Turning the blog over to Damon Suede, a fabulous gay romance author and one of my best friends, on this glorious, fabulous, wonderful day.
I cried most of the morning, happily, but with a keen sense of history.
Heidi asked me to blog about what I’m thinking about today’s SCOTUS “Obergefell v. Hodges” ruling and so I did…though I suspect the insanity falls thick in what follows.
My mom was one of Mary Bonauto’s biggest fangirls.
Actually, my mother predicted today’s events 30 years ago. I was 14 and living in disgusting Texas trying not to lose my shit on a daily basis. Those were the dumbo-bimbo-Rambo years: acidwash and MTV and Twinkie defenses for all. Ronald Reagan was deep into his Alzheimer jellybeans and dismantling the American dream for the suits and shills. Conspicious consumption and trickle-down toxicity. Fags were sick, greed was good, and the country went over the cliff.
Now, my mother was a breed apart. A trial lawyer and a rabid political activist my whole childhood, she fought for her rights and for people too afraid or ignorant to fight for their own. Even in the gross bible-belt surrounded by oil money and bigots happy to crow about the faggot they’d driven over on Montrose, my mom held out hope.
“Gay marriage will happen. Your generation has to do that.”
My mom was on a tear. In the mid80s, Texas was starting to feel the crush of early HIV crisis, GRID had been renamed AIDS and the gigantic LGBT population of Houston was getting Gay Rights and ERA movements from the mid-70s and now she was trying to pass the torch to her loudmouth son, which sounded like pie-in-sky bullshit to adolescent me.
“We did Stonewall. Pride. Here and queer. We got their attention.” She eyed me skeptically and wagged a finger. “Y’all have to pick up where we stopped.”
“Fuck that,” I thought. Mainly I wanted to listen to Depeche Mode and make out with my football player boyfriend without getting beaten to death with a two by four. Pride parades seemed lame and AIDS had turned sex into Russian roulette.
At that exact moment, I was 14 and annoyed because Edwin Meese and Jerry Falwell held sway over the American imagination. I outright hated these rightwing fuck-knuckles, literally hated, in the way only a pubescent gay culture warrior could. Talk about gay mafia! At that age I wanted to kill bigots with rainbow machetes. My hatred for these credulous morons was a hurricane and an earthquake. I got angry because there was so much literal, active rage directed at us, at me. At that age, I dreamed of raining blood and fire down on those hypocritical fundies the way they prayed it would rain down on me. Confrontation didn’t scare me at ALL. I practically craved vicious confrontation because I felt so embattled down in the anus of right-wing Uh-Mer’ka. I ended up getting a degree in religion just so I could disembowel them in public debates
See, at 14 I had spent three years carrying coffins for as most of my mom’s male friends died off in the plague years. I was the only able-bodied male tall enough to wear a black suit and haul corpses every weekend while Reagan tap-danced on our sanity. I was PISSED at the world. The vindication of Stonewall and the Gay Lib movement had dissolved into a hateful magma of know-noting posturing and televised sermons from pompous bloviators who would resign in shame and scandal by the end of the decade: Falwell, Roberts, Swaggart, Bakker. Swindlers for Jesus™ every fucking one of them and may they each rot in the hell they wished on others. Not for nothing: Jesus’ favorite insult in the New Testament was “HYPOCRITE.”
Well, Dorothy, we aren’t in Reagan’s America anymore.
Today, the 26th of June 2015, the Supreme Court of these (purportedly) United States acknowledged that LGBT people actually ARE people and that thinking we’re icky doesn’t give you permission to treat us like a syphilitic can of spam. Who knew?
For the past 2 years, the trendy-but-flabby argument on the Right has become defense from “religious persecution” as if getting permission to marry means I’m bombing churches in Arkansas. LGBT people are shamed, assaulted, and murdered with depressing frequency, which somehow makes us oppressors. Kiddos, that’s some batshit Stalinist logic, there. Actual adults equating concentration camps and cake orders with a straight face. Prima facie stupidity, obviously, designed to stoke panic and con the gullible.
Then again they aren’t making an argument, they’re just filling up media space with words so they can raise money from people who will pay them to confirm prejudices in public. Ground cover for imbeciles. More than anything the fundamentalists are a business, and they make money hustling rubes by appealing to their fear, vanity, and illusions.
Right-wingers often wail about the gay agenda. “Special rights,” they moan. “Godless perversion,” they insist. “Persecuted Christians,” they claim.
The gay agenda is: we’re people.
That’s it. Full stop.
For most of modern history LGBT folks were an easy punchline: a secret “other” that existed everywhere, hidden and omnipresent as a Red Scare communist. Ooga-booga, the queers are gonna get ya. We hid in closets like every boogeyman every invented. “The volleyball coach is a dyke who’s after our daughters.” Or “That fag’s gonna infect the swimming pool with AIDS and disco.“ For large swaths of America huddled in their shed with an oil lamp and a 12-gauge, the convenient, pervy homo other gave them a hated target they could agree on.
Now gang, if anyone wants to believe that their imaginary Sky-daddy doesn’t want them to do things, they’re welcome, and LGBT folks are ALSO welcome to live like human beings with or without magical friends of our own. The conservative argument is hilarious if you think about it, because a mishmash of persecuted minorities founded this country for the express purpose of believing as they wished even when they disagreed with their neighbors. For the record, the colonies (and eventually the states) existed to prevent the formation of a fundamentalist hegemony like the one they’d fled.
Pity the poor fundamentalists too illiterate or willful to even glance at history. Well, you can pity them if you feel inclined. My well’s dry on that score. Far as I’m concerned, they can suck all the dicks.
Of course this historical reality and the Constitution that created this country turns any “religious liberty” arguments into corn chowder. Freedom to practice your religion is NOT freedom to memorialize and promulgate your religion through government policy.
And the fundamentalist Right can suck on that and swallow.
Today, I feel almost sorry for them: bigots across America just lost the perfect punching bag. Worse, they just learned that every time they swing at it, they’re going to lose more. It’s their own fault. They should have seen this day coming, but then, foresight and insight aren’t among their strengths.
Sad truth: the uptight righties know all this already, but gosh-darn-it they’re running out of ways to say that the homos gross them out. Fundies certainly don’t seem to give two shits about divorce or shellfish or mixed fibers or adultery or teen pregnancy or any of the other Leviticus “abominations.” Heaven knows they have no problem making excuses for hypocrisy like greed, graft, incest, abuse or any of the other systemic horrors their community defends and ignores with grim kneejerk determination.
Bless their hearts. May they get better than they deserve, every one of them. What they deserve is nothing I want to contemplate.
I’m convinced this screeching about LGBT people and all minorities is right-wing projection because the actual, trackable numbers make these goobers look like hell in a nighty. Check out the statistics for suicide, addiction, and rape in conservative communities. Look at teen pregnancy where abstinence is the only option, or spousal assault in patriarchal homes, or the rampant sexual abuse in religious communities. Hell…just last month, after merrily bashing LGBT folks for a couple decades, the disgusting Duggars just convinced most of Fox Nation to do a creepy apologia for INCEST, y’all. Without irony. INCEST!
Bigots point at minorities as perverts and criminals as a frantic distraction from their own gnarly eye-planks. Hypocrisy on a scale unfathomed. Here endeth the lesson.
What we are witnessing is the death throes of a delusion. Fundamentalism is fucked. If our country’s founders believed in equality, then intolerance and oppression have no place here.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident…”
Today was a hinge in history, not just for LGBT people but for America as an ideal. The current SCOTUS, one of the most conservative and corporate of any in our history actually drew a huge line in the sand for equality that is consonant with everything the Founders that sparked that engendered those beliefs and sent them across the Atlantic in the first place.
It bears repeating: our country’s founding fathers were not only not primarily Christians, they weren’t particularly religious… because like the intelligentsia of EVERY era, organized religion invariably rubs thinkers the wrong way. What person with education critical faculties swallows dogma without chewing? For those of you paying attention to history, the Protestant Reformation required doubt to occur which means these hateful fundies could stand to read a book every once in a while.
True faith requires doubt, ergo no fundamentalist can truly believe in anything.
For the Tea Party to pretend a cultural inheritance and ignore that basic truth has always baffled and enraged me. America’s long slow climb up the hill of their ideals keeps lifting us towards liberty and enlightenment era tolerance. Fundamentalism exists in direct contradiction to every principle that sends people to a new continent to set up communities that tolerate difference.
The hellacious conundrum facing all the bigots and nitwits is that America was founded as an Enlightenment Era experiment in humanism, prudence, and social justice. How can they claim to be inheritors of the founding principles of our great nation is they cannot accept the most basic principles of its founding. My mother used to go toe to toe with these people, against all odds, trying to start conversations.
Anyways, that’s a much larger (and) sadder conversation to be had about stupidity and its role in the politics of our country. I’ll say this much: whatever your beliefs, however you fall on the political spectrum, if you aren’t voting and participating in our democracy shame on you.
On this beautiful, optimistic, historic day, what I want to get at is the sheer scale and scope of what this SCOTUS ruling means to America. I want to express what my mother was trying to make me see at 14.
As of right now, this moment, no American children live in a state where LGBT people can be denied marriage. No LGBT folks can be kept away from a loved one’s sickbed or can be turned out of a house by a hateful family. A hundred years of waffling about lover, mate, partner, significant other… and all the other veils and blinds have fallen away. We don’t need code words for our relationships because they do not NEED to be coded.
That may seem like nothing, but to a nervous teen surviving on “It Gets Better” reassurances while counting the days till their getaway, this ruling is a beacon in darkness. What would this have meant to Matthew Shepard or Sakia Gunn or Ali Forney or Matt Epling? The Supreme Court just announced that these kids were people and they were allowed to love someone.
“You are a person. You have rights.” Shocking, right?
What’s sobering to me is that today’s SCOTUS ruling is being rightfully hailed as a huge step forward for the entire country, not just LGBT folks but all marginalized populations. Today’s triumph only underscores how much further Uh-Murika has to go as a civilization. What infuriates me is how the religious right keeps trying to cast basic human dignity as a privilege. What inspires me is the gifted women and men who slaved and scrabbled to get us to this point…one decision, one ruling, one squabble at a time.
Here’s what today’s decision made me realize:
Today, literally thousands of gifted people who have been battling for our basic right to marriage equality need a new job. These brave, tireless folks have been righteous warriors fighting gobshites and numbskulls for DECADES. They have gone to law schools and election offices voice the ineluctable arguments that the inestimable Mary Bonauto used to decimate Alito and Scalia today.
Well, as of this morning, those marriage equality soldiers are out of a job. Blissful pink slips all round! These are smart, strong, savvy communicators who know how to get shit done and they have tasted bigoted blood…and they’re ready to rumble. Entire organizations will retrench and refocus on other critical LGBT fronts: workplace and housing discrimination, public facility access, coercive therapies, adoption and child services, abuse and violence, suicide prevention, homelessness. We are nowhere near done saving the world from idiots and thieves.
And there’s the glorious silver lining in today’s rainbow…every one of those OTHER issues just got a huge influx of brainpower and passion and talent ready to make real changes happen for people everywhere, LGBT and otherwise. We’re gonna make things better even for the motherfuckers that want us burned alive. We’re going to beat them by saving them from themselves.
At the same time, legions of far-right crackpots will have to find new ways to demonize and marginalize us for a dwindling klan that is literally dying off and taking their prejudices with them. We have MANY other battles ahead, and that will be transformative not just for LGBT people but for any American who believes the world gets better when we help and trust each other.
Do unto others, or else.
My mom died in 2008, but she lived long enough to see marriage equality happen the Netherlands, Canada, Belgium, then Massachusetts, Iowa, Washington, California, (although she passed before the Prop 8 idiocy thankfully). I’m happy to say she lived in hope and died knowing that she’d been right. I’m ecstatic to have been wrong. I can only plead adolescence and Texas.
Today has been a breathless, exhilarating, world-changing day. Like Windsor v. United States, today’s ruling will expedite future efforts to guarantee quality and hope for all Americans. We have many roads to walk and after decades of trench warfare a whole army of skilled, canny LGBT activists have been released from one long-ass tour of duty.
All these years later, the entire LGBT community has been invited to sit at a table my mom started setting 30 years ago… and I have to tell you, it’s delicious.
Damon Suede grew up out-n-proud deep in the anus of right-wing America, and escaped as soon as it was legal. Having lived all over, he’s earned his crust as a model, a messenger, a promoter, a programmer, a sculptor, a singer, a stripper, a bookkeeper, a bartender, a techie, a teacher, a director… but writing has ever been his bread and butter.
Though new to romance fiction, Damon has been a full-time writer for print, stage, and screen for two decades. He has won some awards, but counts his blessings more often: his amazing friends, his demented family, his beautiful husband, his loyal fans, and his silly, stern, seductive Muse who keeps whispering in his ear, year after year. Get in touch with him at DamonSuede.com.
Dance With Me is, according to Goodreads and my sales receipts, one of my most popular books. It got started as a story germ after I went to the gym for my physical therapy and couldn’t hear myself think over an aerobics class. I wrote it as I wrangled my own health and sobbed my way through writing the fictional Ed Maurer’s pain goals. Through this book, I’ve met a lot of readers who say it means a lot to them because they struggle with chronic pain too. Several of them have become close friends, one of them so close I’m adding her to the dedication page in the second edition.
The first edition of Dance With Me is still for sale for another month, and then it will go away for a brief period before returning, probably in September. Initially I’d wanted to do an immediate turnaround, but ironically enough the same health issues plaguing me when I first drafted it are bearing down on me now once more, with increasing intensity. I can’t get the edits and processing done in time for a late July turnaround. But rest assured the second edition is well underway.
As I did with Nowhere Ranch, Dance With Me‘s second edition will be self-published. I want to do another direct-sale autographed print copy sale, but it might have to be dependent on my health. There will be audio, and it will be done by Iggy Toma.
People always ask me if there will be new content, or if they should buy the new version. As always, this is entirely up to you. If you’re into writing craft, buying the new one and viewing the versions side-by-side might be interesting, as I’m largely tightening prose and reducing overwriting. This means the story is the same, and if you loved the first one, you’ll love the second one and either notice no difference or only feel vaguely like it’s smoother and better written.
I will, though, be tacking on a little coda at the end of the story. I haven’t yet decided if I want to do a scene from the wedding, write a short, or something else entirely. (Laurie and Ed’s first Christmas?) I’ll tell you right now, though, whatever I add I will post for free on my website. I’ll hide it a bit so people don’t accidentally spoil themselves, but I’ll share it with you, especially on my newsletter. That’s where you can go also to make sure you don’t miss the book’s release and any other pertinent information.
None of that is ready right now, alas. What is, however, is the new cover. It’s by Kanaxa, and of course, it’s utterly gorgeous.
Please do click on that and make it hella high-res. Please do also go to her website and hire her to do a cover of your own. And as for that aforementioned editing? You want Sasha Knight. I gush about her all the time, but let’s break it down. I’m going to pay two grand to re-edit a book you already love just the way it is because I want so much to work on this with Sasha and make it even better, even stronger, its dance even more elegant and wonderful. If that doesn’t convince you she’s the best editor ever, I don’t know what else I can tell you.
But if you’re a reader who has no need to hire anyone, feel free to gush about this beautiful cover in the comments, because Kanaxa will see them! :)
Today we’ll unpack an article from The Mary Sue. “Tropes of Love: Gender Roles in Romance.” Sounds like a wonderful topic. We need more discussion of romance, and gender roles, and tropes are the best! Let’s go.
“I’ve always felt a strange fascination with romance novels. There’s no genre that the general public will associate with bad books faster than romance, with their bawdy covers and superficial plotlines. Of course, that’s an enormous generalization.”
Yes. That’s quite a generalization. It’s also disrespectful, it’s perpetuating an insulting stereotype, and it’s demeaning. Wow. Awkward start. But do go on.
In truth, romance has its good and bad books just like any other genre. Some are brilliant and some will make you feel ill. But there is something special to be said about bad romance novels: they illustrate gender roles better than any other form of media. It’s the books where the authors aren’t trying to do anything special that really show the ideas about gender that are most engrained into our society.
More awkward–some are bad, some are good, and what’s the point exactly?–but setting this aside, you make an excellent point about gender roles in romances. We talk about this all the time! We’re always pushing the envelope. We write a lot about sexual liberation, though we aren’t pedantic about it. We write gay men and women, often in leading roles. There are more and more transgender romances, and bisexual. We’re all about agency.
I mean, I could write a whole article about this, but I love that I don’t have to! I can’t wait to see all the documentation about what roles in what books spoke to you. I know about thirty off the top of my head. Some are great because they’re still speaking to old tropes, but they’re revolutionary because of the way they lead us to new ways of thinking about women and their role in culture.
Though to be honest, a lot of the time romances are an escape. An oasis where people can’t make wild generalizations about who women are. We aren’t put on pedestals or slut-shamed or mocked for what we want to embrace and pursue. But I’m so psyched to see The Mary Sue take this on. I mean, a blog about women in culture? I know you really stepped in shit in the intro, but maybe you’re going to be ironic with that twenty-five year-old cover you slapped at the top with no context. LET’S GO. What’s your research? Your examples? What insights are you going to give us? How are you going to champion women and what millions of voracious male and female readers often marginalized and dismissed in popular culture want to read?
Men Have Power, Women have Spunk
Many romance novels draw their appeal from playing with power dynamics. It can make the starting premise more interesting when one person unexpectedly has power over another. Maybe it’s an unconventional boss, a new social or business rival, or just that one person who can somehow get under the stoic loner’s skin. One common setting with inherent power dynamics is in any books set in the past, often regency or Victorian England. There the women may have pretty dresses, but their social status is always limited and secondary to men.
Um…so, I don’t know if you noticed, but you don’t have any examples here. The first paragraph in this section is really thin, and snide, and then there’s no source. Literally nothing. Also, the whole bit makes no sense. You’re pointing out men are usually in positions of power. I’m not sure if you noticed, but this is the way the world is. Are you trying to say we should write the world differently? Okay. Except, we do sometimes. Try Alisha Rai’s A Gentleman in the Street. This one also gives you some diversity. See the list below (Appendix A) for more recommendations of women in positions of power in romance.
But the biggest problem here is that, to be blunt, you’re not very smart about how to show power. The real way to subvert those in power is to let them look like they’re in power and then quietly undo them. Women have been doing this for millennia. In The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine, the oft-taught “human” fight-or-flight response is rebuffed as a male-only option from a primeval perspective. Men certainly had this luxury, but women rarely did. Our female ancestors were often impregnated when young, sometimes against their will. They then had children, and if they survived all this, they were older and less hale of body. They could never run, and even if they had the physical strength to fight, they usually had children to protect, who were not strong.
Women survived this reality by bonding with one another. Uniting with each other. They endured capture, rape, and indignity by learning how to subvert their male dominators. This led to the stereotype that women are wily and dangerous, especially when sexual. In “civilized” society, we were taught to be the weaker gender, to eschew sex except for getting children. While men could have sex with other women (those tossed aside socially), “good” women could not. This doesn’t even begin to speak to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons in a historical context, though sadly that one is easy. They had to be silent, or they would often be dead. They were viewed as deviants and dangerous to the culture. Threats to the rigid sexual code.
In the Victorian era, and Regency, and Georgian, and Edwardian, men were the dukes lords and viscounts. You complain about novels including this as if somehow we should do something about it. It’s true, we could all write alternate history where the men were subservient, and maybe someday we will. What you don’t understand is that this isn’t something that serves the zeitgeist right now. There’s not a lot of power in pretending female subversion never happened. What is immensely powerful is seeing that dynamic kept the same but showing stories which could have been.
Tessa Dare’s Romancing the Duke has a man as a duke (which is, again, historically accurate) and even gives him the power to further reduce the heroine’s minimal and hard-won independence. She has, in fact, spent her life struggling valiantly against men, some who love her, eroding her power and agency. The duke does not give her agency. In fact, what he does is surrender to her strength and fortitude, seeing her as an example of how to reclaim his own power. Dare is eloquent in her portrayal, but to be honest the duke is far weaker than the heroine. She is the star of the story. She succeeds against all odds and finds not only love but happily ever after. She has full agency and power in a time when in reality women rarely had any.
This is but one example. Please see Appendix B below for more examples of historical romances where women achieve agency and power despite patriarchal, historically accurate dynamics.
So the first section of your article was disappointing. Let’s proceed to “Men Are Stupid About Emotions, Women Are Stupid About Everything Else.” I’ll admit I’m nervous about your phrasing, but let’s give it a try.
Because of the commonly unbalanced power dynamics in romance novels, Female Hero obviously has to bring something else to the table to give the illusion of equality to her relationship with Male Hero. Once they’re close enough that she doesn’t have to be snarky anymore, she can start showing off how emotionally sensitive she is. Perhaps then, just maybe, she’ll be able to heal Male Hero’s hidden pain.
Okay, once again, you have no sources. Zero. You give a few quirky examples but no titles, no tangible research except little jokes frankly coming off as awkward flatulence. So, again, you’re a very bad journalist and a pretty mediocre writer. But you’ve written this, and you’re making a mess, so let’s go on.
You mock the idea that men have pain and that romances address male vulnerability. Once again, you illustrate dynamics between men and women which have not only occurred for ages and ages, but are more and more being seen as harmful influences on our society—and you want romance novels to magically make this go away.
I said this before, but clearly we need to hammer this in with a big stick: what you’re doing here is perpetuating the old and very damaging device of making women in charge of cultural change. This is the pedestal women are always put on. We are asked to be the angels of light who lead humanity (read: men) out of their darkness and chaos. We are divided between sluts and saints, mothers and whores. We are, in fact, asked to cure men all the time. We must dress nicely, behave nicely, and have every aspect of us meet a pre-set image.
Romance novels prioritize emotions in a way most other fiction does not. It also prioritizes men—the males who are ejected from the patriarchal vision of man and who are still in a horribly large chunk of the world and the US as deviants. I write primarily gay male romances, though I’m also often talking about women and always about gender roles, gender stereotypes, cultural expectations, and above all, male vulnerability. Gay romance, lesbian romance, transgender romance, and bisexual romance push the conversation beyond male-female binaries and into examinations of what our patriarchal culture asks of all of us. These stories also provide agency and visibility for a population who has traditionally been excluded from mainstream romance culture and is now fully integrated and seen as equal to its peers. We have won awards, placed on bestseller lists, and more importantly, affected readers.
There are of course scores of romances, LGBT and straight, which positively represent male vulnerability. Please explore them in Appendix C.
It’s at this point I’d like to stop reading and discussing this article, but because part of the point of this essay is to remind people we should always do our homework, all of it, I’ll continue.
Men Are Sex Psychics, Women are Unconscious Dick-Exploders.
A lot of people like to say that romance novels are porn for women. I’d disagree. We have actual porn for that. But there’s no denying that there are some very basic gender-based fantasies that romance novels seem to try to fulfill. Many women have mixed feelings about sex. We might want to enjoy it, but we’re also constantly faced with messages about how bad it is to be a slut. And, of course, ‘slut’ is a word with such a broad definition that a woman who even thinks about sex can be in danger of being labeled with it.
Yes! This is true. See everything I’ve said above. But after this paragraph, you are back to unsubstantiated generalizations and mockery. You are a tired old horse who cannot understand that romances present the world as it is and subvert it quietly while also giving women a good time.
Yes, in many books the men are well-sexed. If you’ve read romance lately, you’d notice the women are too. In older romances (which seem to be the only ones you’ve read, though who knows because again, you have no sources cited) women tended to be more virginal. This represented where our culture was at the time. Had you done research, you’d know most authors wanted more experienced heroines bue were quite often told by their publishers they weren’t allowed to present this. This, happily, has changed.
But in these books of thirty, even twenty years ago, women were still struggling with sexual agency in a very basic and baseline way, and the narrative which worked for them was the illusion of innocence removed without them having to descend into being a slut. This was the age where everything Madonna did or said was scandalous, but those same antics are yawn-worthy today. This was when women were only just reaching for real political power, and we still didn’t have very much. This was when an intern enjoyed a dalliance with the most powerful man in the world, and her life was ruined while the man barely had to dust off his shoulders.
Today, women in romances come in various shapes and sizes, various experiences in sex, various needs and wants. There are romance novels with men as virgins. There are romance novels where the woman is the aggressor. There are romance novels where women dominate men sexually as well as socially. There are so many flavors I cannot afford to give each one an appendix. But in Appendix D, you will find examples of all these mentioned above, and more.
In the last section of your article, I’m sorry, I must simply say you are ignorant, impossible, and insulting.
Men Are Terrifying and Women Have No Idea What A Healthy Relationship Looks Like
By far the worst part about bad romance novels is what they think is romantic. In these stories the couple-to-be usually starts off with some sort of conflict between them so that there’s tension to overcome before they get together. The trouble with these conflicts is that they lead to the men doing terrifying things to the women. I’ve seen the women in these books get kidnapped, held hostage, be psychologically manipulated, forced away from friends and family and even their whole culture, forced out of career opportunities, forced into sudden engagements, manipulated into sex, accused of attempted murder, and set on fire, all by the men they are destined to fall in love with. Most of the time the men never even apologize for these actions and it’s passed off as more silly shenanigans. By the end of the book Male Hero and Female Hero are still happily in love, joking about the odd circumstances that brought them together. You know, all that quirky abuse.
Goodness, I haven’t had to clarify this much since I taught seventh grade. ONCE AGAIN, you are reading thirty-year-old novels. I imagine there are still a few of these types of romances published today, but let’s lay things on the table. Oh yes, the 70s and 80s romances were full of rape and kidnapping. But AGAIN, this was reflective of the culture regarding females as a whole. Women were not able as a large community to have permission to seize sexual power and pleasure themselves. It had to be thrust upon them. Rape and abduction and even abuse was the only way we were culturally allowed to enjoy sex outside of quiet, married monogamy.
Even these novels, however, showed power. There are countless articles and discussions about both historical and contemporary romances novels using these tropes to show sexual and gender agency. (See Appendix E.) Because what you’re failing to note is even in the bad romances, as you so grossly put it, women win the day. They overcome rape and kidnapping and even abusive men. They enjoy the starring role and achieve power and happily ever after.
You’re also ignoring The Lord Won’t Mind and scores of other LGBT romances published decades ago, largely distributed underground within the LGBT community. But at this point I would hardly expect you to know or care about anything with depth or relevance. I’m convinced you wrote this article after waltzing by three grocery store paperback carousels in 1992, then leaned on stereotype and casual mashups to make an article.
You do not understand romances. At all. Romance novels are not flat, suburban dreck women use as drugs to stunt their brains. Romance novels are about hope. Whatever the era, no matter the cover, romances give hope to women and men (yes, men!) who do not feel they can have agency in our culture. They give power to people who cannot fight or flee. They give power to people hungry for community, an umbrella under which to escape a cruel culture. One which sends out ridiculous, presumptive, insulting tripe like this one.
Is this really our “porn for women”, our romantic fantasy fulfillment? I think it’s actually a regurgitation of some of the basest forms of sexism sugar-coated with the guise of romance.
Romance is neither.
Romancelandia is an incredibly strong community. We have and will continue to endure censure, derision, and dismissal. We will also continue to make billions of dollars. We make millions upon millions of readers blissfully happy. We give hope to women and men riding out dark times. We give voice to those popular and literary culture don’t deem worthy of notice—bad people, perhaps, Mary Sue?—and we don’t simply give them a starring role. We give them happiness. We give them hope. We give them power.
There is nothing wrong romance novels as a general concept. People deserve to read stories they enjoy, but also stories that make them grow. We deserve to read love stories without feeling guilty about reading something “trashy”. But what we deserve most of all is to have a romance genre that actually respects women.
We do respect women. And men too. But ah, Alex Townsend and The Mary Sue, you don’t. You have, clearly, a limited vision of who men and women can be. You don’t respect us enough to do research or think for a single second how insulting and reductive this article is. How incorrect. How outdated. How damaging not only to authors but to the readers.
Romance is, has ever been, and will remain for all time the only way publishing financially can continue to exist. We are the bankroll of ever other genre who loves to call us trash, who refuses to examine our strengths but only spins out stereotypes and misrepresentation. We are the ones who can never outlive clinch covers even though they have been dead for decades—even though they are not to be derided but to be studied as what kind of mountain women must overcome to be seen as full sexual beings with cultural agency.
We do allow growth. I have heaps and piles of emails, letters, and anecdotes of meeting readers who said my works and that of other romances have moved them, made them think, and helped them through hard times. Are you one of those awkward souls who thinks we can only grow through reading the literary fiction genre, prioritizing unhappy endings and erudite heroes? Or is this more sloppiness and insensitivity?
But yes, I know. You said you were only talking about “bad romance,” as if you were Lady Gaga. You were sloppy and ridiculous, but you did give that clumsy caveat. Fine. Shall we judge science fiction and fantasy by your ugly and horrifying debacle with your puppy problem? Shall we pick up three pieces of dreck in other genres and call them insipid? Shall we judge science fiction and fantasy for your horribly sexist portrayals of women on many covers and in many books? Shall we judge literary fiction by its pedantic and insulting assholes?
Shall we judge The Mary Sue for printing an article with zero research, insulting speech, and rude treatment of women and men who read romance? Shall we assume then The Mary Sue is no better than every other publication, small or large, who sees novels about women and power and sex and love and hope as things to be mocked, a genre and its legions of readers not worthy of respect?
I suppose we shall.
The following is a compendium of romance as supplied by a quick request on Twitter. Better research would supply more, but since Alex Townsend and The Mary Sue saw fit to do zero, please cast stones in their direction first. As it’s quite long and this article is already lengthy, I’ve placed the appendices after the cut.
Updates, Book Rec, Giveaway, & a Lonely Hearts Excerpt Because Apparently You’re All Searching This Blog For It
I came here to post a quick update and book rec because I get tired of seeing the last post is a recipe, and I really worried all these new followers are thinking I’m going to talk about food all the time. Truth: I don’t talk about any one thing all the time. Everything seems to cycle around eventually, but food is a side dish, not an entree.
Except when I went to the dashboard, it says everyone is coming to this blog to find a Lonely Hearts teaser? Which, okay. Sure. It’s actually at my website, but I’ll give you another little bit at the end of this post. So if you don’t want that, quit right after the book rec.
Well, my update sucks more than a bit. My health was on this gradual slump, despite my efforts to improve my diet (which honestly wasn’t horrible, but any port in a storm) and add exercise, and then this last week it frankly went utterly to shit. I’m in a very foul mood about it, and the fact that this week pretty much everyone and everything everywhere said, “Hey, could you–?” frankly I’m turning off the internet a lot. And not answering the phone. I’ve decided when you’re sick, you get to tell people to fuck off it you want, no explanation needed.
We are, though, exploring Green Chef. It’s a bit pricey, and I’m on the fence, but the food is good and Dan really enjoys how he can make this fancy dinner with all the stuff bought and prepped. We’ll probably do it at least twice a month for a bit.
I’m trying to finish Clockwork Heart, which is very much due and should have been easy to fix, but see the last paragraph. To motivate myself I’m having this weekly contest on my FB Fan Page, which you can play in again starting on either Sunday or Monday, whenever I get the week three post up.
I’m getting asked, like DAILY, if any other books are going to be in audio. For sure Nowhere Ranch is because I have it in production. It’s also going to be in French and Italian later this year. Dance With Me will get the same treatment once I have the rights back. And yes, that will be self-published too, coming out probably the same time as Lonely Hearts in August. Maybe a bit sooner. It all depends. As usual, watch this space and my newsletter for details. I’ll very likely have a pre-sale on Gumroad again and offer the paperbacks. It will be significantly cheaper on Gumroad for a few weeks, but once it goes up on third party, it’ll probably be $5.50, because it’s such a huge pain to change prices there, and last time I wasted a week fighting with Amazon. So, done with that nonsense.
Anyway, all my Samhain books are in the catalog to be produced in audio, and I’m told that should probably be happening? Everything there is licensed through Insatiable Press, so if you want to talk to the people in charge, that’s who. I’ve started forwarding and tagging everyone in charge when I get your emails/tweets/DMs, but feel free to go to the horses’ mouths, either Samhain or Insatiable. All I can do is tell my agent and the people at Samhain how much you’re all asking for more audio. And yes, I tell them you want Iggy only. I do too. I don’t get to pick that for the Samhain stuff, but for the self-pub, he’s for sure.
Another big question is “Are you going to write Paul’s story in the Christmas books?” Yes. I did, and it’s at the line editor. I’ve seen the cover, and it’s great. As soon as it’s approved, I’ll post it. The book will be out this Christmas, with preorders up probably sometime in June.
I think that’s about it. Oh, and I’m not going to be at RT. I thought I’d been pretty public about staying home this year except for RWA, but there seems to be a lot of surprise still. Nope, no RT, no GRL, no nothing except for RWA. Well, okay, and a one day thing August 15 in Chicago, but that’s honestly it.
Right, one last thing. I will probably do another virtual signing for Dance With Me paperbacks like I did with Nowhere Ranch. I can maybe work out something for other books, but I don’t resell books through other publishers because it’s a HUUUUGE pain in my ass. So what I might do is have a period of time where you can mail them to my post office box with a SASE or we’ll do the paypal thing for international, unless you can suss out an SASE. But that’s not for sure and definitely not yet.
I picked this book up the other day, and it’s utterly charming. Sweet, sexy, and makes you feel all gushy inside. It’s just a baby bit like my A Private Gentleman in the pairing (higher/lower class)but with 80% less angst. Which is lovely. If you like that swoopy sweet feeling, with a little bit of tension and some oh no but not much, this is what you want. Hard to find in historical, because usually the whole threat of death and all is a real downer. Not here. This is a delight, and you should read it. Also, set in Paris. PARIS. Come on. Buy it already.
LONELY HEARTS EXCERPT
So, there’s already one of these. It’s here. But I’ll give you another one. Unless you can’t stand being teased. If you don’t like that, you need to stop reading right now. If you go past the cover image and the jump, it’s too late, and you have only yourself to blame.
It’s been awhile since I posted a recipe.
We’ve been trying to eat healthier for a zillion reasons around here, and to help that Dan and I are both using MyNetDiary to track our exercise and food habits. Essentially it counts your calories and nutrients for you, lets you know what you’re missing and what you’re overdoing on. There’s an allowance for exercise, so yesterday when I did a lot of walking it urged me to eat a little more, even though I was over for my food limit, because my exercise had altered that and put me below the recommended threshold.
The following recipe is one I whipped up for Dan, because he loves buffalo chicken a lot, but of course as it’s usually prepared, it’s no good for you. We used actual chicken, but to go vegan/vegetarian one could use tempeh cut into cubes, or some other fake chicken product, or skip it entirely and add walnuts or something else. Quinoa would be a little different texture, but it’d be a complete protein.
The dressing is vegan because we both do better without dairy, but also making it vegan significantly cut the calories and fat. I made a pile of dressing, and the recipe where I got it from urged people to adjust the ingredients to taste. They also used a firm tofu crumbled, whereas I wanted a smooth texture so I used soft and blended the hell out of it.
This recipe is very easily gluten free, but to do that you need to make sure your tofu is GF. Here’s a handy list to help you there. If you can’t use soy at all, I’m not sure what you’d use to replicate–some kind of nut butter or something with body that won’t change the taste overmuch. You could see if it works without it entirely too, as it might. Just add more Nayonaise.
This salad would also go well in a mason jar salad, and indeed, this is the recipe from where this meal got started. I think too this might be paleo? It’s paleo-ish at the very least, and could easily be modified to be more so, I’m sure.
2 cups chopped romaine
1 cup chopped baby spinach
1 cup chopped baby arugula
1 shredded carrot
1/4 c chopped red onion
1 stick chopped celery
2 chopped roma tomatoes
1 TBSP black chia seeds
8-10 ounces grilled/baked chicken breast, prepared OR chopped tempeh
2 TBSP vegetable broth, or 1 TBSP oil
2-4 TBSP Cholula or other favorite hot sauce
Vegan Blue Cheese Dressing
1/2-full block silk tofu (to taste)
1-2 cups Nayonaise or other vegan mayonaise
3 TBSP nutritional yeast
1/4 (or more) tahini butter
2-5 TBSP apple cider vinegar
2 TBSP lemon juice
1-2 TBSP Cholula
Prepare dressing by putting all ingredients in blender or Vitamix; combine until desired consistency reached. For chunkier dressing, mix by hand and use firm tofu and add tofu last. Set aside.
Chop chicken/tempeh into squares and stir fry them hot with broth or oil. Add hot sauce to taste. You can really coat it if that’s what does it for you. Let simmer/stay warm as you prepare the rest of the salad.
Chop greens to desired size. I liked making them pretty fine as it mixed more easily and went onto my fork with more grace. Add vegetables, chia, and chicken.
Drizzle dressing onto salad to taste. Be warned, a little goes a long way. I used probably 4 TBSP and it was definitely too much. But if you love a little salad with your dressing, this is tons better for you than real blue cheese, so cheat a little.
This recipe serves two with a cup and some change of dressing left over. As prepared, we’re guessing this salad is about 563 calories, give or take portions and dressing. 270 calories are from fat, 30 grams total, but only 1.7 grams of saturated fat and 3.2 of polyunsaturated. That’d be less if you skipped the chicken, obviously. It has 14 grams of fiber, 37g of carbs and 36 grams of protein. Sugars are 14g, but none of that is added sugar, unless I missed an ingredient on something. 584g of sodium too, though I think that’s because the planner used a tahini with it, and I did not. Considering how many greens and veg you get in this, AND protein, it’s all you need for lunch. I ate it well over an hour ago and I’m still very comfortably full and not at all sleepy as I usually am after a meal. This is a nice big salad, and you don’t leave it feeling like you didn’t actually eat, with all that protein.
And because you did so well, you can treat yourself to some stevia or Splenda-sweetened ice cream, or go get yourself a latte with just a little bit of real sugar.
My Twitter stream just blew up in rage over this article, and I have to say, it made me wince pretty hard. I’ve read Lamb’s book, and there’s some good stuff in it, especially about how to approach social media. I have a lot of respect for her zeal in wanting to shepherd new writers. On this issue, though, I’m going to disagree pretty intensely with her post which says it’s everyone’s personal choice but is mostly a lot of cheeky-winking-elbow tsk-tsk at some straw men representing the idea of having a pen name. This is something of an interesting reaction on my part, since I do not have a pen name myself.
Here’s the thing about pen names, the simple truth you can take to the bank. Whether you adopt one (or two, or three) or not truly is your choice, and it’s an intensely personal one. Yes, your author name is completely and utterly part of your brand, so whatever name that is should be pretty deliberate. It’s also a huge part of your author identity, the thing you have to cart around in your head. It’s also something you need to live with in your daily life. But the answer of whether or not your personal calculus means you adopt a pseudonym or use your legal shingle is not simple in any way, and it really, truly can’t be boiled down to a few memes.
The Privacy Issue
It’s very true, pen names aren’t quite the privacy shield they used to be. It’s not terribly difficult to unearth someone’s legal name if you’re determined. Yet the reasons for seeking privacy aren’t entirely about escaping death threats and stalkers.
Most writers never quit their day job, which means using their legal name to write fiction (or nonfiction) will result in their writing showing up in online searches their employers absolutely will perform before hiring them or during performance reviews. Not a problem for some genres and topics. HUGE albatross for others.
Women who write sexually explicit material, especially regarding heterosexual couples, sometimes find themselves with passionate, devoted, a little bit too invested male fans…in prison. There is not an epidemic of female authors being harassed by felons, but knowing those fan letters come to a PO Box and not a home address, to a pen name and not a legal name, can be a comforting buffer.
Children and spouses, and possibly other family members can be affected by an author’s use of a legal name.The only times I’ve regretted using my legal name have been in these instances. I write sometimes very sexually graphic LGBT fiction. There have been several instances when my daughter’s friends’ mothers have been politely inquiring about what I do, my child has proudly declared I was a writer, and I held my breath hoping the friendship wouldn’t be terminated because of a Google search. My husband had to undergo a process to work out how to explain what I do at work and how to handle well-meaning coworkers’ requests to read my work. It’s not that he’s not proud of me or that my daughter’s friends have bigoted parents. It’s that if anyone was to have a negative reaction to what I do and judge my family for it, it’s an awkward moment. It’s one that would be easier to filter if I had a pen name. Because writing is my life, not my daughter’s or my husband’s.
I am fortunate in that my in-laws love that I use “their” name to write. They’re proud of what I do and have no compunction addressing anyone who might blink or look askance at their daughter-in-law’s subject mater. Not everyone, however, is that fortunate. Keeping the family peace might be a reason to adopt a pseudonym.
The Identity Issue
Even writing the most benign of topics in the most open, supporting families on topics which help one in the workplace, some authors may choose to adopt a pen name because doing so affords them a separate headspace. Many, many of my friends have pen names, and every single one of them speaks of their author persona by their pen name and as a third person. Jane Author and Jim Scribbler have their own wardrobes and manners of speaking. I’ve even heard some lament that they can’t be Jane Author in real life, and by that comment they mean they’re unable to adopt the same confidence and sense of identity as a layman as they do as an author.
As someone who has found a pleasure in doing drag, I can say I fully understand this power of a separate persona. My alter ego is Calvin Fine, a man who will dance with anyone, flirt with everyone, say and do anything. He will go into men’s restrooms and do photo shoots. He’ll push women and men against pillars and smile rakishly as they melt at the aggression. When I dress him, it really is like putting on a Calvin suit inside my head. Heidi is nothing like Calvin. And yes, there’s a huge comfort in that separation.
Identity doesn’t have to be that intense a reason to adopt a pen name, though. A pen name might be adopted for such a practical reason as being an accountant by day and feeling there is better bang for the identity buck by separating author self from number cruncher. The day job and/or the author gig might be better served by separate identities, on social media or simply in general. I would say identity is probably the biggest reason people adopt pen names.
The Brand Issue
I didn’t choose a pen name for a lot of reasons, but one of the biggest was that I had managed to get myself quite a network under my legal name, and I wanted to make it as easy as possible to utilize that network. I also knew I never wanted to go back to teaching in a classroom, and publishing under my legal name put a nail in that coffin in a manner that suited my professional goals. Never look back, never surrender, etc.
For some people pen names are the practical choice, and not just for professional and personal conflicts. Sometimes pen names are important because the legal name would not help one’s brand. Jennifer Crusie is very open about her legal name being Smith, and as she says, “Do you have any idea how many Smiths are out there?” Having the same legal name as a politician, actor, or other public figure isn’t always a help either.
If I were ever to take a pen name, it would be to write young adult fiction. I’d be pretty frank about the connection between Heidi Cullinan and this second persona, but this young adult pseudonym would have her own website and Twitter handle and the whole works. Why? Because some of my works are so explicit and adult in theme they are absolutely not what I’d want a thirteen-year-old to read, and young adult works can and are read by children even younger than that.
My daughter is thirteen right now. There are books of mine I’d be happy to let her read, and there are ones I would say no. I’m not ashamed of what I write and we’re not shy about sex in our house. But I’m okay with saying thirteen-year-olds don’t need to read books about fisting or rough BDSM play. I’m willing to bet a lot of parents would agree. My goal with these YA books would be to make them accessible to LGBT teens. I’d adopt the pen name so it was clear which books were intended for youth and which were for a little bit later.
Marie Sexton did this same thing, though in the other direction. Her books aren’t sweet–in fact, they’re very sexy–but one series she wrote became quite dark and edgy. It’s a great series. It’s also completely and utterly off the Marie Sexton brand. So she chose A.M. Sexton as her edgy pen name, made it clear they were by her, and also made it clear they were not her usual fare. Many of her fans gave it a try, and many of them liked the books. Did it help that they went in with clear expectations of what they’d find from their favorite author? Many of the readers said, directly or indirectly, yes, very much so.
I know authors who are hugely successful under one pen name and who write other series under other pen names and never publicly connect the dots. Why? Lots of reasons, but the bottom line is it’s because it’s their career and their choice and their bus. It works for them. If it works for you, you can do it too.
If you do take a pen name, be smart about it. Google the hell out of it. Brand the hell out of it. Don’t make it something nobody can remember. Don’t make it something impossible to pronounce or spell. Despite Lamb’s insistence any name will work, most authors are not Janet Evanovich, and spelling their name wrong will absolutely land you in an empty Google sea. (This goes for titles too, but that’s another blog post.) Don’t poach–as in, don’t adopt a name incredibly similar to someone successful in your genre and hope for accidental spill. Don’t go to all the trouble of getting to craft your own name and turn into someone so common you’re lost in the meadow of Jenny Smiths.
Do What Works For You
There is no right or wrong answer to taking a pen name or not. Your life will not be over if you keep your legal name. You aren’t spitting in the wind if you take a pseudonym. Your legal name and pen name might be easily linked, but they might also be easily and comfortably separated. You might feel invigorated and protected by your pen name. You might feel ridiculous over pretending to be someone else.
The bottom line is do what works for you. You wouldn’t let anyone tell you what to write or what not to. Same goes for your name. The only wrong choice is doing something that feels wrong to you but someone made you feel bad about in a book, blog post, or convention bar. Be loud, be proud. Whether you do it naked, in drag, or some point in between is entirely up to you.
It’s release day! The book is out, the book is out!
The Roosevelt, Book 1
Normal is just a setting on the dryer.
High school graduate Jeremey Samson is looking forward to burying his head under the covers and sleeping until it’s time to leave for college. Then a tornado named Emmet Washington enters his life. The double major in math and computer science is handsome, forward, wicked smart, interested in dating Jeremey—and he’s autistic.
But Jeremey doesn’t judge him for that. He’s too busy judging himself, as are his parents, who don’t believe in things like clinical depression. When his untreated illness reaches a critical breaking point, Emmet is the white knight who rescues him and brings him along as a roommate to The Roosevelt, a quirky new assisted living facility nearby.
As Jeremey finds his feet at The Roosevelt, Emmet slowly begins to believe he can be loved for the man he is behind the autism. But before he can trust enough to fall head over heels, he must trust his own conviction that friendship is a healing force, and love can overcome any obstacle.
Warning: Contains characters obsessed with trains and counting, positive representations of autism and mental illness, a very dark moment, and Elwood Blues.
Carry the Ocean on Heidi’s Website
Carry the Ocean Spotify Playlist
Want to learn more about the book and have a chance at a great grand prize? Follow the book tour. Want to read more about this and other news, and enter another contest? Read the latest newsletter, which if you aren’t subscribed but just missed this morning. Check out my Twitter or Facebook to hunt down a link and subscribe so you don’t miss the next one.
Do check out the Spotify playlist referenced above, because the soundtrack for this book is one of my favorites. I still pull it out long after the book has been finished.
I hope you like the book, if you choose to purchase it. It’s definitely one of my favorites that I’ve written. If you enjoy it and want to let me know, you can tell me on my Facebook wall, tweet at me, email me, leave a comment here, or set up some semaphore just outside of Ames.
That’s about all I have to say, I think. Emmet and Jeremey, over to you.
I’ve been trying to write this post for over a week, and why I’m choosing tonight to take the plunge I really don’t know. Well, okay, I do. Because today was a therapy appointment, so Talking About All The Things is in the air. Plus I’m having yet another really shitty drug reaction, which on the one hand makes me feel like throwing up and makes me weave in my chair from dizziness, so I would kind of rather lie down and feel sorry for myself. On the other hand, and it’s the hand winning out, I’m kind of done with this shit getting the better of me, and writing about it feels like a nice fuck you. I’m not entirely sure who/what I’m mad at. The dirt, I guess.
So what’s been happening lately on the health front is complicated, annoying, and doesn’t have much plot. In December I was doing pretty good, except I was taking a lot of ibuprofen and it was starting to eat out my stomach. So my doctor switched me to a different med, which was better on my stomach but didn’t do anything for my neck, which started to get really bad all the time. Also I got crazy bad headaches, so I stopped taking the new drug and took ibuprofen again. Then my stomach hurt, my head hurt, and my neck hurt.
I got very cranky, and one night I sat up in the middle of the night, sobbed my eyes out, felt very sorry for myself and angry at everything, and then I blew my nose and assessed my options. I wanted to go back to my doctor, but I had another drug on the shelf, one he’d given me months before but I never tried because I was scared of it. Cymbalta, which can be a miracle worker for chronic pain but can also tap out creativity. At this point I was barely able to work and frankly was a bit of an emotional mess, so I decided what the fuck, can’t make anything worse than it is. I decided to give the drug a go, so I could at least say I tried.
It kind of worked, in that it took away this nasty aching stuff I’ve pretty much dealt with for over ten years to varying degrees. That was nice, having that gone. It kind of made me want to bounce around. But my neck still hurt, actually quite a bit. I got emotional and angry again, and one day that coincided with the new therapist, who then suggested a million different alternative therapies my husband would never let me try and frankly I don’t want to either. Soon I was up again in the middle of the night, and once again after a round of feeling angry and helpless and frustrated, I tried to assess again.
This weird little voice said, “Sugar.”
I don’t know if there were little fairies in my bedroom or Randy came to see me, or if this was a sort of subconscious thing only possible when one is 3/4 hot mess–whatever it was, it was a good idea. I’ve cut sugar before, and it worked but not as a permanent fix. Of course, I hadn’t done it since my hysterectomy, so I thought, why not. Let’s try it again.
Okay, that’s a big lie, or at least a horrible omission. First I got very angry and had this huge, crazy pity party where I ranted once again at the dirt about how haven’t I fucking cut enough out of my diet, and I’d just bought a box of gluten free brownie mix, and how was it fair that I felt this shitty and awful and I couldn’t even eat some happiness? Then, once that scene played out, I decided yes, I’d cut out sugar, because it would be great to not feel like someone was sticking a nail into my skull through the base of my neck. If it didn’t work, I’d make the brownies.
Sugar is a huge inflammatory agent, so of course it worked. In fact, cutting sugar–militantly–works better than any drug I take, and I take a huge pile of drugs several times a day. After several days of cleansing, I introduced sugar a few times in various ways to see what happened, and every single time, it made me flare up. So I thought, okay. I got this. So long as I don’t eat sugar and so long as I take my Cymbalta, I’ll be okay. I can handle this. The no sugar sucks, but I can deal. Not like I haven’t cut out a zillion things a zillion times. I’ve been to this rodeo so many times I need a whole room to display the belt buckles.
And then the Cymbalta started doing the very thing I was afraid it would do. I got enough of it in my system that it made it almost impossible to write.
I wish I could explain this, why it works that way. Nobody has said they doubted me, but I feel like people think I’m being fussy or divaish when I say it affects my writing. It does, though. It makes it so I can’t push through. Story is like this place in my head I can always visit. When I was little it was my haven, and I nurtured it for a long, long time, and now it’s like this lovely story farm I visit, make new friends, and write things down. Pain is a bit of a veil, but once I push through story is one of the best drugs I’ve got. If you’ve read my writing, most of the books of mine you know were written through a considerable amount of physical pain. A lot of times I stopped working only because it felt like my head would fall off or my shoulders were so on fire I couldn’t take it anymore. Before my surgery I’d also get this crazy sharp pains in my legs, which I now know were clots cutting off nerve circulation. But it was all okay, because once I pushed through the veil, none of it mattered. It was like get out of jail free, and I got these great souvenirs.
Cymbals turns the shimmery little veil into choking spider webs that at first made it tough to get through, then eventually shut off almost all access. I turned in Winter Wonderland feeling really confused about a lot of parts, and then when I got the editing notes they made sense and I went to fix them…and couldn’t get in. At all. For the first time in thirty years, I didn’t want to write. I couldn’t. I was happy, and only in a little pain, but I couldn’t do any work at all.
So I quit the Cymbalta, and the achy, heavy pain came back. I’ve kept sugar mostly at bay, and so far so good. But I clearly have pain in cycles, so I’m anticipating another wave of rough stuff to come around eventually. It’s because of this my husband went with me this week to the doctor, and the two of them talked over my head about drugs (Dan’s a pharmacist) and then suggested I take Neurontin. It’s supposed to help with nerve pain, which is probably my problem. Actually my problem is a very overstimilated auto-immune system which was trying, valiantly, to take on endometriosis, and it basically has PTSD and can’t accept the disease is gone. It can’t stop. It doesn’t know how. So it keeps freaking out and making everything in me hypersensitive, keeping my nerves and my immune system at DEFCON levels even though it has no reason to.
Well, I’m one day in to the drug, which I’m supposed to slowly ramp up to this crazy huge dose three times a day, and after 24 hours of the lowest dose I’m so dizzy I want to puke, I’m so tired I only want to sleep (but can’t quite manage to GO to sleep) and working is so off my table I can’t talk about it.
And you know what? I’m done. I’m seriously, utterly done. I’m done fighting, done playing around with drugs. I’m done being angry about how nothing is fair. I’m done sulking because I feel like I’ve put in enough time with this kind of bullshit and it should be done. I’m done with sugar except for rare, special circumstances, and I acknowledge it will make me hurt when I indulge. I’m done using sugar as medication because being high on it was easier than sitting with the pain, physical and mental.
I feel like I’ve come to this circle again, but like a Zen garden, it’s not a destination but a point I will simply keep revisiting, a centering that allows this to be less of a terrible maze and more of a quirky journey. I’m going to write more books while hurting, sometimes a lot. I might even start hurting in a new way, one that takes writing from me despite all my efforts. I’m going to have to watch everything I eat more than most people do, and it will mean I’ll be separate at events and gatherings, that a lot of people will not get it and accidentally make me feel very separate and sad. I get it will always make me frustrated and that I’ll never like it, but it’s probably not something I can change.
There’s this huge new stone in my Zen garden, though, and it’s the one that took me to therapy this time around. I haven’t brought it up in public, and I don’t know that I’m fully ready to, but for those of you who’ve read all my books: Michael Vallant (A Private Gentleman) and I have a whole lot in common right now. I thought of that the other day and laughed, how my PTSD reaction and his are the same, how I didn’t have that when I wrote it but do now. I even reread that book recently but hadn’t put two and two together until the other day. The bottom line, though, is that I keep fighting through this strange afterbirth of surgery, which is trying to come to terms with my body and all the crazy-assed rides it’s taken me on. I was doing okay, I thought, until the pain stuff started coming back, but actually we’ve been careening toward this for some time. Like Michael, something random triggered it, but once ignited, the fire will burn until it’s done.
I kind of hate my body right now. I’m getting better, but I really hate it, which means I don’t want much to do with it in any shape or form. I’ve never been fond of it ever in my life, but right now I really really hate it. In addition to everything else it’s thrown at me–hot flashes, weird pain, endometriosis, mood swings, weight–now my feet have somehow become even freakier freaks than they ever were. I’m a size 13.5. Not 13. Not 14. I’m basically un-shoeable. All last year my shoes hurt my feet, and I thought it was because my feet are usually fucked up with everything else–and they still are, but also all my shoes were too small. And it’s such a fuck you. There are so many fuck-yous.
The thing about bodies, though, is you’re kind of stuck in them. Also they really don’t have it out for us any more than our cars do. It’s just a suit. Mine isn’t exactly defective, and it’s not that I brought this on by neglect. It just happened. It sucks, but it happened. It’s not about fair, it’s not about justice. It just is what it is.
Part of the reason I’m writing this post is because I’m trying to be done hating my body. I’m firmly back in the center of the Zen garden at the moment, accepting what’s in front of me, but I’m also noticing my garden is kind of a mess. I’m very seriously thinking of making a physical garden outside, maybe one inside too (though no sand, because it will instantly become a litterbox). I want to take a little better care of my body, but mostly I want to accept it for what it is. Not as something that has it out for me, but as part of me.
This is the problem with being able to leave your own head for a fantasy world–you can pretend you don’t have a skin suit. It’s a long, ingrained habit to let my body run on autopilot. It’s going to take some work to get around that. But I’m going to keep trying. I’m going to do my best to stop trying to change what my body is and expect it to magically fix because I’d like it to.
I’m a work in progress for how exactly this all works, but blogging about it feels like a good first step. Coming clean, laying out where I’ve been and where I’d like to be. Also because the other thing I want to acknowledge is, well, you. Lately a lot of you have been writing or leaving little comments in the forms for buying Nowhere Ranch, or starting conversations on social media, and what you keep saying is a variation on, “You see me, you mean a lot to me, and you give me things that mean a lot to me.” Sometimes you say you feel like nobody gets you but my stories make you feel like somebody does. Sometimes you say life is hard but reading my stories makes that easier.
The thing is, you say that to me because you want to say thank you, but what you end up doing on my end is reminding me that despite the middle of the night snot sessions, I have managed to make this less-than-satisfying stuff into something somebody else finds meaning in. Or that despite all that, I’m still doing things that mean something to other people, in addition to what my writing means to me and the things I’m able to do with the income I make off those efforts. When you tell me that, frankly, it’s better than cutting sugar or some weird drug I haven’t tried yet. It doesn’t get rid of pain, but it’s something better to hold onto than the handle of Mommie Dearest’s axe. So thanks. Thank you a very lot.
I haven’t been able to get a lot done lately. So much has been going on, and my head has been so full of crap, mostly emotions I didn’t know how to sort out or what frankly to do with. I haven’t been terribly social–it’s really hard to get me to go out to much more than dinner, and that I only want to do with Dan and Anna. Sometimes I’m horribly moody and cranky, sometimes sulky. I haven’t always been that pleasant, but not many people have been around me (by my design) so that’s worked out. Theoretically I want to change that, but it’s definitely a process.
I want desperately to write, and barfing up this post is helping me clear the last of my cobwebs out, I think, so that I can get back to that with vigor. I have been working, but it’s been rough and sluggish. My own drama was in the way of fictional drama. And it’s hard, because real life isn’t half as fun as fiction. You have to write your own story, and sometimes that’s so much work with so much bittersweet. It doesn’t help that my coping mechanism is work–I like to work hard, sometimes too hard, to avoid thinking about things I don’t want to. I don’t like that this time I can’t escape it.
But I’m going to Zen garden on. I have SO MANY stories I want to write, so many literally in process at this second. I want to make everything as good as I can make it–for you, for me, for the story itself. Maybe that’s the struggle I”m having right now–instead of story being the thing I use to escape, it’s the reward I get for taking care of everything else. Or maybe it’s just that my garden has shifted a little bit and I’m struggling to sort out what that looks like.
In any event, let’s go. Pain, sadness, uncertainty, big feet, lumpy tummies–let’s go. Because if there’s anything this recent roller coaster has taught me it’s that if my choices are less pain but no story or more pain with even simply the prospect of story, my choice is “bring on the pain” any day. Which even though those are some shitty choices, they’re a choice. That’s what I want, and it’s what I’m choosing. And frankly after so long of not really getting options, this is pretty empowering.
I guess maybe that’s the other reason I wanted to write this, to barf up all my laundry for the whole Internet. Because I’m kind of joyous in that discovery. I had a choice, and the option I took is so great I’m willing to hurt for it. For once in my life, I’m putting my hand in the fire on purpose.
Bring on the goddamned wire hangers. Bring them fucking on.
Day after day I’ve listened to news outlets and podcast speakers ungracefully report and backhandedly “process” the news that the German pilot who by all reports deliberately flew a passenger plane into the Alps suffered from depression. I haven’t been able to stand listening to or reading enough to find out definitively if he was officially diagnosed or if he is only alleged to have been, so I apologize if I don’t have that fact absolutely accurate. It hardly matters at this point, sadly. All we’re getting are media barking out variations on, “Why the hell did they let a crazy person fly a plane?”
First of all, fuck you. Fuck you every media outlet and individual who has equated mental health suffering with “crazy.” Fuck your insensitivity, your ignorance, and your kindergarten-level associations.
Fuck everybody in the office who let that copy get to the floor. Fuck everyone who didn’t immediately call in a mental health expert to explain the complex intricacies of the human mental state. Fuck you all for not talking about our medieval level of mental health care support in the United States in particular which kills a lot more people than one misguided soul able to lock himself into a cockpit. Fuck you for not bothering to do research enough to understand a Western plane full of Westerners statistically had to carry a huge number of people with medications supporting depression and anxiety in their carryons, for conditions they would never confess to exactly because of our horrible, terrible culture. Fuck them for not understanding how many people in their very newsrooms made quiet decisions to never, ever tell anyone about their therapist or bad day or never bring any medication to work because they might lose their job. Fuck them. Fuck them all.
I wish I could say “whew, so glad I got that out of my system,” but that rage is not out of my system. Because it’s more than the media. It is everyone in this country who is part of this problem. I can’t speak for other Western countries, but I know while they might be better than us on these matters, we all have a long way to go. To start, we don’t even remotely acknowledge how pervasive mental health issues are. The number of people in each of our acquaintances who suffer from depression or anxiety alone are staggering. Whoever you are, wherever you live, you absolutely know several people with moderate to severe depression or anxiety. Many of them are untreated and undiagnosed, largely because the stigma against mental illness is so intense it seems better to suffer in silence than to seek help.
Part of the problem is depression and anxiety in particular, in addition to being pervasive, are not easily treated. Even if our culture were more understanding of the conditions, by their nature they aren’t easy to address. To start, they are managed, not cured. Depression isn’t something one catches like a cold. It’s a complicated dance of brain chemistry and circumstances. Many of the elements most responsible are literally part of the brain. They cannot be removed or remade, only better understood and adapted to.
There’s also a huge difference between clinical depression and anxiety and the casual depression and anxiety every human feels from time to time. But as humans are wont to do, because we have a passing familiarity with these conditions, we extrapolate the way someone else suffers is similar or the same. Which leads to the ridiculous “get over it” and “snap out of it” remarks. The kind of depression and anxiety I’m talking about is the kind that cannot be snapped or stepped over any more than someone with heart disease can snap out of it, any more than diabetics can decide to get over their blood sugar levels.
We’d never deny an employee their insulin or seizure medication, but we don’t hesitate to back away when someone is revealed, by choice or by accident, as having mental health struggles. We fear crazy. We fear what we cannot control. We fear what we cannot understand.
We also, as a culture, prize the ideal. The prettiest people. The straightest people. The whitest people, or the right “ethnic” people. The most successful people. The well-balanced people. We so value the ideal that even models and actors who starve themselves and spend hours a day at the gym and days perfecting hair and skin are photoshopped. Which is how we end up at this moment with otherwise sane, kind people, spouting the mad, cruel statements like, “Why are we letting these people fly planes? Why aren’t we screening the crazy out of our pilots?”
We’ve played with prioritizing ideals a lot over the last few centuries in Western culture. It’s resulted in genocide, mass-murder, cruel experimentation, and overt and subtle slavery. Not just in Nazi Germany. Every country has had its moment in that ugly sun. It’s clearly a lesson we don’t want to learn, however. We truly want to believe in normal. We want desperately to live in a world where people can work like dogs, live like kings, look like angels, and play like gods. We want to talk about humanity as an ideal too. We want to have a gated definition of human with high walls and impenetrable doors and big pits to load the garbage into.
There is no normal. Humanity is messy, awkward, and terrifying. We will even under the best circumstances produce humans who make terrible choices. We will sometimes, despite our best efforts, turn our own kindness into terror. We will never meet our own ideals. Even if we manage to erect those walls, at best the life inside will be full of pain and fear, because anyone could be sent out that chute into the pit at any time. Because everyone is flawed. It’s not possible to ensure we won’t end up boarding a plane where a pilot might decide to take us on our last flight.
It is, however, possible to not add to his list of victims. It’s possible to use this moment to get real about mental health, to question a culture that allows so many people to descend alone and unaided into mental chasms which allow them to end themselves and others this way. It’s possible to examine our punishing work ethics and streamlined systems of education designed toward an ideal human, not an ideal individual human experience. It’s possible to take this moment to stop and question whether we as a culture offer enough support and compassion to our fellow humans suffering with mental health issues. (We don’t.) It’s possible to use this as a moment to ask ourselves how much we all shoulder the blame every time someone with mental illness takes their own life and the lives of others.
Clearly, though, we’re not going to do to that. Not now. Not as a culture, not in the media.
I don’t know how to end this post. I’m angry, I’m frustrated, and I’m helpless. In a week and some change I have a book coming out where I address, with more aggression than I have yet, the issue of untreated mental illness. It’s a book where my efforts to ask for a beta reader without depression or anxiety to give it a read met in utter failure because every single person I asked admitted to me I wrote a book that spoke to their own struggles with mental health. I’m upset because because I love all those people, and the media shat all over them without so much as tossing them a wet wipe after. I’m upset because my husband and daughter both battle every single day with anxiety. Valiantly. Successfully. My child, diagnosed early and raised by a father who knows exactly what lies ahead, has been equipped with so much aid she has a real chance of being able to treat her anxiety the way she would a heart condition. A limitation, a frustration, but a workable issue. Unless, of course, she runs into people who hear she has mental illness and decides she’s crazy, lesser, or fit only for society’s garbage chute.
I don’t have depression or anxiety. I have a therapist, and I have plenty to talk about, but my brain uses different techniques to manage the hell that is human existence. I crave control and mastery. I work myself to death, self-depreciate and drill-sergeant myself into perceived safety. Very early on my world was unsafe and unhelpful, so I made myself an adult at a young age. My brain’s coping mechanisms are ones our culture prizes. Because it’s very easy for me to appear competent and “fine.” In order to survive, I had to get good at appearing that way, so that’s what I did.
What our culture fails to acknowledge is the beauty, sensitivity, and depth we cut out when we only prioritize one type of human or cut some types out altogether. What we fail to acknowledge is people with high anxiety are better at discovering real threats than we are. They are the people who see tigers everywhere, and when there is a real tiger, they become calm, because the thing they’ve known on a cellular level could hurt them has finally showed up. When the tiger is there, they’re not “crazy.” They’re prepared.
People with depression feel. They feel on molecular levels. They see feelings in ways which truly require more words to describe them. They feel feelings with so much intensity they often paint, write, or sing them. They understand everyone’s feelings, when they’re healthy. They are our great and powerful empaths, the kind we like to write about in fantasy but punish in real life.
We all have gifts. We all have value. We all have struggles. We are all humans, and we all have a right to exist. To make our mark. To love, laugh, cry, bleed. Life is not an exact science, and it will cause a lot of us pain. We can either address that truth and make part of the human experience helping each other through our pain, or we can slap cruel labels on people with pain and try to declare them unfit for our playground.
Frankly, this week has been full of slaps. It makes me sick, it makes me sad. When I wrote Carry the Ocean, when I dreamed of what it could say, I never thought it would change the world. This week though, I really wish something could. I guess I’m victim of the ideal too. I wish humanity wasn’t full of cruel, selfish, unthinking animals. I wish they really would erect a big wall with a lock. I’d gather everyone I loved and ride down the chute with them.
If you have mental health struggles and this week the world slapped you in the face, I’m sorry. I’m sorry every time you turned on a radio or television or loaded a news site you saw our culture being cruel and insensitive. I’m sorry they equated your illness with having a side-effect of mass murder. And above all I’m sorry our society is such where very few people have bothered to point out how awful that was.
This week a man flew a plane full of people into a mountain for reasons we will never truly understand. This year more people will die at their own hand due to mental health struggles at a rate over twenty times higher than the number of people who will die in plane crashes for every reason.
You tell me where the real insanity lies.