bodies of work

AVQ&A body-shamingAt The A.V. Club, I take part in an AVQ&A spurred by Amy Schumer’s call-out of Glamour for including her in their special plus-sized edition’s list of “women who inspire us.”

On Twitter, I mentioned: On reflection, I wish I’d thought to mention (and celebrate) women whose physical type is neither the Hollywood norm nor “plus-sized.” Women like Leslie Jones, whose sexuality is often treated as a punchline, but who OWNS that stage when she’s on it. Women like Gwendoline Christie, who is commonly cast in fantasy roles, as if she can’t fit into reality.

Because the narrow range of bodies TV & films feature isn’t just about slenderness; it’s being tall but not “too” tall, strong but not “too” strong, being muscular and slim, but not “too” muscular or “too” slim. It’s about being effortlessly able-bodied, but not “too” able. It’s an unstated, ever-present ideal that has come to represent “normal” in entertainment, an ideal impossible for most women.

And it’s about demeanor as well as appearance. It’s about being sexually appealing, but never “too” sexual, which is cast as rapacious or predatory or pathetic. It’s about fitting into an impossibly narrow margin of arbitrarily designated desirability, one that’s so narrowly defined in TV & film that casting someone who’s just a few inches outside those margins seems strikingly exotic.

 

In recent years, I’ve identified heavily with Lauren Ash’s characters: strapping, vigorous, powerful women, whose strength & sexuality are punchlines. In Super Fun Night and in Superstore, she reads as BIG and STRONG, so I was jolted to realize she’s inches (and presumably several sizes) smaller than I am. Even her characteristic presentation as larger-than-life (and my easy confusion about her actual size) shows what a narrow range TV accepts as normative, and how easy it is to convey otherness by casting a few inches outside it.

(I started to add these follow-up remarks to the article’s comments over at The A.V. Club, then I realized no one could pay or persuade me to wade into the comments of an article where I described myself as plus-sized. AND YOU CAN’T MAKE MEEEEEEEEEEEE.)

mind game

I spent most of an evening distracting myself with this simple puzzle before I started wondering why it was so unsatisfying to me. It should be satisfying. It’s just the kind of quick-hit game I like: wordless, no frills, complex enough to be gratifying and easy enough to fun. But it wasn’t either.

And then I saw it. The instant I finish a puzzle, the screen moves on to the next one. There’s no ding!, no triumphant flourish, no moment of reflection. Every solved puzzle gives way to the next puzzle without pause; it’s an unending cycle of needing to accomplish without ever feeling accomplishment.

And then I thought what a perfect metaphor that is for my mindset at the moment, and how simple it would be to change that.

cry

I started crying for no reason while telling The Fella, “I’m not that sick,” so I guess I am that sick.

Soon after, I wanted to be sitting under my blanket, but I was already sitting on my blanket. That posed such an unsolvable physical puzzle that I started (barely) crying in frustration.

(Crying is a big symptom of illness in the women in my family. Decades ago, my mother was diagnosed with pneumonia only after she started crying while telling the doctor, “I’m not that sick.”)

advice to aspiring writers…

… of a sort.

Since I started writing professionally, plenty of complete strangers have contacted me to ask how they can get my job.

It’s never quite as frank as that, but it’s often unpleasantly audacious. The aspiring writer, someone who’s never contacted me before, will send me an email or a tweet — sometimes opening with a perfunctory compliment on my work, sometimes not — often larded with invasive questions. “How much money do you make annually?” “Do you have a secure, salaried job?”

Then they tell me the specifics, and I do mean specifics, of their lives, expecting me to tailor advice to their particular life situation, though I know from comparing with colleagues that their messages are often cut-and-pasted boilerplate sent out willy-nilly to several of us, changing only the name.

I don’t claim to have fantastic advice for aspiring writers. But if you think I’m knowledgeable enough to harvest advice from, you should think I’m worth cultivating a relationship with, or at least reading regularly.

Pro-tip: If the first time you contact a stranger, it’s to ask for a highly specific favor, that is… sub-optimal.

So here’s my advice to aspiring writers who seek me out:

Write. Write frequently, write for yourself, hone your style and speed.

Learn to pitch. Learn to write a tight, concise paragraph that captures your thesis.

When you contact a stranger looking for help, that is a pitch. Be brief, be courteous, be professional, and remember you might not get the answer you like — or any answer at all.

Better yet, don’t contact strangers. If you hope to get help, including advice, identify writers whose style and work you enjoy. Comment on their articles, share their work, follow them on Twitter or Tumblr, and know who they are. Cultivate relationships and conversations with them before you hit them up for help…

… but only if that develops organically. Anyone with a wide audience gets emails, friend requests, and @s from lots of readers. Taking time to answer them all would leave no time for the job of writing. If they never get back to you, don’t take it personally.

“Don’t take it personally” is a good lodestar for a writer. When an editor rejects a piece, you don’t know why. It might be about quality; it’s more likely about fit: how the writer’s voice fits with the publication, how the proposed piece fits in the calendar, how every little thing fits with every other thing. Find places where you fit, and expect regular rejection.

Finally, every single aspiring writer who’s cold-contacted me for advice, including a series of prying questions about my finances and a detailed personal history so I can really dig in and craft a personalized response, has presented as a man.

The women who’ve asked me for advice have done so after long acquaintance. Their requests for advice are a natural outgrowth of our ongoing conversations on Twitter and elsewhere, and I’m happy to have those conversations!

Strangers, so far all of them men, routinely drop six paragraphs of biography and qualifications into my email* and wait for me to wade through it and respond. Aspiring writers, don’t do that. Aside from the presumption, that is too long for a pitch.

To sum up: If we already have occasional conversations, I’ll be happy to have one about writing. If we don’t, I probably won’t.

*To find my email, they’re likely clicking through my byline to my Twitter, from my Twitter to this blog, from my blog to my about me page, and finding the email. And at no point do they stop on those pages to engage with me first.

we have to call her something

I don’t really believe in ghosts, because the evidence just isn’t compelling.

Including what I’ve seen myself.

I worked in a boutique in an oldish building in a New England seaside town. One quiet day, I was standing behind the counter organizing jewelry when I was surprised to see a woman standing in the middle of the shop. I say “surprised” because she would have had to walk directly past me to enter, and I hadn’t seen her.

I automatically smiled and said “Hello.” She — I barely had time to get an impression of her: pale brown hair pulled back in a chignon or bun, high-necked white blouse, long dark skirt (long skirts were in style then; I owned several myself) — gave me a severe look, walked (or moved, or glided, depending on how spooooOOOOoooky you want to get) a few steps, roughly parallel to me, toward a narrow supportive column in the middle of the room, and as she reached it, she vanished.

This all took maybe a second, and it took me maybe another second to react: Though the column was no thicker than my leg, I walked over and looked behind it, then checked under and around all the clothing racks, the dressing room, even the staff-only stairwell and loft.

I scoured that shop, getting more and more nervous — not because I thought I’d seen a ghost, but because I’d seen a woman and the only logical explanation was that she was hiding for reasons of her own.

I didn’t find her.

One of my employers came by later, and I mentioned the odd thing I’d seen, almost (but not quite) accepting that I’d hallucinated it. He had me describe her in as much detail as I could, then said “Right, that’s our ghost. Oh, we didn’t tell you?”

YEAH NO YOU DID NOT

Given what we know about vision, hallucinations, pareidolia, and so on, I don’t think my own fleeting sight is any kind of compelling evidence, and I know my then-employer would have agreed to any description that was remotely close to what he believed he’d seen, so that isn’t what I’d consider reasonable corroboration. In later discussions with others who thought they’d seen her, I think we were leaning toward corroboration, not toward doubt, and that we cobbled together a shared image of what we claimed we’d seen. And still… we did see something similar.

But apparently there’s a part of me that kinda believed, because when we moved locations and the other owner mentioned that she’d invited Alexandra (“We call her Alexandra because we have to call her something”) to move with us, my reaction wasn’t a neutral nod but a “YOU DID WHAT?” I was the one who spent long work days in there; I was the one who would have to make sense of any weird sightings; I was the one who had to track down the things that went missing.

Oh, yeah, things went missing. DID I NOT SAY? Sewing needles, spools of thread, scissors. I could be alone in the shop, in the middle of sewing on a button or mending a seam, turn to answer the phone, and turn back a minute later to find the needle I had certainly poked into the fabric for safekeeping missing, or the scissors placed on a high shelf across the room, or the spool of thread moved several feet away. A co-worker of mine speculated that Alexandra had been a seamstress; I speculated that Alexandra was A PAIN IN MY ASS.

We also heard noises, which isn’t hard to explain in any old building, and found dresses in ridiculous places, which isn’t hard to explain when customers (though mostly lovely) could exhibit some bizarre behavior. We’d find the downstairs office doors, off the sale cellar, open when they had no business being open. Sometimes I’d hear them pop open when there was no one in the cellar.

A co-worker and friend of mine was a bit scared of “our ghost,” and I tried to talk her down with a graceless combination of reason and scoffing. It was all explicable, a clutch of unrelated visual glitches, old-building noises, and forgetfulness, I told her. “But you saw her!” “I saw something, for a second. Minds see a lot of things* that aren’t there.” Rationally, there were far simpler explanations than ghosts. Occam’s razor, blah blah blah.

But here’s the night I could never explain.

Each night, the closing staff person had to go downstairs, tidy all the racks, make sure the double office doors were closed, turn off the lights, then finish closing the upstairs.

One night, alone in the shop, front door locked, I heard an ENORMOUS bang from the cellar. I thought a rack had toppled over, or a mirrored closet door had fallen. I zipped downstairs to see both office doors still shaking from banging open against the concrete half-wall behind them. As I stood watching, the doors – then coming to rest from their violent opening — began to move more vigorously, flapping back and forth with no visible means of movement. If someone had been standing there, frantically flapping the doors back and forth, that’s what it would look like. But no one was.

I fled. I turned tail and ran up the stairs, not turning out the cellar lights, not closing the office doors, not nothing. I shakily finished counting out the drawer, keeping one eye on the stairwell, and left as quickly as I could.

It’s years later now, and I still don’t believe in ghosts — at least, I don’t think the evidence of the existence of ghosts is very strong. I don’t think my own uncorroborated experiences add up to much. I do not know how to explain them, and I suppose that, taken as unconnected events, they don’t require much explanation: a random hallucination, a settling building, ordinary human forgetfulness, an old, inadequate substructure shaken by the busy street outside.

But still, my mind insists on seeing them as part of a pattern, so they puzzle me, and I still think of them from time to time and wonder.

_________________________

*I suffer from sleep paralysis, so I know very well that my brain sees things that aren’t real. But I can’t recall any experiences of drug-free hallucinations in broad daylight anywhere but in that building.

Oh, speaking of “in that building,” I lived in an apartment upstairs, where periodically I would see a cat. I didn’t have a cat, no one else’s cat could have got in, and when I would look harder, there would be no cat. I dismissed this as a fluke of memory and sight: I’d grown up with cats, so when I saw a stray ray of light or shadow, my brain thought cat.

Then my (extremely hard-headed, rational) father came over for a visit and joked, “You have a ghost cat!” I asked what the hell he meant, and he said, “I keep thinking I see a cat out of the corner of my eye.”

So. I don’t believe in ghosts. I do believe most “ghostly” phenomena can be explained by things we already know about human brains and eyes and ears, and about old buildings. But I’m very, very open to being wrong.

[This post is a response to Nicole Cliffe’s request for readers’ personal ghost stories.]