Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Baccalaureate Speech

I've taught for seven years at a wonderful prep school, St. George's in Newport, Rhode Island, and am now excited to head off to new adventures!

This year's senior class generously gave me the honor of delivering the baccalaureate address.  It was hard to choose a topic!  I wanted to avoid the cliched graduation speech, yet I wanted to offer some good advice.  I wanted to appreciate them as an individual class, but also make the message applicable to the whole school. I wanted some humor in there, but I didn't want to be flippant.

So... with huge congratulations to SG's class of 2013... I offered this speech.  I hope you enjoy the video!

(Link to video is in the upper right corner)

Monday, May 27, 2013

Truth, Fact, Fiction, Rightness

I have of late been thinking about that intersection of fact, fiction, true, imagined, right, real... and so on.  I can partially blame this on the fact that I taught Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried this spring, which has all those lovely metafictive sections about "how to tell a true war story."  For him, truth is feeling, getting the emotional impact accurately conveyed to the reader.

And I can partially blame my preoccupation with this topic on my taking a short break from fiction writing to compose two short nonfiction essays (one, "Multiplicity," published in The Rumpus a few weeks ago, the other as yet unpublished (waiting=sigh)).  Often, when I'm writing nonfiction, I'll be composing merrily away and then come to an abrupt stop, unwilling to write the next line, thinking to myself, but that's not what I want to have happen. Too bad it did.  Or, the flip: I'll be writing along and, after getting something down that I like, I'll think: that's not exactly how it happened.  

Since I started working on Revolutionary, I've had a great number of conversations about historical accuracy and the crossroads of history and fiction.  Strangely, it has never bothered me as much coming from the side of writing a novel (or short story).  It's fiction.  Sure, I want to be accurate (and I know readers care about that, see other blog entries) but I don't feel controlled by the facts the way that composing under the heading of nonfiction (even creative nonfiction) makes me feel.

But, as I say, I have been musing on this lately, and was delighted to find an entry by Sheryl St. Germain at Brevity Magazine's blog in which she discusses how she wrote a nonfiction piece in which her narrator interviewed Emily Dickinson (savor for a moment the oddness of that claim).  Describing the process she says: "become extremely sensitive to the fact that we sometimes must invent in order to reach (create?  interrogate?) a truth."  

I love it.  In particular, I love the notion of interrogating a truth. That's a lot of what writing -- whether fiction or nonfiction -- is for me. Wrestling.  Whether that's with an idea in my head, and trying to get it onto the page, or an idea from my life and trying to get it to fit a plot, or a topic that I've read about that I want to fictionalize.  Wrestling, interrogating... it isn't so much about "making up" or "creating" as working with what's already there: forming it, berating it, manipulating it, pestering it.

To me, St. Germain's quote speaks to the process while Tim O'Brien's idea speaks to the product.  But they are two ends of the same rope.  One is how the truth feels to the writer and the other how the truth feels to the reader; one is the questions the writer asks and the other is the answers the reader feels compelled to believe.

Monday, May 20, 2013

The Wall Street Journal on Apostrophes

I'm an English teacher and sometimes we get a bad reputation when it comes to grammar.  Just like librarians are stereotyped as shushing curmudgeons (not true! I know many hip librarians), English teachers are supposed to be sticklers for avoiding sentence-ending prepositions and split infinitives.  I'd like to think I'm not a stickler, but I also have to admit I love grammar.  These two statements are contradictory: take the example of split infinitives -- I know that, in fact, the rule in English makes no sense: it is a holdover from Latin translations.  Because the infinitive in Latin can't be split (it is formed in a single word, as opposed to English's two), translators of Latin were fussy about keeping the infinitive together in English as well.  But if you're not translating Latin, why bother?  Split away!  

I couldn't resist blogging about The Wall Street Journals article on apostrophes, though.  Here's a link.  Delightfully written by Barry Newman, this article looks at the use of apostrophes with place names and how, with increasing frequency, the apostrophes are dropping out.  This is an issue I am sensitive too in part because I teach at a school with an apostrophe in its name... but the apostrophe isn't in the email address.  Now, this omission is clearly for reasons having to do with computer language and the use of such marks as the apostrophe or slash or colon to mean nothing pertaining to grammar but rather pertaining to code.  I get it.  However, it bothers me.

Newman's article focuses on place names (Pike's Peak) that have been dropping their apostrophes.  I was surprised by his assertion that the removal is due to the desire to have a public place seem public and not privately owned, as the possessive apostrophe might imply.  (After all, when it comes to a school name, one doesn't really think that St. George owns St. George's School, right?)  In fact, I had just assumed that people dropped commas (if not out of carelessness) in order to get a shorter name.  I see this all the time: Middleborough (Deborah Sampson's hometown!) is Middleboro on all the highway signs and often on maps.  Space is at a premium (hence, too, Drive Thru versus Drive Through).  But when space isn't at a premium, why not preserve the full name, punctuation and all?  This goes for other abbreviations as well; a map might denote Mt. Washington, but a formal writing situation would ask for Mount Washington.  (One could extend this argument to texting/tweeting, where space is also at a premium.  "dont" and "cant" are used there, but one would never write in this manner in a formal letter... I hope!)

I have sympathy for those in Newman's article who say that the meaning shifts or is lost when the apostrophe is taken out.  Some moment of history (the idea that a pioneer came and "found" a certain valley, for instance) recedes when the apostrophe is lost.  But meaning doesn't really change -- it is clearly a shorthand. What else could "veterans island" mean; how does it make sense except by understanding an apostrophe?    

I had much less sympathy for the person who opined that since we don't pronounce apostrophes, they don't really matter.  You could throw out a lot of letters that way -- it would save some pixels (or ink for the old fashioned) but it wouldn't help clarity at all.  And isn't that what grammar is about?  Clarity... and precise meaning.  Of all the punctuation marks, apostrophes are the ones I am least attached to, so let's hope no one starts a war on commas or semi-colons or (gasp!) the em dash.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Thinking of Strout's Burgess Boys and Endings...

It is the time of the school year when endings are on my mind -- not only because the academic year is drawing to a close but also because in each of the classes I teach, we are reaching (have reached) the end of the novels and stories we are reading.  All this means that I have been talking and thinking a lot about conclusions.

Wherever (and whoever and whatever) I've taught, the vast majority of readers want a happy ending.  A common complaint I hear is that too many novels have depressing endings.  I understand why people want a happy ending, but I also understand why writers don't want to give one.  My Vermont College of Fine Arts classmate and superb writer Heather Sharfeddin gave her graduating lecture on the need for "unhappy" endings (I'm sure she called it something better than that!) and I don't want to steal her ideas.  But I do agree with the main point she made: life doesn't always provide (or even often provide) a happy ending, so why should literature?

This spring, however, I've taught several tragedies (Medea, Othello, A Streetcar Named Desire) and have been reflecting on what makes an ending good and effective.  Happiness is not it.  Resolution is the key.  And this is where I've been thinking of my own writing and wondering how to articulate this craft point.

Resolution is tricky because, of course, the story goes on.  Like the weakness of a happy ending, too much conclusion is unrealistic: we don't always (or often) feel certainty that things will work out or happen a certain way.  Endings should wrestle with and reflect that uncertainty.  Yet, they should offer some sense of resolution.  They should suggest - this is done; you, reader, can move on.  Moving on might mean that you keep thinking about the characters and wondering what might happen... (but that's one of the things I love about reading).

Having recently finished Elizabeth Strout's new novel Burgess Boys, and having this topic on my mind as I did so, I paid close attention to the ending.  I have to say, it does an excellent job resolving the themes and plot of the novel without overdoing it.  Strout doesn't attempt to tie everything up in a pretty package, bow neatly placed on top.  But she does give the readers a sense of closure -- some of it is sad, some of it is uncertain (this might happen next, or that) -- but for each character, theme, or line of plot, the reader gets a moment to revisit, recalibrate, and to feel.

That feeling moment is what I like about (and try to learn from) tragedy.  The creation of sympathy, the rise of the catharsis... and then that pause (I think of it is as the instant between when a musician ends a song and the applause begins) where the reader feels.  A solitary moment that the author allows.  That's resolution.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Deborah Sampson Gannett and... George Washington?

As I was sleuthing around the internet, looking for information on Deborah's years after the war (a fascinating story, though not part of my novel), I kept coming across an image of her handing a letter to General George Washington.

Here's a link to this image: Deborah&Washington.

The image is a 19th century engraving, and in it, Deborah (on the right), stands with her arm extended, offering a letter to a seated Washington.  She is dressed in military garb, of a sort.  Certainly, her garments are men's wear.  However, she doesn't have a weapon nor does she have any sign of rank.  In one hand, she holds a tricorn hat -- the emblem of the "minute man" and revolutionary war soldier.  She is also bent, as if bowing to Washington, her eyes clearly downcast.  In all, she appears submissive, especially in comparison to how the men are depicted.

Two men are in the engraving.  One, his back to the viewer, has epaulets and a sword at his side (signifier of rank as well as of masculinity!) and stands in a posture that appears almost hostile.  He has a hand on his hip and his face, shown in profile, bears a look of disdain.  It isn't clear who this person is supposed to be -- General Paterson (Deborah's commanding officer)?  An aide to Washington?  What he represents, though, is clear: he is the military establishment, overseeing the scene before him, asserting dominance and displeasure.

The other man is George Washington.  He is seated with epaulets of rank on his shoulder, his body turned to face Deborah, suggesting openness.  Together with his seated position, his posture is much less combative than the other man's.  However, it would be too much to read acceptance into his depiction; he doesn't reach for the missive and his face is shown with a clear scowl.

Overall, it is an odd engraving.  The scene that it claims to depict is Deborah handing a letter to Washington, a letter that discloses her female nature (the letter was purported to have been written by the physician who treated an injury of hers).  Two things are strange.  First is the lack of factual basis.  It is possible that Deborah met with (in the sense that she was in the room with) Washington during her service.  She did carry messages between New Windsor (where General Paterson was stationed) and Newburgh (where Washington was stationed).  However, she doesn't mention any meeting in the biography written about her, and that biography is inclined to take notice and make use of any possible means of aggrandizement.  Indeed, she reports that she handed her letter to General Paterson and it was he who dismissed her (the apocryphal engraving account says that Washington read the letter, recognized the sensitive nature of the contents, dismissed Deborah to another room, and then went to meet her there, handing her a letter of discharge as well as a sum of money).

Why make this history up?  I interpret it as a sad statement about fame.  It is not enough to tell one's own story on one's own merit.  Rather, it must be appended to the story of another famous person.  (The old riding of coat-tails cliche.) For the 19th century, claiming a connection with Washington was a means of gaining some celebrity.  Especially for Deborah, this also legitimizes her claim -- it implies that she "passed" in front of Washington and that her service wasn't peripheral to the war but right at the heart.

But, on the level of the art itself, there are several peculiar factors.  It makes sense that Deborah wouldn't be happy about the situation (if she knows what the letter holds).  But why are the men upset?  They don't know what the letter says.  Their apparent disdain could be nothing more than a reflection of the class differentiation at the time; ranking officers had little need to be indulgent with enlisted men.  But I think that their facial expressions and body postures, together with Deborah's positioning and costuming, connote something more significant about gender relationships.  They are showing superiority; they are showing mastery; they are showing disapproval.  Deborah is lesser in every sense.  She is smaller, she is bent, she is not given a rank or a weapon.

Even though this scene is apocryphal, meaning that the artist had ever license needed to recreate it as he wished, he appears to have interpreted it through a heavy lens of 19th century bias, translating his disapproval for her service and her "masquerade."  Too bad... this moment, in my mind, was one of victory and triumph.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Reflections on Giving a Talk on Transgender Identity to Teens

Yesterday I traveled up to my alma mater, Phillips Exeter, to give a talk to a group of students about transgender identity.  It was a sort of "Transgender 101," using my life story as a way to introduce them to concepts around gender.  I have to say that I love giving these talks -- I feel that it really makes a difference in creating understanding and tolerance.  Also, I love the questions that I get and how thought-provoking they can be.

There were many great questions yesterday, but the one that I've been thinking about since then is one that I get most times that I give a talk (whatever the composition of the audience) and that is: do you consider yourself straight?  

I usually give the same answer I give to "which sex box (M or F) do you check?"  which is: given the options,  I go for straight (or M).  But... I wish it were a fill in the blank sort of question.  And in that case, I'd go for Queer.  The students last night pressed me on this (and I'm glad they did).  

To start with, I gave them my premise that sexual orientation (gay, lesbian, bisexual, straight, etc.) depends upon gender identity.  That is, you can't be a lesbian (a woman attracted to women) without first knowing you are a woman.  So, in my case, with a gender identity of transgender (again, given the fill in the blank option), no sexual orientation fits easily.  It looks straight, but it's really bent.  

I'm not sure that I convinced my audience (or explained it as well as I ought to have), so I find myself still pondering over how to tackle this question the next time it comes up.  And also wondering if there are other (better?) words out there than queer.  I'll keep searching...

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Genres... The Need(?) for Labels

Prompted by the excellent essay that appeared on The Rumpus satirizing the idea of writing "The Great American Woman's Novel" (Here), I got to thinking about genres of fiction.  The essay, written by Elissa Bassist (her web site here) is delightful and hilarious, poking fun at the designation of "American Woman Writers" in Wikipedia, among other things.  Following her article, come the comments (both at The Rumpus and at other sites that have reprinted the piece, like Jezebel.) and some of these are funny, too.  But many of them dropped the satire and took more serious umbrage with the idea of a "Woman's Novel" or "Women's Fiction" in general.

And these responses made me sit back and think about how to (and why to) divide literature.

Of course, there are the craft concerns: fiction as distinct from poetry as distinct from nonfiction.  And there can be reams and reams written about the fuzzy grayness and liminal areas and how even these distinctions are problematic.  But I won't go into that (at least not right now).  Just take fiction... and take it at your average bookstore.  You'd expect a division for Science Fiction, for Mystery, and for Children's and/or Young Adult fiction. These seem natural and needed, helping to funnel the right reader to the right area.  Saves time!  Of course, I can think of crossover texts -- books that I think belong just as much in the "general" literature as in the Mystery section.

But more, I can think of my surprise (and, indeed, even anger) at some of the categorization I've seen in stores.  Many bookstores have GLBT sections or African-American sections.  I've gone looking for Jeanette Winterson books in the "general" section, not found them, and been redirected to the GLBT section.  At the time, I thought, why not have copies in both?  Surely Toni Morrison (among others) belongs just as much in the "general" literature area as in an African-American section... I'd say the same for Winterson.  Those who've commented on Bassist's satire seem upset by the designation of Women's Fiction, which is stacked with romance and a certain ilk of thriller.

What's the problem here?  The problem is that what makes sense for consuming and marketing -- getting the reader to the shelf that they want to be at -- creates strange divisions in the literature.  More, it seems to imply a hierarchy.  Tacit in this is the implication that the "general" category of literature is superior, the Promised Land of the bookstore.  To belong there is to have made it.  The other sections feel lesser.

I say this more as a writer than as a reader (though, as I say above, I do feel some discomfort as a reader as well).  Many bookstores have a historical fiction section, and I know that my first novel, Revolutionary, is historical fiction -- no doubt about it.  I wouldn't mind having it in the historical fiction section.  But I'd want it in the general category, too.  Why?  Because I believe it is a book with literary merit beyond its being historical fiction; I believe its a book that would appeal to a variety of readers, not just those who like historical fiction.

So maybe that's the problem with the divisions: they feel limiting.  If it's in literature, then your book can be anything; you as a reader can be anything.  But if your book (whether a writer or a reader) is in a specific section, that seems to imply something about you -- you are "only" a ________.  Perhaps Bassist has the best solution: satire is the answer!

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Selling out, or just selling?

I've added the last (for now) section in "The Road to Revolutionary" tab above.  I hope you enjoy my reflections on how the editorial process felt and how I respond the the comments I received from other writers about how to manage artistic vision while working with a publisher.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

More in "The Road to Revolutionary"

I've almost finished the series of posts in the "Road to Revolutionary" section -- see the tab above.  Just posted = section 9, which is about the process of sending the manuscript out of editors at publishing houses and signing on.  From this point, I'll reflect on what the editing process has been like, so I hope you'll tune in for future posts in this area.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Transgender Teens and Sports

Today's New York Times article on transgender teens (Here) really grabbed me.  I've written on a lot of different aspects of transgender identity, mostly in nonfiction, but also in fiction, and this isn't one I've grappled with fully.

The article's gist is this: when high school students transition from one gender to the next (whatever the "direction" or end destination), it is often difficult to figure out which team that person should play on.  The catalyzing agent in this article seems to be the number of legislative initiatives cropping up to support the rights of transgender students to play sports in their reassigned gender.  

What amused me, in a dark way, about the article is that the critics from the conservative side make verbatim the same arguments that were used 17 years ago when I came out as transgender and were used 35 years ago when Renee Richards came out.  I find it baffling that anyone would think that a person would transition from one gender to another merely to get a competitive advantage (unless there are field hockey teams full of MtFs of which I'm unaware).  So unlikely for so many reasons... given the social stigma still attached to being transgender weighs much heavier than any possible advantage one could gain (professional avenues for female athletes being limited).  

I found it heartening that many states and sports governing bodies have policy on this matter -- clear cut standards about who can play on which teams after how many years of hormones or how much reassignment surgery.

Like many issues within the transgender world, this one is of greater concern for MtFs than FtMs (given that someone born biologically male would have greater natural strength and therefore athletic advantage).  However, the article gives a little airtime to FtM athletes as well, capturing with one short vignette how hard it can be for a sporty FtM to give up athletic competition.

It was for me.  I was a three sport athlete in high school and serious about two of them, ice hockey and lacrosse.  I loved to play sports - I loved to run and lift weights and be on a team.  I even loved to play pick-up games in sports I was lousy at like basketball or softball.  When I started living as a man, I felt I had to give up sports.  Briefly -- and with great personal conflict -- I skated for a season on the Harvard womens' ice hockey team.  It is a long story, and perhaps one I'll fully explore in an essay... but the NYT article brought up that sense of loss I felt.  Being an athlete had been a huge part of my identity, and I lost that when I came out.

Once I started taking hormones, years after college, I did start competing again, in running races and triathlons.  I competed against biological men and -- though certainly no superstar -- held my own.  Often placing in the top 5 or 10 in my age group.  It fills some of the gap.  I take heart from the article that, maybe, this generation of trans-folk won't have to cede their spot on a team.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Essay up at The Rumpus!

I'm thrilled that The Rumpus has published my essay "Multiplicity."  Check it out HERE.

To give an overview -- I've been married to the same woman for ten years, but in that time, we've had to get married to each other three times as laws around same sex marriage have changed, as we've moved from state to state, and as my own gender status has changed.  I hope you find it to be an interesting chronicle of this odyssey.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Now that I have an agent, what happens?

Section 8 in the Road to Revolutionary tab above is now available.  In it, I look at the steps that came after signing with an agent and before signing with a publisher.  Check it out!

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Signing with an Agent...

Section 7 in the "Road to Revolutionary" tab above is all about getting an offer from an agent, in my case the excellent Alison Fargis, and accepting that offer.  For those interested in the process of taking a manuscript from concept to publication, I hope you enjoy.

And while you're at it, you can check out Alison's site (StoneSong ) for my book and the author awesome authors she represents.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Reflections on Jason Collins Coming Out

The recent news that NBA Free Agent Jason Collins came out has me thinking.  I’m not a basketball fan – I don’t follow the NBA – but the news of this athlete coming out as gay (I read about it in the Sports Illustrated article here) struck me as a significant, almost seismic, shift.

Perhaps it struck me in such a way because I recently heard a presentation (see earlier posts, this was when I was speaking up at Phillips Exeter – the other keynote speaker was Ritch Savin Williams) that discussed the changing perception of gay identity.  Part of Savin-Williams’ presentation was looking at public figures who had come out.  He mentioned the huge impact of the WNBA player Sheryl Swoopes’ coming out as lesbian and remarked that, though retired male professional athletes had come out, no active players had.
Subsequent to hearing Savin-Williams speak, my own school had a diversity day on which I taught a workshop having to do with how different generations perceive gay identity.  Taking a historical perspective, I showed some clips of “Boys Beware” and then went through Time Magazine covers and other seminal images to illustrate to the students how gay people had been presented in the media and what this reflected about mainstream’s society’s understanding of gay identity as well as how it might have influenced their grandparents' and parents' perception of gays.

It was a lively conversation, and I was impressed by the number of openly gay celebrities the students came up with.  Singers, news personalities, actors, authors... I thought of how earth-shattering Ellen Degeneres’ coming out was for me – how it was the first time that I could think of that someone had come out and that person’s career not only hadn’t ended but indeed had improved.  But the students did agree that no current professional male athlete in a big market, mainstream American sport had come out as gay.  They were divided as to whether this would “matter,” but many thought it would.

And now, Jason Collins has filled in this missing gap.  When I heard about it (first on NPR and then reading more fully in the Sports Illustrated piece), I instantly felt: big news!  But why?  Plenty of people are out already.  Why do I feel this one is a game-changer?  Well, first there’s the honest forthrightness of his story.  With so much press given to those who come out earlier and earlier in life, it is striking that he didn’t come out (to others and even, it seems, to himself) until his thirties.

This makes me pause and think: as wrapped up as the GLBT movement has become in the notion of marriage equality and the forward push on that, we need to keep spending time on the core messages of self-acceptance, of handling feelings of self-loathing and denial, not to mention the cultural acceptance of GLBT identity.  Gay marriage is for those who have already arrived and passed through these trials, and by focusing on marriage equality, we can’t deceive ourselves into thinking that the basic issues have been resolved.

Second, it matters because male sports teams, professional ones in particular, remain a bastion of “straightness” – for wont of a better word.  The longer it continues without anyone being out and being in the locker room, the more it perpetuates stereotypes (that gay men aren’t athletic) and the more it permits intolerant cultures to persist (witness the recent Rutgers coach who was fired for his homophobic rant )  The moment that athletes realize that there might be or are in fact gay men on their team, is the moment when it is most likely attitudes and behaviors will shift. 

In the next few weeks and months, I’ll be interested to see the ripple effects of Collins’s declarations.  He is brave – personally and professionally – to come out.  Likely, there will be many people who say “it doesn’t matter” but I suspect there will be many (and perhaps they won’t say it) for whom it will matter a great deal.