I don’t know how far back memories can go to infancy, but I think that most of us can at least imagine a time before we became aware of time.
When we’re infants the world is a crib, our parents, and the people we rely on to keep us alive. We have no concept of time; we’re not even conscious of the fact that our bodies need food and sleep. As we grow, the world becomes a playground, an endless canvas for our imaginations to explore. Before long, we become aware of the physical limits imposed on us by the outside world through pain, or the guidance of the people who raised us. By then we’re aware of time, although that time is still largely our own. When we play, we get caught up in the joy of it and keeping track of time is the furthest thing from our minds. An afternoon of playing with friends can feel like minutes until you notice the sun is setting and you’re being called home.
When we move into our teens and adulthood, time seems to pull us in different directions. Our lives become a maze of work schedules, class times, romantic and family relationships. Responsibilities impose demands on our time, and before long we end up running at someone else’s speed, usually chasing someone else’s dream.
Whether shaped by culture or life experiences, we all have a rhythm. One person’s rhythm may lead them away from following schedules, toward following their dreams without regard to forethought or safety. Another’s may lead to them working eighteen-hour days and becoming the president of a company. Sometimes those dreams are dissimilar, but either lifestyle can burn a person out. The speed of the modern world puts us into roles we may not have known the consequences of when we began to play them. How many brilliant artists never use their gift because the rhythm of their traditions told them they could only be a complete person by becoming a mother? How many entrepreneurs with amazing ideas are trapped in jobs they hate because the larger rhythm of their cultural background says they need to be the breadwinner of a family at all times and anything else is a pipe dream?
A lot of my own life has been about dancing to someone else’s rhythm. The pattern was set early, from getting up every Sunday morning to accompany my grandfather, a popular Baptist preacher, to church. Because I was a preacher’s kid, there were a lot of expectations on me to be successful, although I had no idea what that meant in general, and definitely not for myself. Regardless, I took the idea of being successful into my working life and my personal life. Looking back, I can recall relationships that I wasn’t really a part of because I was so focused on my next move that I refused to enjoy the moment I was in. I sabotaged a lot of potential relationships and friendships that way, and it’s something I still wrestle with.
We live in a time when admitting you want to find yourself is seen as selfish. Even if you don’t have anyone depending on you, people will still judge you by the images and projections they attach to you. But it’s not fair to move from one phase of your life to another without taking stock of where you’re going. Obligations happen soon enough, and it’s better to enter into them when you’re sure that they’re a responsibility you can handle. I don’t have kids, but everyone I know who does tells me that any selfishness in your character has to be let go of once you’re in control of the well-being of another life.
The same is true for romantic relationships. Whether it’s an emotional connection, dancing, or sex, it’s amazing when two people create a rhythm that builds on itself until you reach a place that satisfies you both. A relationship, a true relationship, is compromise. Anytime you attempt to merge separate personalities and life experiences in the same physical or psychological space, there will be compromise. But before you can compromise, you need to be a complete person, aware of the things you want and stand for. To do that, you need time for self-reflection, however long that takes. Otherwise, you have a situation where one partner feeds off the energy and time of the other partner, until there’s nothing else to give.
A few years ago, I fell in love with an Italian women who was living in the U.S. At times, she would get depressed and tell me she missed the culture she grew up in. She had spent several years in America. We decided it was fair that I experience her way of life, so we moved to Italy. The day after we arrived, I left our apartment to go to the corner store up the street. It was closed, along with most of the other businesses. People were out on the streets talking with friends and family, enjoying the day. A friend of my girlfriend, a lawyer I’d met the previous night, came up to me. He was riding a bicycle, wearing a pinstriped suit with the legs neatly folded above his ankles, showing his socks and expensive-looking shoes. He said in English that he’d just left court and was going to ride to the beach and take a break for a little while.
It was my first experience with the riposo, the Italian version of the siesta, when work stops and people suspend their schedules to rest and center themselves before heading back to finish out the workday. I didn’t understand at first. Later, I realized what an amazing thing it is. I didn’t know anything about the concept of work-life balance, but I was in the middle of a culture built on that. People actually took the time to enjoy the things they worked for. I didn’t know how much I had internalized the American attitude of living to work. When the relationship ended and I returned home, my rhythm had synchronized to the Italian pace of life. I tried to keep a little of that close, but America is a hard place to make that happen if you’re not independently wealthy.
This society isn’t set up for reflection. From our art to the people we idolize, everything about America reinforces the idea of pushing yourself to be the best, to do more, to have it all, whatever “it” is. There’s twenty-four hours in a day, and they all need to be filled with some sort of activity that will get you to the “next level.” If you have a job, you gotta hustle to work. When you get there, you gotta be sure your superiors see you being active. Being productive is beside the point. It’s like American society runs on the fear of falling behind everyone else. Instead of doing something for the pleasure of the thing itself and for your own benefit, everything becomes a race where the only goal is to not be overtaken by your competition.
That’s a dangerous way to live. When you’ve lost yourself in somebody else’s world, you look for ways to reassert yourself, regardless of whether the outlets you choose are positive or negative. You search for external things to get your groove back. Material things. Physical things. Chemical things. That mentality destroys relationships and individuals.
We need to give ourselves room to breathe. That’s easy to say, but not so easy to do if you’re responsible for your own livelihood and the security of a family. But if we don’t do something as a culture to relieve some of the pressure we’re under, a physical or psychological collapse will happen eventually.
The elders in my family had a saying: children can’t wait to grow up, and when they do, they wish they could go back. I didn’t understand it when I was younger, but I do now. Once you’re in, you’re in. But there has to be a way reclaim our rhythm before it’s gone forever.
I’m still trying to reclaim my own. You can’t discover your own pace if you’re following someone else. We need to learn how to make time to live for ourselves before we can give anything to the people we love and care for.
The Many Different Loves of "Let's Talk about Love"
When people think of love, romantic love comes to mind. It is often tied with sexual attraction and the act of sex, seemingly inseparable.
As a result, asexual people who experience romantic attraction but not sexual attraction have a hard time explaining their identity to potential romantic partners as well as friends and family. In Claire Kann’s debut young adult novel Let’s Talk About Love the main lead is a Black biromantic asexual girl named Alice who is learning to redefine and appreciate the several types of love she experiences.
When it comes to asexuality, it is important to note that it exists on a spectrum that consists of a lack of sexual attraction as well as a lack of romantic attraction. Let’s Talk About Love features only one facet and experience of asexuality and should not be treated as a definitive text. However, there is no denying that it’s a notable book in more ways than one. Unlike most teen coming-of-age stories, this one is set in college during summer. This allows for a realistic, easygoing plot that focuses on self-discovery.
When the novel opens, Alice has just been dumped by her girlfriend Margot because she doesn’t understand Alice’s asexuality. Alice is especially hurt because Margot thinks that Alice doesn’t want to have sex with her because she doesn’t love her. Since Alice is already uncomfortable with being open with her asexuality, this breakup makes things worse. As a result, she has a hard time recognizing her feelings for her new library co-worker Takumi and dreads coming out to him.
With the help of a therapist, Alice starts to get in touch with her feelings, becomes closer to Takumi and her friends Fennie and Ryan, and starts moving out from under her parents’ career expectations. As she does this, she comes to realize the various types of love she is capable of experiencing and enjoying without giving in to heteronormative expectations. A fun aspect of this is Alice’s love for pop culture.
Although it’s not a major part of the book, Alice’s passion for pop culture is such a quirky and charming part of her character that you can’t help but smile. Thinking of love and passion in terms of how much you enjoy a thing is valuable; to see Alice do this so naturally is wonderful. She jokes about getting a degree in watching Netflix and Hulu. She cosplays as Velma Dinkley from Scooby Doo. It’s amusing and nice because it becomes something she shares with her friends and Takumi out of love for them.
In fact, Alice’s love for her friends Feenie and Ryan are just as powerful as her feelings for her love interest Takumi. In the book, she finds herself becoming a third wheel to Feenie and Ryan, slowly drifting apart from them as she spends more time with Takumi. After an incident where she feels her friends abandoned her, she and her friends become estranged until they have a talk about how they need to balance their relationships with each other.
It’s important to note Alice’s friendships.
Some young adult books focus on romance more than friendship, especially when romance is a major part of the plot. When a girl gets a love interest in a book like The Fault in Our Stars or Pushing the Limits, it feels like the girl’s entire world revolves around them. Another notable factor in this book is the rarity of having a Black female teen dealing with things like romance and friendship instead of extreme hardship. Although Alice does deal with microgressions, her personality is that of a carefree Black girl trying to happily live her life.
Meanwhile, Alice’s relationship with Takumi is notable because it evolves from friendship to romance. In fact, ninety-five percent of the book involves friendship. While this caused the romance scenes to be rushed at the end, having their friendship grow to romance works in Alice’s favor. Alice is allowed to figure out what exactly attracts her to Takumi, what type of attraction she feels for him, and how much she likes him versus how much she is attracted to him. Takumi is allowed to do the same and his relationship with Alice is all the better for it.
All in all, Let’s Talk About Love is a wonderful exploration of love in various forms. Alice’s coming-of-age story is entertaining and thoughtful because it shows that friendship, romance without sex, and personal passions are filled with just as much love as anything sexual. It forces the reader to consider what makes love special to them and why certain types of love are given a higher value than others. Let’s Talk About Love both entertains and starts a conversation; more people should be reading and talking about this book.
The Afro YA promotes black young adult authors and YA books with black characters, especially those that influence Pennington, an aspiring YA author who believes that black YA readers need diverse books, creators, and stories so that they don’t have to search for their experiences like she did.
Latonya Pennington is a poet and freelance pop culture critic. Their freelance work can also be found at PRIDE, Wear Your Voice magazine, and Black Sci-fi. As a poet, they have been published in Fiyah Lit magazine, Scribes of Nyota, and Argot magazine among others.
In October of 2004, my mom picked me up from my college dorm and drove me about twenty miles up Interstate 79 to Edinboro, Pennsylvania, where we pulled into one of those perfect, Desperate Housewives-type neighborhoods with the immaculate lawns and minimalist traditional houses just a few inches too close together.
We parked in the street in front of one of these houses; the driveway was too packed with minivans and station wagons for us to fit. Also, I got the impression that my mom didn’t want to be trapped. If she felt the need to flee, street parking would enable us to up and go without any awkward car shuffling.
My mom had brought along four grocery store bags filled with photographs and memorabilia from our recent vacation to England, and we hauled them up the walk to the front door, which was opened pre-knock by a smiling woman in a red tracksuit and white athletic socks. Her grip on the doorframe made it look as if she’d slid to a stop Risky Business-style.
“Ginny! Hey girl!” this woman said to my mom, who was not a “Hey girl!” type of woman. She turned to me and smiled. “You must be Mike. I’m Mrs. Costa. Come on in!”
We followed her into her perfect home. The color scheme was light blue and cream, and the walls were adorned with photographs of a perfect family unit. She advised us to remove our shoes and led us to a door on the far side of her open-plan kitchen. We descended a set of stairs and emerged into Scrapbooking Narnia.
My mom and I gazed up at the shelf-lined walls like Belle in the Beast’s library, dazzled by rows upon rows of glittering books, sticker packs, paper sets, and collections of colorfully gripped razor blades arrayed on surgical trays.
Rows of tables were arranged in the center of the basement, accessorized with clear plastic discard bins hanging from the edges. About a dozen middle-aged women were seated at the tables, gabbing and crafting like Santa’s elves while sipping wine coolers.
We introduced ourselves and joined them at the tables, where Mrs. Costa proceeded to take us through the basics of scrapbooking. She started with the essentials: tape runners, corner cutters, die-cuts, stickers, journal boxes, paper, paper, more paper, and of course, scrapbooks. Then she showed us how to add pages to scrapbooks and how to tape paper onto the pages. We learned that nearly any mistake could be corrected with the right combination of patience, tape, and the magical fix-it tool (which is basically a piece of plastic – rounded on one end and pointed on the other – that allows for the scraping up and pressing down of tape and stickers). She showed us the best way to edit photos, both for page aesthetics and for the photos themselves, enabling us to crop bad angles, cover unwanted rumples with stickers, and make our complexions dazzling with the right color of mat.
Thus instructed, we got to work. As we did, Mrs. Costa brought my mom a wine cooler and me a Diet Coke, and we casually chatted with the other scrapbookers. Mrs. Costa herself didn’t scrapbook; instead she bopped around, helping to cut photos, choose stickers, cover pages in protective plastic, or offer any other scrapbooking assist. The majority of the other ladies were working on books about genealogy or Disney World, and generously provided us with tips and examples.
Though the typical scrapbook looks like it’s constructed page by page, the reality is that a lot of work should be done before the first photo is placed. Photos should be organized into the order that they will appear in the book, then grouped by potential page, then cropped. Paper for backgrounds needs to be pre-chosen, particularly if you plan on matting your photos before actually putting them into the book. (You should.) Supporting materials – brochures, menus, stickers, journal boxes, etc. – need to be chosen ahead of time and also cropped and/or shaped.
This all felt very overwhelming the first time. My mom and I were slow, careful croppers. We obsessed over potential color schemes, eventually choosing pink and green to accentuate the colors we’d experienced in English gardens. We looked around at the other scrapbookers’ immaculate pages, so vivid that I could practically feel It’s a Small World’s artificial river lapping at our feet, and felt jealous and inadequate.
Despite the friendly atmosphere, I felt out of place and uncomfortable. On the one hand, I was a nineteen-year-old boy in a group of scrapbooking forty-plus women. An obviously gay teenager in the heart of Republican Americana. What could be more traditional than women gathered around the crafting table? And there I was, an interloper, the opposite of traditional, bringing the stain of maleness (the double stain of male-on-maleness) to this dainty female gathering.
On the other hand, scrapbooking represented everything that a formative gay male was supposed to reject. Online dating sites were filled with guys looking for masculine guys only. Gays were supposed to be breaking stereotypes, doing manly things, not picking out stickers with our moms.
But as we cut pictures and listened to stories about football games, unbelievable Disney deals, and local politics, a Zen-like relaxation overtook me. Every group of matted photos was an individual memory, curated by my mother and me for an audience of ourselves.
We went back the next week, and as we progressed from cropping and organizing to placing background paper and arranging our pages, my feelings of relaxation turned to subtle joy. Part of this was the simple pleasure of being in a group whose only connection was shared creative expression.
But more than that, the joy began to flow from the scrapbook itself. It started as a stirring in my stomach, a giddy excitement achieved by trimming what had mostly been a lousy day trip to Dover into a beautiful one-page ode to the city’s famous white cliffs. Eventually every piece of our trip fit into the book like a piece of our own intricate jigsaw.
That giddiness grew as we found the perfect places to stick the menus, brochures, business cards, and even coins that we’d squirreled away on our trip. Scrapbooking solved some sort of organizational compulsion that I didn’t even know I’d possessed, and the ability to make the useless useful was intoxicating.
When I look at that English scrapbook now, it’s hard to see beyond the book’s flaws. It is a twelve-inch-by-twelve-inch pale green canvas book with a simple metal plaque adorning the front cover. The plaque consists of reliefs of dainty pink and yellow flowers. Very English. It opens to a garish title page, dominated by laser-cut, doily-like stick-on letters spelling out “ENGLAND” across the top. Beneath, a cutout from a brochure showing a rail map of Great Britain is sandwiched between bright red words – “Mike” on the left and “Mom” on the right. All of this lay atop a Pepto-pink background and surrounded by stickers of airplanes, flowers, hedgehogs, and, strangely, a giant watermill.
Our stickers are placed unevenly, we failed to mat about half of the photos, and we stuck our journal boxes in the book before we did the actual journaling, which forced us to squeeze too much or stretch too little text within them.
Despite those flaws, I have nothing but appreciation for the book, and that’s because of what isn’t physically within it. The invisible feelings and details that aren’t on the pages but nevertheless still live inside the scrapbook. There is something about scrapbooking a moment that traps the events and details around that point in time. I don’t know whether or not those details are the truth or in fact just another facet of the scrapbooking illusion, but every page still takes me back into who I was then.
The first picture in this first scrapbook is of me, looking relaxed and comfortable in my own skin, wearing sunglasses and leaning against the doorframe of the hotel my mom and I stayed at for our first few days in England. The picture itself isn’t that significant outside of enabling us to remember the name of The Ridgemount Hotel. Instead, the picture is significant because the person in the photo didn’t exist.
At nineteen I was horribly self-conscious. I was tormented by a combination the fear that came with growing up gay in a rural area and the insecurity of an effeminate, formerly obese teenager. I wasn’t someone who could “pass” for straight, and I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin.
But this picture on the first page is the first I can recall of myself looking relaxed and at ease. I didn’t even realize that I’d felt so different until we began creating the scrapbook and I saw myself in those photographs and relived the memories.
Scrapbooking revealed to me that I’d felt like my real, true self in London. This made sense – it was a place where I could be myself in public without attracting unwanted attention. Later, I would move to London for this very reason.
Scrapbooking is like a Ouija board for nostalgia. Usually this ethereal force that alternately warms and stabs our hearts, nostalgia is harnessed by scrapbooking into a kind of total recall of events. To an outsider, a beautifully constructed scrapbook might look like a Photoshopped version of events — a postcard memory. But scrapbooking allows for the opposite, at least in my experience. The process of scrapbooking allows me to fully reflect on every angle of an experience.
This reflection is hard. Like most LGBTQIA+ people, I have a lot of pain in my past. Pain suffered at the hands of bullies, of society, and of myself. Pain that often made very little sense at the time of its infliction. This is where scrapbooking can help. It allows for reflection to be coupled with action. The act of sorting through memories, painful or not, is empowering. It may seem symbolic, but it’s more than that because an actual document — an artefact – is being created in the process.
For example, I have a scrapbook my time spent studying abroad in northeast Australia, one of the most beautiful places in the world. However, this part of Australia was also at the time quite socially conservative, and gay activity was restricted to the Internet and a few gay clubs. In building my scrapbook I thought back to hurled slurs, having my boyfriend (who was closeted) deny my existence, being called “Gay Mike” by everyone, including my closest friends.
Unlike my trip to England, I did not feel at home in Australia. Scrapbooking, though, allowed me to control how I remembered Australia. It may sound as if I’m putting a rose tint on the past. But pain can’t be erased with the cropping of a photograph or the addition of stickers. Pain, shame, fear, and embarrassment are all tattooed on my skin. But scrapbooking my Australian experience allowed me to declare what I wanted to take away from Australia. I fell in love. I was independent for the first time. The nature was beautiful and I met some of the best people I’ve ever known. I frolicked on some of the world’s most beautiful beaches and saw some of the world’s weirdest animals. My brother visited, and we had an absolute blast.
Those are the things in my Australian scrapbook, and I look back on that time with joy. I don’t forget any of the bad things, but my scrapbook has allowed me to keep those bad memories at bay, to prevent them from smothering the good ones.
Beyond what scrapbooking gave me mentally, it had tangible benefits as well. The actual skills associated with scrapbooking have aided me countless times in my career, most significantly in the field of advertising.
Work took me around the world, and I spent 2007 to 2011 living in London, Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Hong Kong. In the fall of 2011, my husband and I made the decision to move to the United States, specifically to New York. I just had to find a job. New York City’s advertising field is notoriously competitive and overflowing with eager job hunters with endless reserves of creativity and technical skills.
I arranged a series of interviews and arrived in New York from Hong Kong with a briefcase full of résumés and a portfolio of great international clients. However, it felt like something was missing. When I got to my hotel in Manhattan, it dawned on me what I could do to set myself apart. I called my mother and had her run to Mrs. Costa’s and get me the shiniest scrapbook she could find. She overnighted it to me along with a heap of supplies. Luckily I’d given myself an extra day to recover from jetlag before my interviews, and as soon as my things arrived, I set up shop in the hotel’s business center, printing, cropping, and sticking my working life into a silver, star-adorned scrapbook.
I didn’t know whether I would be successful, but I was relatively sure that no other candidate for a senior role in a New York advertising job would have a scrapbooked résumé. One of the lessons that scrapbooking had given me over the years was that personal moments count far more in a scrapbook than the generic, no matter how stunning that generic moment was. As beautiful as the Eiffel Tower is, everyone has seen a picture of it. Scrapbooks are for showing yourself posing with a stranger in front of the Eiffel Tower, eating a dozen croissants, or looking awkward in a beret.
So I focused my scrapbook résumé on the personal. I had my education, agency experience, and client list, of course. But I also showed myself sitting fireside with my boss on retreat in South Africa’s Karoo desert and eating spicy soup on a business trip to Shanghai. I included pictures of myself running the London Marathon and posing with friend on Hong Kong’s Avenue of Stars.
I got the job and took that scrapbooking experience to the agency with me, advising colleagues on how to creatively present work to clients and how to pitch for new ones. And I kept scrapbooking for myself, which helped me not only to remember what I loved about my life but helped me reflect on what I didn’t.
Which is also how I ended up leaving advertising. In focusing my scrapbook résumé on the personal, I also identified what it was that I loved about my job. I loved the travel and the people, the new experiences. What I didn’t love was the work. In looking back at the scrapbook now, the signs are all there. I reflected on educational experiences warmly and thoroughly and skipped over entire years of actual work experience. Most tellingly, I included a page in my scrapbook about how I dreamed of being an author. Who applies to a job by telling potential employers they want to be something else?
Eventually, I left advertising and went back to school to be a writer. I now teach, too, which is another area where scrapbooking knowledge proves to be a helpful arrow in my quiver, though a young male teacher telling a group of millennials that he scrapbooks is also a recipe for instant criticism.
Which doesn’t bother me much. In learning to scrapbook, I learned to focus on what’s really important. Sometimes what’s really important is cropping your midsection or ex-boyfriend out of photos. Sometimes it’s adding a hundred stickers to a page to emphasize the importance of an event. Sometimes it’s holding on to the smallest memento of a person or place. And sometimes it’s choosing to let something go.
When scientists offer the flatworm Planaria a choice of going left or right, shock it on one side and give it whatever a Planarian desires on the other (this is an example of why scientists should never be put in charge of social programs), the flatworm learns to avoid the shock.
One can almost see it cringing and oozing off fast in the other direction. It fears. We humans may pride ourselves on the complex, Latin-named fears we collect, but basic oh-my-god-run-for-it terror far predates the ability to dance the tango or part our hair behind and eat peaches.
Fear comes standard with the model, built into the nerves and glands. It’s not a Freudian add-on reserved for humans. It’s basic as breathing, older than joy, envy, compassion, hate, or love. The flatworm is our brother under the skin.
This relates to writing — I’m getting to this — because writing is about the whole human. Story happens in the gut, heart, and groin as much as in the head. Our characters don’t just analyze and pontificate. Primal emotions suck their feet into the quagmire, batter and tumble them like an avalanche, smash a fist to the face, sting like tarantulas.
Talking off my philosopher hat and putting on my practical writer bonnet, I like to sort fear into three useful types.
First off, there’s fear that reaches from out of the character’s past, being poisonous and subtle about it. This is fear not happening in the story now. It enters the narrative as backstory or as an old trauma that shapes our character. This is indirect, fear-at-one-remove, but it makes up for that distance in story muscle. When genre Romance is about healing wounds of the spirit, about overcoming old angers and doubts, it’s often fear that’s done the damage. Conflict can boil down to a face-off between the power of love and the power of fear. Long-ago fear can be the mainspring of the plot.
Heady stuff, that.
My two other sorts of fear enter the narrative directly. They happen up close and personal. They’re in the reader’s face.
On the one hand, there’s the sudden stab of terror, maybe accompanied by a gurgling shriek. This is our old friend, icy shock. Very Hitchcockian.
Step down in the dark and find nothing underfoot. The airplane drops six feet, thumps, shudders, and tilts. You jam on the brake and skid toward the cliff. Turn in the shopping mall and the five-year-old isn’t there.
Or there’s the long, slow kind of fear if you prefer that. The hour before battle. Being wheeled down the long corridor into the operating room. Going downstairs to investigate the footsteps that shouldn’t be in an empty house. Or when the spider . . . actually the spider doesn’t have to do anything. The spider can just sit there.
This is the “ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night” fear.
That line above, generally called an ‘an old Scottish prayer’, is almost certainly a Victorian invention. I was disappointed about that, till I realized this shows the universality of human terror. Lying in bed, listening to the wind, I fear things that go bump in the night with the clammy and chill sincerity of my cavewoman ancestors. Whatever it is out in the dark, it’s still waiting for us after all these centuries.
Writers have uses for all three kinds of fear: trauma from the past; sudden, acute shock; and slow, creeping, inescapable dread.
When past fear shapes the characters, we see echoes of old fear in their actions. The romance plot bends to heal and reconcile.
Fear as the sudden bolt of terror makes the characters explode into immediate action or freezes them in place. It punctuates, and then the story continues in the aftermath in what may be a wholly different mood. In fact, the change of mood from terror to some resolution may be the most important emotional step of the scene.
When fear is an extended space of trapped terror, the story goes on inside it. Action, reaction, dialog, complex thought, a hundred indecisions and decisions and revisions take place against a background of fear. This is not a transformative moment or a spur to action. It’s terrain the character must navigate.
Taking an example of this …
In one of my books a man stands with his back to the wall of a Revolutionary prison in France. It’s 1792. The Terror. The guillotine. He sinks to the ground and sits there, facing the certainty of his own death. No knives slash. No one flees across the heath one snap ahead of the slavering hounds. There’s no outward action at all. The enemy my William Doyle faces is his own fear.
This defines him.
So where do the words come from?
When writers put fear on the page, it’s their own fear. We spin words out of ourselves. It’s as if we had a loom and alpaca in the back yard, except that it’s from us.
So let’s say I’ve swerved to miss some dolt of a pedestrian dressed in ninja black. I didn’t kill him. I didn’t kill him. I keep saying that.
I pull over to the side of the road and whimper mindlessly for a minute because that’s a very fine and useful reaction, of course. But sitting there with my forehead against the steering wheel, I think, “This is what terror feels like. Nice little nervous tic in my eye — check. Muscles turned to water — check. Dry mouth? — Maybe not so much dry. It’s like cotton. I’m a cottonmouth. That’s funny. What would I call this thing my heart’s doing? Not just thumping. It’s squirming around in there.”
Touching matters of particular interest to the writer of genre Romance, I ask myself if I feel the least desire to grab a handsome hero, tear his clothes off, and pull him down to the floor so we can couple like rabid mink.
Not so much. I think that’s a literary invention, mostly.
This is all very writerly. In moments of stark terror writers are all sitting there taking mental notes while we’re shaking because we are going to use this little incident in our work.
Some people find writers a little odd.
Let me end with some lines from Alexi Panshin’s Star Well that sum up adventure stories and Romance genre pretty much.
If the truth be known, Alice’s life thus far had left her unprepared for the realities of romance. There is a sine qua non of romance that she did not know: no weeping over corpses without true pain felt; no embrace by a lover without trials endured; no final rainbow without rain.
On January 1, 2016, I started writing again.
Between October 2010 and February 2014, when I finished revisions on a novel called Harder, I had written more than a dozen works of fiction. Then, in late February 2014, I told my husband I wanted a divorce.
After that, I wrote almost nothing for two years.
It’s something writers hear a lot. The romance writers’ organization I belong to publishes articles on how to keep churning out love stories in the midst of your divorce. A writer friend welcomes pregnancy and keeps meeting her word-count goals day after day–even after the baby comes. Even as her life changes. Writers write.
But I didn’t.
Divorce is exhausting — divorce with children still more so. When you’ve fallen in love with a new partner and are trying to nurture that relationship and solve intractable logistical problems of dissolving two marriages across a distance so you can come together in a new household — when you move twice inside of a year — when you’re learning to cohabit with a new love and coparent with a new partner — when you’re nurturing your kids — well. It’s a lot.
I had a lot on my mind. That’s what I told my agent, my editor. And it was true, but it felt more like I had too much grief and change seated in my body to make my mind available for writing fiction. I spent my days having novel experiences, crying until my stomach hurt, ranting through three-hour drives, talking and laughing on the phone until late, trying scary new things, risking myself, dreaming up a new business, falling asleep exhausted every night. I was changing, and experiencing the full charge of terror that accompanies change.
I could do that, or I could write books.
We spin words out of ourselves — but we have to be careful, every day, not to use ourselves up.
I got divorced because I fell in love, but I fell in love because I needed to get divorced.
Which is flippant, and women aren’t supposed to be flippant about divorce. Not when they initiate it, anyway. It makes people terribly uncomfortable.
I’ve learned a lot in two years about making people terribly uncomfortable.
We don’t fall in love unless there’s room — room in our hearts, our heads, our bodies, for someone else. The room I found for love was room my marriage no longer occupied, if it ever had.
I didn’t take that room from my husband to give to my new partner. The space for love was already there.
But where does that space come from?
I have two brothers, one four years older, one fifteen months. I watched ET with my partner last year, and she pointed out how much I must have been like the kid sister, played by Drew Barrymore, who wants nothing more than to know what her brothers are doing now? And what are they doing now? And now would they like to see what she can do? And how about now? Are they interested in hearing about her thing she did?
The love of a younger sister for her older brothers is intense as a crush, directed with the focus and intensity of a laser beam, and just as one-directional. My brothers loved me, too, of course, but they loved as big brothers do: distractedly, randomly, and with prejudice.
I watched them. I watched their friends. I wanted their attention. I wanted the attention of their friends. I wanted approval. I wanted boys to look at me. I wanted to be cool like them. I wanted them to look at me and see what I was doing and approve. I wanted them to be as interested in me as they were in each other. They never were.
In college and grad school, I dated a string of men who didn’t like me very much.
At twenty-five, I got married.
If our romantic ideal is love that heals wounds of the spirit, how do we understand love and marriage borne of unmet needs, insecurity, and loneliness? I went to college at sixteen, started grad school at twenty. I think about the ten years between leaving my parents and becoming a wife, and mostly I remember an overwhelming feeling of not-knowing.
Not knowing how I felt, or how to feel, or what I wanted, or how to get my needs met, or if I was okay.
Against this backdrop, I followed rules, made friends, held down jobs, earned good grades, researched and wrote a dissertation, pleased everyone I knew, and joined my life to another person’s. At the time, it looked and felt enough like love. But if I were writing my story now, fear would be the mainspring of the plot.
Until two years ago, when love moved into room I’d made ready for it and handed me a weapon against fear.
I’ve lived a life of extraordinary privilege, and for most of it I avoided both confrontation and fear. Like the planera, I turned away. When we can’t turn away, however–or when a prize so big and important comes along that we decide not to–then we begin to live inside a space of fear.
Living in fear means living in the body, with the body. Crying suddenly and often. Crying daily. It means stomachaches, headaches, cancer scares. Living in fear requires getting comfortable with the idea of death, or at least trying to. Also, your poverty. The heavy love of motherhood.
Sexism. Racism. The impossibility of communication.
When we live inside the extended space of trapped terror, we face things every day that we would have looked away from before. We have no choice. We’re trapped with our terror, stuck in the same locked room with it, and it isn’t any help. It just flails and faffs, hides and cries, and we understand that if we continue listening to fear, we’re sunk. So we learn that though we’re afraid, we aren’t dead. Death is right there. We can see it.
We go ahead and squish the spider with the bare pad of our finger.
When we live with fear, our stories go on. It is our selves that are remade.
I returned to writing two weeks ago, two years after I stopped, not because I feel ready but because my partner tells me it’s time, and I find that I can.
I can, even though I don’t want to.
Writing is the same. I like all the things I liked about it before. I hate all the things I hated about it. It’s just as frustrating, just as annoying, just as impossible, just as exhilarating. I become the tiny god of my book, and I enjoy that, because I have control issues and an ego. I make tiny god decisions and brandish my tiny god fists, and my partner laughs at me, makes me lunch, tells me to sit down and do more writing.
Writers write. I don’t know if I write now because I’m a writer, or if I’m a writer because I’m writing again. If there was some period of time when I wasn’t a writer — if we phase in and out of being writers, as we phase in and out of being truly awake, truly human, truly here.
I don’t know if I’m doing it because I was always meant to, or if I’m only doing it because she said to.
Writing is the same. But I see more clearly now than I did before how much of myself I draw on to write. My wounds, my memories, my guts, my groin, my flaws, my fear.
My love. My heart.
New York Times bestselling author Ruthie Knox has published over a dozen titles in adult contemporary romance and New Adult romance (writing as Robin York). Nominated for four RITA awards in her first two years as a published author, Ruthie has been translated into German, French, Italian, and Portuguese. Her New Adult novels Deeper and Harder made Library Journal’s best-of list for 2014, and Deeper was recognized by RT Book Reviews as the best New Adult title of last year.
We have a variety of many-legged bug, some variety of arthropod. They like our brick house, our cement-floor basement, the clay soil, our proximity to the lake shore.
No matter how many times I hear the entomologist on public radio assure me these particular bugs are harmless, only unsightly, I want to kill them all. I put out glue traps, chase and flatten their long bodies, their multijointed legs. They skitter across me as I sleep. Even on the hottest nights, I must have a sheet fully covering me—just in case. There has been midnight panic: thrashing limbs, a tangle of sheets, cursing of the centipedes to wake an entire block. A few weeks ago I woke to the flurry of feet on my cheek; slapped and threw the thing against the wall. In the morning, I found its carcass: poor Gregor, the curled husk was at least an inch long.
The world is full of signs and wonders, portents. Tara Betts’s poem “A Season of No” has a spider wake her. The speaker is asleep on the floor, and the arthropod flutters her forearm, waking her. But this visitor is welcome. It calls her back to herself, breaks a spell. It is maybe a descendent of Anansi, an answer to the femme fatale spider woman, rebuke to a Dwight Yoakam lyric. The spider helps the speaker Break the Habit.
Folklore, more specifically fairy tale, has girls and women sacrificing much for love—their legs, their voices. They show devotion by cutting off their hands and wandering the world. As Betts chronicles the story of love, she touches on these themes. In “Ink on the Sheets,” the speaker worries about forgetting to cap a pen, explains, “after the divorce you get rid of all the bedding / you shared.” After the divorce—or maybe even before—“they felt like trying to sleep / on a hardened pea.” In stories about the creative woman, the intellectual woman, the investigative woman, a common theme emerges: at some point, to keep him, the girl/woman is offered a choice. She must sacrifice some integral part of herself. When the spider jolts you awake, you were on the floor, cast out of the marital bed, a pen loose in your hand, blank pages in front of you.
Betts’s poetry urges the reader to be awake to the world, to break the habit of inattention. In her poem “Acupuncture,” she writes, “after the last needle was drawn, I knew / people could be footnotes, or pain,” juxtaposing the body’s resilience with its permeability. By the end of the collection, she returns to spider stories: the Greek weaving goddesses, the Druids who believe a spider portends a creative project calling to be finished.
“Another Clearing of the Land: Epitaph for Hadiyah Pendleton” contains the story of Hadiyah, a fifteen-year-old girl shot in Chicago in 2013; it also contains the story of the two young men charged with her death: “One in school, & two not, & all / Black South Side teens / with nothing in common but a pained echo / for a future.” As I’ve been rereading this poem against the backdrop of fluctuating numbers of “victims,” of “deaths,” I’ve recalled how in the aftermath of Sandy Hook, some counts of victims/deaths would be smaller, two smaller—both the twenty-year-old shooter disappearing, but also his mother. Betts’s poem addresses the world that goes on:
What I hate, what I
will forever hate, is how she fades with every
day from numbness, from
an empathy undone, not bound to anyone,
the swift, ruthless slap casual
as someone swiping a bus pass,
for this is what
The poem imagines Hadiyah an “unopened bulb / that insisted on being much bigger,” but also those who shot her, mistaking her and the group she stood with for a rival gang, as “boys behind guns tamped / their lives heavily to prune // the years cut down.”
If the beloved asks the poet to give up her voice, he also asks her not to chronicle the world as it is, the world as it must be known, the world inhabited and filtered through the poet’s permeable skin. Break the habit of disconnecting context—the story of fast-fading names—from the world that moves too quickly to the next news, the new breaking report, the report of the too-soon-forgotten particulars that make the skin of the world we inhabit.
This previous fall semester, we had the distinct pleasure of Tara Betts visiting to read, meeting with students, and breaking bread. After the reading, driving back to the hotel, she told me how she crafts her collections—how she crafts her readings. She thinks about how each poem can reach someone differently; the poet uses her spinnerets, sending out a dragline, beginning to build. She read her poem “A Lesson from the Terrordome,” and I knew a friend who would love the idea of Chuck D introducing Huey Newton, uncovered through a library’s microfiche, that archaic magic. After the reading, another friend flipped through the book, stumbling upon “The Futility of Bras,” her face breaking into a wide smile. From the lectern, Betts explained the story of one of her spiders, the front-porch sitter she named “Craig,” lofting her eyebrow at the audience, waiting to see who would get the allusion.
And I am drawn back to the spider poems, their myth-making, their insistence on claiming the end of the book that is both end and beginning of a story. And I think I should be less brutal to my own house centipedes that call me to attention when I enter a darkened room.
To love, Betts’s poetry suggests, means to embrace the change and difficulty after the blared radio parking lot dance has ended. It means to welcome the portent of the spider, to watch the many-legged things in their short lifespans of weaving and egg sack and disappearance and desiccation. It means to offer a friend in pain a couch, your cat. It means to inhabit the pain of the body and make a textual music of it, the words lifting off the page. The spider wakes us, greets us, frightens and intrigues us, calls us to myth and history, “an inevitable / signature that flesh forces / us to write.”