Why I Write: About Tattoos

In the second book of the ‘Once Upon a Reality series, To Dwell in Dreamsone of the most physically unique things about Lyn is the giant tattoo on her back. Besides being one of the more fun tie-ins to the original fairy-tale the novel is based in (Sleeping Beauty), Lyn’s tattoo is central to the story in how it highlights her state of mind and eventually facilitates her healing process.

This was definitely a case of ‘write what you know’. Tattoos can mean many things to different people, sometimes positive and sometimes not. I currently have two tattoos and nine piercings. For me, body modification gives me a way to take control of my own body, of my own future, even when it feels like control has been stolen from me. As someone who has suffered through physical, mental and emotional abuse, this means a lot. It’s one thing for me to tell myself that I feel fine, that I think I’m okay and that I’ve healed from what has happened. It is another thing entirely for me to endure the pain of body modification, to ‘sear over’ the past and start truly cleansed. It takes a certain level of dedication, intention, and perseverance. It costs money, time, and (in some cases) the opinion of other’s. It requires a promise: that I will not go back on myself, and the progress I’ve made in becoming myself, as long as that tattoo or hole remains on my body.

When I write certain characters, especially those who have gone through a huge life experience or are exceedingly certain of themselves, I tend to write them as characters who have body modifications. In the ‘Once Upon a Reality’ series, Lyn is the first openly modded character. You’ll meet more as the series progresses, and even more when I complete my current fantasy projects. In my experience, body modification is an avenue through which to claim yourself for your own path. As a Catholic, this also means claiming myself for my unique purpose; for my own, special vocation.

So don’t be surprised if you see more tatted and pierced characters in my upcoming books. In fact, I’d encourage you to really analyze at what kind of modification they get, when, and where. It’s as important as any of their other characterizations, and I would be disappointed if readers just wrote them off.

If you’re an author, do you ever write characters with body modifications? If you’re a reader, how do you perceive body mods?

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Why I Write: In Third Person

    While presenting ‘Wanakufa’ at Pomona High School this week, the most interesting question I was asked was this:  Why do I write my short stories in third person, when they are very obviously based on real-life experiences?  

    Why not just write essays or fictional memoir pieces in first person? Change a couple of names, maybe some of the smaller details, but make it even more obvious that the stories are less made-up than they seem? It would certainly lend credibility to the stories. No one would be able to say that I had pulled them out of thin air. Even without me coming in to present and explain the story, people would know that these things happened to me, specifically- Elizabeth Rose, and not anyone else. 

   Well, there are a couple of reasons for that. For one, I tend to be a ‘crisis of faith’ kind of writer. I’m not huge on writing stories about when I was on the top of my game. I write about when I was down on my luck, sick, confused, morally challenged, sad, or angry. The other characters in the story sometimes share in that negativity. Sometimes they are the cause of that negativity. These can be people that I met once and never saw again, people I hate, or people that I’ve come to love who were just having a bad day, or I didn’t know them well enough yet. When I write these kinds of encounters in first person, I feel an almost irrepressible urge to explain how I feel presently about those kinds of people. It’s difficult to write in an ‘I’ voice without including what ‘I’ have learned. Putting my own ‘self’ into a third person character helps me create that distance. It gives me the freedom to be able to write both myself as I was, and the other people as they were. Sure, I change their names and normally only the people being talked about have any idea that the story has to do with them in the first place. So they’re protected in that way. But to be honest about how I reacted to them then, I can’t allow the story to become saturated with who I am now. 

   Which is another reason why it’s important for me to write my memories in third person. It’s too easy, when in the first person, for me to write myself as a flawless character. I write myself as the perfect person I know myself to be (even though I’m not). When I create a third-person character who happens to have the same kind of experience that I’ve had, I allow myself to be much more honest about myself. I allow Julia to be horridly arrogant, materialistic, and slightly delusional. Martha is too doe-eyed, cautious and suspicious. Beck is cold, and nearly uncaring to a friend calling out for help. I was all of these things at one time, and in certain situations- in other situations and times I am less so, or more so. I am better able to analyze the memory that I’m trying to work through when I can allow the character to embody the way in which I responded to the situation that I was in- helps me become more harsh towards myself, and more willing to put forth all those little issues that made the situation possible. Creating a ‘me’ without the ‘I’ helps me battle my own ego.

   I don’t write short stories just for other people. Novels, more so. But with short stories, like with poetry, I have something to work out. Old fears. Old trauma. Old questions. New questions brought up that make me think of old memories. Similar situations happening again and again in my life for no apparent reason. My short stories are written as a kind of map for myself- to attempt to see, objectively, where I’ve been and possible figure out where it is that I want to be going. I give them to you all in the hopes that maybe you too will be able to learn something from my own life. 

   Do I think I’ll never write a first person story? No. I’m sure there will come a time when it fits the story. But for the moment, I am not confident enough in my ability to instinctively separate my ego from my writing, and need a couple more years of practice with that. And I need a couple more months practice writing my own stories, from my own experience, before I can conjure up the audacity to make up such concise stories about non-existent people in the first place! So I hope you all will bear with me as I continue to learn, and continue to work things out. I’m grateful for the support. 

Why I Write: About Kenya & Typhoid

I’ve gotten a handful of questions about my recent short story release, Wanakufa, and I feel like that makes it the prime subject of my next installment of ‘Why I Write’.  I promise this one won’t be quite so heavy as the last. In fact, the story that Wanakufa is based off of is one of my personal favorites to tell people when I am getting to know them. I mean, who else can say that they’ve not only gotten to go to Kenya, but got a deadly disease and still made it out alive? I’ve been surprised at the amount of people who automatically assume from the story’s subject that Wanakufa is a period piece, as if typhoid is something people can’t possibly get anymore.  If nothing else, it tends to be a good conversation starter.

But if I’m being honest, it is something else. Something much more than just a ‘conversation starter’. It was a moment in time  that changed my life in so many ways. Not that I didn’t expect that- 17 years old, bright eyed and bushy tailed on my first mission trip overseas with a small group of young people similarly on fire to change the world in the name of Christ (yes, I am unapologetically Roman Catholic). We were tasked with helping to build a well for a small village in Kakamega. Our guide, at the time a professor of African History in Colorado, had been born in our host village- we’d be building a second well several hours away. Our trip to that village was the first time he’d seen his hometown since the death of his beloved mother. We entered that community to the sounds of a stirring memorial.

reception

It was that kind of reception that hit me the hardest, and would stick with me for the duration of our stay. Here I was, expecting some sort of wild joy to receive us. Some kind of acknowledgement that we, the Americans, were there to make their lives better. And yet, that didn’t matter to them until after the memorial was finished. More important was the welcoming home of their prodigal son. More important was the completion of a mourning that had been missing an integral piece for too many years. I am ashamed to admit now, years after the fact, that I felt upstaged for the briefest of moments. Uncomfortable, even. Ever since, I have pinpointed that moment of my own awakening to the awareness of my own privilege and the ways that it hurt people down to the bone. Of my own colonialist attitude, of the racist society I had been raised in and the self-absorbed way in which I had been dreaming of conducting my own skewed sense of social justice.

 

Which is not to say that I was all of a sudden enlightened, no. I still have so much more to learn. It has only been through years of fever dreams and obsessive remembrance of my time in Kakamega that have even brought me to this point- the point of attempting to write down my own process of growth in order to continue the dialogue through storytelling. I don’t want to ruin too much of the story, but I can safely admit that the story does closely mirror my own experience of contracting typhoid during my stay. (I couldn’t stand not shaving my legs because it was part of my routine and so I did, nicked myself, and let tainted water directly into my bloodstream, stupidly enough). The story was born from that experience, though the details and the ending might be a little different.

So why write it? Why not just leave it to talk about at gatherings for shock value? Because I felt like there was something in that experience that I needed to work out- namely, my own guilt over the attitude I had taken going into the mission trip. The arrogance that I had had to assume that I a) had any strength to offer our host village that they did not already have and b) that I could bring Christ to them any better than they could already feel Him. I also wanted to admit to both myself and the world how othering I had been from the outset, and how it had taken nearly dying to make myself truly, and not just cosmetically, accept my host village as family. And how sad it is for the world as a whole that white colonialism, and the attitudes born from it still alive and well today, continue to hurt a people who have their own rich cultures and voices. It’s a story that wants to say “I was wrong to be so arrogant, and I had no right. I came here, guns blazing, into someone elses’ family, thinking I was stronger than all of this, and now I’m about to die of a sickness most of our host family have had multiple times since they were children though the rest of the world considers it ‘ancient’, and I might never get to see my family again. And I might deserve that.” The story is fixated on longing and human closeness, and an insecurity in the face of death that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to shake.

I thank God every day for that humbling experience, and for the further humbling experience of having to learn even more about it through writing it down in fictional memoir style. It is one of my hopes that this story, this ‘confession’ of mine, if you will, will lead to learning even more about how I can put aside old ways of seeing the world, and be able to truly work towards a better way of being. This is all I am capable of saying- admitting my past shortcomings- and now, I must prepare myself to listen.

Why I Write: About Abusive Relationships

I’ve promised to write this post for a long time, and I honestly thought it would be easier to do. However, the past couple of times I’ve tried to sit down and write this, I’ve ended up gravitating away from my computer in a kind of act of self-preservation. You’d think, having just finished and published an entire novel about abusive relationships, I wouldn’t have this kind of aversion to it. It just goes to show, it never gets easier.

For those of you who have read or heard about my first novel, ‘Till the Last Petal Falls, you might know that it uses the classic fairytale, Beauty & the Beast, as a lens through which to analyze an abusive relationship. Through this, I show a couple of my own theories regarding societal views of abuse, and attempt to accurately portray the real-time feelings of an abused woman.

Now, I wish I could say that that experience was entirely fabricated. To be honest, however, I probably wouldn’t have written the novel if it had been. As it is, I remember reading about abusive relationships when I was younger and in the midst of abuse, and not really caring. Abuse didn’t happen to people like me- middle class, blonde-hair-light-eyes white girls with decent families and good grades. It wouldn’t really be until I got into college, and began talking to other survivors of abusive relationships that I realized that that is what I had been in- several abusive relationships, one after the other, in a vicious cycle that lasted years.

My mother has admitted her own fear that her practice of corporeal punishment on me as a small child might have predisposed me to seeing physical punishment as being more normal for ‘deviant’ behavior, but I knew the difference between a spanking, and what was being done to me. I didn’t ‘float away’, or mentally shut down as it was happening. I was entirely present- but I still didn’t believe that what was happening was abuse. I will not go into gross detail as to what happened, or how, or how long. As it is, it is enough to admit that some of the things that happen in my novel happened to me- whether they got downplayed or had details changed in transit to a fictional narrative. violence

I never planned on writing about my experiences. And why would I? The memories made me feel physically ill. I wasn’t a huge fan of talking about it- mostly because I didn’t want to admit that it had happened, whether it was admitting it to myself, or to others. I opened up to my friends first, and years later would finally admit what had happened to my mother. She cried, a lot. Like me, she couldn’t imagine that something like this would happen to someone like me.

It’s that kind of mentality that I wanted to address first, when writing this novel. The idea that abuse only happens to certain kinds of people. First of all, no one deserves abuse. Saying that ‘someone like me’ couldn’t be hurt is on the same coin as ‘someone not like me’ is more likely, or more deserving, of this kind of treatment. So my protagonist was to come from a good family, be a good, smart girl, and good-looking. I also wanted to address the idea that there is only ‘one kind’ of abuse. There are at least four abuse victims, of both genders, in ‘Till the Last Petal Falls. If you’ve read it, did you recognize them all?

When I read stories about abusive relationships in high school, it seemed like the abuse was either always happening to small children, troublemaking teens, or older, married women. Not straight-A teenagers in a higher end neighborhood, like me. The victim always knew what was happening to them, recognized it as abuse, but kept on going because they ‘loved’ the abuser enough, or trusted them. While I know that this can be the experience of some victims, I knew that part of the problem with me recognizing that what had happened to me was abuse was that I had never seen abuse framed in the way it happened to me before. I just kept taking the advice of my similarly young and naïve friends: love him more, and he will change. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know how to ask for help, and no one knew how to ask me if anything was wrong.

In my experience, hundreds of victims are silenced and kept from speaking out about their abuse due to several factors. One, the stigma of being a victim. There is still a lingering idea in society that abuse victims, and rape victims, deserve the violence they get. Why complain when the rest of the world is telling you that you got what you deserved? Two, the stereotype of a victim.  I was stuck in the mentality that abuse ‘couldn’t happen to me’. I can’t tell you how many more people I’ve encountered who never spoke up because of the same idea- female on female abusive relationships, one-sided love abuse, female on male abuse, male on male abuse, child on parent abuse… the list goes on. Three, the horror of abuse tends to lead support systems to try to find any other reason for the abuser’s behavior that doesn’t point to abuse. Case in point, I had been trying to get advice, and help, only several months into the abuse. Every time, my friends and adult confidants tried to explain away the behavior of my attackers. They didn’t want to face the horror of abuse themselves, and so put it back on me- the bringer of ‘bad news’- and successfully, for many years, convinced me that the beatings I had been enduring were not, in fact, abuse.

So I endeavored to write a story that would share some of the things that I’ve learned about myself in the most accessible way that I knew how- by manipulating the stories that we know and love, to let them be a comfort for the reader as they delve in some of the darker aspects of their own reality, in order to bring up new questions surrounding what many people mistakenly believe to be a ‘dead subject’. I know that my experience is not ‘the’ experience for abuse victims. Every victim reacts, protects themselves, and heals in different ways. It is my hope, however, that by adding my voice to the crowd that I would be able to foster more discussion about how to prevent abuse, how to detect abuse, and how to live on after being a victim. The novel itself was created to raise awareness, while the donated royalties will serve to support organizations locally who are using their own unique gifts and resources to ensure that not one more man, woman or child is allowed to be abused in our society without justice being found. My hope is that by sharing this story, even if it is fiction, we can continue this conversation about abusive relationships without shame or stigma.

In wrapping up this post, I would simply leave with a polite request that my readers not ask me to delve into specifics about my own experience with abuse. What I have put in my novel is what I am comfortable with sharing. If I wish to tell more at any time, it is my decision to do so. I only ask that you respect my decision, both in sharing as much as I have about my history of abuse and my refusal to share more, from here on out.

God Bless.

 

Why I Write: About Twisted Fairytales

Twisted Aurora by Jeffery Thomas

Twisted Aurora by Jeffery Thomas

On my poetry blog  I have a series of posts called ‘Why I Write’, in which I go a little more in-depth about the recurring images found in my poems. Now that I’ve really begun to sink in to my fiction writing career, I figured it was about time that I did that for this blog. Albeit, I don’t write as much fiction so there’s not going to be as much material to choose from. However, I feel like it’s important in understanding both who I am as an author, and what I’m trying to accomplish with my writing.

So we start with my biggest fiction project: the Once Upon a Reality series. As stated before, this series will take common women’s issues and look at them through the lens of classic fairy-tales. For example, ‘Till the Last Petal Falls uses the framework of Beauty & the Beast in order to highlight some important issues surrounding abusive relationships. The currently-in-edited-stage To Dwell in Dreams tackles prescription drug addiction and a form of post-partum depression through the lens of Sleeping Beauty. The third installment, in planning stages, uses the Snow White story to bring to light the abuse, confusion, and difficulty of growing up as an autistic female with an overbearing mother.

But why? Why these issues? Why not just write about them straight-up fiction (or non-fiction) style? Why feel the need to bring in the fairy-tales at all?

There are a couple of reasons for this. The first ties in to how I even thought of the series in the first place. I was reading another blog’s take on fairy-tales and the bad lessons that they teach us as children. I, being a lover of everything that’s been retold by Disney, was offended. I immediately leaped to defend all that is sparkly and magical. But then I stopped. Sure, the classics that I had grown up on had taught me plenty of good lessons. Wonderful lessons. But as I grew older, and ran into more morally complex and potentially dangerous situations, I realized that these lessons, though good, were no longer enough. Some of them that had been applied healthily as a child, such as learning to love people despite their exterior, were being warped into adulthood and becoming reasons to allow myself to be abused, or to stand on the sidelines and watch others be abused.

The more I looked in to the unintended ‘side-effect’ lessons of my favorite fairy-tales, the more I wanted to do something. Couldn’t there be a way to re-direct the original story into something that was more applicable to adults? It was from that desire that I began planning the series- I took the original plot and aligned it to what I saw as being the ‘bad’ message that the tale was sending to its audience. From there, I figured out how I needed to tweak the original story to make the new goal the driving message- whether that meant changing the story’s ending, or pushing the story more to the background in order to bring the goal forward, or tweaking the roles of certain characters throughout. My hope was to create stories that not so much re-told the original fairy-tale, but released their readers from the hold that the original tale might have had on them just enough that, while the original ‘good’ message of the tale remained intact, the ‘bad’ message would be somewhat neutralized by this new take.

It goes without saying that the topics that I tackle in this series are not happy-go-lucky ones. Even in later novels that are nowhere near as physically violent as the first, the themes are still dark. In polite conversation, most people avoid talking about these subjects, because they can become uncomfortable. They are things that we do not want to think about, or that we think about in depreciating manners that can turn dehumanizing for certain groups of individuals. For me, the fairy-tale framework becomes a way to ease people into the topic who might not normally want to talk about these things. The safety of the narrative allows the reader to immerse themselves into a new world, and a new way of experiencing life, rather than just pontificating at them and scaring them off the topic. Using fairy-tales also makes the issue much more relate-able- how many times have you heard your girlfriends (or guyfriends) talking about which Disney princess/prince they are more like or which story of theirs is most like their own lives? When forcing those timeless characters to go through situations that fit their own stories, and yet branch off into ways that are normally taboo… the taboo subject becomes more relatable. Instead of being on the outside looking in, readers are allowed to dip into a world that is terrifying and begin an honest discussion about it.

It is my hope that this series can contribute to the discussion of many things that have been deemed ‘uncomfortable’. I focus on women’s issues mostly because they are the issues that touch me personally the most- things I’ve had happen to me first hand, or seeing siblings and best friends endure throughout the years. From the question of ‘Why did she stay in that situation, if he did x?’, to questions of ‘What does it mean to have no sex drive in an oversexualized age’ and ‘What if I’m not excited about my pregnancy, at all? Can I talk about being scared?’ and ‘Why does it seem like my mother is always acting in competition with me?’. Relationships, situations, expectations that drive people to the edge…. things that we don’t talk about, or things that we assume about others that are largely untrue. I know that I alone can’t just solve all of these problems… but if I can just get one or two more people talking about it who otherwise wouldn’t… then that’s enough for me.

Stay tuned for the next ‘Why I Write’ in which I will go more in-depth into the way the fairy-tale is twisted in Till the Last Petal Falls- how much of that narrative was based on personal experience, some statistics regarding domestic abuse and ways in which you can help speak out against violence against women.