Emily Gilman

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

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Good Things

I can tell it’s almost the end of the school year by how tired I am. At the same time, it doesn’t feel like the end of the school year because the weather’s been so mild. (Not that I’m complaining, mind you! I’m just as happy to save the hot weather for when I can wear tank tops and sundresses and not worry about work clothes.)

I have at least one entry that’s been rattling around in my brain for a while now, but I’ve been too tired and too busy to actually write it and have it make sense. I’m getting impatient, though, so to tide me over here are some things that have made me happy lately:

  • I just read Mikki Kendall’s story “If God Is Watching” and holy cow are there a lot of things to like about it. You should just go read it, but I especially liked her narrator’s strength and the way she tries to navigate what she can do vs. what she’s willing to do. But I also love the narrator’s parents. And her brother. And her friends. And why are you reading this when you could be reading that? (Unless you already have read it and are coming back, in which case thanks.)
  • Galen Fitzpatrick is a friend of friends whose music I’ve been hearing about for years. After hearing his song “Mud” I finally sat down and really listened to his album James McGovern about a week ago, and I’ve been listening to it pretty much constantly since. To be able to listen to the same seven songs on repeat for days and not get bored? Bliss for those of us with music addictions and obsessive tendencies.
  • I generally prefer paper books to ebooks (“prefer” might be putting it mildly), but a recent conversation with an old friend finally convinced me to invest in an ebook copy of Middle East Patterns: Places, Peoples, and Politics in addition to my paperback copy. My hope is that this will make it easier to work on story research whenever I find myself with a few minutes of downtime without having to lug a textbook around everywhere. I’m also finding the book fascinating in its own right, since the areas and cultures it covers were so poorly represented in my formal education. Which is all to say: hooray for increased productivity and hooray for new things!
  • I also found a copy of The Jerusalem Bible for a quite reasonable amount of money! As a former literature-and-theology major whose hero-since-she-was-thirteen has been Mary Russell, it’s great fun to have a different translation of the Bible that is full of scholarly notes. I’ve also been slowly working my way through a translation of the Qur’an, and while I am very much enjoying the text itself, the version I have is also just a beautiful book from which it is a pleasure to read; it’s nice to finally have a Bible of which I can say the same. As if that weren’t exciting enough, the copy of The Jerusalem Bible I found is the same hardcover-with-slipcase (in the same color, even!) as my mom’s copy that’s been on our shelf at home my entire life, so it’s very satisfying to see it there on my own shelf looking The Way A Bible Should Look.
  • I got to go to my five-year college reunion a couple weeks back. It was great to reconnect with people I still like a lot but haven’t kept in touch with. I loved the fireworks, which were gorgeous and so close and especially satisfying since I’d missed them at my own graduation. It was good-but-strange-but-good to walk around a campus that is still so familiar and that I still love deeply and see all the big and small changes both in the campus and in myself. (More on that next time.) And I got to both acquire and show off my newest tattoo, which I’d had to postpone after car troubles prevented me from making my original appointment. The tattoo ended up looking a little different from how I’d pictured it in terms of size and placement, but it is perfect and I love it, and it’s probably good for me to be reminded every so often that when things don’t go exactly the way I plan it’s sometimes because they turn out even better.

That’s enough for a post, right? And, I hope, enough to put off the I-must-write-NOW impulse for a couple more weeks while I let that other entry finish coming together in my head. While I work on that, what are some things making you happy, dear readers?

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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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Words With Teeth

I’ve been thinking a lot about language, the last week and a half or so. Partly it’s the shock of going from being surrounded by friends my own age and older at Arisia to being surrounded by kids at work. Partly it’s that I’ve been listening to Matthew Ebel‘s music pretty much non-stop since I got home from the con.

You see, on the one hand there are a lot of these songs that I really want to play for (at least subsets of) the aforementioned kids at work. Almost every song I think they’d appreciate, though, includes language that honestly probably wouldn’t faze them but that I would have a hard time justifying to my boss, let alone to a protective parent. This is especially true of “The Last Pirate,” which (bought from iTunes) has one of those little “Explicit” boxes next to it but which makes librarian-me giggle. (Seriously: it feels like on the rare occasions when I’m not trying to teach kids how to avoid plagiarism it’s because I’m trying to explain the distinctions between plagiarism and piracy/copyright infringement and how they are different kinds of Bad Things To Do.)

On the other hand, it’s nice to listen to such music in my apartment or my car and reinforce the sense that this is a space away from work. It’s similar to the feeling of encountering someone who knows exactly what I mean when I talk about someone or something being “mundane,” but that’s a matter of being able to relax into geekiness. In this case it’s a matter of being able to relax into . . . I’m not sure — adulthood? Into the assumption that everyone present is mature enough to handle “strong language,” especially when it’s being used because the words have teeth?

That’s the phrase that keeps coming to mind as I’ve been thinking about writing this: “words with teeth.” Because really, I don’t just mean profanity in general. Often, profanity is dull and meaningless, used for punctuation or emphasis without any thought about what it really means: profanity for the sake of profanity, or because the speaker (or writer) is being careless. I mean words — profane or otherwise — that are used harshly, to express anger or frustration or self-deprecation or sadness (or . . . or . . . or) in a way that is visceral, that cuts the way those emotions do.

One of my favorite musical examples of this is the Mumford and Sons song “Little Lion Man,” the chorus of which goes:

But it was not your fault but mine
And it was your heart on the line
I really fucked it up this time
Didn’t I my dear?

Partly it’s the bitter way Marcus Mumford sings it, the way he bites off the words. Partly it’s the repetition of that short “u” sound. Certainly there are any number of words you could replace it with, but they sound wrong: “screwed it up” doesn’t quite scan; “messed it up” has too soft a sound. “Mucked it up” comes closest, keeping both the short “u” and the “ck” that makes the word appropriately angry and sharp. It’s still not the same, though. Sometimes you really do mean “fucked it up,” not anything tamer.

Lest you think I’m still only talking about profanity, here’s a different example that led me to the idea of words with teeth, this time from another Matthew Ebel song. One of my favorite of his songs (that I’ve encountered so far) is also one of the ones that makes me saddest, mostly because of two lines that have always jumped out at me even before I caught the lyrics surrounding them. First, the song: “These Wars We Fight”

Now, the lyrics in question, with the relevant lines in bold:

Hanging by a lonely thread
Trying not to come back dead
There are worse things, so I’ve said before
So why gripe at all? This mess is almost through
I’ll be coming home real soon
And other lies I’ve said to you before

I actually had to listen carefully to the song, even though I’ve listened to it several times already today, to check those first four lines, but the two in bold I always catch even when I’m not paying attention. (Or do they always catch me?) In this case the sense of teeth comes from the juxtaposition: “I’ll be coming home real soon” is so familiar, so cliché, that it invokes a sense of nostalgia even before you consider the bittersweet sound of the music so far, so to follow that by immediately lumping it in with “other lies I’ve said to you before” (and emphasizing the word “lies” when singing it) takes all that sense of hope and familiarity and uses it to create an opposite effect.

The list could go on (The Decemberists’ song “Red Right Ankle” has a devastating, visceral example in the third verse; one of the most moving moments in the movie Saved! is a quiet scene in which the protagonist simply stands and swears, and in context it’s just . . . powerful), but mostly at this point I’m reminded of the rule of thumb I’ve always heard regarding Young Adult fiction: you can have sex and drugs and violence and swearing and all kinds of things that grown-ups generally try to shield kids from as long as it serves the story. Now, there’s more to it than that, especially in the way a YA novel handles a topic compared with a novel on the same topic written for adults (think Elizabeth Wein’s novel Code Name Verity*, where the narrator largely talks around her own torture and that of other prisoners, referring to things obliquely and usually in the past tense, not glossing over them but not dwelling upon them or becoming too graphic either), but as a writer I think that’s my own impulse as well.

As a writer, it’s important to me that sometimes my characters swear. Sometimes, having them react differently would be dishonest. But really, at the end of the day I’m much more interested in writing with teeth — my own writing, I hope, and definitely other people’s — whether those teeth come from a deliberate use of profanity, from unexpected juxtaposition of words or ideas, or simply from the exact right word at the exact right moment.

* I’m currently about halfway through Code Name Verity, so no spoilers please! I can say, though, that so far it is absolutely living up to the hype I’ve gotten from friends and colleagues who’ve read it.