Notes from my seminar at USask

There’s no value in trying to work on an idea you don’t love. If you don’t love it, you’ll never make it sing. You need to love it. That’s more important than anything else I’m about to say.

Hi everyone! Before we get started, I just want you to know, I’m going to be posting this talk on my website for free after we’re done here, so if you walk out of here and you’re like “Aw man, Casey Plett said this super-brilliant and I didn’t write it down because I was just enraptured!” You know. I got you! Just go to caseyplett.com, it’ll be the first post.
So.
Opening the Door
“Write with the door closed, re-write with the door open.” is a famous quote from Stephen King’s “On Writing,” who in turn got the lesson from an editor. King said you should begin your story with the intent of it being just for you, and then open it up for others to criticize. Was he right? When do you open the door? How do you balance the humility of seeking (and handling) criticism if it conflicts with what’s exciting you about a piece of writing?

First of all, I’d like you to take out a piece of paper and a pen.
And I’d like you to answer this question. You won’t have to share it with anyone, don’t worry, this is just for you:
What frightens you most about sharing your writing?
I want you to take two minutes and think about your answer and write it down.
In my experience, everyone’s got different answers to this. The reason I asked you to do this is because I want to posit something to you. That fear? That fear. It will likely, in some form or another, always be there. It’s unlikely you will ever defeat it. Me, at this stage in my career I’m pretty damn fortunate, I’ve got things pretty good and I still have to deal with mine.
But if that fear is concrete, and something you can write down on a piece of paper, then you can recognize it as something to deal with, to keep at bay. And it is something you likely will have to deal with, in order to properly open the door.
By the way I’ll just volunteer what frightens me most about sharing my writing. My fear is that the reader is going to think I’m a bad person. I always think like, people will look at my writing and go “This is what’s on your mind? You could’ve written about anything and you wrote about this? Ugh, you’re sick in the head.” I always have to fight that.

Let’s go back to that Stephen King quote. “Write with the door closed, re-write with the door open.” What I love about that quote, in addition to it just being a wise thought, is the imagery of the door, or rather that of a writer in a room. So much of writing, for me, is being alone, in a room, with a notebook, a pen, a keyboard. And it is about somebody else who you’ve never met, alone, in a room, with the fruits of your notebook, your pen, your keyboard. It’s about you, alone, speaking to another person, alone.
Having that said, while that truth exists, there’s also a parallel truth to that, which is that it’s impossible to get to that reader alone. I would absolutely be nowhere as a writer without not only smart editors, but also friends who I could turn to to read and critique my writing and support my life in all sorts of ways. Many of whom are also writers whose work I read and critique and also support however I can. What I might call a community of support.
That notion of the lonely genius writer? Oh, toiling away in a room with his genius and creating great works! It’s true that writing can be a lonely venture, but it’s only one part of the equation, and the other part is community. Friends, teachers, editors. And I think actually there is something patriarchal and reminiscent of ooghy masculinity, this idea that a writer works and works by themselves and eventually emerges with something great and amazing they then bestow upon the world.
Writing doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t take place in a vacuum. In my opinion and experience, there’s a part of the work that’s being alone, and a part of the work that’s community: Friends, teachers, editors. When you begin to involve community, that’s when you open the door.
Now, I’m going to guess that there are people in this room who maybe are going “I’m just starting out, I don’t know other writers, I don’t have a writing teacher, I don’t work with an editor, like…crap!” And I want to tell you that’s fine, if you keep going, you will. But if you don’t have people around you, you know…join writing groups. If there are open mics or reading series’ or book launches in your town, go. Go online and search for writing support, and most importantly, find people who are interested in the same work you’re interested in, and go from there. Maybe introduce yourself to each other in this class after this is all over. I won’t go on this point too much more because we could do a whole nother master class on what community means for writers, but if you’re alone, keep writing, and keep trying to find people.
Does this all make sense so far? Does anybody have questions?
And so I’m interested in the relationship between these two things, the loneliness in writing and the relationship we have with our community, the people who give feedback: Friends, teachers, editors. Readers!
Overview of some basic tips:
So we’re going to do another exercise in a bit, but I’m going to give a few more thoughts here about that transition I make from creating something alone, to opening the door and showing it someone else.

1) Sometimes a piece of writing will follow me around. I’m doing the dishes, or I’m grocery shopping, and then it hits me like, no, no, this one part still isn’t right. Sometimes I have an idea of how to fix it. And sometimes I’m totally at loose ends. For me, I send stuff out for critique when I’m out of solutions. If I know how to fix it, I just haven’t done it? It’s not ready for my friends or editors to see. But when I’m out of ideas to fix it, that’s when I start e-mailing people. When I’m like, “This piece is not perfect, but I’m not at a point where I can make it any better on my own. I have taken myself as far as I can. Someone else needs to come in.”

2) I don’t know about you, but I definitely write about some intense subjects, that are intimate and hurtful, and hearing criticism about work about those subjects can really sting. It can be scary. It’s always going to sting. I’m not exactly a veteran, but I’ve been publishing work a decade and criticism hasn’t hurt any less, and I don’t know any author who’s like “Oh yeah, I got over it, I can take anything now, ha!” Criticism is going to hurt. And to me, depending on the subject matter, I have to do some inner processing, basically, before I send the piece out for critique. You know, it’s like going out in minus thirty, you bundle up, it’s still gonna suck, but you bundle up and it sucks less.

3) On that note. If you’re not showing someone something because you’re scared, for reasons of self-loathing or insecurity or fear…or if you’re blocked from writing something you want to write about for those reasons. That’s totally real. It happens to all of us, and we all have our own ways of figuring out how to deal with it. But you have to figure out a way to deal with it. Here’s a story. I had a friend who was a writing teacher, teaching an introductory creative writing class. And in this class, she made everyone write a secret down on paper. And she said don’t worry, you don’t have to show it to anyone. So everyone writes something down on paper. Then the teacher said “Ok now take the paper and crumple it up into a ball.” Everyone crumples the paper. Then she says: “Now throw it in the center of the room.” Everyone freaks out right? But they do it. She says: “That fear you just felt. You should be able to go there when you’re writing.”
Now personally I wouldn’t do that in a class. But I take her point about being comfortable with that feeling.

And to me that’s one of the most beautiful, intimate things about writing. At the beginning it’s just for me. I don’t have to show anything to anyone. There’s like thirty pages of a thing right now on my hard drive that TERRIFIES me, and I haven’t shown it to anybody yet, and I probably will, but I don’t ever have to if I don’t want to, and that freedom of privacy puts my soul in a calm enough place that I can make stuff. I still really treasure that.
4) I’m really grateful for friends in my life who give good feedback but aren’t necessarily writers. They’re more friends who I can just trust to be honest with me about what they’ve read, and who have a good detector for my bullshit. If you have people like that in your life, hold them close.

5) Finally, a key transition point for me? When I’m moving from that inner, private creating-for-myself stage to opening it up to the world? A key thing I do at that point, is I print the piece out, I take it somewhere out of the house, like a café or something, and I mark it up with a pen as if I were an editor. It really works for me, it’s like I’ve tricked my brain into thinking the piece isn’t mine and I can just be like “This word should be different, and this paragraph would be way better if I cut this line” and blah blah blah.

Does anyone have questions about this so far?
(Hopefully you’re at 20 min by this point? YAYYY)

So, another exercise. I’m going to pass out a short passage here. And here’s what I want you to do. I’d like you to read it twice, first just to get familiar with it, and then second I want you to take out a pen and make notes where you think something could be better.

So as maybe you know, this is the beginning of the novel A Complicate Kindness by Miriam Toews, came out fifteen years ago. Winner of a Governor General’s, a best-seller, blah blah blah.
I asked you to do this for a few reasons. First, you’ll notice on the hand out, that I didn’t photocopy from the book, it’s typed out in a Word doc the way you would just see it if you were writing this on a computer screen. I think there’s something really instructive of looking at something the way a writer might, notice what’s solid and what you think perhaps could work better, and apply what you’ve learned to your own things.
And personally, so I really love this book, and I think this passage is brilliant, but even I have identified points like “Oh, I might cut that word out,” or “this sentence could’ve been more interesting this way.” And I think it’s actually a really useful thought exercise to do this with work you admire. You learn where the cracks are, and where the really solid foundation holds up, and that gives you stronger tools for your own stuff.

You don’t always have to go to the extent of re-typing something from scratch, but I do think it’s useful to re-read work you love over and over, you start to understand how the thing is built. I knew one girl in school, who re-wrote one of her favourite short stories by hand because she wanted to understand its sentences better. It’s not the worst idea.

I also asked you to do this to make a second point, where is that there’s no magical juncture where something *becomes* a good piece of writing or a publishable piece of writing. There’s nothing metaphysically that’s different between this prize-winning author and the kind of dreck that I was sloughing into my computer at 19. You just keep working on stuff.

Any questions here at all?

Before we go here, I’m going to leave you on one more story, specifically about fiction and the notion of writing that makes efforts to speak against marginalization and the awfulness of the world, the power that fiction can have to change, provoke, and question things.
You know, I wrote this story once called “Other Women” for an anthology called The Collection: Short Fiction From the Transgender Vanguard, which on its release was the first thing I’d ever written to end up in a book. Towards the end of the story I wrote, the main character has sex her high school best friend, and that sex turns non-consensual, and eventually she leaves in a fight and goes and sleeps with her friend’s roommate. I’ve since had trans women come up to me and say that story did something for them, and I’ve seen that story talked about in the context of trans women experiencing sexual assault. Those trans women readers telling me this means the world to me, it really does. It really does.
But, I didn’t write it thinking that would happen. I just had this story I had to get out and I felt so alone writing it but I just had this force in me telling me I had to do it. From wherever the fuck my own mix of experiences and creative inspiration comes from. And when I did think of how the story might be received? I didn’t imagine good things, I thought trans women readers would hate it, I’d thought they’d think that I was giving us a bad name. The state of trans art and representation was a lot different just nine years ago, and I was so sure that this story was like…shitting with the door open, so to speak.
Now, like I said, it means the world to me that it didn’t shake out like that. But my takeaway from that experience wasn’t to focus on how my writing could be good for the world, my takeaway was that focusing on that wasn’t helpful.
The point I wish to make is that so much of the exciting stuff books are capable of, the cathartic and intimate and world-changing power that specifically fiction might hold—to me that power is not necessarily harnessable or predictable in the act of writing. I’m not saying this is the case for everyone, but thinking of how my writing might collide with the world doesn’t help me, and maybe it doesn’t help you either, and if it doesn’t that’s okay.
Thinking about a reader—a person alone in a room who feels like I do, that helps me. Thinking about “the world” is like ahhhhh! No.
Now, this is not to say that when we are publishing work, we shouldn’t consider how the world will react. I do believe publishing work is not free of moral considerations, I do believe in sensitivity reading, and I do believe in being conscious of politics and ethics when one is finishing a work and preparing it for publication. I do think there’s a lot of truth in that. So I guess what I’m trying to share is that for me the course of writing something relies heavily on itinerary. That for me the first parts of that journey involve shutting out the world, and the last parts involve letting it back in.

Miriam Toews + A Gift Guide

I was blessed to publish two long pieces this year on Miriam Toews, an author whose work has meant a fuck-ton to me for a long time.

Reviewing her recent novel Women Talking in The Walrus:
https://thewalrus.ca/when-is-it-womens-time-to-speak/

Discussing her backlist (especially A Complicated Kindness but all her other books too) for The Puritan:
http://puritan-magazine.com/pine-and-sparkle-in-the-moonlight/

 

I should also mention that All Lit Up asked me to write a book gift guide for the holidays and I kinda went off the rails and they were nice enough to let me. https://alllitup.ca/Blog/2018/Gift-Guide-Week-Casey-Plett
I talked about Gwen Benaway’s Holy Wild, Catherine Hernandez’ Scarborough, Mallory Tater’s This Will Be Good, Tamara Faith Berger’s Little Cat, and Kai Cheng Thom’s A Place Called No Homeland, and who those books made me think of and how they made me feel.

Spring 2018 Little Fish Tour

Hi friends,

I’m on the road for a lot of this spring, touring my new novel Little Fish. All my dates below are as follows, with links as necessary, etc.

Some of these gigs will cost $ to come to. If you’re trans and that’d keep you from coming and you’d like to come, please e-mail me? casey dot plett at gmail.

April 14: Hamilton, ON, gritLIT Festival (https://www.bruha.com/event/2963) – A master-class on writing and self-promotion ($20)

April 15: Hamilton, ON, gritLIT Festival (https://www.bruha.com/event/2944) – A reading with Kevin Hardcastle and Nathan Ripley ($8-$10)

April 25: Winnipeg, MB, McNally Robinson (https://www.facebook.com/events/1560495753998421/) – A reading with Amber Dawn and Joshua Whitehead (Free)

April 27: Montreal, QC, Blue Metropolis Festival (https://www.facebook.com/events/1622514131118441) – The Violet Hour – A reading with Kamal Al-Solaylee, Amber Dawn, Daniel Mendelsohn, and Joshua Whitehead, hosted by Christopher DiRaddo ($5)

April 28: Montreal, QC, Blue Metropolis Festival (https://www.facebook.com/events/796262327227010/) – Outside The Margins: Community, Representation and Resilience – A panel with Amber Dawn and Catherine Hernandez, hosted by Leila Marshy (Free)

April 29: Ottawa, ON, Ottawa International Writers Festival (http://www.writersfestival.org/events/spring-2018/this-is-us-with-casey-plett-amber-dawn-and-joshua-whitehead) – A panel with Amber Dawn and Joshua Whitehead, hosted by Amanda Earl ($20)

May 3: New York, NY, Bluestockings (https://www.facebook.com/events/610393959307010/) – A reading with Amber Dawn, Megan Milks, and Joshua Whitehead (Free)

May 8: New York, NY, McNally Jackson (https://www.facebook.com/events/1829583774011182/) – A reading with Cat Fitzpatrick and Jeanne Thornton (Free)

May 23: Vancouver, BC, Vancouver International Writers Festival (https://www.facebook.com/events/180760762652838/) (Free)

May 31: Toronto, ON, Glad Day Bookshop – A reading with AMAZING PEOPLE TBD (Free)

 

?

About a year ago, I re-united with an old, close friend I then hadn’t spoken to in six years (Maybe she’s reading this—hi friend! Feel free to dispute if I fuck this story up.) Over a short time we gradually caught each other up with the many things that had happened to us in the interim.
 
As we were talking, she brought up this one time we were in Portland on the MAX together (this would’ve been ~2007-2009) and some guys started giving me shit for wearing a skirt. Pointing and laughing and jeering etc. I just stood up and quietly said something like “let’s go over here” and moved to the other end of the car. She told me, years later, that she’d always felt bad about this, that she didn’t say something, that she didn’t stand up for me.
 
The funny thing is: I don’t remember this happening. It doesn’t even, like, jog a memory or anything. Of course, I completely believe my friend—this would’ve been such a common experience for me back then, (including the “pals saying nothing” part) that it doesn’t surprise me individual moments have blended together. Obviously, when that kind of thing happens now, and it happens much less, it really eats at me.
 
I’ve thought about that a lot in the last year. I realized, among other things, that for a long time, my prime fear when I went out in girl’s clothing was that I was going to get hurt. Every time it didn’t happen (and though there were some scary moments, thanks to luck and privilege it never did/has yet, knock on wood) I counted it as a win, no matter what guys on the MAX or wherever was saying. For a long time, that stuff just didn’t have the effect on me necessary for an entry into the long-term memory. (Whereas I can tell you every shitty thing my parents said to me from that period, for example.) So it’s strange to think about, and go like: “Oh YEAH that was a constant experience for like a WHILE. Gee, that probably had an effect on me I don’t understand, eh?”
 
Why am I bringing this all up? For one, because I can’t help wonder what else it is that I don’t remember. What used to be so commonplace that I don’t recall, both the things I braved and the things I whined about and needed a shitty hand-hold all the way through. But beyond that, what unnerves me is thinking how this might work on a larger human scale, which traumas and gifts for which we might sustain mass amnesia and by default can’t name.

Coke

Of all the turbulent, dreading, apocalyptic thoughts I had in the immediate weeks following last year’s November 8, one very weird one kept crystallizing out of nowhere: I hate cocaine. I do. I hate how I can literally see the empathy drain out of a person’s brain as they do more of it, and I hate what it provokes in myself: Not just the compassion-decrease, but the stomach-lifting turning of night into day, how it makes three in the morning feel like three in the afternoon. It was looking at the picture in this article of that awful man’s shitty fucking mug that made me think this. For as much as I hate coke (and I guess maybe one of the understandable draws of it to many?) it always gave me the feeling of a world opening up to unlimited ersatz possibilities—it’s just that that scares and terrifies me, I guess; when I imagine unlimited possibilities it’s rarely any of the good ones.

I was working part-time in a porn shop during the election, and across from the counter where I sat were the dildos: Huge honkin’ dildos up to 18 inches with unabashed hypermasculine ad copy. One was called “THE GREAT AMERICAN CHALLENGE” and a lot of them had “BUILT IN U.S.A.” with big American flags on them. BUILT in U.S.A, Not made, BUILT. Like made was too wussy a term but BUILT meant a hard-working average Joe in a factory personally assembled this 18-inch polyurethane cock with his own damn God-fearing American hands.

When I stared across the store from the register at these enormous flourescent-lit dicks in the initial wake of the election, they would always lead my thoughts back to Trump. Look, I’ve worked on all sides of the sex industry, and I’ve been a sex worker, and I have a lot of mental tune-out armour against misogynistic whorephobia and transmisogynistic junkphobia and the swarming rapey wall of male want every woman has to navigate…and yet, in November 2016, these dicks I had to look at for hours every day just etched things in me I can’t quite articulate or comprehend. The hypermasculinity, this aggressiveness, these slabs of plastic just immediately transported me to a world of bright 3 AM teeth-grinding sun of being sure you are right, about everything, about everything being subservient to a man’s cock, about banging more hot girls, more hot skinny pretty fucking girls, everywhere, about more and more and bigger and bigger and bigger in a long unlit night that feels like the day, the cold feeling like warmth, other people meaning nothing, the wind meaning nothing.

One of the last shifts I worked, in January, an older man called to tell me, in the most sober-sounding, unprank-ish voice, that he was coming down to the store in 20 minutes to put his huge penis in my mouth. Of course he didn’t follow through on this, but I hated what I immediately knew: That I would be jumpy for a bit anyway, that fear would reawaken and bubble things that have happened to me, and also soon enough that bubbling would quiet down and go away and I’d forget about it. Which is what happened. I’ve been sexually assaulted by a stranger, funnily enough he didn’t alert me on the phone beforehand.

I guess this man hated women so much that making this call to a stranger did something for him? Like I guess it scratched an itch. He had a reason and it must have been satisfied, I guess. I don’t know. The shop got a LOT of prank calls, uniformly from dumb kids thinking it was hilarious to ask about dildos, but this guy was different, I felt that sense of it right away.

He did not remind me of Donald Trump, of grabbing women by the pussy, but now that I think about it, just typing this, he makes me imagine the coldness of a Bannon or a Miller, whispering one calm threat over the phone, unseen, making malevolent calculations I couldn’t figure while in this warm Canadian winter void of natural light a distractedly brightly lit 18-inch cock proudly built in America burned a hole in my eyes.

From Chandra Mayor

“My mother’s answers to potlucks was invariably a giant vat of chili made with a pound of ground beef seasoned with pepper from a shaker, a giant tin of tomatoes, and a couple of tins of pork and beans. Add cayenne, stir, serve. That, however, is the wrong kind of food domesticity for the queer/feminist crowd—failures again, my mother and I. The last time that I attended a Women’s Studies department potluck, I lost my mind with anxiety, went into some kind of altered insane state, and spent hours making fortune cookies, one at a time, burning the pads of my fingers pressing the hot edges together to make them stick. I filled them with tiny pieces of paper on which I carefully copied out quotes from feminist artists, poets, and theorists. They were a big hit. One prof held up her little feminist fortune and said, “Chandra, the paper is so beautiful! Is it rice paper?” The answer was that no, it was not rice paper. It was regular old computer paper, taken from my printer tray and cut into strips with my daughter’s safety scissors. It only looked like rice paper because the cheap margarine I’d used in the cookies had soaked through everything, making the paper translucent with grease. “Yes, of course,” I said, smiling, toying with my blistering fingers, shame and failure rising up inside. “Rice paper. Lovely, isn’t it?” And I vowed: never again will I try to be this kind of woman, for anyone.”

A girl I used to know

I used to have this friend Sara. She was quiet, she was an alcoholic, she loved drugs, she loved really weird stuff; she kept dead animals in her freezer. She was obsessed with dead things; she wished she was dead so she could be pretty. She was a little older than me, I forget exactly how much. Five-ish years maybe.

I met her in the fall of 2007, when I was re-trying to come out and make moves toward transition. I was 20. Sara’d moved up to Portland and in with a friend, which is how we met, and the first day we did I was wearing a skirt. She thought the skirt was pretty. She was animated about it. She squealed in a way that would have had me eye-rolling years later but back then was like water.

She worked at Victoria’s Secret downtown in the mall. The next time I saw her she said: “I have something for you!” And she put in my hands a pair of girl underwear. They were cotton white with red webbing on the sides, and pictures of apples sliced in half on them. I loved them. I hugged her. She squealed again. And that was it. And the next time I saw her she gave me another pair. Which she did sporadically every time she saw me for well over a year.

It’s hard to think clearly about that point in my life. I’ve started and deleted a few sentences that seem representative. I don’t know. I’ll try. I was living with my old dudely best friend from high school, going to classes, smoking a lot of weed, and feeling really sad. Sometimes I talked about being trans; no one was kind to me about it. A lot of people were mean, many apprehensive and condescending—and there were some people who were nice. Which I cherished. But there’s a difference between nice and kind. That’s semantics I guess, but it’s how I feel: Nice is the thing that won’t hold up against meanness and coldness and cruelty; kind is the thing that does. It’s not always proportionate to the effort a person puts in either, though sometimes it is. Apply that however you like.

I’ve written elsewhere about this period (my essay in Untangling The Knot, mostly) and I don’t know what good it does to type it all out again here. Let’s just say that even in Portlandia it was still not popular or cool in any liberal or gay circle to like trans women, let alone actively support and think about trans women, and there were literally no trans women I would meet and befriend for a while, none, period (Though that fall I would see Elena Rose perform this piece, which was so powerful and I will never forget it.)

I did know and befriend a lot of let’s-end-gender AFAB type folks, and they didn’t really know what to do with me crying about wanting to be “seen as a girl” or “just wanting to be a girl for a little bit”, which was the language I had at the time. Those folks were trying to get away from that—Imogen’s MRR column of  a bit ago about it touches on this exactly. (Queer Community’s still like that in a lot of ways, of course, but trans lady culture is easier to find now in a way that just was so, so much harder back then.) Whipping Girl had just come out, it definitely wasn’t close to penetrating my crowd; the idea that trans women would always be men had a lot of currency and the idea that trans women were women, unconditionally, full stop, was an idea virtually no one but trans women were espousing. It just wasn’t a thing. And I didn’t know any trans women, wouldn’t have an actual conversation with a trans woman until 2009. So. You know.

My other group of friends were high school hometown folks from Eugene, young Democrat types who were down with the gays but still weirded and grossed out by trans girls. I could run around in skirts and that was fine to a point (and I felt blessed for that freedom—still do, really), yet no one wanted me to transition and a lot of people I desperately loved said that loudly and meanly and nobody was there to tell me anything else.

It’s hard to speak plainly and unsentimentally about your womanhood being so unloved—I so badly, and not unconsciously, just wanted someone to tell me that I could be a girl and that being a girl was ok. I did a good job (for the most part) of acting bouncy and happy during that time but I was dying inside. That period of 2006-2009 was my own version of a James H time, I guess—I knew I was trans but I also believed I could never be a woman. I’m grateful it only lasted three-ish years! Yet I’ve still got a lot of bile and crud built up in me from living like that.

Whenever I talk about this point of my life, I usually do so in the context of being disillusioned with queer community and the pervasiveness of transmisogyny in liberal/queer circles/etcetc. But I’ve rarely talked about Sara. What she did for me was so kind, it was a kindness and love and validation I received nowhere else and I can’t begin talking about what it meant to me. I don’t know. It was never a production when she gave me new underwear, it was never creepy or condescending at all, it was always just “Hey, I got these for you.” Like it was the most natural thing in the world. Which, even in my emotionally blanked-out state, it was. She stole underwear for her cis girl friends too. (Which, it probably goes without saying, never slipped my mind for a second.) She wasn’t a gregarious or a performative person, and in public especially she was quiet and shy and nervous, she wanted to be dead. And I doubt she intended it to be this big a deal but she did this thing I’ve never forgotten. She vanished from social media years ago and I don’t talk to the people who knew her anymore. The one trace of her on Google is a student art show she did last year in another state; it’s nice to see she’s both making stuff and alive.

I’ve been thinking lately about social justice Internet discourse and the way we’re supposed to be allies/showing solidarity/etc. I’ve been thinking about the obsessiveness of *We’re Doing It Wrong Here’s Another Way We’re Doing It Wrong* articles and posts and tweets. I’m not thinking about toxicity or rage or judgement, though like you (I’m going to guess) I’ve felt call-out culture breed enough cruelty to want to Never Discuss Anything Again—see any of a dozen wise pieces from Katherine Cross but especially this one and this one. And I’m not thinking about performative politics, though like you (I’m going to guess) I’ve felt political posturing both offline and on get so gross and meaninglessly unproductive. And I’ve taken part in my own share of rage and posturing.

What I’ve been thinking about lately is how social justice Internet discourse promises a nourishment, gives us a goal and something to work towards, gives us a feeling of purification when we discover more things to cut out of our lives, more things to toss aside for being Wrong. It always reminds me of a feeling that a lot of secular people never understood about the intense religiosity I was raised with: The yearning I used to feel for purity, the desire for clear markers on how to be clean, holy, how to live a Godly life, a yearning by no means unique to religious people. It wasn’t born of rage nor posturing but genuine desperation.

If rage is one side of call-out culture’s coin, the other side is the promise of How You Can Be Better. The promise of easy guidance in this hopelessly shifting monster world of Hydra-like evil. The titles of those Everyday Feminism articles, so well-intentioned, always read to me like the worst magazine articles that prey on insecurities, or like the preachers my grandmother watched: “Popular Foods You Need To Stop Eating” “Turn To This Bible Verse In A Time Of Need!” “Oppressive Words To Remove From Your Vocabulary.” Right. Now.

My point is not that social justice Internet discourse is bad! (I think it’s easy to forget how much good it’s done, actually, but that’s another post.) And my point is not that cis people just need to stop reading Everyday Feminism and start blanketing their local trans woman with stolen panties (as fun as that could be for a week). I’m not sure if I know what my fucking point is. I just keep thinking about how, in our day-to-day personal messy-as-fuck human lives where we have to interact with other messy-as-fuck humans, where people are fucking and yelling and working and dying, it’s so easy to overlook who is not receiving kindness and why. And that lots of this “How To Be An Ally To Trans Women” stuff that has sprang up in the last couple years sometimes leaves me feeling really empty, feels so disconnected from the problem every human with a conscience is faced with: of how to be good to the complex people you come face-to-face with in your every day life. Does anybody else feel this way about stuff written about them? Anybody who sorts through People Are Trying To Ally At Me, not just trans women? I don’t want to be a 20-year-old in 2007 anymore—God, I don’t. But 95% of the time when people Ally at me, I still feel myself floating away behind glass until they stop. In the best case senario.

“It’s horrifying!” said the cis gay dude employed as a youth programmer at the LGBT non-profit who brought me in to do a workshop last year at a youth camp. He’d done some training thing in Toronto about trans women. He had the most concerned face. “I didn’t realize all these things about transmisogyny!” This was the summary of his thoughts on the subject. I would love to be gracious about that in an objective sense, think it was a net good he went to whatever that training was, that he needed something like that, that he was gonna be the guy working this job whether he was trying or not—and hey, maybe he’s doing good things for young trans girls right now and a minimal amount of harm. And maybe neither of those things is the case in a serious way—I wish I could be starry eyed about it, but knowing from the previous two years volunteering there how ignorant everyone in that organization was personally about trans women (and where, of course, no trans women worked) He said some nice and correct things but I still left it just feeling so oogy.

But regardless of thinking in the context of community, personally I was sick, realizing how little this man who was paid to watch out for us knew about me or my sisters, how little the specifics and intricacies of my stupid life would mean to him in this context, how anything I might tell him about myself or my experiences would only serve to plug into something from a workshop, what he thought he had carefully learned, as opposed to the fullness of one stupid breathing weird human in front of him, with her own unique sets of shittinesses and talents and needs.

==============

“Check it out!!” Sara said one night at a party at our place (we had a lot of parties). “I got you gay dancing sailor underwear!”

Yeah she did.

Red panties with gay dancing sailor
I hugged her and asked if I could make her a drink.

“Yes.”

“Light, medium, or strong?”

“Strong.” She was such a tiny girl.

I don’t know if I’ve really expressed myself clearly here. Eight years ago I was a sad mess crying out to be a girl but nobody knew how to deal with that. And then another fucked-up mess of a girl didn’t try to talk about it (even if she wanted to, she couldn’t have) and instead did stuff like give me gay dancing sailor panties. I will remember her more than many other people. She was just really fucking kind to me in the most unassuming and beautiful way. I miss her. I miss people like that.

 

 

2012, summer

Last night I went to Cari’s house for Game Night. It wasn’t unusual till the end. I put on a green sundress that I almost never wore. I hadn’t eaten dinner. Alex was going to come but she forgot and went to the beach instead. I hung out with Cari and Stella and their roommate Faith. Cari’s one of the register managers, Stella works in children’s. On the walk to her building, someone behind me yelled, “It’s a maaaaa-a-a-a-a-a-an!” I turned around and two guys were gawking in lawnchairs and the others around them were all hooting. Cari made us Dark and Stormys and we played poker, not for money, for fun. More Dark and Stormys and then wine. A lot more wine. We played BS too. I said I should leave by midnight, which didn’t happen. I’m going home next month, back West, to write and live with my mom after three years in New York. I’d never been away from her before this. I came out to her years ago and she didn’t like that but we’re better now. I miss her so much. I want to be a good daughter to her as much as I was any kind of son. I think by now she wants that too—I hope by now she wants that too. I want to come home. I miss her so, so much. Hanging with Cari and Stella was fun but somewhere it turned not fun. There was more wine and more wine and I mentioned the guys who yelled at me and then I asked them if they could walk me to the subway. Then we got started on trans stuff and I ended up being angry and bitching. I’m angry all the time these days, not angry as in blind-rage angry—testosterone angry—angry as in bitter and cold and cracked angry, Debbie Downer-angry. There was more wine. More and more and more wine. Cari and Stella walked me to the train. They said Please stay at our place but I wouldn’t have it. I was so drunk and I should’ve stayed but I had work the next morning and when I thought about waking up on their couch gross and sweaty and unshowered and ugly—so I hugged them goodbye. “One more time. Please stay at our place,” Cari said. The train was coming. Goodbye sorry! I blacked out on the Q all the way to Times Square. When I got there to transfer I really really really had to pee. The next train was coming in twenty minutes. I went up and up and tried to find a place to piss—Times Square all of places—but it was Tuesday and 2 AM so it wasn’t that crowded. I went into the entrance alcove of some office building on 41st Street and pissed. It was so stupid. Was it stupid? I was so tired by then. I got smart and took a cab home.

Lying in bed, sweating in the summer heat, my room gently whirlpooling around me, streetlight and car sounds fluttering in through the purple curtain over my window, I couldn’t remember faces. I was thinking of Cale, a manager at work, and I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t picture him. I knew the traits, I remembered blond hair, light eyes, but nothing. I tried Liz, the head floor manager. Nothing. Same thing. I tried my mother. I tried to picture my mother’s face. I couldn’t. I was too drunk. I was so drunk I couldn’t remember what my mother looked like. I was so drunk I couldn’t think.

Silence

Hey folks! A lot has happened since I came around to this place. For one, I took an oatmeal bath tonight and it was great. Like, GREAT. I was hoping it would help with my winter itching. It’s helped a little.

I also released my book, helped put on Writing Trans Genres, protested Germaine Greer at the CMHR, got two new tattoos, taught in New York for a few weeks, ran my love life through a blender, and went on two book tours, one of which literally went around the continent. I am back in Winnipeg now and have been pretty quiet (writing-wise anyway) for the last few months. I am working on another thing, and hopefully by the end of the year the thing might become a Thing. We’ll see. I have started reviewing books for the Winnipeg Free Press. I have an article in The Walrus coming out in April that was a blast to work on. I just published a short story in Rookie.

It hasn’t been as cold as usual here in One Great City, though it is -15C right now (-20C with the windchill). I’ve now been back in Canada for two years as of last Friday. What a time. The Wailin’ Jennys were my constant throughout 2014. Here, have a pretty song: If folk-y stuff and lady harmonies are your thing anyway.

I don’t have a lot else right now. I’m itchy again. Fucking oatmeal.

I wrote a book

Ok I keep meaning to write this post and not doing it BUT like, uh, I have a book coming out! It’s called A Safe Girl To Love and it’s a collection of eleven short stories about young trans women. Four of them have been published before and the rest haven’t.

http://www.topsidepress.com/titles/a-safe-girl-to-love

It’s $16.95 US and you can pre-order it at the link above and it’ll ship out in the next few weeks. If you’re in Winnipeg, we’ll have copies at the Writing Trans Genres conference I’m involved with (http://www.writingtransgenres.com) May 22-24, and I’ll also be doing a co-launch with Trish Salah at my work, McNally Robinson, on June 20. I’m also gonna be doing some touring in early June around the American Northeast with some pretty incredible other Topside ladies like Sybil Lamb, Imogen Binnie, and Red Durkin. Info on that is here: http://topsidepress.com/tour/ There’s a couple NYC dates and also Philly, Providence, Brattleboro VT, Hartford, Baltimore, and Cambridge (though I won’t be around for that last one, bummer). If you feel like pre-ordering one (and/or the other books Topside is releasing y/y?) it’ll help us fund the tour, so that is cool.

And then we’ll be doing a bigger tour in the fall! Around, like, the whole continent and stuff. September 2nd is also when the book’ll be available on Ingram and through distributors to put in stores.

Ok! Done my “I wrote a book” blog post! Phew.

America and Canada

Hi!

There are some kind of cool things I’ve been doing lately, and I will be posting about them in a semi-maybe-kind-of official capacity in a bit. But in the meantime, I just did something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time…write a list of Canadian cities and their American equivalents.

Banff = Aspen
Calgary = Dallas and to some extent Phoenix
Nelson = Boulder
Edmonton = Denver
Victoria = Honolulu

Saskatoon = Omaha
Regina = Fargo
Lethbridge = Cheyenne
Timmins = Marquette
Thompson = Williston

St. John’s = Portland, ME
Vancouver = every major American West Coast city rolled into one

Montreal started out as our New York but ended up our Boston
Toronto started out as our Buffalo but ended up our New York
Winnipeg started out as our Chicago but ended up our Minneapolis

Short Stories and Voice

Well, I’m drunk, I can’t sleep, I have to work tomorrow, and I finally picked up and started reading Etgar Keret’s The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God today, and all of this made me want to talk a bit about short stories. Part of this, btw, is because I’ve been finishing a book of short stories in the last few months, and am (HOPEFULLY HOPEFULLY) really close to soon saying “I finished a book of short stories.” So they’ve been on my mind a lot.

A few stories into reading Keret, I thought that it reminded me a lot of when I read Miranda July’s collection of stories. It reminded me so much of how I felt reading her that I Googled “Miranda July Etgar Keret” and it turns out they’ve done a collaboration together. Wowserz! So I guess it’s not just me. I liked July’s book, and I’m liking Keret so far, but neither of them (so far) have really struck me in my heart all that much? (with the very notable exception of July’s story “Something That Needs Nothing,” which really gets me every time for a few different reasons). And I like both their books, maybe it’s like they tickle me in every part of my body except my heart.

It’s not that they’re clinical like the way some super-talented writers are, where the story feels overproduced. I feel this way, say, about most of David Foster Wallace’s Girl With Curious Hair (though I love most of DFW), and George Saunders’ In Persuasion Nation (haven’t read any other Saunders though). I guess the weird thing is about books like Keret’s and July’s, is that even though I really enjoy reading them, like really! I’m digging Keret and I dug July! They also remind me of books I love more?

A few months back I read All The Pretty Girls by Chandra Mayor (if you have never heard of her, just get the book now so your reading life can get better). I loved it to fucking bits and it took my heart out for lots of reasons, not the least of which is that it portrays the city of Winnipeg in a way that was very visceral and real to me, and particularly speaks to the world I lived in when I was a kid, which, until I moved back here, I had little else but my memories to relate to. But anyway, in Chandra’s book, the protagonists in her stories seem to be more or less the same woman. And it made me think: I love collections of stories like that. Hell, I just love authors like that. I thought about this a lot too when I read Amy Hempel, which I did very slowly and deliberately for a lot of last year. The voice of her narrator doesn’t really change that much, and I absolutely love that. I really don’t mind. It’s the collections of stories that span all gamuts of characters and internal people that honestly never quite hit home for me, that always feel to me a bit detached. As much as I love the above David Foster Wallace, for instance, his fiction only pushes on my heart in very specific and rare moments, and I wonder if maybe for this reason.

I also get to read with Chandra Mayor in a few weeks at McNally Robinson (I dunno if anybody from Winnipeg will read this blog but HERE’S THE EVENT PAGE JUST IN CASE) so that is kinda stupidly cool and exciting.

I thought about this especially when I re-read Miriam Toews’ Swing Low a couple months ago, her  spare, dark, beautiful book about her father’s suicide, told through his eyes in first-person. Her father, as a character, is so obviously different from Miriam’s usual fictional protagonists: a mid-century Mennonite schoolteacher from Steinbach, Manitoba struggling with bipolar, as opposed to the desperate broke sad apostate girls that make up the protagonists of her fiction. But her writing voice, somehow, to me, is the same. Like I can hear her voice behind the keyboard at the same time that I hear her father speaking. That book hit really hard and close to home the first time I read it (being in my grandfather’s basement in Blumenort, Manitoba at the time probably didn’t help). I cried again reading it this time, though not as much as the first time.

I suppose what I’m trying to say here, though it’s not really that revolutionary a thought, is that I never really connect as much with books when the authors have such a level of wizardry that no story feels the same from one to the next? When there isn’t a voice. That’s how I felt when I read Girl With Curious Hair. While the opening story’s ending just killed me, and the title story absolutely was genius enough to push beyond the Cleverness Mountain, the rest of it was like…it was good, very very good and I liked reading it…but I couldn’t really pick out a voice. Like it was a blast and it was thoughtful but it didn’t move me. I couldn’t really hear him as an author speaking to me (which I do when I read his non-fiction, I should say, which I mostly love quite a bit). And I wonder if that’s why I didn’t love it, like I do his non-fiction, or I love Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. Another good example here is Junot Diaz, whose short fiction I finally read this past year, both Drown and This Is How You Lose Her. I mean, he’s done the thing where he’s just put the same dude, Yunior, as the same narrator for every story, but to me it works the same as Amy Hempel or Chandra Mayor: You can hear their voices so strongly and clearly. I love that. So who cares if a dozen stories with ostensibly different names and faces and descriptions swirl together into a mass. (Lorrie Moore is another good example of someone who pulls this off, I think.)

Why am I bringing all this up in a fit of whiskey haze and insomnia at 2:30 in the morning? *scrolls up* Etgar Keret, right. I guess I should really just finish the book. In the meantime, it’s -30 and balls-ass freezing here in One Great City y’all, and my radiator is overheating and I am sweating bullets, so I may actually crack a window. In the meantime, g’night.

Heart of the Continent

Hi everyone. God I’m really bad at updating this. But hi everyone!

I wrote a couple pieces of flash and they’re here and here The collaboration between Annie Mok and I for this story I wrote isn’t going to be a zine anymore, but it’s still happening and going to be, like, an existing thing.

I’m still trundling away here in Winnipeg writing and working too much and doing dumb things. I just discovered Erika Lopez, who’s awesome! I found one of her books in the basement of my bookstore about to get oblivion-shelved into a storage box. In some ways it’s kinda crappy being the only one working in my bookstore who actively likes gay shit and stuff written by women, but on the other hand, it does means I always get first pick on the cool stuff.

It’s been raining a lot here in One Great City. Or, as the official motto of Winnipeg now calls it, the Heart of the Continent.