Rules for dating my daughter

Some time ago this t-shirt made the rounds of Facebook and Twitter, and met with general approval from the wild-eyed feminists I tend to hang out with:

feminist dad t-shirt















I certainly approved of it as an antidote to some other much more macho versions I’ve seen, like this one:

rules for dating my daughter -- macho version

Via Anna Eaton on Pinterest


Talk about being hostile and possessive. (Though I totally agree with the doorbell thing.) It all seems to amount to this, really:

Rules for dating my daughter you can't

Via Anna Eaton on Pinterest
















And that’s just about as patriarchal as it gets. Also, I’m the mother of a teenage son, and I don’t really appreciate these sentiments being directed at him. It’s as if these guys were all such sleazes in their own dating days that they expect the worst from every other young man.

Not that I’m going to suggest typical young men — and quite a few older men — are not highly, highly motivated to get some.

Which is, of course why there are risks out here for young women who are dating (or just trying to get a meeting with Bill Cosby). And my novel The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire demonstrates at least one of those risks fairly dramatically.

But how many people would really be willing to apply “She makes the rules. Her body, her rules” to their own teenage daughters?

The heroine’s arguably wacko feminist mother in The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire DOES hold this philosophy and actually puts it into practice at a key moment …. and plenty of women I consider feminists react to that moment by saying “WHAT? She said WHAT?”

Not without reason. The 17-year-old may be legally of age (in Massachusetts) and unusually mature, but she’s recently survived a harrowing ordeal. And the fellow she wants to make her own rules with is a much older man who is messed up in his own way, though I don’t consider him a predator.

And perhaps it’s easy for me to try to support the idea that SHE makes the rules, because I don’t have a biological daughter, and my stepdaughter is now safely grown up (though we had plenty of nail-biting moments), and I myself avoided most of the dangers of immature sexual experimentation by being a total nerd for a long, long time.

But I was a daughter. And while my childhood was thankfully not much like Molly’s, I do remember how I felt about being protected from my own opportunities to grow up: I resented it.

My old Clearwater High School friend Gayle recently posted on Facebook about how I had a “purity of purpose” in high school, whereas she was obsessed with boys. The reality was that I just kept my obsessions quieter. Yes, I campaigned for Jimmy Carter at age sixteen. And yes, I was enthralled by him (a Southern liberal! It was such a refreshing concept!). But a lot of that effort had to do with the fact that I was canvassing with the lovely young Michael Billiris. (He never laid a finger on me, I’m sad to say, though I’m not sure I would have had the slightest idea what to do if he had.)

When Carter won, Michael and I were of course invited to the local campaign party to celebrate, and that was when my dad said no. My father was a local journalist and he knew what those parties were like — probably not at all a safe place for a naive 16-year-old. Even though I know this now, that “no” still rankles all these decades later. I worked on that campaign, damn it! And Michael Billiris was going to that party!

Maybe Dad saved me from some horrible trauma. But as far as I was concerned, when it came to all that stuff I was always waaaaay behind my peers.

The thing is, learning how to handle sex is part of growing up. For girls as well as boys. There’s fumbling around and figuring out what the deal is, especially since everybody has been trying so hard to keep you from learning it.

There’s learning how to cope with people who want it from you — perhaps especially if you don’t want it with them — or to cope with people who don’t want it with you when you desperately want it with them.

There’s crappy beginner sex, getting-better-with-practice sex, and, hopefully, some really great sex. Maybe you’re lucky and it’s all with the one great love of your life. Most of us aren’t that lucky. (And do people that lucky actually know how lucky they are?)

The thing is, you can’t ever just check sex off your bucket list as something you’ve done. All your life, you’ll be affected by your own and your partner’s (or partners’) libido. You are going to have to cope with the sometimes heartbreaking difference between sex and love, between sex and actual emotional intimacy, between sex and commitment. You may be faced with betrayal or boredom or disability. You may be one of those sad people who compulsively pursue sex even against your own best interest (see Bill Clinton, or Arthur in The Awful Mess).

As parents, we’d love to make sure this area of life always goes well for our kids, along with everything else. Hopefully, we teach our sons and daughters to respect themselves enough that they won’t do things they don’t really want to do just to be accepted. Hopefully, we teach them to respect others enough that they won’t wreak horror on someone just because they can.

And perhaps fortunately, there’s a sort of natural limit after which it becomes creepy to the rest of the world if we don’t let go and let our children make their own decisions about it.

Their bodies. Their rules.

But, oh Lord, please help them get them through it safely.

As I told a reader at the Sand Lake Town Library this weekend, if reading The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire keeps just one young woman (or young man, for that matter) from getting drunk at a party and paying the price for it, it will have been worth everything I put into it.

And if it prevents even one person from judging someone harshly for a youthful misstep in this area, that will make me happy, too.

What about you? When do you think “her body, her rules” kicks in?

Art or gimmickry or pornography?

This post is potentially NSFW, which means Not Safe For Work, non-internet-savvy readers. (Hey, my parents read this blog!)

Molly’s mother in The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire is the kind of artist whose work would make any teenage girl cringe. Multiply that by ten if you happen to be her daughter in a small town where everybody knows about it.

Of course, Cassandra was great fun to write, because she allowed me to tap my inner terrible feminist artist. I love art, and I didn’t decide that I wasn’t going to pursue it as a career until I got to UMass and couldn’t get into any of the studio classes my freshman year. (I declared an English major that year, and that was that.)

But writing will never be as in-your-face as the visual arts can be. And while I admire certain artists for making the unspeakable a topic of discussion, I have also always wondered what it would be like to actually, say, be their kids, or their husbands, or wives.

One work, in particular, inspired such thoughts: The Dinner Party, by Judy Chicago. It premiered in 1979, toured to great controversy, and is now housed in the Brooklyn Museum. It’s a triangular arrangement of dinner settings that purports to represent important women from three historical eras. (Yes, Virginia Woolf is there.) What made it shocking (at the time) was that the plates were painted to represent stylized vaginas.

As Wikipedia says, it provoked a range of opinion. Some loved it.

Feminist critic Lucy Lippard stated, “My own initial experience was strongly emotional… The longer I spent with the piece, the more I became addicted to its intricate detail and hidden meanings,” …. These reactions are echoed by other critics, and the work was glorified by many.

Many others hated it.

Hilton Kramer, for example, argued, “The Dinner Party reiterates its theme with an insistence and vulgarity more appropriate, perhaps, to an advertising campaign than to a work of art.”[9] He called the work not only a kitsch object but also “crass and solemn and singleminded,” “very bad art,… failed art,… art so mired in the pieties of a cause that it quite fails to acquire any independent artistic life of its own.”[9]
Maureen Mullarkey also criticized the work, calling it preachy and untrue to the women it claims to represent.[9]

(Go to Wikipedia for the full article, plus references.)

Personally, I am as guilty as the next Philistine of thinking of some contemporary art as a vulgar gimmickry (although I will also grant you that sometimes vulgar gimmicks are what it takes to get a conversation going). One generation’s shameless art may well become another generation’s fine art, and vice versa. Also, there’s clearly a lot more artistic attention to detail in The Dinner Party than there is in Cassandra’s work.

Of course, Cassandra’s art is not the only art in the book. Towards the end of Ribs, David takes Molly to The Clark Institute, one of my favorite museums in the world, where he is freaked out by two paintings on display in the first room. If you click on the link for the Clark above and let the photographs at the top of the home page run through their animation, you’ll see just how striking William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s Nymphs and Satyrs painting is as you walk in. It’s not subtle, either, David tells Molly, when she shares that  criticism of her mother’s work. But she forgives Bouguereau’s piece for not being subtle because it’s beautiful.

Another painting still on view at the Clark (which recently renovated) is Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Slave Market (below). As the Clark’s web site points out, “This disturbing scene is set in a courtyard market intended to suggest the Near East. The vague, distant location allowed nineteenth-century French viewers to censure the practice of slavery, which was outlawed in Europe, while enjoying a look at the female body” (Lees, Sarah, ed.).

And as I look at this painting with fascination — and I have visited and done so many times — I always feel uncomfortably voyeuristic. There’s inherent drama in this painting. There’s arguably a point being made about a brutal and unfair balance of power (possibly a racist and anti-Islamic one). There’s also that icky feeling of wondering if I’m essentially just looking at pornography in a very public place.

The thing is, I know that I can’t explore the topic of sex in my books without asking myself if what I’m writing strays into that territory. And, in fact, David asks Cassandra that question about her art.

But I feel compelled to write about it anyway, because sex is part of our existence, and so is the risk of becoming a victim, not just of the rapist, but of the bully, the murderer, the thief, the car driven by the drunk, the awful storm, the disease, the plane crash.

Of course, we prefer not to think about this, even to shift blame to the victim, as if somehow if that person had just prayed harder, gone only to the right places, eaten only healthy food, had the good sense to be born in the United States, been a good enough person, then God would have protected her, or him. Or, if we don’t expect God to protect us from all harm, then perhaps we assume that excellent judgment will provide its own shield from disaster.

And surely it does help, but not enough, not all the time.

And perhaps, if we could empathize a little better with people caught in that reality, and sympathize with those who have gone through it, we will be better able to lend a helping hand. Maybe we’ll try a little harder to prevent some of the trauma and carnage in the first place, instead of just turning away, or condemning the victim.

That’s my hope, anyway. If you’re not a kind person, and your reaction to Slave Market ends with “Woo hoo! Look at them titties!” here’s where I humbly suggest that there are a whole lot of Tumblr sites that would be a much better match for you.

10 Confessions of an author-publisher

1. I would rather do anything than mop the floor. Come up with this list, for example.

2. I got my MA in fiction writing because I didn’t want to have to pass a French exam. I may have also been avoiding some additional expensive GRE component. I was such an idiot in those days that I didn’t even read the work of the writing professors I would be studying with before applying. Mind you, I mostly wanted to get out of editing technical articles about the Radio Shack TRS-80, and UNH did pay my way with a teaching assistantship. And I discovered that I loved teaching. So it worked out okay on that front, but after two years of graduate writing seminars I developed a strong preference for going out and living my life rather than writing small, artful stories. Which, in hindsight, was probably healthy.

3. I will do almost anything to avoid calling someone. I have to put it on a calendar and work myself up to a phone call. I am not terrible once I’m on the phone, but I dread getting on it. My (separated) husband likes to Skype, and my dad enjoys doing Facetime on his iPad. Oh, the horror! That supplies everything uncomfortable about the phone, plus wondering if your hair is combed and how messy the room behind you looks. Also, just saying goodbye becomes strangely long and drawn out.

4. I have thrown at least fifty boxes of books in the dumpster. People donate a lot of bestsellers to the thrift store where I volunteer and we have limited space. By the time we get the latest Danielle Steel just about everybody who wants it has already read it. Yes, there are ways to recycle books, but we haven’t quite figured out how to work it into our system yet. I have to tell you, it makes me feel pretty virtuous publishing e-books.

5. Reading often feels like work now. Do heterosexual male gynecologists get jaded about ladies’ private parts when they’re off the job? I’d love to just lose myself in a book, but I’m often hyper aware of other writers’ craft. Also, I have such a pile of books that I really should read in addition to the ones I just want to read that I feel I will never catch up. It’s a bad zone to get into.

6. I hide chocolate. I go days when I don’t eat it, but I like to know it’s there.

a photograph of the author's messy office

My messy office

7. I work in appalling disorder. About once every six months I organize my office and keep it that way for a week or two. Strangely, I usually find things much faster when it’s a mess.

8. Social media feels a little too much like high school. On the plus side, I get to hang out at the lunch table with my friends. But sometimes I post something and get crickets and feel like an awkward fifteen-year-old again. Or nobody favorites or retweets or follows me on Twitter for a stretch and I wonder if I’ve developed bad digital breath.

9. I can’t proofread my own stuff worth sh*t. Nobody can, but this time around my attempts were much less successful. Maybe I’m just older, but changing a manuscript from first person present to third person past is also an editing nightmare. A friend just pointed out more typos that I missed in my last book. He also offered to beta-read next time. (Both of those are being a very good friend.)

10. I named a heroine after an outhouse. It’s true. When I picked tobacco as a field hand for Consolidated Cigar Company in the Connecticut River valley of Western Massachusetts between high school and college, the outhouses were called Mollies. I always wondered how they’d gotten that name and what it must have been like to be the original Molly. Those girls could be pretty mean. (You didn’t want to be IN the Molly when they decided it would be fun to rock it.) But Molly in The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire already had enough to deal with, so the only thing I did with my summer of picking shade tobacco was crash David’s plane into a field of it.

Here’s one of the songs the girls would sing lustily on the bus or at lunch (to the tune of “I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener”):

Oh, I wish I were a CCC tobacco barn.
That is what I’d really like to be,
‘Cuz if I were a CCC tobacco barn,
All the boys would be inside of me!

Yes, I sang it, too. Adolescent girls are just not the sweet, innocent little dears you might like to think they are.

Any confessions of your own to offer? (And here’s one of those points when I might hear nothing but crickets. Ha!)


So you’re thinking of indie publishing? (Updated 1-31-15)

Do your homework first and check out some of this information on the state of the art.

I originally pulled this information together because I was presenting about self-publishing at the Troy NY Public Library with traditional authors Jenny Milchman and Diane Cameron. That session filled quickly and ended up with a long waiting list, so there’s clearly a need for this information. (We may well do more sessions in the future — in fact, I am already working on one for March — so join my mailing list if you want to hear about them.)

The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire -- showing a (dressed) teenage girl on a bed, looking rather pensive.It was a handy review for me, too, as I decided just how much to undertake in the marketing of my second novel The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire — which came out last month and is just not selling itself no matter how much I wish it would. (Yes, that’s one of the things you need to know about indie publishing.)

I’m just going to assume that you’ve written a good book, gotten plenty of feedback from people other than your mom, and gotten it properly edited and proofread and formatted. I’m also assuming that you can handle a bad review without melting down. (If you can’t, stop now, because you’re not ready to publish.)

Indies Unlimited
This is a great site to explore because it offers tons of good information shared by knowledgeable and experienced indie authors. There are also opportunities to promote, but that’s mostly going to fellow authors, so don’t get too excited about it. Start here, since it’s a guide to the whole site:

Kristine Kathryn Rusch on “Business Musings: Things Indie Writers Learned in 2014”
This is a post that pretty much sums up the state of the business at the end of 2014. Among other things, Rusch points out that “writing is hard,” “publishing is hard,” and “the gold rush is over.” In short, this article provides a useful reality check about indie publishing. But it’s not completely hopeless! So if you can read this and still feel willing to buckle in, consider giving it a try. (You should also read her year-end take on traditional publishing if you are contemplating that as an option.)

Hugh Howey on “Where do we go from here?”
Howey, probably the most famous indie author success story, is more upbeat than Rusch here, though he reminds us that no entertainer can expect to succeed forever.

Anne R. Allen on “Why the Self-Published Ebook is No Longer the ‘New Query’”
This post by Anne R. Allen provides a useful counter to Howey, in case he encourages you a little too much. I think it applies best to people who are hoping going indie will transition them into a successful traditional career selling literary fiction. I would honestly recommend trying traditional first if that is your goal. But if you hit a brick wall or don’t sell well enough in your debut, even though people unrelated to you are quick to say your stuff is good, indie publishing is the other way to start finding your readers.

Lindsay Buroker’s marketing advice for 2015
Good stuff here from a successful and personable indie author, including the perennial discussion of whether to be in Kindle Select or not. Her blog is worth mining for lots of good information, especially if you write historical mysteries or series.

Build your author platform
Instead of giving you a blog link, I’m giving you a book link, because I think this is a really good guide at a reasonable price (though you could also just track down the author’s blog posts on the subject):

Network with fellow authors
Jenny and Diane and I were doing this when we got together to put on a presentation. Writers often benefit from working together, perhaps especially if they share a genre. Or maybe you’re neighbors, or one of you started as a fan of the other, or you met and bonded while surviving a crazy writer’s workshop (that’s Jenny and me). Anything goes. Be supportive of other authors to the extent you can without lowering your own standards or turning off your own audience.

Having said that…

  • Don’t ask authors for favors when you haven’t even bought their books, or reviewed them, or written to them, or helped them get the word out, or in some way established a relationship that isn’t just asking them to do something for you.
  • Unless people are already your friends — and volunteer to do it — assume that you will need to pay them for editorial services. Nobody edits or gives feedback for the sheer joy of it.
  • Don’t “trade” reviews. It puts you in an unpleasant ethical bind.
  • Don’t write nasty reviews. Reviewing fellow authors is fine, but if you didn’t like their books, it’s better not to review at all. Even a middling review could get you in trouble.

My first (homemade) cover

TheAwfulMess 396 x 612 pixels

Designed by

Get the right cover
Whether you think you have the skills yourself (it’s possible), or plan to hire someone, the cover is a big decision. (Though it need not be a final one – as an indie, you CAN change covers much more easily than a traditional author can.) Joel Friedlander, AKA The Book Designer runs a monthly cover contest, and reading his honest commentary can be really educational as well as entertaining. He’s particularly geared towards e-book covers, which have slightly different requirements than bookstore covers – they have to be something you can get an impression from even when they are really, really tiny. (It’s worth noting that my friends still argue over which cover is better, but to my mind there is no contest.)

Get the right copy (book blurb)
This is a useful exercise whether you are traditionally or indie published, or are unpublished and setting up your author platform. (It’s also very helpful as you query agents.) I especially like this post from Ruth Harris because it not only offers good advice, it gives you links to lots more good advice:

Avoid being taken for a ride
During the California gold rush, the people who made the most money were the people who sold stuff to miners … and the people who stole stuff from them. That’s true of the indie publishing phenomenon, too. Heck, people who are trying to be traditionally published often fall victim to scams, too. Before you do business with anyone who claims to be in publishing, check that person or business at Preditors and Editors. You might also want to check with Indies Unlimited, the Writer’s Café at the KBoards, and anyone you know who’s already out there. Go beyond the first pages of Google (which can be manipulated by savvy operators) in doing your due diligence, and include in your searches terms like “reviews” or “complaints” as well as the business name.
Preditors and Editors:

Finally, two rules you really need to understand before you publish:

Rule #1: DON’T SPEND ANYTHING YOU CAN’T AFFORD TO LOSE. Even legitimate expenses don’t always pay off in this business. No provider can guarantee you financial success, and you should be deeply suspicious of anyone who makes that kind of claim. (On the other hand, you should also be prepared to invest in your business.) The obvious companion to this: Don’t quit your day job (unless you really can afford to).

Rule #2: SUCCESS AS A WRITER IS A LONG GAME. If you hope to make a living at this, or a decent supplemental income, or a measure of fame, one book will not do it. Most people who do well already have four or five or six books out and have been slogging away without great reward for years. So if you just want to publish your memoir or your Great American Novel and be done with it, realize that you are essentially just making it conveniently available for friends and family rather than trying to build a career as an author-publisher. And if that’s the case, you really don’t need to learn your way around — just find a handy vanity publisher or formatting service and get it done.

Feel free to add info below — we can all benefit from your knowledge!