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Monthly Archives: January 2014

Book Snobs and Being Cool

Book Snobs and Being Cool

*Check out my poem, Complex Numbers, on The Burlesque Press Variety Show!*

When I was an undergraduate at William and Mary, I would sometimes leave my boring campus and go to visit one of my best friends who went to art school in a nearby city. At that point in his life, my friend was concerned (as was I, and as were most people we knew) with being cool. Of course, we couldn’t admit this, since trying to be cool signified the ultimate failure in attaining actual coolness.

Part of the problem was that my friend went to art school, where coolness police were on constant patrol. He also lived in a ramshackle house with a bunch of cool dudes: tattooed artists and musicians who listened to bands I’d never heard of and had profound opinions about zombie movies I’d never seen. I would sit on the cigarette-burned couch in my pink sundress with boys wearing black jeans and band t-shirts: drinking PBRs, trying to participate in their witty/sarcastic banter, and hoping that they would think I was cool.

They did not.

“I like girls with short hair and tattoos,” I remember one of them telling me. I’d had a crush on this particular boy ever since he’d moved into the house, but after that I realized my perky ponytail and un-inked skin wasn’t going to be cool enough for him. Shortly thereafter, he started dating a girl with dyed-black hair and a pirate ship tattooed on her bicep.

Of course, it wasn’t just the way I looked that made me uncool. It was so many things: I went to a dorky school. I was too nice. I took daily showers. I still liked The Dismemberment Plan even though everyone else was over them.

That was one thing that made you really uncool in this crowd: not listening to the right music. Which was why, one day, my dear friend asked me to buy a CD for him at the local record store. This was the cool record shop where all the cool kids shopped, and where the hipster clerks visibly judged you based on what you were buying. My friend wanted an album he knew wouldn’t be seen as cool, and so he felt like he couldn’t be seen buying it. Since I was already uncool, I could buy it and spare him the embarrassment.  So I did.

And then there was another time, at a bar, when the same friend asked if I would order an apple martini because he’d always wanted to try one but he didn’t want to be seen ordering a fruity girl drink. I ordered it and let him drink most of it while I drank his beer. I did these things because he was my friend. And also because I understood his desire to be seen as cool.

This is me my Senior year of college.  Cool?  I'll let you decide...

This is me my Senior year of college. Cool? I’ll let you decide…

I’d like to say that I’m over all that now. And in some ways I am. I’m no longer concerned with music snobs who act superior because they listen to obscure bands. I no longer try to impress hipsters or fear that my clothes are too colorful. But, I have to admit, there’s still a part of me that wants to be seen as cool, and these days it’s the book snobs I worry about.

There were a lot of book snobs in my MFA program, and since I’d been a math and science major at William and Mary, I suddenly felt like I hadn’t read enough of the “important” books to be seen as a literary intellectual. Up until that point, I had read mostly for entertainment, which, in that crowd, was totally uncool.

And even now I’m concerned with what the world thinks about my reading choices. Just yesterday, I went for a walk and stopped by the Little Free Library near my house to drop off the Margaret Atwood novel I’d recently finished. In the box was Sex and the City by Candace Bushnell. I’m a fan of the show, and I’ve always been curious about the books — were they smartly-written or mostly crap? So I snatched up Sex in the City and continued on my way.

Immediately, I was embarrassed. I didn’t want to be seen walking around Seattle carrying a hot pink paperback with a sultry Sarah Jessica Parker on the cover. I tucked the book under my arm, hiding it from a man passing me on the street. Had he seen it? Did he think I was some kind of airhead who reads nothing but trashy chick-lit?

This happens to me at the library and the bookstore, too. I worry what the librarians think of me, and in fact I have sometimes tossed a Cormac McCarthy or Gabriel García Márquez book onto my pile just so that I’ll seem a little bit more intelligent at the check-out counter. The Kindle was one of the greatest things that ever happened to me. I could peacefully read The Hunger Games or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in public without worrying what people thought of me.

Little Free Library

Little Free Library

When I started writing novels, and they all started coming out of as Young Adult or middle grade, I decided I should read more books from these categories in order to better understand the market. “Go to the book store and browse the YA section,” a friend recommended, but I found it hard to stand next to a giant display of Twilight books and read the back of The Princess Diaries without feeling self-conscious.

In fact, I still find it hard. “I’m just looking at these for research!” I want to shout to the snide bookstore clerks in their black-rimmed glasses.

What I need to remind myself is that they probably don’t care what I’m reading. Neither do the librarians.

Neither did the music store clerks or the bartenders back when my friend and I were trying so hard to be cool. We only thought they cared because we cared so much.

It’s the caring too much that makes you uncool.  Or, at least, caring too much about other people’s opinions.

I’m not saying that some people aren’t going to judge you if you sit out in the open reading a Vampire Academy book (especially if you’re over eighteen). But they’re not going to care as much as you think they will, and they’re going to forget about a split second later. Why base what you’re reading (or listening to, or watching, or drinking) on something as silly as what other people think of you?

The secret to coolness is owning it, whatever it is. So, yeah, I’m going to read this Sex and the City book because I’m curious about it, and because sometimes I like chick-lit.  I don’t give a crap what anyone else thinks.

Of course, that’s not totally true. I do sort of wish I had it on my Kindle instead of this hot pink paperback edition.  Oh well.  I never said I was cool.

QUIZ: If Your Life Were a Novel, Which Genre Would It Be?

QUIZ:  If Your Life Were a Novel, Which Genre Would It Be?

I’ve just started the process of querying agents for my new novel, which is about a 19-year-old girl who moves to Los Angeles and begins a secret affair with a Hollywood movie star. I’ve been agonizing over whether it’s an adult book (but it’s about a teenager!), or young adult book (but it’s got some racy parts!), and I finally went with calling it YA in my query letter.

I got some good feedback from the first agent I queried. He liked my writing – he said I have a strong voice and that the characters and scenes are extremely well-developed. Unfortunately, he said he couldn’t represent my book as it is because the plot seemed weak. (Oh, plot, shmot – who needs that? Plus he only read to page 70, and the plot really gets going on page 86, although maybe that’s part of the problem…) He did, however, give me a keen piece of advice: that my novel probably belongs in the category of “new adult.”

Wow! I wasn’t even aware that this was a genre, but a quick Google search proves that it is, and I feel like an idiot for not realizing that sooner. I plan read some NA books right away (like Beautiful Disaster by Jamie McGuire), and I’d love more suggestions for excellent NA books, if anyone has recommendations.

But what is “new adult,” you might be asking. And what is YA and MG and all the other novel genres? Well, to help you figure it out, I’ve developed this little quiz…

IF YOUR LIFE WERE A NOVEL, WHICH GENRE WOULD IT BE?

#1 Choose a beverage:
A. Red Bull
B. Blood
C. Absinthe
D. Chocolate Milk
E. Red Wine
F. Coffee, black
G. tequila shots

#2 Choose a mode of transportation:
A. your best friend’s Jeep
B. teleportation or astral projection
C. an air-ship
D. your bike
E. a sleek, red convertible
F. a black town car
G. the subway 

#3 Choose an outfit:

A

B

C

D

E

F

G

#4 What are you probably doing on a Saturday morning?

A. Fighting with your mom
B. Setting out on a long and dangerous journey
C. Tinkering with your machines
D. Watching cartoons
E. Having “breakfast in bed” (wink, wink)
F. Putting the pieces together
G. Regretting what you did last night

#5 What is one of the biggest problems you have faced or are currently facing?
A. Surviving high school
B. Surviving a zombie attack
C. Figuring out how to defeat your evil robot clone
D. Figuring out how to defeat a bully
E. Finding love
F. Finding your father’s murderer
G. Figuring out what you want to do with your life

IF YOU CHOSE MOSTLY….

A’s: Your life is a Young Adult novel! Young Adult novels are traditionally written for readers ages 15 to 25 (although some sources says 12 to 18).  More and more these days, however, YA novels are being read by people of all ages.  The protagonist in a YA novel is usually in high school.  (The agent I queried said YA characters are about 17 years old, but I think they can be anywhere from 15 to 25).  These are often coming-of-age novels.  They are heavy on plot and dialogue (and angst).

B’s: Your life is a Sci-Fi/Fantasy novel!  This is HUGE category.  There’s traditional Science Fiction with spaceships and aliens, but then there’s the more subtle “speculative fiction,” which is very popular now:  think dystopian societies and post-apocalyptic worlds.  When it comes to Fantasy, you’ve got your traditional Fantasy with gnomes and trolls and faeries and unicorns, but then you’ve got “slipstream” and “magical realism” in which magical or fantastic elements are inserted into an otherwise normal-seeming world (think Karen Russell).  Then there’s zombie fiction and horror and Gothic horror and ghost stories and so much else it’s a little overwhelming.

C’s: Your life is a Steampunk novel!  I included this genre just because I think it’s funny that it is it’s own genre.  Of course, it comes underneath the Sci-Fi/Fantasy umbrella, but Steampunk is a very specific style.  It typically features steam-powered machinery in a fantasy or post-apocalyptic world inspired by the British Victorian Era or the American “Wild West.”  Characters tend to wear goggles and corsets and top hats.  I have to say I don’t have much experience with this type of novel, but I think Chime by Franny Billigsley falls into this category, as does the awesome, silent German movie Metropolis, which I highly recommend.

Scene from Metropolis

D’s: Your life is a Middle Grade novel!  Middle Grade novels are written for readers ages 8 to 12.  They are usually shorter and use (somewhat) simpler language than YA books (although not always — there tends to be a different between the “literary “middle grade books like Tuck Everlasting and the more popular/commercial ones like Captain Underpants.)  The themes of MG books are also more suitable for a younger audience, and there tends to be less romance than in YA books.  The mean age for a MG protagonist is probably 11.  There are some really wonderfully written books in this category, and I was lucky to once be a 5th grade Language Arts teacher and get to read Holes, Shiloh, Bridge to Teribithia, and The Cay with my class.  (And there are so many more wonderful MG books and authors, too, including one of my favorites:  Roald Dahl.)

E’s: Your life is a Romance novel!  This one’s a pretty obvious category.  A relationship novel, or possibly a female wish-fulfillment novel with some steamy scenes.   A feel good (in more ways that one) story.  One thing you may not know:  in order to be considered part of this genre, it MUST have a happy ending!

F’s: Your life is a Mystery/Thriller novel!  Again, pretty obvious category.  These books tend to be heavy on plot and they utilize surprise twists and subtle clues.  There are “cozy” mysteries in which an amateur sleuth (usually a woman) solves a mystery. (These are usually fun and not too bloody.)  Thrillers are more apt to be filled with car chase scenes and violence.  I don’t read too many thrillers, but I do enjoy a good mystery novel now and then, like Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn or The 13th Tale by Diane Setterfield.

G’s: Your life is a New Adult novel!  This is a relatively new genre that is also called Mature YA, Upper YA, or Crossover Fiction.  NA books feature a protagonist from 18 to 26 dealing with topics such as sexuality, drugs, life choices, or a new career.   The character are usually living away from home — often for the first time — and they are making their way through the transition from teenager to adulthood.  These are coming-of-age stories for a slightly more mature audience.  As of yet, there aren’t too many books solidly in this category.  Maybe my novel will become one of them!

“About a Girl,” or, What to Do When It Ain’t Easy

“About a Girl,” or, What to Do When It Ain’t Easy

Please don’t tell me (as many people are want to do) that Nirvana songs are easy to play, because if you do, I might slap you in the face. For the past six weeks I have been trying to learn “About a Girl” on the guitar … and I still haven’t mastered it.  If Nirvana songs are easy, then I must really suck.

The main problem for me is the power chords. My fingers really don’t like the power cord position. Part of the problem, I recently learned, is that my guitar has a fat neck. “You know,” my guitar teacher told me, “there are guitars with much skinnier necks that are easier for people with little hands like you.” Great. Wish I had known that when I was making my guitar purchase.

And, of course, my child-sized hands are the other problem. My guitar teacher has no problem stretching his fingers to reach the appropriate chords, but his hands are literally twice the size of mine.

So I’ve been doing “finger yoga,” and using a hand strengthener. I’ve been practicing power chords until I want to scream. And I’m getting better. Slowly but surely.

At my last lesson I was ready for the final step in learning “About a Girl”: the guitar solo.

“This is usually the first solo I teach people,” my teacher told me. “It’s really easy.”

Great. I was getting sick of people telling me how easy things were when they obviously weren’t easy for me.

My instructor taught me how to do the “hammer-on,” and the “slide.” “See?” he said.  “Pretty simple.”

Ha.

Oh, Kurt Kobain...  I'm trying to play your songs!

Oh, Kurt Kobain… I’m trying to play your songs!

When I was a math teacher, I quickly learned not to tell my students that solving equations or graphing parabolas (or whatever it was I was teaching) was easy. Instead of encouraging them, this statement often had the opposite effect.

If I said, “don’t worry, it’s easy,” then my students would think, oh man, if this is easy, then I must be really stupid. I should just give up now. And a lot of times they did.

I had to learn to say, “this is pretty tough; it’s OK if you don’t understand right away,” or “this is really tricky, but let’s see what we can do.” When people feel like it’s OK to make mistakes, they’re more likely to try.

And I guess my guitar teacher understands this logic after all. Towards the end of my most recent lesson, he said, “it’s going to sound terrible, and that’s OK. Keep practicing.  Plow through the mistakes.  Eventually, your fingers will learn what to do and then you can worry about how it sounds.”

Good to know. Because right now it sounds pretty bad.

Of course, I can tie this to writing. Like learning the guitar, writing isn’t always easy for me, and sometimes I think that I must really suck.  But we writers have to be OK with making mistakes. We have to keep writing, keep practicing, and worry what it sounds like later.

Writing is really hard.  So is the guitar.  But let’s see what we can do.

“Just Sit,” or, Is Meditation Pointless?

“Just Sit,” or, Is Meditation Pointless?

Once again, I’m trying to get into meditating. Every now and again, usually after having read something like Eat, Pray, Love or The Accidental Buddhist, I say to myself: “hey, other people seem to get a lot out of meditating! Maybe I could, too!” On Day One I sit down, excited to count my breaths and reign in my mind as it tries to wander. But by Day Three, I start to find meditation boring and frustrating, and I’d rather be eating breakfast, or going to sleep, or doing yoga, or writing a blog entry. Whatever daily meditation routine I’ve set for myself becomes oppressive, and by Day Four, meditation feels like a distasteful chore. “Why exactly am I doing this?” I ask myself. And I decide to quit.

This time, it only took me until Day One before I wanted to give up. But let’s back up a little….

This time, my boyfriend is meditating with me. In fact, it was his idea. And I thought, hey, maybe this is what I need: a meditation partner. I’d never been able to run more than two miles until I started running with Paul – he encouraged me to run longer distances simply by running beside me. So maybe, I thought, the same would be true with meditation. I’d be able to stick with it because Paul was doing it with me.

Except that when we sat down to meditate the other night, I was already thinking of things I’d rather do. Like read a novel. Or eat some pineapple. Or put on my pajamas and get ready for bed. I sat there trying to focus on my breath, but a nagging thought kept pushing it’s way into my mind: “what’s the point of this?”

And then there was the fact that Paul seemed so good at meditation. Oh, I know that’s a silly statement. I know that an enlightened Buddhist teacher would smile indulgently at me and say in his Yoda-like voice, “no good or bad in meditation. Only like Nike: just do it.”

Even still, I couldn’t help saying to Paul, “you seem so sure of what you’re doing.”

“I’m not,” he protested.

“I don’t know what I’m doing,” I said. “I mean, I’m counting my breaths because that’s what I’ve read you’re supposed to do, but I feel like I’m doing something wrong.”

I told Paul that I feel like I’m standing in the middle of a big, blank field, with nothing but whiteness in all directions. I can’t tell where the sky ends and the ground begins. I want to use meditation to get to a new place, but I don’t know what or where that place is. I certainly can’t see it from here. “If I just knew which direction to go, I could start off in that direction and go for as long as I need,” I said. “But I don’t know which direction to go in, and that’s frustrating.”

“I don’t think there’s a “right” direction,” Paul said, and I knew I had set myself up for that one. Of course there’s not. You can get there by going up, or by going down. All roads lead to the same place eventually. Something like that, right?

Drawing by Eva Langston!

Drawing by Eva Langston!

“Maybe meditation just isn’t for me,” I said glumly, feeling like a Type A failure.

“I don’t think you should give up on it so easily,” Paul said.

I don’t think of myself as a quitter, but on the other hand, when the path isn’t clear, I’m not always willing to meander blindly in search of an answer.  I’m a very practical, “get-it-done” sort of person — I like efficiency and directness.  With meditation, I don’t know what it is I should be doing, or even what it is I’m trying to accomplish, and the uncertainty makes me feel like quitting.

“I think you’re asking yourself the wrong questions,” Paul said. “I think you should just do it and try not to over-think it.”

“I mean, I could just sit there,” I said grumpily. “I could just sit there and not count my breaths and let my mind wander wherever it wants, but that seems lazy. That seems like I’m not doing anything really.  What would be the point?”

There it was again: what’s the point?

A point is something sharp, something at the end of a pencil. A point is a location, a main idea, an ordered pair. Maybe there is no point to meditation. No sharp, ending location, no exact conclusion or coordinate. Maybe the point is that there is no point.

I am the type of person who wants to always be productive. I hate wasting time. I like getting things done. I make to-do lists and enjoy crossing items off of them. It’s hard for me to understand how “just sitting” could be productive.

And yet, maybe it would be good for me to have a time in the day when I allow myself to be unproductive. Maybe that would turn out to be productive after all.

Oh, the circular logic.

I thought back to my statement: I could just sit there and let my mind wander, but what would be the point in that? Well, I could see where my mind goes. As a writer, might that not be a good thing? Doing nothing can actually be quite stimulating sometimes for the creative process. When I was a kid, my life wasn’t as structured as it is now. I wasn’t zooming around trying to “get things done” all the time. Sometimes I did nothing, and sometimes that was when my mind came up with the most amazing things.

In Dinty Moore’s The Accidental Buddhist, his most common suggestion for meditation is to sit. Oh, sure, he talks about counting breaths and about mindfulness and about Buddhist chanting, but when it comes right down to it, his first and only rule is “just sit.”

So that’s my plan. I’m not going to worry about counting my inhales and exhales or doing Pranayama breathing. I’m not going to worry about sitting correctly or chanting an appropriate mantra. I’m just going to sit. I’m going to allow myself ten minutes a day (or however long and often I want – no rigid routine this time) to sit and do nothing. To be unproductive. To do something pointless. It seems like doing nothing shouldn’t be too hard, but I know, for me, it will be.

This time, no rules, no expectations. Just sitting with my mind and paying attention to what it does.

IMG_3261

Do Clothes Make the Character? Or, Can I Wear My Slippers Out of the House?

Do Clothes Make the Character?  Or, Can I Wear My Slippers Out of the House?

My mom bought my boyfriend a pair of slippers for Christmas, and he’s been wearing them constantly. “Do you think it’s OK if I wear my slippers to the bank?” Paul asked me the other day.

“Sure. I guess.” He’s gone on errands in his pajamas before, without giving it a second thought, so I wasn’t even sure why he was bothering to ask me. Besides, the slippers are loafer-style. Except for the soft soles and fuzzy fleece insides, they could almost be considered shoes.

I told Sergiy, my Ukrainian ESL student, about Paul wearing his slippers to the bank, and Sergiy shook his head with disapproval. “In Russia and Ukraine,” he told me, “people are always dressing up before they go outside. People want to look nice and fashionable.”

“Yeah,” I nodded. “Americans aren’t really known for their fashion.”

Sergiy told me that on a recent flight he’d taken, two teenage girls had walked onto the plane wearing pajama pants. “It looks lazy for me,” he said. “And you know what is really disgusting? When I see these women in New York wearing a dress and, how do you call it– sneakers? It’s so ugly.”

“That is bad,” I agreed, but I knew I had no room to complain. Lately I’ve taken to wearing yoga pants around town, even when I don’t plan on going to yoga. I enjoy an elastic waistband, what can I say?

Eva wearing yoga pants.

Eva wearing yoga pants.

Over the years, my clothing style has definitely gone through phases. As a shy, introverted kid, I wanted everything to be plain: shirts with no writing, jeans with no embellishments, jackets that were all one color (a difficult style to find in the bead-dazzled and hyper-colored world of the late eighties and early nineties.)

When I hit puberty, though, I suddenly became aware of fashion and wanted to have more fun with my clothes. I became disgusted with the way all the kids at my middle school wore the same boring things every day: nylon soccer shorts and t-shirts, or straight-leg Levi’s jeans with Addidas sneakers. I couldn’t afford the name-brand soccer clothes like Umbros and Sambas (and I didn’t play soccer anyway), so I wore sparkly tights and patterned thrift store skirts. I borrowed my mom’s tweed blazer for a jacket and wore a purple felt hat with a zipper around the brim.

That was sixth grade, the year I became best friends with D–, a mousy, freckled girl who wore her curly red-hair in a long braid and, in my memory at least, had a wardrobe consisting of nothing but pink and purple sweatshirts and sweatpants. I don’t know if it was becoming friends with me that encouraged D– to ditch the sweatpants, but soon we were both shopping at the thrift store and wearing more and more bizarre outfits. Now that we had each other, we didn’t have to worry quite so much about what the other kids thought.  In eighth grade, D– and I instituted the weekly “Make a Statement Day,” in which we encouraged others to join us in wearing something unusual. A few girls joined us, looking for an opportunity to wear that daring outfit they’d bought on a whim at the mall, but for the most part, D– and I were alone, and our clothing reflected that.

In high school, D– and I banded together with some of the misfits from other middle schools. Our new friend Nikki, for example, had come from a rough middle school where she felt she had to wear a puffy Starter jacket and NFL gear to avoid getting beaten up. She wasn’t as interested in clothes as D– and I were, but she enjoyed our outings to the thrift store. “I like wearing loose dresses that feel like sacks,” I remember her telling me once. She wore sack-like hippie dresses with jeans underneath – usually over-sized mens’ jeans,which she had probably stolen from a boy. (She had a habit of borrowing other people’s clothes for extended periods of time.)

Meanwhile, D– and I had discovered a treasure trove of retro fashion:  D–‘s mother had been a catalog model in the seventies and had saved all of her old clothes from the shoots. We got them out of storage and began wearing the bellbottom jeans and velour jumpsuits to school. To supplement, I bought a leather jacket, platform shoes, and a pair of tall leather boots with spike heels from the thrift store. I had an orange velour jacket I wore and a pair of Dr. Scholl’s wooden sandals.

I think I wanted to prove to myself, and to everyone else, that I was different, that I was creative, that I was special. I began donning more and more daring outfits. I wore my great-grandmother’s slip as a dress (and almost got sent home from school for it). I wore my aunt’s old automechanics cover-alls, I wore an apron over a dress, I wore old men’s polyester pants. I once even wore a towel to school as a skirt. I wonder now what my teachers thought of me.

photo (31)

Eva, D–, and Nikki in high school. We are all wearing my clothes. 

I brought all my crazy, vintage clothing with me to college, but by my Senior year, my style had begun to morph again. Now I was in my twenties and hitting the club scene. I started buying more short dresses and heels. I moved to New Orleans, and for a while I was very into knee socks and short, pleated skirts. By the time I was twenty-five I could probably count at least twenty mini-skirts in my closet. I wore big earrings, bright colors, and tight clothes. “When I turn thirty, I’m going have to stop wearing mini-skirts,” I remember telling my friends in dismay. “What am I going to do?” Luckily, I discovered leggings, which is what my wardrobe now consists of. Nine times out of ten these days, I’m wearing a short dress, leggings, and a pair of boots. Like I said, I’m a fan of the elastic waistband.

All of this brings me to two questions: Does what we wear tell something about our personality or state of mind? (I would say yes.) And, therefore, should we writers be describing the clothing of our characters?

This is a tricky question. I recently read something by a famous author (and frustratingly, I cannot for the life of me remember which author it was) who said that he/she never describes a character’s clothing because it’s “boring” and “unimportant.” That struck me, because I’m often describing clothes, and I’m often struggling with it.

For one thing, describing clothing can date your characters. If I described a girl wearing a mini-skirt and Uggs, or a boy wearing cargo shorts and a pair of Crocs, you could probably get a picture in your mind of these characters and maybe even generate some stereotypes about them, but what about people twenty or fifty years from now? Will Uggs and Crocs still be household names? I remember once reading a book in which the characters wore Izod shirts and topsiders, and that was supposed to communicate something important about these characters, but having never heard of Izod or topsiders before, it didn’t have the intended effect on me.

Also, describing clothes has a tendancy to get tedious, or to sound a little too juvenile. “Jessica was wearing a scoop-neck black shirt and tight jeans. Her blond hair was swept up in a swinging ponytail, and she wore expensive-looking four-inch heels.” I don’t know. It starts to sound a little too Sweet Valley High.

So should we not describe clothing at all? Is that the answer? Of course not! We just have to do it well, and at the right time. No need to describe every article of clothing in every single scene, but some well-placed clothing description can do a lot to help the reader visualize a character and understand his/her personality.

For example, I recently started reading The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood, and I came across the following description:

“Today Charis is wearing a sagging mauve cotton jersy dress, with a fuzzy grey cardigan over top and an orange-and-aqua scarf with a design of meadow flowers draped around her neck. Her long straight hair is grey-blonde and parted in the middle; she has her reading glasses stuck up on top of her head…”

“Roz is packed into a suit that Tony recognizes from the window of one of the more expensive designer stores on Bloor. She shops munificently and with gusto, but often on the run. The jack is electric blue, the skirt is tight. Her face is carefully air-brushed, and her hair has just been re-coloured.”

And therefore, I say, if Margaret Atwood can do it, so can I! And I need to be paying attention to passages like these – those that describe clothing in a way that help to reveal character. Because I think clothes can reveal a lot. Maybe it’s a teenage girl who is seeking identity and recognition. Or maybe it’s just a man who is feeling a bit tired and lazy and wants to bring the comforts of home with him as he ventures out of the house.

Speaking of which, this morning Paul told me he was considering wearing his slippers to work. “Do you think that’s a good idea?” he asked.

“Well, if you think it is, then go for it,” I told him. He must have decided no, however, because his slippers are still in the bedroom where he left them:

Paul's slippers.

Paul’s slippers.

Weddings & Babies: The Only Way to Be Important?

Weddings & Babies:  The Only Way to Be Important?

“Let’s never get on a plane again,” Paul said when we got back to Seattle after a long, long Christmas vacation. From December 17th through January 3rd, I had traveled by plane, train, and car to visit four states and countless friends and relatives. I slept in five different beds (technically four and one couch), and despite my thrifty habits, I probably spent close to a thousand dollars. 

 

Why’d I do it? Well, I love my family and wanted to see them. But the result was now that I was exhausted and, like Paul, I never wanted to travel again.  Of course, I would have to.  We’d have to do the Christmas visiting all over again next year, wouldn’t we?

“It makes me wish I had a baby,” I said.  “If I had a baby, no one would expect me to visit. They would come to me, or they would understand why I can’t come to them. I could stay home and no one would guilt-trip me about it.”

When you have a baby, everyone is willing to give you a break.

Just like when you’re getting married, everyone is willing to make the effort to come to you. I had flown to the east coast in October for a friend’s wedding, and I had marveled at all the people who had spent the time and money to get themselves there for the occasion.

It makes me wonder: is there any reason, besides my wedding or funeral, for which all my friends and family would get dressed up and convene in one location to celebrate me? What if I threw a big party for my thirty-fifth birthday? What if I had a novel published and threw a big book release party? The answer is no, especially not while I’m living in Seattle. Maybe a few people would show up, but most wouldn’t.

But if I get married, oh, all of a sudden everyone will make me a priority. Is getting married and having babies the only way to be seen as important?

Melissa (the bride) with me and her sister, Jessie.  October 2013.

Melissa (the bride) with me and her sister, Jessie. October 2013.

It seems like it is. Or, at least, it did the other day when I was reading the William and Mary Alumni Magazine. I know it’s dorky, but I always flip to the back and skim through the “class notes” for my graduating year to see what my college peers are up to. Turns out what they’re up to is getting married and having babies. In the Winter 2014 issue, the notes for the class of ’04 discussed three people getting married and eight people having babies. At the end there was a mention of an alumna who is a doctor at a mission in Nepal, but the majority of the column was dedicated to people’s weddings and offspring.

I was annoyed. Hadn’t I sent an update to the alumni magazine? I looked back in my email. I had! Last spring the class reporter put out a desperate-sounding plea for people to contact him with their updates. Hmm, I had thought, I haven’t gotten married or had any kids, but I have done a few interesting things. So I had sent him the following update:

Eva Langston received an MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of New Orleans in 2009 and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2011. Recently she was a faculty member at the 2013 San Miguel Writers’ Conference in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. These days she is working on a novel, writing math curriculum, and tutoring Ukrainians on Skype.  She is a regular contributor for Burlesque Press, and you can follow her adventures at inthegardenofeva.com. 

So why hadn’t my update been included in the class notes? Was it not important enough? Did I have to get married or have a baby in order for people to care about me?

Feeling incensed, I emailed the class reporter, demanding answers. He wrote back immediately, telling me gently that he had included my update in the Fall 2013 issue. Oh. Oops. I guess I didn’t read that one. I apologized and thanked him.

But my sense of injustice wasn’t appeased. OK, so the class reporter hadn’t snubbed my update, but still, 90% of the updates in that magazine are about people getting married and having kids, as if that’s the only important thing that people do. Sure, it’s important, but why does it have to be the only thing that’s recognized?

It’s not the alumni magazine’s fault. I bet the only time people write in with updates is when they are getting married or having kids – not when they get a big promotion or a PhD or a hard-earned prize. Why? Why don’t we see those occasions as noteworthy and cause for celebration? Why is it that when I wrote to the class reporter last spring, I almost felt like apologizing: “sorry, I’m not getting married or anything, but I guess you might want to report on what I’m doing”?  As if I was afraid of seeming conceited because my update was about me alone and instead of about me and a man, or me and a baby.

Me with a baby.  (Baby is not mine.)

Me with a baby. (Baby is not mine.)

Let me be clear:  I don’t have anything against getting married and having kids. I hope to do one or both some day. I just wish that people would start placing a little more emphasis on all the other awesome things that their friends and family accomplish besides marriage and children.  I wish that women wouldn’t feel that they only have something to report when it involves someone besides themselves. Can’t we learn to be proud of the things we achieve on our own?  Can’t we learn to celebrate ourselves every now and again?

“Yes, I have to admit, updates like yours are fun to report,” the alumni reporter told me. “It is kind of tiring to think of creative ways to say a person had a baby or wedding.”

True enough.  And on that note, I’m not getting married or having a kid (yet), but I am still important, dammit!  And so are the things that I do.  Maybe next year I won’t travel at all for Christmas. I’ll tell everyone that I have to spend time with my baby – the novel I’m currently writing.