Connecting With Readers Over “Human Slices” — Priceless

The Visible Human Projectwww.ccmp.ncifcrf.gov

The Visible Human Project
http://www.ccmp.ncifcrf.gov

For any writer, a positive connection with a reader is priceless. When a reader feels compelled to seek me out, I am flattered, overwhelmed, happy, encouraged…and I whistle for days.

I received a Tweet from @taramade, an exuberant reader of my book, Human Slices. She wrote, “Great read, Gloria! Love the museum scenes. I want to see them myself!”

I was over-the-top delighted. When she comes to Chicago, I will be happy to show her around.

By museum scenes, she was referring to the novel’s opening action that takes place at Chicago’s Museum of Science & Industry. One spot is particularly pivotal. The human slices exhibit, comprised of actual cross sections of human bodies, is the first meeting place of the two main characters.

At the human slices exhibit, each rectangular display case jutted out from the wall so that people could observe the slices from both sides. Salm stooped down to examine a shrunken, yellowed stomach from one side of the display case. Playfully, she closed one eye and peered through an open gap between the stomach and the intestines. Through this tiny opening, she could look out to the hallway.  She looked left and then right, and then she saw a man appear from around the corner. 

The title of the book, of course, is a tribute to that weird and fascinating installation.

I’ve been told time and time again that Human Slices is too freakish for the title of a love story. When I was looking for a publisher, one agent wrote in his rejection letter, “Is there really such an exhibit in a Chicago museum? Your lady’s attraction to body parts seems morbid and ghoulish. You’re making things very tough for yourself.”

I understood, of course, yet I never was able to change the name of the book. I was following the gut feeling emanating from inside my own “human slices,” the same way the female protagonist in the book listens to her heart to find her own truth and happiness.

In spite of the peculiar title, readers still reach for the book and periodically send me some first-rate feedback. It’s so much fun to know that someone has enjoyed it and given my characters a chance to come to life again for a brief moment in time.

A few days after @taramade’s Tweet about the museum exhibit, she posted other enthusiastic comments, like: “Loving all the little details! I forgot to mention the shrimp cocktail wine glass,” and “You come up with the perfect boat of course. A fat little red tug with lots of blankets.”

Next, she shot me a Pinterest photo (below) that reminded her of a scene where the lovers go stargazing in the back of the pickup. The photo she sent was absolutely perfect. @taramade was reading my mind! If a reader can “see what I mean,” I’ve done my job and that’s amazingly gratifying.

I didn’t think her comments could get any better. And then I received one more message…@taramade wrote: “I’m afraid to read too fast…I don’t want it to end!! :)”

Then another reader @La_Raconteur wrote to @taramade:  “OMG, isn’t this book simply gorgeous? It’s one of the few I’ve read that immediately captivated me. Perfection! ”

With those most excellent Tweets, my own “human slices” sparked and sizzled inside of me.

I’m still whistling.


Quiet in the Hills — A 259-Word Do Over

259words_01.jpgSpecial note: Yesterday, I posted the 259-Word story,”Tea with Sydney.” A friend commented on Facebook that it “Reads like the start of a murder mystery.” That comment instantly created a new vision and compelled me to write another story using the same opening lines but with quite a different ending. 

We rode the train through the Scottish Highlands to Mallaig, a storybook harbor town surrounded by a jumble of whitewashed buildings.

We missed the last ferry to the Isle of Skye. The man at the dock said, “Sorry. That’s the old schedule.”

Stranded until morning, we booked a room at an inn. The pub wouldn’t open for hours.

“Off for a hike!” Sara tallyhoed in her fake Scottish accent, waving her souvenir walking stick toward the hills that rose up behind town. Her need to make the best of things filled me with rage.

I once loved her joyfulness, spirit, and energy. Now, I hated her.

As we trekked across the countryside, she talked non-stop. “Look…sheep!” she exclaimed. “What a view!” “Flowers!” I usually could tune her out, but today the sound of her voice was unbearable.

In the middle of nowhere, we came upon a red public telephone booth. “Look at that,” Sara said. “Isn’t that odd? Take my picture!”

“How’s this?” She laughed with each new pose. “How’s this?” Every time I saw her open mouth in the viewfinder, I hated her even more.

I put the camera away and nudged her into the phone booth. “Shhhhh,’ I said, placing my index finger on her lips. I pressed against her and kissed her. Hard. It felt good to put my hands around her throat. She tried to scream.

The sun was setting. I would wait until dark to throw her body off the nearby cliff.

I looked out toward the sea. The only sound was the wind.

Tea with Sydney

259words_01.jpg

We rode the train through the Scottish Highlands to Mallaig, a storybook harbor town surrounded by a jumble of whitewashed buildings.

We missed the last ferry to the Isle of Skye. The man at the dock said, “Sorry. We’re not on the holiday schedule now.”

Stranded until morning, we booked a room at an inn close to the harbor. The pub wouldn’t open for hours.

“Off for a ramble!” Sara tallyhoed in her fake Scottish accent, waving her souvenir walking stick toward the green hills that rose up behind the town.

We trekked across the open countryside, the terrain alternating between steep climbs and flat expanses with rocky trails. The last thing we imagined we would discover was a red public telephone booth. But we did. Nearby, there was a cottage painted sky blue; the front door, orange; the window trim, bright yellow.

@Binski/Dreamstime.com

@Binski/Dreamstime.com

Sara took a picture.

From behind the cottage, a lanky old man appeared. One very large sheep lumbered along beside him.

He sized us up. “Yanks?” he asked.

“Yes, sir,” I said.

For a time, we stood together and looked out toward the sea. The only sound was the wind.

“He’s called Sydney.” The man nudged the sheep with his knee.

Agreeable, Sydney inched closer. We hesitantly patted him, then grew braver and burrowed our hands into his woolly coat.

“He’s Mac,” Sara said, pointing at me. “She’s Sara,” I said, pointing back.

“Care to come in for a cuppa tea then?”

Feeling lucky, we followed him and his pet sheep into the little blue house.

 

The Next Big Thing Is a Collection of Little Stories

Thanks to indie author Lindsay Edmunds via Christa Polkinhorn for inviting me to participate in a round-robin “blog chain” called The Next Big Thing, in which authors of various stripes preview their current works-in-progress by answering some pre-set questions. So, here goes...

I’m taking this opportunity to go on the record that I will indeed  — at long last — complete and circulate a short story collection in the summer.

The stories have been stewing in a big pot of procrastination, apprehension, avoidance, exasperation, and struggle. I’ve recently added some freshly chopped audacity and am hoping that it turns out to be delicious.

Here are my answers to Christa’s Q&A:

What is the working title of your next book?
The working title is Men With Long Hair. I’ve been told that the title sounds a little too Fabio for what it is, a collection of stories with touches of magical realism. Nonetheless, I feel attached to using Men With Long Hair.

Where did the idea come from?
I have been writing short stories for many years, and I could see connecting threads in a number of them. To make the connections stronger, I’ve rewritten the stories and then I have undone those rewrites…again and again and again. It is a work in progress, that’s for sure.

What actors would you choose to play the major roles?
That’s a tough question since these are stories and not a novel. But I suppose I would choose a strong yet vulnerable female lead of the Ellen Page type, paired with confused, troubled, and dreamy male actors who look fabulous with longish, shaggy hair — think Orlando Bloom.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
A woman consistently finds herself in odd situations with inappropriate men.

How long did it take to draft the manuscript?
It’s been an on-and-off process covering about ten years.

Will it be self-published or will you be represented by an agent?
I’m going to self-publish it as an e-book. I don’t want to shop it; I want to share it while I’m feeling the courage to let it live on its own.

What other books are similar to Men With Long Hair? 
I am inspired by story collections like Italo Calvino’s Difficult Loves. Note the word “inspired.”

What other elements might pique the reader’s interest?
The character of Gina has emerged as the key connecting female in the stories. She falls in love with one man who turns into a llama. Another love interest spontaneously combusts.

The first paragraph of one of the stories, “The Diner,” was included a number of years ago in an issue of the Mississippi Review that featured 147 first paragraphs of short stories. Here it is:

Gina held out her hand toward Marshall so he could see it shake. Her foot twitched beneath the table. Her heart pounded. Inside, her chest felt thick and muddy.

________________________

OTHER WORKS IN PROGRESS FEATURED IN THIS BLOG CHAIN:

Visit Lindsay Urban’s blog at Writer’s Rest to learn more about her new novel, CEL & ANNA: A 22nd CENTURY LOVE STORY.

Visit Christa Polkinhorn’s blog at Christa Polkinhorn Bookworm Press to learn more about her new novel, EMILIA.

Visit Susan Eisenberg’s blog at Unsynchronized Passions to learn more about her next novel, LUCKY FOR YOU.

Other participating authors:

Elizabeth Egerton Wilder

Linda Cassidy Lewis

John Cammalleri

Annie Acorn 

Darlene Foster

Check out hashtag #BlogNextBigThing on Twitter to find more author blogs about works in progress.

When the Picture Tells the Story

Photo by Christopher Methven (c) All rights reserved

Photo by Christopher Methven
(c) All rights reserved

I am working on a story about a woman named Rita. I imagine her as a small woman with salt-and-pepper hair, who, on most days, wears a cardigan around her shoulders. She never leaves the house without a little powder on her nose and her favorite light pink lipstick on her lips.

I write a sad scene where Rita sits next to Martin, her dying husband, who is lying in a hospice bed. When I reach this part of the drama, I intently watch Rita in my mind’s eye: She holds Martin’s hand, occasionally stroking his thin fingers, watching him breathe, slower and slower, it seems. Rita wonders which breath will end up being his last.

I know that Martin is going to die, but I don’t know what is going to happen after that. Rita and I wait.

While the death scene lingers, I get up and make a cup of tea, take a Facebook diversion, and see that Christopher Methven has posted a stunning black-and-white photo of hands at work at a sewing machine. The hands, I assume, are the hands of his girlfriend, Pat Langford.  I look at this picture for a long time. It is riveting. I show my appreciation by “liking” it.

My break complete and my tea cup empty, I go back to work on my story.

When I return, Rita is still sitting there next to Martin, but she has scooted her chair closer to him so that she can rest her hand more easily on his forearm. She continues to stare at her husband, unable to imagine that there is a new reality patiently standing outside of the hospice room, waiting to accompany her home.

When Martin takes his last breath, his mouth is hanging open, and it suddenly turns into a gaping black hole. Rita realizes that the man with whom she has shared 34 years of her life is no longer a man. He is gone now, replaced by body that looks like Martin, but it’s not really Martin. Rita and I sit there and look at him, unable to leave.

The same way that life changes in an instant, my brain goes to black, a quick cut, and then the story moves to Rita at home, in her brick bungalow. She sits at the window, watching her neighbor shovel snow from her sidewalk. I am not sure if this is the same day that Martin dies, or maybe it’s months later. I know that I have to go back in time and figure that out at some point, but now I am just watching where she goes, what she does. While I watch Rita, quick flashes of Chris’s photograph appear in my mind.

I am surprised when Rita gets up, adjusts her cardigan, and walks into a little room in the back of the house. Ah ha! She has a sewing room, a tidy little cove with striped wallpaper. She sits down at the machine and removes its cover. Although she feels somewhat numb, moving as if she’s in a trance, she methodically arranges her fabric, assesses where she left off, and readies to catch up on the pillow covers she started before her husband’s downward spiral.

Rita aligns the fabric and starts the machine, slowly at first. She presses down firmly on the foot pedal. As soon as the needle punctures the fabric, she flinches, feeling pain stab at her heart. As she ramps up the pressure on the machine, the thump thump thump of the needle gets faster and stronger. With each stitch, Rita accepts the needle’s relentless puncturing. The faster the speed, the more excruciating her pain. But she doesn’t stop, she doesn’t make a sound. She keeps sewing. Her tears drip onto the fabric.

But the image of the photo keeps popping into my imagination, telling me that something is off kilter in this moment with my main character. I am compelled to go back to Facebook and look at the picture again.

The problem is suddenly obvious. The photograph is not at all about pain, especially not about harrowing pain.

There isn’t one bit of distress apparent in this photo, even though those fingertips might get pinched. In one simple, beautiful, and clear image, we see the grace and power of action, intensity, concentration, commitment, and creation.

I realize then that I have to change the story. Rita isn’t pierced with pain when she sews.

When she takes up her project, she finds solace, purpose, perseverance. With each turn of the wheel, she is crafting a new beginning.

On Being Childless, Childfree, and True to Our Natures

thatshebear_lawrence_quote

Whether by conscious choice, a matter of fate, or a combination of factors, many women, like myself, don’t want to have children.

We call ourselves Childless or Childfree because those are the words that exist to describe the state of being a non-parent. Even though I use and value those two words, I have never been particularly enthusiastic about them. They seem inadequate given the complicated, magnificent mosaic of women without children in the world.

The eternal core problem with Childless is that sounds melancholic, full of loss, leading to a conjured image of a barren old biddy, shriveled up and stern, lips pursed, her black dress buttoned up around her throat.

The much better, chipper counterpart of Childless is, of course, Childfree. It is a young, Age of Aquarius word from the ’70s, that, to me, still sounds somewhat awkward and light, a slow motion fantasy of people with long flowing hair running down a sandy beach. (Childfree also isn’t easy to use. It turns up in spell check as an error. And another thing: We can turn Childless into Childlessness should we need a noun. But what about Childfree-ness? It doesn’t sound or even look right.)

The childless/childfree aren’t alone in this conundrum. I recently read that “a technical term for snow mixed with rain doesn’t exist in the jargon of meteorology.” (Chicago Tribune, Feb.10, 2013)

Funny how the right words can remain out of reach.

Now that I am over the hill, as they say, I rarely call upon either Childfree or Childless to define myself. No one asks me anymore if I have kids or if I want to have kids. But I do get that sad look sometimes when I am asked if I have grandchildren (gasp!), and I report that I never had any kids in the first place. There’s this “I’m so sorry” mournful expression that passes over the inquirer’s face. Sometimes it annoys me; mostly it bores me. I have never regretted my decision, nor cried over my fate.


WHEN DO WE KNOW?

I have a recollection of realizing that I didn’t want kids when I was around 10 years old. This happened while I was holding a precious and beautiful newborn. I don’t remember who the baby was — a neighbor? a relative?

What I do remember is my mother handing me this little bundle of cuteness, and I was excited to get a turn to have him in my arms. I recall really liking the new baby smell, touching the almost surreal, soft skin, being in awe of the tiny clenching fingers and toes.

But I also clearly remember looking up at my mother and asking, “Do I have to have one of these one day?” My mom laughed, probably quite taken aback. I can’t quote specifically what she said, but it must have been something along the lines of, “Well, I guess you don’t have to if you don’t want to,” because I was very relieved by her words.

We give some kids credit when they know at an early age what they want to be and who they are — young and gifted artists, math whizzes, aspiring Olympic athletes, musical prodigies. On the other hand, we don’t always give kids credit about intrinsically knowing other things about themselves.

Many years later, I did some very quick and less-than-intensive research: (1) I asked a co-worker who was absolutely obsessed with the impending birth of his son if he ever made a conscious decision to be a father. He told me that he knew since he was around 10 years old that he wanted to be a dad more anything else in his life. (2) I asked a gay friend when he knew he had a proclivity to be attracted to his own sex.  He said, “I think when I was around 10.”

Case closed, as far as I was concerned. If sexual preference, in fact, emerges in early adolescence, then why not procreation preference as well? Check out the research at  http://borngay.procon.org/view.answers.php?questionID=000014

Our brains can be good at telling us things about ourselves. We just have to listen.


NATURE VS. NURTURE

I long ago accepted, I believe, without angst or hand wringing or conducting a cost/benefit analysis, that I wasn’t born with the urge to have children. It’s part of my nature.

Nonetheless, I took time at one point in my life to consider if there were any external factors that could have had an impact on my not wanting to be a mother. I came up with three possibilities.

One influence could have been that I went to the New York World’s Fair in 1964 and 1965, when I was in the 10-year-old age range. The overall theme of the fair was the super modern future — flying cars, Jetson houses, space travel, underwater pod living. Oh yes, and lots of warnings about this snazzy and jazzy World of Wonder being jeopardized by over-population, a planet swarming with crowds of people begging for food and water. After the visits to the fair, I don’t remember worrying about the perils of too many people inhabiting Earth. But I did fantasize (and still do) about that flying car.

The second possible external factor is one that a friend hypothesized: Maybe I was turned off to parenthood by mother’s incredible affection and affinity for children.

My mother adored kids, and we all adored her back, magically gravitating toward her warm smile and playfulness. She was a sort of “baby whisperer,” the type of woman who could calm even the fussiest child with her ability to distract and charm.

My friend asked if it was possible that I subconsciously decided not to procreate because I felt I would never be as good with kids as she was.

I doubted this. I totally admired my mother’s talent with little ones. I loved that I got to share in her joy when she was holding or playing with a child. I learned from her, and I was proud of her, delighted by the way she could delight. I think that with a little practice, I could have been as good as she was.

And then there is a third potential influencing factor: I had two childless aunts who were certainly role models. One was a maiden aunt (I can’t use the word spinster) who was a petite, fastidious fussbudget. She wore crisp shirtwaist dresses and covered her hair with turbans and hats. She was, in a word, persnickety, but she also could laugh really hard, and she would do cool things like take me to New York and buy me leather mini skirts and wild mod tights from Gimbels. She loved kids, by the way.

The other aunt without children (who wasn’t really an aunt but a cousin) was on the opposite side of the spectrum. She was a glamorous dark-haired beauty in diamonds and white mink, driving her pink Cadillac around town. She ran a few taverns (and married a few men), and she chain-smoked, alternating between Marlboros and Kools.

I loved both of these women immensely. Oddly enough, in spite of their completely counter personalities and lives, they were very close and could be a fun, hilarious pair, if you didn’t pay attention to their incessant bickering and slinging stinging insults at each other. I would venture to say they found a connection in being “the sisterhood of the childless” in our extended family.


A CERTAIN SISTERHOOD

The childless/childfree segment of the population is indeed a vast sisterhood, but with a bit of an underground or subculture identity.

Researchers and anthropologists have explored the childless sphere with non-fiction such as Without Child: Challenging the Stigma of Childlessness and Complete Without KidsThere are numerous organizations, groups, and hashtags out there for us all to connect, converse, and commiserate: The Childfree Choice, The Childfree Life, Why No Kids? The list is long, and they are excellent platforms. Kudos to the folks who make those things happen. Way back when I was young, I wish I would have known that there were so many other women like me out there.

Clearly, I'm going through something.

Clearly, I’m going through something. (Photo credit: missbhavens)

It would be cool to have a Childfree Women Month to celebrate the extensive list of childless heroines, women such as Katharine Hepburn, Frida Kahlo, Mary Cassatt, Coco Chanel, Julia Child, Rosa Parks, Edith Wharton, Gloria Steinem. What impacts they made on the world.

When I was in my thirties, I wrote a short novel, Human Slices, which features a female protagonist who is happily childfree. I wanted to create a character who was well adjusted, who knew she didn’t want children, who had never wanted a child, and who was quite content with that lot in life. I had never before come across that kind of female lead in a romance.

Childless women are usually portrayed in fiction (and in film for that matter) as miserable, barren, bitchy, unfulfilled, bitter, sexually frustrated, or somehow characterized as a deviant “other.” And if these childfree characters are in their childbearing years, it’s implied, at least if it’s a “happily ever after” story, that their destiny is marriage and children. The reality, of course, is that happiness doesn’t always derive from procreation. I wanted to tell one of those stories.

Scads of agents and publishers, as well as my friends, mentors, and teachers, told me there was no market for a book of that ilk, even though the U.S. census data show that the percentage of women under 40 who are childless is steadily inching up toward 20 percent.


POWERFUL VOICES

Although some may perceive this group as a weak or unworthy market force, the childless/childfree are powerful, raising their voices to create a lot of buzz — yet so do their detractors.

Every once in awhile, a kerfuffle ensues when a writer or reporter, usually a women who is a parent or striving to be a parent, feels compelled to fret publicly about their childfree counterparts. These commentaries are infuriating and inappropriate…and outside of their realm. Leave your judgments to yourself, please.

Then there are those times when someone, usually a man, pens a column or a book or a blog post about the perils of falling birthrates. Tirades rage on about the need to return to the traditional family, create more subsidies and incentives for childbearing, market motherhood in a better light, and devise pro-natal policies and protocols.

Much of this discourse can make me shudder, leading me to recall the disturbing book, The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood. It’s a terrifying story of a society wrestling with its declining birthrates. The solution that the powers that be come up with is to designate specific women as concubines for reproductive purposes. It is a chilling, cautionary narrative.

On another side of the childless news spectrum, more kerfuffles arise when a commentator, usually a woman, writes a column or a book or an article about her choice to be childfree. Responses to these writings can be brutal — ranging from “Who cares?” to “You’re a selfish, unreasonable pig.”

In between the harsh, mean-spirited dialogue, of course, are the supportive comments that go something like: “Hey, you’re just like me.”


ALL KINDS OF US

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love recently responded on her Facebook page to a fan who asked if she had any regret about not having children. Gilbert said she did not.

In her answer, she also went on to define “three sorts women when it comes to maternity.” She wrote, “There are women who are born to be mothers, women who are born to be aunties, and women who should not be allowed within ten feet of a child.”

Her categories got me thinking about the way we define and don’t define the childless/childfree.

To be sure, the Childless by a Dirty Trick of the Universe are the most heartbreaking lot, the women who are born to be mothers but who can’t get pregnant, suffer miscarriage, are unable to adopt, face illness, or confront another overwhelming obstacle. I can’t even imagine the pain and longing that these women have. It doesn’t seem fair to label them with the gloomy Childless word.

While some women may struggle with their fertility status, there are others who would strongly embrace such a reality. They are the Childfree by No Friggin’ Way! who can’t, under any circumstances whatsoever, abide by kids. They sneer, sometimes seriously and sometimes with great hilarity, at children (and their parents). They can can be the funniest of the bunch.

The Childless by Indecision may never be quite driven, not quite ready, for whatever reason, to have children. And then one day, bam! They realize that time is gone, and they have to learn to live with their dilly-dallying. They seem to be neither childless nor childfree, just not sure.

The Childfree by Decision worry about the cost, the impact on their carbon footprint, their fear of not being good parents, or some other tribulation. They seem serious.

The luckiest of the pack appears to be the Childfree by Plain Old Natural Tendency. They are cool, calm, collected.

The combinations and subsets of these categories may be limitless. Life can be complicated, that’s for sure.

I can see myself identifying with all of them. Am I Childless by a Dirty Trick of the Universe? It’s very possible that my reproductive organs are challenged, and I could never get pregnant even if I wanted to. I have been so annoyed by kids at particular points in my life that I could fit into the Childfree by No Friggin’ Way! group. And yes, I have wrestled with being Childless by Indecision (“Maybe I’ll rethink it one day…”) and Childfree by Decision as well: I can barely take care of myself, how could I ever take on the responsibility of raising a child?

How many categories of Childfree-ness could you fit into?

I would also file myself under Gilbert’s “auntie” category. I think kids are great. Sometimes I’ll be walking by a playground filled with yelling and running grades schoolers having the time of their lives, and I’ll have to stop and savor their infectious laughter and abandon (while I also worry about the kid all alone leaning against the fence).

It’s fascinating to watch kids play, discover, see them concentrating over a book or a drawing. When I look at my nephews and nieces, I sometimes feel so much love that it hurts. But it’s a joyful hurt, as if my heart is full to overflowing. It’s not a hurt arising from a lack, longing, or sorrow because I have no children of my own.

I am absolutely sure that motherhood is one of the most profound and blissful experiences in the world. But, um, “No thanks.”


THAT SHE BEAR CHILDREN IS NOT A WOMAN’S SIGNIFICANCE
Some day, I hope that we have more and better words than just Childless and Childfree to identify ourselves. Maybe we can get that done long before the meteorologists agree on a word for snow mixed with rain.

In the meantime, whether Childless or Childfree, we have an extraordinary opportunity to be true to our own destinies, our callings, our natures.

One of the most memorable and beautiful quotes about women was written by a man: “That she bear children is not a woman’s significance. But that she bear herself, that is her supreme and risky fate.”

Thank you, D. H. Lawrence, for saying it.