4 Ways the Publishing Industry Promotes Ableism

CW: Ableism, Mental Illness

I am afraid to write this post.

I’ve been thinking these things for a long time, years even. I want to talk about them. And I’m afraid. I’m afraid because the Publishing and Literary community is small, small, small. Even when you include self-publishing and small presses, it’s tiny. You’re always running into the same people. And it’s easy to be seen as contentious, a problem, for your reputation to be damaged. Which, in turn, damages your career. I’m afraid because the things on my mind are hard to talk about, and because I am certain there will be people out there keen to invalidate my concerns. It’s difficult not to invalidate my own concerns in this arena, tell myself I’m not doing it right or not trying hard enough. And as much as I tell myself these are messages I’ve internalized because of ableism, the questions remain: Am I whining? Am I seeing a problem that doesn’t exist and using it to rationalize my lack of success? Am I simply “not good enough?”

I’m afraid to write this post, and I’m going to write it anyway.

Last night I stumbled on this article on Everyday Feminism. It’s an article about “Inspiration Porn,” which is also known sometimes as “Disability Porn,” and why it’s harmful to people with disabilities. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, “Inspiration Porn” is a class of memes that feature an image of a person with a disability–a double amputee with prosthetic legs, a person in a wheelchair, etc.–accomplishing something popularly assumed to be impossible for a person with a disability. Crossing the finish line at a marathon, accepting an honors diploma. Like that. The text points out the disability: “So and so lost both legs in a tragic accident,” and lauds the achievement: “and went on to place in the top five in the Boston Marathon!” The meme closes with some variation of “What’s your excuse for not achieving stuff?”

You’ve seen these memes. I’m sure you have. If you want to understand more about why they hurt people with disabilities, read the article.

The information and analysis weren’t new to me. I read a lot of these types of articles. I read them not to learn about topics I have no knowledge of (although I do often gain new knowledge, and I always want to hear about other people’s experiences). I read them for validation, to see how others cope with problems I face, to get some reassurance that the problems are real, not just figments of my imagination. With this article, I got more than I bargained for when, toward the end, the author started to rant about ableism in literary circles (again, read the article). This is a subject near and dear to my heart, and I have never before heard/seen someone address it in public. If it gets talked about at all, it’s in whispers and private messages. Because, as I’ve already said, the publishing industry is small, and it’s easy to be labeled a malcontent and a malingerer if you challenge the way things are done.

Hey, time for me to give my disability cred! It sucks that I don’t feel like I can continue this post without doing so–and I think that’s probably another kind of ableism–but I do feel that way, so here it is: Chronic Migraine Disorder. Complex PTSD. Social Anxiety Disorder. General Anxiety Disorder. Bipolar with Chronic Depression. All these are currently “managed” as well as is possible for me. Please note that “managed” means I can “function” and/or appear as “normal” to a certain degree about three-quarters of the time as long as I am diligent about self-care. And there are still days when one or the other of these disorders flares without warning, and all I can do is initiate the routines that keep me from jumping in front of a train and wait it out. (N. B. If you think the “jumping in front of a train” part is hyperbole, IT ISN’T.)

Let me also take time to point out that all the above disabilities are INVISIBLE. I don’t need mobility aids. (Actually, aside from the migraines, my body is in pretty decent shape.) I’m not deformed–unless you think fat is a deformity, and some do. I am not missing any limbs. I do not match the picture of “disability” most able people carry in their heads. My disabilities are nonetheless real, and they have a profound effect on the way I live my life.

Good gods, if I could only communicate to you how difficult it was to say “my disabilities are real,” and how loudly the voices in my head rose in protest. When I talk/write about this stuff, the struggle to articulate is constant. I’m sure everyone has their moments of self doubt. I am equally sure that if everyone had my brain process, nothing would get done anywhere, ever.

So, publishing. Over the last year or so, as I’ve said elsewhere, the publishing industry has expressed an interest in being more inclusive and putting out more “diverse” books–meaning books written from perspectives and including characters other than the usual white, cis, het, able-bodied, neurotypical, standard-religion-having ones that comprise 90% of what gets published (no, this isn’t a hard percentage). Agent and editor wish lists solicit submissions from People of Color, LGBTQ+ people, and disabled people, and look for stories featuring the same. This is great. I support it! I can’t be enthusiastic enough about the trend!

And yet. Speaking as a person with mental illness–several of them–I have this to say: Despite the inclusive words, the actual practices of the traditional publishing industry promote ableism in that they require people with disabilities to jump through hoops they are not capable of jumping through, and often fault people with disabilities for not performing “professional writer” to an able standard. I’ve believed for years that my problems with the practices of traditional publishing were all on me, signs of my intractability and unwillingness to comply with the “norm,” maybe born out of a weak will and lack of dedication to succeeding in my chosen profession, or maybe from a flawed personality and sheer orneriness. Reading the article last night was literally the first time I allowed myself to believe, “Hey, maybe this isn’t just me. Maybe the flaw is in the system.” I’d thought it before, but I always dismissed the idea.

Here are four ways the publishing industry promotes ableism. For the purposes of this list, I focus on invisible disability and mental illness, because that’s where my personal experience is. Also, there may be other ways the industry fails to accommodate disabilities. These are the first that came to my mind.

#1: Reliance on Social Interaction/Networking

How many times have I read the acknowledgments page in a book by a new author and seen some variation on the words: “Thanks to (INSERT WELL-KNOWN AUTHOR) who encouraged me and recommended my manuscript to his agent”? Or seen (traditionally) published authors suggest that newcomers “get to know” people in the industry, either in person at conferences or on social media? Enough that the message sticks. It’s not a bad message, in and of itself. All businesses rely to some extent on networking, because human beings are social animals. A huge number of people seem, for reasons incomprehensible to me, to want to be authors, so making a personal connection with people in the industry who might be of use in advancing your career is almost a no-brainer. You want agents and editors to remember you.

The reason this is ableist: For people with anxiety disorders, this advice is akin to recommending an extended vacation in the hell of their choice. This goes double if the person is a natural introvert. Some people find it easy to make connections and interact with others. Some find it difficult. For people with anxiety disorders, it’s nearly impossible. Even in a managed state, my daily anxiety level is so high that I almost never leave the house outside of the company of my husband or another person I trust implicitly. I’ve been to one writing conference in my life–and, by the way, suggesting people attend conferences is also classist–and it was so overwhelming I had regularly to retreat to my room to recoup. I managed to engage a few other writers, but I cannot imagine trying to pitch my work in that kind of environment. Putting your heart and soul project on display is hard enough for able people. For people with anxiety disorders, if getting through the meeting is possible, recovering might require days.

I try to perform normative body language, but I know my anxiety often makes me appear stand-offish. I don’t make eye contact. I turn away and cross my arms over my chest. I fidget. All of these are apt to make a negative impression on an able person.

Connecting on social media is somewhat easier, but not much. Frankly, I am exceedingly uncomfortable with all but a small circle of people. Every tweet to someone outside that circle is agony. If the person responds dismissively, or worse, not at all, I am convinced of my utter worthlessness and stupidity. Most of the time, making an overture isn’t worth the expenditure of energy. This isn’t something I can control. It’s the way my brain works. I can tell myself over and over that nothing is personal, blah, blah, blah. And it helps. But it doesn’t alter the process.

For a person with an anxiety disorder, every social interaction requires weighing possible benefit against probable distress and need to recover. Publishing’s focus on social interactions doesn’t take this into account.

#2: The Query Process

I’m pretty sure everyone hates querying and faces it with some mixture of fear and resignation. Most of the writers I know manage to do it anyway. Even I’ve managed to do it. It’s THE WAY THINGS ARE DONE. So how is it ableist?

Okay, I’m going to come out and say that it’s my belief that the whole idea is fucked up beyond belief. I get the need in the industry for some kind of filtering process. I really do. The slush pile is essentially a thing of the past. Big publishers don’t take unagented submissions, or take them very rarely. Agents read submissions in their “off” hours, because they spend their days working for their clients–which is proper. And it’s not uncommon for an agent to get several hundred query submissions in a day. I get that. And I still believe that judging a 100,000-word manuscript by what a writer is able to convey in a 250-word query is incredibly problematic, and points to what I see as flaws in the industry as a whole.

The ability to write an effective query isn’t one that I think comes naturally to many people, and acquiring the ability isn’t easy. You can attend workshops, both on and off line, and these are difficult for people with mental health disabilities for many of the same reasons I cited in point #1. Some websites devoted to writing have forums where you can post your query and get critique. My experience with those is that they are NOT a good place for people with anxiety and trauma. I frequented several when I first started trying to understand the query process, and found that constructive feedback was rare, while demeaning and downright abusive critique abounded.

I have Complex PTSD from abuse and trauma sustained over a long period of time. I know most of my triggers, but that doesn’t stop them from being activated. For me, the entire query process triggered me to a point where I stopped writing at all because I could not perform this necessary task, and if I couldn’t learn it, writing was pointless. I had severe anxiety attacks even trying to learn the skill. Nothing about it is accessible to me. I did eventually learn it, but I had to take the lessons in fifteen-minute doses over the course of several years. If you want to know what that was like for me, imagine choosing to be flayed alive, not just once, but over and over for years, with no expectation of gaining anything by it and no control over the process. The first time isn’t so bad. But with each successive flaying, the terror and the anticipation increases because you know what to expect and how much it’s going to hurt. Yet you force yourself to do it anyway, time and time again. As soon as you heal enough to stand without pain, you invite flaying one more time.

That’s the closest I can come, and it hardly encompasses the intensity of the terror and the determination necessary. Bottom line: The query process isn’t mental health-friendly. It needs to be changed to be more accessible to people with anxiety and trauma if they ever want to see people like themselves represented in print.

#3: Standards of “Professionalism” are Geared Toward the Able and Neurotypical

This one encompasses a lot of different things, like the ability to meet deadlines and engage in  marketing activities like book tours, as well as expectations of acceptable ways of performing “up and coming author.”

Most writers I know are writing all the time, on something or other. When they finish one manuscript, they start another. They go back and forth between projects, rotating writing, revising, editing, and querying. Most of the writers I know also have “day” jobs (I’m including “full time mom” in this category). Having a paying job to support your writing is a necessity for all but a few, because most books don’t earn out their advances. When you have a contract, you have to keep your deadlines. There’s some wiggle room in these, but once a book is on the publisher’s schedule, things can get pretty tight. If you’re lucky enough to have an extended contract, you’re expected to turn out a certain number of books within a certain time frame to fulfill your contractual obligations (I remember one popular cozy writer mentioning her relief that her new contract allowed her eighteen months between books, rather than requiring a book every year.) Some writers juggle multiple contracts at once.

After your book is published, you’re expected to engage in promoting it. This might mean doing interviews, writing guest articles, going on a book tour, attending conferences to represent your publisher, and more. All of it is part of the job. If industry professionals doubt your ability to keep up, your chances of landing a deal go way down. To quote the article that inspired this post:

“Agents have actually said things to me like, ‘I don’t know if you can handle having a book’ or ‘I don’t know if you can promote a book.’ They mean because of my epilepsy, bipolar, and PTSD.”

I mentioned earlier in this post the need to be diligent about self care. I have to maintain constant awareness of my physical and mental states. If they look dicey, say, if I recognize migraine prodrome or aura, or if my thought processes go haywire, or if a bodily sensation warns me of a change in brain chemistry that heralds a mood dip, I HAVE TO do the routines I have learned will keep me on an even keel. This might look like eating a lot of protein, or it might look like retreating from the world and watching Netflix for two days. If I get a migraine or go into a depressive cycle anyway, all bets are off. I am non-functional at these times. Anything that was on my schedule gets canceled, no matter how much I wanted to do it or how important it was. My health comes first.

This isn’t appealing to the people whose job it will be to book your speaking engagements and need some assurance that you will be able to show up. They’re likely to want to represent a client who is less high maintenance and more dependable. And while that’s understandable, it’s also ableist as hell.

My need to be diligent about self care also makes the very idea of deadlines problematic. Sometimes I can write and sometimes I can’t. That’s just the way it is with my brain. It’s not because I’m not dedicated or I don’t want to do the work. I ALWAYS want to be writing. Doesn’t mean I can. When my brain chemistry is on a high, I can churn out two or three full length novels in as many months. When it’s not, I might go months when getting out of bed is the most I can manage in a day. Writing is about as possible for me as walking on the surface of the sun. In between the highs and lows, I have to pace myself. Even with medication, my capacity to stay on an even keel mental health-wise is limited. I am easily overwhelmed. Pushing too hard because of a deadline or an expectation is an unfortunate part of my trauma. When it gets activated, I invariably plunge into a depressed cycle. So there’s no question of “pushing through” or forcing myself to produce X number of words when the energy isn’t there. It isn’t something I can do and maintain good mental health.

My brain chemistry means I can’t perform “professional writer” to the expected standard. As a consequence, my opportunities in publishing are limited unless someone is willing to make accommodations.

#4: Prominent Voices in Publishing are Able Bodied and Neurotypical

This is the one that bothers me most, to tell the truth. I have read about one or two conference panels where authors talked about their struggles with anxiety and depression, and I follow several authors who speak openly about it on social media. (It occurs to me just now that the latter group rarely, if ever, mention how their anxiety and depression impact their careers or state whether they need accommodation, or what it looks like.) However, the most prominent voices by far are those of the able, and those able people are the ones who most often engage in telling the rest of us “how to do it.” The ones saying “write every day” and “don’t make excuses” and “the only way to write is by writing,” and other things they can say and believe are true because their brain chemistries aren’t fucked up. I’m older than most of them, and I know my process, thank you. And I STILL agonize over it when my brain tells me it’s not a good time to write. I ask myself constantly whether I’m trying hard enough, or whether I’m avoiding writing because it’s hard, or whether I’m being lazy WHEN I KNOW THAT ISN’T THE CASE. The messages we hear from able and neurotypical writers damage those of us who are neither. They promote the view that there’s only one way to succeed, and it’s inaccessible. And they reinforce the idea that we’re flawed, that the problem is in US rather than the system.

A frustrating addition is, I know people with mental illnesses and invisible disabilities who have managed to jump through the hoops and get representation and traditional contracts, enough that you can point to them as evidence there isn’t a problem with ableism in the industry, not at all. It makes me question my experience even more.

Right now, as I try to wrap up this blog post, a number of thoughts are running through my head. The top layer is dismissing the entire conversation as flawed, and therefore worthless. Everyone gets overwhelmed. Everyone is nervous making their work public and afraid of rejection. I have no reason to believe I feel these things more intensely than anyone else. No reason, except that I believe the professionals who have diagnosed me with several mental illnesses.

(Aside: It’s the feeling of being overwhelmed, of not measuring up, that’s worst for me. I’m not actually nervous about putting my work out, because I believe in my work. It’s myself I find wanting, and my fear is that my work might meet rejection because of personal qualities or deficiencies everyone sees but no one will tell me about. And because my various disabilities influence my interactions and behaviors the way they do, I see this as a very real possibility.)

When an entire society and its business models are built on mental and physical ability, it’s almost impossible to address the issue in a single industry. Everyone expects workers to be on time, to follow through, to be presentable, not to take too many sick days. Not everyone is suited to every, or any, job. Unfortunately, in the US in particular, personal worth is most often viewed through the lens of being able to fit into corporate culture and “earn a living.” There is almost no flexibility for people who don’t fit this mold. In fact, most often “flexibility” is something required from workers, who need to be available to meet the needs of employers. I’ve rarely seen it the other way around.

Not everyone who writes is going to succeed at it, whether able or not. It’s a tough and highly competitive industry, and no one is entitled to a place on the bestseller lists, or seeing print at all. Still, there are a few things traditional publishers could do to support people with disabilities. First and foremost, publishers could devote more time to on the ground marketing of more than their top authors. Several years ago, I attended a panel on marketing strategies, where all the panelists were from what used to be termed the “mid-list” — authors who sell steadily, but don’t have the clout of a Stephen King or a Nicholas Sparks. Every author on that panel stressed that their publishers left marketing up to them. In fact, a few related that when they inquired about marketing plans, representatives of their publishers actually laughed. This is not okay. It’s not okay in any case, and for people with disabilities like mine, it’s abhorrent. In most instances, the worst part of social anxiety is making first contact. For example, I can show up to an interview or a reading. I can’t set them up. I can’t cold call booksellers and ask them to take a look at my work and consider stocking it. This is something that publishers should do for everyone far more aggressively than they do at present.

Another thing that would help is simple recognition that not everyone functions the same way. Some authors can manage back-to-back engagements. Some can’t. Some can spend twelve hours at a time “on form,” interacting with the public at a convention. Some can’t. Offer of a contract should not presuppose the former. In fact, agents and editors shouldn’t even be considering a potential client’s stamina, or whether they can “handle” having a book. The only reason a disabled person wouldn’t be able to “handle” it is that they might be required to fit into an impossible model. Instead of wondering whether we can “handle” it, a better use of energy would be adjusting expectations and working out ways “handling” it would be possible. Frankly, wondering “if” rather than asking “how” is insulting. Disabled people know what we can handle. If we didn’t think we could handle a situation with proper accommodation, we wouldn’t try it on. Many people in publishing do have an intellectual awareness that people are different. More work needs to be done, to put this intellectual awareness into practice.

The query process could be made more accessible with a very simple adjustment: Stop requiring that queries come from authors. I’ve often joked with other writing friends with anxiety disorders that “I need an agent to get me an agent!” I know people think that they can better determine a writer’s skill if they write their own queries, and I believe this is a flawed assumption. Determine the quality of the writing from sample pages. Let people who are able to engage in marketing do the marketing. I wouldn’t be shocked to find out that some writers privileged enough to have assistants already delegate this task, because everyone hates it. All kinds of professionals delegate, dictate, and/or cooperate on tedious business correspondence. Why shouldn’t writers be able to?

Because of the progress that’s been made in digital publishing, and the lessening of stigma against self published authors, people with disabilities may choose an independent path rather than a traditional one. I did, and I was glad of the opportunity to do so. I also know that self publishing entails many of the same problems as far as networking and marketing. So it’s not a perfect solution.

In speaking of the ways ableism in publishing affects me personally, I haven’t even touched on the ways it limits opportunities for people with other chronic and invisible illnesses. People with lupus, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, schizophrenia, and all the rest have the same or greater need to practice self care. Many do not have my “advantage” of qualifying for government-sponsored disability support, or an understanding partner willing to undertake the bulk of the bread-winning, and have even more limited resources and energy to devote to pursuing writing on a professional level. And they also have stories. I see a great many people in publishing expressing a wish for manuscripts dealing with recovery rather than onset, or simply including disabled characters because disabilities exist. But I have to wonder, when being in recovery means sleeping for days and numerous doctor visits without clear narrative resolution and more tedium than excitement, how would those stories be received? And if the industry doesn’t address its ableist bias, will disabled people believe it’s a good use of their time and energy to write them?

I don’t think so.




What I Learned from a Big Bookstore

Last weekend, my husband and I went to Grand Junction on errands. This is a thing we do from time to time, because we live in a small town where certain goods and services aren’t available. When we first moved here, we went “to town” at least once a month. As the years have gone by, however, we’ve become more small-townish ourselves, and the trips are much less frequent. Our tolerance for THE BIG CITY (population 60,000, more or less) has also dwindled, with the result that when we do go, we’re apt to accomplish a few of the things on our to-do list, get overwhelmed, and give up. So some of the things we used to do for recreation have fallen by the wayside.

One of the things we used to do was visit Barnes and Noble. As of last weekend, we hadn’t set foot inside in years. It was always a dicey proposition for me. I love books– considering my chosen profession, I’d better. But when I was first struggling with writing and publishing and all the self-doubt those incurred, seeing the shelves loaded with titles by authors who WEREN’T ME often caused me more anger and anxiety than anything else. Lots of reasons for this that I won’t go into here.

I’ve been in a “not-reading” phase since the beginning of the year. Most years, I read upwards of 100 books. Since January, though, I’ve had a hard time maintaining interest in anything. I read a few pages or a few chapters, and go back to Twitter. Even books I can tell are good don’t hook me. I’m not sure why this is the case; maybe the endless lure of Internet click-bait, available at the merest touch of my phone, is to blame. But it bothers me. I feel like I should be reading more. So, while we were in town, I suggested we go to Barnes and Noble, figuring that being surrounded by books might inspire me. I might stumble upon some gem of the written word that would make me want to read again.

At first, I felt hopeful. When I walked in the doors, it smelled like a bookstore: that mixture of paper, dust, and imagination no other shop can imitate. After a brief cruise through non-fiction and a stop at the restroom, I headed for the Science Fiction and Fantasy section, my natural home. And that’s when I noticed the changes.

I’m kicking myself for not taking pictures to illustrate this post. Initially, I didn’t have any intention of writing about the experience. By the time I did, I was so overwhelmed that I forgot I owned a body, much less a camera.

I couldn’t find SF/F at first, because it had shrunk from seven full rows of shelves to three, one of them dedicated to new releases. This disturbed me A LOT. Following the writers and agents I do on line, I’d seen certain types of Science Fiction and Fantasy described as “tough sells,” but I hadn’t imagined the entire genre had gone into collapse. When I started looking at the shelves, I got even more of a shock. A great many people whom I consider masters of the genre–Charles De Lint, Ursula K. Le Guin, Sherri S. Tepper, Diana Paxson, and others–didn’t appear at all. I didn’t even see any Heinlein or Asimov. Yet I didn’t see an overabundance of new names, either. Rather, the bulk of the shelf space was devoted to a few authors with high name recognition, usually from popular culture tie-ins or cross-media presence (i.e., writers of both comics and “word books”**). I’d already noticed that store offered a LOT more than it had in the way of games, toys, and collectibles, but they were doing a pop culture promotion so I figured that was why. Checking out the shelves changed my mind.

75% of the books on offer in SF/F were by men. I caught a few well-known women’s names–Robin Hobb, Mercedes Lackey, a mouldy volume of Melanie Rawn. All the women represented were writers of Fantasy. I happen to know women both read and write Science Fiction, but Barnes and Noble doesn’t seem to share this knowledge, or recognize its importance. Charlaine Harris, Laurel K. Hamilton and Kim Harrison, all authors of multi-volume series, were featured. In fact, they took up three whole shelves. This was the most presence given to women authors, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. Paranormal and Paranormal Romance didn’t exist as genres the last time I set foot in the store. Harris and Hamilton used to be shelved in Mystery. They didn’t belong there, not really. But in my opinion, they don’t quite belong in Fantasy, either. Paranormal has a different flavor than either High Fantasy or Urban Fantasy, and I think it needs its own section.

Beyond this, I spotted another bothersome trend: Multiple editions of the same few titles. Particularly for titles with astronomical sales, it was usual to find two or three different trade editions as well as a mass market edition, and sometimes a hardcover. Many of these titles were shelved facing cover-outward, instead of spine-outward, which would have taken less space. George R. R. Martin’s books consumed more than an entire section of shelving in this fashion. I’m a Martin fan, myself, but how many editions of A Song of Ice and Fire does a person need? Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time received similar treatment, as did Tolkien. So did several straight Science Fiction authors, Larry Correa among them.

The multiple edition trend carried over into the Fiction and Literature section, where a large proportion of books offered a movie tie-in cover edition, a “classic” look edition, and something I can only describe as a “pretentious hipster” edition, meaning a book that will look cool when you read it at the coffee shop. I don’t like this trend. Showcasing multiple editions made me wonder how many lesser-known but deserving authors are passed over in the name of assuring space for so many different covers and trim sizes of bestsellers. The thing is, casual readers already KNOW about bestsellers. They’ve heard the buzz or they’ve seen the movie. These are books that people will ask for BY NAME. If they’re browsing, it’s likely they’ll know where to look. The same doesn’t hold true for lesser-known titles and what used to be called mid-list authors. Once you could stumble on them, hidden gems in a bestseller setting. Now bestsellers, instead of supporting new and different voices, hog all the space and there’s no mid list at all.

Fiction and Literature did have a fair share of woman authors, though. On the other hand, some genres that once had their own sections, such as Thriller and Horror, were now lumped into Fiction and Literature with nothing to distinguish them, so Stephen King appeared alongside Barbara Kingsolver and both shared the section with Jane Austen and T. H. White. This makes for a confusing browsing experience, and it also emphasizes how arbitrary a lot of genre distinctions have come to be, with authors mashing up elements like Time Travel and Romance or Procedural and History. Personally I think these mash-ups are great, by the way. And I understand the complications of figuring out where to put them without resorting to an infinite number of genre sections. However, I think it would be more helpful to the casual shopper at least to differentiate between Contemporary Fiction and Classic.

Some other things I noticed: Mystery has shrunk and Folklore and Fairy Tales has disappeared. Romance still has a substantial section, and contained the largest number of woman authors. (On the other hand, I have to wonder why Nicholas Sparks novels were shelved in Fiction and Literature when I found Jodi Picoult in Romance. Do you suppose it’s indicative of anything?) Graphic novels gained a section, as did books devote to Gaming, and there was a huge selection of Manga that didn’t exist before, almost as big as Mystery and SF/F combined. Joining the ranks of things non-existent at my last visit was a YA section very nearly as big as Fiction and Literature. Once upon a time, the few YA books available were located in the Children’s section. In this case, I was glad of the change.

I noticed topical and thematic trends as well as genre. Witches are big, both in Fantasy and YA. As a religious Witch, I have a hard time with this one. While some Witchy fiction gives a nod to difference in world view, most of it focuses on the light show (Paranormal does somewhat better here). Faeries and Fae-like beings are also big, and I also have difficulty with it. I admit to my attitude being the result of arrogance; I’m an amateur folklorist and I’ve studied Faerie lore most of my life. I also believe in the Fae. So seeing them portrayed as the latest incarnation of Elves, with little, if any, attention paid to the stories both disgusts me and strikes me as rather dangerous. In fact, I picked up a novel I’d seen people on Twitter raving about and put it down immediately when I read the back cover’s description of the Faeries involved. While I’m at it, I love “fairy tale” retellings. But really, how many interpretations of “Beauty and the Beast” does one need? (No offense to friends who have published retellings of “Beauty and the Beast.”)

Except in already popular series, vampires and shifters have fallen off, as has dystopia–though the YA section still had plenty of the latter.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing I noticed while I wandered the stacks was the absence of authors of color. I did see a few, like Laura Esquivel, in Fiction and Literature, where Like Water for Chocolate made a bizarre appearance on the New Titles shelf. But in YA, in SF/F, in Mystery and Romance, ALL the authors were white. No N. K Jemisin, who has been nominated for the Hugo, the Nebula, and the World Fantasy awards. No Octavia Butler, who is widely recognized as one of the Grande Dames of Science Fiction. No Samuel R. Delaney. From the books available, one would suppose that no People of Color ever become detectives, or have love affairs, or dream of space travel or becoming wizards. It’s unconscionable.

This is the point where I lost it and had to retreat to Starbucks for a restorative latte and croissant. The small section of the store roped off for coffee addicts was surrounded with racks displaying still more mass market copies of A Game of Thrones and a table covered with various editions of Go Tell a Watchman. Looking at Harper Lee’s novel, I thought about how unlikely it would be, in today’s publishing climate, for To Kill a Mockingbird ever to have been written. As you may have read, the classic grew out of a few pages of flashback in Watchman. A kindly editor to whom Lee had submitted the earlier work told her the real story was in that flashback and she should “rewrite” the book and resubmit. Would this happen today? I think not. People do still get R & R (rewrite and resubmit) recommendations, mainly from agents. But I have to wonder if something requiring so substantial a rewrite would ever get farther than a form rejection.

Incidentally, if I’m wrong, I’d like to hear about it (please keep it civil). From where I sit, it looks like publishing today mainly exploits trends until they no longer sell and then moves on in search of the next big thing. Wish lists for manuscripts ask for things that are different, but not TOO different, paying lip service to the desire for diverse voices while not challenging the status quo in any remarkable way. Editors in the big houses often come and go; few have the leisure to nurture potential. Books are a market, a commodity, and authors lie thick on the ground. I hear all the time, “we WANT to like your work!” But mostly this seems to me like a polite way of saying “we want to find out that your work fits into a particular, salable niche.”

As disturbing as I found my Barnes and Noble visit, I learned something important from it: I’m glad I chose to self-publish and I’m grateful for the technology that has allowed me to do so. Sometimes, when I see contacts and acquaintances posting about signing with agents or being picked up by a traditional publisher, I am envious and regretful. I wonder all the things self-published authors wonder (many of them, anyway): Was I just too impatient? Too resistant to learning the ropes? Too cantankerous? Is my work itself flawed? Do I write less well than I like to believe? And if I answer these questions in the negative, am I lying to myself?

I believe not. I believe that really, I’m too idiosyncratic a writer, with too different a world view–not to mention life experience–for the traditional publishing world to make sense for me. I might have been able to hook an agent; once I figured out how to write queries and synopses and all the rest, I got requests on a regular basis. I might even have been picked up. But if my bookstore experience is any indication, even IF those things had happened, I would have been unlikely to find my work on the shelves at a major retailer.

I absolutely don’t dismiss out of hand the value of traditional publishing. Truth is, once I get through the current Caitlin Ross book, I’m going to excuse myself from that world for a while and work on some things that I think will do better in a traditional market, because that interests me. There are a lot of advantages to it, and it works for many writers. Even so, it seems clear to me that, despite its problems, self-publishing is home to most of the innovation in the field and gives a greater welcome to diversity. That’s important to me, so I’m glad that’s where I ended up.

**”word books” coined by Greta Ladson

Writing About Witches: Ten Tired Tropes

I get sad sometimes when I follow the #WeNeedDiverseBooks tag or see a discussion on the Internet about the need for diversity in fiction. Please don’t get me wrong: I altogether agree with the sentiment. The voices of People of Color, people with disabilities, Indigenous Peoples, minority religions, and LGBTQ+ people, among others, are underrepresented in fiction. WOMEN are still underrepresented in the book world. No question about it, the movement towards more diversity is necessary.

So why are people still writing the same old stories and using the same tired tropes about Witches and Magic?

Pagan religions are a minority, with about a million practitioners in the United States and about 3 million worldwide, although numbers are hard to determine; many Pagans remain closeted due to misconceptions perpetuated in the media and ongoing discrimination. As well, even among ourselves Pagans disagree about terminology. Some include Indigenous religions and their offshoots, and some don’t. Some claim the term “Pagan” but not the term “Witch,” and vice versa. For an outsider interested in writing an engaging story, wading through all the differences may seem like more trouble than it’s worth. But the fact remains that we are a real minority religion, and very few authors who are not some manner of Pagan themselves give attention to that, or do in depth research into Pagan practices that they would for any other minority religion. When Witches and Magic appear in fiction, they almost always succumb to clichés . And this perpetuates harmful stereotypes, the same way it does when you resort to stock depictions of other marginalized groups.

I think a lot of this is due to the fact that the Pagan world view is so different from that of other dominant religions at this point in history. Even if you don’t subscribe to one of the dominant religions, their ethos, myth, and outlook have shaped the world, particularly Western culture, for the last two thousand years. They influence the way people think and the stories we tell, and those thoughts and stories show up in the art we produce unless we challenge them. The problem is, most people coming from a majority viewpoint don’t even understand that their views don’t apply to everyone. It’s “just the way the world works.” When you operate under that assumption, you have no reason to ask the questions that will lead you deeper. Anybody can do an Internet search and learn enough in an hour to give a fictional Witch a veneer of reality. You can find out the basic belief structure and the basic shape of ritual. But this isn’t enough to instill a real understanding of what it means to be a Pagan: how we look at the world, how we interact with the forces we know as divine, and how we relate to those around us.

Can you write a witchy character without bringing religion into it? I want to tell you, “Sure, go ahead!” Witches are powerful archetypes and they’re prominent in fairy tales and folklore for a reason! Unfortunately, a lot of the reasons the witch archetype is powerful are innately linked to systems of oppression society has deployed against non-conforming individuals for hundreds of years. This includes the rationalist belief that witches and magic aren’t real. I can’t see a much better way to erase a minority than to claim they don’t exist. You can see a similar thing in the way some still claim that sexual orientation and non-conforming gender identity are “disorders” that need to be fixed. There are no doubt people who identify as witches without claiming any religion, just as there are cultures (usually Indigenous ones) where the word that translates most closely to “witch” refers to a person who is categorically harmful and evil. In my opinion, however, we have enough stories where this is the case and religious witches deserve to see ourselves accurately represented as much as anyone else. To that end, I’m compiling this list of ten tropes I’m tired of seeing in the hopes that someone might find it educational and useful.

#10: You Can Tell A Witch By Looking

laurie cabot quote

The irony of the Laurie Cabot quote aside, Witches DO look like everyone else. You can no more tell a Witch by looking than you can a Catholic, or a Presbyterian, or a Jew. Still, most of the time when Witches appear in books, they look strange. Whether as Goths or Hippies, we’re presented as outsiders in dress as well as belief. And often our tastes are outré even for the subculture. Sure, there are Goth Witches and Hippie Witches. There are also Preppy Witches and Witches in the Military and Witches like me, who mainly wear T-shirts and sweat pants (or jeans for special occasions). The reasons most Witches look “normal” are 1. we’re human beings and 2. in a lot of places in the USA (I don’t really know about other countries) you get shit for looking different. You especially get shit for having an appearance people might associate with stereotypes of scary black magic. And by “getting shit,” I mean anything from catcalls and literal mudslinging to being murdered in the name of Jesus. So it’s no wonder many actual Witches and Pagans would want to dress as unobtrusively as possible. The pictures you see of people like Laurie Cabot and Druids in robes at the local park are most often people who have made a special dedication to the religious life and/or in a position of enough social and financial privilege that they are safe being obvious.

#9: Witches Are Hyper Sexual
How 'bout that cauldron of red-hot love?
How ’bout that cauldron of red-hot love?

How many times have we seen the plain girl discover her occult power and turn into a glamorous bombshell? Way too many. This trope comes from common understanding of many types of Paganism as fertility religions and quotes like “All acts of love and pleasure are my rituals” (From “The Charge of the Goddess,” written by Gerald Gardner and stolen from Aleister Crowley), as well as a prurient focus on “The Great Rite” as popularized by Raymond Buckland, among others. Please note that all of these were white men of privilege who had certain views about the roles of women, even if they tried to oversome them. It leads to random guys showing up at rituals expecting to get laid because “Witches are easy” and lobbing shit around like, “If you’re serious about honoring the Goddess, you need to sleep with me.”

Most Witches and Pagans believe that things of the earth and the body, including sex, are just as sacred (if not more so) as things of the spirit. This is true. It’s also true that most of us see it as important to all, and women especially, to reclaim sex and beauty as the powerful expressions of self that they are for many and dispense with messages we may have absorbed that sex is wrong, dirty, or otherwise a bad thing. In this way, a character’s transformation from mousy to mouthwatering can be an appropriate metaphor. Unfortunately, most places where it appears fail to put the change into any kind of context.  If I see another drawing of a teen witch in a mini skirt flipped up to reveal her panties, my head is going to explode. Our religious beliefs don’t exist to titillate you. Please stop.

#8: All Witches Are Women

No explanation necessary. It’s not true. Yes, in most Pagan sects women hold equal power to men and in many women hold greater power. There are quiet a few sects that are woman only. That doesn’t diminish the fact that men can also be Witches. Please show some. And by the way, male Witches are Witches, not Warlocks.

#7: The Mysterious Spellbook

book of shadows

The character inherits it, or finds it in an attic or used book store. Maybe they read it out loud on a lark or to make fun of it, or maybe they want it to work because their life sucks. And WHAMMO! It does work! Shit, what now?

There are so many problems with this that I actually have to unpack them in separate tropes. In the main, despite the fact that words are magical, reading a spell–even out loud–does not guarantee the spell works. Also, Witches often keep Books of Shadows (I’m sure you’ve heard of the practice). They are a sacred object, and it’s demeaning to see them treated as a joke or a plot device in this way. It’s analogous to having a character read The Bible aloud and cause Jesus to manifest. Don’t.

#6: The Magical Destiny

Often appears in company with the mysterious spellbook. The 90s TV show, Charmed, is a prime example. Character or characters inherit or find spellbook and discover they’re Witches. The next thing you know, they’re tossing fireballs around and fighting demons. As much as we might like it to, Magic doesn’t work like that. You might be born with an aptitude for it, but you’re about as likely to accomplish amazing feats on the first try as a person with a talent for playing the flute is to perform Bach’s First Flute Sonata they first time they pick up the instrument. They simply won’t have developed the necessary skills and coordination. Finding out you have a destiny doesn’t change that.

#5: Magic Is Inherently Dangerous/Inevitably Will Cause Harm/Go Wrong

I see this trope in a lot of Epic Fantasy as well as Supernatural and Paranormal fiction. In a way, it also is a standard of fairy tales featuring Witches. The Witch always loses in the end, whether she gets pushed into an oven or whether the hero steals the required magical objects, murders her family, and abandons her on a glacier. The message is the same: Look what happens to people who mess around with these things. This is a problem because cautionary tales of this nature are often used by people in positions of power to prevent others from gaining the ability to challenge them, or simply becoming empowered in their own right. (You can see this working in so-called “abstinence only sex education,” with its focus on all the terrible stuff that will happen to you if you have sex.) And it encompasses another idea I’ve run across more than once, that “An untrained magic user is a danger to themselves and everyone around them.” Usually this leads to the magic user in question being given the particular training sanctioned by the relevant government. Which I find interesting, to say the least. (Disclaimer: I have read a few books of this type where the magic user later falls in with “outsiders” and learns about the gaps in the government-sanctioned training.)

Magic as modern Witches and Pagans know it doesn’t work that way. As I said above, it’s HIGHLY unlikely that a person without training would be able to move enough energy to level a city or cause some other kind of disaster. People have defined magic in a lot of different ways: as the ability to effect change in accordance with the will (Crowley), as a talent for seeing things sideways and responding appropriately, as “the art of changing consciousness at will.” (Dion Fortune) I see it as a process of bringing the known self into line with the potential self and with the forces, both seen and unseen, that underlie events. It’s a discipline much like yoga or meditation, with the difference that it’s often geared towards material change rather than only a change in consciousness. In that respect, it makes about as much sense to assume an untrained magic user is a danger as it does to assume an untrained yoga practitioner is. A beginner who attempts something beyond their ability might pull a muscle, rarely more.

Magic requires focused intent to work. The ability to focus on a specific intent, without the intrusion of hopes, fears, unconscious desires, and the like, does not come easily. If intent falters, the energy dissipates. It doesn’t get out of control or go on to wreak havoc.

This trope encompasses those instances of the power-hungry coven leader being led astray by some supernatural entity (I’m looking at you, True Blood), becoming deluded, and otherwise succumbing to evil that the (morally pure) protagonist has to avert somehow. Notice how these coven leaders are almost always women? There’s a reason for that.

#4: Love Spells

love spell

I’m giving this one a section of its own because love spells have a nasty habit of working, often in ways the one casting it doesn’t foresee or like. I think this is because everyone on some level wants love, so you don’t have to reach too far for the intent. A love spell going wrong is a common trope all by itself.

In some traditions love spells are not seen as problematic. You can buy ready made ones from the Internet: Burn the candle at the appropriate phase of the moon, recite the charm, add these herbs to your bath, and Bob’s your uncle. Feminist Witches, however, tend to see them as unethical because you’re using your intent to affect another person WITHOUT THEIR CONSENT. It’s the magical equivalent of drugging someone’s drink, and as such should not be played for laughs. In fact, no magic that affects another person should be performed without their knowledge or consent, no matter WHAT your intent is. Even healing. Ask first. In writing, please refrain from having your character(s) do this unless they are the villain. It’s the spiritual and magical equivalent of rape.

#3: Summoning Demons/The Devil/Angels/Etcetera

This is one where the opposing world view problem really comes to the fore. You may have heard that Witches don’t believe in the Devil, and the orgiastic sabbat where we all lined up to kiss his infernal arse was an invention of the Inquisition. Yes and no. It may or may not be true about the sabbats; there are a variety of explanations, including mass hysteria, ergot poisoning, and Morris Dancing gone wrong. The question of “belief” is a little harder to answer, but the pertinent information is that “The Devil” as defined by the Christian Church is not part of our cosmology. Do I believe there IS such an entity? Actually, yeah, I do. People have fed way too much energy into that thought form for it not to exist. But it’s part of the Christian cosmology, not ours. Same with demons and angels. Sure, they exist. We don’t run in the same circles.

So when I read about some witches summoning any of these entities, my first question is always, “Why?” Because they’re ignorant and happened on a spell? I already explained why that’s unlikely to work. For kicks? Honey, if you’re stupid enough to place a prank call to Lucifer and you get through, you deserve what you get. It all boils down, once again, to intent. Now, it may be that a Witch would have a really good reason to contact an entity from this cosmology, and there are traditions that mix and match pantheons. There are indigenous traditions with their own demons and guardian spirits, as well. So this is my take. The main thing to remember is, you don’t do this on a lark. For gods’ sake, do your research.

While I’m on the subject of summoning, I ran across a “spell for summoning the ancestors” the other day. I had an issue with this. In traditions that practice ancestor worship, you might get in touch with them, honor them, or otherwise approach your ancestors, but you wouldn’t “summon” them. They’re already there. This is another world view conflict. The major religions, especially the Abrahamic ones, but also Buddhism, believe in a transcendent spirituality. That is, the gods, other supernatural entities, and heaven lie OUTSIDE the material and’/or outside mortal ken, and are most often seen as superior to it. There is a stated goal to escape the world and its suffering. Paganism and many Indigenous traditions are religions of immanence. That means everything is present right here, seen and unseen. We talk about the World-That-Is, and it encompasses gods, monsters, mortals, ghosts, rocks, animals, death, life, and the spaces between. It all IS. This is a difficult thing for many outsiders to grasp.

Another thing that often occurs with this trope is that the (female) Witches call up a (male) entity that takes over their lives and leads them to destruction or otherwise causes them to experience BAD THINGS. This is what incensed me about The Witches of Eastwick. In the first place, it perpetuates the stale notion that women doing magic < men doing magic; in fact, a whole group of women doing magic often doesn’t measure up to a single man doing magic. It taps into the idea that women are easily misled and manipulated. And it encompasses the trope I’ve mentioned above, about magic always being dangerous. So please don’t so this one, either.

#2: Tarot Cards

So many stories of a Supernatural or Paranormal bent that I’ve read feel obligated to insert the obligatory, gratuitous card-reading scene. When I was hanging out more on writing forums a few years ago, I saw a question about this every week. Most often they appeared in this form: “I want my protagonist to have a card reading done that predicts such-and-so. What cards mean that?”

Stop. Don’t do that. Don’t ever do that. I’ve read Tarot for forty years, professionally for thirty. Tarot doesn’t work that way. Divination doesn’t work that way. Don’t buy a deck and take your meanings from the included booklet. It looks ridiculous. Tarot and other divinatory tools help people gain insight into themselves and their circumstances. They don’t predict the future, and the meanings of a reading are seldom straightforward. There can be many interpretations. If you MUST, take a class from a reputable reader or read a decent book on the subject, buy a deck, and spend a couple months learning how it works. Really, I’d prefer it if you left out that card scene altogether.

#1: Blood Magic

Blood is old. Blood is powerful. Some traditions practice blood sacrifice. It is always performed by someone trained to do it, for specific reasons. In the Pagan community, it’s a divisive subject.

I gave this the number one spot on the list because blood sacrifice is the without a doubt the most sensational thing non-conforming religions do. Practitioners of Santeria and Vodoun have fought legal battles to be allowed to continue the custom. It strikes a dissonant chord with outsiders for all kinds of reasons: Because of the association with death, because you shouldn’t do that to the poor animals, because Jesus died to make blood sacrifice unnecessary, whatever. Books and movies and TV shows present it in the most sensational way possible. This actively harms practitioners of minority religions. Every time you show a character you call a witch draining the blood from a rat and using it to write a spell, you are reinforcing the dangerous stereotype that we commit gratuitous and unthinking acts of violence and that we have no respect for life. Stay away from it. I know it’s great shock value. That’s precisely why you should NOT indulge in it. Real people practice Pagan religions, and these real people will be the ones hurt if the neighbors take against them. In fact, history has shown that witchcraft hysteria sweeps up innocents who simply don’t look right or who act in ways that communities find threatening. This is not the past. It’s still going on. Don’t add fuel to the fire. Especially don’t add it because the ones who suffer most are People of Color, the mentally ill, and others who push the comfort level of privileged society. (I’ve heard anecdotes of Caucasian witches being harassed out of their homes, but I couldn’t find any documentation.)

This is my list of tropes I’d like to see vanish from fiction about witches. Paganism being what it is, others will no doubt have their own, and many will disagree with what I’ve said. That’s fine with me. I just want our voices to be heard and our lives to be represented, same as anyone.


Judgment Call

Right now, a fair number of my friends are dealing with judgmental people in their lives. I posted a Twitter rant on the topic last night, but because of Twitter’s limitations and because I had a migraine and that constrains my thinking and ability to be coherent, I didn’t say everything I wanted to say. Hence this post. It’s dedicated to anyone who needs it, but my friends most of all. You know who you are.

*Clears throat.*

Anyway, judgment. At one time or another, all of us encounter it. It’s a word that gets bandied around a lot. “Trust your judgment.” “You’re the only judge of what’s right for you.” If you aren’t paying attention, it can seem pretty innocuous. Making a judgment is no different from having a choice or stating an opinion, right? So what’s the problem?

The problem is, making a judgment IS different from making a choice or stating an opinion. You can disagree with someone’s choices or opinions, and, generally speaking, it’s no big deal. You like Rap music and I don’t. I like the color orange and you don’t. Individual choices and personal preferences are fine. They differentiate us from each other, and that’s a good thing. Exploring them can be interesting, even exciting.

If you’ve ever faced judgment, however, you know it’s neither interesting nor exciting. It’s painful. It makes you feel small. It makes you question your heart, your decisions, your worth. It can evoke guilt, defensiveness, and rage, to name a few of the unpleasant possibilities. If you’re one kind of person, it might provoke you into a fight. If you’re another kind of person–and I’m going to go out on a limb here, and say that this second type is more likely to take judgments to heart–it can make you feel like crawling into a hole and never coming out. And it might tempt you to do anything in your power to make those miserable feelings go away.

scary judge
You feel about two inches high just looking at this picture, don’t you?

This is what judgment is designed to do. Because a judgment isn’t just an opinion or choice. It’s a tool people and institutions use to enforce conformity.

Think about the word for a minute: Judge. What do judges do? In a legal sense, judges hear cases and sentence criminals. The guilty. A judge of a contest weighs the participants, be they human beauty queens or sheepdogs, against a set of standards and decides who wins, who places, and who loses. In other words, in both cases judges decide who fits into a particular segment of society–law-abiding citizens, exceptional athletes, well-trained animals–according to their interpretation of the standards. They’ve been given the authority to do so, usually by a group of their peers or others who participate in that segment of society. And when a judge hands down their decision, ideally those on the short end of the stick will be motivated to conform. To meet the standard. Sometimes the motivation comes in the form of a prison sentence, and sometimes it comes in the form of not having a trophy to display. But whatever it is, there’s an assumption that it’s not something you want to repeat. So next time you make the decision NOT to steal that car or to work even harder on that triple axel. Because next time, you want to win. You want to gain the judge’s approval.

The authority accorded a judge infers not just rightness, but righteousness, which means correct not only in a factual sense, but in a moral one. A judgment is a decision that cannot be questioned, at least not if the person on the receiving end wants to continue participating in the culture that hands it out. By its very nature, it implies guilt, not living up to expectations. It elevates the judge (and by association, the conforming culture), while making the object of judgment lesser.

Of course, there are problems with this system, because no one, not even a judge, is entirely objective. We’ve all seen the Olympic contests where that one guy from that one country gives a “3” to the spectacular performance everyone else rated “9,” and a “10” to the competitor from his homeland no matter what. And there’s a whole sub-genre of movies and fiction about people who have been judged guilty of crimes they didn’t commit. It happens in real life all too often. Because a judgment depends on a personal interpretation of the standards, and that means a personal agenda can get in the way.

Outside the courtroom or competitive arena, the personal agenda is almost always behind the judgmental people you encounter. You know the ones. That relative who gets off on being the arbiter of what is and isn’t fashionable, who sneers at your shoes every holiday. Or that co-worker who counts the number of paperclips everyone uses, so he can bring up the misappropriation of office supplies at the next staff meeting. Or the parent who initiates a power struggle over a haircut. The list goes on and on.

Your cousin, Fred, waxing politic about marriage equality.
Your cousin, Fred, waxing politic about marriage equality.

Here’s a personal story, since I like to include personal stories in my blog.  A dozen years ago, in my Celtic band, we once scheduled back-to-back gigs a hundred and fifty miles apart from each other, which required driving over several nasty mountain passes, playing for four hours, sleeping two hours, driving back over the same mountain passes, and playing another two hours as soon as we unloaded the car. This was NOT something I enjoyed. But when I mentioned this fact to the person who had scheduled the gigs, she said:

“You know, Kel, if you want to be a REAL band, you have to do these things. Professional musicians play back to back gigs ALL THE TIME.”

Oh, slap! The judgment, it burns! See, I had been under the impression that we WERE a “real” band because we played music at a variety of venues on a regular basis, and that we were at least semi-professional because most of the time people paid us money to do so. I had also been under the impression that since we weren’t under any kind of management contract, we could make our own terms for what we were or weren’t willing to do. But this other person had different ideas and made herself the sole authority on what constituted real and professional. Or she just disagreed with me, but instead of saying so, she had to concoct some pseudo-objective standard which I failed to meet.

Now, at  this point, the band was already in the middle stages of disintegration, so I didn’t feel bad for long. Mostly, I felt frustrated, invalidated, and angry that she would pull that shit. Still, I did suffer a fair amount of guilt and self-doubt. I thought things like, “Maybe she’s right,” and “Maybe I don’t take this seriously enough,” and “Maybe I’m lazy,” and “No one else had a problem with this, so maybe I’m just being selfish for putting my limits above what the rest of the band wants.” I got into the spiral of self-judgment. And even though it was twelve years ago, those thoughts cross my mind when I write about the incident now.

Because I’ve gained some perspective, I can see where the judgment came from. My band-mate had a lot of insecurities, both about her personal identity and about herself as a musician. Not to put too fine a point on it, those insecurities–at least the ones about her musicianship–were justified. She was a terrible musician, with an awful ear and no sense of rhythm or phrasing. She wanted badly to be awesome, but instead of working on her skill set, she built a wall of denial and attacked anyone who challenged her. Since I am (or was; I’m out of practice) a good musician who learned new material easily and didn’t struggle with basic control of my instrument, I threatened her. And so, I became the prime target for her judgment. If she could put me down, she could feel like she had worth. She could even feel superior. And all this came out of the fact that she already judged herself. When she made a mistake, it wasn’t just a mistake; she was a talentless hack. When she had trouble keeping up in rehearsal or learning new material, she was absolutely worthless, would never achieve what she wanted, and probably failed as a human being. Self-judgment takes trivial problems that you could remedy with a little effort and turns them into insurmountable moral failings. And it’s self-fulfilling, because I would have been happy to help her become a better musician if she’d been able to face the difficulty and accept the help. But since she’d internalized her self-judgment and made it part of her identity, the only way she could have value to herself was by sitting judgment on others. And I was not up to meeting that challenge, particularly since she had no intention of owning up to it.

I’ve learned over the course of my life that most people who practice being judgmental of others have similar difficulties with self-worth. You can tell these people because everything they say is an accusation: “You’re selfish!” or “You’re too fat!” or “You’re lazy!” or whatever. They’re always eager to point out what’s wrong with you and never ready to talk about their own emotions. If they did, you might hear something more along the lines of, “I’m hurt because you seem to be pulling away,” or “I don’t find your body attractive,” or “I’m frustrated because I asked you five times to take out the trash and you haven’t.” Which at least makes room for discussion in a way that judgment doesn’t. Sometimes judgmental people honestly don’t know how to contact and express their true feelings. And sometimes, like my band-mate, they don’t care to. Because it’s easier to blame and make it all about someone else.

Other people’s judgment can be a bitch to throw off, especially if they’re people you care about. Here’s a few ideas for getting out from under the hammer:

First, listen for the “charges,” those statements that sound accusatory and/or start with “you” (like the ones I mentioned above. Obviously there are an infinite number.). Be aware that some really practiced judges can make “you-statements” sound like “I-statements.” E.G., “I’m concerned that you’re getting too worldly” can be condensed into “You’re too worldly.” It implies that only an unspecified change on your part can alleviate their concern. A true “I-statement” is an expression of feeling (“I’m angry”) sometimes followed by a concrete reason for that feeling (“because you didn’t take out the trash”). Beware of nebulous terms like “selfish,” “real,” “ungrateful,” etcetera. If you have to ask what actual behavior that you have any control over changing is meant, or make assumptions about what is meant, the person you’re talking to is likely making a value judgment. As well, once you start making assumptions about what Cousin Fred means by “immoral,” you’re in danger of sliding down the self-judgment spiral.

Second, remember what judgment is designed to do. It’s designed to make “backsliders” conform to cultural expectations, whether that culture is religion, or gender identity, or the Rainbow Family. Or any combination thereof. It’s also designed to elevate the culture in question to a position of superior morality. Cultural identity is fluid. People grow and change, and that’s okay. But acknowledging this fluidity challenges oppressive power structures, especially ones not given to introspection. I mean, if you can just decide to, oh, worship another god, then why in the world should you conform to a religion that requires complicated expressions of devotion? Well, there are a lot of reasons you might, which I won’t get into here (maybe a different blog post). But rather than look at those, most people would rather make others feel bad about their choices.

Third, decide whether or not you care. This is easier said than done, especially if your vegan friends are still important to you after you realize you’d rather eat meat or something like that. If you can, talk to the person sitting in judgment about your concerns. Caveat: this is seldom possible because the threat factor often causes them to get more judgmental than ever. You might have to entirely detach yourself from the culture in question and find another that suits your needs. This does not mean anything about you personally. It does not make you bad or wrong. It does not indicate an irredeemable flaw in your soul. It just means you’ve moved on.

And fourth, be compassionate. Bear in mind that judgmental people are usually unhappy and afraid. And you’re about to do one of the worst things you can do to a judgmental person: Ignore them.

It’s difficult to get out from under judgment, and old judgments can stick for a long time. Be compassionate with yourself as well, and make sure you get what you need, whether that be more sleep, an alcoholic beverage, a walk in the woods, or whatever it is that supports your soul. People’s judgments might always sting. But you don’t have to carry that weight. Let it go.



Challenging The Crone

The other day, I got an email inviting me to participate in an event known as the Crone Council. I deleted it as soon as I read the first line. Not only because I don’t do events (for various reasons including being an extreme introvert and not having the disposable income for travel), but because I have a violent visceral reaction to the word “crone” when used in relation to myself.

For the non-Pagans and others in the audience who may not be familiar with this archetype, many forms of modern Paganism–and perhaps ancient Paganism, though it’s hard to be certain–view the female principle as a triple entity, each part of which reflect a stage of a woman’s life: Maiden, Mother, and Crone. Operating under an old-world view, the Maiden is a girl who has not yet begun menstruating; the Mother rules the years of fertility, from menarche to menopause; and the Crone represents womanhood after the cessation of monthly bleeding. There’s some flexibility to the first two stages. Maidenhood might last several years after a woman’s periods begin and cover sexual awakening and exploration, while identification with the Mother archetype might not begin until a woman has borne her first child, or settled down to her adult role in life. The Crone, on the other hand, has no such leeway. Once a woman stops bleeding, she becomes as the waning moon, a mysterious figure on her way into the dark.

Lots of world mythologies include trios of goddesses conforming to this archetype, which is why it’s easy to think that the pagans of ancient history also subscribed to the Maiden-Mother-Crone idea. There are the fates of Greek myth: Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. There are the three Norns who guard the Well of Urd in Northern European cosmology: Urd (Fate), Skuld (Being), and Verdandi (Necessity). The Irish battle goddess, the Morrigan, often appears as a triple goddess, embodied most frequently as Badb, Macha, and Nemain. Even the weird sisters of Shakespeare’s MacBeth partake of the power of the triple goddess archetype.

The Triple Goddess archetype, as depicted by archseer.
The Triple Goddess archetype, as depicted by archseer.

Most women I’ve known of a Pagan, or feminist, or vaguely alternative mind as regards religion and spirituality have been excited to enter the sisterhood of the Crone. As a keeper of hidden magic, who’s privy to the mysteries of life and death and answers to no one for her decisions, she’s a powerful figure and role model for older women, who are all too often dismissed as irrelevant in the modern world. For women in a patriarchal society (which, like it or not, modern society is), who have probably spent the first fifty years of their lives conforming in one way or another to male expectations of what a woman should be, it can be liberating to throw it all away and answer to no one but themselves. As a Crone, you’re no longer an object of desire, no longer required to cater to fashion trends or make choices with the welfare of your family in mind. You’re free from the moon’s tidal pull and from the demands of young children. For women who love babies, there are always grandchildren, whom you can enjoy and cosset, and return to their mothers when you’re through. Or so runs the party line.

So what’s my problem? I’m what is still known in some circles as “a woman of a certain age,” prime Crone material. Why does the idea of claiming this archetype turn my stomach?

The Crone from the Well-Worn Path Tarot.
The Crone from the Well-Worn Path Tarot.

Part of it is personal. Looking to the triple goddess as a guide through the stages of a woman’s life and the changes a woman’s body goes through from birth to death can be a powerful tool. But I, for reasons of upbringing, and culture, and perhaps simple Fate, missed out on those life stages. In all the ways that matter to me, I have always been a Crone.

It’s a fact that even in the worst society, a person is rewarded for conforming to social norms. This is something I have never been good at. My family, my parents in particular, had a severe impediment when it came to discussing the realities of young womanhood. And being a bookish kid growing up in virtual social isolation, I didn’t absorb the lessons of popular culture–not many of them, anyway. Consequently, I never learned how to be a girl. And though in some respects this has been an advantage, I didn’t get the rewards contingent on “girling” well. I never had a boyfriend until I was well into my twenties. No one looked at me with desire. To this day, I’ve never been asked on a date. My husband and I sometimes go on what we call “dates,” but it’s something mutually agreed upon rather than an event geared towards wooing, where one party, in the mating display peculiar to humanity, invites the other to participate, arranges the details, and picks up the tab. I didn’t get a marriage proposal. When we decided to formalize our relationship, my husband and I were sharing a burger at a bar in Silverton. One of us–I think it was me–said, “So, you think we should get married?” and the other said, “Sure, okay.”

As a feminist, I feel deep down I shouldn’t regret the lack of these things. After all, I managed in large part to escape ever being treated as an object, as prey, as lesser. As something to be pursued and won. However, by nature or nurture, I’m an incurable romantic at my core. I DO feel the lack of those things. And although much psychology and New Age philosophy holds that we need to find our own inherent value, desirability, worth, et al, it’s a truth that we learn to see ourselves, in great part, through the eyes of others. Having our inner selves seen and acknowledged by the people around us teaches us to see an acknowledge ourselves. It’s incredibly difficult to stand up and say “I AM DESIRABLE AND SEXY!” (or intelligent, or graceful, or capable of success) if no one has said it to you first.

I never got the quintessential “Maiden” experience, and I’m angry about it.

In a similar way, I never got the “Mother” experience. I have no children of my own. I’ve never had a child quicken inside me, never felt it move and grow, never experienced my power as a giver of life. I have been a caretaker, looking after the needs of those around me, sometimes at the expense of my own. I still do this. It doesn’t fill the hole. It’s not the same–or what I imagine it would be like, if I’d had children. I’ve heard that though having kids is difficult and frustrating, it’s also rewarding. My efforts at mothering garner me little reward.

crone 1

Perhaps it wouldn’t matter so much if I didn’t want those typical Maiden and Mother things–and of course, I believe that to be a good feminist, I really shouldn’t want them, because I shouldn’t crave the societal perks of subscribing to stereotypical gender roles, blah, blah, blah. But I DID want them, and I DO want them. I long to be romanced and desired. I long for a man (because I’m heterosexual) to put on his vibrant plumage and strut around in an attempt to gain my favor. My last normal menstrual cycle was some years ago, but I still dream of pregnancy, of birthing and raising a child of my body.

But I have always been the Crone. I have been the One Who doesn’t conform to the images we hold of Maidens and Mothers. The One Who speaks uncomfortable truths. The One Who Doesn’t Put Up With Nonsense. The One Who wears what She pleases and goes where She likes, and walks in the dark, and gathers grubs from beneath rocks. Some of this identity came from not understanding how human society worked, and some came from not really caring, even though the not caring often brought me pain. Most came from not knowing any other way to be. But now that I am physiologically a Crone, more and more I feel the lack of passing through those other stages. I feel incomplete, and this puts a serious damper on my enthusiasm for embracing the freedom that comes to others from making it to this stage of life.

Those are my personal reasons. The societal are perhaps more complex. I don’t feel the Crone archetype as we understand it, as it is associated with a woman’s reproductive life, makes sense in this day and age. We live too long for it to make sense. When we had shorter lifespans, when a woman’s reality was inextricably linked to her fertility, one might say “Twenty years a Maiden, twenty a Mother, twenty a Crone,” and encompass a life. It doesn’t apply to the world today, not in the same way. With the advent of reliable birth control, women–first world women, at least, and increasing numbers in less developed nations–are no longer slaves to their menstrual cycles or to the inevitability of devoting large portions of their lives to the bearing and rearing of children. Getting free of that is less of a transitional marker than it once was. You can choose not to experience it at all and still have an active sex life. Women have more educational opportunities, as well. So the archetype of the Wise Woman as an elder who has outlived her fertility and thus has time to devote to arcane knowledge has less validity. Of course, there is always something to be said for the wisdom gained through perspective and years of experience. All the same, it seems to me that the power of the Crone has been diminished in this realm.

At the same time, we “women of a certain age” aren’t really free of the expectation society puts on Maidens and Mothers any more. For years, magazines have shown us how to remain desirable and active, how to cater to the male gaze, at higher and higher ages. At fifty, at sixty, we’re still not allowed to “let ourselves go.” Women are also choosing to delay childbearing later and later. With the help of science, some become mothers well into what once would have been considered the Crone years. And more power to them. But all this makes me wonder what kind of relevance the traditional interpretation of Crone-hood has today. There are other factors at play, too. The emphasis on two genders–a goddess and a god, or goddesses and gods–in much of modern Paganism, as well as the prominence accorded at-birth biology and the biological events associated with particular body parts (e.g., the uterus), is unwelcoming to trans*, intersex, queer, and gender fluid individuals. How can a woman who has never possessed a uterus relate to an entity whose entire identity hinges on menstruation or lack thereof? How can a man who goes through pregnancy and bears children relate to a god who has never done either? Is the Maiden sufficient to her, or the Mother to him? Is the Crone relevant to either?
There’s no doubt that the Crone as an archetype gave power (of a kind) to a set of women who were often set aside or scorned as lacking value once their fertile years had ended. It’s easy to imagine how a society with less knowledge of modern science would imbue these women with magic simply for the fact that they survived multiple pregnancies and births and reached an age where their wombs “dried up.” And it’s equally easy to imagine this same kind of society believing that a woman’s menstrual blood was a key element in the creation of life (which is kind of is), and that a woman who now kept that element to herself instead of expressing it on a monthly basis also retained its creative force. But what does the Crone do for us now?

I come from a long-lived family. Barring serious illness or accident, I can expect to have as many years ahead of me as I have behind me. Another half a century of prospective Crone-hood holds no appeal at all, especially if it entails all the burdens of both Maiden and Mother and few of the blessings. Older women are not much respected, these days, simply for the fact that they’re old.

No myth, philosophy, archetype, or thought-form is all-encompassing. Part of the appeal of modern Paganism comes from its willingness to incorporate this truth and adjust when necessary. Yet all too often, instead of using archetypes as guides along a personal journey, people try to fit every experience into the shape of their chosen archetype, shoving things in where they don’t go and cutting off the awkward bits that stick out. It’s not my intention to dismiss the Crone’s value to those who honour Her. However, if Paganism wants to remain a relevant and living religion, we need to expand our paradigms to incorporate the lived experience of all women, not just that of those who fall neatly into the patterns we have adopted from years past. And in this sense, perhaps the time of the Crone has passed.



Trope Talk

What’s a Trope?

If you work in a creative field, particularly one which involves storytelling–literature or film, for example–you probably know what a trope is. If you don’t work in a creative field, you may not, but you’re about to find out. To put it simply, tropes are shortcuts. A trope uses a familiar collection of concepts, images, and/or traits (among other things), to give the audience a snapshot of a character, theme, or plot, so the artist doesn’t have to explain every single detail of their artwork every single time. It’s like a macro for your story. Some familiar tropes are “The Poor Little Rich Boy,” “The Wise Advisor,” “The Helpful Old Fart,” and “The Underprivileged Person Who Possesses Insight The Rest Of The Characters Don’t.” (If you want to fall into the world of tropes, Look Here.)

Tropes can be as simple as “Superhero” or “Secret Agent,” of they can be as complicated as “Mysterious Orphan Raised By Wolves Who Holds The Key To Saving The World.” Generally speaking, a simple trope gives an artist more leeway for creativity, while a complicated trope gives the audience a better “in” to the character or plot device. A “dystopia” (genre is a kind of trope) might take any number of shapes. A “Post-Nuclear Apocalypse Where Survivors Must Fight The Earth And Each Other” is more limited. Tropes can contain or require other tropes. For example, the post-nuclear apocalypse I mentioned above might need a “Plucky Yet Confused Teenaged Heroine Who Takes No Shit.” As well, some tropes are subsets of other tropes. Your “Wise Advisor” might be a “Helpful Old Fart” or a “Dangerous Yet Likeable Pain In The Ass.”

In a way, all stories are collections of tropes compiled in different numbers and orders. This can be an advantage to both creators and their audience. Once you employ a trope, you have a code for how to proceed with your work, and that makes the work easier. Once the audience recognizes a trope, they can put aside the task of figuring out that piece and turn more attention to less familiar aspects of the artwork.

Beauty and the Beast is a popular recurring trope. Image via deviantArt.
Beauty and the Beast is a popular recurring trope. Image via deviantArt.
The Problem

The obvious problem with tropes is that they can all too easily become clichés. It’s exceedingly hard to put an original spin on something like “The Chosen One” or “The Dark Lord,” both tropes that appear often in Epic Fantasy. This isn’t to say it can’t be done. But as a creator, it’s easy to relax into the trope and follow where it leads, without giving due thought to an original interpretation. You can often tell a creator’s experience level by the number of overused tropes they cram into a single work. A new writer is much more likely to use tropes in this way. So, in an Epic Fantasy, you might get the elf analogue (pointy-eared forest dweller who is nearly immortal), the halfling analogue, the shield maiden, the hidden king, the inaccessible wizard, the humorous sidekick, and the ancient prophecy in addition to the Chosen One and the Dark Lord. If you don’t pay attention to your own process and mix it up or add new elements, the work becomes dull. You’re telling a story that’s been told umpteen times before, probably better.

Another, less obvious, problem with tropes is that the tropes you use in your project reflect your worldview. If you come from a dominant segment of society or a privileged class, your tropes will reflect those societal norms and/or that social privilege. Currently (meaning in the early half of the twenty-first century), especially in the United States, the culture of creation is dominated by people possessing a certain amount of privilege: financially stable, heterosexual, white men in particular, with women of similar advantage running a distant second. Consequently, the tropes in our fiction overwhelmingly represent that worldview and the voices of minorities of all kinds are minimized.

Many socially advantaged creators do make an effort to include more diverse voices, true. And there’s a different problem inherent in this task. It results, once again, from falling back on tropes. Often the minority characters who make it into fiction aren’t realistic to actual members of the minority, and can even be offensive, because creators of privilege don’t take the time to do research or put the effort into learning about unfamiliar thought forms and cultures. So, over and over again, we see the “Magical Negro,” the “Noble Savage,” the “Disturbed Transsexual,” and the “Psychopathic Nympho” (to name a few). It’s a nod to “diversity,” but it only serves to reinforce ideas of minority held by the dominant culture. Hell, I’ve done it myself. I love my book, The Parting Glass, for a lot of reasons. I still cringe every time I think about it. At the time, I was pleased at how easy it was to write. Now when I look at it, I see how much of that ease came from my use of tropes, and how I presented the minority characters as near stereotypes. I have the “sassy black girlfriend,” the “alcoholic Native American” who becomes the “sadder but wiser Native guide.” I even have the “white guy who does Native shit better than the Natives.” FML. It doesn’t matter that I’ve known people like those people and based those characters on real life figures. I should have paid better attention when I was writing, and I didn’t.

A third, related problem is that when you buy into a trope without examining it, either as creator or audience, you run the risk of both normalizing and perpetuating some really problematic stuff. Take the whole Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon (this entire article was inspired by a discussion of FSoG, in case you wanted to know). The success of this series, in my opinion, stems from the author adding a veneer of sexual naughtiness to a bunch of standard Romance tropes. On top of “Beauty and the Beast,” you have the “poor little rich boy,” the “naive virgin inducted into pleasures of the flesh,” the “damaged hero who needs saving,” the “will they/won’t they” and the “he desires her in spite of difficulties” tropes, as well as many others that have honest appeal to many, many (women) people. It’s easy–and yes, I admit to reading the whole series–to identify with Ana, the heroine. I mean, who DOESN’T want a rich, attractive person to desire them just for being themselves, without having to devote any effort to it? I’d have trouble not letting something like that turn my head. But in FSoG, these tropes are employed without thought. In consequence, behaviours that would be obviously abusive and terrifying in real life are easily told off as “He just loves her SO MUCH!” Coercion, stalking, and downright rape are transformed from crimes into romance.

Anderson's "Little Match Girl" is an "Miserable Orphan Gains Paradise" trope. Image by imperioli.
Anderson’s “Little Match Girl” is an “Miserable Orphan Gains Paradise” trope. Image by imperioli.
What To Do About It

The best thing a creator can to do avoid poor trope use, clichés, and stereotypes is to PAY ATTENTION. Make yourself aware of the tropes you’re using and if they’re dicey, change them. Don’t kill off that Black security guard in act one; instead, try turning him into the unexpected hero. If you’re trying to add diversity by including minority cultures, talk to actual members of the minority. Enlist them to read your manuscript and point out problems, if you can. If they do point out problems, try not to get defensive and justify your trope use. Look at how you can change things.

There is definitely some risk inherent in this process. I see it in my own experience as an Independent Author writing from a Pagan perspective. When you intentionally subvert tropes, you lose the advantage of the shortcut. Your audience might react by judging your work inaccessible. If you’re looking for an “in” to traditional avenues of distribution (e.g., querying agents), you might discover you are less able to find a “fit” for your manuscript. Coming up with a succinct pitch, like “Puss in Boots retelling complicated by romance between the cat and her master,” will almost certainly prove difficult. On the other hand, you give yourself a unique opportunity to tell stories that haven’t been told and develop characters that haven’t been seen before. And this may help you reach a whole new audience.

When I started writing the Caitlin Ross series, I made a couple of decisions about the tropes I would use. First and foremost, I wanted to present a happily (for the most part) married couple who practiced healthy communication. I did this for a number of reasons: I didn’t want to write a romance, I despise plots that hinge on miscommunication, and, most of all, I wanted to show that the kind of relationship Caitlin and Timber have is possible and desirable. In other words, I wanted to subvert the standard relationship trope where the people involved bring all their baggage into the arena, don’t listen, and don’t really seem to understand each other beyond experiencing sexual chemistry. I wanted to defy myths about marriage being the place where desire goes to die. In Timber, I wanted to show a man who can be communicative, passionate, caring, strong, and vulnerable–the kind of man I’d like more men to learn how to be, and the kind of man I wish more women would demand men be. I believe as a woman writer I have a great opportunity to communicate to the world what a healthy relationship looks like. So that’s what I did. And maybe it lost me some readers who are more familiar with and interested in the tension that comes from misunderstanding. On the other hand, almost every reader who has contacted me has mentioned how much they appreciate Caitlin and Timber’s partnership. I’ve even heard from  women who, after reading a couple of my books, began to work on getting more of what they want in their own marriages. I count this a success.

In the end, tropes are a tool in the creator’s toolbox. Like any tool, they can turn in your hand and cut you if you’re not careful or lack experience. But when you learn to use them, you can craft reality to suit your vision. And that’s no mean skill.

I Consider Gender

I’m an inveterate taker of Internet quizzes, and have been pretty much ever since the Internet became a thing. Doesn’t matter what the topic is. If someone offers to reveal my inner Disney Princess, or the colour of my aura, or my ideal toenail length, I’m there. So when, a few weeks ago, I stumbled on this quiz to reveal my gender identity, of course I had to take it.

I didn’t expect it to shake me.

Going into it, I thought, “Like anyone really needs a quiz for that!” I was sure that people figured out their gender at an early age, whether they identify as Cis, Trans, or none. Or some combination. And I fully expected the quiz to confirm what I’ve always believed about myself–or believed since I started thinking about these things: that I’m a Cisgendered woman.

I haven’t always thought about gender. Not my gender, not other people’s. Sexuality, sure. I remember when David Bowie came out as Bi and was on the cover of some national news magazine my parents subscribed to. I think I was in grade school, maybe middle school. I thought, “Oh, okay. Boys can like boys. I guess that means girls can like girls.” And it didn’t matter so much to me. It just made sense. As I got older, I met some people who didn’t feel much connection with sexuality at all. And that was okay, too.

But I never thought about gender as distinct from sexual identity. I knew some Trans people, mostly Trans women, and I knew they were distinct from the drag queens I knew. And that was about it, until last May after the Eliot Rogers business in Santa Barbara and the wash of related hashtags that came out on Twitter. One of them was #CisGaze, and I started following it to…well, because I thought a responsible person who’s concerned with issues of social justice should listen to different kinds of people talking about their experiences. So I connected with some people who identify as Trans, and some who identify as Genderqueer, and some who don’t identify with gender at all. I started looking at my simplistic notions about gender: that it’s part and parcel with the genitalia you’re issued at birth and you’re Trans if you don’t agree with them. Or something like that.

I always identified as Cis because I agreed with my genitalia. At least, I never had a problem with them. I never thought, “I should have a penis!” or anything like that. Which was pretty much the entirety of my concept of a Trans person’s thought process: not feeling at home in the body they were born with and trying to reshape their personal reality. Trans people who didn’t transition through surgery, or at least intend to transition some day, weren’t a part of my reality. So hearing about that, trying to absorb the reality of it, men who are fine having vaginas and even being pregnant, and women who’ve never had boobs or even wanted them…It was uncomfortable and challenging to process, and it still is. In fact, I’m still working on simply accepting these things as so, without delving into the wider implications of what it does to my world view.

Anyway. So, this gender identity quiz popped up on some feed of mine, and I took it. And this is what I got.

What the hell??
What the hell??

I took it again and got the same result. And a third time. And more. And I got the same result every time. The thing about these quizzes, when I take them, I always try my best to choose the answers truest to my reality. Sometimes there aren’t any that come even close, of course. And I most often think, because of this, that Internet quizzes have more to do with the internal reality of those who make them than that of those who take them. (I have to pause here to say I really like that last sentence. It has a good rhythm.) But this one–I couldn’t stop thinking about it, because I gave honest answers, and the result was SO NOT WHAT I EXPECTED. Because I’ve never had a problem with my genitalia.

The more I thought about it, the more I had to consider the idea that this stupid Internet quiz was right. That I’m not exactly the Cisgendered woman I have always supposed myself to be. I’ve never gone out of my way to present as “a combination of the two” (which I realize is missing the mark, because gender isn’t binary). But there are definitely things about me–many things about me–that clash with the strictly “feminine” identity.

(Side note: Right now I’m feeling as if I need to put any and every gender identifier into quotation marks.)

I’m big. I’m loud. I take up space. I’m proud of my intellect. I’m outspoken in my opinions. I drink straight Scotch, by preference. I get impatient with typically “female” clothes and styles; I’d rather have freedom of movement than look pretty (although I enjoy looking pretty). I joke that I don’t “Girl” well. I wear make-up on special occasions, or when I’m getting a picture taken, but I’d rather sleep than mess with all that shit. When I was in school, I was always the one whose socks were falling down and whose hair looked ragged, whose shirt came untucked. I’m interested in Math and Science.

I never considered these things “masculine.” They’re just me. But as I think more and more about gender being a social construct, and maleness and femaleness existing on a…on a behavioral spectrum, I guess, where Male people are supposed to be one way and Female people are supposed to be another way, I have to wonder. It’s disturbing. I feel it in my stomach, which is interesting to me because that’s the area of the third chakra. The third chakra rules matters of identity, self-worth, and personal power. And it’s my weakest chakra, the one that’s blocked.

When I was growing up, my parents never paid a lot of attention to my gender. In fact, in a good many ways they actively disengaged from matters of gender. I got girl clothes because I was born with a girl’s body, but that was about it. I certainly was never indoctrinated into the female rituals of presentation and grooming. No one ever told me “Girls don’t do X, Y, or Z; that’s for boys.” I played with dolls, and I also played with a chemistry set. In my world of Let’s Pretend, I was as likely to be an intrepid scout as I was to be a princess–and more likely to be a mountain lion than either. I’ve remarked in recent years, with people talking more and more about diversity in books, that I never felt under-represented because I was a girl. I identified much more strongly with Aragorn than I did with Galadriel, and I was perfectly happy being Tarzan to my friend’s Jane.

All this stuff looks different in the light of those quiz results. A piece of me wonders why it matters. Why does anyone have any gender at all? I relate to people as people, not as their gender. At least, I try to.

All the same, I think about how I feel looking at pictures of masculine men and feminine women. Invariably, I feel a stronger personal connection to the men. I tend to feel attraction toward very masculine men, and it’s not only that I want to tap that. I want to be that. Does that say something about my gender? It’s the same way I feel about anything I find moving or beautiful. I don’t want to own it. I want to be it.

I think about all the body dysmorphia I’ve suffered, and still suffer. Looking in the mirror and being confused because that’s not who I am in my head. Not this aging, fat woman, with saggy boobs and big belly. But something sleeker and more streamlined. Something I’ve never been able to attain.

I wonder if my not presenting a clear gender is the ultimate reason I’ve had so little success in sexual relationships. I’m heterosexual, no doubt about it. I’ve tried being with women, and it doesn’t do it for me, despite Donnie from U of M assuming that my best friend and I were “Lesbo Lovers.” (And no, this didn’t offend either of us. Donnie was a goof, but he didn’t mean any harm.) But though I’ve been with a fair number of guys, I’ve only had two serious boyfriends. one of whom is my current husband. I always thought it was because I wasn’t the right kind of girl, and I usually put it down to my weight or my lack of conventional beauty. Not being the kind of girl guys want. But what if it’s always been that I’m not really a girl at all?

Family picture from 1985. I'm second from the right.
Family picture from 1985. I’m second from the right.

I’ve never wanted to be a guy, not like a friend of mine who used to moan about having big breasts because they wouldn’t let her “pass” as male. I never aspired to androgyny. I’m always just the way I am. But the person I am is far more comfortable in clothes anyone could wear than in anything obviously masculine or feminine. I remember liking the New Wave movement because there was a lot of flexibility in the ankle boots and tunics. Frills for the men, straight cuts for the women. A guy I slept with on and off at U of M wore the same leg warmers and sweatshirts with the collars ripped out that I did.

Last night at dinner, I asked my husband, “Would you mind if I decided I’m Genderqueer?” He said, “Big shock there. Have you ever had the fish at this place?”

Am I coming out as Queer with this post? I don’t really know. I have some qualms about making a declaration. Mostly, I’m afraid of people who really ARE Queer saying things like, “You can’t just decide you’re gender fluid when you’re fifty!” or “You’re showing your Cis privilege by co-opting the Queer experience!” or “If it’s not a political issue to you, you have no right!” Things like that. It’s not a political issue, and I haven’t suffered for my gender (not so much, anyway). I’m in a safe relationship. If I come out as Queer, don’t I have to experience pain and oppression? I’m okay with the “She” pronoun. Does that make a difference?

Mostly, as with all of these blog posts, I’m just turning things over in my mind. Considering.

That’s okay.

 Addendum, 5 January 2015

A Trans acquaintance/friend read this today and had the following to say: “FWIW, what you said in that post said ‘Gender Nonconforming’ to me rather than trans* spectrum. Two different things that are often confused.” He went on to tell me that “Queer” refers only to trans* spectrum, and if I were Queer I’d probably know it, just like I know I’m straight. I didn’t know that Queer had that strict an interpretation, so now I do. And it makes sense, because I have never felt Queer, although I’m not sure I feel strictly female, either. Thanks, J. for setting me straight…uh, so to speak.