Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Girls I Might Have Been

I'm jumping on the bandwagon here (originally started by Amy, who was followed by Mark) to imagine what my life would be life if I hadn't become a writer.
Feel free to share a similar post, just please credit Amy.


If I wasn't a writer, I'd have way more free time. I wouldn't have a blog, or be on twitter. I'd get better grades, be in better shape, sleep and read more, and probably be more relaxed.
But if I hadn't gotten on twitter, I'd have way fewer friends, never have become a feminist activist. I'd be missing out on so much.
If I didn't have a blog, I wouldn't have a platform to practice sharing my stories and what I learn and discover and think is cool. I wouldn't be talking to you right now.
If I didn't write fiction, I doubt the thought would have crossed my mind to write a monologue for my school's version of the Vagina Monologues, or to share an activism story on Flyover Feminism.
Even aside from my love of writing, I love so many of the things it's brought me. 

I find it hard to imagine a me who never became a writer, because I've told myself stories for as long as I can remember. But if it weren't for NaNoWriMo, would I ever have learned to finish things?
That was the tipping point, for me, between "stories are cool" and "I write". Now, I see plots everywhere, get shiny new ideas on at least a weekly basis, and can spin webs of interesting possibilities out of anything.

There would be advantages to not having become a writer. But I can't fathom going back. I could no more stop writing than I could become a business major, or take up volleyball instead of running and cross-country skiing.

Amy talked about the different careers she'd be considering, if she wasn't a writer... and it kind of scared me, reading that, because I am in school for engineering. ENGINEERING. That's about as far away from creative writing as you can get.

I worry, sometimes (okay, a lot), that I made the wrong choice, that being an engineer is going to crush my writing, that being a student athlete steals all my writing time, that I'm going to somehow lose this integral part of me.

But at the same time, I managed to do nano this year, I'm going to at least participate in FAWM and the busier I am, the more story ideas I get. It's as if my muse is fighting back.

And the weird thing is, the other what-if, "What if I devoted myself completely to writing?" terrifies me. It would mean changing majors, giving up programming and robots and software, dropping at least one of the sports I love. 

If I devoted myself completely to writing, I wouldn't recognize myself.

I am who I am and I'm not going to be making radical changes anytime soon. But I think that sometimes it's good to visit all the Morgans who could have been, and mourn some parts of them, and be grateful other parts of them don't exist.
It reminds me why I am who I am and why I do what I do. It forces me to realize once again that I have made the right choices.
Even if I don't get much sleep.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Legs Fiasco, or How to Alienate a Student

The offending image
Yesterday afternoon I tweeted angrily (Storify here) about my "engineering communications" professor. He made a poor choice of image for a presentation, for terrible reasons, then made problematic commentary on the image... and when I explained after class that this made me uncomfortable, he proceeded to pull several textbook derails on the conversation.
Two quick notes:
  1. In the interests of transparency, I'll admit I didn't like this prof to begin with. He's a terrible teacher who gives terrible presentations - reminiscent of my first powerpoints at 10, full of overdone animations, annoying sounds and bad clip art. But I would have taken issue with anyone who did what he did.
  2. The picture's original context is getting in the mood for sex by taking a relaxing scented bubble bath. And in that context, I think the picture actually makes a lot of sense.
My issues lie with its use in this presentation:
It's objectification: the picture isn't of a woman enjoying a bath - it's a pretty pair of legs and nearly more. In my search for the image, I came across several NSFW pictures of women in bathtubs. A lot of them would have been better choices because at least they were about the woman in the bath. Breasts in and of themselves aren't generally offensive - turning a woman into an object is. (probably NSFW example). Plus, this is an example of the trite "sex sells" mantra: using female bodies to attract the presumably male attention/gaze

It's wildly inappropriate for the setting. This is a professional communication course, and this image would not be appropriate for a boardroom. Rather than being just a neutral image, it marginalizes and others any women present in the room (and gay men too, I suspect).

It's completely irrelevant. The prof used the picture on a slide where he talked about Archimedes' famous Eureka moment, on the basis that both involve someone in a bath. Right, just like this picture (a baby in a bubble bath). Why not just use one of the MANY drawings of Archimedes in the bath instead?

His reasoning is sexist. He explained that he "wanted a picture of an old greek man in the bath" (look to the right!), but that it wasn't easy to find (5 seconds and google, I promise), and he thought we'd prefer this instead. Hmm... way to ignore the 30% of women in your class. And we wonder why woman feel shut out of STEM???

When this picture was used as the background to a slide, I was annoyed. And I made a note to myself to speak with him after class. But when I heard his reasoning for the image, and when he made jokes and told us this was a good technique to engage the audience by using something provocative to keep their attention, I nearly blew my stack. 

I came within inches of standing up and interrupting him to object, or at least stalking out. Only the fast that I was so angry I would have been barely coherent stopped me, plus I knew I would speak with him after class. That was when I sent the first tweet.

The rest of class was spent trying not to get caught glaring at the prof. When it ended, I made my way up and expressed how I was uncomfortable with his use of the picture because of the objectification of the woman-

He cut me off to ask me why I assumed the picture was of a woman. Now I'm all for breaking stereotypes and acknowledging differences in personal appearance, but I think we all know this is intended to portray a woman's legs.
WE KNOW. There are plenty of societal/gender-typical clues (shaved legs, bubble bath, candles, toe ring).  If he didn't know, he's either too ignorant to be teaching the class, willfully blind or a derailing jerkass. (I'm thinking b & c.) 

Plus, from the jokes the prof made, it's clear he acknowledged that most people would read the legs as female. Let's be honest: the chances of a similar serious picture of a man existing are extremely low. Try googling "bubble bath legs" and see what I mean. (It's pretty outrageous, if totally unsurprising.)

I tried to keep the conversation going by pointing out some of the above, and bringing up other concerns, but he was bound and determined to be right. To make sure he "won" the conversation, he used derail after derail. I think his thoughts can be summed up as follows:
  • I'm going to accuse you of sexist thinking and make the conversation about a largely irrelevant detail.
  • Your feelings aren't valid because I interpreted the picture differently.
  • I'm not sexist, so you must be being silly/oversensitive. (conveyed by tone and implied in a lot of what he said)
  • I'm going to interrupt you and talk over you constantly. Since I'm so generous, you can say a couple words every now and then.
  • Oh, and I'm also going to take the conversation in whatever tangentially related direction I want, to tell you stories from my (clearly more important) life, nevermind your concerns or opinions.
  • What I did was totally fine, because in the real world marketing people do it all the time! (*extra points for the condescending implication that I, as a woman, wouldn't know about women's bodies being used to sell everything from toothpaste to car insurance)
  • Well, maybe your "upbringing & religious background" influenced your reaction.  (*extra points for assuming my background must be somehow 'wrong' because I disagree with you)
  • It's university! We're just trying to expose you to new ideas & ways of doing things. (*extra points for pretending that his centuries-old sexism is new and edgy)
  • Well I know a female professor who teaches a course in exactly this sort of thing: gender in design
    • (or was it gender and design? Either way I can find no record that this course exists at my school. Not saying he's lying, but I suspect some heavy exaggeration. And even if it does exist, and even if the female prof agrees with him that's using the image was fine, that doesn't somehow 'cancel out' my opinion or render it invalid)

From the very beginning, our "conversation" was about him forcing me to justify and explain and dissect my discomfort. But I don't have to justify my discomfort and anger for it to be real. You can't deny my lived experience because your privilege allows you to not see it.

It was hardly a productive conversation, and I doubt I'll try again with him. It's not worth my mental well-being to deal with someone so convinced that he's right about what is and isn't sexist. From now on, I'm going to sit in the back of those lectures, and pay as little attention as I can get away with. 

But I'm still happier having acted than I would have been letting it go. That's something I've realized is really important to me: that I hold myself accountable to stand up for what I believe in, even when it's hard and not fun, and even when your prof puts you down for it.  As I said on twitter, sometimes it's about standing up and being counted, even if nothing changes.

Lastly and perhaps most importantly - thank you to everyone who supported me about this yesterday. I'm so grateful. 

To everyone reading this: if you could take a moment to comment or share, that would be wonderful. Maybe we'll reach someone who'll react differently next time someone questions their actions. Thank you.

Monday, January 21, 2013

A Comic Book Approach to Consistency

As both a writer and a reader, I recognize the importance of internal consistency. In fact, I would say that consistency is crucial to a good story. But sometimes, say while writing 50k in a month, consistency must be relegated to the back-burner.

A blond character ends up with black hair, or hazel eyes turn blue. It's annoying, but rarely a big deal. It's a matter of line edits, not plot changes. Same goes for names that morph from Lilian to Lily to Lila and maybe even back again. That's a matter for Find-Replace, and no bigger a deal than shifting eye colour, although way funnier.

The problem lies with the more substantial & often purposeful changes. When, thousands of words and many chapters into your story, you decide that your "crown prince" will actually have an older sister. Or that two characters who were happily friends need to hate each other.

Now there's a dilemma. In all likelihood, the bones of the story still work, but there are more than cosmetic changes that need to happen. Changes that will mean revision type work, and that take a whole different kind of energy than drafting. Enter the ret-con.

Ret-con is short for "retroactive continuity" and can be used as a verb for when an author/creator retroactively changes the established canon (which happens a lot in comic book universes). I use it so I can just keep writing even when I change the plot.

The plot in my first drafts tends to undergo a lot of changes, so I've realized that there's no point in worrying that everything always makes sense. When something needs to be different, I note the change, and then I just keep writing under the assumption that that new way of being is now true, pretending I actually did go back and change it.

The true version of the story is in constant flux. The story, in an abstract sense, is a constantly changing thing that references all the latest "updates". My out of order scribblings are just the current poorly representative body for the story.

I'd like to say I came up with this method in some flash of genius, or at least on purpose, but it actually originated from sheer desperation. Nearly ten thousand words into a novel, I realized there were a few key relationships that needed to be drastically different if there was to be any hope of solid conflict later on.

Did I mention I was writing this by hand, during NaNoWriMo? No way was I going back to edit, or crossing anything out. Instead I wrote about five hundred words detailing the new canon and kept going.

I've stuck with the strategy ever since. It makes for a messy draft, but it also makes for a finished draft. And in my opinion, the latter is far more important. 

What's your approach to continuity?

P.S. I'm getting ready for FAWM 2013 by posting some songs from last year to YouTube, starting with "Keep Your Eyes on the Rain". It's the first song I ever made using GarageBand, and so it has actual music! (yes, my standards are low. so sue me)

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Sometimes... sometimes I just don't know

So I have a few posts in various states of readiness and I just can't seem to get my act together enough to put one up.

And I sleep a lot and want to skip class and oscillate between not really caring about my grades (which okay, for me still means I want 80+, but it's a big change from high school), and having all these goals and plans and maybe only halfheartedly folowing through.

And even though I have lots of people I can talk to and crash their group at dinners and even text, I often feel like I have no friends around (in meatspace. you guys online are great. just different.)

And even though today I found out that I'm having a piece I wrote used in a variant on the vagina monologues in my school, and that I've made the nordic ski race team, and I've been overjoyed about those two things -

I still feel like there's too much to do, like I'm overcommitted and stretched too thin and I don't have any support and I don't know what to do. I feel like my life is falling apart. But it's not really. These are just feelings I get semi-regularly.

Or maybe it's that while I have the strongest sense of self-confidence of anyone I know (to the point where it's a bad thing sometimes), I am also incredibly self-critical and I'm not sure it's healthy.

Is this normal in the first year away from home? Even after a successful first semester?

I think I need to talk to someone about all of this.

But I don't even have time to go get a flu shot. When do I have time to figure out myself and my life?

You all have better things to do than talk a whiny 18 year old through growing up, but every small supportive comment or tweet is appreciated.

(I debated about putting this up. But what the hell... better this than nothing, and I think I feel a bit better for having written and shared this. And then going and listening to epic Broadway music. That always helps. But it's frustrating to feel so up and then so down.)