Ladies, It’s Sort of Our Fault when Male Writers are Alcoholics

Today we have a YouTube podcast by one of my favorite living writers, Andrew Klavan. Skip all the political stuff at the beginning (unless you need a laugh, cause Klavan is funny).  For this post, we are going straight to the Mailbag segment at the end of the show.

At 34:10, Klavan reads a question from a listener who says that he is writing a screenplay.  The writing process has required him to open up some bad memories of his own, which though it resulted in good writing, has been hard on him and has slowed his progress.  “How do you deal with this, Mr. Klavan?”

At 34:58, Klavan agrees that this is a problem.  “Writing can really rip you to pieces, especially if you are an unsteady personality.”  Later, he will end the segment by saying, “Especially if you’re a really good writer, you’re really gonna hurt yourself sometimes, and you have to take care of yourself and heal.”

So far so good, if so obvious.  This is something that all writers know, even if we try not to talk about it a lot because it makes us sound like overly fragile artiste types.  Still, it’s good to hear this confirmed by a professional who has written hard-boiled crimes novels and screenplays and has even gotten paid for them.

But things are going to get wilder. Klavan starts elaborating on why writing can mess you up.  He mentions that if you write a villain, you have to tap in to that evil place in yourself.  Then, at 35:40, he adds, “When you create female characters, you have to go into feminine parts of yourself, which for men can be very upsetting.  I think that’s why a lot of male writers are alcoholics, because they don’t like to face that part of themselves because it makes them feel that they’re not manly.”

Whoa! Wait! Stop, Mr. Klavan. Back up. This is fascinating, and I have so many questions.

First of all, do you think that female writers have a corresponding problem? And if not, why not?

Secondly. Klavan has just said that writing female characters can be so depressing that it drives men to alcoholism. Wow. Now my question is, are they depressed just because they are dismayed to find they are capable of thinking in a feminine way? In other words, are they upset only by the implied insult to their manliness?  Or … is there something inherently upsetting and/or depressing about being a woman, and these male writers are experiencing that directly?  My money’s on the second one. I can see that it would be a lot to handle for them, poor lambs.  Being relatively unprepared for it and all.

In other words, it just more fun to be the average man than to be the average woman?

And I’m not blaming anyone for this. If there is some truth in it, I think it has a physical cause (female hormones).  Dennis Prager has said that if the average man could suddenly be given a woman’s brain for a day, he’d be totally overwhelmed by everything that’s going on in there.  Whereas if the average woman could be given a man’s brain, she would go, “This is terrific! I’m free!”

Anyway. If there is any truth in my theory, it would follow that it is less emotionally taxing for female writers to write male characters than the reverse.

Based on my limited experience, I think this is true. Perhaps it’s because, to a greater degree than men, women are already in the habit of putting ourselves in another person’s shoes.  We have been given a natural tendency to do this.  We need to do it, as mothers, so as to intuit the needs of our children, whether they are boys or girls. So, we get a head start on that being-depressed-by-other-people’s-emotions thing.

A couple of caveats.  No, I am not saying that women make better writers than men, nor that women are automatically good at creating male characters (there are plenty of counter-examples to that idea).  Just that women already tend to do, in our daily lives, a perhaps slightly less intense version of that part of the writing process that some male writers find so depressing.

What do you guys think of all this?

Maybe They Had a Tram

Today is Columbus Day, and also Native American Day. I know this because I have a wall calendar that was sent to me by St. Joseph’s Indian School in Chamberlain, SD. If it’s Native American Day, they ought to know.

So, thanks to them – and the kids who attend the school – for this post.

Since we are honoring Native Americans today, let’s return to a common theme on this blog: ancient people were a lot smarter than we think.

“An island grave site hints at far-flung ties among ancient Americans: Great Lakes and southeastern hunter-gatherers may have had direct contact 4,000 years ago”

I am your Sunshine Blogger

And you are mine.

So, the Sunshine Blogger award is given to bloggers by other bloggers who believe that the recipients spread sunshine. Imagine how surprised and thrilled I was to be given this award by Rachael Corbin at The Crooked Pen. Thanks, Rachael!

The Sunshine Blogger award is also a tag. If you get tagged, you must …

  1. Thank the person who nominated you and provide a link back to their blogging site.
  2. Answer the questions.
  3. Nominate 11 other bloggers and ask them 11 new questions.
  4. Notify the nominees about it by commenting on one of their blog posts.
  5. List the rules and display the sunshine blogger award logo on your site or on your post.

So, Numbers 1 and 5 down, 2 through 4 to go.

Here were Rachael’s questions:

  1. What was the most transformative reading experience you have ever had?

I am going to leave out those times when I’m reading some passage in the Bible and all of a sudden something jumps out and punches me in the gut.  Or when it crawls into my head and becomes lembas that I feed on throughout the day. Some of you readers will know what I mean.

Other than that, my most transformative reading experience has been ‘Til We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis.  I read it in college.  The tortured friendship between Orual and Psyche in the book closely mirrored a relationship that had been toturing me through the previous several years … though of course with a much more tragic yet satisfying ending.  Anway, it helped me see that some of the problems we were having were not purely my fault nor purely hers, but built into the nature of reality.  Also, Faces is just packed with insights and it’s set in an ancient pagan culture, which I love.  C.S. Lewis is under-appreciated for his ability to write horror, and there is plenty of that in this book.

2. What is a book you wish someone would write?

To be honest, it’s probably already been written.

I’m a sucker for well-researched fiction set in ancient cultures.  So I would love to read a book set in the heyday of the Anasazi … or Carthage during the Punic Wars … or a Noble Savage book where the noble savage is one of the Gauls during Caesar’s Gallic Wars … or What Was Really Going with Stonehenge.

I have seen people take a stab at some of these, but never as thoroughly as I’d like.  But, again, they are probably out there.  I just haven’t discovered them yet.

For example, Bjorn Andreas-Bull Hansen has written some novels about Vikings.  I think these are exactly the Viking novels I’ve always wanted to read … but they don’t exist in a language that I know! Aargh! (By the way, go to his site. Sign the petition to get his books translated into English.)

But I have, in my possession, waiting to be read, Pompeii by Robert Harris and People of the Silence (about the Anasazi) by Kathleen O’Neal Gear and Michael W. Gear.  I have high hopes for both these books.

3. Where is somewhere you really want to go, but have only read about in a book?

It would be shorter to list places that don’t match that description.

I guess my current #1 place would be Mongolia.  I had to research it for my first book, and it looks so beautiful.  It also resembles my home state a bit in the sense of being vast, treeless, high-altitude, and far inland. And I love the herding culture.  The food is gross though.  (Follow that link and scroll down to the heading “Exotic Nomad Foods.”) Also, my kids are extremely interested in the Mongolian Death Worm.

4. If you could have a book re-written, which book would it be?

1984.  I know, I know, the ending is integral to the book itself, but … still. I would like to see Winston hold firm at the end.  Or find out that Julia had.

5. What is a book you dislike that everyone else loves?

1984 and The Great Gatsby.  (Or, I guess people love these?)

6. If you had the power to bring any mythical creature to life, which creature would it be?

The Mongolian Death Worm.

Just kidding.  I don’t know.  Maybe Grendel so I could find out whether he was really a T-Rex.

7. Where is your ideal reading spot?

When I am reading, any spot becomes ideal.  (Car, bus seat, middle of a party …)  But I prefer to be comfy (plushy chair or sofa) with a view of the outdoors and some place to set my coffee.

8. What is the most disappointing book you have ever read and why?

OK, I am going to pick on one particular book here, but it’s representative of a whole category of disappointing books.

The Sign by Raymond Khoury, 2009.   This book was disappointing for many different reasons (see my full review of it here).  But the main reason was this: it promised mystical adventures but delivered only international intrigue. 

It is not the only book that has this problem.  It’s just the only one that I happen to be able to remember the title of.

9. What is your favorite genre of book and why?

Ancient mysteries/historical fiction set in ancient cultures.  But I don’t read a lot of this genre for two reasons.  Firstly, it’s kind of hard to find.  Too often, purported “ancient mysteries” books end up being modern thrillers.  (See above.)  And when I do find a book that scratches this itch, I have to be careful.  If I’m writing my own version of this genre at the time, I don’t necessarily want to be pulled into another world until my own has gelled.

So what I end up reading a lot is mysteries, especially mysteries with an anthropological bent like those by the wonderful Tony Hillerman.

As for why the “ancient mysteries” genre is my favorite (also why I like my mysteries to be anthropological), I can do no better than to quote the following poem from C.S. Lewis, titled, “To Certain Writers of Science Fiction”:

Why did you lead us on like this

Light-year on light-year, through the abyss,

Building, as if we cared for size,

Empires that covered galaxies,

If at the journey’s end we find

The same old stuff we left behind …

Well-worth Tellurian stories of

Crooks, spies, conspirators, or love,

Whose setting might as well have been

The Bronx, Montmarte, or Bethnal Green?

Why should I leave this green-floored cell,

Roofed with blue air, in which we dwell,

Unless, beyond its guarded gates,

Long, long desired, the unearthly waits:

Strangeness that moves us more than fear,

Beauty that stabs with tingling spear,

Or wonder, laying on the heart

That fingertip at which we start

As if some thought too swift and shy

For reason’s grasp had just gone by?

10. If you could make one book required reading, which book would it be and why?

The Everlasting Man by G.K. Chesterton.  I almost listed this one as my transformative book because it set me free to love paganism while still remaining a Christian.  I think everyone should read it because there is a ton of misunderstanding out there about the pagan roots of all cultures, and this book clears that up in such a beautiful, lyrically written way even though it’s nonfiction.   

One major qualifier.  Chesterton frequently lapses into anti-Semitism and it’s really jarring, not to mention inconsistent with his usual generous way of viewing the world.  (TEM was published in 1925, before the Holocaust.)  Also, as this book was written almost 100 years ago, Chesterton can come off as overly focused on the West and a bit insensitive and ignorant about non-Western cultures.  Nevertheless, his insights about paganism can be fruitfully applied to any traditional culture, and I think they ought to be.

Other than that, I heartily recommend this book.  I am thinking about doing a Hallowe’en post that relies heavily upon it.

11. What is your favorite bookish ship? (noncanonical and crack-ships are acceptable answers)

Haha, so at first I was going to name the Dawn Treader from Voyage of the Dawn Treader because I don’t read a lot of sea stories …

For those who aren’t up on fan fiction terminology (as I barely am), a ship is when you imagine two characters from a book or books getting together as couple.  (Short for “relationship.”)  Non-canonical ships are pairings that didn’t happen in the original book or series.  “Crack” ships are pairings that you would have to be on crack to even think of.

I am not a big noncanonical shipper. I just enjoy the ships as they show up in the books.  But, I did always think that rather than going off to live with the dwarfs and eventually get kissed by the Prince, Snow White ought to have run off with the huntsman.

Now, here are my questions for you …

  1. What kinds of non-fiction are you most likely to read?
  2. What is your culture crush? If you are a book blogger, you must have at least one. But please feel free to list more than one.
  3. What one currently living writer would you most like to have lunch, a beer, or coffee with?  (Pastors count if they have written a good book or two. Bonus points if it’s a pastor you could have a beer with.)
  4. What genre do you think is not your favorite, but find yourself picking up again and again?
  5. Sex scenes: poetic, explicit, or none at all?
  6. Favorite animal protagonist from a book or series?
  7. Have you ever stopped identifying with the point-of-view character in a novel, and what caused it?
  8. Did you then finish the book, or put it down?
  9. Dream vehicle from real life or fiction.
  10. If you currently have a Work in Progress (or are pitching a recently finished one out), give us your one-sentence hook for it.
  11. Post a favorite poem or fragment of poetry. If you don’t read poetry, then song lyrics count.

By the way. Commenters, if one of these questions really pulls your chain, feel free to answer it in the comments.

The following bloggers are my sunshine:

Kathleen Rollins of Misfits and Heroes

R.S. Rook of The Rookery

David of The Warden’s Walk

Black Sheep of Not Sheep Minded

Jen of “Of Time Storms and Tourniquets”

Book Stooge

Ed Mooney of Ruinhunter

Devouring Books

Katie Jane Gallagher

Jaclyn of Tiny Ticky Tacky

Colin of ColinD.Smith.com

I Like Bears

When I was a kid, for many years bears were my favorite animal. Then I got to be a tween and they were edged out by the nobler lion … and then I was too old to have favorite animals any more.

But I still like bears.

They just have a certain something to them. That something where they are cute and funny, and can also kill you.

If you don’t show the proper respect, they will maul you.

They were once used as a judgment of God. (II Kings 2:23 – 25)

And yet. Hairy, roly-poly, eat a lot, sleep a lot … maybe they remind us of ourselves. Or they parody or excuse our vices.

A blogger I used to know has said that he and his siblings used bears as a unit of measure. It started out with, “I’m as hungry as a bear!” “Well, I’m as hungry as ten bears!” But then it became more abstract, until bears could be used to measure anything. I think this is delightful.

Still, please remember that they can kill you.

Here are a few bears that you might find around my home.

My bathroom
My coffee mug
Even, occasionally, my socks

Poem: Settling

Sometimes a picture’s

the difference it makes.

Beauty you look at

gets you through the day.

Chamber of stillness

in prosaic life:

Beauty you look at

can help you survive.

Then comes vacation.

You can get away:

enter the beauty,

if just for a day.

Surrounded by aspens

on a mountain hike:

Beauty you live in

brings you back to life.

Back from vacation,

re-enter the grey.

Beauty you live in

seems so far away.

Back to the picture

but make no mistake:

Beauty you look at

just isn’t the same.

Re-Parenting in Fiction

“It takes a village to raise a child.” 

When Hillary Clinton says this, it means your children actually belong to the State, and the State has a right to intervene if they don’t think you’re doing it right (which, trust me, you’re not).  When normal people say it, it means only that in order to grow into healthy, functional adults, kids need more than just a mom and a dad.  They need a whole community around them.

In the past, I’ve blogged about how living in a small, isolated community consisting mostly of extended family limits the options when a family must deal with abuse.   That is still true.  But it’s also true that living in a close-knit community can provide some benefits for children whose own parents are lacking in some way.  They can receive re-parenting, or supplemental parenting, from aunts, uncles, grandparents, older cousins, and others.

Re-parenting in Harry Potter

Re-parenting occurs in Harry Potter.  Harry, as we all know, does not have a proper family and lives as the unloved stepchild of his aunt and uncle.  When he meets his best friend, Ron Weasley, he is introduced to Ron’s family.

From Ron’s point of view, the Weasley family is not all that great a place to be.  It’s a large family, Ron is the youngest of many brothers, and he often feels overlooked.  Also, the Weasleys are poor, not in the sense of starving but in the sense of wearing hand-me-downs and being subject to taunting from snobbier wizards.

From Harry’s point of view, Ron’s family is paradise.  It’s an intact family with a loving father and mother.  Mrs. Weasley is a great cook, and Harry’s wizarding gifts are accepted as a normal part of life instead of being hated, feared, and suppressed.  Even the large number of siblings makes the household a fun place to be.  Harry stays with Weasleys many times and eventually ends up marrying into their family.

Imperfect Parenting and Re-parenting

Over the course of the series, Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts, also provides a father figure to Harry.  However, it takes Harry some time to realize that this is happening because he has been conditioned to mistrust authority figures. 

Harry is also re-parented by his father’s childhood friend Sirius Black.  This brings out the point that all of us need re-parenting from a variety of people, not just one person or one family.  Neither Dumbledore nor Black is perfect (Mr. Weasley might be perfect though!), but between the three of them they give Harry a decent composite father figure.  That’s why we say “it takes a village,” not “it takes one perfect person other than your parents.”   

Ironically, sometimes someone who is a flawed parent themselves can be an ideal supplemental parent.  This is true of Dumbledore, who is a wonderful mentor to Harry even though he let his own family down in significant ways.  We also see it in how Ron experiences his family as a place of being second-best, whereas Harry has a great experience in the same family.  In some ways it’s easier to be a good parent to your child’s friends than to your own child. Thus, the need for re-parenting is not necessarily proof that our own parents failed us completely or were more than usually flawed. It takes a village is an expression that, properly understood, simply takes into account the fact that everyone is badly flawed. It’s like the interpersonal version of the need for checks and balances in government.

Re-parenting in Voyage of the Dawn Treader

In C.S. Lewis’s classic sea story, Eustace Clarence Scrubb has parents who are neither neglectful nor directly abusive, but they have raised him with an inadequate set of values that is rapidly forming him into a sluggard, a coward, and a snob.  Eustace, when he is whisked into Narnia, is re-parented not by any one adult per se but by the total experience of being in Narnia.  And ultimately, of course, by Aslan Himself. 

In Eustace’s case, getting re-parented is painful.  At every turn, he is asked to work harder, put up with more hardship, and complain less than ever in his life before. Then things get really intense when he turns into a dragon and, to cure him, Aslan literally rips away his dragon skin.  Eustace’s experience shows that re-parenting is not just about lots of love, hugs, and healing emotional wounds (though of course it can include that).  It’s also a process of re-training, being challenged and held to higher standards.  We see this in Dumbledore’s relationship with Harry in the later Harry Potter books, where Dumbledore starts giving Harry difficult assignments and holding him accountable whenever he doesn’t get on them.

Re-parenting in The Strange Land

Ikash, the teenaged protagonist of my novel The Strange Land, has an abusive father and a mother who because of her circumstances is barely functional.   Early in the book, before Ikash ever notices his crush, he “falls in love” with her parents, who have an imperfect but warm and loving home.  They demonstrate to him that there is another way to have a marriage besides the one his mother and father have.  It takes a village.

His crush’s father doesn’t immediately accept Ikash, seeing him for the at-risk teen that he is and a potential danger to his daughters.  Ikash is re-trained and challenged when he sees that Hur does not trust him, and is motivated to become worthy of that trust.  The relationship grows through a series of tragedies and setbacks, and by the end of the book, the way those two re-parent him is really a sight to see.

Ikash also finds father figures in his paternal uncle and in his older cousin Ki-Ki.  In both cases, it takes him some time to trust them because of his previous bad experiences with authority.  I didn’t consciously copy this dynamic from Harry Potter.  It’s just a natural dynamic that often repeats itself because of human psychology being what it is.

“Found Families” versus Re-parenting

Once or twice while reading book blogs, I have seen the term “found families.”  I take this to mean stories where a character is orphaned or rejected for whatever reason and goes on to find or create a “family” for themselves from friends they meet along the way. 

Clearly this is related to what I’ve been saying about re-parenting.  I am not sure that it’s exactly the same thing because I don’t know the details of what people mean when they say a “found family.”  My sense is that found families might more often consist of peers, whereas when I say re-parenting I am thinking more of a character being brought under the wing of a mentor (or, ideally, a couple) who are older and wiser.  Also, re-parenting can happen without the characters really being considered a family, as in the case of Eustace.

In the comments, please tell me what you know about the term “found families” and also what you love and/or hate about found families and re-parenting in fiction.

Quote of the Week (not Misanthropic): G.K. Chesterton

… the thing I propose to take as common ground between myself and any average reader, is this desirability of an active and imaginative life – picturesque and full of poetical curiosity … If a man says that extinction is better than existence or a blank existence better than variety and adventure, then he is not one of the ordinary people to whom I am talking. If a man prefers nothing, I can give him nothing. But nearly all the people I have ever met … would agree to the general proposition that we need this life of practical romance – the combination of something that is strange with something that is secure. We need to so view the world as to combine an idea of wonder and an idea of welcome.

G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Chapter 1

Kitchen Bulletin Board Poetry

My poetry board at the old place

What kind of thing goes on your kitchen bulletin board?

Well, recipes, obviously. Maybe a calendar. I have another, larger bulletin board that houses library and trash collection schedules, photos of friends and family, Christmas letters, things like that. But something else that I need around me is poetry.

A poem is the sort of thing you feed on. You take a moment to stand still and read it to yourself, slowly, like a deep breath for your mind in the middle of the day.

As you can see, on this bulletin board, I have:

  • Two recipes (pancakes, pie crust. The essentials)
  • A hand-drawn portrait of buttered toast, done by a toast-loving kid,
  • “Dill with it,” which was a gift from a loved one who knows my love for dill and script,
  • And four poems. One is Tableau by Countee Cullen, which I think of whenever my blond son plays with his friend …
  • One is one of my own, Theophany, which I wrote for a friend who was going through a hard time and then never sent to her …
  • One is a scrap of poetry posted by a fellow blogger from his collection Bone Antler Stone, which I had to print out because it grabbed me by the throat with its beauty …
  • And one is actually the lyrics to a hymn, Jesus I My Cross Have Taken, in case I need to refocus during the day.

It’s actually kind of rare that I have four poems up at once, but these four give you a good sense of the range of things that might, at any time, appear upon my bulletin board.

What poems, (say, within the last month), would you have liked to post in your kitchen?