The Supple Writer

Reading Nicki Chen’s great post on killing your darlings (click here for it) got me to thinking—always the sign of a great post. What was I thinking about? Being supple as a writer.

sup·ple
adjective
bending and moving easily and gracefully; flexible.

This is not a post telling people what to do or how to be. This is just a reflection on how life sometimes makes you into what you never thought you could be.

I’ve worked as a writer for two book packagers (click here if you aren’t sure what a book packager is) over the years (and publishers too). Rule #1: please the client. You write a book. Client says, “Hmmm. It’s okaaaaaay. But I want you to make changes.” You rewrite the book. Client says, “Hmmm. Still just okay. I want you to make changes.” You rewrite your rewrite. Client says, “Hmm. I liked it better the first time.” You pull out the first version of the book, having learned the hard way to always save every version of a project until the thing is published.

Gemma Stone after her last revision—badly in need of chocolate, coffee, and maybe a warm towel to throw over her face. Oh and maybe a hug.

Fickle clients? No, this is you on the treadmill of writing, learning that darlings get killed over and over, while your writer muscles get exercised. Not just darlings. Stuff you were just on a first date with. Gone.

Apple Blossom wonders what to change next in her manuscript since she’s been told to drop 5K words.

This is you, mainlining coffee and M&Ms as you work to meet each deadline, some of them as fierce as tigers, growling at you sooner than you would have liked (like you have a month or two to do the whole thing, despite having to revise two or three times).

Pinkie Pie is on the fourth revision of her novel. She thinks maybe the chicken could write the book better by now.

Supple—when you learn how to write a picture book three different ways because you had to.

Supple—when you get the word from on high to start the whole thing over just because.

Supple—when you’re waiting on feedback that might mean having to go to Plan B.

When have you had to be flexible in your writing? Please tell the full tale in the comments below.

Another post on killing your darlings: https://thewritepractice.com/kill-your-darlings/

Photos by L. Marie. Pinkie Pie is from the My Little Pony Equestria Girls Minis Pinkie Pie Slumber Party Bedroom Set by My Little Pony. Gemma Stone Shoppie and Apple Blossom by Moose Toys.

“The Echo of Embarrassment”

Like a stone tossed into water, public humiliation has a ripple effect. We can easily draw up a list of people who have endured public shame in recent times. Maybe we’ve even had a few judgmental thoughts about them. But do we ever think to listen to them?

Thanks to an excellent post by Nicki Chen, “Easter Thoughts on New Life and Monica Lewinsky,” I listened to a recent TED Talk by Monica Lewinsky—a woman publicly vilified in 1998. (Click on Nicki’s post title to head to her blog, Behind the Story.)

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Monica Lewinsky

I remember my thoughts back then, when we first learned about her. My sympathies were for a wife humiliated by her husband’s affair. I never gave a thought to how Ms. Lewinsky might have felt. Until now. Until her talk. You might lend her your ear, if you have a spare 22 minutes.

Not surprisingly, Ms. Lewinsky talked about the pain she and others experienced after being bullied online. Some quotes that jumped out at me from her talk:

Online, we’ve got a compassion deficit, an empathy crisis. Researcher Brené Brown said, and I quote, “Shame can’t survive empathy.”. . . Just imagine walking a mile in someone else’s headline.

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Brené Brown

If you listened to the talk, you’ll recognize that the title of this post comes from it. As Ms. Lewinsky stated

The echo of embarrassment used to extend only as far as your family, village, school or community, but now it’s the online community too.

Isn’t that the truth? It’s sad how lives become fair game for others to rip apart. I cried when I heard the talk, mainly because I realize how judgmental I usually am when I think someone “deserves” to be ridiculed. Those who have experienced it know that online persecution is a descent into hell without a “get out of jail free” card.

get_out_of_jail_free

I can’t speak for you, but I’ve got a few words for myself, thanks to this talk. It takes only a few seconds to scar someone for life with one’s words. It also takes only a few seconds to sympathize with someone and possibly turn that person’s life around. Instead of joining the crowd throwing rocks, I can do something else: I can consider how I would feel to take such a public blow. I can also find a better use for my words—building someone up with them.

Basalt wall rock

There’s another famous story that mirrors Monica’s. If you’ve got another few moments, you might check out John 8:1-11 in the Bible.

Shame

Monica Lewinsky photo from somewhere online. Monopoly “get out of jail free” card from texasxriders.com. Rocks from thedangergarden. Brené Brown from telegraph.co.uk. Public shaming sign from mashable.com.

A Post About . . . “Nothin’ ”

As I dashed off to church, mulling over what to post (besides the announcement of the winner of Tiger Tail Soup by Nicki Chen—that’ll come later in the post), the premise of Seinfeld came to mind. Remember that show? It was “a show about nothing” or more aptly, the “mundane aspects of everyday life.” (See Wikipedia.) And here’s something else you might find coincidental: Julia Louis-Dreyfus is on the cover of the latest issue of Northwestern University’s alumni magazine. If you’ve never seen Seinfeld, you might wonder what connection she has to it. Well, she was a costar. She has her own show nowadays—Veep.

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I struggled with what to post, as I’ve done many times lately, because of thoughts plaguing me like, If I don’t yet have a published book to promote, a beautifully written poem like the ones Andy over at City Jackdaw produces, or a hilarious Punchy Lands report (ala Professor VJ Duke), or if I haven’t been on an exciting trip recently or a glorious walking tour like the ones Restless Jo posts so eloquently about, will anyone want to read what I write? But finally on that drive, I realized I’d fallen into a trap—the same trap I was in several years ago when I was about to turn down an invitation to participate in career day at an elementary school in Chicago. Why was I going to turn it down? Because I didn’t think I was “successful” enough to talk to the eighth graders. I wasn’t sure they’d want to hear that I had more writing failures than successes.

As I realized the mindset I’d fallen into—the belief that I had “nothing” to say—the thought of Seinfeld was a revelation. For a show that purported to be about “nothing,” it managed to remain on the air for almost a decade. And why not? It was really a show about life. There’s always something to say, if you’re still breathing.

Seinfeld-logo

Thinking about Seinfeld helped me realize my tendency to disparage my own life—to think that a “good” life (or at least one worth posting about) boiled down to what I produced that others might deem successful or to places I’ve visited that others might view as worthy of interest. (Um, instead of traveling to Italy, France, or Nairobi, I went to Joann Fabrics today and bought some eyes with safety catches for the kittens I’m crocheting. Yeah, I walk on the wild side.)

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Package of eyes with safety catches and a photo of a head with the eyes in place. Why are safety catches necessary? Each catch keeps the eye in place and prevents a small child who bites through the fabric from swallowing the eye.

Lately, I’ve been taking for granted the simple things in life—fodder for many an episode of Seinfeld. Like today (Sunday). The humidity we’ve experienced for weeks is finally gone. The sun is out, and the temperature for much of the day has been around 81 degrees Fahrenheit. How marvelous without humidity. To celebrate, I scarfed down a scrumptious hot fudge sundae from the dollar menu at McDonald’s. Maybe that’s not earth-shattering, front-page headline news. But it’s life—my life. And sometimes I need to be reminded that it’s worth celebrating. And so is yours.

Speaking of celebrating, I’m pleased to announce the winner of Tiger Tail Soup by Nicki Chen.

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That winner is

Is

Is

Is

Lyn Miller-Lachmann!

Time to celebrate, Lyn! You know the drill. Comment below to confirm, and then email me your address.

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Gratuitous lip balm photo. Yes, this is an egg-shaped container.

Check This Out: Tiger Tail Soup

Ni hao and welcome to the blog, where my guest today is the awesome Nicki Chen, whom I met through the blog of that wonderful connector, Jill Weatherholt. Nicki’s here to talk about her novel, Tiger Tail Soup, published by Dog Ear Publising. After Nicki and I talk about her book, I’ll tell you about a giveaway.

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El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Nicki: I like to take walks, so where I live must be a good starting point for walks. I like to dance. Lacking a partner, I turn on the music and dance anyway. I have three daughters and three grandchildren—the youngest grandchild just started first grade; the oldest is a college sophomore. I spent twenty years in the Philippines and Vanuatu as an expat wife/trailing spouse.

El Space: Please tell us about your novel. What inspired you to tell this story?
Nicki: Tiger Tail Soup is the story of a Chinese woman caught up in war. It is set in southeastern China during the Japanese invasion and occupation. My late husband Eugene used to tell me stories about his childhood in China. I thought they were exotic and fascinating. I told him to write them down, but he didn’t. So after he died, I decided to write a novel about that time and include at least what I remembered of some of his stories.

The narrator of Tiger Tail Soup, An Lee, is a young wife and mother. As the novel opens, it’s the spring of 1938. She’s pregnant and wondering why her husband didn’t return from his business trip ten days earlier. Stepping out onto the balcony, she hears bombs exploding in the distance. When her husband finally appears, he has exchanged his suit and tie for the uniform of a Chinese soldier. During the next seven years, An Lee sees her husband again only twice. Left alone, it’s up to her to protect their children, her mother, and her mother-in-law.

For a few years their island, though surrounded by enemy forces, is spared a full-scale invasion, because of its status as an international treaty port. Then on December 7, 1941, the enemy launches a coordinated attack on Pearl Harbor and all the international enclaves in China. In a matter of minutes, the island of Kulangsu becomes occupied territory, and life for the family enters a new, more challenging phase.

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Kulangsu

El Space: What do you want readers to take away through this story?
Nicki: I hope the reader will take away a sense of possibility and hopefulness. We all face challenges and pain; we make mistakes and feel like giving up. But, like An Lee, we can survive and succeed. In a more general sense, I hope Tiger Tail Soup increases the reader’s empathy and understanding of other people. When we read a novel and imagine ourselves alive in another time and place, we escape the narrow confines of our own lives and become someone new.

El Space: What challenges have you faced on the road to publication?
Nicki: The first challenge was in knowing whether my novel was ready to send out into the world and in knowing how to write a good query letter. Finding an agent is such hard work!

But my biggest challenge was the agent I eventually found. She sent my book out to a few publishers, and the responses were positive, but no bites. So she suggested I do a serious revision. I spent a year on the revision and sent it back to her. It’s very good now, she said, but I don’t want to continue representing you. And, by the way, she added, no other agent will want to represent this book since it has already been shopped around, so you should put it away and write your second novel. Find an agent with your second novel and then later also publish the first. I took her advice and put Tiger Tail Soup away for a few years. But one of my daughters became impatient. “Just publish it,” she said. So I did.

El Space: Wow. What an ordeal, Nicki. I’m glad your book is out in the world despite that incident. You’re also a painter. What medium do you favor?
Nicki: When we lived in the Philippines, I studied Chinese brush painting for many years with Professor Chen Bing Sun. First I learned to paint plum blossoms, then bamboo, orchids, and chrysanthemums. Next, I graduated to animals: shrimp, fish, birds, horses, and tigers. After a few years, I did landscapes and people. I have a post that explains the process in more detail.

I also used to do batik painting, an art form that is more appropriate in a tropical country. I used to work in the carport. When you work with melted wax, it’s better to be outside so the fumes can escape. Batik is a reverse process. The artist applies wax to cloth where she wants the color or lack of color to be preserved. Then she dyes the cloth. When it dries, she applies more wax to preserve the new color and dyes the cloth again. Then she repeats the process for the next color.

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Batik paintings copyright © 2014 Nicki Chen

El Space: Quite lovely, Nicki! Also, you graduated from VCFA. What was it like traveling across the world to attend this school?
Nicki: When I studied at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I was living in Port Vila, Vanuatu. If you don’t know where that is, don’t feel bad. You’re not alone. It’s a small island nation in the South Pacific, not far from Fiji. So, as you can imagine, it was a long trip flying to Vermont twice a year. And whether it was summer or winter, the weather was always more extreme in Vermont. Vanuatu’s weather is perfect almost all year long. I would fly into Burlington, stay overnight in a B&B, and then catch a bus to Montpelier—which, by the way, looks just like a Christmas card in winter.

Port Vila

Port Vila

Each residency was an exciting, jam-packed eleven days. Then I had to fly back to Vanuatu and get busy writing stories to send to my advisor. Since it was the early 1990s, no one did much of anything by email yet. If I wanted to get my packet to my advisor on time each month, I had to send it early. International postal mail from the South Pacific actually did deserve the name snail mail. Also, a computer breakdown could be quite a disaster in such an out-of-the-way place.

El Space: In many venues, the subject of diversity in books has arisen. What advice do you have for aspiring writers on this topic?
Nicki: I haven’t thought about the subject much. I suppose the best thing is to write what you want to write and then search for your audience. If you’re interested in the topic, someone else must be too. I feel that Tiger Tail Soup fills a hole in books about China. The book is set in Amoy—now known as Xiamen—and although Amoy and the surrounding countryside in Fujian Province is the ancestral home of most Southeast Asian Chinese, very little has been written about it.

China_map_Fujian

Fujian Province

El Space: What are you working on now?
Nicki: A novel set in Vanuatu—another fascinating, relatively unknown part of the world. My main character once again is a woman, but this time she’s a woman hoping to get pregnant.

Nicki, thanks so much for dropping by! You’re welcome, anytime!

Looking for Nicki? You can find her at her blog, Facebook, and Twitter. Tiger Tail Soup can be found at Amazon. But one of you will win a copy of Tiger Tail Soup. Comment below to be entered in the drawing. Winner to be announced on Monday, September 8.

Fujian map from chinatouristmaps.com. Port Vila photo from Wikipedia. Kulangsu photo from wikisource.org.