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writing

The Crash And The Recovery: I’m still digging out from a computer crash last week. We were able to get in and recover everything, eventually, but it was a nailbiter for several days I spent on the phone with tech support typing lines of code they dictated to me (People, I do not know how to code, at all) as we coaxed my poor overloaded hard drive to remount itself long enough to fish the good stuff off it and then give everything a good cleaning. I am thankful for file backup habits forged in the fires of video editing (iCloud AND Dropbox AND an external drive) and for Blog Friend Hypatia who provided both moral and informational support.

Mr. Awkward Writes Stuff: If you’re hungry for Awkward House Content while I catch up, Mr. Awkward has started chronicling his plan to learn/do/accomplish ten things in the next year. You can follow/subscribe here. I am biased, obviously, but it’s good writing. Plus, this week is the anniversary of a really hard time for him, so I’m especially enjoying it as a marker of recovery.

Upcoming/In Progress Here This Month: October Search Terms, the next chapter in the story of the boyfriend who angered the birds, a post to help all the cheaters in my inbox find their way back from the Dark Side, plus “is it mean to not want to hug certain people even if you are okay with hugging other people in a group/family?” (Spoiler: Nope!).

Cats! Would you like to look at some buddies who were VERY GOOD at the Vet and who now have all their shots? Here’s some purring video of Henrietta, a short film about breakfast, a visual representation of how LW #1226 felt about her creepy boss who wanted to intrude on breastfeeding, and some recent photos of the cuddlebeans.

Hope everyone’s having a good week in Awkwardland.

Hello! Search terms have piled up, let’s do the thing where we answer the search strings people typed in that led them here as if they are questions. Context is missing (by design), so expect some comedy answers in between with the sincere stuff.

Let’s kick things off with a song. Have I used this one before? Who knows? I never don’t want to listen to Bananarama.

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Part 1 is here. This is a feature where patrons of the blog have first crack at getting short questions answered, it lets us cover a lot of ground and have interesting discussions. Please consider supporting the site at Patreon or via other channels if you can, I appreciate it greatly.

Onto the questions! In this batch: What happens when your family gets mad you wrote about them, quelching an inconvenient crush, fictional recs for healthy conflict resolution, heading off body criticism around tattoos, habit trackers for ADHD folks, and resources for improving positive body image.

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I had family in town this weekend so got behind on these, hopefully you enjoy them! The questions were submitted here, there will be a July session later in the month.

Q1: When I’m walking down the street with friends who love dogs, they love to interrupt our conversations with screams like “OMG LOOK AT THAT DOGGO!” I end up awkwardly replying with something like “oh yes, nice dog” or “wow, it has three colors,” without managing to quite mirror the friend’s enthusiastic tone. Do you have any suggestions for replies that might make these interludes more satisfying without involving totally faking enthusiasm I do not feel? (she/her/hers)

A1: Once I was on the beach with a close friend and we both lost our minds at a scene of family cuteness that was unfolding in front of us and then realized: She was looking at the baby. I was looking at the puppy. Neither of us had really even clocked the other small cute being.

I guess my question is, why do you feel like you need to mirror their enthusiasm or fake it? Your friends can be very excited about dogs, you can be the friend who is not so hyped about dogs and who indulgently waits out Dog Excitement Time. Probably you will forever be slightly annoyed by the interruptions in your conversations, probably you will say nothing about this because the world is hard enough without policing the joy of people who get very excited about dogs. Dogs will be fine without your affirmation, dog-people will stay excited about dogs, so carry on with your dry “Oh, was that a dog?” natural human reactions, there’s no need to pretend!

Q2: I recently split up with my husband of fifteen years. We went to the same writing program in college, and always connected over books, writing, art (etc.). His opinions on same have always been strong and strongly expressed, which made me shrink as an artist & art-lover to fit into whatever space he wasn’t taking up (which wasn’t much). How do I rediscover my own taste and reclaim my former identity as a writer? Thanks! (she/her/hers)

A2: What a necessary and hopefully extremely fun project, truly one of the great rewards of breaking up with someone unsuitable is reconnecting with your own pleasure and tastes. Let me throw a couple of ideas at you, and, while could always take classes and workshops, you might need a real break from that right now, so I’m going to suggest NON-class/writer’s group/formal structure with an authority figure-type-things, ok?

  • Anything you enjoyed and learned from during your time with this person is still yours, you don’t have to disavow all of it if you don’t want to. You get to still have your favorite breakfast place and bar and vacation spot if you want them, too. You were there in your story when you found these things, they aren’t his.
  • Repeat after me: There are no guilty pleasures only pleasures. Read all kinds of genres meant for all kinds of audiences, don’t stick to what you’ve thought of as Important and Prestigious and Serious right now. When teaching first year film students in their very first moviemaking class, I sometimes did an icebreaker where I asked them to list five “desert island” movies, and I didn’t want their “coolest” or “impressive” movies, I wanted to know the ones they watched over and over again, the ones that comforted them when they were sick, the ones that remind them of particular people and memories, the ones they can quote every line, the ones that made them dress up as the characters for Halloween, the ones that will always make them stop if they see it on TV flipping channels. We’d get GREAT lists, the class would know more about each other’s frame of reference, but something important would be discussed, too, which is, there’s a reason you wanted to do this with your life, don’t let anyone talk you out of loving what you love. Hold onto the things you love, and add new things to that love, don’t feel like you have to “upgrade” your personal art friends that got you through to right now.
  • The Artist’s Way is a classic for a reasons, the morning pages, “artist dates,” and thought exercises are a good guide-map to getting unstuck and working out some things. Some people react very badly to the sincerity and “woo” factor but I think that’s part of the magic, like, nope, you’re gonna be a BIG OLD DORK about your art for a while, now make a puppet of your inner critic and tell it to fuck off.
  • Go back in time. What’s the last thing you were reading right before you met your ex? What are some things you loved as a child and very young woman? Revisit them.
  • Go sideways. What are mediums that your ex had no expertise on or interest in? What are things you can experience live where you live (music, dance, theater) and immerse yourself in a room and a performance and a community? Try out a theater subscription, dig through your old mix tapes. Cleansing.
  • Go visual. Part 1: Collect images that speak strongly to you – could be photos (even ads), film stills/screenshots, photos of paintings over the course of a few months. Part 2: Choose your 5 favorite ones, and find a way to print out or cut out color versions of them and hang them on a wall. Part 3: Once you have them up, look at them and see if they have anything in common – common motifs, themes, colors, subject matter, spaces, what do they remind you of, what feelings come up, what senses come up. Repeat this periodically. What’s changing? What’s the same? (I used to do this in groups and have the other students walk around and write what they observed on blank sheets of paper under each group of photos. It always went somewhere very cool, maybe try this with a few artist/writer friends?)
  • No career advice right now, just process. Follow Shaula Evans, (http://shaulaevans.com/) she gives the best prompts and questions, always something that makes me think and want to revisit my own work. See also Jami Attenberg’s 1,000 words of Summer project, where subscriptions are full but archives are there and you can jump in any time. Or play with The Storymatic. You’re just playing for a while, the stakes are low.
  • Write down a list of 10 art projects you might do, include things that are totally silly and “would never work.” Your wildest dreams. Your pettiest revenge. Your most self-indulgent fantasy. Revisit this often. The “that’s ridiculous” stuff will sound more and more likely the longer you do this, if my personal “ha, nobody will ever make a movie like this!” notebook from grad school is any indication.
  • Take something you wrote before and remake it as something else. Does it have to be a short story or could it be a poem or a radio piece or a play or a puppet show. What changed? What stayed the same?

That should hold you for a while!

Q3. I love my wife a lot, and I love “general” intimacy and being physically close to her. However, I find I’m not as interested in sex with her any more. We are poly and both have a healthy sexual relationship with other partners, but for whatever reason, I’m just not turned on by her like I used to be, and I don’t know what to do about that.

A3: I have a few thoughts:

  1. Has your wife noticed/is she bummed out/also disinterested in the home front and happier to get laid elsewhere for a bit? Has something changed in your overall situation that’s contributing stress? What does she think is going on?
  2. Every person I know in a long-term relationship who is still having good sex on the regular puts it on the calendar in some way. I think we just reach a point where ‘being spontaneous’ or ‘being in the mood,’ just doesn’t carry it (“You’ll still be here tomorrow, right? Maybe I’ll be in the mood then!”) and we have to make a little more effort to make it happen. Are you and your wife getting over-scheduled with other commitments and is this a time/effort/energy thing?
  3. When you do do sexy stuff with your wife, can you try making it “all about her” for now, whatever that means to you? (Getting her off and letting her fall asleep after without any pressure to reciprocate, focusing on things you know she likes, reading/watching sexy stuff you know she likes). Obviously check in with her before you launch some SURPRISE! WE’RE DOING SEX YOUR WAY! campaign, but I would imagine a turned-on lady with a lot of gratitude for being made to feel awesome is probably a pretty exciting lady to be around.

Be gentle with yourself and with her, hopefully that gives you some starting points to figure out if this is a temporary slump or a tectonic shift.

[MODERATOR NOTE: I don’t let polyamorous folks slide into questions about monogamous partnerships run amok with “well, have you heard the good news about polyamory?” so definitely we’re not doing the reverse. If your comment about this was deleted, this is why. Thank you!]

Q4: What’s your advice for “how to be on time” when I have 1) executive functioning problems 2) trouble task-switching 3) the kind of depression that tends to get me “stuck” and ruminating right when I need to leave 4) irrational anxiety about that ONE LAST THING that needs to be done before I go? I know there’s lots of advice on this but not a lot that isn’t shamey + understands mental health.

A4: This is one of my constant struggles, and it’s probably going to be a life-long struggle for me, even with lots of medication and support and self-awareness and life-hacks. First, I hope you’re treating your depression, anxiety, and executive function stuff to the extent you can, and my suggestions are not substitutes for medical care. Second, these aren’t meant to be comprehensive solutions or cover every eventuality, but there are a few things that help me do better with time:

I have magical thinking about time. To fight this, when I put an event in my calendar, like, “Meeting, 3pm” I also calculate the necessary travel time & route & directions & cost (+ add 20-30 minutes to that for good measure), and schedule a separate event called “LEAVE FOR [EVENT]” and set up associated alerts. It’s not perfect but sometimes redefining a thing from “I have an appointment at 3pm” to “If I want to take public transit, I need to be on the 1:55 pm 78 bus ($2.25 + $.25 to transfer), otherwise I have to get a Lyft by 2:30 ($12-$14), hey Siri remind me at 1:30 to get ready” does a better job. It’s harder to do the necessary breakdown when I’m already stressed and worried about being late, so doing it right when I schedule the thing helps break it down and incentivizes the earlier, cheaper departure time.

My laptop is a trap. Do you have a trap? I love my computer, it’s how I know literally all of you, hello! If I am honest with myself, I will not “just’ read a few emails and answer them and oh look, here are some comments to moderate and read. I will get sucked all the way in and task-switching will be very, very hard. So if I’m trying to get out the door at a certain time, especially in the morning, once I start getting ready, I probably can’t flip open my computer. What is the YOU-trap between you and getting ready or between you and heading out the door? Can you recognize it and neutralize it?

What is the “why.” Feelings, especially depressed/anxiety feelings aren’t the BOSS of me, but they are information. If I’m avoiding/dreading/procrastinating about heading out the door for something, why? Why am I going to this thing in the first place? Why am I choosing to go, do I have a choice, what do I hope will happen there, what am I expecting to enjoy, who will I see, what am I afraid of, what am I not looking forward to? Am I over-committed and need to say yes to fewer things? I know for years of dealing with depression and anxiety that sometimes I truly can’t go to a thing but also sometimes it just feels like that and I will be quite glad once I’m there so it’s worth pushing through. I also learned that I should stop saying yes to specifically social events I feel “maybe” about in the first place.

Sometimes making a note of the feeling helps me do the thing anyway. Sometimes reframing “I have to” things as “I want to/I am choosing to” things helps (not always possible, but worth a try, I think). Shame is useless. It really is. I’m not 100% at being on time but I don’t walk into every room pre-apologizing for myself anymore.

[MODERATOR HAT ON: If you are an organized person who does not struggle with timeliness, exactly zero of your “just lay your clothes out the night before and just put your keys in a findable place” are going to help. We know that stuff, that stuff is useful, but for us there is no “just,” it’s still hard. Requesting input from fellow time-strugglers only.]

P.S. A few great people I follow on the topic of #ADHD specifically and executive function generally: Dani Donovan, Eryn Brook, and Elise Kumar.

Q5: I have a friend (Zelda), who goes through one trauma after another (all genuine problems). Nobody wants to say anything to her because she’s having a hard time because of *latest disaster*.
How much leeway can you give someone because of something like this (it’s been YEARS, and it’s always something) and what to do when she e.g. forms a new social media group with all but one member of our friend group? (she/her/hers)

A5: This is one of those questions where I can tell there is a GIANT back-story here. I’m going to try to answer this without judgment of you or Zelda or even trying to guess what’s going on. I think it’s time for you to take stock of a few things:

  • Do you want to be friends with Zelda anymore?
  • Do you specifically want to be in these social media groups with Zelda from now on? (Are you the person who was left out of the new group? Does “Hey, did you intentionally exclude (mutual friend), what’s that about?” get this done?)
  • Assuming you want to stay friends, where would you most prefer to interact with Zelda (online, offline, occasional catch-up lunches or go to the movies, text, phone, sending funny postcards in the mail?)
  • Is Zelda asking people for specific help with these crises or is it background noise – everyone’s sharing what’s going on with them, and this is what’s going on with her? Is it that you’re unsure what she’s asking for/why she’s sharing whatever it is? (“Hey Zelda, are you just venting or is there something specific you need someone to pitch in on today?”) Sometimes it’s hard to ask for help (and people think sharing the problem is the same as asking for help), sometimes it is just venting and the person doesn’t want help or advice, she just wants people to know what’s going on, when in doubt, ask!
  • Is the “Nobody wants to say anything to her” thing a “Nobody wants to say anything to Zelda about [certain specific unwanted/unpleasant behaviors] because she’s usually in the middle of a crisis” problem?

Assuming you come out of that thinking process still wanting to be friends with Zelda, you could try a couple of things:

  1. Maybe these online groups aren’t your jam and you can take a break from them.
  2. If you’re feeling some trauma fatigue, maybe you’re not ‘process trauma’-friend at this time, maybe you’re ‘do gentle nice fun things’-friend right now. If that’s the case, think about what occasional pleasant low-commitment hangouts you might want to invite Zelda to that are within her bandwidth and where the subtext isn’t “you are a disaster and I am here to help you.” Think: lunch, Saturday breakfast, free night at the art museum, a matinée you’ve been wanting to see, the cat cafe, a nice walk outside. Does changing the venue change the vibe?
  3. If there’s some conflict or behavior you need to talk with Zelda about, if “everyone’s” been keeping quiet about it for a long time and getting steadily more annoyed, keep in mind that Zelda doesn’t know it’s a longstanding problem. So be gentle, specific, and treat it like the first offense – one that you quite reasonably expect her to reasonably respond to – and speak for yourself (not the whole group). I’ve observed ____, what’s going on there?”“I need you to ___.” 
  4. Related discussions. Good luck.

Q6: I love your dating profile suggestions! Do you have any wisdom for folks looking for friends on apps like Bumble BFF? (she/her)

A6: Thank you! This is the first I’m hearing of this service, which sounds pretty neat. I’m not sure I have any advice that that would be different from the dating profile suggestions: Be very honest, vivid, and specific about who you are, don’t try to appeal to the widest possible audience (you don’t want ALL POSSIBLE FRIENDS, you want friends who match you), look for reciprocity and matching enthusiasm levels, and seek out the people who make you feel safe and good.

It’s probably harder to reject people who don’t really match you when there isn’t the same obvious”I felt no attraction/spark” answer to fall back on, but friendship has a spark, too, so pay attention to that. You can have a pleasant time with someone and not want to be best friends.

Q7: How do I talk to newer friends about the depressive episode I’m currently working my way out of? I haven’t had one in years and have made new friends in that time. They know intellectually about my depression (I am pretty candid about it) but hadn’t seen it in full flow until this year. I tend to isolate during them and am afraid I scared new friends off. (she/her/hers)

A7: You’ve been here before, which I think will help you think about why do you want your new friends to know (duh, they’re your friends, they’d want to know what’s going on with you) and what do you want them to know (“My depression flared up and I’m in a slump right now, what that looks like for me is ______”) and what do you want them to do (“My tendency is to isolate so I might not be up for big group things or super-keen to make plans, but it helps me when friends do ________.”) Giving your friends something to do and telling them what depression means & looks like specifically for you will help let them know what they’re in for. I hope you start feeling better soon.

Q8: I came out to my family as trans a year ago and they took it poorly but not extremely so, normal I guess. Though they’re using my new name/pronouns they haven’t apologized, it hurts. I avoid phone-calls/meetings and send postcards instead. We were never close – there’s not a good relationship to fall back on. I don’t want to cut them off but this is exhausting. What are my options to try and move on? (he/him/his)

A8: I’m so sorry it went down this way, you deserve better. And the postcards are smart, a way to keep the channel of communication open but not demand any immediate reaction. If you need to stop with the postcards and stop working at this in general, that’s okay, they have choices about what to do here, phones, email, and the post office work both ways, they can reach out to you if they want to. Can you throw your energy into friendships and community who are supportive and accepting and put this burden down for now?

If you want to make a last-ditch try (either now, or after you’ve taken a break from trying), if you’ve never sent them to the PFLAG site for some reading material you might do that (though definitely vet whatever specific links you’re sending yourself), and you might also say, “Hey, I want to be closer to you and figure out how to have an adult relationship, but I’m having a hard time with it. I’m so glad you use my name and pronouns, but I’m still raw from some of our early conversations around coming out. It would mean a lot to me to hear an apology about [be specific], is there a way we can clear the air?” Is it a “real” apology if you have to ask? I don’t know, but if you need it maybe you need it, and maybe they’re also flailing and trying to figure out what to do. Also, it’s come up before, but are there cousins/aunts/uncles who are supportive? Our families can seem like monoliths but they are made of people.

My friend (codename: Lieutentant Trans) wrote a guest post here long ago, and he has some wisdom for you, I think:

“Relationship essence can be boiled down to three qualities: presence, support, and approval. I think we often seek approval first, or even second, but the reality is it almost always comes last, if it all. With my parents, I learned I didn’t need their approval to have a relationship with them: we can still learn to accept each others’ presence and support. Now, the support will be limited during the periods of learning acceptance, so things will still be draining for those of us seeking a close relationship with parents, when one day you will reach a point of exhaustion, you no longer will want to focus on what’s not working, you don’t want to beat your head against the wall any more…

…And while your father might be ignorant about queer counterculture, he knows as well as you that you don’t have a relationship, that you are not close. What you need to determine is if he also wants to go beyond what you currently have. If so, spend time focusing on positive interactions, things you have in common. Talk about food, the weather, start following his favorite sports team, tell him about TV shows you’re watching. I’m not suggesting swallowing or ignoring the bad parts, I’m emphasizing work on building up the good (and mundane) parts with just as much as energy as you use on the bad parts.”

Basically: Find very mundane, non-loaded ways to interact and be present and see if that helps push the fraught history further back in time and gives room for something else to grow. I hope it gets better. But they might never be the parents/family you really needed, and you can definitely stop working at it for a while if you need a break.

Q9: I’m trying to reconnect with some of my busy and/or geographically scattered friends. I could use some words to remind myself that people are unlikely to mind one “hi, I miss you, here’s what I’m doing, how about you?” or “you suggested hot chocolate, how about a week from Thursday?” I started okay, then got stuck after the second person didn’t answer. (she/her/hers)

A9: It’s good that you’re doing this and most likely your friends (who are not a monolith, they are separate people) do not mind this at all and are in fact grateful! Keep trying for a bit, and then stop working at the people who don’t respond (though make allowances for mental health stuff and accessibility), and enthusiastically make plans with the people who do. I especially like your style of inviting people to specific things on a specific day (where they can suggest an alternative if they can’t make that thing), and inviting them along to a thing you’re doing anyway where it would be great if they could join you but it’s not the deciding factor. You can also add gentle RSVP deadlines in – “I’m trying to buy tickets by Monday, can you let me know by Sunday night” – and stack invitations – “[Reliable mutual friend whose attendance you’ve already secured] and I are going to take some books/knitting/crosswords/board games to x centrally-located cafe/bar between y and z o’clock on [date], drop in and have a drink with us if you can?” 

Don’t build your whole schedule around these things happening until you get affirmative commitments, remember that things didn’t get “scattered” overnight and they won’t get un-that way overnight, so I think you’re doing everything right, and it’s just going to take a little while.

P.S. If your friends have small kids, bring the party to them.

Q10: Many forms of self-care for anxiety are distractions from that anxiety (listening to music, etc). But sometimes I’ve found that I’m anxious about a solvable problem, and “distraction” types of self-care end up just being procrastination; I actually feel better after I do the thing I put off. Tips on knowing yourself or your anxiety well enough to know the difference between anxiety you need to just wait out vs act on? (they/them)

A10: I personally hate most meditation and “mindfulness” strategies and other calming down techniques, they only ever stress me out because now I’m probably Breathing Wrong on top of everything else, and I generally feel better when I convert my anxiety into action. (Especially around political stuff, where anxiety is a reasonable reaction to a situation, and “what can I dooooo” a matter of urgency (see the series of Half-Assed Activist posts).

I also (touched on in today’s Q4) started tracking feelings along with tasks and schedule stuff. If a task keeps rolling over from previous day’s to-do lists, or I’m having a hard time motivating to go to a specific thing, what are the feelings going on here? What am I avoiding? Is it something that absolutely has to be done or can I just admit I’m never doing this totally optional thing I thought I was going to do and delete it from my “should” list?

I think distraction works best when you’re stuck somewhere that you can’t leave, or where you can’t take action about whatever it is. You’re stuck in traffic or it’s taking forever to de-plane. You’re at work and obsessing about something happening at home or vice versa, or you can’t get started on the thing that’s making you anxious until you clear some other tasks first. Or, you’re at a party and there’s no house dog or cat to quietly pet in a quiet room. Then yes, breathe differently, listen to music, look at cute animals, brew a cup of tea, play a little Tetris on your phone, repeat “We’re not IN traffic, we ARE traffic,” whatever those temporary calming mechanisms are that work for you, bring it on!

From there, one possible test for you to try with your anxiety, if distraction isn’t working, when you’re in an anxious mood, maybe do a thing (anything) and see if it helps? I know UFYH often suggests setting a timer for 5 minutes and decluttering or cleaning 1 tiny surface as a starting point. There’s also this great post about Breaking The Low Mood Cycle where taking action even when you’re not in the mood can sometimes get you to the mood.

That’s all for this week (though there is now bonus content on schedule + to-do lists + feelings, thanks for the great questions!

 

“Sometimes I imagine what it would be like to give this book to my mother. To present it to her as a precious gift over a meal that I’ve cooked for her. To say: Here is everything that keeps us from really talking. Here is my heart. Here are my words. I wrote this for you.” – Michele Filgate, Introduction, What My Mother And I Don’t Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break the Silence

I just devoured this essay collection curated by the wonderful  Michele Filgate (whose title-essay about her mother’s refusal to believe her about childhood sexual assault at the hands of her stepfather is in the book) and it’s really good. There are love and appreciation stories aplenty, though many essays cover seriously harrowing ground around mental illness, addiction, emotional abuse, and other kinds of abuse without holding back. It’s not a light read, is what I am saying.

I feel like almost every piece in the book maps to a letter that someone has sent to my inbox about how to say the unsayable thing, how to know when it’s time to let go, how to tell your own truth, how to dig into the past without letting it define you, how to set boundaries, how to see a parent as a separate person who existed before you, how to honor the gifts our mothers give us and be honest about the poisoned apples they sometimes pass on. I kept highlighting as I went because I knew that some Letter Writer somewhere needed to see that sentence, see themselves on that page. “Mother Tongue,” Carmen Maria Machado‘s chapter about estrangement is one of the best things about that topic I’ve read. Some quotes from that essay:

“Whenever I saw her, she found some way to let me know that despite my accomplishments, I was failing. ‘You need to learn to make better choices,’ she told me, though what choices they were, she never specified. Besides, all I could hear was, ‘I wish I’d made better choices.’ And I couldn’t help her with that.”

“A reader might think that this is, obviously, a kind of misplaced parental anxiety and love. And they might be right. But I felt like I was losing my mind. There was no trust, no affection, no listening, just ignorant micromanagement. It felt like I was existing in a parallel universe, where everything I’d just done with my life, everything I was doing with my life, hadn’t made any difference at all. I was a kid again, useless. Nothing was mine–not my time, not my schedule, not my choices.”

I’ll stop before I accidentally re-publish the whole thing. If you spent Mother’s Day curled up in a ball because of a difficult relationship and/or if you have a letter hanging out in my queue about this topic, this might be a healing book for you. ❤

I’m working on a book proposal for a collection of essays, so I’m on a tear of reading essay collections of late. Here are some other collections I couldn’t put down:

  • Hanif Abdurraqib’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, which is an essay collection about race and politics and identity in America AND a memoir about family and love and being from a particular place in the Midwest AND a chronicle of how the music we love carries our dreams and tells our stories, how the music brings us back to particular moment in time, how it helps us remember and see. It’s a fucking stunner.
  • Alexander Chee’s How To Write An Autobiographical Novel which is, among many other things, such a love letter to the teachers who taught him to write. Chee has an essay in the What My Mother And I Don’t Talk About collection as well.
  • JoAnn Beard’s The Boys Of My Youth (I discovered her work through the outstanding 1996 essay The Fourth State of Matter which, if you are unfamiliar, could use a content note for everything from “school shooting/gun violence” to “dying pet” but it’s one of those pieces that says EVERYTHING and never lets go).

No comments, as I don’t really like debating about the books I read in my free time, I like what I like and you like what you like, but since people always want to know what I’m reading, here’s some of what I’m reading. I hope you’re reading things that speak to you!

Finally, I just got an advance copy of Jessica Pan’s “Sorry I’m Late, I Didn’t Want To Come: One Introvert’s Year Of Saying Yes” in the mail, I’ll update here when I’m done since I think “What would happen if a shy introvert lived like a gregarious extrovert for one year?” is a question that lots of us might like to see answered, if only vicariously and from a very safe distance.

Dear Captain –

I (she/her) am a middle-aged wife of a man (he/him). We’ve only been married three years (together 8) but it has turned out to be rather nothing like what I wanted marriage to be – and I was not unrealistic! He’s emotionally constipated and may also be more intellectually my inferior than he first seemed. He’s kind, not a monster, but he doesn’t manage stress well – at all – and I don’t manage money well. He’s sexually inexperienced compared to me, but he’s still interested whereas I am completely dead from the neck down. Right now hugging him is like hugging a pillow. I am so tired of managing his emotions, explaining things to him, taking the lead on any decision-making because he can’t manage it, quelling my frustrations, enduring his inept pawing, trying to explain my dissatisfactions and needs without somehow making him feel blamed, I’m exhausted. In addition, my work situation has gotten more isolated, difficult, and stressful. Plus there’s the news cycle grinding us all down slowly.

I believe strongly in the campsite rule of relationships, leave them better than you found them; I think if I vanished he’s in a better place: he’s in touch with his creative side, has a wide and non-toxic pool of friends who love him, and a homier home and healthier diet. However, I used to be creative and horny and enthusiastic and I did performances and made things and wrote things, I kept up with my projects and bills and friends, and now I just want to watch TV or maybe play World of Warcraft, though it’s too much bother most of the time. Definitely depressed! But, if he vanished, I would be worse than when he found me, but I’d feel free.

One day I had a dream, followed by another dream, which resulted in writing a 200,000 word book in three weeks. I didn’t want to do anything else, I was utterly engulfed in this project. He keeps asking what I am doing but I just can’t tell him, “Writing!” but he’s convinced I have to share every phase of any project like he does because he’s so insecure. Anyway, all I want to do is work on these books. I have control of that little universe on the page, and I don’t want to engage with him at all. He’s trying to be sweet but it’s too little too late. He’s always been terrible at communicating any kind of emotions besides stress. Any time he has stress he crawls up his own ass and neglects everyone around him, particularly me. I am exhausted beyond belief. We both have therapists, but it’s still too early to be experiencing results, and we definitely need couples therapy. A bitter part of my brain just knows he’s not asking her the right questions.

I am in despair and I just need to know how I can communicate “please fuck off” while I am working on this project, which is tantamount to an emotional affair (the first book involves me meeting and getting together with a famous person; the second is a meta response). I feel guilty not telling him, but I know he’ll take it personally and then those emotions he cannot express will be my problem too. I am his mother more than his wife and I don’t even know what a proper relationship looks like. But it ain’t this. If I knew it would be like five years from now, I would be gone. But I am hoping therapy/Wellbutrin will help.

I guess my question is: how do you tell the husband you are currently utterly burned out on that you are writing a story about being in love with someone else, and you’d much rather do that than talk to your husband? My book lover is not some Hemsworthian hunk but is the opposite of my husband in all the important ways, and a very nerdly sort of beau. My regular crush on him has definitely blossomed into something unhealthy, but I’m in no danger of acting out on it, so it’s more of an escape than a manifesto.

Sincerely,
Writing A Book With Dream Boyfriend

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Captain, my Captain!

I’ve looked through the archives, and while you’ve answered similar-ish questions, this one hasn’t come up before, so I’m hoping you can help! I (she/her) work as a freelance editor and am in a fairly privileged position––I have enough clients that I can afford to be somewhat choosy; I’m white and cisgender, so while I certainly object to racist content, it doesn’t actually trigger me when I come across it in the works I’m editing.

However, I’ve been running into more and more works with racist content from new clients, whether stereotyped characters, cultural appropriation, or micro-aggressions in their prose (and I’m *sure* I’m missing problems content-wise). Often times, it’s content that’s hard for me to screen for before taking the job–there’s no easy search for racism in a manuscript, unfortunately–and furthermore, I also know with my relative privilege, I’m better-placed to give feedback that these authors may at least listen to.

What I’m struggling with is these sorts of clients are taking up more and more of my time and mental energy and space. I know I need to find a better way of “screening” clients and balancing the ones who slip through the cracks with the ones I actually enjoy working with, but in the meantime, do you have any script suggestions for telling people that their writing is terribly racist? Alternatively, any scripts for “breaking up” with clients whose works are too terrible for me to work with them in good conscious? (All my contracts have break-up clauses, so that’s not a concern––it’s the giving the criticism part I need help with!)

I don’t want to condone these authors’ works, but I don’t want to be mired down in fixing unfixable content either (especially if the author isn’t inclined to listen regardless!). Since it’s a client-freelancer relationship, I feel the boundaries are different–we can work with each other at will and there’s no HR to report to–so I’m at a loss. Any help would be much appreciated!

– No, Your Book isn’t Misunderstood; It’s Racist

Hi there Not Misunderstood:

DIRECTNESS IS KINDNESS.

Here is my suggestion which I think will cover both “Honest Feedback For Clients” and “Fix This Right Now Or We Have To Break Up” bases. I am writing a blanket script that can be adapted, please use what is useful to you however this works best with your existing process for contracting for edits, ok?

FYI, here are my goals for the proposed script:

  • Directness is kindness. These people NEED to hear this feedback from someone, today you’re the “someone.” They hired you to help them make their book the best it can be, it can’t be the best it can be until this gets fixed, sugarcoating it or avoiding it is unhelpful.
  • Be specific about the nature and scope of the problem to the extent you can. You don’t have to include every detail, find a few particularly telling ones.
  • Make it clear that you cannot work on the project until/unless substantive changes are made. “Can’t you just clean up the text like I hired you to do?” Nope!
  • Strongly disinvite the person from arguing with you about the nature of the feedback – They can fix it or don’t, you’re not touching this again until they do.
  • Direct them somewhere that might actually solve the problem.
  • For now, grant them the fig leaf of “I’m sure this is unintentional, and confidentially between you & an editor is the right time to fix these problems!” which hopefully they will take as the giant gift that it is. For the record, I do not think most or all of the people who write and say racist stuff are doing it unintentionally, but when you are trying to persuade someone to do better, it might help them rise to the occasion if you don’t immediately shame or punish them. If they double-down, argue, counter with abuse of you or try to invoke that One Black Friend Every Racist Definitely Has But Never Actually Listens To, strip that white fragility fig leaf right off and add them to your “Nope, Never Again” list.

And here’s the recommended script, which I imagine delivering as soon as you’ve completed your initial read-through. Write your prospective/new client an email that spells out your feedback about the content, including the problematic content, and the next steps for editing the book, like so:

“Dear [Author],

I’ve completed my initial read of [Your Book] and I want to share my initial feedback and outline next steps for the editing process if we’re going to continue working together.

While some elements of the draft are very strong [mention one or two], I’ve identified some content that needs serious revision before I can commit to another round of edits.

Unfortunately, there are some examples of [common stereotypes][cultural appropriation][outdated language][misuse of dialect][racist, transphobic, homophobic, sexist, ableist tropes or attitudes, and go ahead and use these words, no ‘racially charged’ euphemisms][for fuck’s sake stop redeeming slaveholders and Nazis through the power of luuuuuuurrrrrrveeee] throughout the draft, for example:

[List out some of what you found and briefly spell out what is wrong with it, i.e. “Spirit Animal” is a term that is sacred to specific indigenous religious traditions, a white woman of Swedish descent from Minnesota categorically does not have a spirit animal.]

[OPTIONAL – I’ve tried to flag and highlight problematic passages in the text as I found them], which you can see in the attached draft which I am returning to you. I did not make edits in these passages since changes on this scale would constitute a rewrite of the material, and the issues go deep enough that in my opinion some authorial re-imagining and revision that falls outside my scope is the right fix].

Additionally, while I know enough to spot some potential problems, I am not the right kind of editor to get this where it needs to be, so I must bow out of working on this project further until substantial revisions are made.

I know this was probably not the feedback you were hoping to hear, but I hope you will take this to heart: This has potential to be a wonderful book, you’ve got such strong [worldbuilding][characterization][sense of place][addictive plot][idk think of something you can sincerely compliment and throw it out there!] that I think it is well worth investing some more time in making sure that it finds the widest possible audience and doing due diligence to make sure it is not unintentionally causing harm and making you come across as [racist, homophobic, etc. etc.].

I wish you well with making the necessary changes and I hope you’ll get back in touch when you have a revised draft. [If you don’t actually want this, don’t worry, this is like promising to be friends the second after a breakup, time will tell].

Best wishes,

[Your Sign-off]

Attachments: 1) A document with your draft with my initial highlights and comments. [OPTIONAL, obviously] 2) My invoice for X hours for work completed so far, due [DATE]”[YES, GET PAID FOR WHAT YOU DID SO FAR]

Hopefully that does the trick. People are either going to get it or they won’t, and you’ll know VERY QUICKLY which kind you are dealing with. A person who can sit with feedback like this, realize it is A GIFT meant to HELP them avoid harmful (and reputation-destroying MISTAKES) is someone you can possibly work with in the future.

Edited To Add: I had initially mentioned directing the person to sensitivity readers but, as several kind people correctly pointed out, sensitivity readers don’t want to read racist books, they want to read really good books and catch unintentional small stuff that slipped through other edits at the very end. Here are some resources about sensitivity readers, the first piece is a good one about the ethical choice to pull a book that couldn’t be revised.

Additionally: You mentioned looking for a new process for screening projects as they come in. I detailed one I used to use for writing screenplay coverage here that might be adaptable. I think you absolutely should spell out, in advance, some stages of how you work and lay out expectations, and one stage can absolutely be something like:

“The right author-editor collaboration requires trust and a large investment of time and energy, so part of my process is making sure that we will be the right fit. For new clients, I do an initial read where I give some initial reactions to story, characters, setting and suggest some starting points for the next round of revisions [spell exactly out what this involves, possibly incl. a basic template & time-frame]. Since this process reflects X hours of work, I charge a non-refundable fee of $$$ [this can be pretty nominal , and it’s also ok to base it on length of submission, so you’re not agreeing to read a freaking dictionary out of hand], payable at the time you submit your manuscript. Should we sign a contract for ongoing editing services, this fee is applied toward the first X hours.”

When you’re first hanging out a shingle, you want lots of clients, right? But when you’re established, you want the right clients, and it’s possible that charging a fee will also encourage people to polish their work as much as possible before investing the $.

A kind reader suggested the following additional language: “Content that reinforces racist stereotypes and oppression may be returned unedited and may be reconsidered for acceptance after significant revisions are made, entirely at the discretion of the editor” that you could include on your website and in your materials.

No comments today I have 10,000 things to do/write/do/write. Hope this helps!