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What I’ve learned in the last three hours of wrestling with this blog post and ultimately producing nothing I could use is that making a point effectively and concisely while maintaining and projecting empathy can be incredibly difficult.

Maybe this is part of the problem.

The troubles with internet culture are not new. From what I understand, Youtube has historically been a cesspit of bile and awfulness, which is why I never read any Youtube comments except when I’ve been unexpectedly hit by a train of stupid by my own brain. I’ve been aware of the death and rape threats routinely made via the internet for many years. And my corners of the internet have been quite troubled for the past several months, by Gamergate, by some controversy in the YA world that I speak about obliquely here and less obliquely here, by the Requires Hate reveal, and most recently by the Hugo award nomination fracas.

In short, the internet can be an ugly place to hang out. There is a cost associated with being here. There is a cost associated with being a thought leader and expressing your opinion here. It is a cost I have been aware of since I began this blog nearly five years ago.

A few friends of mine reached out to me after I published my piece on rocking the boat about #KeepYAKind. I listened to them carefully, and I’ve been thinking about what they said for the last few weeks. My main takeaway is, people are scared. People are scared to speak up. People are scared to share their opinions. People are afraid of the internet being dropped on their heads. People are afraid of the cost involved. They are afraid of the threats, the personal attacks, the harassment, the name-calling. And understandably so.

One of my friends told me, “Someday you’ll see this from the other side.” And it’s true, I know it can happen to me. Of course I’ve thought about it. Of course I’ve thought about what it will be like getting rape threats on the internet, because I’m a woman who sometimes talks about feminist issues, and no matter how careful I am, no matter how many times I read over each blog post and how thoroughly I consider my word choices, I will offend someone. And someday that someone might be a shitty person who thinks an appropriate way to respond is with a rape or death threat. And at some other point, I am bound to say something stupid. I’m sure I already have, and I’ll do it again. And the internet might fall on my head. It might be right about me, it might be wrong, but in that period of time, the rightness and wrongness will probably not be foremost in my mind.

I still disagree with the #KeepYAKind campaign. It showed an ignorance of the type of rhetoric and cultural training that have been used for decades to keep women quiet and “in their place” that I find quite troubling, especially given what it was in response to. And tactically, it was much more likely to silence the moderate and less privileged voices; the trolls weren’t going to be affected by it to anywhere near the same extent, if at all.

But I do agree that internet culture, and the harassment, bullying, and scare tactics that go along with it, are a huge problem, both for writers (my own tiny habitat in the pond) and for society in general. We can theorize about why internet culture is the way it is (the power of anonymity, the dehumanization and depersonalization of others that is perhaps an effect heightened by interaction over the internet, the attention economy, humanity’s history of only having to deal in relatively small social units, etc.). But all our theories will not change the reality.

Then we have Kameron Hurley’s recent inspirational piece about how the internet harassment she is subjected to is nothing compared to the difficulties faced by her grandmother in Nazi-occupied France. I will admit this gave me a severe case of mixed feelings. On the one hand, perspective is valuable, as is having the moxy to live loud on the internet and encourage others to do the same.

On the other hand, we’re looking at some problem comparing here. Of course internet harassment is not the same as living in Nazi-occupied France. But that doesn’t make the fear less real. That doesn’t mean anyone who is afraid or upset or angered by internet harassment should feel ashamed of those emotions. And shame is the danger that inevitably comes with problem comparing, even when such a comparison makes for a great rhetorical device.

Photo Credit: Roadside Guitars via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Roadside Guitars via Compfight cc

Well, I am not ashamed. I’m a recovering people pleaser, for goodness sake. Of course I was afraid when I started this blog. If I hadn’t been afraid, I wouldn’t have needed any Backbone Project. I recognized the need for me to claim my voice in spite of the fear, and I’ve been working on that ever since. And I’m still afraid, sometimes. I still worry. It’s gotten a lot easier, but when I get the internet dropped on my head, I’m sure I’ll have a miserable time of it.

As a writer, I have to keep asking myself: Am I willing to pay the price for lifting my voice? Even when the price is stupidly high? Even if I’m terrified or creatively blocked or otherwise emotionally compromised by the experience? And if the answer becomes no, then so be it. There is no shame in that. Ultimately my own welfare and safety trumps everything else.

But so far, the answer is still yes. And I hope it will continue to be yes for a long time to come.

This afternoon (it is Wednesday when I type this), I finished the rough draft of my current novel.

Obviously after typing THE END, any further productivity for me for the day went straight out the window.

It’s a really weird sensation, typing THE END and being finished. Even being finished with the first draft, which isn’t actually being finished finished. (Revision is my friend.) There’s a sense of confusion and a sense of surprise. Don’t get me wrong: I was fairly certain I’d finish the book either today or tomorrow. But even with that knowledge, the moment of completion is still just the slightest bit unexpected.

There is a part of me, when I’m writing a novel, that kind of thinks I’ll be writing that novel and living in that world forever.

Writing novels is such a weird experience. It’s a solitary endeavor, especially the rough draft, which I share with ABSOLUTELY NO ONE, and yet I am so focused upon it, and it becomes so real. It’s hard to leave it behind and move on to the next thing, even if the next thing is only draft two of the same book.

Anyway, this time around, I figured I might as well live it up, so I proceeded to spend a couple of hours being very excited and chatting with lots of people to celebrate. I knew I could persist in the kind of numb, kind of confused state indefinitely unless I deliberately broke through it and allowed myself to celebrate hitting a milestone. So I danced to my favorite songs and used a lot of capital letters and exclamation points and tried to let the fact of THE END sink in and begin to feel like some kind of reality I can understand and work within.

And now I am both very happy and very tired. Tired because I just flung out an outpouring of celebratory energy and because I put as much as I could into this book. I think most of us do. Even books like this one, that are more rollicking and fast-paced and plot-driven. There is something that used to be inside of me, and now it’s there on the page, for better or for worse.

I don’t know what I have, of course. That will be the work of the second draft. I don’t know how much works and how much doesn’t work, but I already have a list of things I want to change and fix. What I do have is the experience of writing the book, and overall I had a lot of fun with this one. I reveled in the chance to be writing fantasy again, after quite some time away. I was surprised by exactly how much this pleased me.

What else can I tell you about the book? Well, it doesn’t have a title yet. It technically has a couple of working titles, but they are both really awful so I am not sharing them. When I talk about it, I say that it is a YA contemporary fantasy that is a cross between Gaiman’s Neverwhere and the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. For those Buffy fans out there, I was also really inspired by the Season Five episode “Forever.”

But when I think of it in my own head, I think of it as my London book. And this book has been a long time coming. London has been my favorite city since I was twenty-one, and I’ve been wanting to write a book set in London since before I started writing books. This is that book, or at least the first of those books. It is a love letter to London, albeit a somewhat strange, magical, and dangerous mirror version of London in the Underworld. And getting to write it has made my inner writer sing.

Me in London last summer, with my favorite statue, which inspired one of the characters in my book.

Me in London last summer, with my favorite statue, which inspired one of the characters in my book.

And now these few days are for celebrating and resting and catching up with the rest of life that isn’t writing this novel. Thank you so much to all of you who have been and will be celebrating with me. Writing novels can be a lonely business, so my friends and readers and colleagues really make a huge difference. And celebrating all the milestones makes the entire writing process both more enjoyable and more sustainable.

And now? It’s time for some more celebrating!

This post originally appeared on the SFWA blog, but I know not all of you saw it, so I’m running it here today. As you might expect, given my recent experimentation with this blog, I had several thoughts on the subject. Enjoy!

***

When giving advice on writing blog posts, James Altucher says, “Bleed in the first line.” He talks about blog writing and bleeding a fair amount, actually, so I always think about bleeding when I write blog posts now. But what does that mean, bleeding on the page, and what is the correct way to do it?

As I’ve been experimenting some with my own blog, I’ve also been thinking a lot about sharing and privacy and where to draw the line. It’s something I’ve had to think about often over the years since I do this kind of personal memoir-esque kind of writing, and with opinions flying as to whether it’s a good idea for writers to share their political opinions, it is in the forefront of my mind right now. What is private and what isn’t? What is a great telling detail and what is too much? Where does that line go?

I found some wise advice where I wasn’t expecting it, in Brene Brown’s book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. (This book is also a great resource both for learning about Dr. Brown’s data and how it pertains to the way humans tick and for managing common emotional difficulties that come up in the writing life.) She gives three guidelines for sharing with the public that I’d like to put into my own words and talk about.

  1. Only share experiences and stories after you’ve worked through them yourself.

I can’t overemphasize this one enough, mostly because it can be so tempting to break. But I do my best to write about things AFTER I’ve already processed them and dealt with the emotions coming from them and learned from them. This can be tricky, as experiences take different amounts of time to process (and of course, sometimes you think you’ve done so only to find out there’s more to do).

For example, I waited over six months to write this post about losing my chosen family. I couldn’t write about it earlier; I couldn’t have done so from a grounded place, and therefore I couldn’t have written a truly effective essay. That is why when people express concern at any of my blog posts, I always feel slightly surprised. By the time I’m writing about something, there is rarely any reason to worry. The stories I tell are a means to an end. Which leads us to the next guideline….

  1. Have a reason to share that serves your readers.

The point of blog writing is not to bleed indiscriminately on the page or to merely shock by flooding your audience with personal details. Every story has a reason to be told. Every shared experience should lead to some kind of revelation.

In some ways, writing blog posts reminds me of teaching. In the process of writing, I reaffirm lessons I’ve already learned and sometimes gain a stronger understanding of my subject matter. But as with teaching, I can’t write about something when I haven’t at least grasped the basics.

And I’m always writing with an end goal in mind: What ideas am I trying to communicate? What do I want my audience to take away from this post?

  1. Avoid sharing in order to get your own needs met (i.e. to receive validation, praise, support, etc.).

We want to publish every blog post from a position of strength, which means publishing it to serve our audience, NOT to get some emotional need met for ourselves. Blog posts aren’t therapy. And as writers, the more we can let go of any expectations we might have as to the response a post will receive, the freer we are to craft a powerful piece.

Sometimes, of course, a post will generate an outpouring of support, and that’s perfectly all right. What we want to avoid is needing or expecting it to do so. The more we depend on the response, the more we’ll become tempted to pander to our audience to receive that response.

These three guidelines boil down to this simple principle: So often when we’re sharing in public as writers, it is not about us. This may seem counterintuitive since we are sharing personal stories and opinions, not to mention letting people know about our work. But blog posts at their best are about not just us as the writers, but the relationship between us and our readers. And sharing personal stories can be a powerful tool for conveying emotions and ideas to our readers, as well as creating a sense of connection.

We don’t always want to hold back from bleeding on the page, but it should be a mindful act. We want to bleed for the right reasons.

I really like stories. No surprise there. And as I collect my own stories about dating and hear other people’s stories, I’ve developed certain opinions. I don’t want to call them guidelines because your mileage may vary. But they are things that, based purely on anecdotal evidence, appear to be helpful or true or, at the very least, entertaining to think about.

I’ve decided to call this series the Dating Beat. So without further ado, here we go:

1. Have single friends.

I’m not saying you can’t also have non-single friends. Assumedly you would even if you were starting from scratch, since at some point some of your single friends will become not single anymore. I’m also not saying you shouldn’t talk to your non-single friends about dating or being single or whatever else.

But having some single friends is key. I don’t think their gender or orientation or age necessarily matter very much. It’s the singleness that is important. (Well, that, and ideally having more than one, so that when one of them finds a significant other, you still have single friends.)

Why? Because having single friends normalizes the experience of being single. There are a lot of single people in the world, but if you are constantly surrounded by people who are in romantic relationships, it can be easy to lose sight of that fact. And in a culture that often places pressure on single people, this normalization is especially important for maintaining a healthy outlook.

And it doesn’t hurt to have people who are dating right now with whom to swap stories, get advice, and share those moments of dating suckitude.

Photo Credit: sidehike via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: sidehike via Compfight cc

2. When someone you have recently started dating tells you something less than complimentary about themselves, believe them.

You know what I mean, right? There’s that moment when the guy says, “I’m trouble.” And guess what. He probably is! Or she says, “I’m not very good at relationships.” She probably isn’t!

Other statements that fall under this category:

  • I’m not very good with people.
  • I have trouble with commitment.
  • You’d be better off without me.
  • I tend to hurt the people I love.
  • I’m usually thinking about the next thing I’m going to say instead of listening.
  • I break a lot of hearts.

So, okay, yes, context matters. But usually when people say these kinds of things, they are telling the truth. Unfortunately, what happens next is often that the person they’re with doesn’t take the statement seriously, or feels badly for them, or takes it as a challenge, or thinks they will be different.

You’re probably not going to be different. And compassion is great and all, but not at your own expense. Yes, some of these things might be said because of low self-esteem or inexperience. And maybe some of them aren’t a big deal to you. But at the very least they give you an inkling of what you can expect in the future. It’s all data, and you get to decide what, if anything, to do with it. And if you don’t want to deal with it, there is absolutely no shame in not continuing to date the person.

And that is the dating beat for today, my friends.

I’m sitting in a darkened theater, and Act 2 is about to begin. This is one of my favorite plays, I haven’t seen it in years, and it is even better than I remembered. By the end of the play, I will almost be in tears. And a wave of gratitude washes over me, that this is my life, that I get to see live theater with friends who also appreciate it, that I’m sitting here now, and I am happy.

#

I’ve been dancing in a new venue for the last hour, and now I’m sitting cross-legged on the hard wooden floor, listening to the event organizer speak. He is talking about the importance of the community and the importance of being cognizant of boundaries while dancing, particularly with newcomers to the community (that would be me). I feel such a sense of rightness, that here I am doing this new thing I love, and it fosters a community that first of all, talks about boundaries at all, and that does so in such a respectful and thoughtful way. And I am happy.

#

I’m writing a new novel, and I’m having the best time. I sit down with my laptop, and I watch as I slowly add words and the story takes shape. I have no idea how good it is, or even if it’s any good at all, but one of the joys of the rough draft is that I kind of don’t have to care. I have to write my words. I have to meet my goals. I can worry about “good enough” at a later date. But right now I get to live in London again, and I get to become acquainted with gargoyles and ghosts and girls who won’t grow up, and I am so very happy.

#

A few months ago, here is what I told myself. Nothing in my life was blowing up. I’d already mostly decided not to move. I’d cut out as much drama as I could, and finally there was some space. The book was going fine. Nala was fine. I was fine. And I said to myself, “Now. Now is your chance to make your life as amazing as possible and see what happens. See if you can do it. See what that looks like. Now. This is your time. Try really hard not to take on anybody else’s stuff, take care of yourself, do what you need to do, and go shine as brightly as you want.”

My theme songs for this period, as anyone who follows me on Twitter and many more who don’t already know, are Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” and the Presidents of the United States of America’s “Peaches.” Yeah, I’m not entirely sure either, but they’ve set the tone nicely. So, whatever works.

And what does this now time of mine look like? Not so unexpected perhaps. Lots of writing and more writing, singing and piano playing, walks with Nala, dancing dancing dancing, theater and concert going, reading, and Star Trek, along with the occasional game. Baking and good food and quality time with friends. My ankle is doing well enough that I might be able to throw in some longer walks or hikes, which is pretty exciting. I’ve been meeting a lot of new people, not because I’m trying all that hard to do so, but because they seem to keep appearing, and many of them have been a privilege to meet.

It’s not all simple and easy and perfect; this is real life, after all. I’ve also been sick and tired and very sore because dancing, and I’ve had setbacks and disappointments, and I’ve made mistakes. Sometimes the world can be an ugly place, and sometimes it can be a complicated place.

But I keep having this very particular type of happiness sneak up on me. It doesn’t seem to matter what I’m doing at the time, but all of a sudden I’ll stop and think, “Oh. This is my life.” And I’ll feel this mixture of gratitude and relief and happiness, that I get to have this chance, that I get to do this work, that I get to know these people. That I get this time.

I think I look pretty happy here. (Photo by Christie Yant)

I think I look pretty happy here. (Photo by Christie Yant)

My friend told me my post last week about friendship was mushy, which yeah, I knew that, and I think this one probably is too. I know, but I kind of can’t help it. All I can say is it’s a very genuine mushiness. I doubt that makes it much more palatable, but it’s all I’ve got for you. Happiness is kind of mushy. I am a huge musical theater geek, which I’m pretty sure is good evidence all by itself that I can be kind of mushy. And apparently I’m willing to spread on the mush.

I also think sometimes it’s easy to only write about the problems, the dark places, the sturm and drang, and all that. And these are all important things to talk about. I’m going to keep talking about them.

But sometimes I want to let you know that the happiness, it is here too.

I hung out with one of my close friends last night. I hadn’t seen him in a while because I’d been sick, and then more sick, and then he’d been out of town. We sat on my couch for a few hours, catching up, swapping stories, and possibly consuming a sugary substance. And when he left I realized us hanging out had been like taking a nice big gulp of fresh air.

I was going to post a photo with human friends, but then I didn't want to leave anybody out, so here is me with my best dog friend instead.

I was going to post a photo with human friends, but then I didn’t want to leave anybody out, so here is me with my best dog friend instead.

There’s something special about good friends. They make us feel more connected, more grounded, and more known. So I’m taking a moment out to appreciate all the awesomeness that is a good friend.

  1. A good friend sometimes contacts you, out of the blue, just because.
  2. A good friend will sometimes let you pick where you’re going to eat, like when you’ve been having a sushi craving for the last week and a half or a peanut butter pie craving forever.
  3. A good friend lets you tell a weird story that kind of doesn’t have any point but is also kind of interesting. Hopefully.
  4. A good friend respects you and your opinion.
  5. A good friend listens.
  6. A good friend calls you on your bs.
  7. A good friend participates in your annual birthday week glut of celebrations with good humor.
  8. A good friend doesn’t mind when you call them up crying.
  9. A good friend talks to you about their life: their excitements and their problems and their thoughts and their hopes.
  10. A good friend asks you about your life too.
  11. A good friend celebrates with you when something happy happens and comforts you when something sad happens.
  12. A good friend doesn’t judge so you can relax and really be yourself.
  13. A good friend tells you when something is wrong.
  14. A good friend doesn’t make you feel bad for feeling how you feel. But a good friend also helps you stop wallowing.
  15. A good friend can tell when you’re interested in someone even when you weren’t intending to talk about that.
  16. A good friend knows you aren’t perfect and likes you anyway.
  17. A good friend takes an interest in your dog just because they know how much you love her.
  18. A good friend asks about your book. But they don’t ask how the agent hunt is going because they know you’d tell them if there was anything interesting to tell.
  19. A good friend laughs with you. A lot.
  20. A good friend understands when you have to say no.
  21. A good friend knows how to empathize.
  22. A good friend knows how to have fun.
  23. A good friend can geek out with you about whatever you both love: Star Trek, or Settlers of Catan, or Orphan Black, or dancing, or London, or baking cookies, or something else.
  24. A good friend believes in you.
  25. A good friend sometimes offers to bring you soup when you’re sick. Or tissues. Or cough medicine.
  26. A good friend tells you how much you mean to them.
  27. A good friend allows you to be silly. Even very silly.
  28. A good friend doesn’t push you when you don’t want to talk about something.
  29. A good friend lets you make your own decisions.
  30. A good friend knows who you are.

What does being a good friend mean to you?

Don’t rock the boat, Amy.

That is the message with which I was raised. Lie low, don’t make trouble, stay quiet, pretend what’s happening isn’t really happening. At all costs, please people. Make them like you, or at least make them not notice you exist. Same difference.

Don’t rock the boat, Amy.

Which is perhaps why I find the implications behind the #KeepYAKind campaign so disturbing.

Quick recap: A critically acclaimed YA writer said a troubling and sexist thing in a public interview. Several critics have said that this writer’s portrayal of female characters leaves something to be desired. I have not read his work. (I was supposed to back in January, actually, as his latest critically acclaimed novel was a book club selection, but because I had heard of its problems, I decided to sit out that month. Life is too short, and I have way too many books to read.) As a result of this public interview, there was a public conversation about the problematic nature of this writer’s public comments and his work. There may or may not have been inappropriate behavior (aka harassment and bullying) towards this writer. I haven’t seen any evidence of it myself, but I didn’t spend a lot of time looking for it. #KeepYAKind was a Twitter campaign aimed at stopping the public criticism and conversation. The Booksmugglers write in more detail about it all.

Don’t rock the boat, Amy.

Photo Credit: Putneypics via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Putneypics via Compfight cc

It is easy to imagine that whoever started #KeepYAKind had the best of intentions. We all like kindness, right? We don’t want to live and work in a community that supports bullying, do we? Of course we don’t.

The problem with #KeepYAKind is that, like many things on the internet, it lacks nuance. It distracts the focus from one problem–sexism in the publishing industry and YA fiction–and puts it on another problem. And it does so in a muddied way that, whether intentionally or not, works to shut down the conversation about sexism. In such a way it defends the status quo. It says, “Be quiet, women. You’re not allowed to talk about this problem because it isn’t nice.”

No, it isn’t nice. That is the entire point. Sexism isn’t nice. Being seen as a mysterious creature who is stranger and less fathomable than a giant alien insect isn’t nice. Being told not to discuss problematic things in fiction, even if you are a professional reviewer and THAT IS YOUR JOB, isn’t nice. (And, I mean, shouldn’t we all be allowed to discuss problematic things in fiction? I think so.)

But don’t rock the boat. Never mind that it’s sprung a leak or ten.

Whenever I see #KeepYAKind, I think #KeepYANice. Nice is don’t rock the boat. Nice is be a doormat, don’t stand up, don’t enforce your boundaries, don’t speak up when there’s a problem. Nice is not expressing an opinion that might be uncomfortable or difficult or controversial.

#KeepYAKind ignores the reality that sometimes the obvious act of kindness is not the best nor correct nor sustainable thing to do. Amy of a few years ago would have been shocked that I’m saying that, but I sincerely believe it to be true. Kindness is great, but sometimes you have to protect yourself. Sometimes you have to stand up for yourself. Sometimes you have to stand up for other people too.

Sometimes you have to point out things that are problematic. Sometimes it’s your job to review and analyze a novel or a play or a movie, in which case it is certainly not your job to be kind. It is your job to be insightful and to shed light. It is your job to tell us your opinion. And some people are going to think publicly discussing a negative opinion isn’t very kind either. That’s their prerogative. It doesn’t change the job of those of us who analyze culture and media and society. We aren’t here to sugarcoat. We are here to talk about the things that need to be talked about.

Don’t rock the boat, Amy.

Someone told me recently that acknowledging problematic stuff gives it power. I couldn’t disagree more. Because when we aren’t allowed to acknowledge that something is going on, then nothing will ever change. The problem remains invisible. The status quo is effortlessly maintained. And when everyone is working together to pretend the problem doesn’t exist, it makes us begin to question ourselves, spending our energy on feelings of confusion and isolation instead of on positive change. Keeping busy ignoring a problem DOES NOT MAKE IT GO AWAY. I know some people think it does. I tend to not get along very well with those people.

Now, maybe this writer truly is a very nice guy. From all accounts, he is. And I have compassion for him, because saying something stupid in a public interview and then having the internet fall on your head can’t be very pleasant. Having to really deeply think about the fact that you find giant grasshopper aliens to be less mysterious than women can’t be very pleasant either. And I’m sure some people made disparaging remarks and the like, and that sucks. The internet kind of sucks. Being a public figure kind of sucks.

But we are still accountable, as artists and writers and human beings, for the words we say and the work we create. And that sucks too. It is hard to hold yourself accountable and still be brave enough to create. It’s hard to be an artist knowing you’ll screw up and make mistakes and probably say something really stupid in public someday. It’s hard to admit that perfection is not achievable, and that all we can do is the best we can, and then try to keep learning. It’s hard to realize that our work can be part of the problem, even if we had the very best of intentions.

But that doesn’t mean we should stop talking about the problems in our literature and our pop culture and our society. That doesn’t mean we should stop thinking critically. That doesn’t mean we should look away when there’s a problem, burying our collective heads in the sand. It takes a lot of bravery to be an artist, and it also takes a lot of bravery to acknowledge a problem when it exists so we can work toward increased awareness and change. Both of these roles are important.

Don’t rock the boat? Whatever. I’ve already flipped the damn thing over.

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