Pushing Out of the Comfort Zone

This weekend I’m performing in my first aerial silks recital. I keep going back and forth trying to decide if signing up was a good idea or a terrible idea. I’m one of the very oldest people who trains at the studio, and there are definitely days when I think that maybe I’m too old for circus arts. On Sunday, when I do my routine, most of the audience will be the parents of the other performers. In other words, the audience will be made of my peers.

Am I going to look stupid? Is this going to be one of those cringe-worthy moments? Are those other parents going to wonder what the heck this mom-lady is doing performing with their children. I don’t know. It’s possible, but I’m doing it anyway. In the (many) years since I was doing ballet, I’ve missed performing. Doing book events is a kind of performance, but it’s not quite the same as training for weeks to put on a show designed to transport the audience to another realm. I’m pushing out of my comfort zone.

I’m not an adrenaline junkie or a big advocate of risky behaviors, but I do think that fear holds us back from taking risks that might be transformative like traveling to a new country or volunteering with a new group of people or writing a book, for that matter. Sometimes change feels too huge and too dangerous for any of us to have the audacity to take it on (um… current political landscape, anyone?) but I try to consider the other side of the scary thing. Will I regret not having tried? What would it mean for me to fail? What could it mean to succeed? I’m stubborn so usually I decide that I would rather do the scary thing than sit around wondering what might have happened.

What are you afraid to try?
What’s holding you back?
What might happen if you pushed out of your comfort zone?

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It’s been a long time…

I can’t believe how long it’s been since I’ve posted here. The last four months are kind of a blur. I had a very fast turn around deadline for my next nonfiction title, a cheery little tomb about rape culture. I’m also really busy running a progressive political action committee dedicated to resisting the heartless policies of the current administration. There is a lot to be outraged about, but I’m trying to turn my horror into action. That, at least, feels productive.

Here’s something else that feels productive:
BOOK RECOMMENDATIONS!!!!

I’ve read some really good titles lately. Put these on your to-read list, and once you’ve read them, let me know so we can have a mini book club!

 

 

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On wishes and real life

I’ve been thinking about wishes (which isn’t quite the same as actually wishing). Specifically, I’ve been thinking about what we call wish fulfillment stories. These are stories in which the author writes a successful conclusion to her own inner fantasies. The most obvious wish fulfillment stories are romance novels, a denigrated genre if ever there was one. Pronouncements are made with supercilious distain: that’s not literature or it’s just a love story or that’s impossible.

I think Kelly Jensen nails it when she observes that the biggest wish fulfilled in romance novels is female pleasure. Consider that for a moment (and maybe read this essay by Lili Loofbourow about how the metrics for good/bad sex are so different for women than for men). It is merely a wish—a wish with all the unrealistic hopefulness that implies—for a woman to seek and satisfy her own needs for intimate pleasure. That’s impossible.

In the last year I wrote the draft of a new novel that I crammed full of things I love. Things like David Bowie and cosplay, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and taco carts, Jeff Goldblum and aerial silks. I wrote a book that made me happy, a book about friends that take care of each other and people who get along even though they are really different.

The entire book is pure wish fulfillment.

It wishes inclusion and respect.
It wishes tolerance and love.
It wishes the elevation of our best selves.
It wishes hope.
It wishes a extended hand.
It wishes glitter and bonfires on the beach.

Writing it was an escape from real life, a personal pleasure, exactly like a romance novel (but mine isn’t a romance novel FYI). Now I have to revise it, and here’s the problem: I write contemporary, realistic fiction, and this book wishes the opposite of what I see every day in the news. Most of the big issues I need to resolve in this draft are a direct result of this conflict between the world I want and the world I see. This is a harder issue to resolve than a hitch in the plot or an inconsistent character arc. This is big philosophical stuff.

I don’t have the answers right now about how to fix this novel, but I do know one thing for sure—there’s nothing wrong with wishing the world were different. I believe it’s called hope.

Tell me, what are you wishing for these days?

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Getting Married?

It must be review time! This is a nice one from School Library Journal about my new book TYING THE KNOT: A WORLD HISTORY OF MARRIAGE:

What’s love got to do with it? Not much, Keyser asserts in this examination of the history of marriage. Up until about 250 years ago, marriage was mainly a transaction or union of couples that entailed political, social, and economic factors. Her discussion of traditions and customs from different cultures and countries is a fascinating and insightful one. All types of unions are explored in this book, including levirate, same-sex, green card, and polyandry marriages. Keyser is straightforward and objective in her examination of different views on the institution. She highlights how changes in society (women’s rights, economic conditions, divorce rates, etc.) as well as a general shifting of attitudes has greatly affected marital unions. Keyser’s book is well researched and greatly illustrated with photographs. VERDICT This highly readable text would be a commendable addition to a social science collection for its pertinent information on cultural studies.

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Beyonce, the Male Gaze, Feminism, and Underwear

Stoked to get this great review from School Library Journal for UNDERNEATH IT ALL: A HISTORY OF WOMEN’S UNDERWEAR.

The biologist and writer offers a fascinating examination of an often under-explored facet of life—underwear. Undergarments for women have evolved throughout the centuries from simple, plain cloth tunics and elaborate corsets made with steel or whalebone stays and to today’s contemporary bralettes and more. Historically, Keyser asserts, underwear is designed to create what ever is perceived as a perfect body. Examples are the Gibson Girl and today’s Victoria Secret Angels. The book is divided into eight chapters that follow a historical time line and place the garments in perspective with the events and culture of the time period discussed. Chapters are illustrated and contain sidebars. The writing utilizes contemporary language and examples, citing Beyoncé and ad campaigns that challenge stereotypical views of beauty. Highlights of the book are the author’s citation of women historians, writers, and entrepreneurs. VERDICT A bit niche but endlessly fascinating, a great addition to nonfiction collections.

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2017 in Five Words

We have very nearly survived 2017. If that’s not a reason to raise a glass of champagne and celebrate, I don’t know what is. As you know, this year has been one of struggle for me, but I’m feeling surprisingly good right now.

Why?

Good question!

I can give you the answer in five words—outrage, action, connection, joy, and vision.

But since I’m a writer, I think I’ll give you the answer in a lot more words! Here is my five-word recap of 2017:

OUTRAGE—Perhaps no explanation is necessary. If you pay attention to the news, every day there is an outrageous affront on human decency or American democracy. But what I am talking about is turning outrage into fuel for action. I’m grateful for my outrage because it propels the work I must do to make the world a better place.

ACTION—I am grateful that I have learned to participate in our democracy. I can make phone calls. I can be informed. I can understand how the system works and which of its flaws require attention. This year, some friends and I started a political action committee dedicated to getting progressive representation for our district. It’s concrete work that I am proud of. 

CONNECTION—Through my activism, I have connected with an amazing group of smart, dedicated progressive thinkers who want an American system that works for all of us. They make being an activist fun (most of the time) and keep me going when my spirits flag. Also, I’ve found a new, more genuine way to connect with each of you, and you have sustained me with your empathy, your kindness, and your heart.

JOY—This year I had to actively seek joy. I wasn’t just looking around and hoping it would show up. I worked to make joy happen. I’m not going to go so far as to say that there’s been an abundance of joy, but there has been some, including my cupcakes posse, long hikes with my dog, the satisfaction of helping a young mom and her daughter from becoming homeless, getting to read Kiersi Burkhart’s newest book before anyone else in the world, writing a new novel full of elements that delight me, and my epic 6,152 mile road trip with my teenagers. All good things!

VISION—2017 has been a year of fighting bad guys, but when the bad guys are vanquished, what next? Well, that’s where vision comes in. Here’s the future I want: basic income for all, excellent schools for all, universal healthcare for all, safe housing for all, reproductive freedom for all, sensible gun reform for all, clean air and water for all, honest government for all people (not corporations), and just for the hell of it, let’s throw in the end of rape culture and the dismantling of racism in America.

So… here we are… heading into 2018. These five words, for which I fought tooth and nail this year, are going to be my guideposts moving forward.

Tell me, what are your words?

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Making Space for Real Connections

As many of you know, the last year has been a challenge for me. I’ve been driven (kicking and screaming) into activism. This intense immersion in news and politics is new for me. New and overwhelming. As a writer my most important skill is empathy, but as a newbie activist, my empathy can be crippling.

Several of you have reached out to ask if I’m okay.
Yes and no.
I’m not deeply depressed, but I am deeply wounded by this broken world.

The hardest days are the ones when I feel powerless against my congressman, against corporate money in politics, against the racist history of America, against violence of all kinds, and against the men calling the shots at the highest levels of government—men who don’t care at all about me or mine.

This powerless has bled into my writing life. There are days when I question everything I’m doing. I ask myself hard questions: Does this book matter? Do I have anything relevant to say? How can I spend my days creating worlds when the real world is burning around us?

I have struggled more than ever with my relationship to social media. There are huge benefits online. Thanks to Twitter I can listen to activists around the world. I can learn from people of color. I can broaden my experience of the world far beyond my small, predominantly white, rural town. I don’t want to disengage from that learning, but there are also some huge downsides. I am often inundated by heartbreak and suffering and cruelty to such an extent that I begin to believe our American culture is damaged beyond repair.

At those moments, I would be wise to close Facebook and to shut down Twitter.
And yet…
I don’t.
Why is that?

Not because of masochism, I assure you. It’s because of hope. It is because you are out there. You and good people like you. I keep scrolling because I am hoping to see you—a bright pinprick of light in a dark tide. I keep looking for the connections we make, the lifelines that keep us above the water, the way we reach out our hands to one another.

So this is the purpose of my missives from here on out—connection.
I want to entwine our fingers.
I want to reach together to the brightness.
I want to work and learn and listen and stretch.

And I want to carve out a space for human connection that is outside of the social media networks, which increasingly control our lives. So I will write you letters and hold this  space, outside of the flood of bad news and calls to action, where we can talk if you want to. Maybe you could tell me how social media is impacting your life for good or ill these days.

I’ll leave you with another thought from Cedric Wright (1889-195). He was a violinist and wilderness photographer dedicated the preservation of the High Sierra. He mentored Ansel Adams, if that tells you anything. He was also a poet.

Our lives like dreams endure
and reach out over the universe.
Nothing real is to itself alone.
There are side streams to rivers; there are overtones to thought.
Great love reaches out
and is involved in the world’s purposes.

– Cedric Wright

 

 

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Editorial Cross-Pollination: Alix Reid from Carolrhoda Lab

My recent novel POINTE, CLAW came out the same day as WHAT GIRLS ARE MADE OF, a powerful novel about love and anti-love, female power and self-sabotage by Elana K. Arnold. She and I recently completed a West Coast book tour for these two books. We hit cities from LA to Seattle talking about  Feminism and the Female Body. You can read our notes from the road here and here and here.

Our novels are twins of a sort. Not only did they come out on the same day but both are heart-wrenching and rage-y explorations of what it means to be a girl in a girl’s body at this time and place in history, when the physical and emotional well-being of women is under assault. Elana and I also share an editor,  Alix Reid, the Executive Editor of Carolrhoda Books and Carolrhoda Lab, whose insights shaped our stories.

We asked Alix what it was like to work on these two books at the same time. Here’s what she said:

It was so exciting for me to have two books on my list, POINTE, CLAW and WHAT GIRLS ARE MADE OF, that both dealt with how young women are boxed into narrow definitions of what it means to be female and feminine and feminine “enough.” Although entirely different in content, the themes of each book touched on one another and made me ever more aware of how important it is to speak UP and speak OUT about ways in which girls are put in boxes, are silenced, are made to feel less than.

Both books show how ingrained patriarchy is, buried even in the girls themselves, so that they are the ones who are monitoring their own femininity as much as the outside world. I think that was one of the richest parts of working on these books for me—both Amber and Elana understood that what can pose the most danger to young women’s sense of themselves is that they unconsciously absorb false messages about what it means to be a girl the world around them—that they are they become their own jailers, in some sense, inflicting punishment on themselves if they feel they are not somehow matching an external definition of femininity.

We need books like POINTE, CLAW and WHAT GIRLS ARE MADE OF to show readers the dangers inherent in what continues to be a patriarchal culture, and we continue to need stories of girls who transcend the narrow definitions of femininity that can bind them and restrict them. Books like these two give girls ways of seeing they are not alone, show them how easy it is to get caught up in false definitions of femininity, and give them ways of thinking differently about themselves in ways that aren’t preachy or heavy-handed.

Editing these two books brought back many memories from when I was a teenager, and reminded me of by my own doubts and fears about whether I was a “good girl.” I wish I’d had these books to read back then—I know they would have helped me!

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Book Tour: Bay Area Edition

Finally, I’m getting a chance to post some fun pictures from phase two of the West Coast tour I was on with Elana K. Arnold to promote our new young adult and middle grade novels. We were hosted by Elana’s sister and nephew, who I fell in love with. Plus, I got to see one of my cousins too. I loved hearing about her geology dissertation project! (Be scared of earthquakes, people!) Here are some highlights from our Bay Area swing!

#1

We did a school visit at a lovely school in Davis, California, called The Peregrine School. Fun fact: The Saw Whet School in Elana’s book,  A BOY CALLED BAT, was based on Peregrine. The kids were great and so was the paper mache sloth in the entry way!

#2

We had a very lively and slightly argumentative crowd at Logos Books, which is a nonprofit bookstore that benefits the Davis Public Library. Ask us sometime over a drink (hint, hint).

#3

We took this picture with a giraffe for Heidi Schulz because we love her and her book GIRAFFES RUIN EVERYTHING!

#4

Avid Reader in Davis did an amazing window display for our middle grade event, which was attended by a very enthusiastic young girl and her parents. (Yeah, just one! Sometimes that’s how it goes.) Elana and I thought she was the bomb!

#5

Stephanie Kuehn is exactly as smart and insightful as everyone says. We had an amazing discussion in Oakland at A Great Good Place for Books. But you should know that I bought a copy of her book THE SMALLER EVIL and it freaked me out. (Read it! You’ll see!)

And that, my friends, is how we rolled on Book Tour: Bay Area Edition. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if you have a chance to go on tour with Elana, TAKE IT! She couldn’t be more delightful to travel with! XO

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Q3: Is POINTE, CLAW a love story?

As POINTE, CLAW leaps into the world, I thought I might answer some questions posed by readers…

Q3: Is POINTE, CLAW a love story?

In POINTE, CLAW, I wanted to explore intimate female friendships and the way in which the lines between friend and lover can shift and blur. Friendships between women can have a depth and an intensity that is really remarkable.

In a “typical” love story (whatever that is), attraction often comes first. There’s surging physical electricity that compels two people to want to spend time together and to want to know each other better. But the reverse can be true as well. Friendship can deepen and emotional intimacy can lead to attraction and then physical intimacy.

The relationship between Jessie and Dawn in POINTE, CLAW is intense. They knew each other as children and reconnect on the verge of adulthood. They careen back together when each is at an absolutely crucial moment that will determine the course of the rest of their lives. The deep connection they share drives the choices they make moving forward.

In my mind, it is a love story, although not in the way you might think. I don’t want to say more for risk of spoilers, but let me just say that I was really happy to see POINTE, CLAW recommended by The Horn Book as a love story for Pride Month. Reviewer Katie Bircher called the book an “intense nonlinear exploration of love and loss.” Read more here.

 

 

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