Tuesday, December 24, 2013


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All updates and information will be made to the new site and not to this blog!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Few Thoughts on Editing

As I read through my recently published story, "Swallowed," (Here, in case you want to check it out.) I got to thinking about how I had edited and revised it, and I figured it would make for a good blog post with some practical craft and writing advice.

In its current ("final" I would say, but what writing is final? Perhaps "published" is the best term...) incarnation, "Swallowed" is 5500 words.  A medium length short story.  In the version that I initially sent out to Gulf Stream (et al.) it was 9000 words.  A long short story.  A couple of places rejected it with a note saying: its good, but too long.  Gulf Stream took the time to say: we like it, we want it if you can make it shorter (by ten pages).

So, I began to hack.

At first, cutting off just under half of a story feels a little daunting.  Okay, a lot daunting.  But, in some ways, getting rid of thousands of words is easier than getting rid of a hundred.  You can't tell yourself -- I'll just trim back on adjectives.  No.  You've got to get in there with a machete (and then follow up with a pruning shear).  

So, off I went.  The editors had been kind and suggested I cut the start.  This is almost always where to go when you need to cut something. Get rid of the runway and let the story takeoff sooner.  That was two thousand words gone. 

For the rest, I looked at places where the main character went off on tangents or told about his backstory.  This was much harder for me to cut.  As I took out passages, I kept wavering, thinking: this is good character development... or, this funny!  

Maybe it was.  Maybe it wasn't.  The bottom line was that the story was too long.  Something (lots of somethings) had to go.  I didn't let myself read through the piece until I'd finished making the cuts down to the page limit they had set.  I cut (almost) everything that wasn't related to the forward motion of the plot: getting my character on his journey as soon as possible and then not letting him pause.

Then, when I'd gotten down to the page limit they suggested, I saved it, turned the computer off, and let it sit for a few days.  I worked on other stuff.  I tried to forget it.  Then I went back to "Swallowed" and read it through without letting myself change anything (okay, except for typos).  It was coherent.  It was faster.  It was, perhaps, better.  But the truth is: I missed a lot of what I cut... 

Deep breath.  Cutting your writing is hard.  But here's what I told myself as I made those final edits and sent it back to Gulf Stream:  I'm the only one who knows what's missing.  No one else will say - hey what happened to that awesome joke on page 3?  Maybe that's the author's burden, to know all the orphans and might-have-beens and close-calls and nearly-made-its in the piece.  

What I'm offering is a piece of advice that I often give to my students (and need to take to heart myself).  If a piece is good, it will probably be better if it is shorter.  Almost every story has some slack in it.  And even a little bit of slack can kill a good story.  Set a challenge: trim a thousand words.  Cut a story in half, length-wise.  Make that your writing project of the day.  It almost always makes it better.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Author Video is Posted

Among the many awesome things that Simon & Schuster does for its authors is put together an author video... it's meant to introduce the novel as well as explain some of the connections between my life and the novel and the process of writing, too.

So... here's the link to check it out: Author Video

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Peter Gizzi on Writing Implements

Last night I had the pleasure of attending a reading in honor of Emily Dickinson's Birthday -- it was at the beautiful Folger Theater.  Peter Gizzi read his own work as well as Dickinson's.  It made me realize that though I have often read her verses, I have seldom heard them read, and it makes a tremendous difference.  Poetry was meant to be heard.

Out of all the erudite comments that Gizzi made about Dickinson, about poetry in general, and about writing broadly, I most enjoyed an off-hand comment he made.  The topic at hand was Dickinson's habit of writing on scrap paper (envelopes, receipts, etc) in pencil.  Gizzi said of his own composition process:  "The pencil is my drug of choice."

I love it.  Not only another hand-writing writer, but also the idea that the writing itself, the mechanical process of it, is somehow drug-like.  In a good way.  It is intoxicating and overwhelming and out of body. True even if you use a pen.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Short Story in Gulf Stream Lit Mag

Check out my short story, "Swallowed," in the current issue of Gulf Stream Lit Mag.  The journal is full of awesome pieces!  Mine is a retelling of the Book of Jonah.  I've always thought that Jonah was one of the funniest books in the Bible, but the humor often gets lost in translation.  So this is my attempt to correct that!


Monday, December 2, 2013

Your Favorite Lines

In a recent class, we were reading Coleridge's "Frost at Midnight," and comparing the two endings of the poems.  The original ending read as follows:  

Or whether the secret ministry of cold
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet moon,
Like those, my babe! which ere tomorrow's warmth
Have capp'd their sharp keen points with pendulous drops,
Will catch thine eye, and with their novelty
Suspend thy little soul; then make thee shout,
And stretch and flutter from thy mother's arms
As thou wouldst fly for very eagerness.

Coleridge, in revising, cut everything after "quiet moon."   We discussed the revision and why he had made it (settling on a resonance created with the reiteration of the "secret ministry" that begins the poem), but agreed that the original final lines were lovely (for many reasons).  At this, the professor said: yes, they are.  But it is often the case that one must cut one's best lines.

His words reminded me of advice I had received (and since forgotten) in my MFA program: if you find yourself attached to a line -- remarking to yourself on how much you like it, keeping it in, draft after draft, even as other things change -- then it is probably a line you should cut.  

Now, I'm sure there are exceptions to this rule, but in general, I've found it to be a pretty good one.  And since remembering it, I've gone back over a few drafts of works in progress and made myself stop at every line that I really like and challenge myself: am I keeping it because I like it or because it is what the story/essay needs at this moment.  Generally, I'm keeping it because I like it, not because it is "right."  (This is, for me, particularly true of metaphors.  I come up with some comparison in my mind that just works and I don't want to change it, even when other readers point out that it doesn't work for anyone else.)

I hope that others find this writing tip useful.  If nothing else, it is yet another way to dive into a draft that you're almost done with a pay some close attention to language.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Pushcart Nomination

Many thanks to the Heavy Feather Review... for not only publishing my short story "In the Dark" but also nominating it for a Pushcart Prize.  So cool!

Here's their page:  http://heavyfeatherreview.com/2013/11/25/our-pushcart-nods-are-in/

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Galley Giveaway - Enter to Get Revolutionary for Free!

If you'd like a chance to read Revolutionary before it is released... and not have to pay for it... you have a couple of days left to enter the Goodreads Galley Giveaway.

Check it out here ENTER

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Joan of Arc... and Deborah Samson

Joan of Arc is a name that comes up often when I mention the novel I've written on Deborah Samson, and, indeed, the connection is a logical one: women dressed as men, going in to battle.  

Just as in earlier posts I took a look at the Molly Pitcher legend in comparison to Deborah Samson's battlefield experience, I'd like to compare Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orleans, to Deborah and see what can be gleaned about women dressing as men, about women on the battlefield, about society's attitudes towards martial women and towards the "masquerade" of cross-dressing.  (Meaning that these were prolonged instances of disguise.)

To start this topic off, I'd like to justify the comparison.  Placing the two in conversation is not an invention of my own mind.  In fact, it is quite likely that this is a comparison that Deborah herself would have made.

Piece of Evidence #1:  Early in the war, when the American forces were in disarray, Thomas Paine wrote in The American Crisis that just as Joan of Arc had "driven back like men petrified with fear" "the whole English army," thus now America needed "some Jersey maid to spirit up her countrymen, and save her fair fellow sufferers."  It is likely, though not certain, that Deborah would have seen The American Crisis.  Her hometown of Middleborough was a politically astute and involved place, a crossroads of commerce, and the pamphlets (and discussions about those pamphlets) were likely present. 

Piece of Evidence #2: Deborah was a voracious reader as a young woman.  We don't have a record of the books that she read, but we do have evidence of what was popular and readily available at the time.  These included chapbooks mostly featuring tales of adventure.  One prominent and popular such book was The Maid of Orleans, about Joan of Arc.

So, admittedly, this is tenuous evidence and supposition.  But at least it is possible -- well within the realm of the believable -- that Deborah had heard of Joan of Arc and thought of Joan of Arc in the context of the Revolutionary War.  

It would be too simple to say that Deborah might have read Paine's pamphlet and regarded it as a call to arms, as an invitation to be that Joan of Arc.  For though Paine's language, as I quoted it above, does suggest that, reading the passage in full reveals the sort of misogynistic frame that infiltrated all levels of discourse at the time.  Here's the full quote:

"In the fourteenth [fifteenth] century the whole English army, after ravaging the kingdom of France, was driven back like men petrified with fear; and this brave exploit was performed by a few broken forces collected and headed by a woman, Joan of Arc. Would that heaven might inspire some Jersey maid to spirit up her countrymen, and save her fair fellow sufferers from ravage and ravishment!"

The tone of the first line is to suggest that the English defeat is all the more humiliating and outrageous because it was at the hands of a woman.  The line does not suggest that Joan, being a woman, is all the more heroic.  In the second sentence, notice the diction "spirit up" (like a cheerleader) and "fair fellow sufferers" -- fair might suggest a reference to other women and not to men; sufferers also makes this group passive.  This reading is strengthened by the phrase "ravage and ravishment" -- again, crimes that women, not men, are likely to suffer.  

This is not to undermine my piece of evidence: Deborah might well have heard mention of Joan in the context of the Revolutionary War.  Moreover, given that she is a product of her own time, the language and bias of Paine might not have rankled her as it rankles me.  Where I see diminishment (Spirit Up!  They were beaten by a girl!), Deborah and other women might have felt encouragement; Paine is, after all, suggesting they can do something.

Moving on from this basis, I'll take a look at more specifics of Joan's adventures and reception in comparison to Deborah's.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Interview in the Philadelphia Gay News

I am delighted to share with folks... my interview with The Philadelphia Gay News!

Such a delightful and generous piece on the novel and me.  I hope you enjoy -- here's the link:

PGN Interview

Monday, October 21, 2013

Okay, I know, a Cat Post...

I hesitate to write this blog post because I am aware of the stereotypes regarding writers and their cats... but I'm plunging ahead anyway for two reasons.

  1. Recently, I was sent a copy of Revolutionary's jacket with the cover copy and the cats are mentioned in my author bio.  In short, they're legit.
  2. I really do believe in the message of this post and how it affects my (writing) life.

So here goes.  Our apartment building has begun an HVAC renovation, which means that every weekday the apartment must be ready for workmen to enter each room at 9am and stay until 5pm.  Hence, no furniture within six feet of certain walls, cardboard taped to the floor to prevent gouging, and (most importantly) the cats locked up in the bathroom.

Every morning, therefore, I set the bathroom up for them -- fuzzy pet cups to sleep in, a litter box, water, and food.  Then I go and write, leaving the cats to roam freely until I hear the workmen in the hall.

Now, just for entertainment, here are pictures of the two of them, hopefully capturing their personalities.

The one above is Magic.  Sometimes spelled Magick.  But never Magique.

And this one is Soda.  They're both sixteen.

Every morning, as soon as I set up the bathroom for them, Soda saunters past, jumps on the bed, and promptly falls asleep on her favorite blanket.  Magic, on the other hand, prowls and paces for the hour until I lock them up.  Both of them know what's coming... neither one of them enjoys being sequestered in the bathroom, but one of them lets the future (the unavoidable, inevitable imprisonment) wreck the last hour of freedom she has and the other one just does her thing.

Perhaps this is a lesson that resonates with me because of the rather looming event in my future (i.e. publication of my debut novel) but even without any large or impending (positive or negative) occurrence on the horizon, I think these cats give a fair reminder. And it's not the lesson that I've often heard (and dislike hearing) about why pets are great... this is not a case of "ignorance is bliss."  Soda knows darn well what's going to happen: she just doesn't let it affect her routine.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Samson or Sampson? What's in a name...

As the days (okay, still months...) tick down towards publication of Revolutionary (January, folks!) all the final details are getting extra attention.  Many of these points are trivial enough not to deserve expansive description, but one task came across my plate this week that is worth getting into.

Namely (pun!), the question of how to spell Deborah's maiden name.  In my novel, I chose to spell it Samson.  Most sources list it as Sampson.  Thus, it might be easy to assume that I made a mistake in my spelling, but really it is a deliberate choice.

I find it fascinating that no signature of Deborah's exists prior to the war -- there is nowhere a place where she penned her own name (Samson or Sampson).  We have, of course, her signature as Robert Shurtliff (which is variously spelled Shurtlieff and Shurtleff -- there are both variant spellings as well as hard to read penmanship).  We have her signature as Deborah Gannett.  But no indication of how she spelled her maiden name.

After the war, there is no question that others spelled it Sampson and did so prominently.  Here, for instance, is the frontispiece of the "memoir" written by Herman Mann (with whom she collaborated closely) Mann Text that has her named spelled "Sampson."

But before the war, Baptist records (Deborah converted, or was "received" as a Baptist in 1780) mark her as "Samson" and then, two years later, when she was excommunicated, list her as "Sampson."  Even further back, all family records indicate that her father and her father's ancestors spelled it "Samson."  (I am indebted, as with many facts about Deborah, to Alfred Young.)   It was for this reason -- the clear family and historical precedent -- that I chose to spell her name "Samson."

My selection aside, the point I wanted to make here is one about the historical period (and history in general).  First, there is the variation in spelling (and my study of letters and journals of Revolutionary War soldiers bears this out) -- as long as it sounded right, the spelling didn't seem to matter much.  Second, there's the lack of documentation and "official" status to identity.  Deborah was Samson or Sampson; she was Robert Shurtliff or Shurleff or Shurtlieff.  No licenses, no passports, no papers.  Just say-so.  Just here-I-am.  And third, the idea that one's material self disappears.  That she lived in a time when she would right her own name so infrequently and on substance so ephemeral that it doesn't remain, except when others wrote it.

Identity and how we forge our own expressions of ourselves lies at the core of Revolutionary.  This minor (what does spelling matter?) factor is just one more way to consider how different the presentation and recording of self was back in the 1780s.

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Source? The Muse?

My reading for grad school has me immersed in poetry -- not just the end product, but the process as well.  (I will pause here to say what a true delight it is to be a student again and have the luxury of exploration and patient study.)  This week brought not only a visit from Mark Doty and a simply exquisite reading of his new work, but also reading and discussion of Marina Tsvetaeva's poetry (and some of her prose as well).

In all the wonderful lines that I read, what struck me most was Tsvetaeva's wrestling with the question of what a poet is (and, relatedly, where poetry/poems come from).  The formulation that seemed most fitting:  "A poet is answer."  In explaining what this answer is -- where the response comes from, she elaborates: "it always existed, only hadn't yet reached time; thus the opposite shore has not yet reached the ferry."

That final image struck me as wonderful metaphor for the writing process.  Are we reaching towards a fixed goal (the far shore)?  Does our writing, like the steady oar or paddle or motor, gain us, inch-by-inch, progress towards a destination?  Tsvetaeva's formulation both suggests that and resists it: there is a fixed goal (the shore) but then she gives it motion.  Is the motion an illusion?

I think this is where the idea of inspiration or the muse comes in.  Even if the shore's motion is an illusion, it is one that prompts creativity, that suggests possibility.  We write towards the poem, and the poem seems to be written towards us; that perception leads to new synergy.  I like this.  We are our own muses.  The process of writing begets inspiration.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Points of Origin

Having just put aside a novel draft, I'm taking a "break" and reworking some creative non-fiction essays.  Perhaps it is this endeavor that made me so attuned to the radio commentary I heard this morning, the excellent broadcast of "On Being" that featured Nadia Bolz-Weber.  (Here's the interview if you want to listen.)

Among the many great comments (on many great subjects) made, this one stood out to me (here in paraphrase): I write from scars and not wounds.  In other words, when trying to get down on paper something that is authentic, something that caused trauma, it is important to leave enough space and time to get to a place where the writing can be done productively (and without generating more injury).

A few years back, I was lucky enough to take a creative non-fiction workshop with Connie May Fowler and Sue William Silverman.  Connie's mantra (echoed and augmented by Sue) was: Write from the hurt place.

I like the combination of these two pieces of advice.  To Connie's point, you do have to write from the place where the hurt occurred (and perhaps where it still resonates).  But to Bolz-Weber's claim: there is no merit (and possibly some danger) to writing to a hurt that hasn't healed.

The language here might sound extreme.  And I wouldn't want to suggest that creative non-fiction writing is all about trauma.  In fact, the broader concept of these maxims is about perspective.  You have to have the proper distance (scar) and you have to have the proper mindset (hurt).  The second point might be more twitchy... it isn't about pain, but about emotional truth.  You have to have something to say - some feeling to evoke and you have to be willing to reside in that feeling. (That is, things don't just happen.  A piece of writing/story/essay/memoir/etc. isn't just a string of events.)

Both of these pieces of advice apply equally, I think, to fiction as to creative non-fiction.  I would call them the values of reflection (scar) and resonance (hurt). For me, at this moment and stage of composition, I found these to be words of wisdom, a reminder not to rush into a piece and not to overlook the important of an emotional center.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Your Brain on Writing

I love it when I get a nice staticky point of contact between my professional (teaching) life and my personal writing practice.  I know there are many writers who feel that the teaching of writing can drain them of the energy for their own composition, but for me, it often supplies a little bubble of energy or insight.

This week, I found myself talking with folks (students, friends, and writers) who were struggling with the process of getting things on paper.  Not the classic writer's block, not the sense of "I have nothing to say," but the feeling that it wasn't worth putting words on the page because those weren't the perfect words.

My first encounter with this concept was in college, when I got to know a student down the hall.  He wrote beautifully.  Exquisitely.  His 2-3 page response papers were gorgeous.  But he hated them.  And he also took hours and hours and hours to generate them. We got to be good friends, and often studied in the same room.  Let me describe our processes:  see if you recognize yourself in them.

Imagine a paper due the next day.  Here's my desk: books and class notes out.  On top of them, a clean sheet of paper that I'm gradually filling with an outline.  Next to this, square in front of me, my computer.  I look at the outline, I type a few sentences -- maybe I reach over and grab a book and reread a passage.  Go back to the computer, change a few things, write a few more sentences.  And so on.  In two hours' time, I print out a copy, take a walk, and then come back to revise.  At my friend's desk, he's got his computer in front of him, his head in his hands (two fistfuls of hair, usually) and he's staring at the cursor, which is blinking in the middle of a lovely sentence.  

These were analytical papers, but the same holds true for fiction or creative non-fiction composition.  This isn't about habit or writing practice, I believe, so much as it is about how one understands writing itself.  A process, yes, I hope we all know that.  But not a linear process.  One doesn't begin at A (concept/idea/thought) and proceed sequentially to Z (published product).  It loops back, again and again.  And not just through a procession of drafts, but also because you read and think and write and talk with a friend and then rewrite, and then discover you need to read some more... and so on.  

My friend (and many of my colleagues and students) get stuck because they believe that before committing anything to paper, it must first be "right" or "good."  Even if they know they will revise, they won't set a word on a page unless the piece/idea is fully conceived of.  For them, thought precedes writing.  For me, writing is thought.  The idea doesn't fully exist until I have written it. The process of writing and the process of understanding are simultaneous for me.

Is it possible to begin writing too soon?  to compose when you don't understand something enough to write on it?  Of course.  The reading and research and thinking need to happen beforehand... but the idea -- whatever it is -- doesn't exist until the words are on the page.  At least that's what I believe... I welcome your comments!

Monday, August 19, 2013

The First Review!

I've heard from other writers that it is best to avoid reading reviews of your work... but when I got an email from Simon & Schuster saying that Publishers' Weekly had put out a review of Revolutionary, I had to read it.

Perhaps I will regret reading other reviews, but I was glad to see this one!  It is one more step on the path of making this novel seem real. And making it seem like it soon be out.  Very exciting.

Here is a link to the review:  http://publishersweekly.com/978-1-4516-6332-7

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Understanding Your Characters...

This post is tailored specifically to those who are developing characters in historical fiction, but is, I believe, applicable to the craft of understanding your characters in general.  It also builds on some previous posts I have done about women in the revolutionary war.

You can read the earlier posts (I hope you do!) about Molly Pitcher(s) and their role not only during the war (camp followers) but after the war (loyal wives, in-the-moment-soldiers).  Given how these women are celebrated, as I noted earlier, it is not surprising that Deborah Sampson was given little attention for many decades:  she didn't fit neatly into the women-who-followed-her-husband-into-combat mold that felt "safe" to 19th century readers and writers.

When I began the research for my first novel, Revolutionary, I wanted to look at as wide a range of sources as I could on Deborah.  The earliest material is filtered through her biographer, Herman Mann and the later material is filtered through the biases and predispositions of the era in which they were written.

So here's the first part of the craft lesson for writers of historical fiction: make sure you look at your "real life" characters not just from one historical vantage point.  Get the fullest picture of them that you can by considering how they were written about by their contemporaries, by their children, by their friends, by their rivals, and by later writers.  It is poor history (and poor historical fiction) to rely only on one source or from sources all from the same era (even if it is "eye-witness").

For Deborah, two visual images will suffice to prove my point.  Here they are:

Both are early-mid 19th century depictions of Deborah Sampson that accompanied pamphlets or short writings on her. In both she is in uniform and with a weapon (or two!).  But, as those who read the earlier blogposts might note... she is also posed near a cannon.  It is not impossible that Deborah might have been near cannons in her service.  Certainly, she was at sites that would have had them.  But it is quite hard to argue that she used cannons at all.  Cannons were for pitched battle and Deborah was involved in small skirmishes only.  (Granted, she did claim to have been at Yorktown, or Mann placed her there, or both, but this is not true.)

So, when I was researching her character, I asked myself: why is she depicted this way?  What is being said about her?  I believe that both artists are making a subtle nod to the Molly Pitcher(s) legends.  By putting Deborah near a cannon, they are indicating to the viewer that this is a woman on the battlefield.  It is somewhat comforting -- suggesting that she served in the familiar and acceptable manner -- to have her depicted thus.  Much more comforting than Deborah just waving a sword or holding a gun, I'd argue.

To leave my particular case and look at craft in general, what I'd suggest is this.  Read (and look) widely as you explore your historical character.  Chip away at bias.  Consider how your character has shifted and been reinvented over the course of history.  And then...

Take good stock of how you wish to depict your character.  Realize that you are situated on this continuum that you have just explored.  Your depiction will be no less biased, no less a product of your own time and expectations (and this, I would argue is true for fictional characters that aren't historical) than any other.  It is better to be upfront and aware of your bias though.

In my own case, I knew that being transgender, I would come to Deborah's story from a particular angle.  Likewise, writing with a 21st-century understanding of gender and women's rights, I would also be biased against certain depictions of her and want to show her actions as reasonable and even virtuous -- quite the opposite of how many of her contemporaries saw her and wrote about her.

In order to fully understand, fully develop, and fully realize your characters, you need to understand your own perspective on that character!

Let me know what you think... Leave a Comment!

Monday, August 5, 2013

To the Desk Drawer!

It is an old saw, I know, the writer who relegates the draft to some obscure drawer.

And yet... many writers I know have done just that.  Some chuck the manuscript into the drawer with a feeling of regret, others anger, some despair.  There are those who do so reluctantly.  (There are many who do so virtually, perhaps having a folder labelled "drawer" on their computers?)

I would like to argue the case that retiring a manuscript to a drawer is a good, healthy, and productive writing practice.  As I write this post, I am entering into the final throes of a (very) rough draft of a novel.  If all goes well, in a couple of days, I will be "done" with it.  And from there... into the drawer!  I say this with zeal.  It is time for that baby to sit by itself for a while.  My brain has been full of these characters and places and, to be honest (don't tell them!) while I love them, I'm a bit sick of them.

And though I intend to put them in that drawer and forget about them, it's only for a while.  Because, just as I am planning to wind this rough draft down, and just as I am reaching into the far recesses of that drawer to shove the rough manuscript in, I am simultaneously bringing back out to the light of day the rough draft I last worked on about six months ago.

Perhaps this makes me some sort of serial monogamist when it comes to writing.  I can only work on one thing at a time, that is for sure.  And while I like to reach an endpoint with a draft (I almost always, even if I feel that it isn't going the way I want it to, write the story/novel/essay to the end.) I also almost always shelve things with the intention to come back to them... often relatively soon.

So, for me, the drawer is where work goes to get better.  Or where work goes while I get better.  Too many writers I know (and I preach this to my students as well) will work a manuscript well past the point of productivity, flailing, as it were, at a dead horse.  I preach the gospel of putting drafts away early (and often), letting them sit there while you still have some energy and enthusiasm for the project, working on other things, getting new ideas out onto the page, and only when you have almost forgotten about the other draft, going back to it.

By the time I pull a manuscript out of the drawer to work on it again, I have forgotten what I loved and hated about it.  Given enough time, and it even feels like I'm reading someone else's work.  And that's good.  It gives me the distance I need to edit and revise and rewrite effectively.

I suppose that what I'm advocating as a writing practice is the same as what I find with people: it's great to spend time with someone... but I'm sure we've all spent too much time with someone.  Better to have a wonderful day together, say goodbye, promise you'll meet again soon, even pick a date a few weeks or months in the future... and look forward to it.  In the meantime, you'll read and write new things, you'll have different adventures, and you'll return for time together refreshed and engaged.

So go ahead, toss that manuscript in the drawer, turn the lock.  But don't throw away the key.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Good Reading Yields Good Writing

When I started my MFA program (back in 2009 at Vermont College of Fine Arts), I dutifully discussed and compiled and reading list for my first semester.  But secretly I thought: my main job is writing... what's the deal with all this reading!  I thought I would skim whatever my advisor suggested, cobble together my paper, and then get back to the (much more important) manuscript.

But, truth be told, the reading turned out not to be something extra (let alone extraneous) but essential.  Here's how I think of it.

Reading is medicine for the writer.

What ails you?  Weak characterization?  Slow plot?  Wimpy diction?  There's a remedy for that... if you know what to read.

I've been thinking about this lately because I had the change to read Nance Van Winckel's collection of linked short stories, Boneland. (Get it from Amazon HERE.)  Nance was an advisor of mine while I attended VCFA and I have long been impressed by her short stories and poetry (if you ever have the chance to hear her read... do it!  She's a great reader as well as a great writer.)

These stories are wonderful.  Whatever it is you are struggling with in your craft, whatever it is you need a reminder of... this collection is the right prescription.  There is nothing better for a writer than to pick up a wonderful book and think: oh, yes... this is how it should be done!  

There were many craft points that inspired me as I read (though I don't want to overemphasize this because Boneland impresses for other reasons: the stories are captivating!) but I kept being drawn to Nance's metaphors.  What beautiful comparisons.  It made me go back to the manuscript I have been working on and examine what I had done... did I even have metaphors?  Were any of them good?

And that's what, as a writer, I love about reading: it not only entertains me as I get involved in the story but also inspires me to do better in my own craft.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

On Organization and the Writing Process

With these days of summer vacation (not to mention extreme heat), I've logged some pretty good hours at my writing desk.

And though I am a neat-freak in other areas of my life (go ahead, ask me how I organize my t-shirt drawer... but know that the answer might take a while) my writing desk tends to be rather messy.

To be clear, it isn't empty pizza box and sticky coffee ring messy (I couldn't deal with that).  But it is paper-absolutely-everywhere messy.  And I like it that way.

There are many authors I know who prefer to have a bulletin board over their desk or a white board or simply a large, clear wall surface on which to paste sticky notes.  Some folks have elaborate systems on their computer to keep track of thoughts, ideas, storylines, and character development.

However, I prefer lots of little pieces of paper.  I have a legal pad (white, not yellow paper), a medium size scratch pad, a large stack of those hotel notepads (I won't reveal my source), and index cards.  I like to jot notes to myself about a scene I'm thinking of, or an essay I want to write when I'm through the novel draft, or something I don't want to forget to go back and fix, or some topic that I need to research.  Right now, I'm working on a rough draft and there are notes everywhere.

Even stranger, what I like to do with these notes is, mostly, ignore them. I write them and scatter them on my desk.  Then I go back to drafting.  Sometimes I read them when I get stuck, but mostly I ignore them.  I'd like to say I have a system and when I finish a day's work, I read through all the notes and collate them, blah, blah.  But I don't.  They sit there until I finish the draft, at which point, I scoop them all up, paper clip them, and stick them in manila envelope and file them along with the handwritten draft.

It is the case that when I am in the revision process, my notes are much more organized.  Then, I usually post a coherent list of things to do and keep in mind and I tape it at eye-level on the wall.  (Even then, I usually tape up a blank sheet or two for random thoughts and notes.)

So why do I continue this practice?  I don't know that it helps me produce a better draft, but I do know that it helps me keep peace of mind.   Once I write something down, my brain reads that as "taken care of."  Sure, there's danger to this: if I actually need to do something and I write it down, then I need to keep that piece of paper handy and do that thing.  However, when I'm writing a rough draft, mostly what I need to do is... write the rough draft!  I don't need to worry about the extraneous questions and thoughts: that's what revision is for.

In short, while my practice keeps my desk cluttered, it keeps my mind pleasantly clean.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Character Motivation in General... and Historical Context in Particular

In any work of fiction, the main character's (or characters') desire drives the piece forward.  Don't know what your main character wants?  Or can't make that want clear, compelling, and believable to the reader?  Then your fiction will never take off.

Desire is linked to motivation: what you want, how you're going to get it, and why you want it so bad.

Because of the important of desire in driving fiction, a writer should spend lots of time understanding and deepening this aspect of the story or novel.  This is time "off the page," as I like to say, by which I mean that a lot of what you will work on in developing is for your own understanding of the character and not to be included in the finished writing.  Well, it will be included but not word by word... your understanding will inform your writing.

To give you an example of this, I'll use my forthcoming novel, Revolutionary.  Early in the story, the main character, Deborah Sampson, runs away from home.  Why? That isn't an easy decision to make in anyone's life, at any time, but particularly for a young, unmarried woman in 1782, this would have been an earth-shattering choice.  So I needed to understand her motive well.

Given that Deborah is a historical personage, I could look at material in which she discussed (or others discussed) her motive.  From these sources, I gleaned that her motive was money (the town gave a bounty for soldiers signing on), patriotism, and freedom.  Of these three, money seemed the least interesting: once she had the bounty, she still ran away, so that couldn't have been the sole motive.  Patriotism was a nice thought -- and I don't doubt that she was patriotic -- but this was a reason she offered to her later biographer (Herman Mann) and a very convenient reason it was.  It allowed her a virtuous basis for an unvirtuous act.

That left me with freedom.  She desired to break away from the constraints of society, the bounds of her (medium-sized) town, and, particularly, the limited sphere of being a woman.  I knew that's what I had to convey on the page, what I had to convince my readers of.  But in order to be convincing, I had to know my subject and context much more specifically than that.

In my next blog post, I'll provide more of the historical context of Deborah, but I wanted to open with this general craft point:  start with characters' desires... and let that drive your fiction!

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Feeding Your Writing Self: Reading

A few months ago (as I prepared to move and jettisoned books like a listing ship) I loaned a book to a friend.  It was an anthology of nonfiction, and I dogeared for him a particular essay ("The Beautiful City of Tirzah") that I thought he'd like.  Recently, he said that not only did he enjoy the reading, but he found that it had inspired him to write.

That's what good reading does.

Reading good material feeds the writer's soul.  It inspires.  Literally.  It breathes into you the breath of the writing spirit and tells you: you can, you should, you ought.  (Of course, if you are in a negative swirl, reading good material can make you say: I can never do this.  But silence those negative voices!)

I have long believed that, for the writer, reading should be therapeutic.  Too often, I hear writer-friends say that they don't have time to read if they are fully engaged in writing mode.  But the two should go hand-in-hand.  What you read should provide the foundation or the nutrient substrate for what you are writing.  It needn't be in the same genre or style.  It just needs to speak to where you mind is.

In fact, I'd even go so far as to say that reading can cure that writing block of which folks often complain.  So, if you find yourself stuck or feeling a bit slow, ask yourself: what good have I read today?  The right essay or story or novel can spark within you the belief and the desire to begin anew.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Vocabulary and Writing

Recently, a friend of mine forwarded me a link to the following article on archaic words that linger, vestigially, in our modern usage (the article is here).  After enjoying the piece and thinking of some other random and "one shot" words -- words that only occur in a set phrase, I started thinking about vocabulary more broadly.

In fact, this has been on my mind for a while, ever since Revolutionary went through copy-editing. During those rounds of revision, a copy-editor pointed out that I tended to write "amongst" and "midst" which were deemed "archaic" forms.  I hadn't noticed that before, and I went back to short stories and other pieces I had written.  Indeed, amongst and midst cropped up there as well.  Then I paid attention to my speech... and found that I spoke these words (and others on the archaic list).

All this made me think about what language stands out.  I believe that the goal of the copy-editor is to make the writing smooth, in the sense that no word draws the reader out of the story or makes them say, "what?"  Of course, you don't want to be confusing, but more than that, you want the words you write to fit the texture -- the soundscape -- of the story.

Linking to characterization, all characters should use vocabulary that fits their personality; that's an essential of voice.  But more than that, the narrative voice, the way in which setting and scene are described, should be clear, consistent, and, well, I guess like wall-paper: it's there, and it makes the room look nicer, but, after a while, you forget it's there.

So here's my question to you, dear reader... where do you stand on quirky vocabulary?  Do you every drop that strange word into a story?  Do you do that because it is the right word for that moment?  Or because you just like the word?

I once had a character going for a walk after a rain and enjoying that mineral smell that comes up from the sidewalk. The word for that smell is petrachore -- I love both that smell and that word -- and I had my character use it.  When the story was accepted for publication, the editor X-ed "petrachore" out.  I wrote back: but it's the right word!  Answer: maybe, but no one will know what it means.

That is the point of vocabulary... to communicate and express clearly.  I've had (and taught with) English teachers on both sides of the spectrum, those who say "don't use a dime word when a nickel word will do" and those who preach that you should "dress your words from Saks."

These days, I tend to former.  Simple, direct -- the best word for the moment.  It's just that, sometimes, the best word is a little dressy.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Road Signs & That First Draft

When I teach introductory writing, the same question often crops up: should I outline and plan a story before I start a draft, or should I just wing it?

The answer, as it often is (at least when I'm answering) is: both!

Honestly, though, the best answer I ever received to this question came during a workshop I attended at the Ocean State Writers' Conference.  (The first writers' conference I ever attended, back when I had just started dabbling with short stories.)  The author who was presenting was asked this question and he replied that when he drafts, he starts with an idea (character, place, question) and it's as if he is driving on a highway at night.  As he drives, his headlights (writing) illuminates a new sign and he can tell where he is, where he might go.  But in between those signs, it's all dark.

Though I've drafted many different ways (sometimes starting with a firm idea of where I wanted to end up; sometimes with a full outline), this is still my favorite method.  Of course, it necessitates additional drafts because the intention/motive/goal of the piece only comes out as it is in progress; you have to go back and clear up themes and the central "strings" of the piece.  But what piece of writing can't benefit from that practice?  

This question has been on my mind as I've begun a new rough draft of a piece I've worked on multiple times (I have two full "fair" drafts of it) over the past three years.  In doing so, I'm undertaking a very different style of composition.  I have those two full drafts lurking in my mind -- that's a whole bunch of road signs!  But I want to start fresh... I want to turn off that route (or not; I want the ability to deviate.  What's new?).  

The process of trying to do so -- trying to let the story head in a new direction, trying to let it feel its way through itself -- is proving difficult, but it is also emphasizing to me that this is my preferred way to draft.  Not quite "seat of the pants" but close!  That's where the possibility and imagination can really bubble (and then, through rewriting, ferment).  Since I've been thinking about this lately, I thought I'd share my thoughts on the process.  

What is your preferred method?

Friday, June 28, 2013

The Myth of Molly Pitcher

Getting back to my earlier blog posts about Molly Pitcher and the question of female war heroes -- how they are portrayed and why we celebrate their achievements (or don't)... I discovered in my internet perambulations a wonderful article by Ray Raphael, which I'll direct you to here.

While you should read the full article (it isn't that long and it is fascinating), I'll offer a brief synopsis (more of a teaser) here.  Raphael argues that the "real" Molly Pitcher was Margaret Corbin, the somewhat coarse character who was injured in battle.  He further presents evidence that the name Molly Pitcher comes not from the battlefield but from a fortune teller in Lynn, Massachusetts.  From these two sources, an entirely mythical beast was born: the Molly Pitcher of the battle of Monmouth.

Not only was this article fascinating for understanding the basis of the legend of Molly Pitcher, but it illustrates several points about female war heroism.  As I've said before, we are more comfortable with "dainty" and "proper" sorts of heroes.  Raphael points out that pitchers would have been impractical on the battlefield; pails and buckets were more likely (indeed, even the Currier and Ives prints show a bucket in the background!).  But the image seems more feminine: a woman traversing the battlefield with a pitcher in hand... it's almost like she's serving someone at a table.  That's much more appropriate than the truth.  And that's why Deborah Sampson is so troublesome: she doesn't fit those "dainty" boundaries and even myth couldn't remake her story in an appropriately feminine way.

There's also the detail that the legends of Molly Pitcher weren't invented or popularized until the 1830s.  When they were told, they were presented as truth.  Each generation likes to make the past over in its own image.  I have no trouble with this when its done under the name of historical fiction (or just fiction).  In fact, that, to me, is often what good fiction does: it translates.  It makes sense of something (from the past or not) and explains it in the context of the author's world.  The danger of the Molly Pitcher legend is that it became accepted as truth and, in doing so, obscured the reality of the women who did serve in the war or who followed the army.  It is these women whose stories need to be told.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Curtis Sittenfeld... Thoughts on her author talk

Last night I had the pleasure of hearing Curtis Sittenfeld (best known, perhaps, for her novel Prep) read and speak at Politics and Prose.  Her new novel, Sisterland, is just out.  (I haven't read it yet, but I intend to!)

I wanted to blog about her reading for two reasons, one macro and one micro.

First, the macro: her reading was, in my opinion, just what a reading should be... she struck the right tone of being personable (not saccharine on one end or stiff on the other).  Her talk had good hooks to it as she addressed what inspired her to write the novel (a very intriguing premise) and then read a section that illustrated character and conflict without giving too much away.  After the reading, she took questions, fielding them gracefully.  And, while she certainly answered what was asked, her replies were long and digressive and interesting, taking the kernel of the question and expanding on it.  So... if you have the chance to hear her read, I highly recommend doing so.

Second, the micro level.  Sittenfeld made a number of interesting comments on writing (both her personal practice and on the business side of it).  The one that struck me was her comment (she said she was paraphrasing something that she's heard from others) that when you write nonfiction, people pick at it to show how it isn't true and when you write fiction, people comb through it to show how it is true.

I'd never thought of it that way, but immediately felt the accuracy of this statement.  Readers of fiction want their fiction to reflect reality; they want it to be possible and credible.  This is a tendency that has historical context, I believe, as for a long time novels and other works of fiction were couched as real stories.  Somehow, that's the only way that they are worthwhile.

On the other hand, when someone presents a nonfiction book as "the truth" or an interpretation thereof, the instinct is to disagree.  Oddly, it is actually the same process as with fiction though: the reader is simply asserting his or her own understanding of what is true.

And of course, where does this leave historical fiction?  With the best (or worst, as the case may be) of both worlds!

Monday, June 24, 2013

Review of If You Could Be Mine

Normally, I keep my reading commentary confined to the "What I'm Reading Now" section of my blog (see the tabs above).  But I just finished If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan, and as I got my hands on an advance reading copy (thanks to my wonderful agent!) and as the themes of this novel are close to my heart, I thought I would give it a longer post.

A short synopsis... due to hit shelves on August 20th, this Young Adult novel takes place in modern day Iran.  Narrated by Sahar, a young woman in her senior year of high school, it tells the story of her love for her best friend, Nasrin, and her struggles with this love both in the context of Iranian society generally and also in the context of Nasrin's upcoming marriage.

This is the debut novel of Sara Farizan, and she has done a fantastic job with pacing.  The story moves quickly yet clearly, with the tension heightening in every scene.  I wouldn't call her prose sparse, but she has kept the details to a minimum, jettisoning anything extra, and the result is a stream-lined and compelling story.

Most captivating for me was the setting in Iran.  Apart from headlines in the news and Persepolis, I don't know much about the country or culture.  Farizan uses little phrases of Farsi to create an ambiance, refers to clothing and food in a way that further develops the context, and drops in delightful little details such as the way that the narrator sees the two Khomeinis (angry grandpa and disappointed grandpa) whose images appear everywhere.  

Even more, the setting in modern-day Iran was compelling to me because of the LGBT angle of the book.  These two young women are in love -- they know this and acknowledge it to each other. (Thank goodness, by the way, that this wasn't another novel about a young LGBT person in love with a straight person... I feel like I have read too many of those!)  But their love has to be hidden because it is illegal.  Farizan makes the danger present but not exaggerated. She mentions that young men have been hanged for being in relationships, but she also shows the underground culture of cafes and scenes where LGBT people are relatively open and accepted.  

Once Nasrin is engaged, Sahar is desperate to find a way to stop the marriage and keep Nasrin for herself.  The middle stanza of the book is devoted to her pursuit of sexual reassignment surgery: she wants to become a man so that she can marry Nasrin.  And here's where the cultural context bowled me over.  In Iran (I'm assuming Farizan is portraying this accurately...) sexual reassignment is permitted, even paid for by the government, because it is considered an illness with a cure.  In fact, the implication seems to be that reassignment cures homosexuality.  The novel makes it clear that just because the government sanctions the surgery, it doesn't mean that post-op transsexuals have an easy life.  They face rejection by families and friends and have to keep their past hidden.  But they have a greater veneer of legitimacy than do gays and lesbians.

If I had to lodge one complaint about this novel, it would be that the narrator, Sahar, who otherwise is plausibly intelligent and thoughtful, rushes into the idea of sexual reassignment with a completely unbelievable amount of naivety, ignorance, and lack of forethought.  Even though she is desperate to keep Nasrin, I just couldn't buy that she would actually believe that she could transition in a short window (one month) and that Nasrin (and Nasrin's parents) would accept her after the transition.

But that is one small point.  Otherwise, I was delighted with this novel.  In particular, I want to praise it for the way in which it explains (implicitly) the difference between sexuality and gender.  Farizan illustrates this difficult nuance artfully and compellingly.  This is a great novel to share with a younger reader (6-9 grade?) and open up conversation about LGBT issues as well as human rights in other cultures.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Short Story Published in The Oklahoma Review

In the mood to read a short story?  The most recent issue of The Oklahoma Review features one of mine, "Arm's Length."

You can check it out at: The Oklahoma Review Vol 14

Saturday, June 22, 2013

That Old Inner Critic...

I find myself at an odd junction in my writing life as I alternate between the almost finished draft (second pass pages for Revolutionary are soon to arrive in the mail) and a very rough draft of a new piece.

In the past, particularly when I have worked on short pieces, I will stick with a draft, work it through several phases, then push it aside to let it stew for a while before coming back to work on the final edits.

I've never had to work simultaneously on something that is polished and something that is barely emerging.

And the challenge...

Well, it is to hold up the standards on both ends.  On the one hand, the need to be super-picky and minutely focused with that copyediting.  On the other hand, the need to just write, without caring about pickiness, in the early draft.  To switch from one gear to the other is tough.

I find that I'm giving myself the same advice I give my beginning fiction students: turn off the inner critic!  It is easy for me to be super-picky (I have lots of practice as an English teacher... plus, that's just the way I am.) but it is hard for me to let go of that attention to detail and just let the writing flow.

How does one turn off that inner critic?  I've been giving the advice for years, and in my normal drafting process, I have little trouble doing so automatically.  But now, I have to coach myself -- whenever I find my pen pausing over the page, worrying about a word, I draw little brackets around a blank space and tell myself: move on! 

It is particularly tough when I step away from the rough draft (and back to the final draft of the novel).  Immediately, my mind wants to compare and suggest: that other stuff is crap!  Just ditch it! The key is to reply to that voice and remind myself that without rough drafts, there is no final draft.

Perhaps some of you are familiar with this feeling from the reading/writing comparison.  Ever worked on your own piece, then taken a break to read a "professional" short story or novel?  It can lead to feelings of inadequacy!

But it is so important to come to the page (or the screen) with the feeling that the work -- even though it's rough... no, even because it's rough -- is important.  Speak back to your inner critic.  Believe that the process is important, that nothing gets to a refined state without first going through some ugly stages.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Getting Settled

We have recently moved from RI to DC, and, after the major aspects of moving were accounted for, i. e. the kitchen, a place to sleep, the cats content, I made it my priority to get my new writing space set up.  I have a good span of time to work this summer, and I turned in those first pass pages of Revolutionary, so my desk is now loaded up with work on new stuff... exciting!

This first one is the larger view of the space.  Please note the cat, Magic, sleeping in her carrier in the lower right.  She is, as always, essential to the writing process.

And a closer view of my messy desk.

How do you like to arrange your writing space?  Or do you prefer to work at a cafe?  I know that everyone's different in their requirements... 

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Revolutionary Summer

Having just moved to Washington, DC, I want to take advantage of all the city has to offer... to that end, I strolled over to the wonderful Politics & Prose bookstore last night and listened to Joseph Ellis talk about his book Revolutionary Summer, a nonfiction work on the events leading up to (and early on in) the American Revolution.

In general, I like author talks, and this one was great.  He knew the material inside out, spoke without notes, was both precise and expansive, giving a good overall sense of his subject as well as particular and evocative details.

Of course, I was also interested in this material because of my own writing.  And though Deborah comes much later in the war (and has issues of her own to handle -- Ellis touched on women only by virtue of mention Abigail Adams' letters) much of what Ellis spoke about gave me a much better sense of the context in which Deborah existed.

Ellis, at one point, reminded the audience that the vast majority of people during the late 18th century were born, lived, and died within a twenty-mile radius, I was struck anew by how bold Deborah was.  Certainly, a good number of men went beyond this radius in their service to the country (in the army or militia) and certainly Deborah ended up within the sphere where she was born (Plympton to Middleborough to Stoughton/Sharon) but her service, as well as her initial flight, where she seemed to have traveled quite a bit, and -- perhaps especially -- her speaking tour later in life, all speak to a more adventurous and daring spirit than many of her contemporaries.

The second point that really struck me in Ellis's talk was his repeated contention that the Revolution didn't form a nation, so much as a set of sovereign states.  Each state had its own personality and Massachusetts, Deborah's home state, was a firebrand -- far out in front of the other states in its determination for independence.  Even more, the fact that there wasn't a strong sense of nationhood explains why, Ellis said, the Continental Army was treated so poorly, particularly at the end of the war.

This aspect had interested me as I did my research for the novel.  Towards the end of her service, Deborah's regiment is called from West Point to Philadelphia because there has been a mutiny of veterans in Pennsylvania.  These veterans were dissatisfied due to the fact that they had been sent home (furloughed) without pay or pension.  Many of these men had served for years and got nothing for it.  When I was researching the novel, I couldn't figure out why this was the case; I just assumed that the Congress was short on funds (and then I got back to more pertinent research).

Ellis's explanation was that the Congress so disliked the idea of a standing army, and so wanted to prevent the glorification and extension of the Continental Army, that they denied them pay and pension -- sending them home, as he said, as beggars -- in order to detract from their standing.  What an unfathomable shame!  But now I understand the motive.  I left the talk feeling -- as I often felt during my research -- that Deborah's world is unbelievably different than the one in which I live (and I know which one I prefer!).

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Margaret and Deborah

Margaret Corbin -- the other Molly Pitcher, as one might say -- was wounded in battle when she took over the cannon from her husband.  That was in 1776.  As remarkable as her feat of bravery was, the really remarkable moments (and the reason why she is interesting to compare to Deborah Samson) come afterwards.

I haven't been able to find out concrete information as to where she went in 1777 and 1778, but by 1779, people were petitioning on Margaret's behalf and the Continental Congress responded.  In fact, their response was remarkable: she was granted a pension of a soldier's half-pay as well as clothes.  With this gesture, the Congress recognized Margaret as a soldier -- at least in some sense -- they recognized that she had served and been injured in the line of duty.

Even more remarkable, she was allowed join the Invalid Corps at West Point.  This regiment provided for soldiers who were disabled and -- when possible -- got them to perform some military duties (such as standing guard or doing light labor).  Margaret remained a presence in and around West Point well past the end of the war.

There's a great online text that records some correspondence between General Knox and General Fleming about what to do with this woman. The notes make clear a few things: the army was still paying for her upkeep and she was a well-known (notorious, even!) individual.  Of particular interest to me is the fact that General Fleming mentions that she is called "Captain Molly" and that (while requesting more shifts for her to wear) she regularly is seen about wearing an artillery-man's cloak, and (my favorite) she is "brusque, coarse, red-haired, and wholly wanting in feminine charms" as well as a person who swears regularly.

This is a problematic heroine and a complicated story.  It starts so similarly as the other one: a fallen husband, a brave gesture.  It has a middle with a mix of tragedy and triumph: her injury and also her recognition by the Congress.  And the end... such ambivalence: it is clear that even as General Fleming wants to take care of her (he mentions shifting her from the house of a woman who wasn't treating her well) he also is made uncomfortable by some of her behavior and appearance.

It does make me wonder how Margaret Corbin lived all those year in and around West Point.  "Captain Molly," swearing, wearing an artillery-man's coat... was she "just one of the boys" and if so, was that a reflection of her life-long personality or how she adapted to her situation after being injured?  Unlike the other Molly Pitcher, she doesn't fade back into married life.  She becomes a soldier, of a sort, for the rest of her days.

There are several points of contact with Deborah Samson: the achievement of winning a pension as a woman soldier is one of them.  The second is the ambiguity of gender roles after the war.  Yes, Deborah did go back to life as a woman, but she also then went on the road and performed as a soldier.  The third is, perhaps, the most important one.  Like Deborah Samson, Margaret Corbin was an unknown for many years -- her story wasn't widely told until the early twentieth-century, when the Daughters of the American Revolution did research on her that led to the discovery of her unmarked grave and her reburial at West Point (a remarkable tribute).

Like Deborah, Margaret is a heroine that doesn't easily fit within the bounds of expected feminine behavior of the time. She was unacceptable, too much the soldier.  Her heroism was no less than the other Molly Pitcher, but society tends to like its heroines neat and clean.  Just as Deborah's story was "marred" because of how others perceived her act as deceitful or dishonest, Margaret's "brusque and coarse" behavior (other sources speak of how she smoked a pipe) makes her problematic.  It is a shame that it is so difficult to celebrate these women in the full complexity of the characters and identities.  

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Other Molly Pitcher?

This wouldn't be much of a series if I intended to do was pick on poor Mary Hays (a.k.a. Molly Pitcher) and praise Deborah Samson.
Now's the time for the other part of the story.  You'll recall, perhaps, a few posts ago I mentioned that "Molly Pitcher" was a generic term used for camp followers who brought water to soldiers and artillery.  Many women could claim to be a Molly Pitcher.  The one best known under that title is Mary Hays, whose story I looked at in the last few posts.
There's another candidate: Margaret Corbin.  On the surface, her story appears very similar to Mary Hays.  She, too, followed her husband when he entered the military (a little earlier in the war:  1776) and he served as an artilleryman.  In the battle of Fort Washington, in Manhattan (in November 1776, a lopsided fight between a few hundred revolutionaries a few thousand Hessians) her husband died during the battle and Margaret Corbin took over his position at the cannon.

From this point on, though, the stories of the two women diverge.  For, unlike the Mary Hays of Monmouth, Margaret Corbin was wounded, taking shot to her chest, shoulder, neck, and face (accounts of her injuries vary).  The American side lost the battle and Margaret was taken prisoner by the British, who then paroled her.

There she was, a widowed, gravely injured woman in the midst of a war.  One might have thought that she had suffered the majority of her hardships in that battle.  But sadly, as was the case for many women during this period, her true challenges were just beginning.  In the next post, I'll look at her life after the battle and how she -- like Deborah -- fought just as much off the battlefield as on it.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Comparing Deborah to Molly

The question at hand... Why did Molly Pitcher gain a national reputation as a heroine while Deborah Samson did not?

The last two posts have looked at the general role of a camp follower (women who joined their husbands through their army service) and then at the specific person of Mary Hays (the most likely historical personage thought of as "Molly Pitcher").  

At first glance, there are several similarities: both women left home and took to the field of battle; both are from lower-class backgrounds; both assumed a role that was decidedly male; both were proud of their military legacy (Mary Hays was said to be called Sergeant Molly well into her later years... while Deborah was called "The Old Soldier"); both received military pensions.

But Molly Pitcher is celebrated and much-written about, while Deborah Samson has languished.  

Don't get me wrong... she has her fans!  But they are few and far between (and delightfully devoted).  I have known Deborah's story since I was a young child because she is part of my family tree and my grandmother loved to tell her story to me.  But if a young person is likely to associate a woman with the American Revolution, that woman is more likely to be Molly Pitcher than Deborah Samson.

The answer to why this is, I fear, is a simple one.  Molly Pitcher stepped out of social expectations, crossing from the male realm to the female realm, only briefly.  Only under duress.  Deborah Samson did so willingly and for a prolonged period.  Molly Pitcher fought not only in the name of her country but also in the name of her husband.  Deborah Samson fought under an assumed name.

On an overly simplistic level (perhaps), Deborah Samson deceived.  She transgressed.  She said she was someone (Robert Shurtliff) that she was not.  (Perhaps this is where my bias as a transgender person comes in: too often, people have a negative response when I come out because they feel “tricked.”) 

Take note of those pictures of Molly Pitcher – one of the engravings has her wearing what seems to be a military cut of jacket.  It also shows a fair amount of cleavage.  Molly Pitcher could inhabit both realms – she could be a wife, a mother, and a woman… and be a fighter.  Deborah Samson was a soldier.  Her service (like the service of camp followers) was not glamorous.  She fought in little skirmishes.  She worked the tedious labors of a soldier not on the field of battle.  There aren’t any heroics (no cannon balls through her petticoats) that can be attributed to her.  Her valor was no more remarkable than the hundreds of other men who signed on (many for the money) at the tail end of the Revolution. 

What makes her remarkable is that she was a woman and defied all expectations that society had for her – not just once, but for a year and a half.  To celebrate this is to celebrate the fact that women are capable of much more than society dictates. Molly Pitcher’s masculinity is momentary; it is safe and fleeting.  She can be a heroine.  Deborah Samson’s is much more problematic.  It is much more Revolutionary.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Molly Pitcher - Who Was She (Part Two)

In my New England childhood, Molly Pitcher was a household name.  Whenever the Revolution came up in elementary school, she got a paragraph in the history text.  But for those less familiar, here's a brief summary of the common "knowledge" about her: she accompanied her husband to war, she brought water to the men, and when her husband fell during battle, she ran her husband's cannon in his place.

This story is attributed to Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley, the real-life woman most often associated with the title Molly Pitcher.  Of course, the historical details aren't entirely clear and there's been lots of conflation and embellishment, but here are the details on the real Molly Pitcher.  In 1777, her husband (she married at the age of 15 or 16) enlisted in the army and she followed him in his training and fighting.  (Her husband had been a barber prior to enlistment, and this was not a profession she could take over.)  

In 1778, her husband, having been trained in the artillery in Washington's army, was on the front lines of the Battle of Monmouth.  Mary served as she normally did: bringing water for the soldiers and the cannon.  At some point, her husband was unable to continue working the cannon (he was either wounded or collapsed from heat -- the battle was in June).  Mary took over his duties.  

There are several wonderful and perhaps apocryphal stories about her time on the battlefield.  One is that as she stood before the cannon, swabbing the barrel out, a shot from the British blasted across and flew through her legs, tearing her petticoats as it passed. She continued in her role despite this close call.  A second is that her service was recognized by George Washington, who noticed her on the battlefield, inquired about her, and even gave her status as an honorary army member.  

There is little to verify these two accounts, but one can understand why they would be told.  The first gives the power to the idea that she was in battle -- not behind the lines.  Too often, women were cast in supporting roles and thus get little credit.  To claim that Molly Pitcher was involved in the war would be true, regardless of whether she worked the cannon or not: she was there, she served, she made a difference. But to get the glamour of the position, she had to be in danger and she had to do a man's job.  (I find it amusing that the cannon ball went between her legs.  This seems ridiculously suggestive to me.  There is a diary entry from a soldier who claims to be an eyewitness to the event; even he recounts it in a humorous manner.)  As to the second, there seems to be little concrete evidence of this happening, and (given the research I've done on Deborah Samson) such a resounding recognition seems unlikely to me. At the time, she was as likely to be condemned for taking on such an inappropriate role as extolled for it.

What is verifiable is the fact that Mary drew a pension for her service (after suffering, like Deborah, with a husband who made terrible financial decisions).  In 1822, the state of Pennsylvania  granted her a military pension.  It is unclear whether she received this for her own service or as a widow of a veteran.  

There are several paintings, engravings, and woodcuts of Molly Pitcher.  These capture the essence of why she gets so much acclaim.  In these depictions, she is shown in full female regalia: ruffled cap, petticoats, dress, and apron.  Often, her fallen husband's body is by her feet.  She has the tamper for the cannon in her hands and thrusts it down the cannon's barrel.  Thus, she is both perfectly female in her appearance and perfectly male (literally and figuratively) in her behavior.  Scandalous at the time, perhaps, but exciting (even titillating) afterwards.

Here are links to two such images (both mid-19th c.)  Engraving   and Currier&Ives

Next - a closer comparison of Deborah and Molly/Mary.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Who Was Molly Pitcher? (Part One)

Today begins a comparative look at women's roles in the American Revolution -- who has been celebrated, for what, and why... the goal is to get some context and perspective on Deborah Samson, the main character of my forthcoming novel, Revolutionary.

Who Was Molly Pitcher?

     Interestingly, this name was a generic term, almost a title, given to many women who served in a similar capacity.  And what capacity was that?  Well, in the Revolutionary War, many women followed men (be they husbands, sons, or brothers – though husband was the most typical) to wherever they served in the war.  Why would a woman do this, given that the life on the lines must be tough and unpredictable?  There might be a variety of reasons, ranging from the romantic to the practical.  But for many of these women, as tough as life might be following the army, life without that would be even harder. 

     The reality for the 18th century lower classes was not a pretty one.  For a woman left alone to tend a farm or manage a workshop of some sort while her husband fought, life could be nearly impossible. Some of these women – even those with children – found it necessary to trail along after their husbands.  Indeed, there were at times so many of these camp followers that Generals, Washington included, had to thin their ranks.  In 1777, he wrote: 

"the multitude of women in particular, especially those who are pregnant, or have children, are a clog upon every movement."

A census of sorts would be conducted and those women who were found to be single or not performing a necessary service were sent away.  The married women who could work for the army were permitted to camp nearby and were often given some quantity of rations and even, on occasion, drew pay for their work.

     And work they did.  These women most frequently did laundry for the soldiers.  Sometimes they cooked or cleaned.  On rare occasions they had a formal occupation as a servant for an officer.  Though they maintained a separate camp, these women were frequent visitors to the army post and some of them labored alongside their husbands.  This was the role of “Molly Pitchers,” who brought water to the lines.  Sometimes the water was intended to relieve the soldiers, but often it was used to cool the cannons down and to wash them out between shots, keeping the barrel clear of debris and sparks. 

     Without question, camp followers were brave.  They transgressed gender boundaries of the time.  During the eighteenth century, the proper sphere of woman was home and hearth.  Even though Martha Washington went to visit George at Valley Forge, she left and went back where she “belonged.”  But the other women didn’t... mostly because they couldn’t.  Perhaps some, though, didn’t want to and followed not only out of personal obligation but out of a patriotic desire to serve. 

Next up... a look at the woman commonly believed to be “the” Molly Pitcher.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Women of the Revolutionary War... A Comparative View

On a recent drive down the New Jersey Turnpike, my wife and I stopped in (by complete chance) to the Molly Pitcher service area.  Perhaps it is only because I grew up in New England, but Molly Pitcher was a well-known name in my childhood.  Fourth grade (maybe third grade?) pageant on American History: the Revolutionary-era women were Betsy Ross and Molly Pitcher.  We sang a song about her; we recited a poem about her.

After reading the small plaque about the "New Jersey Maid" and refreshing my memory on her exploits, I had to ask: why does she get all the press while Deborah Sampson Gannett remains somewhat (relatively) obscure?

I returned home and went to the local library (always my place of refuge).  A quick skim of the children's section on the American Revolution showed something similar to what I recalled from my childhood.  There were books that made an attempt to show that women were involved in the American Revolution.  The women mentioned: Betsy Ross, Martha Washington, Molly Pitcher.

For the first two, I can immediately see why fame comes easily.  Martha Washington's role, after all, is one still familiar today: first lady.  Betsy Ross, well, sewing was what women were supposed to do.  She fulfills a predictable and acceptable female role.

But what makes Molly Pitcher so much more heralded than Deborah Sampson?  That will be the subject of my next few blog posts... a comparison of these two revolutionary women, a grudge match of sorts.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Transgender Authors -- Identity and Writing

A good friend sent me this link to Lamba Literary, which features a discussion with the directors of a small press that has put out a collection of transgender fiction.

The interview hits on many fascinating subjects, including the directors/editors' desire not to include pictures of trans-people in the anthology to avoid fixation on "the body." There is so much of that -- interest in and pressure about passing and surgery.  The connection between "what you have" and "who you are" is so pervasive, both in and out of the trans community.

But, for me, the more interesting section of the conversation came a little over halfway down the page, when they discussed the sort of submissions they had received for the collection.  The answer: too many "suicide narratives and thinly veiled autobiography."

This made me harken back to a conversation I had with a trans-friend many years ago; we were discussing movies and books that had transgender main characters, and we both articulated the feeling that, while novels and movies and tv shows could now have characters who were gay without their being gay taking the central story line, that was not true of trans-folk.  If a character was transgender... that WAS the story.

So, this conversation amongst the Topside editors made the claim that trans writers need to learn how to tell their stories -- "there are no archetypes or narratives constructed for trans-people."  Agreed.  Kind of.  I do heartily agree with the notion that trans-writers need to try out form and content beyond the "coming out" and "oppression" sorts of narratives.  But I also think that archetypes and (grand) narratives are exactly that: they fit everyone.  There's the old fiction writing saw about how only two storylines exist: a stranger comes to town and someone leaves town.  Or something like that.  What's the matter with that applying to trans-folk, too?

Further down, the distinction is made between writing about "who trans people are... and what trans people are thinking."  This, to me, is much more important, a real call to action.  Transgender fiction must be beyond identity, beyond the body... and into the realm of desire, motive, idea.   But I'd argue that's just what GOOD fiction should be about.