Bad Dates and Fiction

What does a bad date look like in a work of fiction?

I’m thinking about this because I’ve written a novel in which the protagonist is sexually abused as a small child. As a teen, she isn’t capable of voicing her discomfort in dating. Stemming from her early abuse, her inability to speak her mind has great consequences, including an unplanned pregnancy.

I’m also thinking about this because I am one of the believers that stories

Dept. of Speculation is a great example of a nuanced and conflicted relationship as well as a must-read for its powerful language. All in a very quick read–exactly the kind of literary fiction that asks you to fill in the gaps of intention and motivation.

change lives. When a story is told well enough, its reader can experience an internal change. His brain can be rewired, and he can find himself in empathy with people he hadn’t thought much about before. I want to quote this full paragraph from Scientific American that summarizes the case:

Literary fiction, by contrast, focuses more on the psychology of characters and their relationships. “Often those characters’ minds are depicted vaguely, without many details, and we’re forced to fill in the gaps to understand their intentions and motivations,” [social psychologist David] Kidd says. This genre prompts the reader to imagine the characters’ introspective dialogues. This psychological awareness carries over into the real world, which is full of complicated individuals whose inner lives are usually difficult to fathom. Although literary fiction tends to be more realistic than popular fiction, the characters disrupt reader expectations, undermining prejudices and stereotypes. They support and teach us values about social behavior, such as the importance of understanding those who are different from ourselves.

Other studies suggest that it’s not just literary fiction that does the trick; a reader immersed in a good narrative–in a book, on a screen–gains greater social acumen and empathy.  

The Haunting of Hill House is a great classic example of genre fiction (horror) that delves into a woman’s motivations for her behavior.

Conversely, I have a hunch–and here I have no data–that we read too many fictional ‘good dates’ that are nothing more the rom-com version of sexual tension. A couple of people meet, they don’t have anything in common, they don’t like each other, and they fall in love. What happens when we read or see this too often? Will it, too, create an unseen pattern in our brains? If so, why do we keep writing it?

I think there are two reasons: we know that if there is no conflict, there is no story. And people read this stuff.

Writers need to take some responsibility for their work. If we want to see change in dating behaviors, we need to be more nuanced about what a conflict is–all sorts of things get in the way of two mutually infatuated people. People do and will read about them.

Additionally, we should all be having a discussion of the difference between that place where women feel harmed and simple bad dates so that we can, as quoted above “fill in the gaps to understand . . . intentions and motivations.”

Proof that we’re unclear on the difference between bad and ugly is found in the arguments of  cultural pontificators about the case of Aziz Ansari. Some women see the article about his date with an anonymous 23-year-old woman as a story of sexual assault; others as revenge porn. Still others are trying to find a middle ground, seeing this as a story of how fraught and complicated dating is and how men and women still don’t get each other. (The very reasonable and thoughtful LA Times columnist Robin Abcarian summarizes the blowback in two related columns here and here.)

Unfortunately, the conversation has degenerated into the sort mud slinging and name calling that does women no good. The Babe author Katie Way called out HLN anchor Ashleigh Banfield for calling out “Grace,” the subject of the article. Unfortunately, Banfield refers to the Ansari evening over and over as a “bad date,” when it is something uglier than that. Way responds by ripping into Banfield with one of the most juvenile ad hominem attacks you’re likely to read. “Ashleigh, someone who I am certain nobody under the age of 45 has ever heard of, I hope the 500 retweets on the single news write-up made that burgundy-lipstick, bad-highlights, second-wave-feminist has-been really relevant for a little while.” (The complete email is printed in Business Insider.)

Fiction writers, including those who write for the screen, can help get the train on the rails. Rather than continuing to watch people blame one another, let’s ask, “How can we help people to stop participating in encounters that at the very least, make us psychologically uncomfortable and fill us with regret?”

I’m not thinking of a discussion of the workplace, which thankfully is finally being placed under the microscope–or at least under the magnifying glass. I’m only thinking about dating and the use of the term ‘bad date.’ Because, as a society, I don’t think we’ve gotten to the–felicitous?–point of bad dates yet. If a mere bad date were the issue, stories like “Cat Person” would never go viral.

A bad date is still a mutually respectful one. Two consenting adults go out to find out a bit more about one another, to discover whether or not they’re going to click. If they do click, that’s a good date. Often they don’t. When one realizes this, he or she says so, and they part ways. That’s a bad date. Nothing traumatic, no lingering ill will, no future counseling sessions.

For some excellent writing about emotional motivations and relationships that outsiders can’t understand, but that become clear to the reader, “Sing, Unburied, Sing” is a great novel.

Let’s start the change in our imaginations, where most good things begin. Let’s more carefully craft the point of view in scenes with good, bad, and genuinely ugly dates in our fiction. Let’s stop calling any work of fiction with a female protagonist that deals with the complications of female life ‘women’s fiction.’ Thus labeled, no matter how good a job the author does in portraying female ‘intentions and motivations,’ these books will not be marketed to men, and men are not going to read them. (I’ve more fully expressed my feelings about this label in this Literary Journeys column.) Let’s change the fiction that changes mental patterns because that’s what changes behavior.  

We all know we have to change that narrative.

Note: I wrote this several days ago and decided to let it stew. Meanwhile, I saw an opinion piece in the New York Times by Jennifer Weiner about how reading romance novels can help men understand what a good date is. (She uses the term ‘bad date’ in the way that I’d like to get away from, but she makes a good case that romance novels include some solid sex ed and answer the question ‘What do women want?’) I primarily read commercial, upmarket, and literary fiction. But I have read some romance that I’ve really enjoyed. Ara Grigorian has been able to avoid the whole throbbing manhood/member thing and write about pairs of thoughtful adults who find one another and love. I reviewed his novel Game of Love here.

Writer’s Block, Real Life, and the Desire for Connection

I don’t believe in writer’s block because, generally speaking, there is no muse hanging out. In fact, I’m not entirely sure what writer’s block is supposed to be. I get a few ideas a day that seem like great subjects for short stories and novels. I don’t write about them because I never fill in the details. They remain just what they are—ideas.

Elizabeth Gilbert, who does believe in the muse, says that the many ideas writers get come from that living creative spirit. But if the writer is too slow to act on them, the spirit becomes restless and seeks another vessel to embody it and make it tangible. To her credit, she gives an example of this that is both excellent and incredible in her book Big Magic. (I reviewed and discussed it here.)

If writer’s block doesn’t exist, why are people—who claim that their lifelong/greatest desire is to write—so slow in acting on their ideas? Or worse, why do they never act on most or all of their ideas?

Let’s say some people are lazy because it’s true. Most people are not. I think writers who write little (or not at all) might be the do-gooders of the world. That is, duty binds them in a way that confounds others. This is particularly true of women, who have always been expected to put others first. It’s also particularly true of Catholics, at least previous to this generation, who were supposed to feel guilty whenever they did something that was self-glorifying or, well, self-anything. I’m not sure if it’s a misfortune—there are wonderful things about being female and wonderful things (so I’m told) about being Catholic. However, as I am the one and used to be the other, I can say the combination generates more anxiety and self-loathing than it does novels.

I’ve spent my life working pretty hard. There were times when I was working about fifty hours a week, was raising small children and was going to graduate school. I wrote when I could, but my sit-downs were far enough apart that I couldn’t keep any sort of through-storyline in my head. I’d forget pretty much all the details of my novel, even the minor characters’ names. Every time I wanted to pick up, I’d have to reread the entire text to remember what had happened. I’d think, ‘Wow! That’s pretty good—I forgot I did that.’ Time elapsed and notes were lost, computers crashed and software systems, as well as methods of backing up information, changed. (Remember those 5” floppy disks?) I lost a complete novel, tens of stories, dozens of poems, two children’s books. At the time, this felt like the universe was over and over again giving me the sign that I was meant for nothing beyond what I was already working at. I have since stopped believing in these sorts of signs, just as I stopped believing in writer’s block. Having moved past the heartbreak of loss, the experience has simply become part of the necessary 10,000 hours of practice required to become good at what I do. (My thoughts on Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and the 10,000 hour rule are here.)

While the novel, stories, and poems were lost, the craft is retained. Like most people who work long and hard, I haven’t found myself to be an outlier in any sort of Beatles sense (surprise, surprise), but I do find that having a passion for the discipline of writing is rewarding. (Which is not to say that going on to have that writing published isn’t more rewarding. I’ve been around too long to start lying to myself now.)

Since guilt is such a destructive force, writers who are hard at work on many things other than writing might remind themselves of the value of what they are doing. If you’re raising kids, you want to be present. If you are getting paid to work, you owe someone a job well done. Are you really a terrible person because your novel is unfinished? Maybe the way to think of it is that you feel lousy, but not because you aren’t good enough or working hard enough (“I’m waking at 5 AM, but couldn’t I get up at 3 AM to write for a few hours?”).

You feel lousy because you want to write as a way to connect with a larger community of thinkers, of people who sense the environment in ways similar to your own. You want to explain yourself to people who feel very different from you, and you want to understand those people as well. This, of course, is not only why you write, but why you read a shit ton of books—the other thing you have been making time for in a world that prefers the pace of tweets and posts.

While I attended a summer session in Cambridge, England—one of these things that anyone who can wrangle up the money is welcome to—I read E.M. Forster’s novel Howards End. I was already a teacher and went along with some dozen or so high school students. I don’t know how I missed Howards End as an undergrad, but I was so excited to finally read it that I went to a bookshop (Cambridge was a bibliophile’s dream in that regard—bookshops and knowledgeable booksellers at every turn), and bought a second copy to mail to my best friend. I wanted to talk about it as soon as I got home.

“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.”

I had a similar feeling when I was a young teacher and my school got a new textbook for the junior year American Literature class. There was another famous piece I had somehow missed—this time from that most American poet, Walt Whitman.

“A Noiseless Patient Spider”

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

So, yes, for many years, I was an English teacher and then a teacher librarian. My job was to help teens become better readers and writers. That’s not a bad way to live a life. I never had to be unethical or immoral, and I valued what I was doing. I should have been able to turn off the inner critic, but I couldn’t. I’ve always thought of myself as someone who never has met the challenge to run faster and jump higher. I’m guessing most writers feel this way.

Something that I think about a lot now—but have no idea how to begin—is to start and edit a literary magazine that accepts work from people who are 45 years or more old and are emerging writers. I see many lists of young people to ‘watch out for.’ What of people with a good deal of life experience who have been quietly, slowly honing their craft while they were duty bound to children, to parents unable to care for themselves, all while they were working to put food on the table and volunteering in their communities because someone had to do it? They must have stories to tell, stories they’ve been working on in the rare quiet moments. They’ll tell them from a different perspective than they would have in their twenties.

My worry about such a journal is that a shit ton of ‘chicken soup’ type submissions would pour in. Because most short work we see anthologized about anyone middle aged and beyond is about getting to the settled place, where the protagonist is working or has already worked things out and come to a Hallmark-channel place of happy new beginnings. So, if I were to ask for the writing of the literary cocooners, the latent talents, I would have to make clear that sentimentality is not allowed. It’s time to spin the silk.

Note: This is my answer to a DIY MFA book club writing prompt. The club is fun and will go a few weeks longer, If you want to try it, check the Facebook page. Next up is a prompt on the tools we’ve used to feed creativity. I can share some of the weird and wacky ways I have kept the creative fire kindled over the years. (The photo is a hint.) Because let’s face it, even when a writer isn’t writing, everything she does, experiences, sees and feels is filtered through the author prism. She asks herself: how does that experience fit into the next story? And then everything becomes writing.

Lud-in-the-Mist: Page One

Lud-in-the-Mist is wonderful. Today, would an agent read past page one? 

Last month, a book I’d never heard of found its way into my consciousness twice in one week. I’m not one to assign supernatural sources to serendipitous events (after reading that book, I’m wondering if I should . . . ), but with two mentions coming so close together, I figured it was worth looking into. My son is a serious fantasy fiction reader and told me that he had just read Lud-in-the-Mist. He found it extraordinary. I don’t often read fantasy fiction, but his praise was high, and he’s a harsh critic of fantasy authors whose world-building is inconsistent, whose characters are not as fully developed as any serious literary fiction. So I thought I might add Lud-in-the-Mist to the end of my 100-book-long ‘to read’ list.

A few days later, I happened upon a discussion of fantasy and literary fiction (and the intersection of the two) between Neil Gaiman and Nobel Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro. In it, Gaiman mentioned that Lud-in-the-Mist was an unjustly ignored novel, one of the best of the twentieth century. I forwarded a link to my son and said maybe I would go ahead and read the book. As this was just prior to Christmas, he bought me a ‘print on demand’ copy.

You can look on Goodreads to see how much people love this novel, so a positive review isn’t entirely my purpose here. However, as someone who reads little fantasy, I found it so good that I sat in my yoga pants and t-shirt all day and read until I’d finished. It has a traditional sense of the hero’s journey. The mayor of the town of Lud-in-the-Mist, Nathaniel Chanticleer (love that cocky name!) is conventional. He’s an enforcer of rules and laws, one of which is that no fairy fruit from the Fairyland beyond the Debatable Hills is to be eaten.

Fairies are often associated with the dead or the ‘Silent People’ and are feared. Their fruit was outlawed after the merchant middle class managed to overthrown the aristocracy and rid the town of both the pain and pleasures of that elite group. The fruit appears to have caused the extremes of behavior exhibited by the aristocrats. Thus the fairy fruit has an obvious analog in illicit drugs. I read that Hope Mirrlees, author of Lud-in-the-Mist, was influenced by the work of Christina Rossetti. You’ll have some fun with that as you read if you remember Rossetti’s poem “Goblin Market” from your college English literature course.

Although the wellness generated by the new law is a delusion (according to Nathaniel’s lawyer father), at least, unlike fairy fruit, it is available to all and treats people equally. It offers a contented orderliness.

Mayhem sneaks into the mayor’s household when a wiley servant gives Ranulph, son of Nathaniel, a taste of fairy fruit. The boy begins to act strangely and the effort to correct the situation leads to a hero’s quest for Nathaniel, who until this moment had never understood how much he loved the boy.

I don’t want to spoil the story, so I’ll just say that villains are interesting and multi-dimensional; the longtime friendships humorous and enduring; all characters grow in understanding; the adventure is surreal and creepy; the hero’s quest and return are as magical as you could hope for; the fairy fruit itself is a powerful metaphor and argument for the dark side of creativity and the necessity of letting it in.

So here we have this very good book. My question, as a writer, is: would it be published today?

First, there is the title, Lud-in-the-Mist. Fantasy books need the names of towns to feel fantastical and this one fits the bill. However, I think, as a title, it would turn people away—at least those who hadn’t read Gaiman’s praise. Yet, this is a good introduction to the novel. ‘Lud’ is sometimes used when authors want to signal past usage for ‘Lord.’ The lords and their fairy fruit have been banished, but the mayor and other jurists are certainly the new lords in the sense of having power in the community through law. Contrarily, ‘-lud-’ as a root word from Latin means play, joke or jest, even mock. (Lots of words contain this meaning—allude, collude, delude, elude, illusion, interlude, ludicrous, prelude.) Playfulness is not what the town is known for, but something that needs to be recovered if it is to survive.

Strike two against Lud is the length of the introductory chapters which give the reader  a good deal of setting and backstory. We learn about the “capricious’ and “selfish” Duke Aubrey, “a hunchback with a face of angelic beauty, who seemed to be possessed by a laughing demon of destructiveness.” He’s interesting, but generations have passed since he disappeared, by many accounts, to Fairyland. Would an unknown contemporary writer be allowed to start there?

Many early pages are spent on the setting, a sort of idyll at the confluence of two rivers, the Dawl (large and commercially valuable) and the Dapple (small and rumored to have its origin in Fairyland).

I was recently at a writers’ conference and attended a session where three agents on a panel listened as the first page of each of many attendees’ novels were read aloud. (The authors of these first pages were anonymous, but surely they were attending the session.) The agents were to pretend that they were reading the page as part of a query for representation. They were to raise their hands at the point where they would stop reading. If two of the three raised their hands, that query was a reject. Of about sixteen first pages that were read aloud, only one wasn’t rejected. The reasons for rejection were sometimes obvious—the writing was no good. But all of the pages that described natural settings or landscapes were rejected out of hand simply because two of the three agents said they hated that as a beginning. Some of these were lovely. If they had made it to a book in that form, I would have kept reading. So, too, did I love the descriptive passages at the beginning of Lud. They drew me into the world of the novel, and while it was an earthly town with some familiar elements, it was also distinct in its beauty.

Mirrlees’s descriptions of landscapes are all vivid. Because her town and countryside are so richly evoked early on, when she moves into the dark otherworld of Fairyland and the Silent People, the contrast is eerie and the reader is chilled. It exactly hits the mark that Joseph Campbell describes as the business of mythology and fairytale—the dark configurations enter the unreal, fantastical space that represents the psychological fear inherent in facing the great challenges and passages of life.

I would be sorry not to be able to read new works of fiction that set this slow pace through which we best enter an unknown world.

Note: As I mentioned, I read (and write) mostly realistic fiction, so I’m not well-versed in fantasy. But I do enjoy Neil Gaiman (who doesn’t?) and found a few of his books great for book talking to teens in the library. On my School Library Lady blog, I reviewed both The Ocean at the End of the Lane and The Graveyard Book; I see parallels to Lud-in-the-Mist in both.


Reading for Renewal: Book Recommendations

As it is Christmas Eve Day, I decided that my ‘Literary Journeys’ article for the Southern California News Group should be about books that offer us renewal. Each of the novels discussed in the article have examples of how the characters need to change who they are in order to move forward on a spiritual journey. A few are classics; most are this year’s imprints; every one of them is a worthy, possibly life-changing read.

I didn’t include YA fiction since the readers of the newspaper are generally adults. However, I’m still recommending Photographic and Challenger Deep. In addition, I finally read John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down. Green’s novels are automatic bestsellers as he has a great fan base (and for good reason). But if you haven’t had a chance to read his latest, it’s a serious reflection on crippling anxiety, a medical state that is very difficult to change.

Below is the link to the Press Enterprise, one of the newspapers that runs the Literary Journeys series. I hope you’ll have a look and pick out a few of the recommendations as your New Year’s reads. You know you are going to get Amazon gift cards this week from those who love you but think you have everything. Tell them which of these books you bought and share; have your own intimate book club and discussion of new beginnings. What could be a better holiday gift?

Inlandia Literary Journeys: Follow characters on trips that end with a renewal of hope

Authors I Appreciate: Why YA and Neal Shusterman


I attended the Writer’s’ Digest Novel Writers Conference in Pasadena, CA during the last weekend of October despite the fact that this meant I would miss two World Series games. (I live with a lifelong Dodger fanatic–it mattered.)

I had a good conference on the whole, mostly attending sessions where agents allowed writers a window into the what and whys of their job. I also had the chance to see how very productive writers like Bob Mayer work, and to take a refresher on the writing software Scrivener with April Davila, just in time to use it for NaNoWriMo.

While the workshop sessions are the heart of a conference (learning tricks of the trade is the main reason people will part with several hundred hard-earned dollars), one of my favorite reasons for attending any conference is to be inspired by the keynote speakers. Listening to them, I don’t take notes; I don’t think about how I plan to use what I’ve learned. I just empty myself and listen. My expectation is to be energized in a broad sense. A good keynote speaker reminds me that the path I’m walking is directed toward meaning. A very good keynote speaker will remind me that the meaning can come from unexpected diversions from that path as well as the path itself.

Both Lisa See and Heather Graham reminded me of the diversions, the way family and career life each lead to experience and storytelling. In honor of the Halloween weekend, Graham did so in a killer Maleficent costume.

But I was anticipating Neal Shusterman’s presentation as I am more familiar with his work. As a high school teacher librarian, I purchased not only most of Shusterman’s novels, but multiple copies of those I liked to book talk. My favorite–and I bought thirty copies of it–was Unwind, a future dystopia in which the US has fought a second Civil War over abortion. The anti-abortionists win, but with the stipulation that if a child doesn’t work out for some reason, parents can agree to have him or her ‘unwound’ during the teen years; that is, the teen can be used for various body-part transplants. If every part of the teen’s body is given life in a new form, he is not technically dead. This engenders some heavy thoughts about what consciousness is and how it gives life meaning. (I’ve reviewed the novel more fully here.) Still, it’s easy to book talk. As a writer, I also realize that it’s easy to pitch.

In 2015, Shusterman published Challenger Deep, a book very different from his previous work. In an afterword, he discusses the relationship of the novel to his real-world family life. His teen son, Brendan, was diagnosed as having schizophrenia, and the novel includes many sketches that he drew while he was, as Shusterman says, “in the depths.”

Challenger Deep is a complex book, a moving and metaphorical (partly hallucinatory) story of mental health treatment and the tricks of the mind. It won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, rightly so. It’s difficult to describe in a few sentences. (I wrote a full review here.) So I was hoping that Shusterman would take questions after his presentation. I wanted to thank him for his work, which has helped me to do my job to cultivate reading among teens. But I also wanted to know how he would pitch Challenger Deep, considering it’s dive into the brain of a mentally ill boy.

Shusterman gave a presentation that covered the arc of his career. He started with tales of his youthful writing, his time in the elementary school library, and his storytelling career as a camp counselor. He was by turns comic and thoughtful. He ran out of time for questions, so I didn’t get to ask about pitching a complex book, but he did part with a serious story. Years ago, he received a letter from a girl whose best friend had died shortly after the two were ATVing and the friend was thrown from her ATV. The letter writer told Shusterman how his Everlost (Skinjacker) series helped her through her grief. Everlost images a world beyond death inhabited by children who lose their way to the afterlife. Some of the things most precious to them in life return to them there.

The grieving teen’s letter was both poignant and articulate.

Although I had purchased numerous copies of Challenger Deep for my library, I bought another because Shusterman was signing books. I wanted this one for my teen niece. When I got to the front of the line, I asked to take a selfie, joking that it would make my colleagues jealous. Shusterman very graciously agreed. But I also thanked him for his work. I told him as quick a story as I could–there were still some folks behind me in line–about how when I would book talk Unwind to remedial reading classes, teens who had never before read anything willingly literally leapt across the table to grab copies before anyone else could get them.

I wanted to tell him that it was unlikely that these teens would (or could) articulate their feeling in the sort of letter that the grieving girl had written, so he wouldn’t hear from them anytime soon. But that his work was helping them not just to leap across the table, but to leap up and grab those lower rungs of the literacy ladder. When saying this, I felt myself tearing up. Oh my God, I thought, he’ll think I’m a nutbucket. I quickly finished my story, took the selfie, thanked him again, and left.

I worry that by talking too much about YA literature, I’m going to pigeonhole myself. While I am working on a YA novel, I’ve recently completed an adult novel. All of the short stories and essays I’ve had published or that are slated to be published soon have been for adults. But I want to give YA fiction its due.

Days after the conference, I was attending my writing group and discussing my experience. One of the writers commented that earlier that week, a woman had asked him, “What’s the point of YA fiction?” and implied that it was lousy stuff that no self-respecting reader would want to pick up. Another of my group members answered, “She’s not the audience.” And that, I thought, was true.

As my experience shows, YA authors not only have an audience of literate, thoughtful young readers; they create readers whose lives will be forever changed by the experience of their books. For that, we adults owe them our thanks.