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Posts Tagged ‘stereotypes’

It’s really hard for me to write about aging. Hard enough that I’ve been procrastinating on the internet and thinking through what I want to say and then tearing it to shreds before I type a single word–not because it’s so bad, but because I’m trying to avoid writing about it. Which of course, given my obstinate nature, means that now I really have to.

Our culture gives aging a very bad rap. I mean, we live in a world in which it doesn’t sound completely unusual for someone to say that the best years of life were in high school, or college, and once you turn twenty-five, it’s all downhill from there. Whenever I hear that kind of thinking, I want to scream. I mean, sure, there were some good moments in high school, and college was a special time for me, but really? That’s as good as it gets? Fumbling around in the dark being confused and angsty and not understanding what was going on half the time is supposed to be the high point of my life? No, thanks.

Photo by ezioman on Flickr

I’ve been thinking about aging a lot after that whole tooth debacle, which awakened me to the profound idea that I probably won’t keep all my teeth for my whole life. I know, I know, who hasn’t heard of dentures, but it shook me up all the same. And then I’ve been having all these bizarre health problems, and they make me feel old. For the record, none of these health problems are age-related. Let me repeat that. NONE of them are age-related. But it’s easy to slip into the sloppy thinking that maybe they are.

But really, what makes me think about aging is my epidemic of white hairs. I know, how superficial, right? My mother went gray at a fairly young age, and I remember kids thinking she must be a grandmother because of her hair…when she was around FORTY. Ever since that time I have associated gray hair with looking old, so I am ridiculously disturbed whenever a white hair intrudes upon my notice. It screams out at me with its little crispy voice, “Aha! You see me? You can’t even pretend to be in your twenties anymore. And your life might already be half over.”

I am choosing to reveal my neuroticism about aging (and I’m sure I’m not alone in how I feel) because it is all in my head. Yay society for helping me out with that, but ultimately I can choose for myself how I feel about aging. And what I choose will affect the rest of my life, quite literally. This study showed that people who thought about how aging might be affecting them performed worse on memory performance tests. So how I think about myself as I age will determine what I am able to achieve. Suddenly, developing a healthy relationship with aging seems a whole lot more important.

We tend to focus on the negative impacts of aging, but what about the many positive ones? I’ve become a much more developed singer and musician than I used to be, and I have the same maturation of my writing to look forward to in the future. I know and understand myself a lot better than I used to, which greatly improves the quality of my life. I am happier. I know more things and have more skills. I have perspective and experience, and I look forward to gaining more of both. I have more trust in myself.

Aimee Mann recently gave an interview all about aging (imagine, a famous musician actually daring to talk about her age!), and she said:

So that’s what aging probably means. You’ve got to be around long enough to try all the dumb stuff and then get sick of it and then kind of reach the conclusion of, look, I don’t care if this is cool or sounds cool, I want a life that works now, because I want to be creative, and it’s not being creative to be obsessed, anxious, depressed, trying to control other people, trying to control circumstances, and flipping out when stuff doesn’t go your way. But that’s what most people are. And you know, I don’t need to make cool my higher power. Cool doesn’t work.

Yes. I want to be creative in a way that works. And the closer aging can bring me to that, the more valuable it becomes.

Fundamentally, all of us will either age or we’ll die. Given my choice, I’d pick aging any day.

So, anyone else ever feel neurotic about aging? Got anything you are particularly looking forward to as you age, or have you already experienced some positive benefits? Please share.

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I’m freshly back from the World Fantasy Convention in San Diego, where, as expected, I had a lot of conversations about writing. And even some conversations about writing YA (aka teen fiction). At one point, I said, “One of the most critical things in a YA novel is to get the voice right.” And my friend said something to the effect of, “Oh, I’m pretty sure I got it right. My protag is a whiny teenager.” The conversation quickly moved on to other subjects.
However, this reminded me about one of my pet peeves regarding would-be writers of YA. Why is it that so many of them assume that all (or even most) teens are so easily characterized as consistently whiny? And inevitably, if they’re not whiny, they must be snarky. Or ideally both whiny AND snarky.

Why, if these writers have such a low opinion and one-dimensional idea of teenagers as whiny butts, are they writing teen characters for a teen audience? Why? Please explain, because I fail to understand how this would be fun for either the writer or their prospective readers.

Yes, teenagers can be whiny. Some teenagers whine a lot. But you know what? Sometimes adults whine a lot too. Believe me, I’ve listened to them. Sometimes even I whine more than I should. But some teenagers rarely if ever whine, and some teenagers only whine sometimes, and some teenagers whine mostly to their parents. So if you want to write a teenage character who happens to be a very whiny person, fine, but that doesn’t mean you’ve nailed the elusive teen voice. If anything, it means that you’re going to have to be careful that your character doesn’t become really annoying to your readers. Because guess what? Teenagers can be annoyed by whining too.

As for snark, well, I like it as well as the next person. It’s entertaining, it’s funny, and a snarky character can be very engaging and likeable. But not all teenage characters have to be snarky. Depending on their backgrounds, their environments, and the stories you want to tell about them, it might even be impossible for them to be snarky. And adding more snark is not necessarily the way to go either (a lesson I have learned the hard way). Too much snark and a character might just be plain mean. Not to say that you can’t have mean characters, but you want to write a character mean because you’ve decided they’re going to be mean right then, not accidentally because you’re piling on the snark in an effort to be funny or edgy or have “an authentic teen voice.”

Perhaps these terms are mere shorthands that we fall back upon when trying to communicate about our writing. But I’d encourage writers who are trying their hands at YA (and more and more of them are, given its hotness in the book marketplace) to develop a more nuanced view of the teenagers they are writing for and about. I’ve worked with a lot of teens over the years, and you know what? Some of them are super sarcastic, or complain a lot, or are scattered and irresponsible. And some of them are brilliant and talented and working really hard and rising to the challenge of coping with difficult circumstances. All teenagers have some combination of positive traits and drawbacks, just as all adults do. But when they think about themselves, do you think the first word that pops into their heads is “whiny?” I doubt it, but perhaps they would be justified if the first word they think about adults is “condescending.”

Our job as YA writers is not to condescend but to understand. And in my mind, that’s a very big difference.

Disagree with me in the comments, or chime in and tell me that I’m not the only writer who thinks this way.

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I read two essays relating to feminism last week, and I can’t get them out of my mind. They offer very different perspectives on living in the U.S. as a woman, and how to navigate the sometimes tricky waters that this entails.The first one was an explanation by Zoe Winters of why she doesn’t call herself a feminist. She offers several reasons, among them that feminism brings with it connotations of angry man haters, that feminists look down on women who have chosen to be housewives instead of career women, and that it’s better to look for win-win situations in the workplace–that if a man is unwilling to hire you because you’re a woman, you’re better off working somewhere else anyway.

The second one was by Justine Musk: “‘Well-behaved women seldom make history’: redefining what it means to be bad.”  She talks about the black-and-white choice for women in our society: to be a good girl or a bad girl. She brings up the different standards of behavior for men and for women, comparing Charlie Sheen with Brittany Spears. She discusses how convenient it is when women choose to be “good,” which is possibly another way of saying something I’ve been talking about a lot lately, choosing to be a people pleaser. (I understand that men can be people pleasers too. However, I suspect the pressures and causes might be a bit different for women than for men in our society. Feel free to argue with me in the comments, though.)

For a long time, I didn’t really self identify as a feminist. You could even say that I was a bit wishy-washy on the whole subject, and you wouldn’t be wrong. I thought I was lucky because sexism had never really affected me or my life.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t actually lucky. I was just naive.

I completely bought into the “good girl” thing that Justine was talking about in her article:

“Raising a girl to be ‘nice’,” a therapist – a woman in her sixties, married and with daughters — once remarked to me, “is like sending her out into the world with one hand tied behind her back.””

That nice girl is me. Was me, is perhaps more accurate. Sexism has affected me my entire life, sometimes in profound ways. Our society’s ideas about gender roles have played a role in shaping who I am, whether I like to admit it or not.

I don’t hate men. Actually, I really like men. Some of my very best friends have been and still are men. There have been times in my life when pretty much all my friends have been male. I have also been friends with guys who are obviously sexist. (Unfortunately, the more overtly sexist, the less likely the friendship will last, because ultimately it’s kind of hard to maintain a friendship with someone who is treating you poorly. Wish I had learned this one a lot sooner.) So I guess I’m the kind of feminist who doesn’t hate men and is only occasionally angry? Oh, and thinks being a housewife is a perfectly fine life choice, thank you very much.

I find the idea that I’d be better off finding a win-win situation in the workplace a bit shallow at best, though. I mean, it sounds great in theory, but what if I work in an industry in which I’m going to face discrimination for being a woman regardless of the company or my boss? I was talking to a female engineer the other day, and she told this story that really appalled me about her male co-workers’ behavior. When I told her that I didn’t know if I’d want to deal with that in my workplace, she responded that her company is actually pretty good to its female engineers. And I believe her; it might very well be worse elsewhere. That doesn’t mean that better is particularly great though. But she has to put up with it if she wants to continue being an engineer, and doing it with good grace is preferable for her career prospects.

As a writer dealing with sexism, it really matters what sub-field I’m in. The kidlit community seems to be made up of about 90% women. I have never experienced any noticeable sexism or inappropriate behavior in the kidlit community. Because I, as previously stated, like men, I’ve hung out with many of the men in the community, and they have always been respectful and treated me like any colleague.

The science fiction/fantasy community, on the other hand, is made up of about 40% women. On the plus side, women writers in the field also win about 40% of the major awards, which is great. Unfortunately, I am sometimes treated differently in the community because of my gender. I have heard about sexual harassment problems at conventions, and I have no trouble whatsoever believing them based on my own experiences. And because I am the “nice girl,” more often than not I let it slide. I push through my discomfort and keep right on smiling. This is the current reality of being a female speculative writer (or at least a relatively young and cute one). So should I stop writing science fiction and fantasy and find a more women-friendly environment in another genre? Or just not be part of the community? You have got to be kidding me. That’s not a win-win. It’s a big fat lose if I feel forced to leave a genre that I love.

Like it or not, sexism is a reality most women are forced to deal with (if you haven’t, I’m happy for you, but I also don’t really believe it). Some of us may not recognize that it’s happening. I often don’t recognize it’s happening. I’ve been watching movies all my life, and it’s only recently that I began to notice how gender is so often portrayed in Hollywood. Now that I’m breaking away from being “too nice” or the “good girl,” I find it valuable to try to notice. Sometimes there might be nothing I can do; sometimes I might have to stand there and smile. Sometimes someone might assume that I’m a man-hating hormonal nightmare of a woman if I use the word “feminist” or a bitch if I don’t temporize, soften my opinions, or stay quiet. But if I notice, at least I can make my own decision about how to respond and have a greater understanding of what’s going on around me and how society is encouraging me to have certain behavior patterns.

For me, feminism is not about fighting against men. It’s about fighting against stereotypes and preconceived boxes that are too small to fit who I am. It’s about being able to be taken seriously in the avocation of my choice, whether that be composer or teacher, science fiction or romance writer, engineer or housewife. It’s about taking a stand against having to fit into the definition of “good girl,” a definition I had no part in creating.

Okay, have at it. Is there anything I missed? Do you consider yourself to be a feminist? Why or why not?

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Since I wrote my essay on ambiversion last summer, I’ve been thinking about the introvert-extrovert continuum a great deal. Perhaps even more so because that essay is by far the most popular one on this site and continues to draw in a fair amount of search traffic. This makes me think I’m not the only person who cares about such things.

What have I been thinking? I’ve been embracing my identity as an introvert, actually. I’ve spent most of my life unconsciously believing that being an introvert is a Bad Thing. Because, you know, those extroverts have all the fun. While I do believe that American culture contributes to this belief, I see no reason why I can’t be as nonconformist about this as I am about other widely held issues.

So here is my official announcement: Being an introvert is AWESOME! I get to have deep and interesting conversations with people, either one-on-one or in small groups. I get to do amazing creative projects that often require heaps of hours by myself, and it doesn’t bother me. I can be perfectly happy and content and charged without having to take the trouble to make sure I have social plans every single free moment of the day. I get to spend lots of time thinking, which means I get to analyze and learn and have plenty of “aha!” moments. And I tend to think more before I speak, which means I have a better chance of being able to support the people I care about (not to mention a better chance of avoiding saying the most stupid things that pop into my head).

Sure, being an introvert means I have to work harder at being assertive. But since I’m not down at the far end of the introversion spectrum, a lot of the more difficult aspects of it don’t bother me. Basically, I’m an introvert who can pass. (Perhaps this is the real definition of an ambivert: Someone who is not so extreme on the spectrum, so they are able to pass for the other if convenient.) This means that often I can enjoy the best of both worlds, and I’m not dodged by people’s perceptions of my introversion.

What I have realized is that being an introvert and lacking social skills are not the same thing. Imagine my surprise at this discovery! Someone can be an introvert and still have excellent social skills (or successfully develop them). Or someone can be an extrovert who has zero social skills. While there may be a certain amount of correlation between extroverts and social ability, it certainly doesn’t seem to exclude these other possibilities.

This became even clearer to me when I took another personality test based on colors (here is a version of it if you love taking personality tests as much as I do). My highest color is blue, which is the social helper type. Yes, I’m a self-esteem builder who gets the most satisfaction from work that allows me help and inspire others and make a difference in their lives. No surprise that I’ve spent most of my adult life being a teacher and writer. It even fits in with this blog of mine, doesn’t it? And yet I’m also an introvert. These two parts of myself are not in conflict. In fact, I believe that being an introvert actually assists me to better understand and inspire others. How’s that for some positive framing?

Here’s my question for you: how does being an introvert or an extrovert help you in your life? And if necessary, can you pass as the other type (be an introvert who appears to be an extrovert or an extrovert who appears to be an introvert)?

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1. Being in a foreign country, even one in which they speak my native language, forces me to see.  It shines a light on the world around me, but even more important, it opens myself up.  Whatever I’ve been trying to ignore, whatever I’ve been trying to leave behind me unexamined, well, there it is.  I return to the U.S. a different person from when I left.

2. The day we leave, we decide to get a cab after all because it’s raining, and slogging to the Tube with all the luggage and the wet only to squeeze into the steaming commute-time train sounds distinctly unappealing.  Plus I barely slept the night before.  Our cab driver talks to us the entire drive to the airport.  He is worried about the foreign embassy workers who won’t pay their parking tickets.  It’s mostly the Arabs, he says.  He’s been to Florida and Disney World, and he wonders if California is the same.  It’s not, I say.  Then it begins to snow in light swirling flakes.

3. It’s maybe one in the morning as I enter the large square room laid bare by its strong fluorescent lighting.  I instantly want to back out and run the other direction, but I’m an adult now and I have to deal with things like this.  I sit in the dentist’s chair in the otherwise bare room, noting how there is absolutely no high-tech equipment in sight.  No, wait, there’s a box that looks like a machine of some kind.  Until I realize it’s an old PC vintage 1998.  Not reassuring.  The assistant, wearing baggy white clothes that remind me of the gangster rapper wannabes at my high school, looks like he’s not more than eighteen.  He tells me, without knowing anything about my case, that it will either be a root canal or an extraction.  I laugh nervously and try to make a joke, only to realize that he is completely serious.  Those are the two things that happen in this room.  The dentist holds the X-ray up to the light, does a bunch of fast talking, tries to make me feel stupid and small, but luckily I’m too stubborn for that.  No way do I need a root canal in the middle of the night with old instruments and two assistants who cover themselves from head to foot with plastic bags.  I wonder about the sanitation.  I leave.  My cheek doesn’t swell up horribly the way he said it would if I didn’t get treated, so I feel pretty good about that decision.

4. Shiny twinkle lights adorn every shopping area in London.  Oxford Street is a steady stream of shoppers, already laden with paper bags on every arm, prominently emblazoned with big brand names that even I have heard of.  A sidewalk vendor sells crepes.  We stop and I have my favorite, with apricot jam.  My leather gloves are covered with stickiness by the time I am finished.  Shiny red ornaments, grotesquely over-sized, hang from the ceiling at the Covent Garden market, and a large green reindeer, two to three times as tall as me, stands to one side with a red ornament nose.

5. Thanksgiving night, we are going to the theater.  We stop off at a nearby pub and both order fish and chips.  I eat my chips with gallons of ketchup.  It feels like just another night but I’m okay with that.  I’ve been doing the “five things that make me happy” exercise pretty faithfully lately, so I’m very aware of just how much I have to be thankful for.  Back home I will have pie and think Thanksgiving thoughts.  I just have to decide between pumpkin and cherry.

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I was flipping through the November issue of Locus a few days ago, ensconced on my couch and trying to get over an unpleasant cold, when I came across Gardener Dozois’s review of “Dream of the Arrow,” a mainstream story by Jay Lake that was in Subterranean’s Summer 2010 Issue.  Mr. Dozois says this story is:

…a story good enough to suggest that Lake’s talents may be wasted working in the genre, as he has the literary chops to make it as a significant mainstream author instead.”

Since I’ve become more educated in the field, I have grown accustomed to the speculative genre being dismissed and marginalized.  I had no idea of any such stigma before my decision to pursue writing seriously, in spite of spending nearly twenty years making a beeline to the science fiction section of any library or bookstore I happened to enter, but I’m certainly not arguing that it doesn’t exist.  Usually when I encounter such sentiments, I blink, shrug, and move on.

But I was actually shocked when I read the above quotation in Locus.  For those of you who aren’t deeply involved in the science fiction and fantasy community, Locus is the trade magazine of the field, and Mr. Dozois is a highly respected writer, editor, and anthologist in the field.  He’s won twenty Hugo awards for his work in professional editing, which should give you some idea of his stature.  And yet, even so, his comment seems to imply that genre writing is in some way not as inherently worthwhile as mainstream (aka literary) writing.

Let’s unpack this quote a little further, shall we?  If it were merely a question of suggesting that Lake might consider a career as a mainstream author due to his particular talent for it, I wouldn’t have paused.  I have no doubt Lake has the abilities to become a literary author if that’s what he wants to do (whether or not he would achieve critical acclaim for it is another question, but not one connected to his abilities as a writer).  There is also no discussion of the possible merits of Lake’s speculative novels being shelved in the general fiction shelves as have books by such crossover successes as Susanna Clarke, Isabel Allende, and Kazuo Ishiguro.

What we get instead is the idea that Lake is wasting his talents working in science fiction and fantasy, and with this idea, I must respectfully disagree.  As a reader, I want variety in my speculative fiction, and I want to read speculative books written by authors with literary chops.  I balk at the implication (perhaps unintended) that writers only work in the science fiction field because they don’t have the ability to do otherwise.  The last thing our field needs is internal ghettoization; we get enough flak from the outside.

I’m proud to be a science fiction and fantasy writer, and I don’t write in those genres because I think it’s easier.  For me personally, writing in the speculative genres is more difficult (world building, I’m looking at you).  I don’t feel the need to apologize for the kinds of stories, worlds, and structures I find interesting and compelling.

Now Lake, of course, can do whatever he wants.  An author makes the decision on what genre to write within based on any of a number of factors (financial gain, critical acclaim, artistic inspiration or satisfaction, etc.)  If Lake wishes to make the leap over into mainstream fiction, I would certainly support that decision (and really, it’s none of my business).  But if he spends his entire career writing in the speculative genres, I believe his creative contribution will be just as valuable.

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Mark Charan Newton recently wrote a blog post entitled “Getting Women”.  His provocative title caused me to click through and read what he had to say.  He talks about having awareness while writing female characters in fantasy, and how he improved at avoiding stereotypes and portraying more realistic female characters in his latest novel.  Having not read this novel, however, I am left without concrete examples of *how* he succeeded.  Hence my own post with a similarly eye-catching title.

I’m going to talk about a recent example from my writing life.  For one of my latest stories, I chose to write it in a first person male POV.  This is, in fact, the first time I’ve attempted such a thing in my writing.  I adore first person, but up until now, I have always chosen a female voice.  Part of this was because I felt more confident that I could get a female voice correct, and part of it, I’ll admit, was my desire to read more stories in the adult science fiction/fantasy genre told from the POV of a woman.  Write what you want to read, and all that.  (Interesting side note: At Taos Toolbox this year, we had six women students and eight male students.  For our first week submissions, we had ten mainly male POV stories/chapters and four female POVs.  All four female POVs were written by female students.  Food for thought, that.)

But for this particular story, I really wanted a male POV, and it had to be in first person.  I was somewhat apprehensive about giving it a try.  I decided, in order to avoid complete creative blockage, to not obsess too much about the “maleness” on my first draft.  I would do as I usually do and try to inhabit my character’s mind (similar to Method acting), but beyond that, I’d fix any voice problems in a later draft and rely on my writing group to catch the things I couldn’t catch myself.

My writing group critiqued the story last Friday, and I was surprised at how few issues of male vs. female voice they brought up.  There were a few, notably a mention of a “champagne pink silk dress” (apparently, men aren’t aware of the color champagne pink.  Who knew?)  But overall, only a few changes of that nature needed to be made.  So apparently my technique of trying to get into the head of my specific character, as opposed to thinking “what would a man say” every five words, worked out mostly okay this time.

Of course, I think what Mark might have been talking about in his blog post is the prevalence of female stereotypes in fantasy.  Fantasy readers get to see several cardboard classes of female character: bad-ass in leather, damsel in distress, someone’s wife/mother/daughter/sister who only exists to be angelic and pure or bad and slutty, or be rescued or to show our hero isn’t completely socially maladjusted.  The list goes on and on.

Here’s my question: can you think of any stereotyped male character types in fantasy that you find equally boring and/or offensive?  Comment below and let me know!

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