Sensitivity readings: An essential part of writing

So you’ve spend a lot of time writing and revising a story. You’re getting to a point where it’s in pretty good shape. Maybe you’ve had some beta readers look through all or part of it. Maybe you’ve workshopped it.

Before you release it upon the world (or upon literary agents), consider pausing for a sensitivity reading.

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A message to fellow white people

There’s a lot going on in the U.S. right now. I want to take this time to make it very clear that I support the Black Lives Matter movement, and am doing my best as a white woman to be anti-racist. I’ve been more outspoken on personal social media platforms – but just so that I’m clear and consistent across all my platforms: I am committed to working on myself, working with other white people, and taking action.

While I am now doing my best to be anti-racist, I failed spectacularly in the past. I admit that as a younger person, I said and did things that hurt people of color (including black people, but not just black people), and that’s something I’m ashamed of. I behaved badly and wrongly. I’ve made concerted efforts, as I’ve gotten older, to examine my belief systems, own my shitty behavior, and commit to change. All white people need to do this.

Because here’s something that’s important for white people to understand: I never perceived myself as racist, even when I was saying and doing things that were racist. There was a huge disconnect in my head between how I perceived myself and how I was acting and impacting those around me. I thought racism involved white hoods and burning crosses. Some things I didn’t understand were racist, other things I knew were problematic but didn’t give much thought to – because they didn’t impact me.

This image (not mine, it was sent to me) perfectly explains how I once was:

Most of what I was doing was in the covert category, and what I thought racism was is solely in the overt section. Thus, a disconnect, and me being a shitty person without understanding that I was being a shitty person. That’s not an excuse, and it doesn’t in any way negate the negative impact I had on others. But it does explain why so many white people claim to not be racist but still engage in speech and behavior or support things that are racist – the disconnect between overt and covert that this graphic illustrates is part of the issue. They think not engaging in the overt is enough. It’s not.

The only reason why I’ve been able to evolve and be better is because I had that realization and have been working at continuing to learn and change. Part of practicing anti-racism as a white person is realizing that you are likely still engaging in or complicit in racism, and continuously working to root that out and change it. You may not be doing it on purpose, but it’s an intent vs impact thing – they’re not equal. Impact is what really matters. Ignorance and good intentions don’t mean you’re not accountable when you have a negative impact.

Which brings me to another important point: As a white person, being anti-racist isn’t an event – you don’t suddenly cross the anti-racism line and get a gold medal for it – it’s an ongoing, lifelong process. A lot of black people have pointed out that you can’t ever, as a white person, be 100% perfectly anti-racist. The sooner we accept that, the better we can be – because truly accepting that means learning to not get defensive when someone points out missteps and bad behavior, and being able to self-reflect, reassess, and evolve.

Listening and educating ourselves is important, but action is even more important. Educate yourself, but also…do something. Do a lot of somethings. Do as many somethings as you can, and then keep doing more. There’s a lot of good information out there about ways that white people can take action to be anti-racist and dismantle racist systems.

I’m not going to tell you where to find that information*, because one thing white people need to do is learn to do the research. Learn to find those sources. Figure it out. Don’t bother the black people in your life or wait for them to call you out – do the work yourself. That’s another important step. We need to be proactive rather than reactive.

(j/k I added a page. But it’s not exhaustive and you still need to do your own reserach.)

When the narrative just won’t evolve

They say art reflects life, and the older I get, the more I turn to it and see within the very same lessons that I’ve learned, or am grappling with myself.

I realized recently that there’s a reason why two of my favorite books are The Great Gatsby and Love in the Time of Cholera. They’re very different stories, but are united by one thing: A character who idealizes a love narrative, to the point of it becoming a lifelong obsession that never waivers.

I’m hardly a muse in the artistic sense of the word – I’m a fairly ordinary person, and quite proud of the fact. But even those of us who revel in their ordinariness can become someone else’s hinge. I was once a young person with rather literary sensibilities, and the youthful idea that I was going to be different. I wasn’t going to succumb to the quotidian world – I was going to rise above it. So when I encountered people with similar convictions, I tended to gravitate toward them – and the more outlandish their convictions, the more fascinated I became.

I smile at my younger self now. I understand why she felt that way, why many young people feel that way. But with experience comes evolution, and like many people, I evolved into the early middle ager that I am today. I have no particular regrets about giving up on those romantic sensibilities – as I have said to more than one person, there are certain things that interest me in art, but would repel me in real life.

One of those things is that person who becomes so attached to a youthful narrative that they aren’t able to let it go.

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A little faery nonsense

For a long time, there has been a strong association between faeries and mushrooms.

At night, it’s said, the faeries come out to dance around in rings of mushrooms. If there’s a full moon, they’re particularly likely to be out. If you hide in the shadows and keep very, very still, you might manage to see them and hear their strange, otherworldly music.

They may use clusters of mushrooms as a place to meet, or play, or perhaps even worship. And in those places, the mushrooms grow in a ring. It conjures up images of other ancient circular monuments such as Stonehenge. Circles are, after all, powerful symbols in many cultures, both ancient and modern. Circle dances go back into ancient times, existed in various cultures, and may have been considered sacred.

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A playlist for the longing

I think all of us are desperately longing for something right now.

The Rose II – Ola Gjeilo
Concerto for Violoncello and Strings: II. (Longing) – Dobrinka Tabakova
Illirion – Lubomyr Melnyk
Burnt – Lubomyr Melnyk Rework – Lubomyr Melnyk
Five Cycles of Minor and Major Keys – Roberto Cacciapaglia
Opus 2,5 – Dreamers’ Circus

Gjeilo sets a poem to music in The Rose – this is the instrumental version of that, a poem-as-music. Tabakova’s piece aurally embodies longing – you’ll feel this one somewhere deep under the ribs. You’ll get absolutely lost inside Melnyk’s piano, a gorgeous catastrophe that will have you soaring and drowning. Cacciapaglia is a nice cool down that will have you feeling like you’re rocking on ocean waves. Dreamers’ Circus will take you to a more playful, nostalgic place.

Bonus track: Scarborough Fair – Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra

Scarborough Fair is a middle English tune, popularized again by Simon & Garfunkle in the 1960s. In it a young man gives a series of impossible tasks to his former lover, who sets some for him in return. Then, near the end, this astoundingly pragmatic stanza:

If you say you can’t, then I shall reply
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Oh, let me know that at least you will try
Or you’ll never be a true love of mine

We may not always get the things we long for, and our desires and needs and burning ideas may seem impossible – but at least we can try. And now, more than ever, that’s an important message.

The Rose

Christina Rossetti was really well-situated in life – daughter of scholars and revolutionaries, sister of writers and artists, and a poet in her own right. She was in the middle of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which (love them or hate them) must have been an interesting place to be.

She’s the author of one of my favorite poems – The Goblin Market, which I like to reread in the fall. It’s allegorical and homoerotic and full of the kind of intense and near-fatal longing that good Romantic poetry should be.

She also wrote this tiny, understated gem, called The Rose:

The lily has a smooth stalk,
Will never hurt your hand;
But the rose upon her brier
Is lady of the land.

There’s sweetness in an apple tree,
And profit in the corn;
But lady of all beauty
Is a rose upon a thorn.

When with moss and honey
She tips her bending brier,
And half unfolds her glowing heart,
She sets the world on fire.

It’s a simple poem; not the most impassioned thing she ever wrote, and even feels a bit unfinished, perhaps. But it has a certain message in keeping with the type of themes she tended to explore.

Rossetti’s poetry has been described as lyrical, and a lot of is has a structure that lends itself well to music. This poem has been translated into a song more than once, but I recently heard Ola Gjeilo’s version of it, and…oh. my. god. If you’re moved by chorale music or great piano pieces, give this a listen…

His album ‘Winter Songs’ also has an instrumental version of the song. I am obsessed. The music that Gjeilo wrote really gives these lyrics what they deserve – a sort of stark melancholy. He heard a certain melancholy here that I initially missed. This beautiful thing will hurt you. This fire it ignites comes with a price.

Sometimes less is more, and after a poem like The Goblin Market, this one does feel a bit bare. But if you can set aside that particular bias and appreciate the simplicity of The Rose, then what you’ve got is something actually quite powerful. It says something about beauty, and risk, and the value of things of life. It says a lot by saying very little. I admire that in a writer.

Tower of Memories

Over the fall, a friend suggested an outing to the Tower of Memories near Denver. It’s one of those strange local sites that I wasn’t even aware existed. We were there on a particularly hot day – it’s not unusual in Colorado for summer weather to continue well into fall. I found this place impressive, cinematic, unusual…and unsettling.

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Write badly

One of the things that’s been joyously freeing about my writing program is that we’re given permission to do something important: Write badly.

In order to create a sculpture, you have to start with a big block of clay, or a stone, or a chunk of wood. At first, you’re just hacking pieces away and getting it into the general shape. Over time, you add more details and then begin to polish it up.

In the beginning… Make a colossal, unapologetic mess. Write disconnected chunks of text and snippets of conversation. Let characters emerge without worrying too much about how they fit. Write cringe-inducing dialogue and scenes dripping with cliches. Just let the story emerge.

Once it’s emerged… Put it into some sort of order, know your characters and why they exist, but let the mistakes and gaps and bad dialogue and cliches stand. Just make a thing that has a beginning, middle, and end.

Then! Then you start cleaning it up. Then you start polishing. Then you pull out the sharper tools in your box and make your rough thing into something more artful.

For me, a first draft is an emergence. I have a pretty good grasp on my story, but it’s still revealing things to me. It’s still whispering its small confessions, and I’m still exploring all the different pieces of it.

Free yourself from expectations and pressures. Give yourself permission to be messy, and most importantly – write badly. Write badly as hard and painfully and truthfully as you can.

The mess comes first. The art comes later.