Last week, we talked about the film, Avatar, and how it is essentially an intergalactic retelling of the indigenous genocide that has happened repeatedly in society's history. Midway through writing that post, I found myself off on a tangent about language. After a half-hour of writing, I realized the whole diatribe was a separate idea that deserved to be treated in its own post, so I clipped it and saved it for this week.
The point: The language we use to talk about people can serve either to bring us together or push us apart. This othering language is clear in Avatar, but it's also present in many other spaces. I probably wouldn't have known to frame it in this way if I hadn't recently read Brené Brown's post on dehumanizing language, but now that I've seen it I notice it everywhere.
Listen to how the Colonel describes the Na'vi in the film. He uses words like savages and blue monkeys, summarizing their customs by saying, "We tried to give them medicine, education, roads, but they like mud."
The purpose of using this kind of language is to dehumanize the enemy so you feel better about doing all the horrific things you're about to do to them. In the context of the film, the Colonel needs to other the native population in order to feel justified in forcing them out of the area, destroying the land they call home, and ultimately killing them. The more he separates the Na'vi from the humans, the more the rest of the team is encouraged to do the same, and the more easily they can convince themselves their mission is acceptable - nay, laudable.
But, of course, this tactic reaches much farther than a little film from twelve years ago.
Colonizers and enslavers consistently used this kind of dehumanizing language to view those they systematically murdered and forced out of their homes as less than human. If the "Indians" were "savages," if Africans were "primitive," if these people could be seen as animals incapable of reasoning rather than strong humans with a sophisticated religious and social structure (albeit different from what the Europeans were used to) then it would be easier to conquer them using otherwise unthinkable actions.
As Michelle Maiese (quoted by Brown in the above article) says, this has the effect of making others "seem less than human and hence not worthy of humane treatment."
The colonizers died hundreds of years ago, but this kind of othering language and imagery extends in both directions.
From biblical interpretations that dehumanize members of the LGBTQIA+ community, to Nazi propaganda that showed Jews at rats, to our former president's use of words like "dog," "animal," and "infest" to describe his opponents or immigrants, to the language used by people in some online groups like "libtards" and "lemmings," we use this language either consciously or unconsciously to separate our targets from ourselves. And it's become ever easier to do this in the age of the internet, when we can sling insults back and forth without even having to look people in the face.
This type of shorthand only serves to drive further wedges between us and the people who don't share our beliefs. In these fraught times, particularly in the USA but also in many other parts of the globe, we are in real danger of shriveling into self-contained pods with no meaningful contact, each viewing the others as less than human - thus fueling a self-feeding cycle of dehumanization and misunderstanding.
How can we get out of this dilemma? The same way we got into it: Language.
Recognize when you or someone else is using words that serve to separate another group from yours. Change your framework. Consider that most people are doing the best they can, making the best decisions they know how, with the information they have.
Seek to understand people who are different from you, and help them understand you and the experiences that have shaped your beliefs. Even if you think you know what they're all about, and even if you are certain neither of your beliefs will change, it's likely that by asking and answering questions, you'll learn more about the wide range of experiences people in this world have. Chances are good that you'll both walk away with a more human view of the other.
And this is what we need more of in this ever-evolving, interconnected world. Not more hatred and alienation.
More understanding, please. More humanity. I promise, we'll all be better for it.
This is probably old news to some of you, and so I apologize in advance for being (*checks watch*) 12 years behind the times. Ahead of the upcoming sequel scheduled to be released in late 2022, though, many of you might consider rewatching the original Avatar film. If and when you do, you'll probably notice all the things I'm going to mention here, and more.
Avatar came out the year I moved from the Bay Area back to New England, and I'm positive I watched it. I had been working professionally for five years. I wasn't exactly a child. So I'm not sure what reason I have not to have noticed it the first time around:
This movie is basically just an interplanetary retelling of the systematic genocide of indigenous populations.
The film was long. Maybe I fell asleep. I don't remember much of it. It didn't affect me at the time.
But then, a decade later, I took my kids to Disney World. The Animal Kingdom theme park had recently opened Pandora, the world in which the movie Avatar takes place, and let me tell you - that place is magical. There are a couple really great rides based on the movie, but also there's just a sense of peace you get in Pandora that I want to bottle up and take with me. All the fictional plants from the film are represented, and the place is so immersive. I'm swooning just thinking about it.
When we got home, I decided to take another look at the film, and what I saw was a hauntingly familiar story.
People show up in an unfamiliar land. They find some valuable natural resources there. Only problem is, there is an entire civilization living atop those natural resources. So what do they do?
They study the inhabitants, the Na'vi. They send a few emissaries to build relationships. The job of these emissaries is to convince the Na'vi to leave the only home they've ever known. And when the Na'vi refuse to move, the people decide to go full scorched earth, destroying the world and taking what they want anyway.
Reminds me of the "explorers" who decided anything they found during their explorations belonged to them. Land, where indigenous people had lived for generations, taken in the name of a country with an entirely different view of humans' place in the world. Men judging the behaviors of people they didn't understand, convincing themselves they were superior so they could justify murdering the indigenous population, destroying their home and sacred artifacts, and (in the case of colonizers here on earth) enslaving them.
If the colonizers were ignorant (and I don't believe they were) the humans in Avatar knew exactly what they were doing. As Giovanni Ribisi's character, Parker Selfridge, put it, "Killing the indigenous looks bad, but there's one things shareholders hate more than bad press and that's a bad quarterly statement."
In other words, the murder of an entire civilization and destruction of their homeland is justified as long as someone else gets rich. The parallels just don't stop.
I'm going to admit something here. I was always horrible at reading tests in school. Part of the reason is that I never understood the difference between theme and main idea. Only after becoming a writer, writing a bunch of stuff, and then having to rewrite it so it collected logically around a theme, did I come to understand what a theme is and why it's important. And now I can't unsee them - in books and movies, but also in real life.
Themes of oppressing others to get yourself rich seem to be recurring quite literally everywhere these days. Right there alongside the repetition of history that celebrates individualism above all else, creating a world where people view happiness and prosperity like pie: If my neighbor gets a piece of it, there's not as much left for me.
It's greed, pure and simple. And it makes me wonder what allegory the sequel will bring.
Have you seen any movies lately that are allegories for things that have really happened? How have they helped you understand the world?
Oh, do I have a treat for you today. One of my favorite authors is joining us for a Q&A session!
Meg Elison is a multiple award-winning novelist, essayist, and badass woman. Some of my favorite works of hers are Hysteria (for obvious reasons, if you've been reading this blog for any length of time) and The Book of the Unnamed Midwife (affiliate link). Find her on on Twitter and Instagram (her feed is gorgeous and worth following), and at her website.
It was amazing chatting with Meg. I found myself nodding along to so many of her answers, as she has a way of putting to words things I think but don't know how to say.
I'm going to hand it over to Meg. Enjoy!
Q: Who are you? If you're meeting people for the first time, how do you introduce yourself? What can people tell by just being in the room with you?
I always say I'm a writer, and I always tell people to call me Meg. I'm Ms. Elison to nobody. Being in the room with me, people know I'm very fat and very fashionable. I'm highly social and shockingly verbal. I talk fast, make jokes, and I love getting people to tell me their stories.
Q: We already know you're a fantastic writer. What else do you enjoy doing?
I love dancing! I take dance breaks when I'm writing. I also sing-- catch me at karaoke at almost any convention. I love museums; I would totally run away to the Met like those kids in that book. I'm a mean cook and I make drinks that'll knock you on your ass. I go to a lot of literary events, when there isn't a plague on. I love readings and poetry and panel talks. I get to four or five every month.
Q: What comes to you first when you begin a writing project? Is it a specific character? A world? A mood?
I think of a new story like a tent. What I have first are the poles that hold it up: the big points, the turn, usually the ending. The expanse of fabric between them can come slowly, as long as I get those posts set first. I focus on events first, and from there character is very intuitive. I arrive in a moment and I look around to see what kind of folks are there. Then it's drape and stretch until we can't see the stars anymore.
Q: Your award-winning novel and series, The Book of the Unnamed Midwife (The Road to Nowhere), is not a zombie story, but it did explore some of the same themes as The Walking Dead. Was this a conscious influence? What other work has influenced the kinds of writing you do?
I was influenced by The Walking Dead, for sure. We were at the height of the zombie craze when I started working, and I remember watching 28 Days Later over and over, as well. I don't find zombies compelling, but I find the struggle of people to survive in their own ruins very compelling indeed. I also couldn't get over how the actresses in these perilous places had perfect eyebrows and somehow shaved their legs. That seemed awfully telling to me.
Q: You write science fiction as well as feminist / cultural criticism essays. To some people, these might seem far apart, but I've come to see how connected they can be. How did you come to this orientation in your writing?
I started off as a journalist, which is a fine place for a writer to begin. You have to get in the middle of things and ask questions to be good at it; you have to be a talented observer and a transparent eyeball. That background disposed me to writing essays in opinion and arts, of course. The columns are longer and you get to spread out a bit. All writers have opinions about the world they inhabit and the art they consume. Some of us can keep quiet about it, but I rarely can.
Q: We've both written about artificial wombs becoming commercially available. What do you think the barriers would be to us achieving this sort of reproductive evolution as a society? What about the benefits and drawbacks?
The barriers to this kind of technology are fascinating and a total self-own. Gynecology and obstetrics are primitive medical sciences and research into the kinds of bodies that can get pregnant has always been low priority-- we didn't even have a full model of the clitoris until 2005. It's left off many medical diagrams of the vulva. We are decades or centuries away from being able to develop the artificial womb, because we don't know shit about the one we started with. The benefits could be amazing, allowing people without a uterus or with a disorder or who simply do not want to carry a pregnancy to do it with an adaptive aid. It could also help us decouple the idea of 'woman' and 'pregnancy,' not to mention taking a big bite of the gender binary as we go. If people regardless of gender can gestate a baby in a closet, if we stop defining childbearing as a gendered trait, how might we see ourselves? Would people seeking hysterectomy or oophorectomy have an easier time? Would birth control become less contentious, or abortion? The possibilities are endless. But we're gonna be on Mars before we have an artificial womb. Just look at how we treat those two things in research and the answer is clear.
Q: I've been focusing on designer babies and nursery wombs for 3 years, and I truly think some version of these will exist in the next hundred years. What other directions do you see human reproduction going?
I've been thinking that we're going to see more outsourcing of pregnancy and birth to the global underclass. This used to be something only the very wealthy did, but as agencies and private actors reach out into countries where surrogacy can be achieved at a fraction of the cost, it's becoming more accessible to the American middle class. Imagine if rich people never had to have their own babies. Many people have an intrinsic drive and won't be dissuaded from carrying their own, but many will opt to miss out on the risks, the permanent changes to the body, and of course the setback in career trajectory. Historically, feminized labor trickles down every time white women with money gain a little more power. This is the ultimate feminized labor, and I'm betting it goes the same way.
Q: As I observe the world, I've come to think dystopia is in the eye of the oppressed. Do you see any dystopian elements in today's society, and what do you think we can do about them, knowing there's a large group of people benefiting from maintaining the status quo?
Hell yeah we're already living in a dystopia. In several, in fact. Disabled people lose reproductive autonomy all the time and it's all sanctioned in our courts. People in two dozen states have no meaningful access to abortion care. Crisis pregnancy centers exist-- that's a whole Dick novel right there. People have been sterilized against their will and sometimes without even their knowledge by our state and other states, mostly for reasons of racism and eugenics. This stuff has all happened in our lifetimes, all happening right now. What can we do? We have to fight all the time. Every day. We have to fight to vote and keep the vote. We have to march in the street when nothing else gets us heard. We have to cough up money and volunteer time to escort people at Planned Parenthood. We have to stand up for the rights of trans and queer people, in person and in policy. We have to call our reps and demand they do better, vote them out and choke off their donors when they don't do better. We have to write books that make people think about this shit, and see it in the here and now. Look at how the repopularization of The Handmaid's Tale has opened the way for us to talk about all this. It opened up doors for women of color to point out that everything depicted in that story is old news to them; it radicalized white women to look at the churches and structures built on their backs and think about standing up. Art is part of the fight, too.
Q: Tell us about your favorite thing you've ever written.
This is hard-- I'm not the kind of writer who hates and cringes over their catalog. I like most of my work, and I'm very proud of most of it. For ease of access, I'll say it's this Shimmer story I wrote about a heaven for writers. It's elegiac and indulgent and makes RPF of some of my favorite writers. Come for history's first novelist (a woman) and stay for the polyamorous queers of English literature.
Q: How about your favorite thing you've ever read?
This is also hard, bordering on impossible. I read "The Fifth Sacred Thing" at exactly the right moment in my life. It showed me who I wanted to be: where I should live, what fight I should be fighting, what kind of people I wanted to surround myself. It's also radically nonviolent in a way that I want to believe can be real. I still hold this book close to my core, even as I become disillusioned in every way.
Q: What are you working on right now that really excites you?
I am working on a horror novel about evil dentists, and I am incredibly into it. I've been thumbing my own memories of dental horror and asking for people to tell me theirs. It's a deep well of bloody water.
Q. How did you get into writing and what was your first piece?
I won an Arbor Day poetry contest in fourth grade. I got published and my poem was read aloud to the student body. I felt like King Kong on cocaine and I have been chasing that feeling ever since.
Q. How do you see your own character arc and growth as a writer?
This one I'm saving for my memoir-- it's a whopper.
Q: Vampires or werewolves?
Vampires all the way. I like the aesthetic and an adherence to blood having its way with us all more than I like inconvenient dogs.
Q. Do you have any advice for writers on staying motivated at all parts of the process, from drafting to editing to querying and publication?
The thing that has always motivated me is reading the mediocre say-nothing horseshit that gets published all the time. The thing that cranks my motor is looking at stuff that got a deal, that made money, and knowing that I can do better. Spite keeps a writer alive.
Q. How would you fare in a zombie apocalypse?
I'm a planner and I tend to see the writing on the wall before it goes up in ink. I know how to get to an island not too far away, and I'm a good shot. I won't die in the first wave. However, if my survival ever depends on running a mile in less than ten minutes or climbing a rope, I'm zombie snacks.
You can probably see why I thoroughly enjoyed this interview. In addition to being enamored by her writing, I've really enjoyed getting to know Meg as a person.
How about you? Would you be zombie meat? Would you use an artificial womb? How do you beat the disillusionment that beats us over the head on the daily? Who would you like to hear from next? Tell us below and don't forget to join the club for extras and exclusives!
As I walk up the shoreline with my son, I catch myself stealing glimpses at the other women. As if I should be taking a cue from them . As if anything good could come from measuring myself against someone whose story I don't know.
I know better, yet I can't help seeing the others as somehow more worthy than I.
My bathing suit is a two-piece, but it’s the kind with a tank top. Surely bikinis and navel rings belong on only the smoothest and the flattest of bodies. Not one like mine, all doughy and shredded up and down by stretch marks. I wouldn't want to offend anyone.
But it's so hot.
The sun, high in the sky and unobstructed, caresses my arms; my legs; my chest. The salty spray blows past me, cooling me off. The rest of my skin craves this connection.
I break my gaze from everyone else, look down at myself for a change. Surgical scars run down the length of each big toe and stop just short of my flip-flop tan. My calf is home to a varicose vein that ruptured when I was 40 weeks pregnant with my youngest daughter, leaving me with a baseball-sized bruise until long after she was born. My knees are dotted with a series of neat arthroscopic crosses. My thighs rub together as I walk. I can't remember the last time I shaved my legs. The pads of fat between my armpits and my chest peek out from the straps of my top. I roll my arms from side to side, revealing the burns I’ve accumulated over years of careless cooking.
All these small details combine to make my body my own. I've never considered covering my feet, or my forearms, or the mole at my throat.
So why would I cover the evidence that my body did the most amazing thing it's ever done?
My tummy is pillowy and carved into an intricate lacework of stretch marks — symbols of the three best things about me. And it deserves to see the light of day just as much as my arm or my leg or my chest.
I roll up my tank top and tuck it in under my breasts, leaving my back and belly to drink up the rays.
I look around once more. Are they staring at me? Shaking their heads? Whispering?
I search for some confirmation that I’ve got no right to be walking around like this.
I find none.
Instead, my view widens and I see what I couldn’t before. Bellies and chests and legs and feet and faces of all kinds dot the landscape: tattooed and pristine; cushiony and muscular; hairy and smooth.
They wear bikinis and one-pieces and Speedos and swim trunks, following no obvious pattern. To me, they all just look like normal human bodies. If they’re preoccupied with the way their skin shifts when they lean over to pick up something from the ground, I can’t tell. And it doesn't seem like any of them have noticed me, either. To them, my body is just one of a thousand out here on the beach. Nothing remarkable and nothing to be ashamed of.
I bend down and pick up a crab's carapace from the surf, not bothering to hide the rolls that form when I bend over and flatten out when I stand. I hand the shell to my little boy and he shrieks with glee before scampering along to find more of them.
I realize I'm smiling. I breathe in, allowing the warmth from the sky to seep into my skin - stretch marks and all. And, just for a moment, I am free.
I love a good online personality test. I often sit for far too long, devoting careful consideration to each and every question.
Which statement best describes you? A: I work best in a neat and tidy space. B: My desk is often messy or cluttered.
I can answer questions like this all day. My favorite part is the payoff at the end, where some computer algorithm spits out a veritable novel about who I am and how my mind operates. Some of these tests are nonsense, of course. And I don't know about you, but my answers to the questions of even the most research-based quiz will change based on whether I'm at home or at work, well-rested or under-caffeinated, how crazy my kids are being that day, and a whole host of other factors. But I love them, all the same.
The first time I took an online personality test, nearly 20 years ago, I was entranced. My then-boyfriend (and now-husband) found the quiz, asked me all the questions, and then read out a four-page summary of the inner-workings of my mind.
"Oh, this describes you exactly," he said, pointing at one heading: Rule-follower. I hadn't thought about it before, but reading the description I saw myself clear as if looking in a mirror. Apparently I believe in a sense of order and authority, and I expect everyone else to respect that authority, as well. Also, I get very angry when they don't.
"Oh, yeah," I said. "That is me."
Maybe life has gotten more complex since then, or maybe my Gemini traits have begun peeking through more (because, of course, I identify with my astrological sign, too; there's no shortage of quizzes for that). Or maybe, like other online quizzes, the answers are situational and subject to change over time. Because, as I sit here today, I can tell you one thing with certainty: I am most certainly not a rule-follower. Not always.
Certain rules, I will follow to the letter with unrivaled righteous indignation. I stand where I'm supposed to be in line. I keep my distance from others as necessary. I put my signal on when I'm turning in my car. I respond to emails from my team by the deadline. I pay my bills on time.
But I'm also happy to use the "wrong" bathroom when it's empty and the line to the other one is out the door and I have to pee so bad I'm about to explode from all the coffee or beer or lemonade slushies. When the streets are deserted, I don't always come to a complete stop at intersections.
I remember one time when I was a kid, we had some soda left over from a party. It was flat and useless, and my mother asked me to dump it in the basement bathroom. "In the toilet," she said. "Not the sink."
I didn't ask why, and she didn't offer a reason. So I just went ahead and dumped the soda into the sink.
Days later, my mother emerged from the downstairs bathroom after a battle with the colony of ants that had taken up residence in the sink. "Did you pour the soda out in the toilet like I asked?" she said.
I always think about baking when I think about my resistance to rules. I’ve always delighted in making tasty cookies, cakes and muffins for myself and my family. From the earliest age, I would set out all the ingredients, eyeball them (who needs actual measuring devices?), throw them all together, and toss them in an oven I hadn’t bothered to preheat.
Unsurprisingly, nothing ever came out quite as it was supposed to.
And then, one day, I watched a show that I’ll never forget. It was an episode of Good Eats on the Food Network, one where Alton Brown shows how to make perfect pancakes. During the episode, he shows how to create a shelf-stable dry mix to have on hand for whenever you want pancakes. He also explains why wet and dry ingredients need to be mixed separately [spoiler: it’s because baking powder is double-action and begins bubbling (rising) when it touches liquid; it further rises when heated], why fat + fat and lean + lean is important, and why preheating is an essential step to making the perfect batch of pancakes.
That day I realized something I hadn’t been able to put my finger on for my entire life, the pattern to my apparent whimsy relating to rules. And here it is: I follow rules that make sense to me. If I don’t see a reason to follow a rule, or if I don’t understand it, I give myself a bit of...shall we say, flexibility.
How unexpectedly enlightening.
If I'd known Mom had been attempting to guard against a visit from unwelcome houseguests, I would have followed her instructions, no problem. But until I saw the rationale, I reasoned that one drain was just as good as another. And, yes - I should have listened because my mother told me to do it in a certain way. But, as we learned last week, I am a concrete thinker. My brain always works better when it understands the why. Sure, you preheat the griddle because Alton Brown says to. But you also preheat the griddle because it helps the pancake cook evenly and keeps it from sticking.
I now make pancakes so frequently that I have the recipe and technique memorized. And it's been years since I had to waste a single one. It's amazing what you can learn about yourself from a single sentence uttered by someone you've never met before.
My Alton-Brown-inspired epiphany begs the question, which comes up in The Other Women as well:
What is the subtext behind the rules by which we live? Should we just accept society's rules with the assumption that, like my mother's instructions, there's good and well-thought-out reasoning behind them? Are there rules we disagree with, that we would be more likely to follow if the rationale were transparent?
And conversely, are we obligated to follow rules that make sense on the surface, but which are rooted in a history that goes against our morals or values?
I'm thinking it's a little of each, but I'd love to know what you think. See you in the comments.
I've never been good at poetry.
I know, I know. I write poetry. I have notebooks full of it from back in high school. In college I wrote some painfully heartsick poems. Even today, I dabble from time to time. But just because I write it, as a way to work out my creative muscles, doesn't mean I'm any good at it. And, as mediocre as my poetry writing is, my ability to read someone else's is a million times worse.
Sometimes, I will come across a beautiful poem, and know it's beautiful, and know why. Meg Elison's Modern Promethea, for example, is one I immediately connected with. My supremely talented friend, Barbara, shared a poem with me recently that just made me smile and tear up all at the same time. But far more frequently, I get a few lines in and my eyes glaze over.
My friend Steven is an amazing poet. And I ... well, sometimes I just can't read his work. I either don't understand, or I have to read the same line fifteen times to try and figure out what it means, and then I need to read the line before and the one after to try and figure out how they connect to each other, and go back to the beginning and read the whole thing again to try and see the bigger picture. It's not because he's a bad poet. He's a brilliant poet. It's because I'm a bad poetry-reader.
I feel bad even saying it, because isn't poetry supposed to be so beautiful and artful? As a writer, am I not supposed to understand and appreciate writing in its many forms? I devour literature of all types, all the time. Why is poetry so hard?
A while ago, I started giving poetry a try again. There's a truckload of it around. Instagram poets, poets on Medium.com, writer friends of mine with their haikus and chapbooks. Seeing it all over the place made it easier for me to bite off small chunks, and I started thinking in stanzas when I noticed especially beautiful or depressing things.
So, of course, I wrote my own poem.
I asked my friend, Jun, for advice. At the time, Jun was writing a poem a day, and she gave me the most useful piece of advice I've ever heard regarding poetry. "It's all about blended metaphors," she said.
That's when it occurred to me why poetry is so difficult for me to understand. The same reason I didn't know what a pun was until I was 30. The same reason that, when someone tells me they got a thousand birthday cards in the mail, I visualize their mailbox overflowing with the cards that surely wouldn't fit inside.
I have a very literal, concrete mind. Numbers were always my thing. Math, even when it got more abstract, still only had one answer (or a set of answers that could be derived by applying a mathematical rule). Interpretation and figurative language is not my thing.
A lot of poetry is just too abstract for me. The idea that there could be more than one interpretation to piece of writing made me very uncomfortable. I want to know exactly what the author was thinking when she wrote it. Even with music, which I have loved since I can remember, I will take the most literal interpretation as fact without ever questioning other possibilities.
Jun's advice made me realize that I had used some metaphors unintentionally in my first attempt at poetry. I also became aware of metaphor use in my future writing - poetry and otherwise. I realized when I was mixing metaphors, and started looking for ways to weave the same metaphor through a piece - subtly, without overdoing it.
Soon, just by being made aware of this use of figurative language, I found poetry easier to read (though still not easy) and began planning my poetry around a metaphor rather than just writing pretty words that seemed to go together. There's more to it than that, obviously - all kinds of literary devices are at work in good poetry, and I need more practice to hone my skills.
Even with this newfound knowledge, my poetry remains pretty concrete. It's nearly always clear to the reader what I'm talking about and what I was thinking and feeling as I wrote it. But actively working on specific things like metaphor has tested my creativity and made me a better writer.
How do you feel about reading poetry? Do you prefer to read poetry that's more concrete or more figurative? Do you have a favorite poem? I'd love to know - just comment below to share!
A few weeks ago, I told you about a cache of writing I found from middle and high school. Mostly it was poetry, but there were a few stories in there. I called them short stories, but since not a single one of them was finished (some things never change), I can't be sure what my intent was when I began them.
I only ever remember wanting to write books. Sure, I wrote the poetry as an outlet for my teenage angst, but I also wrote chapter upon chapter of young adult suspense stories, imagining myself to be the next Christopher Pike. In my mind, fiction equaled novels.
When I started writing the stories that are beginning to see the light of day, I intended for them to become books. There was no other option in my mind. But there's one problem with that.
Writing a book takes forever.
Even if you write full-time and can churn a book out in a month or two, writing a novel isn't just churning out the words. It's revising them, editing them, proofreading them, working with an agent to sell the book, working with a publisher through another million rounds of edits, designing a cover, and I'm sure I'm forgetting some steps in between. (And most of these still apply if you're self-publishing your book.)
And then there's marketing the book. Which, according to conventional wisdom, is supposed to start before you've even finished with that crappy first draft I talked about before. And herein lies the dilemma.
How's an author to market a book that's not finished yet? And even after the book is finished, but before it's released (which also takes forever), how's the author supposed to generate buzz about the book, if all she's got to share is the book, and she can't share the book?!
One way to do it is to release deleted scenes - which for The Other Women are fortunately plentiful since I wrote like two-and-a-half novels to chisel out what ended up being the final product - and other fun teasers. But another way is to write and share other fiction.
Now, I know I said writing a book takes forever, but as I was reminded when I started on this journey, books are not the only form of fiction. Of course, we all know that, but for some reason my stubborn mind just wouldn't let me see it until I started needing to find shorter ways to share my work with readers that didn't take three-plus years in creation.
Though I've always gravitated toward novel- and series-length fiction, I have read some short stories. What I'd never heard of, though, was a category of fiction called flash fiction. Flash fiction can be one word, six words, 280 characters, a hundred or a thousand words. The line between short stories and flash fiction can get a little blurry up in those higher word counts, but anything that's very short but still has plot and character development is flash fiction.
I don't consider myself creative enough to write a one- or six-word story that still has plot and character development. I have seen people do it, and I am humbled and impressed every single time. I just am not at a place in my craft where I can do it myself. I have, however, sat down to write a few pieces of short fiction and flash fiction. It's actually a fun and useful exercise to take a story idea and collapse and expand it into the different forms. It's a good way to showcase my work without giving away the entire novel, and it sure is more efficient than writing an entire 85,000-word book.
From time to time here, I'll be sharing some shorter fiction that stands alone. I'm opening up my Short Stories page this week with the first short story I wrote when I began writing full-time. It's called I Will Follow You, and I hope you love it as much as I do. (You might want to grab a hanky, though.)
Do be sure to join the exclusive reading club, so you can get a behind-the-scenes look at this story delivered right to your inbox.
For the last few week's I've done a deep dive into the reproductive evolution, both real and speculative, that brings about the world of The Other Women. This week, I'm going to share with you a deleted scene that may or may not make it into the prequel, but which for now is just sitting on my computer waiting to see the light of day. Until today, that is! Take a read. Let me know what you think in the comments. Join the exclusive reading club to get more things like this. Enjoy!
“Can I ask you a question?” whispers Ruma.
She stands with Evie in the dark nursery, looking into the womb through a small window at the tiny being that in just a few short months will become Evie’s son.
She's here to learn, as much as she is to visit with her friend. Ruma has seen plenty of incubating babies, but she watches this one with a new perspective. She peeks in on him almost daily, reviewing the information she’s compiled from the archive about the interaction that would be occurring between a baby’s body and its mother’s. Though it will be decades before she needs to put this knowledge into practice, it's her responsibility to know all there is to know about pregnancy and childbirth. By the time the Daughters are ready, they need to be prepared.
Evie raises her eyebrow and watches Ruma out of her periphery. “Sure,” she says.
“Why did you choose to have a boy?”
Evie is quiet for a moment. Ruma has heard the overly-simplified answer to this question multiple times, in mixed company – Her partner really wanted a boy, and Evie decided she’d let him have his way, just this once. Chuckle. But Evie considers her every action to the smallest detail. A man's caprice can’t be the only reason a women’s rights advocate would choose to have a male child. Ruma wants to know the deeper reason.
“It’s a complicated answer,” Evie says.
“I think, after everything, you owe me more than ‘It’s complicated,’” says Ruma, masking her annoyance only thinly.
Evie takes a deep breath and lets it out. “Okay, well, first, because, like it or not, men still hold a lot of power. By having a boy, who will grow up to be a man, I hope to help shift that dynamic in our favor.”
“And you think one man will be able to make that much of a difference?”
“I’m not the only one,” Evie murmurs, lips barely moving. Ruma turns to look at her, but Evie’s eyes remain fixed on her developing baby. It never occurred to Ruma other Mothers would make this same decision.
Just when Ruma thinks the conversation is over, Evie speaks again. “I couldn’t bear to have a girl who would have to go through safeguarding, and…” she shakes her head, sighing once more. “We're just not ready yet. I just couldn’t take any chances.”
Ruma nods slowly. At last, she understands. Evie can’t stomach the safeguarding procedure, but skipping it before the Garden Society is ready could jeopardize all their efforts. Better to have a boy, then, and raise him to be the advocate we need.
“I should get home,” Ruma says after a few more minutes. “We’ll see you two at the rehearsal tomorrow?” For a moment, as she's watched the floating creature inside the womb, she forgot her nerves, but remembering tomorrow's dinner brings them rushing back. Only two more days until she and Josiah will be married.
Evie nods. “Of course,” she says, smiling and reaching out for a hug.
Ruma hesitates. Can she do this?
“What is it?” asks Evie.
Ruma’s long, black waves fall out of her face as she looks up at the ceiling. She swallows and wills her mouth to move as she looks back up at her closest friend. “I’ve never lied to him before,” she says.
Evie pulls the taller woman close, and this time Ruma lets her. She pats the back of the taller woman’s head. “Don't worry,” she says into Ruma's hair. “Josiah will never know.”
From "test-tube babies" to mechanical wombs, how will we know when medical technology has gone too far?
This question came up while researching for my novel, The Other Women. Generally, ideas for my writing come to me as "What-if" questions. I'll notice something out in the world, and I'll wonder about it. And if my wondering takes me far enough, I'll know I've got a story. For this particular book, the idea of mechanical wombs, or what I call nursery wombs in the book came up as the central idea. Here's an example of my thought-ramblings as I unraveled the idea:
What if there were a way to keep tabs on a developing baby?
It would have to be an implant of some sort. I wouldn't want that kind of implant.
But, wait. What if it were possible to grow babies in artificial wombs, so you could watch life as it unfolds and be certain the process is going along flawlessly? Surely that's going to be a thing at some point.
And what if they were so commonplace that you could have one right in your nursery at home? You could insert a cartridge with the perfect combination of your and your partner's DNA, and you could watch the miracle of life unfolding together.
Man, that would alleviate a lot of complications - maternal death would be zero. Birth would be predictable. Everything would be monitor-able.
So... what if these nursery wombs became the only way people ever had children? What if the government mandated it?
And so began my journey - or, I should say, Lucinda's journey. And Ruma's, and Evie's, and all the other characters in the book. Torn between wanting to know what was going on inside my own body at every moment and wanting the ability to carry my own children, I created a world where that same tension existed in a different form.
I began researching the advancements that have been made in reproductive technology, and then extending them beyond today on what I assumed (based on nothing whatsoever) would be a logical time frame. (Make sure you're a VIP so you can get this projected timeline delivered right to your inbox tomorrow!) And then, even as I researched and wrote the book, breakthroughs kept happening to support my premise: nursery wombs will be a thing. Probably sooner than we think. But where will be the line of propriety, of ethical use?
What will be the nature-technology balance, especially if this kind of thing comes to be seen as superior to, or safer than, the way we do things nowadays?
I promised last week I'd come back around to the question of why we would want or need mechanical wombs to begin with. I'm sure you can think of a reason or two, but I'll outline some here:
After they've been used successfully and proven safe, why wouldn't society want more of them? And in places where medicine is socialized, why wouldn't the government want things to be safer and more predictable? First, maybe there will be incentives for using the nursery wombs. But later, when most of the population is already using them, what would be the harm in mandating them? Who wouldn't want their child, their partner, or themselves to be safe and free of natural childbirth and all it entails?
I could see it happening. How about you?
I've been wrestling with the question of human evolution for a while now. It's a thought exercise that came up while I was researching and writing my novel, The Other Women.
Natural evolution is an inconceivably slow process. It takes basically forever for nature to work out what traits will work best on a given organism in a given environment. I was going to insert some really interesting factoids here about how long it took things like prehensile tails and marsupial pouches to evolve, but the truth is that this stuff happens so slowly and incrementally, there's really no clear answer to those questions. Just think how many iterations nature went through before we humanoids developed the ability to walk fully upright as we do. Gradually that happened, over millions and millions of years.
But technology has changed all that.
Technological advancements have already allowed humans to survive and thrive in areas where they would otherwise perish - if they even managed to get there at all - and many of us wouldn't be here if not for medical advancements made in the last hundred years.
Things that would sound like science fiction to our grandparents are commonplace today. For example, a third of U.S adults report that they or someone they know has used fertility treatments, according to the Pew Research Center. More than 250 million courses of antibiotics are prescribed annually. Six-hundred-fifty thousand patients take chemotherapy each year, according to the CDC.
This is just a short sampling of the ways medical technology has created and sustained life where, before, there would have been none. All this is possible today, and there is no end to the potential for innovation in coming years. Which makes me wonder: Where is the line? What is the limit? How will we know when enough is enough?
I read an article in the Times a few months back that I found at once fascinating and altogether unsurprising: Scientists Grow Mouse Embryos in a Mechanical Womb. Science did that. Scientists took embryos out of a mama mouse, put them into mechanical wombs, and grew them for a week or so with no incident. It's a pretty low-level process compared with growing a whole human baby in one of those things, but I can almost guarantee you that's on the horizon.
Why would we want to grow a human baby in an artificial womb? Lots of reasons, which I'll get to in the Newsletter (where I'll share some of the reproductive technology research I put together before writing the The Other Women) and in next week's post. What's important for this conversation is the likelihood that, eventually, it will happen. And when it does, after a while, it might feel just as commonplace as in vitro does today.
A hundred years ago, cancer was a death sentence. If a person was unable to conceive a child naturally, they were destined for other avenues of parenthood, or not. An infection that's easily treatable with today's medications had a pretty good chance of killing you. While some of us are naturally inclined (*raises hand*), I don't think there are many of us who would prefer these outcomes. We use technology to help us survive, and while we do evolve socially, technology does much of the physical adaptation for us.
Advancements in science, technology, and medicine have progressed our society at light speed over the last century compared with other time periods in history. But does that mean we've given our evolution over to technology? How has technology changed the meaning of the term "evolution"? How might it continue changing in the coming decades? I'd love to know your thoughts; just comment below!