Use It

My nine-year-old is away from home for the first time this week, away on a school trip.  I know he’s having a wonderful time and I am so glad he has this opportunity, but missing him is like gastrointestinal distress or a mouth ulcer – a constant, unpleasant presence that could flare up into pain at any moment.  I know he’s not a baby anymore, but come on, he’ll always be my baby.

I’m also working on a revision this week, and I happen to at a part of the story where my protagonist has suffered a devastating loss.  So at least I can harness the pain of the temporarily empty nest…

Confidence and Serenity

Most people who know me would tell you that I am a pretty confident person.  I’ve managed to be more or less successful as a librarian, a storyteller, and an interpreter…almost anything I have tried my hand at professionally.

Writing is something different, though.  Even though I have published several books, and big things are looming on the horizon, I don’t think I will ever be truly confident as a writer.  When I think about all the rejections and the disheartening editorial letters and the years and years it has taken to get to this place, I am amazed that I am here at all.  The only reason I haven’t given up is that I am really good at staying busy and ignoring the negative.  Still, the smallest things can shoot down your confidence.  Here’s a short list of things that can derail you, if you’re me:

  • Your least favorite person in the world gets a book deal.
  • Your favorite person in the world gets a book deal.
  • Your least favorite person’s book is so successful that it spawns a movie.
  • Someone close to you refuses to read your work, saying, “If I don’t like it, you’ll be mad at me.”
  • You read a terrible book and fume that such a horrendous writer got published before you.
  • You read an amazing book and sink into depression that you will never write anything that good.

And then there’s this: in the spring of 2011, my good friend Annette passed away.  She was an early reader of The Library of the Gods, and helped me work out several plot issues.  (She’s there, in the story, too – but only readers who knew her well are likely to spot her cameo.)  After her death, I suffered my worst writer’s block ever.  It was only when another friend and former writing partner I hadn’t seen in over ten years contacted me out of the blue that I was able to get it together again.  I will always credit Annette’s spirit with giving her the nudge to send that well-timed friend request.

And this current slump I’m in?  I could blame the weather, or the flu that knocked me for a loop in February, or letting too much of a lull happen between working on different projects.  Or just plain old scaredy-cat fear.  But the truth is, part of the reason I like novel-writing is that it’s unlike any of the other projects I work on.  It’s never going to be perfect; it’s never going to fit into a timeline or a to-do list or a specific writing technique.  It has to unfold on its own.  So while I ruminate over the revision I am about to undertake, I shall allow myself not to rush it.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

The courage to change the things I can,

And the persistence to finish the damn book.

The In-Between Place

On February 11, I finished the draft I had been working on for over eighteen months.  (Okay, I actually finished it on February 10, but I have this thing about finishing drafts on my birthday if at all possible, so I dragged it out for an extra day.  Happy birthday to me!)  For a year and half I had been immersed in the world of the story, a world of magic and romance and cold iron.  And now, hard as it is, I know the best thing I can do for the story is to walk away from it for at least six months.

Part of the reason I had been pushing to finish it was that I was scheduled to start an edit of another book and I wanted to make sure I would be mentally ready to jump into that.  But life has intervened, and that edit has been pushed back (though I expect it will start any day now), so I have been in a weird, in-between place.

Mind you, there’s still plenty to fill my time.  I still don’t quite understand how, no matter how many items I check off my to-do list, they still multiply like stink bugs.  (I was going to say rabbits or dandelions, but those are both way too pleasant images.  Stink bugs capture my feelings on the subject much better.)  I’ve been getting lots of things done that I’ve been putting off for awhile, working on projects for Deaf Camps, Inc., the nonprofit I am passionately committed to, and finally justifying my nonfiction co-author’s faith in me by finishing up the proposal I’d been putting off.  And oh, how I love having time to catch up on all the books that have been sitting on my bedside table for months.

But I have to admit I feel a little adrift without a writing project to anchor me.  I know that some writers can bounce between projects easily, and maybe I should be able to do that, but the thing is, I don’t want to.  I love getting wrapped up in a novel I am writing, setting aside hours at a time so I can really dig into the story instead of writing it in bits and pieces.  Even then, when you can give yourself over to that world for awhile each day, writing is hard, sometimes downright painful.  Why would I want to do it in a way that made it less enjoyable?  What would be the point?

But the downside is the In-Between Place.

Everyday Evil

I recently finished The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil by Philip Zimbardo (Random House, 2007).cover of The Lucifer Effect

This book was extremely hard to read.

So hard, in fact, that I actually used up all twenty renewals on the library copy I had, and had to return it and get a new copy.   (That means it took me over a year to read the whole thing.)  I would read a chapter or two, and then need to put it down.  The descriptions of real-life evil acts conducted by ordinary people were just too intense to bear for long.  Sometimes it was weeks before I could pick the book up again.

Zimbardo is best known as the head of the Stanford Prison Experiment, a seminal experiment in social psychology in which middle-class 1970s college students played the roles of prisoners and guards while researchers explored the powerful effects of situation in shaping behavior.  The experiment was shut down prematurely when the situation drew out dehumanizing tendencies not only in guards, but in the researchers themselves, who played administrators in the false prison.  Rattled by the personal and professional effects of the experiment, Zimbardo has made it his life’s work to pursue an understanding of how situational factors influence human behavior.  In this book, he describes the experiment in sometimes painful detail and connects its lessons with other atrocities of aggression and omission, from the abuses of prisoners at Abu Ghraib to the murder of Kitty Genovese.

We Americans, in particular, tend to think of ourselves as unique individuals, deciding our own fates, but research shows that we all have “situated identities” – that is, we behave in different ways in different situations, and those ways are shockingly easy to predict.  In fact, Zimbardo argues that it’s easy to predict your behavior based on your ethnicity, social class, education, religion, and where you live – with no knowledge of your social class at all.

If our identities are largely socially constructed, then it make sense that good people often fall prey to situational logic, where our involvement in a group may encourage us redefine our behavior as something better than it is, lose our sense of personal responsibility, or dehumanize others because the group demands it.  Anyone who has experienced middle school knows that this is so – what disturbs me most is that the evidence shows that we don’t necessarily grow out of it.

We can’t be hermits, so we have to maintain our critical facilities at all times.  Zimbardo says this best: “We must regularly assess the worth of our social involvements.  The challenge for each of us is how best to oscillate between two poles, immersing fully and distancing appropriately.”

As fiction writers, we need to be keenly aware of the pull of situational factors on our characters.  It’s not enough to know that a character is spunky, or passive, or riddled with self-doubt, or charismatic.  Even more important to his or her behavior is the setting, the social expectations, the groups of which the character is a member.

Though The Lucifer Effect was a difficult read, I am glad I made it through.  The book maintains unflinching allegiance to the truth, to the underlying belief that shines through even the darkest descriptions that, while evil is frighteningly banal, so is heroism.  Because in the end, Zimbardo illuminates the fact that “we are all heroes in waiting”.

 

10 Things Writers Need to Know About American Sign Language and Deaf Culture

I love the movie Jerry Maguire – except for one scene that always makes me want to throw something.  It’s the one where Dorothy (Renee Zellweger) and Jerry (Tom Cruise) see two deaf people signing, and Dorothy says, “My favorite aunt is hearing impaired. He just said ‘You complete me’.”

What a sweet scene, right?  The line even appears later in Jerry’s big winning-Dorothy-back speech at the end.

But here’s the problem: anyone who actually knows about Deaf culture or American Sign Language doesn’t buy it.  If Dorothy’s aunt really taught her that much sign language, then she surely also taught her that many deaf people (and certainly the vast majority of ASL users) find the term “hearing impaired” offensive.  Also, what the deaf actor, Anthony Natale, signs would be rendered word-for-word as “You make me feel complete” – and it’s highly unlikely that even a skilled, experienced interpreter would come up with such a graceful interpretation as “You complete me” on the spot, let alone a character who had only learned a few signs from her aunt.  Though the moment is no doubt lovely to those who don’t know any better, to those who do it’s another example of the pervasive sentimentalization of sign language.

There is so very much that TV, movies, and books get wrong about American Sign Language and Deaf Culture.  Even with the presence of shows like ABC Family’s Switched at Birth, which gets so very much right, myths and generalizations abound.  Here are the top ten things I wish those writers knew:

1) American Sign Language is a real language with its own grammar and syntax.

It has nothing to do with English, and it is a language perfectly attuned to the eye instead of the ear.  Whereas concepts in a spoken language present themselves linearly, sign languages can make use of space to show the interrelation between several concepts at once, with an eye-pleasing efficiency.  Click here for an example.

2) Deaf Culture exists!

It’s the set of beliefs, behaviors, and adaptations unique to deaf signers, and is the foundation of the Deaf community.  American Sign Language is the most precious and powerful symbol of American Deaf Culture.

3) Just say “deaf” – or, if you are referring to culture instead of hearing ability or lack thereof, say “Deaf”.

While some people may identify as “hard of hearing”, terms such as “hearing impaired”, “deaf and dumb”, and “deaf mute” are offensive and inaccurate.  A Deaf person is not broken or impaired; he or she simply uses a different language and is a member of a different cultural group.

4) Reading lips is not a terribly effective way to communicate.

First of all, the correct term is “speechreading”, because when one is doing it, one is looking at far more than just the lips – the facial muscles, expression, and context play a big part in understanding.   Speechreading is a difficult and exhausting skill that takes years to master – and hearing people are usually better at it than deaf people are.  (One Deaf friend jokes that the only sentence she can speechread is “Can you read lips?”)  Even the most skilled speechreader working under the best circumstances of lighting and positioning has to make use of significant guesswork to follow a conversation.

5) If there is a deaf person in a scene, and the other people in that scene are not signing or, in the case of speechreaders, speaking directly to that person, that deaf person won’t know what’s going on!

The fact is that 90% of deaf kids have hearing parents, and an astonishing number of them report being left out of family communication all or most of the time.  Glossing over the vital importance of access to communication and this all-too-common experience of deaf characters by pretending that communication is somehow happening when it clearly isn’t perpetuates misunderstandings among hearing readers and viewers.

6) Sign language is NOT universal, any more than spoken languages are.

American Sign Language is the sign language used throughout the United States and most of Canada.  Because the first deaf educator in the U.S., Laurent Clerc, came from France, ASL is most closely related to French Sign Language, though the two languages have diverged greatly over the past 200 years.  There are many sign languages in the world, such as Chinese Sign Language, British Sign Language, and Kenyan Sign Language.  There is such a thing as International Sign, which is a limited set of signs, supplemented by gestures, used at international conferences and gatherings.  (Please note the absence of the word “language” in the name – that is because International Sign is a constructed communication method, much like Esperanto, used in very limited settings.  It is not a full-fledged language.)

7) It takes years of training to become an American Sign Language interpreter.

This one is close to my heart.  Just because someone can sign, that doesn’t mean he or she can interpret.  Interpreting is a whole separate set of skills that involves taking in and understanding the message in the source language, processing it and finding the best match in the target language, and producing an equivalent message in the target language.  It doesn’t happen instantaneously, and it is a hard-won skill.  In addition, certified interpreters are bound by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf Code of Professional Conduct, which requires confidentiality of all assignment-related information, impartiality, and other standards that protect hearing and deaf consumers alike.

8) When portraying the use of American Sign Language in print, please, for the love of God, don’t gloss.

Glossing, a tool that is often used in ASL textbooks and courses to help students remember ASL syntax, uses the words that most closely align to ASL signs and puts them in ASL order.  Words in gloss are always written in the present tense and in capital letters.  For example, the gloss of the ASL translation of the English sentence, “Where is your car?” would look like this:

YOUR CAR WHERE?

Glossing can be a valuable tool, but it is extremely limited because it does not show use of space or nonmanual signals (for example, eyebrow and mouth movements and body shifts, all of which serve a grammatical function in ASL).

Worse, when glossing appears in fiction, it gives an incomplete picture of the language and makes deaf characters sound primitive and limited in communication.  What’s wrong with using standard dialogue conventions and replacing “said” with “signed”?:

“Where is your car?” she signed.

9)  Not all deaf people want cochlear implants or hearing aids.

In fact, most culturally Deaf people are not terribly interested in how much or how little they or the people around them can hear; they are more interested in the thousand other things they can do to get on with their lives and everyday interests.  There was a time when getting a cochlear implant meant spitting in the eye of the Deaf community; now, as the limitations of the technology have become clearer, it is seen more as an individual choice.  The major concern of the Deaf community in relation to cochlear implants is the fact that so many hearing parents (and remember, 90% of deaf children have hearing parents) rush to implant their young children without educating themselves about the limits of the technology, the resources of the Deaf community, and the many educational options available.  See the National Association of the Deaf Position Paper on Cochlear Implants for more information.

10) Where’s the Deaf perspective?

If you are going to include a deaf character in your writing, you MUST educate yourself about the rich culture and history of this fascinating, resilient community.  Two must-see documentaries to get you started:

Through Deaf Eyes.  DVD.  PBS Home Video, 2007.  120 minutes.

A beautifully accurate and entertaining look at 200 years of Deaf history, told from the perspective of the people who lived it.

Audism Unveiled. DVD. DawnSignPress, 2008. 57 minutes.

Sheds light on Deaf people’s everyday experiences of discrimination in their families, communities, and the wider political world.  “Audism”, or the idea that one is superior based on one’s ability to hear, was a term coined by a Deaf scholar in the 1970s, and is the lens through which this affecting documentary presents the Deaf experience.

Author’s note:

Before I posted this, the WordPress language checker alerted me to “possible bias language” at the use of “hearing impaired” above.  There is hope for the world!

Find more posts like this at Kathy’s ASL interpreting, storytelling, and resource website, StoriesByHand.com.

So Many Books, So Little Time

As often as I have seen that sentiment on t-shirts and mugs or Facebook walls, it didn’t really hit me until a few months ago how true it is.  When I walk into a bookstore or a library now, all I can think about is the fact that the shelves are lined with thousands of books that I will never get to read.  Of course, some of them are probably boring.  I don’t regret those.  But even taking out the boring and the bad, I find it depressing when I think about how many wonderful, possibly life-changing books will never even enter my awareness.  And when I think about launching my babies into that world where they can so easily get lost in the crowd…well, let’s just say it’s disheartening.

When I was a kid, I read so voraciously that I would finish every book I started, and sometimes even reread books I disliked, just because they were there.  Sometimes I want to go back in time and smack that kid and give her a booklist to work through during all those lazy childhood hours.  Don’t get me wrong – some rereads would be fine.  She could keep her yearly Christmas vacation reread of The Lord of the Rings, which inevitably ended in 2 am bawling as Frodo sailed from the Grey Havens.

I felt guilty when I first jettisoned my rule about finishing every book I started, but there are just too many wonderful books in the world to waste time on something that doesn’t delight me.  And that’s what every reader is chasing, isn’t it?  That sense of delight, of being transported out of our everyday lives.  That can’t-put-it-down, can’t-wait-to-get-back-to-the-car-so-I-can-continue-the-audiobook preoccupation with a fictional world.

When I think about my own stories, it almost seems too much to ask, to be able to create that feeling for someone else.  It feels presumptuous to hope that someone might love my fantasy worlds the way I love Middle Earth or Hogwarts or Eddis, Sounis, and Attolia, to even conceive that somehow someone might find my little books among all the other wonderful stuff out there.

But I keep on reading, even though my reading list will never end.  And I’ll keep on writing, hoping even one person out there will find something transporting in it.  Because, I don’t know about you, but I just can’t seem to give up on looking for magic.