Emily Gilman

Making Stuff Up and Writing It Down Since (Before) I Learned How to Write

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Thoughts on Becoming That Woman

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about my friend Theodora Goss’s recent blog post “Becoming That Woman” (hence the title of my own post here, and yes the pun is absolutely intended).

I think my first reaction as I was reading was to wonder what my That Woman looked like because I knew immediately that she did not look like Dora’s. (Dora and I are in some ways very different people, which is one of the nice things about having friends.) But the more I thought about my That Woman, the more it struck me how visual and specific Dora’s description was. Here’s the particular part I have in mind, for those of you who haven’t clicked the link yet:

She was the sort of woman who walked around European cities, with a scarf wrapped around her neck. She negotiated her way in English and probably French and who knew what other languages. She was beautiful and accomplished: she had done things and she knew it, and out of that came her confidence, her ability to walk through strange cities with a mysterious smile on her face. Looking as though she belonged, wherever she was in the world.

It’s not that the whole description is visual, though we do get a setting (European cities) and an article of clothing (a scarf) and a general adjective (beautiful). It’s that her personality and accomplishments are manifested in her appearance: “[…] a mysterious smile on her face. Looking as though she belonged, wherever she was in the world.” I didn’t entirely realize it, though, until I reached another passage a few paragraphs later:

I don’t think you become her by setting out to. You don’t say to yourself, I’m going to become That Woman, and go out to buy the right clothes. For one thing, you’ll get it wrong, because you probably don’t understand her yet.

The more I thought (and think) about this — that you don’t become her by setting out to — the less sure I was that I agreed. Not about the clothes, mind you! I totally agree about the clothes, and I’m reminded of Willow pretending to be Vampire Willow in the episode “Doppelgangland” from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Willow could put on Vampire Willow’s clothes, but that didn’t mean she knew how to wear them (or, presumably, how to go find more).

The thing is, I don’t know what my That Woman looks like. Maybe it’s because my sense of style has evolved enough that I’ve reached a point where I’m comfortable with it, or maybe it’s because my sense of style has evolved enough that I assume it will keep evolving. Dora’s That Woman also has a very clear setting, but I’m not sure mine does. I doubt she has a particularly mysterious smile, and I don’t know whether she stands out or looks like she belongs.

I can, however, tell you what she does. She writes — not full time, but more than I do now. She reads extensively, both fiction and non-fiction. She reads and writes and speaks and understands French and Arabic, maybe not fluently but enough to be useful, enough to communicate, and she may speak other languages as well. She knows how to pick locks because it’s interesting and potentially useful, and she may or may not know how to hot-wire a car but she’d be willing to give it a try if she had someone to coach her. And she travels, not necessarily a lot and not necessarily alone, but she travels to the places that are important and she has friends to travel with her. She is courageous and clever and loyal and principled and thoughtful.

I’ve found, over the course of the week, that imagining my That Woman has been a really useful exercise for precisely the same reasons why I disagree (in part) with Dora’s statement above. When I look at my description of my That Woman I get the overwhelming sense that I can set out to become her. I can choose to prioritize reading and writing. I can choose to do some of my reading in French, and to make time for teaching myself Arabic. I can learn to pick locks. I can plan trips to places. And while I’m not sure I can set out to be courageous, exactly, I can tell myself not to be afraid, or not to let fear keep me from doing things.

Here’s the other thing that’s been helpful about this exercise, at least for me: imagining my That Woman has helped me to clarify what is and is not important to me. I have a whole long list of languages that I’d like to learn: not just French and Arabic, but Hebrew and Farsi and Turkish and Russian and Irish/Gaelic and maybe Welsh. When I picture my That Woman, though, she definitely speaks French and Arabic. She might or might not speak the others, and she certainly wants to know as many languages as she can, but those are the important ones. And when I think about the languages I feel I “ought” to learn, like Spanish . . . I don’t necessarily picture her speaking them. Not that she couldn’t, or wouldn’t, but it’s not one of the things that makes her That Woman. The same goes for writing and understanding computer code: there’s a level on which it interests me/her, and maybe I’ll pick it up somewhere along the way, but it’s not necessary.

Obviously a lot of the things I’ve listed above require a certain amount of resources — access to language-learning materials and support from others who are learning or already know the languages in question, access to books and movies, money for passports and travel and accommodations, and above all time. I’m not going to accomplish that all at once. But this week, I went back and re-did my first Pimsleur Arabic lesson. I watched less television so that I would have more time to read. I’d hoped to continue with the Arabic but I’m fighting off a head-cold, so yesterday I watched some of Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête (without subtitles) to practice my French. And today my reading focused on research that will help me reach the point where I can begin my next story.

Mostly I’m going to try to keep coming back to my That Woman, when I’m unhappy or bored or just trying to figure out what I want to do next, and think, “What would she do?” I hope that if I focus on that, the rest of it — the people she meets, the places she goes, the things she does — will grow naturally from that.

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Signal Boost: Alpha Scholarship Fundraiser

I’ve never been big on strangers. Don’t get me wrong — I’m glad when I meet interesting new people and make new friends. It’s always scary, though, to be in a room full of new people without a single familiar face. It’s even harder when that room is in an entire state full of new people, and when you’re staying there for days at a time.

But back in high school, when I read that Tamora Pierce would be teaching at a fantasy/sf/horror writing workshop for teenagers, I was both excited and nervous about the idea of applying. I knew I wanted to be a writer, and while I had friends and teachers who were happy to give me feedback on my writing, I needed more. On the other hand, I’d never been to sleep-away camp and never been away from home without any family or friends before. When I finally talked myself into it, my reasoning was pretty much that yes, strangers were scary, but if ever there were a group of people my own age where I’d be virtually guaranteed to get along with at least one of them, this was it. So I applied, and I got in, and I went.

Some effects of Alpha were immediate: I learned about how to format submissions and where to start looking for markets. I received a level of critique that I’d never encountered before, and it was hugely helpful in learning to see the flaws in my own writing and to work on learning how to deal with them, how to revise my work so that it was marketable. I also made friends — real, close friends, people I could talk to and relate to in ways that I never could with classmates at school.

Some effects of Alpha took longer to see: I met older writers, friends of Alphans who helped me feel welcome at conventions, who introduced me to their friends and colleagues and encouraged me to keep writing. I first heard about the college I ended up attending from another, older Alphan who’d applied there. When I went to college I already had one friend there because one of my best friends from Alpha chose the same school I did, and when I chose to focus on literature rather than pursuing a creative writing degree I felt confident in my choice because I knew I had a network of friends to encourage me, to read drafts and give me feedback, while I pursued writing on my own. Nine years after we met, I was Maid of Honor at a fellow Alphan’s wedding.

Alpha is a game-changer for a lot of us. It is also expensive. Not every family can afford the cost of the workshop, let alone travel to and from. That’s why Alpha hosts a fundraiser every year, gathering scholarship money to help make sure that any teen whose writing earns them a spot can afford to attend. Donate any amount, and you’ll also receive this year’s flash-fiction Alphanthology. And you don’t have to take my word for it: Neil Gaiman gave Alpha a shout-out in a recent blog post and past teachers have great things to say about the workshop, the students, and the positive effects both have on the greater sf/f/h community.

Actually, the fact that this Web site exists here in this form is thanks to several Alphans I’ve never met except online. We attended in different years, and we’ve yet to run into each other at a convention or other event. When I asked for advice on Facebook, though, they responded. What can I say? Like so many of the more experienced writers we’ve encountered, we tend to be fans of paying it forward.