All posts by kathleenmkellett

Ode to a Home

In two weeks, I’m moving down to South Jersey to begin working towards a PhD. Not long after, my parents are going to move to the mythical Central Jersey to downsize/be closer to their children/be closer to my grandmother. The Childhood Home (which has on occasion been an interim adulthood home, including right now) will soon be someone else’s, and I’m soon going to actually know where I’ll be living for far enough in the future to actually register to vote in someplace that isn’t my hometown.

I have not traditionally been known as someone who is, shall we say, good at change. I’m better than I used to be; it does help when you get frustrated enough with your life that you really, really want a change. I’m extremely excited about going back to school, and I’m not quite mourning the loss of the Childhood Home (yet). The whole moving situation has put me in a nostalgic mood, though, to the shock of precisely no one. (A conversation I once had with my mother revealed what an exhausting child I was to raise, as I began a sentence with, “As a kid, I would get preemptively nostalgic about …” and she interrupted me to say, “EVERYTHING.”) So this will be a preemptively nostalgic blog about a house that has not yet been vacated but knows that it’s about to be.

My mom has loved the house as a home, but does not love the house as a building. She never wanted to live in a split-level; she prefers Victorian houses, especially those with porches. I can never quite let her mention this without prompting her to admit that it’s been a good house, because I haven’t learned to accept that the people I love don’t always get 100% of what they want. I compulsively try to erase all trace of disappointment or regret, no matter how minor — especially if I somehow factored into the decision, as I obviously did when my parents moved here.

My sister and I were eight and had just finished second grade. I did not love the house as a home for a while. In our new elementary school, the friend groups were quite solidified; while I wasn’t friendless, I certainly wasn’t granted permanent membership within a group. A little over a year after we moved, my paternal grandfather died; a little over a year after that, my paternal grandmother followed. These losses contributed to a mythologization of “when we lived in Staten Island” in my mind. I saw those first eight years of my life as a time of wholeness and ease. Without entirely articulating it to myself, I felt that moving away had broken the unchanging spell of childhood, and now other, worse things were allowed to change, too.

(Goodness, but it’s obvious in hindsight that I was going to have OCD, isn’t it? Incidentally, after my grandma died, my parents made me go to therapy. They are Good Parents.)

I have the same impulse now that I do when I insist to my mom that we love this old split-level. I am afraid of making it seem like I had an Unhappy Childhood. I want to assure anyone reading this that I have plenty of happy memories from third through seventh grade, which I absolutely do. I don’t want anyone to feel sad thinking that I have disappointments or regrets (…which I absolutely do). But I can reassure you without lying: I did learn to love this house as a home. Even in those early days, I can see things that I loved in my memory. The exact configuration of my sister’s and my Barbie families on the guest room floor. The swing set in the backyard under the trees. The snow tunnel we built with our neighbor that entirely collapsed on all three of us. The books upon books upon books that I read late into the night, sprawled on a beanbag in my room.

And then, around eighth grade, I became friends with the people who are still my friends. Or I should say I became close friends with them; I’d known and liked them since I was eight, but hadn’t quite realized that they were my people. Throughout most of middle school, I’d floated around the outskirts of friend groups, wallowing in the common pubescent suspicion that I didn’t really have anything in common with anybody, only to figure out that yes, I did, and they were right across the cafeteria.

From that point on, The Kellett Basement became a hub of adolescent girl weirdness. If my life were a novel, critics would almost certainly call it a liminal space. I never felt in a hurry to grow up when my sister, my friends, and I congregated there; we allowed ourselves to be extravagantly strange without feeling like we were sacrificing our fragile teenage maturity. Or perhaps I’m projecting and should only speak for myself, so I’ll say instead that I felt that way, and I am grateful that my friends allowed me to. They completed the transformation of this house into home.

This house has absorbed so many good and bad memories. In the kitchen, women of several generations tended to their assembly line of vegetable chopping while the men cleaned and shucked an alarming number of clams in order to make enough clam chowder to feed a small army (a.k.a. my extended family). In the living room, my father played the piano; ragtime and jazz mostly, but also Christmas carols when seasonally appropriate, and my sister would sometimes wander in to sing. For ten years, a beloved and poorly behaved Portuguese water dog tore through the backyard and barked at the phone. Throughout the house, I experienced periodic cataclysms of anxiety and found safe places to weather them. I read and listened and made choices about the kind of person I wanted to be.

My new apartment is the second story of an old house that my mother will probably like as a building. It has patterned carpets and long windows. I hope that when my friends and family come to visit, they will feel at home. When that happens, then I will, too.

 

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Badasses: A Condemnation

I have a list of media pet peeves a mile long — like most writers, I suspect. Usually I prefer to use this blog to talk about things I do like instead of things I don’t (except when I write about politics), but today I’d like to talk about a trope and a mindset that I’ve been ruminating on lately: the Badass. Join me, won’t you, in what will probably be a rambling explanation of why I don’t consider any of my own characters badasses, and why I don’t think declaring any character a “badass” is a particularly useful thing to do.

First I should probably define my terms. These are going to be entirely my own perceptions, and if anyone disagrees with them, I’d actually love to discuss it. But in my mind, “badass” is a term that connotes several qualities. The first (and most positive) is taking no shit. I have no arguments with this particular characteristic. I enjoy characters who don’t allow people to push them around or talk down to them, and I have definitely turned to the assertiveness of fictional people for inspiration when my own natural spring of assertiveness has run dry. (Which it does pretty quickly. I’m working on it.)

However, based on my purely anecdotal observations, I think that the aforementioned assertiveness is often conflated with stoicism when people talk about badass characters. Now, obviously the degree to which a character does or does not wear their heart on their sleeve varies. Some characters play things closer to the vest than others. I certainly don’t expect every character to be as overtly emotional as, say, I am. But I think the designation of badass often imbues stoicism with a positive or aspirational connotation, when it’s actually at best a neutral trait and at worst a sign of repressed emotions. In fact, I’ve taken several of my characters on a journey from Don’t Show Emotions to Feel Your Feelings as they learn to deal with the hardships in their lives in healthier, more honest ways. That doesn’t mean that they’re widely broadcasting their every emotion; they’re just not hiding them as much as they used to.

The most obvious potential problem with badassery is its association with violence. Here’s where, like, every character ever played by Bruce Willis comes in. (I honestly have seen very few movies with Bruce Willis, but don’t @ me, I’m still right.) Many characters are declared badasses specifically because of their ability to fight and/or use weapons better than anyone else around them. There is a Very Obvious issue of toxic masculinity here; I imagine the Venn diagram of “male characters most frequently called badasses” and “male characters I would never invite over for lunch” has a significant amount of overlap. But as a fantasy and scifi fan, I actually think there’s a lot more to unpack here. Those genres fairly frequently feature large-scale physical violence, so there are potentially many characters who know their way around a sword/bow/laser blaster/whatever. When these weapons-friendly characters, male or female, are also assertive and/or stoic (particularly if their assertiveness and stoicism comes with a side of sarcasm or general prickliness), they are almost automatically dubbed badasses.

I think this does them a disservice. I think the term “badass” establishes a set of expectations for the reader/viewer, and any behaviors or traits that fall outside of these expectations can wind up being written off as a “weakening” of the character. I saw an example of this in the comments of one of the many, many articles I read about Avengers: Infinity War after I saw it. More than one commenter was annoyed with the character Gamora’s emotionality in the movie. To be as spoiler-light as possible, Gamora, who ticks all of the boxes I listed above, spends a decent amount of her screen time in Infinity War visibly upset. She even cries. To these commenters, these emotional reactions were a disservice to the character and made her less badass.

Now, if you’ve seen the movie and you know me, you may guess that I have some opinions about Gamora’s arc. But it had honestly never occurred to me to read her emotional reactions as a diminishing of the strength she has in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies (which have skyrocketed to the top tier of my favorite Marvel movies). I mean, in Infinity War, Gamora has kind of a lot to be upset about??? And I personally am much more moved by characters honestly experiencing their emotions than by them trying to suppress them. Plus, Gamora has always been more than just a badass, even if she does fulfill my criteria. The stoicism category is the most interesting in this case, because it is the one that sees the most over the course of the three MCU movies Gamora has been in. One of my favorite moments in Infinity War is the introduction of the Guardians, when Gamora is lip syncing to Quill’s music. She never would have done that in the first movie. She doesn’t have to hide what she’s feeling, positive or negative, anymore, so when the moment calls for some raw emotion — as several moments in IW do — she is at least able to express it.

Of course, there are many conversations and probably an academic monograph to be had about agency in the MCU, but my specific point here is that I don’t think that agency and emotionality need to be inversely proportional. Of course, when we’re talking about female characters, there may well be concerns with the former, but that doesn’t mean that writers should eschew the latter to make up for that. Female characters also seem to be the first to come under fire for perceived emotional weakness, as well. I understand that some of the criticism comes from, you know, centuries of women being perceived as “the weaker sex,” and consequently centuries of female characters genuinely displaying less emotional fortitude than their male counterparts. As a woman myself, though, my argument with this paradigm is not that women actually don’t have intense emotions; instead, I’d argue that having intense emotions is HUMAN, you can be emotional and resilient at the same time, and maybe more dudes should try admitting to the presence of a feeling other than anger once in a while. I mean, I’ve seen people criticize Hermione Granger for crying too much in Harry Potter — again, there are conversations to be had about her arc versus the male characters’, BUT MY GOD, do you know how much on-page crying there would be if someone documented my ages 11 through 17?

My philosophical objection to The Badass is probably clear by now. I dislike narratives that punish or dismiss emotion. For male characters, The Badass all too frequently upholds elements of toxic masculinity. For female characters, The Badass can comes across with a kind of not-like-other-girls defensiveness. (I don’t know enough nonbinary characters to make a sweeping generalization about their portrayals vis-a-vis badassery.) But philosophy aside, I artistically object to the category of “badass” simply because it’s boring. It’s flattening. I have characters who don’t take shit, who are varying degrees of stoic, and who are violent, but I wouldn’t call them badasses, because that would paint a picture in people’s mind. If someone describes a character as badass to me, for better or for worse, I feel like I know what to expect. I don’t want people to feel like they know what to expect from my characters at all!

So perhaps, as media consumers and media creators, we can describe the characters we love a little more specifically, paying attention to the times when they surprise us the most. And if something bad happens to them, don’t expect them not to weep. It’s what they do after they weep that matters.

Glory

Almost all the snow in my backyard has melted. We might get more on Monday, but I’m pretending that we won’t. I’m sitting in a quiet yellow room, waiting for life to start blooming again.

I finally managed to see A Wrinkle in Time, and I predictably loved it. It wore its heart right on its fancy, shiny, sparkly sleeve, and it didn’t feel self-conscious about it at all. I respect and admire that about any type of art. I can’t really speak to it as an adaptation, because I don’t quite remember the book well enough to do so, but as a movie for children and people who are not afraid of Big Feelings, I found it very successful.

Blooming is, I think, a good word for A Wrinkle in Time. Colors open up and spill out across the screen, music crescendos, hope turns its face towards the sun. Or, you know, towards Oprah. Though my dear Claire wondered if she would feel, as she perfectly and delightfully put it, Oprah-whelmed by Mrs. Which, we both agreed that all of the gloriously decked out celestial guides were perfect for both Meg and the viewers. Mrs. Which especially isso gentle in her power. Gentleness is an awfully underrated quality. It provides rich soil for seeds of hope to hide in when they’re not quite ready to grow.

Meg herself is not quite ready to grow for much of the movie. This movie is not remotely subtle, but Storm Reid’s acting is. Even though a lot of emotions wind up baldly (and I’ll admit occasionally jarringly) stated in the dialogue, Ms. Reid conveys a whole host of unsaid things, as well. She conveys Meg’s sense of isolation, of smallness, within the tension in her shoulders and the slight frown on her face. Meg, of course, is not small, but fear is a diminishing state, and Meg has existed in that state for a long time. She fears that she is unworthy and unlovable, and so she doesn’t look up or out, in case she finds evidence that she is right.

But her story makes her look up and look out and look within. In all directions, she sees the universe, and that universe, the movie insists, is glorious. The universe doesn’t care if you think it’s too sentimental or showy in its beauty. The splendor of existence won’t mind if you think it’s a try-hard. It will be as vast and spectacular as it naturally is, and it will make room for even the smallest, most frightened girl to be vast and spectacular, too. Because she is. Because she always was.

It’s spring, and there may be more snow coming, but it’s time to bloom anyway — gentle and powerful, hopeful and huge.

Not Too Much To Ask; Or, Kathleen Will Never Shut Up About Les Mis

I did not actually have any ideas for this month’s blog, so Anna suggested I write about my ideas for how I would do a Les Mis miniseries, because she has known me for 900 years and has spent 850 of them listening to me talk about Les Mis. For those of you about to check out of this post, I beg you to bear with me! Talking about Les Mis is also talking about LIFE ITSELF, so if you’re on this blog, you apparently have at least a passing interest in my thoughts on that topic. For those of you who are unfamiliar with my lifelong love affair with this story, here are the main points you need to know:

  • I saw the musical when I was 10 and understood most of it, immediately started reading the book and understood very little of it, put it aside until I was 12, still understood not a lot, but finished it and loved it anyway. I’ve read it a bunch of times since then (well, not the Waterloo tangent). My first copy literally ripped in half. I care about precisely three (3) 19th century novels, and somehow this 1400 page Romantic monstrosity is one of them.
  • Also the musical is just my whole life. I memorized the soundtrack immediately, and then my mom had to explain way more than she had intended because she had to beg me to please not sing certain lyrics in public. This was, you’ll note, entirely her fault for taking me to see it, even though somehow MPAA ratings were Law in our household. (Uh, except when I semi-conned her into letting me see Trainspotting when I was a freshman in high school.) (In hindsight, my bad.) (Look, I was really into Ewan McGregor.)
  • It is a scientific fact that, compositionally, I am 87% Les Mis opinions by volume.
  • A new BBC miniseries is being made! http://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/latestnews/2018/les-miserables-casting

So obviously, in the background of my mind at any given time until this miniseries happens, I am running through all my hopes and dreams for this adaptation. My mom asked me who I would watch it with, and I answered, “I don’t think anyone would want to do that.” I’m an adaptation grinch by nature, but I also saw the musical movie three times in theaters (I know), so what I’m saying is that if anyone does wind up watching this miniseries with me, they should know they’re going to be in for six hours of alternating crying and yelling.

I am trying not to have preemptive opinions about the miniseries, though I do wish Davies would stop talking smack about the musical. Like, bro, I get that it’s probably annoying that people keep asking you about a different adaptation, but surely you realize that a bunch of people who care about the book got there by way of the musical, so perhaps cool it with the “shoddy farrago” remarks. But based on the cast members whose work I’m familiar with, I’m optimistic about the performances. (I am obviously obsessively checking IMDB until the full cast is on there. They have a Favourite now! That’s neat. She definitely doesn’t get to be in a whole lot of adaptations. But also where is my favorite?? RELEASE THE FULL LIST.)

But while I may not have preemptive opinions, I sure do have a wish list. Obviously, a significant part of this list is just all my favorite scenes, word for word (surely not much to ask in … six hours. Hmm.)(But listen, I’ll forgive almost anything for a phenomenal Orestes Fasting and Pylades Drunk) (RELEASE THE FULL CAAAAAAST LIIIIIST). I also have some big ticket items, as well, which are as follows:

  • First and foremost, please do not make this a Dark Muddy Colored Period Piece Of Sadness. I mean, it is a period piece of sadness — consider the title — but it’s also Romantic. Hugo went hard for symbolic light motifs, and the miniseries should, too. (Dare I mention the musical? Because, listen, nothing guts me quite like the Bright White Spotlight Of Sanctified Death. Take notes, Davies.) I want alllll kinds of light in this thing. Bright light, soft light, golden light, light like halos around specific characters’ heads at the appropriate moments, light seeming to emanate from their very faces. Don’t feel the need to be subtle; Hugo sure didn’t.
    • To whit: “God is behind everything, but everything hides God. Things are black, creatures are opaque. To love a human being is to make her transparent.”
    • And: “Brothers, whoever dies here dies in the radiance of the future, and we are entering a grave illuminated by the dawn.”
  • This probably seems contradictory following Intense Light Symbolism, but I also want the miniseries to be super relatable. Like, sure, everyone’s kinda Jesus, but also they’re people living their lives that they would prefer (but generally don’t get to) keep living. I’m going to need the props and set design to provide tomes of information about everyone, especially if we see them in intimate spaces. The progression of Fantine’s rooms as they slowly shed belongings should be devastating. What small, pretty things will disappear first? Will they look like the small, pretty things that Cosette later places in her room? (They should.) I want to see characters pause mid-sentence to smile at a cat that walks by. I want to see them yawn at nighttime and catch glasses that they’ve upset right before they spill. I want nervous tics and “you weirdo” looks and startled smiles.
    • So putting those two thoughts together, I want the viewer to be able to look at any given character and have a moment where they say, “Same.” And then when that character has a moment of being kinda Jesus, the viewer can then think, “Wait, so then am kinda Jesus?”
      • Yes.
  • I’m going to need this miniseries to be overtly, inescapably, relevantly political. Quoth Hugo, from the introductory note of his own damn book: “so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, there should be need for books such as this.” There’s, um, kind of a lot of that going around. I do not want anyone to be able to walk away from this miniseries and think, “Gosh, things sure were rough in 19th century France,” and have that be the end of it.
    • This is one of my issues with the movie musical, actually. The musical itself can fluctuate in how confrontational it is about its politics depending on the production, and the movie version sadly dialed it down with certain choices. Example lyric change: “And the winter is coming on fast, ready to kill” became “And the plague is coming on fast, ready to kill.” Plague theoretically could kill anyone. Winter only kills the poor.
    • Listen: one of the most important and least comfortable thesis statements of this book is that injustice on a systemic level precludes morality on a personal level. Jean Valjean must break his parole to be a better person. He can’t follow the law, because the law won’t let him be a good person under the ridiculous restrictions of his parole. He also needs cash dollars. Or, you know, semi-stolen silver. (Another infuriating lyric change from the movie musical: there, the bishop says “I have saved your soul for God” instead of “I have bought your soul for God.” No! It’s bought! It has to be bought, because his soul can’t be saved without the material means the bishop provides. That shouldn’t be true! But it is.)
      • Basically, you don’t get to care about JVJ and be okay with literally anything about our judicial system. Sorry, I don’t make the rules. I want this miniseries to make you ask, “Wait, would it be easier for released convicts to live moral lives if they break their own paroles and assume new identities, too?” And then I want it to answer, “Yep.” And then, “Do something about it.”
        • Also: Do something about how women like Fantine are chewed up and spit out, because she’s definitely kinda Jesus, didn’t you see her symbolic halo? Do something for the girls like Eponine. They’re still here; they’re called trashy. But she hums when she looks in the mirror, and so do you, and so do they. Do something for the protesters, the revolutionaries. Not just the calm ones. The desperate, furious ones. They’re illuminated by the dawn.

So that’s what I need: big soul, big themes, small dear fragile human people. Transcendent beauty, fury, and love. Time and space collapsed, no distance at all between characters and audience. But really, isn’t that what I want of all fiction, all the time? It’s certainly what I try to do, even though my fantasy stories for kids and teenagers are, to put it lightly, pretty damn different from the Brick. But scratch the surface, and it becomes obvious that I imprinted on Les Mis as an earnest preteen duckling. As I always do when I read the book or watch and listen to the musical, I want my readers to think:

They’re just like me.

They’re holy.

I’m holy.

I will help all the holy people. I will make them transparent.

 

Born to Study

The first time I wrote a paper for fun, I was in eighth grade. Actually, I wrote three. They were “character analysis” essays that I wrote to share with one of my friends, who had read the existing Harry Potter books on my request (by request, read “incessant badgering”) and found, to my delight, that she loved them as much as I did. I’m pretty sure I have the very first one I wrote (“Ron Ponderings”) in my bin of weird-mementos-I-should-probably-throw-away-but-won’t. Everything that I can remember about it fills me with the indulgent fondness with which I believe we should all regard our past selves. I remember my rush of excitement as I began to type out my thoughts into a daringly iconoclastic form (i.e., not a five-paragraph essay). All of the things I did in school were things I could do on my own, except about things I liked.

Two years later, an English teacher irritated me by making disparaging comments about both children’s lit and fantasy. (Side note: did anyone else run into this attitude in high school? I could never understand why someone would want to teach teenagers yet hold such contempt for the things they liked to read.) So when the opportunity for an extra credit assignment came up, I did the only logical thing and wrote nine essays. Three were about Lord of the Rings, three about the Prydain Chronicles, and three again about Harry Potter. My intended point was that children’s literature and fantasy had just as much depth as ~classics, because I have never changed even once in my entire life. I’m 99% sure that this teacher didn’t read a single word of the essays, but he did give his unbearable student the extra credit.

To me, creative and academic thought are the intertwined trunks of a beautiful old tree. When I am sad and weary, I can wedge myself between them and take shelter in the hollow space within, taking shelter as I make sense of the world once more through stories and theories. When I am excited and sure of myself, I can climb to the highest branches, supported by the words and ideas of those who came before me. At those times, I am sure that I, too, can make this tree grow.

All of this is to say that I’m pretty damn sure I made a good decision when I applied for PhD programs. And I am so happy and grateful and excited to say that the work I put into getting to this point has paid off: in the fall, I will begin pursuing my doctorate in Childhood Studies at Rutgers University.

You better believe that some jumping up and down and screaming greeted that email.

Meanwhile, my first published paper is due to appear very soon in University of Toronto Quarterly’s special edition on monster studies. (I signed my author agreement and everything! There’s an introduction that refers to “Kellett’s argument”!) I’ll also be presenting at this year’s International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts and Children’s Literature Association conference (about Orphan Black and Six of Crows, respectively — still writing about things I like!). I’m 100% convinced that every paper I write and class I take makes my novels stronger, and that they in turn sharpen my academic analyses.

So the best future I can imagine for myself is to never, ever stop doing either.

 

A Misbegotten New Year

It’s New Year’s Eve! I don’t have a thing that I want to say about 2017 other than, perhaps, “don’t let the door hit you on the way out,” so for my twelfth and final blog post of the year (resolution achieved!), I wrote a little scene for my dear friends who know the characters of MISBEGOTTEN CREATURES. If you don’t know these characters, I hope you likethe scene as well, though it’ll likely be a bit confusing, just because I didn’t want to spoil many details from the book. This is a little prequel scene from around eight or nine months before the story starts, actually, and the protagonist of MC isn’t actually in it (sorry, Millie). Instead, it’s told from the POV of Rosie, by special request (which delights me for a number of reasons, not least of all because Rosie is ridiculously fun to write). This got longer than I intended, just like the last post of 2016, which was a vignette about characters from THE CHILDREN’S WAR. So like that, I’m going to put this behind a cut. If you decide to read, I hope you enjoy it! Maybe I’ll make this a New Year’s Eve tradition!

Happy New Year, everyone! I hope you all take 2018 by storm.

Continue reading A Misbegotten New Year

What in me is dark illumine

Alas, I missed my self-imposed monthly blogging deadline again! In my slight defense, I currently work from home and have completely lost track of the date? Also, it is December, a time for abandoning last year’s New Year’s resolutions and wallowing in seasonal blah. At least for me, anyway. I’m always at my lowest ebb of energy and creativity at this time of the year, which never fails to be frustrating. But instead of despondently flailing around about it (I’ve done enough of that already), I’m going to devote this belated blog post to ten things I found inspiring in 2017. I may not be happy with the quality or volume of work I’m currently producing, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be once the days start getting longer again and my brain remembers that it is not, in fact, a hibernating frog. In the meantime, I’ll use this list to help fuel the little flame I’ve still got burning against the dark.

The Six of Crows duology by Leigh Bardugo: I’m going in relative chronological order of things I experienced this year, and I received the first one of these last Christmas. Not only were they fast-paced and fun (heists! schemes!), they were also a master class in multiple POVs and un-self-aware characters, which are highly relevant to my interests. I love characters who get in their own way, especially when they do so without even realizing it. That’s not always the easiest thing to write, though! In order for the reader to understand more about the character than the actual character does, you have to walk a very fine tightrope (which, incidentally, one of the characters in these books can literally do) of revealing and withholding emotional information. Leigh Bardugo does so beautifully, and I’ll definitely be returning to those books when I need my own characters to be complete human disasters (so, like, 90% of the time).

The International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts: I attended this conference for the first time in March. There, I made the decision to apply to PhD programs. Though I won’t find out the results of that decision for a few months yet, I clearly can’t deny that the conference itself falls under the heading of “inspiring”! I loved being surrounded by enthusiastic scholarly types so much that I finally realized that I always want to be surrounded by enthusiastic scholarly types. I only spent, like, 35% of the time as a complete nervous wreck (as opposed to my usual conference rate of around 85%), because everyone I met was so encouraging and friendly. I’m super excited to be going back again in March, particularly because the theme is Frankenstein Bicentennial and I’m going to be presenting a paper about Orphan Black. Speaking of which . . .

Orphan Black, created by Graeme Manson and John Fawcett: This series ended earlier this year, and I literally wept tears of joy during the finale. I don’t think I’ve actually ever done that because of a piece of fiction? I’ve certainly cried because of fiction many, many times, but usually because a character just died or something, not because I was just so damn overwhelmed by the love shared by everyone. I don’t know about any of you, but in 2017, I really needed a triumphant conclusion to the story of a bunch of difficult, fumbling, wronged, brilliant women who love each other and therefore themselves, and Orphan Black thankfully delivered. Also, at this point it surely goes without saying, but if you enjoy the art of acting even a tiny bit, you will love Tatiana Maslany and despair.

Steven Universe, created by Rebecca Sugar: This inspiration was scattered throughout the year due to this show’s nonsense schedule, but my god am I blown away every time Cartoon Network deigns to drop another Steven bomb. This show inspires me not only as a writer but also as a person. I want to approach grief, loneliness, and fear with as much grace, compassion, and gentle good humor as Rebecca Sugar’s extraordinary story does, both in my art and in my life.

Thick as Thieves by Megan Whalen Turner: This book (and the Queen’s Thief series in general) is such a ridiculous technical achievement in point of view, world building, and never wasting a single solitary word. How?? How does she do this?? Well, part of the answer to that question is that she takes a really long time, because I waited seven years for this book, but it was so worth it. When I’m revising, I honestly should just line these books up in front of me, but then I might feel too Judged, because they really are almost supernaturally well crafted. Also, I have never been quite as personally called out by a book as I was when the narrator sheepishly admits how much he dislikes being “unappreciated” for his intellectual interests and talents. I MEAN. Seriously, Megan Whalen Turner, what did I ever do to you to warrant this attack?

My students: I taught so many great kids this year, and I am so grateful for the privilege. Highlights included sharing good-natured jokes about the absurdities of grammar with a student who struggled with the material but tried extremely hard, reading 1400 words (!) about hyenas from an 8-year-old, reading two genuinely excellent ghost stories from students of the same age, and listening to an earnest high school student yearn for tickets to Book Con for her birthday. Developing my love of teaching over the past year has made the pieces of my life feel like they are finally fitting together.

Jane Unlimited by Kristin Cashore: This is another book that blew my mind with the intricacy of its plotting. Each part of this book was so richly detailed, and I don’t know a whole lot of authors who can play with like five genres at once. Also, I was delighted to recognize a setting stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum, which was next door to the grad school that the author and I both attended. (I wrote a large portion of my Master’s thesis in that museum!) This book just felt like such a labor of love, and it reminded me of a time when I was engaged in a bunch of labors of love, so it was just an all-around wonderful reading experience.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, created by Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna: This show is so smart and funny and genuinely ground-breaking. I currently have one of its songs stuck in my head. It can be difficult to allow characters to make huge mistakes and hurt people while still keeping the audience understanding and rooting for them, but this show manages to do so by maintaining such a deep well of compassion for its characters (particularly its protagonist) even (or especially) at their lowest moments. Meanwhile, it also has club songs about going to the zoo, Fosse-esque stripteases with embedded Harry Potter references about being morally unscrupulous, and big Broadway “I Want” songs about mental health diagnoses. If I ever find myself wondering “is this too weird too pull off” in a story, I’ll definitely turn to this show for inspiration to just go for it.

The Shape of Water by Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor: I saw this last week and loved it desperately. Monster love stories are the best/only love stories. Aside from just deriving inspiration from all monsters all the time, I also felt very trusted as an audience member when watching this movie. It knew I would follow where it was going, and it didn’t need to drag me there. I kind of love a story that just says, “Listen, you’re either all in or not, it’s up to you.” There’s no need to convince people to love your monsters; they either will or won’t, and if they won’t, who needs ’em? 

Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Manhattan: I visited this church for the first time last week, and I fell completely in love. It was an explicitly American cathedral (and as such, it had chapels dedicated to immigrant groups and a sign outside welcoming all regardless of documentation), and I completely connected with the intermingled artistic styles, old and new, built right into the rising, arching bones of the sprawling building. There were small things there, too: someone had left the tiniest pink flowers on many of the chapel altars, and they were as beautiful to me as the stained glass. My visit reminded me that so many of the people who share my country are striving to live out grand and sweeping ideals in a million quiet little ways. The people who want to create beauty may not always be as powerful as the ones who only want to create their own wealth or wars, but we’ll always outnumber them.

A Halloween Self-Devotional

Tonight is Halloween. Tonight is a night for adorable pictures on social media of kids and animals in costumes, a night for candy and creepypasta and Jack-o-lantern printed socks. Tonight, I am trying not to think about the mountain of work I need to get done tomorrow or about the still-woeful state of my statement of purpose drafts. Tonight, I wish I could ignore the terrible things happening in the world, but I can’t really, because real-life terrible doesn’t move out of the way for the fun terror of Halloween. But that doesn’t mean there’s no room for fun or for proper Halloween-ing. So I want to urge everyone to make room in yourselves for a little monstrosity tonight.

Right now, I am many things. I am a woman who just got an IUD and is sitting encircled in heating pads and counting the minutes until my next dose of Advil. I am kind of tired and worried and frustrated about being so tired and worried and frustrated all the time. I think I could be doing better at this whole adult thing a lot of the time, but I made a nice new recipe yesterday and I’m having friends over on the weekend and I’ve realized I no longer get nervous before doctor’s appointments (unless they’re going to involve getting blood drawn, but listen). Small things. Mundane things. Person things, sad and happy.

But here is another thing that I am, though sometimes I forget.

I am a creator and container of monsters, and that means I am not small at all. They hide and fight and sleep within me. My bones are the columns and ribs of a long-forgotten cathedral, built as a prayer and fallen into glorious ruin. My muscles and sinews are the moss and weeds and pushy trees bursting through the open ceiling. Leaves and flowers stained glass skin, cracked baptismal font rain tears. Angry resting praying howling monsters heart. They are safe within me, and they keep me safe.

Big things. Bright things. Monster things, sad and happy.

As you’re drifting off to sleep, I hope you think about what makes you feel huge and dangerous and astonishing. Boundaries are permeable on Halloween, so take advantage of that. Push out and out until you fill all the spaces of yourself, and smile with sharp teeth and proud eyes at everything you see within.

A Plea for Pain

A few months ago, I blogged about writing villains in the age of Trump. Since then, the villainy has only gotten worse. One of the things many people warned about in the days after the election was desensitization. Nothing Trump does or says is “normal,” but it would begin to seem that way if we weren’t careful. It was important to maintain the ability to be shocked.

I have worried a bit over the past few months that my own shock capability was diminishing. Scandals and outrages happen so fast these days that it would be more surprising if there weren’t one for a week. But, no, turns out I can still be shocked when the president says things like this:

These statements are breathtakingly cruel. They are also clearly and profoundly racist. Of course I don’t expect anything other than racism from the man who defended white supremacists and attacked those who protested against them, so that isn’t necessarily the part that shocks me. But to level that racism and vitriol against people who are trapped and thirsty and hungry and in such terrible danger? That is still shocking.

Before I close this post out with a bunch of links, I want to say this: if the president insinuating that hurricane victims are lazy and entitled doesn’t cost him all of your support, favor, or even benefit of the doubt, you’re doing damage to your soul. Interpret that according to your own religious or secular beliefs; I don’t care. But no matter what you believe in, if reading those tweets doesn’t hurt you, then you have built up some kind of callus around the most human part of you. That thick, hard, unyielding tissue is probably made of racism, in this case. It may also be made of misogyny or homophobia or transphobia or ableism or just plain greed. Rip it off. It will hurt, but it’s supposed to. These things have to hurt. Otherwise, you’re just hurting others.

And I mean that: support for Trump is harmful. It is bad. “Kathleen, do you think people who disagree with you politically are bad?” As a polite white American, my answer is supposed to be no. I don’t care. “They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort,” the president said about dying people. If you support him, you are doing bad things. You are hurting people. You don’t have to be a bad person, but the only way to avoid that is to stop, apologize, and atone.

Here are some ways to do that:

Unidos por Puerto Rico: http://unidosporpuertorico.com/en/

Americares: https://secure.americares.org/site/Donation2?df_id=22510&mfc_pref=T&22510.donation=form1

International Medical Corps: https://internationalmedicalcorps.org/

The Sato Project: https://www.thesatoproject.org/hurricane

UNICEF: https://www.unicefusa.org/donate/support-unicef-usas-hurricane-relief-efforts-puerto-rico/32952

Hispanic Federation: https://hispanicfederation.org/donate

I am so intensely broke right now, so I can’t contribute to all of these places, but I did a tiny bit, and hopefully everyone can do their tiny bit. Also: keep up the pressure on the people who can do more than a tiny bit. CALL YOUR REPS.

These links are mostly Puerto Rico related, but don’t forget that the U.S. Virgin Islands also need help, as do the communities in Texas and Florida that were impacted by Harvey and Irma. I mean, as do Sandy victims, still. Disaster recovery is a long road.  I worked with the organization SBP for 10 months, and I’d encourage you to share their resource package far and wide. There’s some really good information in there, especially about contractor fraud. That particular cruelty was the most shocking part of working in disaster recovery for me; some people who only care about themselves become contractors, and some become presidents, I guess. But I refuse, I refuse, I refuse to believe that’s most people. So stay shocked, and stay sad, and for the love of all things holy, stay compassionate. Remember that “bleeding heart” is not an insult. It’s a moral responsibility, and it’s the only way I know how to understand the word “salvation.” You can’t save anyone — including yourself — if you can’t feel the pain of those who need saving.

Notebooks

So it’s … not August. There goes that particular New Year’s resolution. Most of them took less time for me to break, though, so I still choose to be impressed with myself. (So there.) Also, I was studying for the GRE, so there was that.

(For those of you who may be wondering, yes, I have already gone to grad school, but I never had to take the GRE, so I had to take it to go on back. Which made me feel some kind of way, as I’m sure you can imagine. But the multiple choice part went well, and hopefully the essays did, too!)

Anyway, while I was camped out at my parents’ house studying, my parents were going through old stuff in their basement. Though my apartment is pleasantly airy, I have approximately two centimeters of storage space here, so a lot of my old stuff is still living there. They asked me to go through some of it to see if anything could be donated to the upcoming VNA sale. (Hometown shout out — I remember when people used to cut class to go to opening day of the VNA sale. Honestly, some of the teachers didn’t even mind. Even more of the teachers didn’t mind if students cut class for the soccer team’s empanada sales, as long as they brought some back to share.) Whether or not any VNA customers will want a bunch of DVD box sets for TV shows I don’t care about anymore or the entire CD collection of a teenager circa 2004 is an entirely different question, but they’re there now if anyone does.

What I didn’t get rid of were my boxes of first draft notebooks. Pretty much the entirety of THE CHILDREN WAR’s first draft was written longhand, and that first draft was long. It was also remarkably bad. I’d like to say that’s because I’d never written a novel before, but honestly I’m not sure if my first drafts have actually gotten any better since then. So I have no intention of actually reading these notebooks, but I also don’t want to throw them out. How delightful was it to flip through and spot bygone characters (some of whom I’d completely forgotten existed) and old spellings? How great was it to see my old writing exercises exploring my characters’ pasts? I will never probably never again write anything at such a leisurely pace and with such a tolerance for pure self-indulgence. That’s not to say that I didn’t take it seriously; I definitely did. But I knew that I was traveling without a map, and the best way to do that is to investigate every walkway, no matter how seemingly unimportant.

Much of the first draft of MISBEGOTTEN CREATURES was represented in the notebooks, as well. I didn’t write all of that longhand, mostly because I had actual grad school deadlines to meet with it. But I remember taking a notebook down to the Charles River and glaring at the geese as I tried to figure out how to make that story work. (I didn’t figure that out for a few more years.) The margins are crowded with notes to myself that seemed important at the time but generally weren’t. Some more beloved cut characters live in those pages. Maybe they’ll find new life in a future project, or maybe they only existed to teach me things about the characters who did make the final cut.

To my mom’s delight, I found some ancient Judas story pages (EVENTUALLY, MOM). There was even some old work on middle-grade story; I sometimes forget that this is by no means a new project. In fact, I workshopped my first outing with my main character in undergrad. I spent a semester working with the story in grad school, but then werewolf story came along and took over for the next couple years. I was actually annoyed about it at the time. I wanted to keep working on middle-grade story, but the requirements of the program wouldn’t allow it. Obviously, I’m happy with the way things worked out now. Werewolf story was a book that I needed to write at the time in my life when I wrote it, and I’m very proud of the way it turned out.

I’m glad I saw those old notebooks again, because they reminded me of a few things. First of all, they reminded me to write longhand when I get stuck. Why on earth have I not been doing this with middle-grade story lately?? I focus better writing longhand, partially because I don’t have to use the old distraction box (a.k.a. my laptop) to do it, and possibly also because my thoughts and my writing are more evenly paced than my thoughts and my typing. (That was a humblebrag about how fast I type, or possibly how slow I think? I’m not sure I humblebragged right.) Also, seeing words and worlds spilling across a page in my own handwriting pleases me.

That was another thing that the notebooks reminded me to do: enjoy the ride. Every word of those notebooks was written with love, even when I felt like throwing said notebooks into the river with the geese. Having a physical reminder of the joy of writing was something I needed right now. It’s been a weird … three years … personally and professionally, not to mention politically. Honestly, it’s been getting to me. I’ve spent most of this summer exhausted, castigating myself for self-perceived laziness that I know I don’t actually possess. I’ve had a lot to do and not a lot of time to do it. Not always a great combination.

But I’m doing it. Slowly and without a lot of tangible outcomes, but still. I’m constantly engaged in labors of love, just as I have been since the first time I touched pen to paper. I’m not saying those notebooks completely cured me of every envy or frustration or anxious negativity of 2017, but they were a balm to my striving soul. Hey, you make up people and places and turn them into language, they said to me. That’s cool and weird. Keep doing it. Have fun.

So that’s what I’m doing.