26 October 2011

Memory and Effigy

I recently read a draft of a poem that had the line "Why recently, I am so drawn to dilapidation."  

If you read my recent post, you will know that I most whole-heartedly agree with that statement!  Again and again, I am being drawn to images, places, and people that are past their prime.  Whether you want to call it dilapidation, beautiful ruin, or even something melodramatic like the gorgeous flaw, the fact remains that what is imperfect is far more interesting than something seamless and perfect.  Perfection has its place, perhaps with Plato or in heaven.  But here on earth, what garners my attention in writing are flawed characters, broken dreams, and the imperfect world of objects.

Who wants to read about St. Blandula's struggle-free life, where she was always immersed in the divine and never tempted?  Not me.

There is an impulse within all of us to look back at the past through rose colored glasses.  We call this nostalgia or the "good old days."  History shows us again and again, that people like to recall a semi-mythical past in which their culture was at its greatest.  The ancient Greeks (specifically Hesiod) called this their Golden Age, an age where men "lived with the gods without sorrow."  There is a reason that the good stories from Greek mythology come later, at a more flawed stage of mankind.  Where would our fairy tale princesses be without the long climb up to the castle throne?

So it is with each of us.  When we begin to write, we may want to edit out the very parts of our stories that make them the most compelling.  We might want to avoid the unpleasant or embarrassing aspects.  Or even believe that our memory is absolute fact.  That hazy world of the "good old days" beckons us, whispers in our ear to return, and ultimately to enter into an idealized, struggle free piece of writing.  We become the lotus eaters that Homer warned us about.  In other words, boring.

We, as writers, need to ask ourselves what we truly wish to show in our writing.

Miriam-Webster defines an effigy first as, "an image or representation, especially of a person" but then more interestingly as "a crude figure representing a hated person."  We immediately know what we are interested in hearing more about.  Give me enemies for $1000 please.

The word effigy comes from Middle French and Latin, meaning to form or to shape.  It has a connection to the word dough.  As a former baker, I know intimately, what it means to shape loaves for the rising and baking process.  So it is with writing.

As you begin drafting or revising your pieces, I encourage you to write straight at the heart of imperfection.  Dig deeper into the flaws of your characters and narratives.  Is is through these cracks and brokenness that our strongest stories find their way into the world.

19 October 2011

Guest Blogger Chelsia A. Rice on Writing and Same-Sex Families

Boolean Searching

In 2001, I started college to pursue my dream of becoming a writer. I wanted to get an education that would help me write my experience of being raised by two moms in suburban Oregon in the 1980s and 90s, but even then, in my formative years as an academic, I knew I needed to look to other writers with similar experiences in order to see how they crafted their stories before I wrote my own. The problem: I didn’t know of any. I didn’t know that any existed.

                At a Women’s Conference in the winter of 2002, I found my first book that depicted something close to my experiene. Displayed above the rest of the books was Heather Has Two Mommies: the 10th Anniversary Edition. It stopped me dead in my tracks. With one hand, I reached out to the glossy cover picture of a little girl frolicking in the grass with her dog and with the other I covered my mouth.  The tears came faster than I could compose myself, and I turned away from the bookseller as to not have her see me crying. As I tried getting myself back together amidst the crowds of women passing through the conference, I clutched the book to my chest and thought of the little girl in my past that never knew there were others like her, that never saw her experience in her own books, ever.

                Finding that first book inspired me to search for more narratives like mine. I started small. I wandered through my community college library and found little to nothing in their stacks. I shifted my search to the bigger county library and spent hours looking through their catalogue. Still, finding nonfiction written by children who grew up with queer parents was challenging. I didn’t know what search parameters to use.  I started simple:

“Children of same-sex parents.”
I got one hit: Zack’s Story: Growing Up with Same-sex Parents by Keith Elliot Greenberg.
I was thrilled, but as I wandered over to the Children’s Library, I already knew that Zack’s Story would be nothing like my own. Still, I picked it up and took it back to the computer to search again.

Same-sex[and]parents[and]children[and]essay?
--No Entries Found—

Children[or]kid[and]gay[or]lesbian[or]queer[and]parent?                                         
--330 results—
Listings available? Many that in no way related to my experience, including Gunfighters of the American West, Say Hey: a song of Willie Mays, and the Indigo Girls album, Retrospective.

Well, Indigo Girls, I guess that’s kind of close.
I tried again.

Same-sex[and]parent[and]children[or]kid[not]goat[and]nonfiction?
--No Entries Found—

Searching was become too complicated. I gave up.
Nothing.

I returned many more times, and each time, a similar routine. What initially turned up were parenting books geared towards lesbians and gay men, and a couple of sociological titles that examined whether or not gay and lesbian parents were good parents. And while I was pleased that there were books to convince unsure readers that same-sex parents were just as qualified for the job as heterosexual parents, I was looking for nonfiction narratives from the children in those families.  

                What further complicated my investigation was that I wasn’t just looking for narratives of children raised by queer parents, but narratives of children who were raised in homes with queer parents who were addicts, had mental illness, or were engaged in domestic violence. Consider, now, the search parameters narrowed:

Kid[or]child[and]lesbian[or]gay[or]queer[and]addict?
--No Entries Found—

Children[and]queer[and]parent[and]domestic[and]violence?
--No Entries Found—

Same-sex[and]mental[and]illness[and]children?
--No Entries Found—

No matter what I plugged into the computer, nothing I wanted came up. Needless to say, I was frustrated. So, over to the reference librarian I went.

                “Excuse me,” perhaps I said, “Do you know of any books about adult kids who’ve grown up with queer parents?”
                “Hmm…” the librarian hummed as her fingers clicked across the keyboard. Then clicked again. And, again. Finally, she turned the monitor in my direction and we looked down a list of three books, none of them necessarily relative to my search, most of them I’d seen before. “Well,” she said, “if you look in the general area around these books, at books with the same call numbers, you might find something.”

                I climbed three flights of marble stairs to the top floor and found myself buried in stacks on the backside of the building. When I found the call numbers, I ran my fingers back and forth down the rows of books. Then, I found one: A collection of essays titled Out of the Ordinary: Essays on Growing Up with Gay, Lesbian, and Transgendered Parents by Noelle Howey and Ellen Samuels.

                I took the book home and read it in two nights. It, too, did not necessarily contain narratives that echoed my experience. It was time to ask myself why.

First, although I am not the first child in history to be raised by same-sex parents, I’m on the front end of the what some people call the “gayby boom,” so the voices of children like mine are just emerging; we are just beginning to make sense of what it meant to grow up in the midst of the gay rights movement, and under severe political and social scrutiny. Second, while my mothers were lesbians and addicts who were struggling with mental illness and often fought viciously with one another, they were my parents, and we were a family. Their struggles were not a result of their relationship, and their relationship was not a result of their issues. Many families, regardless of their composition, struggle with issues such as these, and my searching for narratives that strictly reflected the lives of children from gay and lesbian headed households severely limited my options. Years later, I turned to the voices of writers who shared my experiences, regardless of the parent’s pairing, and I realized another reason why I never found what I specifically looking for.

                These writers, much like myself, don’t want our stories to be shelved in the LGBTQ area in the back of the women’s bookstore, or categorically placed next to sociological examinations of diverse families, and while I’m thankful that these distinctions exist and that there are books available that fall under these distinction, my story and the stories of others like me, do not exist in order to be read by just one specific audience. The stories of our families are very much like those of our heterosexual counterparts, and they need to be recognized as such and read by many.

                These days, ten years after my initial search for stories like mine, other books are beginning to appear, and the catalogues are beginning to blossom with stories from the children who grew up with same-sex parents. We can only hope that we will soon find them beyond the confines of shelves relegated to the LGBTQ genre.

Chelsia A. Rice earned her MFA at the University of Idaho and her writing has appeared in Pointed Circle, The Broken Word Anthology, NervyGirl Magazine, About.com and various other publications. She lives in Helena, Montana where she teaches writing, chases deer out of her back yard, and throws the ball for her wiener dogs in her off time.

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