Changing Minds

With multiple states trying to pass Beta Gilead, I have been lost for words. Along with scores of women across the country, I'm enraged, disgusted, and despondent, but what can I do to change the tide? I live in a state where a woman's right to choose is well-protected and will stay that way for the foreseeable future.  

Then I remembered a conversation I had about three years ago with an Uber driver. It was the only time I've ever, at the very least, changed one person’s perception of the pro-choice stance.  

He was an older white man and was pleasant enough until we somehow we got to abortion. I don't remember how we got there, but I wound up telling him my story. My wife and I have a… tumultuous history. We met online in 2011, had a fifteen-hour-long first date, and after a whirlwind romance that lasted three months, we found ourselves in limbo and we weren't sure whether we wanted to stay together. Why? Well, along with her realization I had a bad drinking problem, she wasn't sure she wanted kids, and I did. We spent some time apart and both decided, separately, we would move on from each other because we had different life goals. At twenty-six, I wanted to make long-term plans. I didn't want to take a chance that five, or ten years down the line, she would decide not to have children and it would force me to make the impossible decision between someone I loved and the potential family I wanted.  

At some point either during or right before our limbo, I made an offhand comment about her boobs getting bigger, and she freaked out and took a pregnancy test. I went over to her place, ready to cut ties, and she was prepared to do the same. The test came back positive. Cue a shared panic attack. Our relationship was pretty much over, and we were facing a possible pregnancy. In a rare episode of sensibility, we talked it through. I voiced my support for an abortion. As much as I wanted a child, I didn't want one with a mother that would resent it. If she was to choose to be a parent, I wanted that decision to have no pressure coming from me. It had to be 100% her own. I laid out all the logical reasons:

1.      she had a tiny studio apartment

2.       I was living with my mother

3.      we were poor

4.      she had yet to finish college

5.      we had no retirement savings of any kind

6.      it would be catastrophic for us

7.      Oh yea, and we were about to break up

She agreed, and we made the decision to abort if she was actually pregnant. But first we had to make sure, so we made an appointment to see a doctor. 

We get to the clinic and sure enough, when the doctor came back in she says, "Yep you're pregnant. Were you planning on continuing the pregnancy or not?" It was the moment of truth. My then sorta-girlfriend stuttered, hemmed and hawed for a few seconds and I said, "We need to talk about it."  

We went to Taphouse Grill for lunch­ -I still remember what I ate- and we talked. She said that she knew it was smarter for us to abort, but she couldn't go through with it. That when it came down to it, she wanted to be a mother, and even though it wasn't the way she might have wanted it, that was her decision. The subsequent events of our relationship could fill multiple seasons of a telenovela, but we're currently happy, healthy, sober, and have added one more to our family. When I told the Uber driver that story, he paused and said that he had never heard pro-choice from that angle. That most of us choose NOT to abort. I didn't get into the underlying factors that led us to feel comfortable with that decision like Washington State has a lot of programs to help struggling mothers, a strong economy, and we both have stable local familial support structures. He thanked me for sharing my story and dropped me off.  

I don't know why that worked. Maybe it's because instead of the ephemeral idea of saying it's about the right to choose, it was a real, live person telling a story that made it more visceral. Maybe he only listened to me because I'm a man, or we were trapped in a car, so he had no choice. Whatever the reason, it worked. I don't know if, in print, it will have the same impact, but I want to add at least the one thing that worked because we need to change minds. I've had multiple, angry arguments about statistics, facts, emotional appeals, and the things that should convince someone who thinks logically but it never has. This story did. Maybe it can again.  

Why I Read Exclusively Female Authors for the Last Few Years and What I've Learned.

A few years ago, a friend asked me, “Hey Victor, settle a debate for me. What would happen if you put a werewolf on the moon?” That conversation snowballed into five short stories and a novel. Though writing had always been one of my ambitions, I hadn’t thought to pursue it seriously until then and set myself to learning the craft. I discovered the Writing Excuses podcast and devoured as much information as I could from each episode. Then I got to the one about Unconscious Bias. In that episode, Shannon Hale talks about how she asks male students if they can list twenty female authors that they’ve read multiple books from. I got to about six before I had to start googling female authors to find ones I’ve read. This did not sit well with me for multiple reasons.

1.      My main character was a woman.

2.      I know what it’s like to be underrepresented in science fiction and fantasy.

3.      I like to think of myself as a feminist, and realized I was woefully lacking in my experience of female authorship.

I figured, if I was going to be writing from the perspective of a woman, I had damn well better read women writing women. So, I did. What I learned is hard to encapsulate in a blog post, but I’ll try to distill it.

Firstly, I understand now why many women roll their eyes when men like George R.R. Martin answer the question “How do you write women so well?” with “Well I just think of them as people.” That’s a start, but it’s not close to enough.

Yes, women are people. That should be a given. What that answer misses is the entire female experience is drastically different than men’s. Everything from walking to the grocery store, ordering food, talking to a doctor, to riding the bus is done with different considerations. This needs to be coded into our writing, or at bare minimum considered. There’s just a certain level of caution that most, if not all women, live with, and women of color? That’s an entire other post. There’s an argument to be made about having aspirational characters that buck that structural pressure, but I would argue that if you’re going to do that, at least make mention of just how much of an uphill battle that is. At nearly every turn of a woman’s life they’ve been told either with explicit direction, or through socialized pressure not to be certain things. Not to be so outspoken, emotional, contrary. Don’t be so loud and stop roughhousing with boys that’s not lady-like. Here, wear this dress and these heels, aren’t you cute? Black shirt? Don’t you want pink or purple? I think that’d look cuter. What’s worse is when children aren’t even given the choice. They’re handed their gender-based color schemes and interests and that’s it. This kind of pressure isn’t as direct but it’s damaging in that it becomes woven into the tapestry of their identity. How many women have refused to go to the doctor because they’re just “overreacting”? Or they look at a girl wearing torn fishnets, green hair, leather studded black jackets and said something derisive? Then there’s the phrase “real women have curves/treat their man like a prince/insert banal definition of femininity.”

So how can I glean all of that from just reading women? It’s not like fantasy and sci-fi are essays about feminism. You’re right. But not really. You don’t even have to look that hard to see it. In Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons her character, extensively, talks about the struggles of a woman trying not just to be taken seriously, but even getting into natural biology. Current STEM allegory anyone? Charlie N. Holmberg’s Paper Magician sees her main character continuously stifle her reactions and words around the men in the book, and you’ll see it time and time again. If you pay attention.

The other thing I didn’t expect to learn so much about was romance, and only recently figured out why men are typically bad at it. The first time I read a romance scene after having learned about writing characters, I was blown away. The sheer amount of development a writer can cram into a good sex scene was a revelation to me. I thank Elizabeth Bear for breaking my brain with that. In her book Range of Ghosts, the first scene between Edene and Temur spells out, with beautiful prose, the dynamic between them. He respects her enough to let her lead, to trust she knows what she wants and doesn’t question her. She has the agency to take charge, she’s fierce, unafraid of going after what she wants and as we read more that interaction tracks with their character development as the novels go on. Different characters in later chapters have a different love-dynamic and the writing bears that out.

As to why men tend to be worse, I think John Grisham is a perfect example. In an interview, he told the story about how he tried to write a sex scene once. He gave it to his wife, and he heard her laughing from across the house. It’s a funny anecdote, until you unpack it and apply it to more men who either avoid writing romance or do it poorly. I have had my wife roll her eyes at my writing on occasion. It stings. A lot. The difference is that I took the criticism and applied it instead of letting my bruised ego dictate that I remain bad at something. That being said, I don’t write romance often because I still don’t think I’m good at it. Although after spending some time with the WritingCommunity on Twitter and reading the horrors of some of the romance out there, I might be better at it than I thought. I may give writing a short romance story a try and see how it’s received.

Ultimately my immersion into female literature was not so much eye-opening as it was a realignment of my world view. Much of what I talked about is taking the themes I read about and applying it to the world around me. I listened to women talk about their experiences, then read books written by them. I heard their complaints and saw clearly the situations I explained here. I am more cognizant of the way I interact with women, how I am perceived by them, and I try to put that not just into my writing, but into my life. I will never know what it’s like to be a woman, but I can continue to absorb their creative output to better inform mine.


1,460 Days of Sobriety

Today is four years. It’s hard to remember my life without sobriety. To think of myself as the guy who would go around a bar at closing time pretending to help clean, when in reality, I was just drinking stranger’s leftovers. Because, hey, free booze right? Jesus. Even after four years I’m still discovering how lost I was.

A lot has happened this past year that tested my resolve. I lost a friend to cancer, I quit my job, I started my own practice. I’ve become a stay at home dad and started potty training my daughter. If that doesn’t make anyone want to drink, then they’re lying to you. I finished my first novel. Reflecting on that, I’m realizing that book has been a work in progress almost as long as I’ve been dry. Crazy.

The amount of things I’ve learned across the time I’ve fought the demons within me is the fuel that powers my writing so it’s impossible to put it all down here. What I can tell you, and as I’ve told many before, is that nobody does it alone. Period. I don’t know a single person who has. I know I didn’t. It took a team of cops, corrections officers, lawyers, judges, and clinic staff to get me there. It took a group of like-afflicted persons made up of any mix of color, gender, creed and social class you can think of to carry me the rest of the way. It took the unwavering love, compassion and support of those closest to me to keep me afloat when I let despair claw its way in.

It also took a lot of forgiveness. I’ve noticed people talk about it a lot in an ephemeral sort of way. That, of course forgiveness is good, we should totally forgive people. What I think most don’t understand is how deep it goes. Can you forgive the drunk driver who killed your son? I don’t know if I could, but I met someone who has. Are you capable of forgiving, and loving the one who took your legs? Shit, I don’t know about that one either but I also met that person. You know what both of those people do? They fight for legislation to make treatment easier to obtain for drunk drivers. To seek a more compassionate legal system. That kind of forgiveness is unimaginable to me and yet here I am alive, well, and thriving in no small part to their efforts. What’s more is that when I had a full, clear vision of the damage I had done to myself and to those around me I had to learn to forgive me enough to allow for a second chance. To truly believe that I deserved it and to accept the forgiveness of those who also thought I should have another shot. It is not easy.

To say I’m grateful to those who’ve stuck by me, supported me and never blinked twice when I had to leave due to my limits on being around alcohol is such a gross understatement that it almost feels offensive. I don’t know how to adequately thank someone for being the reason I’m alive. All the same, thank you. I dedicate this year of sobriety, as I do every year to you all. I love you, and thank you for loving me in return.