Saturday, June 17, 2017

Changing Ableist Language and Tropes in the Horror Genre

Monsters such as the Shoggoth can unhinge the minds
of viewers.  What is the central horror in such a trope?
Is the trope inherently ableist?  How can the
trope be re-imagined to support understanding of
disability, rather than promote misconceptions?
For some time now I've been reconsidering the use of certain words - a subset of which center around labels for mental illness such as "crazy."  I am a person with mental illness/disability and am finding more and more that such words are at best lazy and at worst ableist.  Of course these words have been problematic for years.  I think one reason I'm late to this particular party, (especially as someone who has MI) is that I've developed a fondness for some of these words, if used in specific ways.

For example, as a research scientist who studies the Moon, I've sometimes self-labeled as a "lunatic" - a fanatic about the moon.  I learned this term from others in the field who also use describe themselves this way.  Another expression I've used for myself is "mad" scientist.  As a scientist who writes speculative poetry and fiction, this seemed like a very appropriate (and fun) descriptor. 

Certainly within the world of horror, tropes like the "mad" scientist are a issue.  Horror has a longstanding relationship with "madness," from monsters whose very visage causes "insanity," to haunted asylums, to the chainsaw-wielding "crazy" person.  I think these tropes can promote ableism and/or ableist rhetoric, depending on how they are approached.  Again this is not a new idea.  There are a variety of opinions about the many “madness” tropes in horror - positive, negative, and everything in between.

One positive example comes from the disability advocacy site “Cracked Mirror in Shallot” where the author says “ … the narrative of the haunted asylum allows us to reveal and name rightly the horror of abuse within societal structures.”  The author states, “So when a horror movie lays bare the reality of institutions and being disabled in those environments, I both shiver at the treatment and thrill that the polite skirting that normally hides what could be my reality is lifted.”

But at Everyday Feminism author Kris Nelson speaks of concerns that these horror tropes are inherently ableist, saying “… the scare tropes used in these types of horror movies don’t end when the credit [sic] start rolling," and "These depictions of mental hospitals and the patients within them contribute to the very real, very scary treatment of mentally disabled and neurodivergent people today.”  The author exhorts horror buffs to “become aware when the media you consume desensitizes you to the abuse of people like myself.”

So is there a way to reclaim some of these problematic horror tropes - to morph them in ways that make them (1) expand ideas of personhood and (2) work as effective horror?

In the Disability Studies Quarterly, author Melinda Hall says in her paper Horrible Heroes:  Liberating Alternative Visions of Disability in Horror, "I claim that horror, despite its frequent abuse of disability, has significant potential to structure alternative encounters with and visions of disability. These alternative encounters can build inroads to political inclusion by fostering the acceptance of vulnerability and pushing for the rejection of exclusive social norms and ableism by highlighting them as horrific."

Hall uses specific examples to support her ideas including the work of Tim Burton, of whom she says, "Ultimately, Burton brings forward portraits of difference in order to accept, not reject, them, thus subverting the basic thrust of horror fiction."  She goes on to say that the only thing in these stories that really end up horrifying the viewer is "the treatment of outsiders by an intolerant social context."

I wonder that this has been one of the reasons I have always been partial to Burton’s vision - this sense of the strange one as the protagonist, and how it recasts what we choose to see or call “strange.”

So what are the implications for the speculative writer who enjoys horror?  One idea I have is that I'm going to be more clear in the future about the motivation for dastardly deeds - they will be the result of evil, not "insanity."  Otherwise, that just plays into the misconception that people with MI are perpetrators of crime, when in fact it is far more likely they will end up the victims of crime.

To emphasize evil (and to cleverly wrap around to the beginning of this post) I'm going to avoid lazy, harmful phrases like "the villain was crazy." Instead I'm going to use words like "the villain was vile, disgusting, unworthy, contemptible, nefarious, nasty, tyrannical, wretched, corrupt, wicked, depraved, sinister, diabolical, and fiendish."  His deeds will not be "insane" instead they will be "unpredictable, irrational, atrocious, obscene, ruinous, destructive, outrageous, pernicious, malign, odious, shocking, violent and foul." 

I'm also going to be more proactive about seeing how tropes can be turned inside-out to create something terrifying that yet carries the truth of the experience of mental illness/disability.  I do think we can have some good, fun, ghastly horror that improves the world while creeping us out.  It will take originality and cleverness, which I think will improve the genre all around.

But I think for a while yet, um ... I'm still going to think of myself as a "mad" scientist ...

Image Credit:  Shoggoth CC 3.0 Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Being a Good Literary Citizen - Part One - Motivations

"Being a Good Literary Citizen" is a favorite subject of mine, because I am a collaborator-type who enjoys finding ways for everyone to win.  I truly believe in the positive power of community, and I am both excited and humbled to be a part something as awesome as fiction and poetry writing (and writers.)  I've heard the topic of good literary citizenship come up a lot recently, and thought I'd post a few ramblings here about the subject.

I'm going to start with an anecdote of something that happened to me.  A writer on twitter asked for help with a research topic.  It was right up my alley as a planetary scientist, so I sent them an email with a bunch of ideas.  This person never responded back to me.  A few years later I'm reading an anthology, and I find a story from this writer with ideas right out of my email.

I do not think this writer acted as a good literary citizen.  Because I never received a response, or even a "hey, that story got published," I feel like I'm nothing more to this person than a resource to be tapped.  They got what they wanted from me and then forgot about me.  I do not feel like a fellow writer and colleague.  I'm certainly not in the mood to read any more of this person's work, and have stopped following them on social media.

Whenever something like this happens to me, or I hear about something similar happening to another writer, I rededicate myself to being a good literary citizen.  I want to be the sort of person who makes authentic contact with people, who gives thanks and credit, and who looks for ways to be a part of something bigger.  I want to be an empathetic, kind, inclusive and caring person who owns up to mistakes and who is always striving to learn and improve.  It goes beyond being a citizen, really, and becomes a sharing of person-hood.

Next post - I'm going to do a practical list of suggestions and ideas for being a good literary citizen.  If you have some thoughts of your own, write them here, and I'll include them in the list!

Image Credit: Hearthands  Public Domain Wikimedia commons

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

A Most Marvelous Muse

This year's Muse and the Marketplace conference, hosted by Boston's Grub Street, has come to an end.  I am tired but happy, and currently shuffling through my notes to see what might be fun and useful to post here on the blog.  I went to several great sessions and had a most encouraging interview with an agent.  Even though I was pretty much solo for the event, I got to hang out with some new friends, and met a lot of interesting people.  I'm following a lot of them on Twitter now, and it's a lot of fun to get more like-minded writers into my feed.

As for pluses for Muse, there are lots.  Most of the sessions I went to were presented by engaging and knowledgeable speakers.  I enjoyed the fact that there were few panels. (You know my thoughts on panels as I've posted about them before.)  All of these speakers were well prepared, and most had handouts so you didn't have to be taking notes like wild the whole time.  I was unable to attend the social events because of personal conflicts, but it looked like there were many of them, and they seemed quite popular given how attendees spoke about them afterwards.  The agent/editor portion of the event was organized and run well.

My gripes are pretty minor, generally speaking.  One is that some of the rooms were long and skinny, meaning that it was hard to get seated and easy to get lost in the back.  And, well, this conference isn't cheap, since it includes a hot buffet breakfast for two days, as well as other offerings.  In addition, there wasn't much for people interested specifically in speculative fiction, nor were there any poetry-related sessions that I spotted.  But no conference can be all things to all people. (As for genre, I'm hoping to hit Capclave later in the year.)

I think it is a very good conference for writers overall, if one can afford the price tag.  And I'd certainly recommend it over other, larger, writer's conferences that are all panels.  This conference gave me more of a feeling of community than others I've been to, and I'm hoping to go back again whenever my schedule permits.   

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Emerging From the Slush - AWP Panel

There's a lot of stories in that stack.
How do you make your story stand out?
Another panel I attended at AWP this year was the "Emerging From the Slush - How to get your short story published" panel.  The theme was looking at "Robert's Rules" - the ten ways to get you and your story noticed.  They handed out a bunch of neat-o bookmarks with all the critical information on it, so it was easy to get the main ideas at a glance, and know who was there.  Panelists were Robert Kerbeck (moderator), Michael Lemberger, Sujata Shekar, and Zach Powers.  (As before, the room was jammed to capacity, and I could not see the panel table, so I could always be certain who was talking when.  I have names when I'm pretty sure who was talking) 

In any case, I thought I'd share the list here and some of my notes.  There is nothing earth-shattering here, and I can't say I agree with all of the suggestions, but it is nice to have all the ideas in one place.
  1. Find a Good Home
    Michael - Your work is not you.  Your work may be rejected, but that does not mean you are rejected.  Aim high, start at the top of your list, then move down it.  Send to the places that your favorite writers are being published, and don't take it personally when you are rejected.  Person speaking? - Don't forget your home town journals, which are good places to publish and to connect.
  2. KISS Theory
    Robert - "Keep It a Short Story" (2500-4000 words ideally).  Sujata - Experiment with different page lengths with the same story.  It builds skills.  Shorter stories are easier to fit into most mags.
  3. Non-Fiction, Baby
    Michael - Non fiction gets published.  Journalism, critical essays, memoir, slice of life - all good to consider.  Build a corpus of work around a theme that is not all fiction.  This is a great step into publishing.  Book reviews are useful and help build connections.
  4. Get Personal
    Zach - Be personal in your communications whenever possible.  For example, "You published an author I like," "I'm a subscriber," "I received a personal rejection and you said submit again," or "We met at AWP and you said to give us a try."  Find a tidbit that sets your cover letter apart.  Just one or two sentences, and then the bio.
  5. Be Strategic, Not Indiscriminate
    Zach - Submit a lot, but be discriminating.  Get to know some journals very well.  Study them.  Meet people from them.  Know where to submit.  Tier your favorites.  Michael - Know yourself and know your work.  Be yourself - you will get the readers you are supposed to have.  It's ok to pick some journals out of your comfort zone for submissions. 
  6. Let Rejection Be Your Guide
    Sujata - This is not some kind of personal rating.  For myself, I apply to only one or two contests a year.  I like themed issues where they request new work, and new authors.  I don't happen to submit places that don't take simultaneous submissions.
  7. Two for the Price of One
    Person speaking? - When you get an acceptance, send thanks.  Also, you can suggest that a brand new story is also ready to go if they are interested.  Michael - Can you pull together stories with a thematic link?
  8. Go on Vacation
    Robert - Go to Writer's conferences, retreats, workshops, and meetings to meet people, develop relationships, and advance your career.  Try Tin House, Bread Loaf, Iowa Writer's Festival, Vermont.  Sujata - Workshops, Festivals, and Retreats are very useful if you do not have a traditional writer's background.  Apply for the scholarships.  "Voices of our Nation."
  9. Be a Volunteer
    Sujata - Read the slush for a journal, you become a good reader and editor.  It depersonalizes the process and you see your own submissions in a new light.  You learn the myriad of reasons why things are rejected.  You learn what is out there so you can write something else.  Zach - Help run a reading series, organize events, etc.  Michael - Be happy for others. 
  10. Editors Don't Bite
    Editors are people.  Get to know them.  Network, establish relationships, but don't monopolize their time.  Just talk and be sociable.
Image Credit - Stack of papers.  CC 2.0 Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, April 30, 2017

NaPoWriMo 2017 - Prompt #30 - Endings

The trail ends 1500 feet above the canyon floor of
Zion National Park.  Not for the afraid-of-heights.
What is the reward when the climb ends?
Wow!  It is the last day of NaPoWriMo 2017, and it is the last prompt!  And so it is time to pat yourself on the back for drafting so many new poems this month.  You participated with a huge community of writers all coming together to celebrate and promote poetry.  I had a great time, and even got some really good drafts this year.  It has been a tremendous amount of work to get these prompts up, but there are so many ideas in these that I think I'll be able to use these same prompts for many years to come!  I hope you will return and do the same.

Fittingly, today our theme is "Endings."  Of course in fairy tales there is always the story that ends with "happily ever after" - which of course is not an ending at all.

Providence by Catherine Barnett

The jaywalkers

walked slowly, a cigarette warmed
someone’s hand. 

Some of the best sermons
don’t have endings, he said

while the tires rotated
unceasingly beneath us.

Expectations can be shifted with endings - birth as an ending to pregnancy, the first day of school as an ending to summer, and marriage as an ending to bachelorhood.  "Leaving" can be leaving to end something, or to start something new.  The same is true of graduation, divorce, and perhaps even death.  Beginnings and endings have a complicated relationship.

Mountain Time by Kathryne Stripling Byer

While prophets discourse about endings,
don’t you think she’d tell us the world as we know it
keeps calling us back to beginnings?
This labor to make our words matter
is what any good quilter teaches.

Many words that can describe endings come to mind, like finality, closure, finishing, and conclusion.  Endings may be satisfying or frustrating, planned or unexpected, and exciting or dull.  But as with all endings, there is something or some experience that has stopped or is no longer happening.  Assuming we really reach the ending ... and do not, like really almost all writers, just keep on rewriting ... 

Lot's Wife by Dana Littlepage Smith

And so I chose this brine,
now crystals shift. The salt dissolves
and I want to speak.

Whore of all hopes, I now believe
some stories survive
in order to remake their endings.

Prompt #30:  Choose some aspect of the concept of "endings" and write a poem.  What memories do you have of endings?  Are they happy, sad, bittersweet?  Do endings always come with opportunities for new beginnings?  Are there rewards at the end, or losses - something left behind?  What changes have happened because something has ended?  Are there lasting implications or impacts?  Can the ending really be achieved?  What holds us back from endings?  Consider answers to these questions as you craft your poem.

Ok, the big extra challenge today is craft your poem in a classic form you have never used before (like a pantoum, villanelle, sestina, etc.) 

Endings will be a good theme to follow for sci-fi, fantasy, and horror.

Did you use this or one of our other prompts? You can post your poem in our comments, if you like.

Happy Writing!

Prompts crafted by:
J.A. Grier, Senior Scientist and Education Specialist, Planetary Science Institute
Amy Grier, Managing Editor, Solstice Literary Magazine
Image Credits:  Angels Landing CC 3.0 Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, April 29, 2017

NaPoWriMo 2017 - Prompt #29 - Life Elsewhere

Life elsewhere - our imaginations
conceive of things both very alike
and very different from life we know.
Today's prompt is about "life elsewhere."  We have a general conception of what "life" is that surrounds us on a daily basis - people, animals, plants, insects, fish, etc.  It is known and familiar to us - our standard environment.  But what would life look like "elsewhere," in an environment very different from what we deal with daily?

The first thought one might have about another place for life is other planets.  (Of course as a planetary scientist this is my first thought, anyway :)  What would life look like if it were found on a very cold world, or in a world of dunes and dust, or a world where the surface is so hot it could melt lead?  Would it resemble life as we know it (with a few modifications) or would it be completely unrecognizable?

[American Journal] by Robert Hayden

disguise myself in order to study them unobserved
adapting their varied pigmentations     white black
red brown yellow      the imprecise and strangering
distinctions by which they live     by which they
justify their cruelties to one another

The White Fires of Venus by Denis Johnson

They know all about us on Andromeda,
they peek at us, they see us
in this world illumined and pasteled
phonily like a bus station,

But there are environments on Earth that are also "elsewhere" - places that are quite different from what we normally consider.  What about the possibility of life inside of rocks, up in the clouds, deep inside of glaciers, or boiling away in natural hot springs?  We have found life in these places.  But don't limit yourself to the scientific facts, here.  What about life inside of the Sun, for example?

Take the ideas and feel free to run with them in whatever direction your mind takes you.  Elsewhere includes other dimensions, other planes of being, different realms, and even other universes.

Prompt #29:  Choose some aspect of the concept of "life elsewhere" and write a poem.  Would life in these places grow to be intelligent?  Would it evolve the same way we do?  How would society and culture come to pass?  Would those concepts have any meaning?  Would we be able to visit, even communicate?  How?  Consider answers to these questions as you craft your poem.

For something more specific, let the form of your poem in some way reflect the kind of life you have envisioned - ordered, simple, complex, free-form, wiggly, small, big or whatever.

This theme is a natural for expression in a sci-fi, horror, or fantasy context!

Did you use this or one of our other prompts? You can post your poem in our comments, if you like.

Happy Writing!

Prompts crafted by:
J.A. Grier, Senior Scientist and Education Specialist, Planetary Science Institute
Amy Grier, Managing Editor, Solstice Literary Magazine
Image Credits: Ethereal Wikimedia Commons CC 3.0

Friday, April 28, 2017

NaPoWriMo 2017 - Prompt #28 - Artificial

The Hoover Dam - a construct associated
with both positive and negative impacts
on people, nature, and civilization.
We've spent several days this month on prompts that focus on the natural world.  To contrast with that, today's prompt is about the concept of "artificial."  As with the word "natural," "artificial" has many meanings and implications.  Merriam Webster has several definitions for artificial that include:

- humanly contrived (artificial limb)
- caused or produced by a human and especially social or political agency (artificial price advantage)
- lacking in natural or spontaneous quality (artificial smile)
- imitation or sham (artificial flavor)

The implications for many of these definitions can be negative - like the artificial smile or a "sham."  But other definitions bring to mind positive responses.  Humans have contrived many critical advances like vaccines and built important constructs like weather satellites.  And poets have long included the artificial in their examinations of life and living.  Here are a few lines ...

Ruin and Beauty by Patricia Young

Through the open window we hear nothing--
no airplane, lawn mower, no siren
speeding its white pain through the city’s traffic.
There is no traffic. What remains is all that remains.

My Proteins by Jane Hirshfield

Yet I, they say, am they—
my bacteria and yeasts,
my father and mother,
grandparents, lovers,
my drivers talking on cell phones,
my subways and bridges,
my thieves, my police
who chase my self night and day.

Lake Havasu by Dorianne Laux

the TV on: seven dead
from Tylenol, the etched black wedge of the
Vietnam Memorial, the Commodore Computer
unveiled, the first artificial heart, just beginning
to wonder if something might be wrong.

Prompt #28:  Choose some aspect of the concept of "artificial" and write a poem.  Consider the feelings of wonder and awe that we often associate with the natural world, and apply them to our artificial world.  Think about why we look at nature and see beauty, and use those same eyes on artificial constructs.  Look at what it is that contributes to the "making" of artificial things - A bulldozer or crane?  A glass beaker in a laboratory?  A metal file in a machine shop?  What are the implications of the human ability to invent, to create, and to manipulate and change the natural world?  Consider these ideas as you craft your poem.

For something more specific, use a form like haiku that is often used to contemplate nature.

And naturally I'll be thinking of what I can do with this theme in a sci-fi, horror, or fantasy context.

Did you use this or one of our other prompts? You can post your poem in our comments, if you like.

Happy Writing!

Prompts crafted by:
J.A. Grier, Senior Scientist and Education Specialist, Planetary Science Institute
Amy Grier, Managing Editor, Solstice Literary Magazine
Image Credits:  Hoover Dam Wikimedia Commons GNU Free Documentation License

Thursday, April 27, 2017

NaPoWriMo 2017 - Prompt #27 - Adulthood

Young women celebrating their 15th year - Quinceañeras
A traditional entry into adulthood celebrated
in many Latino cultures.
Today's prompt focuses on the concept of "adulthood."  Some of us as children longed for the days when we would be "grown ups" while others never wanted the obvious responsibilities.  But time passes unabated, and people get older.  Consider your own transition into adulthood - is being an adult what you imagined as a child?

Many cultures have gateways, rites, or celebrations to mark the entry of a person into adulthood.  But each culture has its own ideas of what it means to be an adult.  For some cultures, it is expected that people might do any of the following: marry, have children, get jobs, make important decisions, take full care of themselves, or take care of older relatives.  Some people say they are "adulting" when they are fixing the dishwasher, making a dentist appointment, paying bills, commuting to work, and other tasks.

And here, of course, are a few lines about adulthood, and what it means to be an adult, as found in poetry:

Our Never by Benjamin S. Grossberg

Is the never of childhood, deeper
than the never of adolescence,
which has a whining, stammering
quality, which is a stamped foot
followed by huffing steps, and wholly
unlike the never of adulthood,
has none of the bright spider
cracks of reason multiplying
along its roof, threading its dark
dome with fine lines of light.

from Citizen, VI [My brothers are notorious] by Claudia Rankine

Then there are these days, each day of our adult lives. They will never forget our way through, these brothers, each brother, my brother, dear brother, my dearest brothers, dear heart—

Your hearts are broken. This is not a secret though there are secrets. And as yet I do not understand how my own sorrow has turned into my brothers’ hearts.

You Can’t Have It All by Barbara Ras

You can speak a foreign language, sometimes,
and it can mean something. You can visit the marker on the grave
where your father wept openly. You can’t bring back the dead,
but you can have the words forgive and forget hold hands
as if they meant to spend a lifetime together. And you can be grateful
for makeup, the way it kisses your face, half spice, half amnesia

Prompt #27:  Choose some aspect of the concept of "adulthood" and write a poem.  What are the characteristics of people who are acting as adults?  What happens when people are treated as children even when they are adults?  What happens to children forced to be adult-like?  What are the responsibilities and requirements of adults?  What are the implications for culture and society, as they define adulthood?  Consider these ideas as you craft your poem.

For something more specific, write about a rite of passage that signifies adulthood.

And naturally I'll be thinking of what I can do with this theme in a sci-fi, horror, or fantasy context.

Did you use this or one of our other prompts? You can post your poem in our comments, if you like.

Happy Writing!

Prompts crafted by:
J.A. Grier, Senior Scientist and Education Specialist, Planetary Science Institute
Amy Grier, Managing Editor, Solstice Literary Magazine
Image Credits:  The Garden  Wikimedia Commons CC 2.0

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

NaPoWriMo 2017 - Prompt #26 - Coming Home

"Coming Home"
Artwork depicting a lighthouse stretching into the distance
to guide a lost sailing ship home.
Building on yesterday's theme of "Travel," today we look at "Coming Home."  It is a unique aspect of the travel experience that requires having gone away, and then defining a home to which to return.  Some journeys end with home as the destination every day, while other trips never return home at all.  All trips are different, all homes are unique.  Read through yesterday's prompt on travel, and consider how different kinds of voyages would "come home."  And here, of course, are a few lines about "coming home" found in poetry:

We All Return to the Place Where We Were Born by Oscar Gonzales

Then, crickets would forge in the wind
their deep music of centuries
and the purple fragrances of Grandmother
always would receive without questions
our return home.

Our House by Sophie Cabot Black

As we enter our home, the way we enter love
Returning from elsewhere to call out
Each other’s names, pulling the door closed behind us.

Where You Live by Jonathan Wells

Imagine you are coming home. Your front
steps are scattered with fresh petals or no
they are not there and you return in your
regular shoes from your regular leather chair.
The feeling is the same.

Prompt #26:  Choose some aspect of the concept of "coming home" and write a poem.  What or who awaits you there?  What is different upon your return?  How has home changed?  How have you changed?  What aspects of home are longed for, and which are undesired?  What do you bring with you or what have you lost since your last visit?  Coming home can also be something that occurs entirely in the mind - a coming home to ourselves.  Consider these ideas as you craft your poem.

For something more specific, write your poem in a standard form, using both meter and rhyme.

And naturally I'll be thinking of what I can do with this theme in a sci-fi, horror, or fantasy context.

Did you use this or one of our other prompts? You can post your poem in our comments, if you like.

Happy Writing!

Prompts crafted by:
J.A. Grier, Senior Scientist and Education Specialist, Planetary Science Institute
Amy Grier, Managing Editor, Solstice Literary Magazine
Image Credits: Coming Home Wikimedia Commons CC 3.0