Just three full days left of my residency now, but right now I've hit a big milestone. I've gone through and revised my entire novel for the ??th time. Five years into rewriting this manuscript, here I am with a product that is so much closer to my original vision than I've had before. It's becoming cleaner, clearer. I took to heart the comments from my writing group this winter and spring, and from a dedicated reader. So thank you Jen Cross, Jen, Melodie, and Alex! Thank you Caroline Leavitt!! I've made some big changes, lots of small ones, fleshed out the characters, added new scenes. Shaped and reshaped. 7,000 new words since I got here, and re-read the whole thing carefully, a chapter at a time, from beginning to end. I have another reader looking at an earlier draft now, and I look forward to continuing to work at this, but I feel I've come to a summit here. From my vantage point up in this tower in the Hudson River Valley, this sacred space I've created for myself with a purple candle, drawing the magic in. I'm not done yet, the journey continues, but I'm pleased. Check out my novel's website! www.ellaverse.wordpress.com
Five days into my Catwalk Artist Residency, one week to go. Already produced a poem, two essays, and am doing some serious work on my novel. So grateful for this time and space. My studio in the tower overlooks the Hudson river and Rip Van Winkle Bridge. Frogs and cicadas are pulsing in conversation. The grounds are beautiful. I can't complain.
Delayed announcement: I got into the Catwalk Art Residency this summer and will be attending in August. http://www.catwalkartresidency.com It's my first residency so I'm excited to go have some quality time with my writing and meet other artists! Also, it's in the Catskills so I will get to visit some East Coast peeps before hand. Yay!
My essay "The Awkward Threesome: Geek Nerd Dork" which appeared first here as a blog post, but has been edited and revised and developed in the year since, is now published on truthout.org Check it out!!!! http://tinyurl.com/am8hay3
Had a blast at Zine Fest today with fellow "New Bay Area Voices" writers Keely Hyslop and Pam Benjamin. Got to hob nob with friends and fellow artists and subversive culture makers. I sold poetry chapbooks and one chapter from my novel, The Ella Verse. Yay to writing and readers and community!
I just launched an indiegogo campaign (a crowdsourcing software like kickstarter) to help me raise funds for the Tin House Writers Workshop this summer in Portland. The total cost of the workshop is $1100. With only three days live, I've already raised $260.
Check out the campaign! You can donate as little as $10, and even that will get you either two chapbooks (nine to choose from), a CD, or a DVD.
Wow. I just found this super scary gay bashing high school assembly in Iowa. A Christian rock group tried to show kids how cool it is to hate. Since my novel is about gay teens in Iowa, things like this remind me that my book really does have a purpose in this world. Though of course, I wish this shit would stop. Like, yesterday. No, actually, let's have an alternate history where queer desire was never seen as a problem. That book would also have a purpose in this world. http://gawker.com/5893115/school-assembly-devolves-into-surprise-anti+gay-anti+choice-bash-fest
My primary identity is nerd, but my moon is in geek and I have a dork ascendant. These days, everyone wants to be a geek. Maybe they think they’ll make more money in the tech industry or seem slightly more interesting if they say they like TV shows with dragons. But let’s face it, geek is now mainstream.
The truth is, when people say “geek” they often mean “nerd,” and a nerd is something different. But equally cool. A nerd is someone who, for example, took the National Latin Exam for fun in ninth grade. Or, I don’t know, played the French Horn for a dozen years. Or knows that forensics is not about CSI: Miami. No. Forensics is the only sport a nerd can hope to letter in, besides band or orchestra. As you might imagine, a nerd had to suffer for their passions in high school, and was branded an outsider. Which, incidentally, is the subject of the majority of geek literature: the experience of difference.
A nerd also knows that, most properly, there is a three way Venn diagram of nerd, geek, and dork, and while of course an actual three way between a nerd, a geek and a dork would be awesome, let’s face it, that’s not going to happen, at least not in this dimension.
Why won’t it happen? Because the dork is too socially awkward to instigate, and while the nerd or the geek might have the chutzpah to get the party started, they are too busy topping each other with Dr. Who references to get on to the more serious business of topping each other.
So on to the finer point of what separates a nerd from a geek, and a geek from a dork:
A nerd’s idea of a great night in is reading the latest Pulitzer Prize winning novel
A geek’s idea of a great night in is a marathon viewing of the latest Joss Whedon enterprise, and/or, the latest voyage of the Starship Enterprise
A dork’s idea of a great night in is…wait, there are other options than spending the night in?
So these days, when Hollywood comes to court the former prom queens and homecoming kings masquerading as social misfits, who try to slum it with their vague interest in Iron Man, an alliance needs to be built between the nerds, the geeks, and the dorks.
Those of us who qualify in more than one category are called upon to be diplomats between these worlds. We must unite to resist the co-optation of our culture! Comic-Con is not for Teams Edward or Jacob and theoretical physics does not belong to Ashton Kutcher!
But part of me wants to hesitate when I trash on Twilight fans, because let’s face it, most of them are women. When I say I want to keep “the mainstream” out of geek culture, I realize that could easily be mistaken as keeping it “pure.” Keeping out the “riffraff,” the “unintelligent,” the people who “just don’t get it.”
I know geektopia isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be. I know that if you’re not a straight white dude, this world can be less than inviting. This shit runs deep. The currency of the geek, nerd, and dork worlds is intelligence. White supremacist heterosexist patriarchy insists that straight white dudes are smarter. It’s an ugly, uncool bullshit reality of privilege and oppression. Also: men act, women are acted upon. So in comics, men are the heroes, women are, the vast majority of the time, the scantily clad villains. This sucks. Geek culture, for all its subversive hijinks, rarely escapes these biases completely. Actually, it often reinforces them. Take two glances at the majority of women superhero “costumes” and their Barbie-esque physiques, and you’ll know that when Stan Lee wrote the character Mystique, he wasn’t thinking about Betty Freidan. And even though the metaphor of the X-Men’s difference is intersectional and can be applied to the struggles for racial equality, one look at Storm can assure you he wasn’t thinking about bell hooks either.
So I do want geek culture to expand. Just not in the direction it’s going. So to all the straight white dudes who were picked on for being too smart in high school, but now make six figures in the tech industry: your difference is not the only difference that matters.
But Twilight sucks, and I’ll stand by that, in equal parts because of the horrible writing and horrible sexism and racism. Yes. Stalking your girlfriend and depicting indigenous people as werewolves are both problems.
Being a geek is a commitment. You have to worship at the altar of commodity fetishism for a while. You have to waste a good bit of time and money on comic books and cult television. You have to learn some passwords, like: “The Tardis: it’s bigger on the inside.”
Being a nerd is a commitment. You have to worship at the altar of your academic discipline for a while. You have to waste a good bit of time and money on books, and alienate at least a few friends and lovers with your snobbery. You have to learn some passwords, like: “string theory, or…white supremacist heterosexist capitalist patriarchy.”
And this brings me to my last point. What we can all learn from the red headed stepchild of the Venn diagram, the one geeks and nerds are afraid to own: the dork. The dork is not afraid to be unpopular. She’s embraced it. The dork is not afraid to say things that will piss people off. In high school that might mean Napoleon Dynamite level social awkwardness, but as an adult, that can mean calling out the sexism, racism and homophobia of the sacred geek texts, and acknowledging that the sciences are still, sadly the bastion of the straight, the white, and the dude. Calling this stuff out is not comfortable. Not “cool.” And that’s better than okay.
So no, this isn’t revenge of the nerds. It’s The Rise of the Geek Nerd Dork Trifecta.
Four LGBT teens commit suicide in three weeks
Wake up call.
I keep getting these stories in my newsfeed. All these suicides, all these bullied queer kids. They are happening one after the other. I've had people try and tell me "it's not so bad for kids these days...times have changed." How many more kids need to die before this sick culture wakes up?
That comment came from a (straight) reader of an early draft of my novel. He didn't buy that in Iowa, in the early 21st century, that a teenager would struggle this much with her sexuality. Okay, what about in California? Or Texas? Or New Jersey? Or Indiana?
But you know what? This post isn't about my novel. All this "news" shakes me to the core; it isn't about my novel, and it's about the deepest source from which my novel springs.
This fear. This fear of being known, being seen as different, being shunned for it.
And what response can I have? Keep writing? Keep hoping that one day this novel will be a light and a solace for young adults? (At least that's what I pray it can be.)
I am too restless for that. I know that I have to sit alone in a room for 10,000 hours to master my craft, and I can be patient.
Luckily, my day job is working with youth. Community college students. There is a big age range, but the median is 18-21. It's the age I love to teach the most--right when the Big Questions about life, society, identity come CRASHING into their brains, and I am happy to be the shepherd of these texts--Marx, bell hooks, Paulo Freire. I am unbelievably lucky to do this work.
And Kushner. I used to teach Kushner (Lambda folks, I'll spare you my aside, but I think you know what I'm thinking). It was so important, and I got a few really heartfelt thank yous. But I also experienced a lot of personal discomfort from several students' obvious homophobia. I taught an article on gay marriage and had to endure hateful conversations--Student A (argument flailing, speaking to the class at large): "You know in your heart it's wrong!" Student B: "I don't know that, I don't know that in my heart!" Again, I try to have patience. Patience is important. And the homophobes seem to be outnumbered.
But I told myself--okay, for my own sake, I need to scale back on the gay talks. Because it would wreck me when I would hear the hate. It would awaken the trembling youth in me, hiding inside her baggy t-shirts, flannel shirts and Birkenstocks, dorky French Horn knocking against her knobby knees, eagerly exchanging notes with those BFFs. Ahh, the repressed love for the Oklahoma high school BFFs. By some shot any of you are reading--don't worry, I'm over it. ;)
But today, after the fourth suicide in three weeks (and the thing that isn't being said is that of course, this is just reportage--this is a consistent, ongoing tragedy for LGBT youth) I am DONE being a "polite queer"--even, and perhaps especially, in the classroom.
I started wearing a rainbow button to work on my bag (well it says "GEEK" in rainbow letters--double outing) but I could do more to be more visible.
I need to scale UP. I need to keep doing this work--the work that engages these central questions of identity. Yes, it's tough and dicey to talk about gender and sexuality. So I step up my game. It's worth it. It doesn't mean I ignore the other topics, but this is urgent. This is close to my heart, and so I shied away. Because it is close to my heart, I must engage.
The LGBTQQI youth in my classrooms need these conversations like water. Fuck fear--the phobes need to deal. That's the only way we can change it. Fuck patiently waiting for privilege and bias and hate to unravel, year by year, generation by generation. This is life and death. And yet, the place where I tremble, where I hesitate: it's a cliche for a reason, but many of the "bulliers"--they might be struggling with their sexuality too. What is the right approach? Different for every age. By 18-21 I think I can safely say: get a grip, be respectful, be tolerant, maybe you have your own shit to figure out, but don't throw it on other people. E
I would also like to add: While I appreciate at some level what Ellen did in her video, An Important Message from Ellen about Bullying--it bugs me that she frames it as about bullying, not the dire consequences of harassment of LGBTQ teens. One could argue that the world sees Ellen, they know she's gay, she doesn't have to be explicit about the underlying message.
Yes we do need to be explicit. To say or behave otherwise is to bend to a culture of hate, silence and invisibility.
Points if you know what band I'm riffing on for my blog post title. Bonus points for the album.
Can you tell I'm back in the classroom already? :)
On the other side of the desk, that is. The other week, I was a student again. And I was a sponge. There is so much to remark upon about Lambda, so the task of chronicling it to people who weren't there seems overwhelming. I am also trying to consider my audience, and be aware that perhaps some of you dear readers may be my fellow comrades-in-arms, us Knights of the Pointy Table. (that was the nickname for the Fiction Fellows at Lambda) Maybe you had to be there.
But that is not a writer's excuse. Let me try, just try, to capture some of the magic that swirled around all week. Okay. So there were us Knights, the fiction fellows. And we got our asses kicked (in a great way) by each other, and by Nicola Griffith, our fearless workshop leader. Then there were the poets, who were getting their asses kicked in a different way by having to write a new poem every damn day. And the non-fiction peeps were workshopping and writing new material...
Point is, we all worked hard. And we got to play hard too. Share meals with each other and bond over beer and wine and cigarette runs. (How did I shape-shift into a smoker for a week? I don't know, but I'm glad it's over. Gave the pack to my roomie...as soon as I got back. Okay, two days after I got back. I had a couple nostalgia smokes).
I have a composition book filled with notes. And I carried it with me wherever I went...from breakfast to class to useful lectures to late night beer around the courtyard tree where people would be dropping names of authors I couldn't believe I hadn't discovered yet, and couldn't wait to embrace. Embrace. All of them, all of you wily Lambda fellows. We were like some kind of Chia Community. It grew so damn fast! But unlike Chia, I do hope some of the bonds we made will continue to take root. Cuz Chia Pets, really? Kind of a dumb fad. The Lambda fellows? Felt like home.
And I'm psyched beyond belief to already see these seedlings sprouting with folks in my area, and through online connection to those I already miss like family. I know that word gets thrown around a lot in queer culture, and I could write all night about why and how it's usually awesome and what have you...but beyond this. Beyond the need for a chosen family, what about when you find yourself in the absolute rightest room of your life? What about when you feel like that family chose you? Queer writers. Lambda Fellows 2010. Knights of the Pointy Table. I'm getting almost jingoistic here for the Queer Nation. Honestly, yall, pass me a feather boa, the pom poms, and some tissue-- because after we kick ass I need to process.
And here's a shout-out to the woman who led the pointy-table charge: I linked to her blog above, but I'm going to praise her again here: Nicola Griffith. What was so immensely helpful about working with her was certainly the way she helped me think about my novel differently, and rewire my brain to narrative grammar, sensory detail, etc. etc. But ALSO--as a teacher myself, I was so inspired by how well she held that line between compassion and toughness. You have to do that. It's such a sign of respect towards your students to care about them enough to be rigorous, to be demanding, but still do it with a smile and warmth. I'd known how to do that...but not to the extent. And I'd been burning out as a teacher. So I was motivated to go to the other side of the desk again. The change feels huge in my classrooms now. AND her partner Kelley Eskridge also kicks ass and gave the best, most inspiring lecture on the business and life of writing. I can't wait to read her novel.
Oh also? Learned a shit-ton about writing. Also? Felt my personal barriers about fears of risk dissolve as I read from my novel The Ella Verse at the end of the week. Yes, I've slammed raw personal poems dozens of times. I can't explain it. This was transformative.
I also loved the fact that the genres mingled so freely with each other, teacher and student alike. (many of us are in fact "trans-genre"). Ellery Washington, the inspiring non-fiction teacher, was also wonderfully approachable and giving of his time and attention.
Final highlight: I hugged Ellen Bass, co-author of The Courage to Heal after my reading. Her book that helped me heal, helped take me to a place where I could write something like that. And then have it come back around. Won't forget that moment any time soon.
But there are more moments like these I could tell you about, leaking into three hour chicken and waffle post-retreat reverie time with Meg Day and Billie Mandel, my Oakland Lambda homies. And coming down from the high...there are more moments to come.
And then there is coming back to the room. And getting to work.