Many of you know that the past year my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. This fall, he went into hospice, and these last weeks have been a time where we've gotten the blessing to surround him with love, patiently helping to usher him forward in the process of dying. It's been revelatory to say the least, and I am still struggling with the shock of knowing, suddenly and for sure, that we all die.
Death is so much like birth; each one is irrevocably its own event. I'm so thankful to share these moments, really all the moments I've had, in my dad's company.
A student recently asked me to contribute to a Mysteries project by sharing ten things I think a young woman growing up in today's world needs to know. I don't usually give advice, but I dashed off a few thoughts.
Young women are one of our most valuable resources in today's world. Our future rises and falls on their vision, and their ability to create and sustain what the world will become.
Heady stuff! Then I realized that another way to think of this assignment was to consider the advice I wish I was given in my teens, if I had been smart enough to listen to one of my elders (I wasn't).
So take these words of wisdom with a grain of salt, meaning consider them salty and well-worn. I've grown a lot since my teen years and most of the time in between has left me battered, world-weary, and a little ornery.
Be of service to something bigger than yourself. It's the most effective way to be happy.
Return to the wild part of yourself every day (or as much as possible). Go beyond should and should not, right and wrong, roles and responsibilities and experience the true ground of your own being.
Be honest. And if you can't be honest, be real about that with the people you love.
Make it a habit to create something of beauty, either in the material or immaterial world. Beauty nourishes the spirit and will keep your heart young.
I was at Thankgiving Dinner with family and friends last night, bemoaning the life of a teen mom, when my good friend Dolly said, "I'm having to train myself out of using Well, actually on my own daughter."
I must have looked confused, because she finished, "You know, well actually aren't you thankful that you had so much time with your sweet pup before he died."
Or well actually, you'll have another opportunity to try out for that team next year."
I thought about all the ways that I use this same strategy on myself. Well, actually I should be really happy that I had that successful pitch with the literary agent (even though it didn't work out in the end). Well actually, I had so many good years with my dad before he got sick.
Well, actually is a way we, particularly women, try to mitigate the pain we feel over loss.
Don't get me wrong; it's great to not take oneself too seriously. None of us like to fail or lose something--or someone--we love. But when we try to redirect attention too quickly away from our pain, or our children's pain, we miss an opportunity to really feel what it means to not get what you want.
I've been thinking a lot about this lately. Life over the holidays slows down a bit, and over this weekend, I've been realizing how upset I am about my failures. Case in point, I turn 40 this June, and I really believed I would have my first novel published by now.
Now look, I'm not wallowing. I'm busy at work on my third manuscript. In the class I'm currently taking, a NY Times bestselling author recently told me she had to write twelve books before her first was published, so I know I'm in good company. (Well actually, you've come far in such a short period of time. You published in local mags. You're starting your own podcast. You've even had someone ask for your full novel before saying no.)
But rejection--failure--stings. I cry. I feel utterly hopeless.
Why is this valuable you might ask? One word: resiliency.
I counsel my students (and sometimes their parents) to do this very thing. Fail often! I love to say. I'm not sure they understand that I speak from a place of experience. I haven't got it all figured out yet. I have two children who stump me on a weekly basis. I still haven't written that business plan. As an artist, I've been rejected hundreds of times. Celebrated, only a handful.
Thanksgiving is a time for gratitude. This year I'm thankful for my failures, for all the things that aren't working in my life. For eating too many carbohydrates and gaining that extra five pounds back. For not pulling off the birthday party my youngest son wanted. For forgetting sooooooooo many things. For that really personal rejection letter. And not reaching all of my career goals.
Sometimes tears are the only companions on a lonely journey. I'm welcoming mine.
I am so excited to catch up with author Miriam McNamara about her debut novel "The Unbinding of Mary Reade." Read on to learn more about her process writing and creating Mary!
Q: Can you share with us how the idea for "The Unbinding of Mary Reade came to you and how long it took for the story to eventually take the form it has now?"
A: I first came across Mary’s story when I was an undergrad in college and took a history class about early America. On top of the concept of Caribbean pirate culture being an early iteration of American democracy, I was so intrigued by the idea of the relationship between the two women that were part of Jack Rackham’s crew. Their story was full of queerness—gender-bending on so many levels, the seductive nature of their relationship with each other, their complex and outlaw relationship with society and the roles they were expected to play in it. When I decided I wanted to try my hand at writing a novel years later, I knew instantly that I wanted to write a version of their story where all of the elements that drew me to them took center stage.
Q: Your grasp of the language in this book is incredible! You did such good work on using accurate language for a sailor and pirate. How were you able to do this? What kinds of sources did you use in the research process?
A: Thanks so much! I feel like my process is so all over the place. I read historical fiction set at the time, books written at the time, books specifically on pirates, books on pirate language in history and the media and on slang at the time. I googled language and dialect and syntax, and I used an online etymological dictionary on what felt like every word in the novel! I’m sure one or two anachronisms slipped through, but I’m pretty happy with how it turned out.
My research in general happened pretty similarly. I had a few history books I leaned heavily on: "1700: Scenes from London Life" by Maureen Waller and "The Republic of Pirates" by Colin Woodard. "Moll Flanders" by Daniel Defoe and "A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates" by Captain Charles Johnson were books that were written at the time. "Fanny" by Erica Jong and was a contemporary book set at the time that influenced my story. I have transcripts of Mary and Anne’s trial that informed the book. But I also read all sorts of random books and internet articles and went down a thousand rabbit holes. All of it enriched the story in little ways.
Q: The sexy scenes in The Unbinding of Mary Reade are so good! Can you tell us a little about how you write sexy moments? What makes them hot--or not? Any tips for the first-time writer?
A: Hooray! :) Those are some of my favorite scenes in the books, and it makes me really happy to hear that many readers love them, too! You are the first person to ask me about how I’ve written them, though, so this is especially exciting. There is a good book called "The Joy of Writing Sex" by Elizabeth Benedict that is a good place to start for fiction writers. Essentially, the main thing you want to remember when writing sex (or make out) scenes is that they should follow the main rules of any scene: moving the plot of the story forward while also evolving the emotional landscape, changing or informing the protagonist in some way. If the scene doesn’t do this, it’s probably gratuitous and will end up feeling that way, no matter how well-written it is.
Before I write a sexy scene I think about what the characters are going through, and I try to come up with a general idea for the scene that would reveal their emotional states to each other or the reader and hopefully maybe even touch on the themes of the novel as a whole (although that isn’t necessary, just a bonus). When I sit down to write the scene once I’ve got a general idea, I try to draft it first without being self-conscious. Generally speaking, it comes out a little overwrought and includes a lot of repetitive language the first time I write it. The people in the scene might act out of character because I thought it was sexy in the moment. But I have to turn off that internal editor in order to get a good first draft, and in editing you can really fine-tune it. I don’t think there are rules for what sorts of words should be used or not used, or how graphic the scene should be—it should feel cohesive with the tone of the rest of the novel, and it should feel right to you, the writer.
Q:Did publishing your book change the way you felt about yourself as a writer? How? What is different now?
A: Being published was always a goal that I was working toward, and it’s such a hard one to realize! So much is outside of the author’s control. All you can do is write the best story you can write and then be willing to risk rejection over and over. I love the validation that being published brings, and I love hearing from people that have read and loved the book. Other than that, not much has changed! It’s a very significant step in my writing journey, but it’s also just one of many. It’s become part of the journey instead of the goal.
Q: I’m really inspired by the fluidity your characters, especially Mary, have in describing the way they are attracted to people of both genders. Did you start out with the goal for your character to be gender fluid? Or did that reveal itself in the writing of the book?
A: Mary’s sexuality and gender were clear to me from the start. I specifically wanted to write a character where both of these things were fluid, who didn’t fit on either side of either binary, whose authentic identity existed outside of any clear definitions. However, this ended up being really hard to nail down in the writing! Initially I thought of her gender and sexuality as ambiguous. I was told early on that ambiguity is really hard to write, which I found to be true. Early readers got ideas about Mary’s character or what I was trying to say about sexuality or gender that I wasn’t intending. It took me a while to nail down how fluidity is different than ambiguity, although there is some overlap, and then write that fluidity unambiguously (if that makes sense!). It really takes a whole novel to fully show it, which I love.
Q: I just want to say how inspired I am by the subject matter in Mary Reade! I love when stories turn our idea of history upside down. Queer, non-binary pirates, hooray :) I want more!I heard a rumor that you have a new book coming out, so my last question is when can we read more like Mary Reade?
A: Speaking of my second project, it is another queer historical novel! This one is set in 1930 in New York and Chicago, just after the stock market crash. It’s about a girl whose perfect life falls apart. She runs off determined to chase it down and ends up joining a barnstorming circus…there’s wingwalking, hot pilots, WWI-era biplanes, speakeasies, jazz, making out, and tons of stunts based on true stories. It’s about losing the life you thought you were going to have, and finding out that what unfurls in its place is so much more expansive and limitless than what you had imagined before. It’s titled "An Impossible Distance to Fall," and it’s scheduled to release in June 2019. Thanks so much for asking! :)
Thanks to Miriam for sharing her process and thoughts about Mary Reade with us. The book is available at Amazon, Goodreads, and Barnes & Noble--or you can pick up your copy at our favorite local bookstore, Malaprops!
This spiritual comedy, created by Eruch Adams and directed by local filmmaker Katie Damien, will have you laughing your a%$&$ off. The film was produced by a partnership between Gorilla with a Mustache and Angry Unicorn Entertainment. Here's link to the trailer.
Stay tuned for more opportunities to see this incredible film.
One of my favorite poems in the world is "The Laughter of Women," by Pulitzer Prize winner Lisel Mueller (scroll down to read the poem in full), and this week, I was reminded of it. I have a group of girlfriends with whom I make a visionboard each year. We get together sometime in January and cut up magazines and think about what we want to call into our lives.
But this year we decided we would do a second board mid-year. I'm pretty committed to my vision board, so I felt a little adrift at the odd timing of the event. What was I supposed to do in the middle of the year?
I decided I would only cut out images to which I felt drawn. An hour later, I was looking over an odd assortment of images: a new washer and dryer, a fiddle leaf fig tree, lots and lots of water activities, beach paddleboarding, surfing, kayaking, pretty long dresses and a pair of nice ta-tas in a beautiful bustier.
We talked about boobs, why they're great, why they're not, how they look whn they're big, how to take care of them, bras, and it was really funny. We laughed.
I went home a little healed. A little lighter.
Women laughing together is a subversive act. It connects our joy, and laughter, like orgasms, comes in its own time (pun intended) and can't be controlled. The spontaneity of laughter, the way it resists control or demands, lends itself to freedom and understanding.
Get one or two of your girlfriends together this week and laugh. Tell dirty jokes. Or drink a bottle of wine and go watch the sunset.
Do your best to have fun.
We all deserve it!
I've reached the point in the mother arc where Eldest has mostly stopped talking to me.
There is a constant flow of information: where his soccer game is, which movie he and his friends want to go to, what kind of shoes he needs for camp. The list goes on and on, but when he recently returned from a five day sojourn, and I asked how did it go, he turned to me and said "Good." Then he walked back to his bedroom and closed the door.
Ever persistent, I followed him to his room and knocked lightly on the door before entering. "So do you want to go back?" I asked.
"Yes!" he nodded, if not enthusiastically then at least with force.
"Would you go back right now if you could?" I asked.
"No," he said. "I'm exhausted."
My inner life coach cheered that he was able to recognize what his body needed while I waited to see if he would tell me more.
Did he meet a girl he liked? Did he perform in the Talent Show?
Did he figure out if he believed in God?
"Cool," I said and walked back to the kitchen to finish the dishes.
I have done my job, I told myself, sudsy hands furiously scrubbing. The silence means I've done my job.
This is the litany of a teen parent. Grouchy, grumpy, not wanting to talk about it is the new norm.
He's developing his own sense of self. This is important work.
I have been accused of being 'too much' more than once in my life: too loud, too direct, too bossy. And for the most part, I'm unapologetic about those monikers. They mean I'm doing the work of a good feminist in today's too polite society. Civility has ever been about controlling the voices of women. But when it comes to Eldest, I am working on sitting down and shutting up, at least for now, because he deserves to have privacy. My son deserves to have an interior room of his own.
So I did not go back and knock on his door. I finished the dishes and went back to work on my novel.
I share this to remind myself. And if you're the parent of a teen, I share it to remind you: sometimes rejection is right on target.
A fast read, this novel is a fun peek into France in the early sixties. The language is simple, and the story focus small. I'll admit, I didn't fall in love, but I had fun reading while it lasted.
The novel centers around Charlie, the main character, who is the young, soft-spoken son of an important diplomat. Mostly left to his own devices, Charlie spends his days avoiding his tutor and exploring downtown Marseilles.
One day Charlie witnesses a robbery and realizes in the same moment that he was one of the robbers' marks. Excited by his proximity to the crime, Charlie defends one of the criminals to the local police, thereby earning himself an unexpected friend.
I remember the feeling, from my childhood, of becoming involved in a secret dream, and then allowing that dream to take hold and let a deeper part of myself grow into being. Colin Meloy captures that same excitement and determination in this novel. Charlie has found a country to which he wants to belong, a gang to which he wants membership, and he sets about trying to become one of the whiz mob.
The illustrations in the novel are done by Colin Meloy's wife, Carson Ellis. They're unique, stylistic vision of the book lends the story a strong aesthetic that only further's the novel's comprehensive world-building.
My favorite part of The Whiz Mob was that the author rifled my pockets twice, totally by surprise. Misdirection works! I appreciate when a book can do the thing it purports to be telling a story about, and with all eyes watching, it's a pretty sleight-of-hand. Final word: if you're headed to the beach, take this book along for a bit of mischievous, totally harmless fun.
There is a meditation one of my teachers taught me in which I sit, with one hand over my chest and breath deep into my lungs, imagining my heart as a flame. I focus on that flame and watch it grow brighter with each inhale. Brighter. Still brighter. I spend time with the flame of my heart and learn its rhythm, listen to its soundless aliveness.
This meditation is hard for me. My attention wanders off. But I have learned to noticed when that flame feels refreshed. This past weekend I attended the March for our Lives in Asheville, and listening to the teens speak, I felt the heat and the strength of their hearts light up and ignite the fire of my own.
Today I have to run an emergency drill at school. The last few weeks I've spent many hours of daylight and some very dark hours in the night sitting with the reality of the danger that our children face. And I feel bowed down by the responsibility for caring for those children. I feel embarrassed that I'm not more knowledgeable about security and guns and chain of command. I find myself feeling that I shouldn't have to know about these things. And then correct myself to stop thinking from a place of should. What is is what is real. I am in this moment, and the world is what it is.
One of my favorite mantras: there is no way out, only through. These are the times we live in. My children live through the news cycle. They live through the many reversals of legal protections and environmental legislation that my parents and the parents of my parents fought to put in place. They live through having no health care. They live through crushing student loan debt. They and I live through these moments that seem to come so fast that there is no way I can keep the flame of my heart alive through all of it.
Then I am confronted by those who have been through so much more. The many black brothers and sisters who have carried the burden of making it through over the last several hundred years. And I show up to my own pain and uncertainty with a renewed commitment. I breath into the fire of my heart and I breathe out hoping to make it brighter. I breathe through and into the pain I feel that the world is such a painful, unjust place. And I sit for a few minutes, letting my heart break, using the kindling to build hotter flames.
Then I get out there and do.
characters who craft something beautiful and redemptive from their love, however imperfect, in such a way that it feeds not just the individual but a whole community of people. That tension is not resolved by the finish of the book, so much as encapsulated for the reader to inspect and ultimately make her own decisions about the truth.
I finished this book at 3 am after not being able to release myself from its clutches! Now I am driven to deconstruct it as a writer to better understand it, but for all you spectators out there, Night Circus is a performance not to be missed!
Coranna Adams is a writer, filmmaker, and educator from Asheville, North Carolina.