who had a crush on my son actually poured through everything I’d ever written about him, basically making the poor kid wish he could change his name and move to another state. I didn’t even write anything particularly embarrassing or all that private – at least from my perspective.

But writing personal essays is a bit like inviting someone into your home. Even if you don’t spill your guts to them, or blather on about anything too cringey, they still get to sample your cooking, get a feeling for your aesthetic, and have a long, hard look at the pictures you’ve chosen to frame. They get a glimpse into the family dynamic and note whether you drink one or two glasses of wine with dinner, you know what I mean? It’s all a bit intimate – there’s no doubt about that.

Still, I suppose without even realizing it, I’d set a place for the reader at my table long, long ago.

This really is my table

When I chose to write about family lore, I made a conscious decision to take a very big risk and expose not only my heart, but the hearts of those I love most. I did it in a pretty balls-out way, publishing my very first effort in the New York Times of all places. My Modern Love essay (“The Wrong Kind of Inheritance”) was about how my mom and I had always had a distant and complicated relationship when I was growing up, but became close after my infant daughter (the one in the “two-face” picture who loves asking all the questions) was born with cancer. I really did scrape it up from the depths of my soul.

It was a task that not only left my head spinning during the day, but gave me night sweats.

I’d never written a personal essay before then. Never even considered it. In fact, I didn’t even know much about the Modern Love column until my best girlfriend, a NYT stringer, told me “You have to write one!” after one of our long and winding telephone conversations during that awful time.

To top it off, however daunting it was to make sense of what was happening in my own life during my baby daughter’s fight for her’s, I also had to figure out how all of this fit in with the people in my family and their harrowing life experiences. Ones I’d been hearing about since I was in diapers, but had never felt the right to claim.

Czech secret police photo

This is an actual Czech secret police surveillance photo

As many of you know by now (at least those of you who have been a part of Cold Readers Club for more than a day or two), my family story is a two-hanky drama that gives Dr. Zhivago a run for its money. An epic adventure, it spans a World War, a Cold War, and a romantic, democratic revolution. There are more conflicting emotions and traumatic memories in my clan than there are mosquitos on a hot summer night. The amount of love and poetry and rapturous rage spewed at our table during an average family dinner takes many broods a lifetime or two of holiday parties, weddings, and funerals to amass.

I mean really, how many people out there have a dad whose own father was shot by a firing squad in his backyard when he was just a teen? A mother who was named an Enemy of the State when she was only twelve? Don’t even get me started on the rest of them.

“Please,” my girlfriend said. “I can feel the magic just talking to you.”

The magic. I think every writer has some idea of magic. It’s what makes us write in the first place, gives us our ideas, and draws us into a profession that’s right up there with movie stardom, pro sports and national politics when it comes to swinging for the fences. It makes us wrestle with our introverted selves, getting us to spill our blood and expose our innermost thoughts and fears to any stranger who happens upon our scribbles.

And I won’t deny it. I did feel the magic. My family had been fueling my fiction – everything from improv comedy skits to Cold War thrillers – for years. In retrospect, it now seems inevitable that I would come to tackle some form of more personal writing instead of always hiding behind the thick, velvet curtain of fiction. Always getting to manipulate exactly how the story will end.

Because that’s really what it’s about, these more personal narratives. What truly seperates them from fiction, apart from the obvious. It’s a level of exposure – when done right – that helps us draw broader themes from deeply personal experiences, paint them with some artistry, but doesn’t really allow us to control the reader’s perceptions or even our own. Because like a real conversation, the close kind that goes to places well beyond small talk, the reader is bringing her own story to the party, too, and catching you, the writer, in a candid moment…almost unawares.

This should have been our Christmas card

 

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