Category Archives: Uncategorized

We’re Gonna Sing It Again

So I rounded out the summer by having a full on religious experience in a theater.

In other words, I saw Hadestown with my family a week and a half ago, and it was incredible. I loved it; I ugly-cried. When I was younger, I cried all the time at media, but now it takes more to really set me off. This show tore down any and all defenses I have. It destroyed me, in the best possible way.

For those of you who don’t know, Hadestown is a bluesy musical retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Written by Anaïs Mitchell, it has an arresting Depression-esque aesthetic and a cast that may actually be made up of demigods. (Seriously, click that link. And then also click this one, because the first one doesn’t have Patrick Page as Hades in it and you need to experience his voice.) They really were all incredible, but for me, Amber Gray as Persephone was a standout. In one number, she bends 90 degrees at the waist as she stomp-dances, which was both wildly impressive and deeply visually distressing (as was appropriate, in context). The staging and design breathtaking, as well; I never knew I could get so emotional over factory light choreography.

But I’ve seen plenty of shows with great acting and music and visual storytelling. I’ve loved plenty of shows with those ingredients, ever since my musical-loving parents started toting their kids along to nights in the city. (I’ve even seen some shows that had slightly tighter pacing than Hadestown, if I were to be incredibly nitpicky.) Yet precious few would prompt me to begin a blog by facetiously-but-not-really claiming a RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE. So what was different about Hadestown?

I realize that not everyone is my specific type of nerd and therefore didn’t go through a big old mythology phase circa age 11, but I’m not spoiling the millennia-old story by telling you it’s a tragedy (especially since the first song of Hadestown tells you, too). I didn’t ugly-cry because I wasn’t expecting the ending. The way they told the story — that’s what was so meaningful to me. Mitchell’s magnum opus has been in the works for well over a decade now (it’s original incarnation was a concept album), but it could not have felt more timely. It reworks the ancient themes to comment on the destructiveness of capitalism (including allusions to climate change), the desperation of poverty, and the deep uncertainty that the future holds in dark times. It doesn’t pretend that everything will always be all right. How could it? After all, “it’s a sad tale; it’s a tragedy.”

But.

All right, here’s where I talk about the last two songs, which cut me open and held my heart in their beautiful terrible hands. If you want to listen to the album or see the show for yourself without hearing me talk about the ending, this is your warning.

So what is the point of art in such hard times? When even the most beautiful songs can’t guarantee a happy ending? What is the point of love, even, when it can’t do the same? There’s nothing and no one that can fully protect us from failing, from losing, from dying. From breaking our hearts.

But we haven’t stopped creating and appreciating art, have we? Even when it hasn’t saved us. We still turn to the Muses, after all these years and years and years. Love still needs its expression, and for so many of us, that’s art. Because we haven’t stopped loving, either! Even when it hasn’t saved us.

From the penultimate song:

It’s a love song
It’s a tale of love from long ago
It’s a sad song
We keep singing even so

Listen, I’m a person who got “with nothing on my tongue but hallelujah” tattooed on my body. Of course, of course, of course, this all matters. It doesn’t have to save us to matter. That was never why it mattered in the first place.

After the curtain call, the once embittered, now tentatively vulnerable Persephone leads us in a toast. Eurydice joins her.

Some birds sing when the sun shines bright
Our praise is not for them
But the ones who sing in the dead of night
We raise our cups to them

So let’s all be worthy of Persephone’s toast, yes? Let’s sing the songs.

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A Breath

Not a lot of people read this blog. Transparently speaking, it more or less exists to prove to any publishing professionals who might go looking someday that I’m a real person who thinks seriously about this whole storytelling thing. It’s also often fun to blather about whatever’s on my mind that month to the handful of friends and family who do check in. Every few months, I get an email notification that a stranger liked a post, which is neat. But for the most part, I’m writing into a sparsely populated void.

Sometimes this frustrates me. I have a lot of opinions and ideas that I want to share more widely. I think about what I could do for the causes I care about if more people followed my Twitter or whatever. Unfortunately, I both am bad at and generally dislike using social media most of the time, so I don’t feel a whole lot of incentive to invest my time in getting better at it, aside from the vague guilt that tells me I should be Doing More. But I think my efforts are probably a bit better spent on my creative and academic work, which hopefully one day will help some people in some small way. Meanwhile, I just continue to support organizations that have a much larger reach than I do.

All of this is to say that I’m resisting the urge to talk about the Week this country has had (in a long string of Weeks), because I don’t have anyone but a choir to preach to. I haven’t really been in the mood to talk about my writing or write a review or do other standard blog fare, though. So instead, for my over-a-week-late July post, I’m going to make a list of little anecdotes or things I like about my family. I’m just going to write them as they come to me. For the few people who read this, I hope they make you happy and make you think about the things you appreciate about your own loved ones. If you want to share any of your own favorite things about people with me, I’d love that.

This can just be a breath, shared among a small handful of people. I kind of need to take a breath.

  • My mother’s mother always sounds startled when she laughs, like even at nearly 92, each moment of amusement is still a delightful surprise.
  • When I was maybe around eight-ish, I was at my paternal grandparents’ house with my sister while my parents were at a wedding. We played Go Fish with this large children’s deck of cards with actual cartoon fish on them instead of suits and numbers. I can perfectly picture the goldfish in particular, but I can’t remember anything about the conversation the four of us had. All I remember is the feeling that I was starting to experience my grandparents not just as beloved relatives to a little kid, but as their own people to whom I could be a friend as well as a granddaughter. I can recall a shared sly sense of humor even though I don’t remember any of the comments or jokes that were made. I don’t think you always notice when relationships begin to evolve, but I did that day. My grandpa died when I was nine, and my grandma when I was ten. Both times I remembered the game of Go Fish and was so grateful for it.
  • Three years ago, my great-aunt left me a birthday voicemail that begins with, in a very high pitch and a very strong Staten Island accent, “HAPPY BIRTHDAY, KATHALEENIE. If you keep having birthdays, you’re going to be as old as me! ….This is Aunt Cathy.” AS THOUGH THERE WERE ANY DOUBT. I had to turn my face to the wall at work so no one would notice I was laughing.
  • My uncle has a pigeon coop. One year, I was at their house when a bunch of eggs had just hatched over the previous week. He carefully carried out each hideously ugly chick to show us how to pinpoint newborn pigeon age to the day.
  • When I was a hermit in the woods for six months, my mom came to visit me and took me to the movies. There was nothing that I wanted to see except for Jupiter Ascending, which I warned her she wouldn’t like. She saw it with me anyway, and my (completely unironic) delight at lines like “BEES NATURALLY RECOGNIZE ROYALTY” was increased tenfold at the utter bafflement on my mom’s face.
  • My sister and I used to divvy up parts of songs from musicals to sing together in the car or just upstairs in the guest room. I generally sang the dude parts because her voice is a thousand times better than mine. I can’t hear a song from Aida or Rent without automatically assuming the parts I used to take as a kid.
  • Not a dissimilar memory: my sister and I used to lip sync dramatically at each other in the backseat of the car to see who would laugh first. (I generally lost.) I once cried laughing at her pitch-perfect emo face journey at the lines, “I miss your purple haaaair, I miss the way you taaaaaaste” from “Somewhere Out There” by Our Lady Peace. (I just had to Google I miss your purple hair lyrics for that title and band.) Our parents were annoyed because we wouldn’t tell them why we were laughing.
  • My parents also let us listen to NSYNC for an entire car ride to and from New Hampshire, so now I’m thinking I owe them an apology for all the music they endured during our adolescence.
  • know I owe my dad an apology for taking us to see the Pokemon movie, because he never misses an opportunity to remind us that he did that.
  • My dad was a really good middle school softball coach. Parents always joke about the amusement inherent in embarrassing their kids, but I don’t actually ever remember being embarrassed when he was my coach, even though that’s everyone’s automatic assumption when they hear about a parent being involved in your activities in middle school. Everyone whose opinion I actually cared about (which was honestly too broad a category; see again: middle school) liked and respected him, and I knew that was no less than he deserved.
  • My aunt and uncle (the one with the pigeons) are excellent swing dancers.
  • Another aunt collects stuffed animals, which officially made her the coolest adult I knew as a little kid. We had a few parties at her house with all of them, and there’s a home video from one in which my sister and I still have baby New York accents. Also we watched The Sound of Music for the first time at that party, and I was utterly enthralled even though I hadn’t known that movies could actually be so long and I was pretty tired by the end.
  • Even though my sister and I lost our baby New York accents, we still catch each other’s eye every time we hear a Fun Accent Moment, which happens a lot when we’re at family functions, although it also happened when she came to visit me in the Midwest and a waitress offered us saaaalads with the flattest A I’ve ever heard in my life. Now as a speech language pathologist and the first of us to defect to South Jersey, she tutors me in the intricacies of the Philly area accent.
  • Before I moved to Boston to start my Master’s program when I was 22, my family had Chinese food and my fortune cookie said, “The current year will bring you much happiness.” My mom spirited it away, framed it, and presented it to me as a housewarming gift. I’ve lived in a variety of apartments and states since then, and it’s lived in every one.

I’m going to think of a million more, but various errands and responsibilities demand my attention, so I’ll end my post here. If you are one of the few who read this, please comment either here or on my Twitter or Facebook links with Fond Thoughts of your own! We can all use some, I think.

On Such a Timeless Flight

As far as forms of storytelling go, I’m pretty one-note. I’m a novelist. Honestly, I’ve never really tried my hand at anything else. Sure, in college I had to write short stories for workshops, but I mostly cheated and used pieces of longer ideas that I had. Some forms don’t really personally interest me; others have been placed in the “maybe at some point” file; still others fascinate me but seem particularly difficult. I mean, novels are hard and all, but have you ever tried to write a genuinely good picture book? (Not that I’m exactly taking it easy on myself over here. My current project has multiple in-world first-person POVs, plus a couple of other “primary sources” including POETRY, which I don’t even write, with one character compiling and annotating this document. Because I’m a masochist, apparently.)

One form towards which I’ve generally had the attitude of “won’t catch me attempting that” is the biopic. I don’t just think that biopics are difficult; I think they’re inherently impossible. Try as you might, you can’t actually shoehorn a life into two hours, nor can you make it conform to a three-act structure. To quote the inimitable Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, “life doesn’t make narrative sense.” Trying to force it to do so requires lots of cutting and altering, while still trying to maintain an air of realism and historical accuracy. That isn’t even meant as disparaging, because the filmmakers have to cut and alter; otherwise, the movie would be an unwatchable mess. But viewers know that life doesn’t make narrative sense, so the formula of biopics too often seems thin and dishonest. Often you’ll be left with the frustrating thought of I know there was more to it than that, and it was probably more interesting. 

All of that to say, I really liked Rocketman.

I saw it with my mom and sister the other day, and all of us had high opinions of it. My mom mentioned that one of her friends hadn’t realized going in that it’s actually a jukebox musical instead of just a straight biopic. Apparently, her friend hadn’t liked the fantastical and surreal musical numbers, prompting me to ask, “Does she not enjoy FUN?” Which is not to say that all of the songs are fun; some are, while others are heartbreaking. All of them, however, were emotionally overwhelming, totally immersing the viewer in the inner world of Elton John.

As far as I’m concerned, all would-be biopic filmmakers and screenwriters should go and take notes. Rocketman did not try to maintain an air of realism and historical accuracy. Songs were used wherever they’d be most emotionally relevant, with no regard for the actual chronology of Elton John’s catalog. This is obvious from the beginning, as his child self sings The Bitch is Back while his orange-devil-suited older self looks on. There’s no point in asking “is this how it really happened,” because the answer is obviously no. “This is a constructed narrative!” the movie brazenly shouts from the opening frames. That allows the typical anxiously maintained facade of based-on-a-true-story to fall away (indeed, the tagline of the movie is literally “based on a true fantasy”), leaving the screenwriter and director (Lee Hall and Dexter Fletcher, respectively) to focus on emotional as opposed to historical accuracy.

I am all for this style of storytelling about real people. After all, we all construct our lives in various ways. We have our favored anecdotes and the influences we decided in hindsight were formative. We streamline our memories and allow most quieter moments to dissipate, if only because we don’t have room to hold them all. But every person knows their own inner complexity, the desire and passion and ambition and love and disappointment and fear and sheer cussed stubbornness that define us to ourselves. I’m only 30 and have had a far less interesting life than Elton John, and I’d still have a hell of a time putting my whole emotional universe into two hours and deciding which life events were “major” enough to include in the right order and trying to trick an audience into believing that that’s exactly how it all unfolded. Rocketman is still technically a biopic, so it has to do a bit of the picking and choosing, but in dispensing entirely with the pretense of realism, it can focus the vast majority of its energy on Feelings. It wears its bruised heart on its sparkly sleeve. It still can’t put Elton John’s whole universe into two hours, but it can give us an awfully moving glimpse.

In general, I am more and more interested in stories that are unabashedly about Feelings over everything else. For example, after a good long run as a fan of the MCU, I think I’m officially superhero-ed out. Too much Action, too many Twists, not nearly enough time spent on Emotions beyond what the valiant actors managed to wear on their faces. And, I mean, I’m literally a fantasy author, so I can’t exactly dispense with plot — nor would I want to — but I want every detail to be in service of this is how it feels to be human. Biopics, when they creatively bypass the restrictions of its form, can show us this is how it feels to be this human. And though I’m still quite certain that I’d never try to write a biopic myself, I’d certainly go to see more if they can pull this off as gorgeously as Rocketman does.

Things I Never Seem To Learn When Starting A Story

This month’s blog post is in honor of reaching my first do-over of my current project. Now, I have accepted that I’m not a very good outliner. I can’t seem to gauge if a plot will make sense until I try to write it; what may seem logical in bulleted form often turns out to be nightmarish in prose. Plus, I often don’t know what the characters really need until I’ve really gotten to know them, and the best way to do that is also by writing them. Sure, I can fill out all the character questionnaires in the world, but that won’t tell me anything about their actual voices. (I do love a good character questionnaire, though. They’re fun as hell, and they’re the best kind of guilt-free procrastination fodder because they feel semi-productive, even though they’re mostly not for me.) In any case, I love rewriting. Circling closer and closer, draft after draft, to something that feels Right and Good is the best part of the whole process for me.

That means, of course, that first drafts are the worst part. Mostly, I just have to grit my teeth and remind myself that I do actually love writing while I produce garbage sentences and plot holes the size of the Marianas Trench. Moments of delight alleviate the frustration when I learn something important about a character or I happen upon a turn of phrase that works well, but overall it’s a slog. That’s fine. It can’t all be fun, and at least I know that trudging my way through the first bit will bring me to the good stuff eventually.

Still, it would behoove me to learn some things from my past first draft mistakes, if only so I can make different ones. After the first 30K words of this project, it has become clear to me that I should write this down so I can avoid painting myself into these particular corners again:

  • For the love of god, stop placing all of your characters literally miles apart from one another at the beginning of the story. When you do that, you will then spend ALL of your time simply schlepping them from one place to another so they can interact, which eats many, many words without actually moving the plot or being interesting.
    • Seriously, stop doing this. I don’t think you’ve ever not done this on the first go-round. You’re on your fourth novel, Kathleen, get it together.
  • On a somewhat similar note, a decent number of your major players need to know each other before the story starts. They can’t all be brand new acquaintances, or, again, you’re just going to hemorrhage words introducing everyone.
  • LINE. In terms of characterization, sure, complicated and messy is the way to go (only awful babies need apply), but in terms of plot, try to give everyone one main goal at a time. Preferably, several of them should share that goal. Once they get there, then that can give way to the next goal.
    • Like who are you even trying to be over here, George R.R. Martin? No. No, you are not. You respect yourself more than that.
    • With that said, the characters are going to feel weird about their goas, or get distracted from them, or figure out they were wrong. Pay attention when this happens, because that’s what will be important in the subsequent drafts. You know, the ones that are actually good.
      • (Full disclosure, I have an upper limit of how streamlined my plotting ever really gets, and I know that limit sometimes falls short of conventional wisdom. But Fast-Paced Plot is quite a few tiers below Characters Who Feel Real for me as both a writer and a reader, so sometimes detours must be made. Just not quite as many detours as I took in the first 30K of this story, lord help me.)
    • And finally, an evergreen reminder: if you find a character explaining, in great detail, why something makes sense, that means that it doesn’t.
      • Let the finale of the first season of the reboot of The X-Files be your guide. Even the unparalleled menace of the Cigarette Smoking Man couldn’t make his five-minute long monologue about “why this plot twist totally works” anything other than cringeworthy.

So off I go to draft 1.5, with an outline that probably still has tons of nonsense in it, but hopefully not the specific aforementioned nonsense. Wish me luck, friends! Because as irritated as I currently am with this story, I am very excited to get it to the place where other people can read it. It’s about death, the characters are terrors, and there’s gonna be footnotes. Can’t wait to get to the good part.

Gods and Monsters Presentation

Hello, class and also readers of my blog! I am hilariously inept at technology, so this is my convoluted way of supplying a link to my PowerPoint for the class where the narration will still works, because I don’t know how to make presentations in anything other than PowerPoint and, since it’s finals time, didn’t have time to learn. So this is a download link for Dr. Salyer and anyone else who’s interested in hearing me talk about monster teens!

Reclaiming Weaponized Narratives

How To Respect Young Readers And Also Stop Annoying Me: A Field Guide

Dear everyone: stop pitching me your picture book ideas.

The first and frankly best reason for this is that I don’t write picture books! I had to try my hand at it for a workshop in my Master’s program, and while the experiment was kind of fun, the end result was very bad. don’t have any ideas for picture books, and I have no desire to offer my feedback on anyone else’s.

Yet, far too often, when a new acquaintance outside of my writing or academic circles hears that I’m a children’s lit person, I’ll get, “Oh, I’ve always had this idea for a kid’s book …” Cut to some long-winded explanation of a picture book idea, a so-what-do-you-think look, and my awkward excuse of, “So I actually write for adolescents …”

I say “excuse” because I generally use that line to get out of saying what I really think, which is that nine times out of ten, these picture book ideas are very, very bad.

The number of people who have full on drafted a picture book without looking up, like, how many pages a picture book needs to be is genuinely astonishing. (Interestingly, usually they dramatically undershoot it, which makes me want to ask: have you ever held a picture book in your own physical hands? Have you ever read one to an actual human child.) (Also, no, just spreading out the words you have over the appropriate number of pages won’t fix things, because then you’re going to have a nightmare of pacing on your hands.) But, honestly, folks who want to describe your picture books to random children’s lit people you don’t know, please first ask yourself this: do you actually like and respect children at all, or do you just think you have something to teach them?

Listen, writers write because they think they have something worth saying. My own ethics and beliefs are all up in my fiction. I’m not saying you can’t have any kind of message in what you write. But if you’re just thinking about ~imparting your wisdom on young readers (and in this case, very young readers) without also considering what they might find genuinely entertaining, please immediately delete your Word document with the incorrect number of pages and leave the picture books to people who don’t see kids as empty vessels waiting to be filled up with morality tales. In fact, anyone who starts sentences with “kids don’t know …” or “kids don’t understand …” should step away from children’s media entirely.

With all of that said, I think pretty much anyone who gives me their boring pitch about, like, sharing or whatever is no longer in any danger of receiving the Worst Idea Award. That trophy has been (hopefully permanently) handed to a recent Unfortunate First Date. I have been on many Unfortunate First Dates (someone save me), but usually they’re unfortunate in just a tedious, no connection sort of way. This one, at least, was unfortunate in a way that entertained me at the UFD’s expense.

(It’s possible that I’m getting meaner now that I’m 30? Eh, hopefully that’ll appeal to someone along the way.)

The conversation went more or less as follows:

UFD: There’s actually a series of picture books that I’ve always wanted to write, but I’m not really much of a writer …

Me: (rictus grin) Oh?

UFD: Yeah, they would be “project management for kids.”

Me: (laughing, because surely this is a weird joke that I don’t yet get) What?

UFD: Like using the skills of project management to make playtime more effective. (NB: “make playtime more effective” is verbatim from this actual human man’s mouth. I couldn’t make that up.)

Me: (still laughing) What?

UFD: (blinks)

Me: (realizes that he is, in fact, not joking)

At this point, I made a few decisions very quickly. One: there wasn’t gonna be a second date. Two: there was no way out of the sitcom-level “laughed until I realized you were serious” mess that just happened, so I might as well just lean into the moment and continue laughing. Three: this fellow needed to know this was not a good idea. Not that something like this is in any danger of getting published — at least, I sure hope not — but just, like, on behalf of children everywhere, he needed to know.

Me: What age is your audience for this??

UFD: Like three- and four-year-olds. Before they can read on their own, so their parents would read this to them.

Me: What.

UFD: (warming to his explanation, lord love him) And it would teach them things like how they shouldn’t build sandcastles near the water at low tide, things like that. There would be different examples of how to plan, like … (At this point he launched into explanations that included words like “agile,” “waterfall,” and “scope.”)

Me: (hands on face in incredulous horror) And you would … include this vocabulary … in your book for toddlers?

UFD: Well, yeah, so then they can use those tools to (and I can’t emphasize enough that these were his exact, repeated words) make playtime more effective.

Me: Why does playtime need to be ~~~~effective? (I’m pretty sure my tone conveyed the tildes.) Can’t they just learn things through trial and error?

UFD: Well, with a little planning upfront (VERBATIM), they could have a better time.

Me: Could they?

UFD: Yeah, I actually tried writing one, but it came out kind of boring.

Me: (I swear I’m not a total jerk, but you try not laughing in someone’s face at that)

UFD: It had this whole character arc, where a kid was kidnapped by pirates, but they were all really bad at being pirates, so he teaches them how to be better …

Me: … with project management?

UFD: Exactly!

Okay, so I think the whole incompetent pirate angle actually has potential as a funny story (sans agile and scope and whatever), which I did tell him, so I’m not a complete asshole. But THEN:

UFD: Yeah, but I don’t really think kids that age are interested in characterization.

Me: (several seconds of wide-eyed horror that’s edging into delight at this point, because if I’ve gotta have a bad date, at least I get a can-you-believe-this-guy story) Buddy, I’m pretty sure most kids are more interested in CHARACTERS than PROJECT MANAGEMENT.

UFD: (with genuine, honest to god bemusement) Really?

SO YEAH. That all happened. Funnily enough, I am a TA for an intro to childhood studies course right now, and literally one day before this date, the topic of conversation had been about how children receive very early pressure to Prepare For The Workforce, so basically every professional opinion I have hated this idea. But honestly, is there a more egregious example of just having no respect for your audience? Deeply embedded in this idea is the assumption that children are dumb, that they have to be led to solutions, that they can’t solve problems on their own, that learning has to be explicit and forced and direct. Who on earth would want to read a book by an author who thinks that way about you? I sure wouldn’t!

So please. Spread the word to anyone who’s never written a picture book but thinks they should. First off, google some industry standards before declaring you’ve got something publishable. Maybe read a few picture books before diving into your own. But much more importantly, stop thinking about what kids don’t know or understand, and start talking to them and realizing what they do. Ask them what they like and what they care about. Actually listen. Because there is no such thing as good art that doesn’t respect its audience. And if you think that a phrase like “good art” is misplaced or too pretentious in a discussion about books for toddlers … for the love of god, don’t write one.

At the very least, please don’t tell me about it.

Disasters Learning To Love

What should I write my blog about this month? I asked myself when I woke up this morning and realized it was the last day of February. I answered that question with another question: Well, what’s just about the only thing you’ve thought or cared about this month aside from all the schoolwork you have to do? And the answer to that, gentle blog readers, was my new favorite sitcom of all time, Schitt’s Creek. If you have not already done so, please get thee to Netflix, where the first four seasons are waiting to delight you and also probably take up more time than you have to spend. (I have recently taken to literally unplugging my router to make myself stop rewatching favorite scenes and do my work.) (It’s open in another tab right now, god help me.)

Before you binge away, though, you can continue reading this blog, because I’m not really going to be talking about the specifics of the show’s plot. Instead, I want to discuss the reasons that stories like this one are so attractive to me. I commented in a Twitter conversation about the show that, to me, Disasters Learning To Love is the story type to which I keep returning. (Actually, what I really said was that it’s the only type of story that matters and is worth telling, because hyperbole is where I live, but also was I really being hyperbolic? Nah.) For those of you unfamiliar with the premise, Schitt’s Creek is about a filthy rich family that loses their fortune after their business manager embezzles everything away, and the one asset remaining to them is the titular rural town that they bought as a joke. Obviously, the resulting culture shock is … significant.

Basically all the major characters in this show qualify as awful babies, a term coined by my dear Anna to describe the best type of fictional character. I can’t remember if I’ve ever used this perfect turn of phrase on this blog before, so for the uninitiated (i.e., those of you who somehow haven’t heard me expound upon this in real life), awful babies are characters who are very bad at their own emotions (Anna once used the metaphor of “flailing ineffectually against the current of their feelings”) and are consequently Terrible. Not all awful babies are created equal, and plenty of different personality types can translate into awfulness. If I may be so arrogant as to use my own work as an example, I really enjoy creating characters who are very different from one another, but I exclusively write awful babies. In fact, “all your characters are assholes kathleen” (also from Anna) is one of the greatest texts I’ve ever received, and high on the list of my most prized compliments about my writing.

With all of that said, it may seem a contradiction to admit that when it comes to sitcoms, I really only like those with characters whose company I think I’d actually enjoy in real life. For example, I’ve never been a Seinfeld person, simply because I’d last about thirty seconds in a room with those characters before walking right out the door again. (I also fully understand that that was part of the point, don’t @ me.) But there’s a very important distinction between an awful baby and a just plain gross human being. The former do have the ability to experience personal growth — or, more accurately, to drag their own selves into personal growth kicking and screaming. That’s the story that makes me laugh and makes me care. After all, what can be more (often alarmingly) relatable?

My parents have the same sitcom sensibilities as I do, and after watching the first two episodes of Schitt’s Creek on my recommendation, they were unsure why I recommended it, because they mistook these incredible awful babies for gross human beings. I have been flat-out begging them to trust me, because this show has some of the best slow-burn character development I’ve seen in a long, long time. That’s also why I’ve refused to show them any of the scenes that I know would convince them that these characters are worth investing in, because they have to see them earn it. Everything is so much more satisfying when it’s that hard-won! I’ve been reading a lot of books lately that are Relevant To My Research Interests, which means I can’t just stop reading them when they fail to fully engage me. Honestly, one of my main complaints with fiction that bores me is when the main characters a) aren’t awful enough, which means that b) they don’t have to work hard enough for their victories.

Dan Levy, who is the showrunner and one of the stars of Schitt’s Creek and is now my latest creative idol, is committed to storytelling without cynicism. The many interviews I’ve been reading (those are two good ones) make this clear, but so does the work itself. And to me, being an awful baby aficionado as both a writer and a consumer of fiction is rooted in compassion and delight for people in general. We’re so dumb, bless us! We’re so bad at so many things, especially managing our own messy, scary, ridiculous lives. I love finding points of comparison between my own strand of melodramatic, vain, recalcitrant awfulness (that I hide, for the most part, relatively well (or at least I hope I do)) with fictional characters who are flailing just as wildly as I am towards something like happiness. Towards the ability to love, and love well. That’s a hard journey, but if you like people, it can also be a deeply funny journey.

I’m personally not a comedy writer. My stuff is just a wee bit too dark for that. (My newest project is about, um, death.) But that’s not to say my characters don’t make me laugh, especially when they’re at their awfullest, and I really hope that they’ll inspire the same kind of tender, indulgent fondness that I feel about the characters from Schitt’s Creek. Because you know what that does? It allows people to feel the same tender, indulgent fondness about themselves. And that’s what makes the stories worth telling.

Kathleen Will Never Shut Up About Les Mis, Part II: Anger Edition

You may recall that when the BBC’s Les Miserables miniseries was announced, I had a bit of a wish list. All I really wanted was a few trifles, really: constant symbolic light imagery, radical politics, and a transformative moral and spiritual experience. Now, I knew that I would not get everything I desired. For one thing, the book is too long to be condensed faithfully into a mere six hours, and even I realized that the literal halos were probably too big of an ask. Also, with each passing interview that Andrew Davies gave, I became more concerned with his takes on some of the characters and themes. But surely, I thought, there would be plenty of good along with the bad. I may be an adaptation grinch, but this is Les Mis we’re talking about. Just by virtue of being this story that I’ve loved for *checks watch* two-thirds of my life, it was sure to move me on some level.

Well, I wasn’t wrong. I was moved. To rage.

As with my last Les Mis post, I humbly ask you to bear with me even if you don’t care about Les Mis itself. What I’m really going to be talking about here is My Thoughts On Storytelling. Also, I will give credit where it’s due. I wasn’t filled with rage during every moment of this adaptation; in particular, I thought the last episode was the least bad — and yes, I am deliberately damning with faint praise here, but I actually did get choked up a couple of times. Also, the set design was very good, and the acting was uniformly excellent even when the characterization was not. Honestly, one of the biggest bummers of this adaptation has been imagining how great this cast could have been with a script that didn’t make me want to tear my hair out.

So here’s why I’m angry.

I have been describing this adaptation to those who ask me about it as “Grimdark Les Mis.” Until just now when I went looking for that wikipedia article to link, I had never read an “official” definition of the term grimdark; I’d just come across it in various internet nerd circles and intuited its meaning from context. When pressed to explain it, I have personally been defining it as “self-importantly bleak, with a side of toxic masculinity,” which betrays my own biases. I am just not about that grimdark life.

Now, an adaptation of Les Mis was never going to be cheerful. As I noted in my last post on the subject, the title kind of precludes that. (As does the high percentage of characters who die before the end.) However, there is a difference in my mind between haunting and bleak. The Brick is the former. Its depictions of poverty and injustice are troubling, devastating, morally harrowing. The reader wants those images to go away. The text dares the reader to make them go away by doing something. Only then can the ghosts and demons of our society that it reveals lay themselves to rest. (Or only then could they rest; the work of this story and stories like it is nowhere near done, as Hugo himself foretold in his preface.)

Bleakness, on the other hand, is fatalistic. It doesn’t trouble readers (or viewers) with attention-demanding specters; it simply drags them down and leaves them cold. Haunting stories say, “People suffer and they shouldn’t, because people deserve better.” Bleak stories say, “People suffer because they suck.” Bleakness allows — more than that, it invites — cynicism.

I refuse that. I refuse.

Not every character individually sucked as a person in this adaptation, but the script was reluctant to allow them to be their best selves, either. This was particularly noticeable in the treatment of Jean Valjean, which was, not to put too fine a point on it, a disaster. In this version, he was very shouty. And aggressive. And controlling. This … was a problem.

Now, I don’t think that Jean Valjean should be angelic, and I think that he can be too perfect in some actors’ hands. Jean Valjean has to continually struggle for his morality; that is a large part of the point of that character. I thought that Nehal Joshi’s take on JVJ in the 2014 Dallas Theater Center’s production of the musical was a goddamn revelation, mainly because he laid this struggle bare in a way that most actors don’t. (Highlight reel here, but, uh, hit me up if you want to see more. I don’t want to just openly post a link — not that I have illusions about this blog being well-trafficked, and I know that Joshi in particular has given his tacit approval to bootlegs, bless him — but yeah, I didn’t travel to Dallas to see this production but have still managed to watch the whole thing, and you can, too!)

Still, for the love of God, Jean Valjean is not a good candidate for a transformation into a gritty antihero! He’s kind. A word that comes to mind when I think of Jean Valjean is grace. He’s sad and he’s hurting; he doubts and he internalizes all sorts of awful narratives; he often does not know how best to love his daughter and the world and least of all himself; but still he loves. He tries to understand, and he forgives. He does not manhandle Gavroche when he delivers Marius’s letter. He ABSOLUTELY DOES NOT manhandle Cosette, ever, under any circumstances. He doesn’t roar wordlessly (?!) at the Bishop, even though that is at the very beginning of his journey! He doesn’t fire Fantine on purpose and shout at her that she’s untrustworthy! What! Were all of these choices!!!

I felt like this adaptation just didn’t trust the audience to be invested in a protagonist whose Darkness isn’t simmering right on the surface 24/7. Either that or it couldn’t imagine expressions of pain that don’t look like anger. Both of those options are a real problem for me as both a Les Mis fan and a storyteller. And listen: I’ve got some angry characters! I recently received some notes on middle-grade story, and one that I dismissed outright was that my main character should be less mad all the time. (Disclaimer: of course it’s important to listen to criticism, but sometimes you just gotta say, “sorry, but you’ll pry my irritated 12-year-old disaster child from my cold dead hands.”) But I also operate on the assumption that people are interested in the good that my characters want and try to do. am interested in that aspect of storytelling, because that’s what I actually want to see play out in the world.

When Jean Valjean lets Javert go at the barricade, I want it to feel hard but earned. This moment of understanding and pity has to be enough to undo Javert, after all. In this adaptation, I just couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t imagine why this Valjean would let this Javert walk free. Compassion can’t just be flicked on like a switch; if your character is going to make this kind of self-sacrificing move, you have to start establishing it in their behavior well before they actually go through with it.

Davies also made some real strange choices with Javert. Honestly, I’d say that JVJ and his antagonist were the least like their original counterparts, which is a surefire way to make Les Mis not feel like Les Mis. Davies was clearly primarily interested in the cat-and-mouse aspect of the story, but he reduced Javert’s obsessive pursuit of JVJ to an all-encompassing personal obsession with the man, instead of a symptom of his unyielding belief that The System Can’t Be Wrong. This led to some bizarre and unintentionally funny moments (since when does Javert wholeheartedly believe that JVJ is behind all the revolutionary activity in Paris??), but it also severely undercut the political impact of a character like Javert.

Again, I want to stress that I hold none of this against the actors. I’m a big fan of David Oyelowo, and I think he did a great job with the script he had. This is also perhaps a good time to discuss the racial implications of the casting. I am 1000000% for making Les Mis less white in adaptations, and despite what some newspaper articles have insinuated, there’s actually nothing unrealistic about a police inspector being Black at this time in French history. However, here’s a list of major and/or plot important characters who were white in this adaptation: Jean Valjean, Fantine, Cosette, Marius, Enjolras, the Bishop. Here are the main characters who were people of color: Javert and Thenardier. In other words, the two characters who have the most negative impacts on the rest of the (white) characters were not white. That’s … not the choice I would have made, especially considering the fact that Les Mis should always reflect current systems of injustice whenever it is retold. Depicting white people all suffering under the abuses of POC really does not do that.

Of course, Thenardier being a person of color meant that his children were, as well, so there was some non-antagonistic representation. As far as Gavroche goes, no notes, other than I wish he’d had more screen time! He was Good.  Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for the treatment of Eponine. I knew going in it wasn’t gonna be great, considering Davies had run his mouth about how great it was that Hugo has Eponine “teasing Marius with her sexuality” when they meet, which is a Very Bad Take. Oh, and then Davies decided to augment that supposed sexual tension with Marius having a wet dream about Eponine. And then Marius sees her again working in a brothel when Grantaire and Courfeyrac take him?? To said brothel?? Which: holy shit why. Neither the wet dream nor the brothel are things that remotely happen in the book, and I cannot begin to express how much I hated these choices. First of all, the fact that Marius does not objectify Eponine in the book is a significant reason why this exploited teenager falls for him so hard! And in placing all of the importance of Eponine’s “sexuality” onto how it affects Marius, Davies objectifies her even more, which means the viewer watching this unfold is put into the position to do so, as well. I very much do not want to do that! Ever!!

Eponine (again, as the adaptation’s most prominent woman of color) got the worst of the script’s sexism, but Fantine and Cosette didn’t escape it, either. Fantine’s descent is never pretty, nor should it be, but this script really didn’t allow her to experience any emotion that isn’t crushing misery from the moment Tholomyes leaves her. It didn’t go into her backstory as a street kid who managed to retain her optimism and begin to make a life for herself, and it didn’t allow her to hold onto some strange, startling charm even when she’s dying in the hospital. She was more just Suffering Woman than vibrantly, specifically Fantine.

The treatment of Cosette, meanwhile, suffered a great deal from her juxtaposition with Angry!Valjean; instead of having a loving relationship with her father, they are at constant odds as he tries to keep her from experiencing anything of the world. Davies made his disdain for Cosette from the book clear in interviews, which, first of all, is boring. Sure, she’s a 19th century heroine, so she can be underwritten and undercut by the author’s own frequently-not-great gender politics, but she does have plenty of her own specific character traits and emotionally nuanced moments. Davies’s approach also once again demonstrates his lack of interest in compassion as a driving character motivation — and, once again, I disagree. A father and daughter smiling and pretending for each other’s sake that they aren’t both lonely because they don’t want the other to be sad is far more poignant to me than that father bodily wrestling his daughter away from the front door as she shouts at him that she hates him.

Like I said before, this adaptation did have its moments. Dismissing the breadwinners from the barricade was done really well and completely gutted me, as did every interaction between Enjolras and Courfeyrac once the barricade was taken. I already sang Gavroche’s praises, and I adored the Bishop. Also, not that I actually like this character, but Gillenormand was right on target. A lot of very talented people were involved in this production, and I could see how much they all cared about the project.

I just wish that the script had believed in more. Showcasing misery will never be enough. You have to love the miserable ones. That’s what hurts, and that’s what haunts you. That’s what will make you act.

 

Multitasking

Happy almost 2019! This was a year of many changes in my life, as you may gather from the embarrassing dearth of actual posts on this blog. Didn’t exactly nail that particular 2018 New Year’s resolution. But 2018 was nothing if not a learning experience for me, and I will be taking what I learned into a hopefully slightly more work-life-writing balanced 2019.

By far the biggest change in my life this year was getting accepted to and embarking upon a PhD program in childhood studies. This is probably a decision I could have/should have made earlier in my life, but see aforementioned learning experiences, I guess. The first semester was INTENSE (everyone promises it will be the most intense, and I’m holding them all to that), but it was also such a welcome change after working jobs that really weren’t right for me over the previous four years. Even when academic work is ridiculously hard, it still feels like what I want to be doing (it’s like writing in that way). This also marks the time I’m being paid to do something I fully want to do, so that’s certainly an exciting development!

Still no one is paying me to write things, but, as ever, I’m working on that. I completed my first middle-grade manuscript this year (for varying definitions of “completed,” of course; revise til publication or death is my motto). I really enjoyed working on SKY CHILD. A good antidote for writing career dissatisfaction is to just write something your 12-year-old self would’ve been super into.

I also had my first publication this year, albeit not a creative one: my paper “Beyond the Collapse of Meaning: Narratives of Monstrosity in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials” appeared in University of Toronto Quarterly’s special edition on monsters. I actually had a really good first experience with academic publishing, which is saying a lot considering the first notes I received basically boiled down to “so you’re gonna need to redo this.” (They worded it very gently and helpfully, though.) Also I love the idea that maybe someone might cite me when writing a paper about HDM and/or monsters. Maybe someone already has! Maybe some student out there happened upon my paper while listlessly scrolling through Project MUSE and thought “finally!” (or at least “eh, that’ll work”). All of these scenarios delight me, so I’m going to believe that they’re true.

In the world at large, 2018 was often … rough. As a consequence, so was/is my anxiety. But another development this year was that I found a new therapist once I moved to South Jersey, like the good millennial that I am. I don’t particularly want to say anything else about that, but it felt like something I should acknowledge in a post about this past year, because I don’t want to only talk about having anxiety when it’s not really that present in my thoughts. So people dealing with their brains, I’m here with you and for you! Being a scared person and being a good, kind, interesting, original person are not mutually exclusive. I should know.

(In werewolf story, a minor antagonist tries to make my protagonist feel bad about herself by asking her how she can be so clever and calculating after a bunch of really awful crap went down. “Shouldn’t you be horrified?” She tells him that she’s always horrified, but “I’ve learned to multitask.” So here’s me, terrified and fabulous, multitasking.)

I hope that everyone who reads this blog has had a wonderful holiday season and will have a great New Year! I know that in 2019, I will be doing a lot of work that I really love, and I’m so lucky and grateful that that’s a guarantee in my life. I look forward to sharing it with you!

Now, as is becoming traditional, I’d like to leave you with a little fiction excerpt to close out the year. In honor of completing a working middle-grade manuscript this year, I figured I could share something from that story! Unlike the previous two New Year’s Eve excerpts, this is actually taken from the manuscript itself. Perhaps some of you will recognize my Ninna from Writing II at Simmons; literally everything about the plot has changed since then, and she herself has become considerably pricklier, but she definitely still loves flying. For 2019, I hope you all find and/or nurture the things in your life that make you feel as free.

 

The city of Zimbir awaited a hero. For nearly one hundred reigns, great princes and leaders had gone forth to fulfill their destinies and returned victorious to take their places on the throne. These men relied on their strength, their wits, and the favor of their patron god — usually Zaluru, God of Storms, who understood power. It was Zaluru who had revealed the trials of the First King Nameshda after the waters of the Deluge receded, and Zaluru who had told Nameshda how and where to build the high walls that enclosed the great city. Ever after, Zaluru’s champions had defeated monsters, discovered treasures, and brought great glory to Zimbir.

But these heroes did not come along very often. All of the kings of the past century had earned their throne simply by being the brother or son of the previous king. Now, the people of Zimbir were hungry for proof that the age of heroes was not yet over.

Ninna ignored the people of Zimbir whenever possible.

“Ninna?”

Unfortunately, she could not ignore her mother. Ninna turned wearily as Sunemi opened the bedroom door without knocking, narrowing her dark eyes as she took in the almost-finished clay bird in her daughter’s hands.

“I assume this means you have finished your homework,” Sunemi said, in a voice that meant she assumed the opposite.

“Mm.” Ninna turned back to her bird. She swiped her thumbnail along its tail, giving texture to the earthen feathers.

“Ninna, it’s late.”

“Good night, then,” Ninna said pointedly.

There was a pause in which an argument may have started, but Sunemi just sighed and said, “Clean your hands before you go to bed. I won’t scrape clay from the linens again.”

When the door closed, Ninna relaxed her shoulders, and her wings made a shushing noise as they slid along the mud brick floor. She completed the finishing touches on her bird and carried it to the window to dry alongside its flock. A dozen little figures stared up at the sky, their wings readied for flight. A careless observer might believe they were flesh instead of clay, and that they were simply waiting for the right moment to leave the windowsill behind.

Ninna washed the clay from her hands in the small basin she had used to wet her latest project. Her homework tablet, dry and unmarked, lay abandoned in the corner. The flames from her clay lamps illuminated her bed, clothing chest, and little table, which was cluttered with more creations: a bird’s nest with eggs, a mouse that Ninna had studied when it scurried into the room, and a handful of votive figures ready for dedication. If only Ninna had been born to unwinged artisans; then her station would match her skills. Yet if she had, she would not have been quivering in anticipation of what she was about to do next.

Ninna snuffed the lamps and flopped onto her bed, leaning her chin on her hands. Unwilling to close her eyes and accidentally fall asleep, she stared into the darkness. Finally, she heard the soft, dull thud of hooves outside her window. She smiled and threw off her bed linens. As quietly as she could, she crept into the cool hallway, down the stairs, and through the kitchen. She paused, straining her ears for any sounds of wakefulness above her, then felt for the lacquered wood of the back door and pushed, letting the starlight in to pool around her feet.

All of the fashionable houses had walled back courtyards surrounded by palm trees: a miniature city for each winged noble. Ninna’s house, so small and far down the Great Hill, could not necessarily be called fashionable, but it at least had the courtyard and trees. The flowers around the central shrine were muted shades of purple in the darkness. The moon was at the half; the mortal world never kept the Moon Goddess Sueniti’s interest for long, and she had begun to turn her face away. Still, her light was bright enough to allow Ninna to pick her way past the garden and shrine to open the back gate.

As expected, a lamassu was waiting for her, his black eyes glinting in the moonlight. His powerful bull body was still and relaxed, and the fierce face, framed by his thick, curling black hair and beard, could almost but not quite be described as human.

Ninna whispered, “Come in, my heart.”

The lamassu smiled. The expression sat strangely on his face, giving it a lopsided cast that most would have found unnerving, but Ninna knew not to fear. The gods had sent the lamassu after the Deluge to protect the hapless humans. The spirit beasts rarely took interest in individual people, but this one had shown up on the day of Ninna’s birth and had never really left. When she was too small to realize how presumptuous it was to name a lamassu, she had begun calling him Lugu, after his crooked smile. Lugu didn’t seem to mind.

Presently, Lugu walked into the courtyard and knelt by the wall. Ninna didn’t need his help anymore, but she stepped onto his broad back anyway, careful not to tread upon his small wings. She held her balance as he rose to his full height, and from there, it was easy to pull herself up onto the wall. The tops of the rough bricks pressed the remnants of the day’s warmth into the soles of Ninna’s bare feet.

Ninna tied her thick hair away from her face with a scrap of fabric, feeling the wind shift around her. Her wings responded, spreading out to her sides and pivoting minutely to catch the air. Ninna tucked her elbows in, grasped her wrists in front of her —

And jumped.

After one, two, three wing beats, Ninna took her place high above the courtyard and just below the tops of the palm trees. By day, a coiled thing lived inside her chest, but every night when she took to the sky, it finally unfurled.

The sky was hers, and hers alone.

The wind, cool and sweet as river water, flowed around her. The hem of her nightdress flapped around her knees. Ninna closed her eyes and waited for that perfect moment when she couldn’t tell where her body ended and the sky began. She felt as invisible as the air. When her eyelids fluttered open again, she realized that she had drifted well outside the confines of the courtyard and had almost reached the branches of the palm trees. Dipping her right wing, she turned into the wind.

The maneuver was less graceful than Ninna would have liked, though at least now she could turn without plummeting. She flapped clumsily, rising and falling like a toy boat in a swinging bucket, and landed heavily back inside the courtyard.

“I’m getting better, aren’t I, my heart?” she said.

Lugu didn’t answer. Lamassu never did. He rustled his own wings and looked towards the sky, yet he remained on the ground, and would forevermore. His wings were too small and weak to carry him, like the wings of all other spirit beasts — and humans. Except for a single set.

Zimbir awaited a hero, but it did not know that one had already been born.

 

Cilia

I know that I said I was going to take suggestions for future blog topics, and I am, but we have once again come up against one of those news cycles that prevents me from thinking or screaming about anything other than the dumpster fire that is our country. That happens a lot these days. Many, many people have written about the violent and dishonest man trying to get onto the Supreme Court, and many of them have made better points than I ever could, so I won’t write about him. I also don’t want to write about traumas that I have not experienced or borrow emotions I have not personally embodied.

But I can write about the first time I understood misogyny, because it’s a memory that I’ve been thinking about a lot over this past week. It is, in fact, a very specific memory from when I was around 15. It’s not a traumatic memory. It didn’t even make me particularly sad at the time, though it does now. The fact that I can pinpoint this light bulb moment is probably somewhat unusual. I feel like systems of oppression typically reveal themselves over time. On the other hand, it took a while for me to even grasp the whole idea of “systems of oppression,” which I think happens a lot with white people like me. As a consequence, at 15, I still thought of prejudice as a personal failing.

Sexism, of course, was something that I knew. I’d been a girl child among boys who said girls were gross. I’d heard stereotypically feminine interests derided as overemotional, shallow, or weak. Plenty of men were sexist, and I obviously thought they were wrong. But though I knew the word misogyny, I couldn’t come up with anyone in my life who hated women. I knew such men existed, because I knew sexual assault existed, but I didn’t think knew anyone who would fit that bit. Who was angry enough to hate women? Who didn’t have a woman in his life that he loved? To me, misogynists were violent outliers, and sexists were just ignorant men who could, ultimately, be proven wrong.

In fact, I thought could prove the sexists wrong. Sexists thought boys were smarter than girls? Check my report cards, bro. Sexists thought boys were stronger than girls? …Well, I couldn’t prove that one wrong, but other girls with actual hand-eye coordination and/or muscle mass could. Sexists thought boys were deeper, more logical thinkers than girls? Watch me debate you into the ground. With my stubbornness and my intellect and my ambition, I was a walking, talking refutation to sexists everywhere, and if they just saw me, they would realize the error of their foolish ways.

Then, in high school health class, that cesspit of gender relations, I sat in the back of the class learning about ovulation. The teacher explained how the ova were pushed down cilia in the Fallopian tubes, which she described as “tiny hairs.” Next to me, a boy whispered to his friend, “Ew. They can’t even shave it.”

Oh. Oh. Misogyny.

In that moment, I realized that I’d been looking at it all wrong. Misogyny didn’t require men and boys to hate every specific woman or girl. It didn’t require the nonstop anger that I had previously thought was necessary for true hatred. Anger, of course, is present in misogyny, but so is disgust.

Now, of course, this boy was probably mostly trying to be a little edgelord. I don’t think he actually thought that women should be able to shave their internal organs. But there was genuine revulsion in his voice. Never mind the fact that he wouldn’t exist without those cilia. They weren’t pleasing to his sensibilities, so they had to be derided. Any part of me that wasn’t for him was subject to his contempt.

And there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about that.

I could get good grades and write good stories and make good arguments. I could, and did, and still do make my appearance conform to certain standards of beauty that men have set along the way. But I could not shave my fucking Fallopian tubes, and so I could not prove this boy wrong.

Now, before I go any further, I would just like to note that a woman does not need to be in possession of Fallopian tubes or any other characteristic associated with XX chromosomes (up to and including the chromosomes themselves) for a misogynist to find her disgusting. My point is just that on that day in high school health class, I realized that I was up against something bigger than personal ignorance. I realized that the problem of misogyny was not entirely about the concept of female inferiority. It was about the simple fact of female existence.

As I said, I didn’t feel sad or even personally offended when this boy made his absurd comment. After all, he’d just made it clear that it wasn’t personal, because it wasn’t about me as a person. I did feel disgusted by his disgust, and while I’d like to say that I delivered a gloriously scathing rebuttal, all I actually did was give him an extremely dirty look. In a way, this boy helped me. He made me see that if I wanted attitudes like his to die out, I had to think outside of myself. He started to show me the system.

Now, though, I am sad, because his attitude has not died out. Female existence, down to the microscopic level, still disgusts the men in power. Any part of a woman’s life that doesn’t please them, that isn’t for them, is inconvenient at best and revolting at worst. She is to be thrown out like all disgusting, abject things.

There are ways to fight this. Voting is one. For the love of all things holy, vote for people who don’t throw us out. Education is another. I shouldn’t have been 15 before I knew that sexism and misogyny are not just personal failings. (Though, to be clear, they are also that. Like, if you are a man who enacts misogyny, you are a product of a system, sure, but you also suck as an individual.) There sure as hell shouldn’t be grown-ass men holding up female friends and relatives as human shields as though a not-actively-despised woman’s presence in a man’s life equals the absence of misogyny. We have to know what we’re up against, both from others and within ourselves.

So I will fight. But I will also be sad, because it’s all so personal, and because it’s not personal at all. I can scream all I want to, but I haven’t shaved my cilia, so who will even listen?