This Banned Books Week, to Hell with the Hays Code!

In the early years of movies, filmmakers didn’t have any restrictions — apart from the sense of morality held by whoever was funding them — as to what they could put in a movie. And so the Hays Code was born.

Ultra-restrictive, the Hays Code was a set of guidelines to combat the liberal content increasingly present at the movies (which, of course, pales in comparison to today’s films). The bottom line: “No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it.”

Last week I learned about this mock photograph by A.L “Whitey” Schafer, who fit as many code violations as he could into a single photograph. At the time it must have been seen as shocking by some and considered deliciously disruptive by others.

Read more here.

Personally, I see this photo as a a much-needed middle-finger to stringent rules that, among other things, banned depictions of childbirth, interracial relationships, “sexual perversions (such as homosexuality),” religious figures as villains, and illegal drug use. You could not justify illicit sexual relationships between unmarried characters, and scenes of passion were closely monitored. In love scenes, partners couldn’t be in a horizontal position while kissing, and women had to have “at least one foot on the floor” (i.e. not in bed).

So what did Whitey do? He set up this photo, which broke ten of the Hays Commandments in a single image.

Writers face the threat of people reporting, banning or burning their books all the time. That’s why this week is “Banned Book Week.” To a lot of us, having your book be listed as a threat by ultra-conservative groups is a feather in the cap. The Hate U Give might be the most recent example I can think of as a YA novel that’s constantly in turmoil because of its realistic portrayal of a black teen being shot by a cop. Harry Potter was famously burned for its magical content — though its massive popularity stoked those flames, too, as not every fantasy book gets the same treatment.

That’s why this photograph came to mind when I sat down to blog this week. As writers we often have to make people uncomfortable to make our voices heard. Safe stories are sometimes nice, but we learn when we’re pushed to see things the establishment doesn’t want us to see.

The Hays Code was eventually abandoned in the late 1960s when enforcement became impossible — too many filmmakers were just paying the fine and making movies that shook the country to its core. If no one had flouted the rules, we’d still be watching versions of Frankenstein where the doctor’s god complex was completely brushed over.

It’s our job as creators to break the rules, but to do it in a way that “punches up.” Represent the marginalized. Criticize those in power. Funny, how that not only applies to making art, but also making life…

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Worth the weight: On slowing down and dropping deadlines

Two things about me, one that I don’t like to admit, and one that I love pulling from my hat whenever I need to feel superior to others:

1. I am highly superstitious about some things, and typically in the opposite way as other people.

2. I used to be a journalist.

Now that you know these two things, you’ll understand when I say that I’ve always considered Friday the 13th to be a lucky day to accomplish things, such as ask a boy to prom (he said yes) or send a novel manuscript to an agent (he, too, said yes). And as a former magazine editor and reporter, I also function best with deadlines. If I miss them, I spend a debatably healthy amount of time berating myself for being forgetful, dysfunctional or just plain lazy.

In April I told my agent I’d have a full manuscript of Nobody’s Hero to him by Friday, Sept. 13. By the time I finished extracting marrow from my bones and putting it on a page — how else can you describe writing the first draft of anything? — I had less than a month to edit it, send it to my beta readers, incorporate their suggestions, copy edit, and ship it off to Ross via the Gmail Express.

In other words, to make my deadline I’d have to go on a leave of absence during a high-stress time at my day job, stop sleeping, cut ties with all my friends, and retreat to my apartment like Johnny Depp in Secret Window. And if you’ve seen that movie, you know that it’s best for everyone that I don’t become Johnny Depp in Secret Window.

So a couple weeks ago I looked at the 2019 calendar again and saw with relief that Dec. 13 is also a Friday. The year has given me one more lucky day, and it means that I can make Nobody’s Hero exactly as I want it to be before sending it off. And that’s the point, isn’t it?

Mom keeps asking me if I’m enjoying the writing. Not if I’m doing it, or if I’m almost done with it.* She wants to know I’m having fun, and now that I’m allowing myself the pleasure of time, I am.

*Lesson to friends of writers: Don’t ask how close they are to finishing a project. Ask if they’re enjoying it. My mother is a wise woman who has dealt with the many Creative Moods of Kate.

I’ll admit that the editing process started painfully. That’s what happens when you write a book over 18 months — and may be why Stephen King insists that he writes a book each “season” rather than a year and a half. When you take that long to write a story, the tone changes, and although the characters morph into what you want them to be, they don’t always do it the way they should. Case in point, Pru Mornay is absolutely heartless in Chapters One through Four, and while having a flawed main character is interesting, having an irredeemable one is off-putting. The structure was all off, with the perspective shifting between characters from paragraph to paragraph instead of section to section, and innumerable details were flat-out wrong.

In the end, I had to rewrite those chapters, and in the process, kill multiple darlings. Farewell, Foster’s glib and uncharacteristically cold remark about Pru’s dating life. Au revoir, Opal’s penthouse apartment. You were once a gorgeous description and massive plot hole.

But the revisions are becoming easier, or at least more fun, to make, and as I read through what’s already on the page, I find more opportunities to organically world-build and bring in snippets of commentary that I wanted to make clear but never had time to develop when working off plot alone. I’ve had a couple revelations and added some minor characters that help deepen the personalities of my supporting cast. There’s a notebook on my beside table that I use to write down words in the books I’ve been reading (Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and Robert “JK it’s Rowling” Galbraith’s Lethal White) that I want to incorporate into my own work. “Gawping,” for one. “Indefatigable,” for another. Anything to liven up the writing.

And I’m sticking to editing a chapter a night, maybe more on the weekends, fueled by scotch, whiskey or limoncello. Sure, Hemingway said “write drunk, edit sober.” These nights it feels like I’m doing more rewriting, so as far as I’m concerned, he can put that in his Cuba libre and sip it.

Because dammit, I’m having fun!

A coda: Jidenna released a new album, 85 to Africa, the week after I finished the rough draft, and the first track was called “Worth the Weight” featuring Seun Kuti. While the song focuses on the experience of displaced and emigrant Africans around the world, particularly in America, a line really spoke to me as I came to terms with having to let go of my personal deadline in favor of drawing even more marrow from my bones to bolster Nobody’s Hero to its full strength:

“And I pray that I’m the brightest sound that you ever felt / I’ma take a million flights around, ’til that shit is felt / That’s that lead the way, ayy / That’s no piece of cake, ayy…”

The Immortal Toni Morrison

It took me a while to know what I wanted to write about Toni Morrison that hadn’t already been said more eloquently. So before you keep reading, please take a look at what so many talented black women have written, like Charlene Carruthers’ piece in Out Magazine, Akwaeke Emezi’s letter in Them, or Roxane Gay’s piece in the New York Times.

And once you’ve read their takes — and hopefully followed the breadcrumbs to other fantastic writers who were not just inspired but seen and represented by Ms. Morrison’s writing — you can come back and read mine.

Back?

Cool.

I credit Meggan Burgoni, my 10th grade English and 12th grade Humanities teacher, with introducing me to two literary loves of my life: Kurt Vonnegut and Toni Morrison. The first she sent me on a two-week getaway with in the form of a winter break Welcome to the Monkey House assignment. The second she teased me with in the spring of 2009 via a slow-paced reading of Beloved.

Recently I read Wired’s review of Euphoria that rightfully lauded the HBO series as the “perfect anti-binging show” — that part of the series’ allure is how it forces you to sit with what you’ve seen and develop your opinions, hopes and fears for each character over eight weeks instead of eight hours. Beloved can be described in the same way. You can read it in a single night, but it won’t have the same effect. You’ll miss things. And so Burgoni would quiz us daily to make sure not that we had done the reading we had been assigned, but that we hadn’t gotten farther in the book than she asked us to read.

(This is where I confess that I totally read ahead sometimes, just made a mental note of where each assignment passage ended so I’d still pass the quiz. Sorry, Mizz B.)

A year after I read Welcome to the Monkey HouseCat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five — the latter two by choice — Kurt Vonnegut died. When we heard the news, a lot of us didn’t even realize he was still alive. I think it was because Vonnegut’s wit and voice, while staying mostly relevant throughout the American Idiot Bush-led era we were teenage-angsting our way through, was clearly from another time. He was one of the literature titans that had formed modern sci-fi satire and been overthrown by the Zeustic powers of Chuck Palahniuk, Christopher Moore and other nihilistic authors who captured our attention with their equally raw but timely storytelling. It was sad he was gone, but we’d still have fun scouring used bookstores for vintage copies of Timequake.

But on Tuesday when I heard that Ms. Morrison had passed, I was gutted. She was supposed to be immortal. Souls are immortal, aren’t they? After all, she was the soul of American literature. She was the conscience, too. And the heart. And the folds of the brain where relationships and emotion hold hands. I haven’t found another writer like it, and I’ve blown my book budget and deprived myself of sleep trying to find one.

There was no other writer who could slice me open; fill me with the faith, skepticism, jubilation, torment, distrust and fellowship felt by her characters; sew me up again for 200 pages; yank out the stitches and the stuffing with one hand at the stories’s climax; and leave me with more understanding and compassion than I had when we started. Her writing changed me.

And she did that without even writing for me. She wrote for black women — the “most disrespected person in America,” as Malcolm X famously and accurately said — but everyone else had the privilege of reading it and learning from it, too.

A couple years ago, I sat in the airport before a business trip, reading Beloved for the fifth or sixth time (I read it every 18 months and always find something new in it). A group of older black women walked past me, and one of them stopped.

“Great book,” she said, more to herself than to me. Then she called to her friends: “This white girl’s reading Toni!” We ended up talking about the book for a couple minutes before their flight was called. She told me the next one I should read was Sula. I’ve read it twice since.

I think that was the first time I saw through the privilege I had experienced as a Caucasian reader and recognized that I was reading something that wasn’t created for me. It was my first reckoning that artists don’t just write for anyone — they have a specific audience, and if they’re good enough, their work attracts readers from outside that group. And I thanked Burgoni all over again for tempting our mostly white, middle-class Humanities cohort to huddle around our red paperbacks at lunch, desperately reading ahead to see what would happen to Sethe, Baby Suggs, Denver and Beloved.

There’s a lot more I could say about Ms. Morrison. How she pulled other underrepresented writers up with her, saying “the function of freedom is freeing someone else.” How she refused to be a victim of racism and demanded that white people be the ones to fix it. Then there’s her work on its own: How The Bluest Eye made me a sobbing wreck on a very crowded rush-hour train. How Tar Baby gave us one of the best deep-dives into the social and spiritual meanings of beauty, and Jazz gave us this beautiful quote:

Don’t ever think I fell for you, or fell over you. I didn’t fall in love, I rose in it.”

Instead, I’ll leave you with one final story. I mentioned to my mom on Tuesday that Ms. Morrison wasn’t published until she was 39 or 40. As I currently lose sleep (and possibly friends) over a first-draft of a book that ebbs between good and garbage, this is reassuring to me, as well as a reminder to slow down — much like when reading Beloved. In fact, I joked to my mom as my throat closed up around a sob that maybe this is a sign that I should just stop and wait until I’m 35 or so to pick writing back up again. The Bluest Eye took five years to write, after all.

Then Mom countered with another biographical detail. When Ms. Morrison’s son died in 2010 from pancreatic cancer, she quit writing from grief. But upon thinking about it, she realized that the last thing he would have wanted. So she started writing again.

“So what would Toni want you to do?” Mom asked.

It’s simple. It’s the quote that most writers have tattooed inside their skulls, if not on their actual skin. And I hesitated to include it in this post (everyone is including it in their posts), but it’s a rally cry that every writer should shout at the top of their lungs and blog pages for the rest of time:

“If there’s a book you want to read, write it.”

I love you, Ms. Morrison. Thank you. Rest in power.

The writer on the eve of her 28th birthday

Congratulate me, folks. Barring any freak accidents in the next 12 hours, I’ve survived the 27 Club.

Years ago I wrote an angsty short story from the perspective of a singer on the night before her 28th birthday. She grapples with death, trying to decide what would be more beneficial to her celebrity: living another day or dying just in time to join the 27 Club, the group of talented musicians who all died at that age. That story’s not posted on this site, as it was written by a sheltered 20-year-old in the thick of mourning Amy Winehouse.

I was never at risk of joining the 27 Club — apart from the occasional boozie night out and ill-advised habit of jaywalking, I rarely do anything to put my life in jeopardy, and I’m one of the very fortunate ones who has never desired let alone contemplated ending their own life. I also have a no-food-in-bed policy, which rules out taking the Mamma Cass route.

(For those who don’t get the joke, the Mamas and the Papas singer was found dead with a half-eaten ham sandwich on the bedside table, or so legend has it. Also she was 32, not 27.)

But 27 meant something more to me. Last year I announced it was my “golden age,” as I was born on the 27th and my lucky number has unoriginally but consistently been 27. It was going to be the year of publishing and handstands, style evolutions and more cooking.

Now today I’m finding myself taking inventory. Omaha is still “in sub” with publishers via my agent, and I’m not as far along in Nobody’s Hero as I hoped to be by now. I still can’t do a handstand, though my crow pose is fly (heh). My hair grew out, I hated it, and I cut it back to the pixie I had throughout my early 20s. I bought Chrissy Teigen’s cookbook and made exactly two recipes from it.

But then I think of what did happen. I did have a job change that plunged me into a new world of strategic communications during a turbulent time in our company’s history. I fell even harder for the Man with Time On His Arm. I spent 10 days in London, two of which I spent touring on my own and discovering not only the city but also myself. I bought my first pair of Vans.

So maybe the biggest lesson of 27 was to have goals, but be OK setting them aside to let other opportunities take center-stage. As John Lennon sang, “Life is what happens when you make other plans.”

Which is why I’ve decided to let the big things happen as they will and focus on a couple little, attainable goals for 28:

  1. Watch more documentaries, especially the kind that make me cry. I long for the same hopeful weeping I experienced during just the trailer for Knock Down the House.
  2. Get into Bruce Springsteen’s music. Like, wrapped in an American flag bandana, into it. Right now my phone has only “Hungry Heart” and “Pink Cadillac,” and I’m a disgrace to my generation and the one before it.
  3. Start being OK with mixing metallics in my jewelry choices.
  4. Admit publicly that I like Imagine Dragons and always have, from when they dropped “Radioactive” and played in our college street for free, to now when they make anthems for sports commercials. There. I did it. Check.
  5. Accept the fact that I will never watch every episode of 30 Rock, Friends, or How I Met Your Mother because there’s too many of them and I’m particular about my sitcoms.

In a year I’ll have to see just how many of these I achieved. Now I have to go learn all the words to “Born to Run.”

Time for a refresh: Blogging becomes routine

Most nine-to-fivers’ weeks revolve around Friday afternoon — that unavoidable feeling of temporary freedom from work when there’s a couch and a movie or friends and a drink waiting after 5 p.m. and two blissful days of no meetings, no deadlines, no mass-batch coffee that gets steadily more bitter throughout the week.

But for me, there’s something else that happens: Kellye Whitney blogs.

I met Kellye when she hired me in February 2014 for my first journalism job. It was one of the coldest Chicago weeks on record — nothing close to this year’s negative-40s, but at that time we didn’t see climate change plunging us into an Ice Age that quickly, so negative-teens was a catastrophe. For a year and a half, she put up with my New Grad Smell and how I, in her words, would “dance in her doorway” with a story idea or just another music recommendation she’d pass up because the artist didn’t sell physical CDs she could play in her car. I became a stronger writer under her editor-ship, and I became a more open-minded, critically thinking white woman under her mentorship. “Woke,” the young libs say these days, but more inclined to do something about it instead of just tweet about it.

We’ve remained friends after she lovingly nudged me out of the niche-magazine nest toward my next adventure and left our old company for her own odyssey as an independent consultant and content developer (hire her!). Except this time, she invites me to dance in her text messages on select Fridays with the same question: “What should I blog about this week?”

The text comes like clockwork in the morning, and most weeks I’m prepared with a list of things I’ve seen on Twitter that either made my blood boil or heart soften. My suggestions don’t always hit the mark, but when they do, Kellye never fails to acknowledge the source. Last week’s topic: Nike’s Betsey Ross shoe. This week’s topic — TBD. If asked, I think I’ll recommend some of the coverage of the U.S. Women’s National Team, as “A Life Not Grey” looks at diversity and media. Or maybe I’ll get her to ruminate on how if country cross-over “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X, a gay Black man, spends three more weeks at No. 1., it will become the longest-running No. 1 in history.*

*On second thought, she won’t pick this one, as I don’t think there’s a CD version of OTR available yet…

But coupled with the satisfaction that I can still pitch a good story comes the guilt of knowing I haven’t blogged on my own site for more than a month. Then add in how WordPress just sent me confirmation that my domain name has been renewed for another year to the tune of $18, and I guess I should put at least $18 of effort into “Convincing the Muse” again.

So yesterday I texted Kellye that I was going to take a queue from her and make Fridays my “pub day” for blog posts. Her response was what she’s told me for years as we’ve continued our separate second-lives as fiction writers: “Schedule and routine are wonderful writing tools.”

So even though today is Monday, I’m kicking my newfound routine now and committing myself to at least a post a week. Fair warning: There are going to be some anemic ones in there, as well as some egregious typos, half-baked stories, shallow characters and blatant self-promotion.

So nothing too different from what already gets posted here. Just on a weekly, regimented basis.

So thanks, Kellye, for continuing to be the editor I need — a total boss, in more ways than one.

 

Nightmare No. 8952: Hurricane

Last night I dreamt that I was in some kind of complex — it reminded me of the split-level Des Moines house my cousin, her husband, and my two second cousins lived in when I was about nine or ten. We visited a handful of times, and what I remember most about it was how even though there were few windows in the basement, it still felt bright because of how many blank white walls there were.

Maybe that’s not how it really was, but that’s how I remember it. White blank walls, white berber carpet that stuck to calices that formed on our heels from playing outside in our bare feet.

I wasn’t in their house, but I was in a house like it. It was bigger, one level. Lots of different rooms and empty desks. There were a number of faceless people — not horror-movie faceless, just unknown — rushing around, leaning mattresses up agains the few windows set within the blank, white walls as the wind and rain picked up outside.

We were all about to die, and we all knew it. 

As the rest of the dream cast yelled orders at each other and quaked at the creaks and moans the house was making in the hurricane winds, I had one objective: Get my phone to work so I could call my parents. But I couldn’t get my phone to work. I’d plug it in to get it to power up, and it wouldn’t have a signal. I’d unplug it and move around the house, among the hustling mattess-movers, and it would lose juice and go black. At one point, I thought my phone was working and yelled: “Mom, Dad, we’re not going to live through this. I love you” only to find that it had dropped the call moments after connecting.

All the while, walls started collapsing in as people around me ducked under the empty desks and mattresses to take cover from the storm. And I knew I wasn’t going to be able to say goodbye to two of the most important people in my life.

I’ve never felt dread like that, both during and after. I’ve had my share of terrifying nightmares and stress dreams, but not in recent memory have I had one that made me wake up feeling not scared, but doomed. I was sleeping on my couch last night because of house guests, and I woke up shaking, my fingers clawing through the crocheted loops of my blanket. Despite the clock reading 4 a.m., I wanted to text my mom, just in case.

Never will I assume that having that nightmare last night counts as understanding the fear, sadness and hopelessness that fills people actually facing these certain-death situations without any chance to say goodbye — mass shootings being (despicably) the first example that comes to mind. If this is how my body and mind reacts to something in my subconscious as I sleep, I can’t imagine what it must be like to be wide awake and facing the very real threat of leaving life and loved ones behind.

A story of me

This week my day job has sent me to California to work with a team from all over the country in establishing a learning program for employees. I’ll be in charge of communicating to more than 140,000 people globally that this program is now available — come July, anyway.

But this meeting is about spending three days face-to-face with the people behind the project so that I can tell the story accurately. After all, people like stories. At least, that’s the theory that’s behind pretty much everything I do as a professional and as a moonlighting novelist. 

Part of my pre-work for this meeting is to prepare a story that will explain to the group who I am and how I got here to a Fortune 25 company’s communications function. So I’m taking advantage of this four-hour flight to Orange County and writing it here. 

My life has been a series of fortunate events. I was born into a middle class family in middle class Chicagoland, attended a good school district, went to the best journalism college in the country, and graduated with a near-perfect GPA due to a zealous obsession with acing each class, a film minor I practically snoozed through (ever watch L’Avventura on less than four hours of sleep?), and a complete disinterest in the more destructive social scenes. 

A lot of my best work came from lucky breaks. As a reporter for the Columbia, Missouri, city paper, my best story — a profile of a family who participated Viking re-enactments — came from walking past a house in the Benton-Stephens neighborhood without a raincoat as a storm started to rumble overhead. They happened to be sitting on the porch and invited me up to stay out of the downpour, and I walked away with a story that would define my time at the university. I became “Viking Finder,” or at least “that girl who found the weird-ass family that fights with battle axes in their front yard.”  

After college, I happened to apply for a corporate communications gig that on the surface I had no business filling. I didn’t get it, but 18 months later — and a career at an HR magazine publisher that gave me no upward mobility — they called me back when the woman who did get it moved on to a different role. Now, three and a half years later, I’m still there, clawing my way up and over into another role that I still feel like I have no business filling. (I’ll probably leave that part out when presenting to the group this week.) 

Outside of work, it’s the same thing. My greatest breaks have been a matter of luck. A vice president likes my last-minute idea of writing a retrospective on the Vomit Comet and sends me on a zero-gravity test flight, where I meet Joey Fatone of *Nsync, the band that defined my fourth grade experience. A literary agent in Italy likes my tweet about my novel-in-progress and six months later I’m a represented author waiting for a publishing deal. The Man with Time on His Arm happens to think I’m as cute as I think he is and goes from being the bartender at my favorite Chicago watering hole to being one of the most important people in my life who often says “I’m proud of you,” which always brings me to elation.

Now that I’ve written this, it looks a lot like humble-bragging. Maybe it is. But know that a hell of a lot of work followed those lucky breaks — a lot of stress-dreams, late writing nights, chewed-up lips looking for the right word or working on a deadline. I’m still in the middle of an intellectual battle between imposter syndrome and a Wonder Woman complex of wanting to fix everything, regardless if it’s in my job description or emotional capability.  

So that’s my story, at least so far. In the spirit of last weekend’s holiday, maybe it’s the luck of the 40-percent Irish. Maybe my parents forgot to mention the fairy that blessed me with good fortune as a way of apologizing to my mother for the twelve hours of labor she had to endure. Or maybe fate is a real thing, and I’m just embracing the plot twists as they come.