Radical Acceptance: My Wonderful Transsexual Body

Shot at the Hudson Automotive Museum using a Ricoh GR2 by Jay Sennett

Shot at the Hudson Automotive Museum using a Ricoh GR2.

I like my body now. Rubbing testosterone gel on my stomach and thighs twice a day thrills me. But this hasn’t always been true.

In the past I struggled with my decision to transition and live as a man.

Many evenings ago I decided to stop taking hormones. My sexuality was muddled. I had no idea how to date women as a man. Was I even a man?

How do I date women now? My only positive sexual experiences had been as a butch woman. That fact may have influenced my desire to stop taking hormones. At least I know how to be butch.

But for reasons still unclear to me I continued taking my hormones.  Somehow I kept a  higher vision in play and remembered the excitement and pride I possessed when I first began hormones in 1996. I held fast to the thrilling fantasies I had about how great it would be to date women as a man. Somehow I would make those fantasies become a reality.

Bean sculpture, Chicago, shot on a Ricoh GR2 by Jay Sennett

Bean sculpture, Chicago, shot on a Ricoh GR2.

Since then, each major surgical change- top surgery then bottom surgery - has altered my perception of myself in my body and myself in my gender. Last year I tweaked my hormone dosage with great result.

Now I find myself in the midst of another technological change - weight-bearing exercise. Now I have aged to a point where I must work to keep some mass on my muscles. Now I endeavor to complete ten full push ups and ten assisted pull ups. I fail, every day.

I keep trying and I keep taking hormones.

In 1996 we had no roadmaps pointing us in the direction of transsexual true north. We all winged it, and we never revealed our ambivalence. I had no idea I would feel as ambivalent as I once did without starting hormones.

We can only know some things as we go through them. Ambivalence shouldn’t surprise anyone. I now think of it as a natural part of the transitioning process.  Then I didn’t know that. Today I do.

Today I take great joy in what my body, and my body on hormones, can do. My heart continues to beat, my lungs expand and contract.

My eyes span the gym and what a wonderful thing it is that I am a man. Two decades past my first hormone dose and I still get a thrill.

Now I’m glad I kept taking hormones even when I wanted to stop that long ago night  on the freeway. I’m glad one part of me refused to listen to another part of me. I’m glad to be me today.

I’m glad to be in this body.

I’m glad to be in this transsexual body.

Submit »» Free Transgender Book

Read »» Our Monumental Desire for the Binary Gender System

· Writing

Why I Might Not Tell You I’m Transsexual

A statue sits bathed in light surrounded by darkness. Shot with a Canon 60D by Jay Sennett

This statue lives with us. Shot with a Canon 60D.

I wasn’t ready to be welcomed.

That’s how Rev. Thomas Schade described his reluctance to involve himself fully in his new UU community (here in Ann Arbor). Being welcomed brings with it responsibilities and fears, fears that a person or persons may make us uncomfortable or ask us things we cannot commit to, the call to commitment reinforcing a belief that we can’t say no.

I understand as a transsexual.  I have been reluctant to share my history with people.

Why might I not tell you I’m transsexual?

I don’t want the possibility of a difficult conversation: The conversations where you overpersonalize my lack of disclosure (“Why didn’t you tell me!?!”) or decide my personal history for me (“Oh, I know you are born that way. That just makes perfect sense to me.”)

Right.

Thank you, by the way, for listening to me.

Rusted Sculpture behind UMMA. Shot with a Canon 60D by Jay Sennett.

Sculpture behind UMMA. Shot with a Canon 60D.

Experience a few of these conversations, and all transsexual and transgender people have endured these awkward, uncomfortable, and frankly, immature, conversations with people, and you would say no thank you, too.

Unless I can be sure you can act responsibly and maturely when I disclose I am transsexual or transgender, I’ll say no thank you, I’m not ready to be welcomed.

Of course I’m removing myself from human interaction, or, perhaps, more pointedly, human intimacy.

But understand this: When I want to be welcomed, I must take responsibility for protecting myself against the very real possibility of these stupid, adolescent responses. The most astonishing response I ever had came from a woman - an awarded academic - who knew me when I lived as a woman.

When I reintroduced myself to her, within two minutes she asked me if I had gone all the way, a parlance for inquiring if I’ve had a phalloplasty.

Can I ask you about your genitalia any time I want?

Why might I not tell you I’m transsexual? I might have to be responsible for myself and you.  This is what an adult does with a child, not with another adult.

Who wants to risk vulnerability with someone unable to handle it?

I reject wholeheartedly societal expectations that my acceptance as a transsexual must come at the expense of my personal comfort and safety. These children-in-adult bodies believe my transgender body obligates me to tell them about my genitalia, my sex life and any thing else they want to know.

Why might I not tell you I’m transsexual?  Answering your questions reduces my dignity to your level.

Why might I not tell you I’m transsexual? It bores me sometimes.

I’ve been taking hormones now for over twenty years. I know you might care a great deal about my gender. That’s cool, sort of.

Why don’t you care more about your gender than mine?

Why might I not tell you I’m transgender?

You tell me.

Submit » » Free Transgender Book

Read » »My Transsexual Body

· Writing

Simplistic Transsexual Transition Metaphors

Maxi Chanel returns to the dressing room. Shot with a Ricoh GR2 by Jay Sennett.

Maxi Chanel returns to the dressing room. Shot with a Ricoh GR2.

Transsexuals prevail despite laboring under a loathsome metaphor: You are born in the wrong body.

I have spent countless lost minutes and hours unraveling this assumption. For years I believed it, and hated myself. Now I find it a pointless and stupid metaphor. The richness of our relationships to our very corporeal being simply can’t thrive. Neither nuance nor complexity of feeling can flourish in such a pernicious environment.

Breast Reduction Surgery

In late 2003 I had breast reduction surgery, known as top surgery in FtM argot.

Without top surgery, I would be unable to change my birth certificate. Without changing my birth certificate, I would be unable to change my passport.

Without changing my passport - which would provide some measure of legal assurance, at least from Uncle Sam’s perspective, that I was/am a man -

I would be unable to marry legally.

Even had I wanted to continue to live with a birth certificate that stated my gender female, and marry under that designation, I could not. In 2003 only Massachusetts permitted gay marriage. Michigan, my home state, had a constitutional amendment against gay marriage.

Transsexual Marriage

My love and me, 2012. Shot with a Canon 60D by Jay Sennett

My love and me, 2012. Shot with a Canon 60D.

I wanted to get married as a man. As I have written elsewhere I love the binary of male and female in the binary gender system. And I wanted to marry the most attractive, sexy woman ever!

Top surgery, in theory, creates a male-looking chest.  For FtMs with tiny breasts, maybe an A cup, plastic surgeons use the keyhole procedure. They make an incision in the areola, remove the fat, then suture the incision.

With the keyhole procedure, doctors do not remove nipples, ensuring continued erotic sensation.. There is no visible scarring.

A cup and a half too large for the keyhole procedure, I needed a full-blown reduction. This is a more difficult procedure.

The surgeon must remove breast fat and breast tissue along the muscle, and hope the scarring will come to reside along the pectoralis muscle line, underneath the ridge created by superior chest muscles.

Nipples become sacrificed to remove breast tissue.

In the ledger of transsexual accounting, I must debit the loss of erotic sensation the overall credit of becoming a man.

Governmental changes to gender occur through the medium of exchange known as documentation. In exchange for a small change to a single letter on a piece of paper given State imprimatur through printing techniques and water marks (and yes, social agreement), I voluntarily relinquished an

important source of sexual sensation.

I’m not bitter. I hated my breasts and am glad they are gone.  I do miss

the loss of erotic sensation, still, nearly thirteen years later and now understand my experiences as a transsexual as ones of intertwined loss and joy.

What is the question?

A blurred woman in front of a delivery truck shot by Jay Sennett with a Canon 60D while pulling focus.

A woman in front of a delivery truck shot with a Canon 60D while pulling focus.

This combination gets ignored in the born in the wrong body” narrative.

When I transitioned in the mid-1990s I felt I had to lie to psychological and medical experts about my body regarding any feelings of fear or concern or ambivalence . If I revealed one iota of anxiety,  I feared losing access to hormones.

Since I was born in the wrong body, how could I possibly be anxious about anything? The hormones and surgeries were simply going to fix the problem, which was my body, a thing that also did, on occasion, bring me joy.

Of course, I feel compelled to say I felt an unbearable discomfort in my body. But I also feel compelled to say I believe now, after years of sitting with this horrible metaphor, that my body amazes and protects and comforts me.

We have little ability in the English language to describe living in the middle of a contradiction, every waking minute of a very ordinary life.

This reality seems almost entirely nonverbal. I fail to explain it every time I attempt it.

Let me try another way. If being born in the wrong body is the answer, what is the question?

Read » » Transgender Memoir: Where is My Point of Origin?

· Writing

Breakthrough, Beautiful Transsexual Transition Metaphors

Auto repair shop shot at night with a Ricoh GR2 by Jay Sennett

Auto repair shop shot at night with a Ricoh GR2.

Much of my fiction and nonfiction work seeks to dispense with two of the most unimaginative tropes used to describe transsexuals.

Transsexuals desiring medical changes to our bodies - hormones and various topographical changes to our bodies achieved through surgery - need a medical diagnosis.

Born This Way or Born in the Wrong Body

Shot at the Hudson Automotive Museum using a Ricoh GR2 by Jay Sennett

Shot at the Hudson Automotive Museum using a Ricoh GR2.

The born this way” explanation becomes shorthand for a psychiatric diagnosis, found in various iterations of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

The wrong body” phrase becomes the path through which we may find psychological relief. Fundamentally, our dis/ease may be relieved by significant corporeal changes rendered through a diagnosis of a psychiatric disorder.

Without this psychiatric diagnosis, we must find doctors, however dingy or suspect they may be as physicians, willing to provide us hormones, and possibly surgeries.

The Problem with Two

A woman in repose at Zingerman’s Deli and shot with an iPhone 6 by Jay Sennett

Taken at Zingerman’s Deli with an iPhone 6.

These two short phrases have become euphemisms for gosh, you’re just so beyond human experience, and who would want to change their gender, really, that you just must be born that way!”

As a transsexual I have no other socially-agreed upon metaphors to describe my experiences. We underestimate the importance of of social agreement at our peril.

I can say that I chose my gender; that God called me to become a man; or that aliens abducted me.

If people believe my decisions result not from a desire to manifest a beautiful, human right, but from something beyond my control, then I’m left with several distasteful options.

Distasteful Options

I can choose silence. Who wants to participate in a conversation in which I must discount why someone thinks I was born this or that way?

I can attempt to shoe-horn my complex transsexual experiences in an anodyne narrative of either born this way” or born in the wrong body.”

And the last, and most damning choice, I can believe these metaphors. Now my body becomes a problem that must be fixed,  my very blood and marrow an ongoing personal nightmare.

We Must Name Our Experiences for Ourselves

Birds leave trees. Shot with a Canon 60D by Jay Sennett

Birds leave trees. Shot with a Canon 60D.

Without reserve I detest these sound-bite explanations. They constrict me.

To have my years of therapy, agonizing moments of fear, surgeries, hormones, joy, sex, love, all of it, squelched by a well-meaning but clueless fool under a lifeless response of oh, I just think you’ve always been that way,” makes me want to claw my face off, but not before I order said person to go to the bathroom, stand in front of the mirror and punch themselves in the face.

Any transsexual may feel free to use these metaphors.

I simply want more expansive metaphors we create for ourselves. Why should we let a bunch of people who know very little about us dictate how we describe ourselves?

Much personal power derives from naming our experiences for ourselves.

This fact drives my work. I, and we, deserve so much more than these metaphors. All of us can count past two.

Read » » Our Momental Desire for the Binary Gender System

· Writing

Our Monumental Desire for the Binary Gender System

Ms. H. and Jay captured in a wide closeup. Shot with a Canon 60D by Jay Sennett Playing around with a wide angle lens. Shot with a Canon 60D.

We all need the binary gender system

All of us, from non-transgender to gender queer to transsexuals, need the binary gender system.

Trans people especially need the binary gender system.

How else can we know our own gender stories?

What do we fight against? Confront? Seek to uphold or dismantle?

Who we are happens with others

People standing in front of an escalator at Gallerie Lafayette. Shot with an iPhone 6 by Jay Sennett People standing in front of an escalator at Gallerie Lafayette. Shot with an iPhone 6.

I believe very much our identities exist in contexts. As humans much of how we understand privilege, diversity and oppression happens in our relations with others.

We also create and recreate ourselves as we interact with and confront systems (call them ideologies, if you like) that come at us as ideas. These ideas exist without common agreement about definitions.

Just ask five strangers at a party for their definition of gender. You’ll get five different definitions. Some might sound similar but each person will have a different idea of what gender means to them.

Seeking permission

Birds leave trees. Shot with a Canon 60D by Jay Sennett Birds leave trees. Shot with a Canon 60D.

As a transsexual, gender for me means a system of science, religion, sociology and psychology that makes my life really difficult. Most of my difficulties, because I am white and upper class, have stemmed from seeking permission.

During a seemingly prehistoric time compared to today, this permission seeking happened in the late 1990s and early aughts: Extensive psychological testing to obtain hormones; further extensive psychological testing to obtain surgeries to obtain a letter from the surgeons to request permission to change my birth certificate, and so on.

I hated the binary gender system and decided the whole thing a farce and good riddance.

If it had been so easy.

I love the binary and love to hate it.

Storm clouds open up in front of a power line. Shot with a Canon 60D by Jay Sennett Storm clouds open up in front of a power line. Shot with a Canon 60D.

This thing I claimed to not want actually thrived within me as a moving target. I wanted to be a real man with a real man’s body. Real operated, and sometimes still operates, as an ill-defined but quite hard psychological cudgel I use to beat myself.

Even more than the therapists and psychologists and physicians and insurance companies I claimed to despise, I needed the binary gender system.

 piny made this devastating comment in 2005:

There’s gender-benders and there’s trans. The gender-benders claim to destabilize and satirize the gender binary but really just support and worship it. The trans claim to act independently of it but actually need it to survive. Sometimes, the two categories are completely different, and sometimes they inexplicably melt into an undifferentiated whole.

Just so, twelve years later. Of course, all of us in the transgender communities can do without the bathroom terrors, the notion that we cannot be normal, the legal and social disdain, and, for trans women of color, the realities of daily violence that have reached the level of obscenity.

Without the binary gender system how would I live?

A statue sits bathed in light surrounded by darkness. Shot with a Canon 60D by Jay Sennett This statue lives with us. Shot with a Canon 60D. As a transsexual I can’t imagine my life without it. The system provided a goal. That sounds strange, like the binary gender system resembles a self-help methodology. But I knew what I wanted: To live as a man, age as one and love as one. The idea of a gender binary appeals to me. I know my feminist and anti-patriarchal activists card will now be revoked. I don’t care. Feminine, feminist women attract me. I like having additional body mass, no menstruation, a beard and deeper voice. I love suits and ties and underwear with pouches. Guess that makes me reactionary. But I am a happy reactionary, and glad to need the gender binary.

Read » » If You’re Transgender, Are You Unnatural?

· Writing

Five Reasons Why You Should Write to Your Loved Ones

A blurred woman in front of a delivery truck shot by Jay Sennett with a Canon 60D while pulling focus. A woman in front of a delivery truck shot with a Canon 60D while pulling focus.

How many words I have written, yet none to my beloved or grandmother or dear friend?

I have written thousands of words I felt proud of, submitted them to a handful of journals, only to have strangers reject them.

Ask me to write a tender love letter to my love, no way!

Why?

Who really am I writing for, and why? Here are five reasons why writing to our loved ones will makes us better writers and human beings.

We become fearless writers

A black and white image shot by Jay Sennett of postal truck with a very blurry vortex achieved by pulling focus. A postal truck shot with a Canon 60D while pulling focus.

We censor ourselves when we write. That scary place in me pushing to get out on the page? Nope.

Not going to write that.

It’s too scary, too close to the bone, too {fill in the blank here}. I hesitate. My writing suffers.

Speaking our truth to our loved ones liberates us. We write in complete vulnerability, and we take that fearlessness to our pages.

 Writing honestly makes us better writers

People coming and going at the entrance to Meiji Shrine. Shot in black and white by Jay Sennett using a Ricoh GR2 People coming and going at the entrance to Meiji Shrine. Shot with a Ricoh GR2.

 I’ve come to realize part of me writes to touch my own heart.

Writing to my loved ones terrifies me. I have to be vulnerable and really expose my heart.

Even with the most deeply felt novel, I think sometimes we can bullshit ourselves and keep at an arm’s length from the material.

Not so with love letters.

We write to our beloved or a parent or dear friend, we know they have expertly calibrated bullshit detectors. We have no choice but to be honest and vulnerable.

Our public writing will improve as a result.

 Writing to our loved ones forces us to specific and unique

People relax in Kresge Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Shot with a Ricoh GR2 by Jay Sennett People relax in Kresge Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Shot with a Ricoh GR2

Has a loved one ever asked, what do you love about me? Like me, you may feel cornered.

Just because you’re beautiful may seem like a great first answer.

But I think it fails. It sounds like a line from a forgettable pop tune.

I love the curve of your hip when the morning summer sun streams our bedroom window seems like a much better first answer.

I’ve used honest, precise, visual images. We love specifically. Our writing ought to reflect that specificity. All of our writing.

 Writing to our loved ones trains us to better observe the world

People stroll by a toilet on the street in the 19th arrondissement. Shot with a Ricoh GR2 by Jay Sennett. People stroll by a toilet on the street in the 19th arrondissement. Shot with a Ricoh GR2.

If your friend exhibits great loyalty, how does he do so, specifically?

This reason differs from number three. In number two we write specifically.

Here we teach ourselves to increase our observational skills. Your friend may express his loyalty by giving you money when you most need it or defending a friend when she isn’t present or visiting you every night while you are hospitalized.

Loyalty, devotion, concern, support sound great but as words they don’t give us much by way of specifics. As we work on grounding our words in distinct behavior and explicit details, our writing will improve.

For our sake and yours forget your name in the street; tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light. Don’t tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief’s wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear’s caul.” Toni Morrison

 We will all die

A man carries a long package on a rainy day by St. Sulpice in Paris. Shot with a Ricoh GR2 in black and white by Jay Sennett A man carries a long package on a rainy day by St. Sulpice in Paris. Shot with a Ricoh GR2.

Every single one of us. Death stalks us from the moment we are conceived. It is better to write our most heartfelt words for our loved ones. If we don’t, what comfort will all our publications bring?

 We didn’t write those publications for them, our loved ones, we wrote them for us, and maybe the marketplace.

We wrote them for us.

Writing to our loved ones probably strikes fear in your heart. I can’t be that honest!”

If death takes them, and you’ve written nothing, what comfort will all your publications bring you?

 When death takes them, and you’ve written them honest, tender letters expressing your admiration and love for them, telling them how sexy you find them, and you watch their face as they read your thoughtful words, how much comfort will that expression bring you when death has taken them?

 You can’t see the expression as in a photograph. But your picture-taking mind will capture the memory forever.

Write to your loved ones as though you had only one month to live.

 What will you say to them, knowing that you, and they, will die one day?

· Scribbler's Paradise

If You’re Transgender, Are You Unnatural?

Deep shadow in the snow

Bright sun on a winter day. Shot with a Ricoh GR2.

People opposed to transgender rights resurrect the not-natural panic defense. You know the one.

Transsexuals are unnatural!” or God made two genders only!”

When people opposed to transgender throw down these phrases, they are toting big guns. Woman as Womb! Gaia as Mother! Woman as Nurture! Science is Bad! God is Great!

Right.

I have a few clarifying questions for these people.

Do you use a phone? Check.

A toilet piped into a sewer line? Check.

A car? Bike? Public transportation? Check. Check. and Check.

That’s kind of unnatural, don’t you think?

If we’re going to go natural, we ought to stand outside, yell really loudly, hoping our Grandma in Poughkeepsie will hear us. Then we should take a dump in the back yard and walk from wherever to Poughkeepsie to visit Grandma.

That’s natural.

People opposed to transgender rights are just as unnatural as I am.

Yes, we choose to modify our bodies, our pronouns, our names, our lives.

They do, too. All the time.

The insulin they take for diabetes, the vitamins and herbal extractions they ingest for health, the performance-enhanced running shoes they wear for weight loss, all body modifications.

Antibiotics, tetanus shots, cholesterol-reducing drugs, Vicodin, Valium, all modifications.

Trans-haters change their names. Trans-haters change their bodies, too.

A nip and tuck or hair color or pierced ears are but different types of body modification.

Either we’re all unnatural or none of us are. Vomiting out hypocrisy won’t change that fact.

Read » » A Fascinating Truth About Privilege

· Writing

A Fascinating Truth About Privilege

Sometime back in the late 90s I realized I had privilege and did not have privilege.

How is such a thing possible?

A good question given how we’ve come to characterize privilege: It is something some people have all the time, everywhere, and others do not, all the time, everywhere.

But privilege exists only in context.

If you stand or sit in a room by yourself, who oppresses you? Perhaps the voices in your head? If that is true, who then oppresses who?

Neither privilege nor oppression exists like air, all the time, everywhere.

In some contexts I have a privilege. When I interact with people in these contexts, they treat me with deference and assume I’m rich/intelligent and so on. Being white and male does this.

How do I know? People did not treat me deferentially when I lived as a woman.

These deferences I now experience remain conditional. If people know I have a past as a woman, perhaps they will retract their deference. Instead of being a white man, I become another category, another type of human being, one that can be treated without kindness or respect, potentially.

That potential becomes a possibility I must manage, always. Whether it is the TSA or an unexpected visit to the ER I can never expect the kindness of strangers. [1. It is the unquestioned assumption that kindness will always happens gives rise to accusations of unacknowledged privilege.”]

Now I grant that while I perceive these possibilities as potential threats, not every transman does.

And that is okay. He isn’t wrong, nor am I. How he manages these potential threats or even if he views them as threats at all, does not diminish the possibility of the threat’s existence.

This is why the token argument - a transman isn’t threatened so you’re whining! - is just stupid.

Within every human interaction exists potentials for a range of behaviors from kindness to indifference to disgust.

Within every human interaction varieties of privilege and not privilege play out between actors.

The job of every person in a privileged position within these interactions is to enhance kindness and concern and reduce dismissive or threatening behavior.

Why? Because chances are we will find ourselves in positions where we are not privileged, and we must hope for kindness and prepare for disgust, or worse.

Namaste.

Read » » America’s First Protest Against Slavery

· Writing

Buddha Lives in Versailles & Dog Dung

A man plays an accordion in a traditional Bistro. Shot with an iPhone 6 by Jay Sennett

A man plays an accordion in a traditional Bistro. Shot with an iPhone 6.

Paris exists as a city of wild contradictions.

Versailles, the Louvre, Chanel, Monet, Manet, Haute Couture arises from the same sidewalks upon which thriving piles of dog dung live.

Some of them reside in Paris’ 1st Arrondissement, home to the Louvre, the Ritz and Place de la Concorde. Money and dog poo together.

The trash and now constant stream of pedestrians ogling their phones like bar denizens at 2 am and dog dung can frustrate.

But then Paris does what only Paris can do: Reward your side-stepping-dog-dung efforts with a magnificent - and often humble - gesture. The way the sun casts a shadow across an old boulangerie, a jaw-dropping sculpture tucked into a tiny park not found on any map, a woman dancing to a flamenco guitarist in Montmartre.

A woman dances with a red cape in Montmartre. Shot with an iPhone 6 by Jay Sennett

A woman dances with a red cape in Montmartre. Shot with an iPhone 6.

The profane and the sublime together, two sides of the same thing.

An exquisite leg of duck roasted just so can only be exquisite because it’s not dog dung or trash or iPhone oglers.

Conversely trash and dog piles can only be nasty and stinking and fear-inducing because they aren’t exquisite nor refined nor symbols of wealth.

One must have the other.

I was reminded on my last trip to Paris how good and evil live within one another; and how we’ve all co-created Donald Trump. This sounds like heresy, I know.

We’ve made a blood-sport out of proving how vastly inhuman Trump is, at least as compared to us.

But we’ve all lied, blustered, bullied, engaged in degrading/unthinking/stupid behaviors against classes of people different from us, denied personal responsibility and culpability. All of it. We’ve all done all of it at some point in our lives.

These actions writ large and into the Presidency of the United States do terrify me. Yet making Trump somehow different from me, like making the dog dung into some existential travesty, solves nothing and serves no one.

A country that enshrined slavery and the disenfranchisement of women in its founding document will occasionally throw out a Trump.

It’s good to be reminded of who we are and where we came from.

If we believe we are Versailles or Manet or that exquisite leg of roasted duck, it’s good to remember we need some dung in our lives to prop us up and make us shine a little brighter.

Namaste.

· Writing

The Viewfinder

Consider the lowly viewfinder.

I often don’t. And I think my photography suffers for it.

Too often I just snap at what is in front of me and forget one very important fact about the lowly viewfinder: Through it we have the power to frame a subject in innovative or extraordinary ways. Instead we too often become focused on the subject of the photo and nothing else.

Framing is about as fundamental design principle as exists in photography. Will the subject be in the center of the picture? Lower third? Upper third?

Through the viewfinder we take the everything that confronts us and snap that something that makes a photo.

How many of us consider the edges of the viewfinder when we compose a shot? It is through the viewfinder - whether a traditional eyepiece over the lens or the screen of an iPhone - where we create a photo.

The viewfinder offers us a photo’s boundaries. But these edges need not constrict us. Rather the viewfinder’s edges offer us opportunities to see the world in novel and exciting ways.

Play with what is included or excluded by the viewfinder.

On the Move

As a photographer I am enchanted with what happens just beyond the viewfinder. If a viewfinder is a frame, what lies just beyond it? As viewers we fill in what is happening. Whether this photo works as a photo, I am not sure. I offer it as a way to push notions of the viewfinder.

Artistic implications

Amateurs include unwanted or unnecessary information in a photograph. Professionals do not. Through practice professional photographers use their viewfinder and their sense of design to exclude unwanted detail and emphasize only those pictorial components that support the subject matter.

Professionals move, using their viewfinders and their feet to shoot a subject from a variety of perspectives.

I’m training myself to do is MOVE THE VIEWFINDER!! Gosh I can’t tell you how many photos I’ve taken where I take just one photo. Different angles bring different perspectives. The several photos below are all of the same scene. In all of them I’ve moved the viewfinder.

viewfinder-3

viewfinder-4

viewfinder

· Writing

Creativity is a Marathon

Shibuya Crossing Beneath The Myth of Tomorrow

One of the challenges of living a creative life arises after the initial thrill of creating disappears.

How do we keep the work interesting to ourselves?

Because I think we can all agree we find ourselves thinking from time to time how lovely a desk job would be, right? Because the glimmer faded awhile back, maybe between shopping, marketing and cleaning. And I’m not strong like J.K. Rowling who apparently could let the housework go while she scribed the Harry Potter series.

With the thrill gone living a creative life becomes living with emotions American’s deny at every turn: frustration, boredom and loss of confidence. We are not, in the end, Americants. We’re Americans.

We deserve peak experiences every minute of the day.

Nature Calls

But a living creatively guarantees we exist in the most un-American of spaces. We find our work uninspired. It isn’t bad, but it isn’t particularly good, either. We find our work uninspiring to ourselves. We’ve been at this creative thing long enough to know that we don’t find inspiration in our work no one else will, either.

I spend most of my creative life thinking why the bonkers am I doing any of it? Trivial things become important: the correct writing instruments; the right attitude (as in I can’t push my pencil across the page unless I’m in the right frame of mind!!!!!); or even perfect weather (I know, right??).

Now I’m learning to game my little infinite feedback loop. Oh, so you can only write on the iPad? Do it on the iPad. You can only shoot with the iPhone 6 or Ricoh or only film? Then do that. You must clean the house first? Just sweep the wooden floors then get started.

Sweeping the floors seems to have become a ritual to help me when my creative discipline fails me. I recall Twyla Tharp discussing the value of rituals in her book The Creative Habit. She exercises quite early in the morning and rightfully acknowledges the difficult of doing this, even for her, a dancer by training. The ritual she devised to get her to the gym was contracting with a particular cab driver to be outside her apartment at a designated time. Once she got in the cab she knew she would work out.

I have less lofty aspirations. So I sweep or straighten up the kitchen. The ritual eases me into the work of creating. It’s like my version of the long-distance runners water break.

If I were to ever run a marathon, I think I could do it only if I could kill all my thoughts about the end. Crossing the finish line; a hot bath after it’s over; how I will feel taking off my shoes; these thoughts and the others like them would need to be gone from my mind.

I could run the marathon if my only thoughts focused on  putting one foot in front of the other, holding my upper body in the correct position and breathing.

Decline…#streetphotography #tokyo #streetphoto#streetphoto_bw #streetphotography_bw #inthemoment #urbanphotography #urban #documentaryphotography #meijijingu #meijishrine #bnw #bandw #blackandwhitephoto #shrine

Living the creative life is kind of similar, I realize now. The focus is on this article or that photograph or a new story. One word after another. One more photograph from a different perspective. Right. Left. Breathe in. Breathe out.

Welcome to creative living for the next fifty years.

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On Change and Self-Management

San Francisco • 2016…#vintagecar #vintagecars #graffiti #graffittiart #look_at_me #blackandwhite #blackandwhitephotography #blackandwhitephoto #55chevy #streetphotography #streetphoto #streetlife #streetphoto_bw #fineart_photobw

On June 30, 2016, after 12.5 years of employment at my local public university, my unit dissolved my position and set me free.

The likelihood I would have left a mind-numbingly boring job on my own seemed about nil. So the boot out the door has proven beneficial.

I had no idea how much time I spent managing the stress of boredom. My mental focus could now be on my self-directed projects, I told myself on July 1.

Except I took a little detour into photography and instagram.

Photography has been a lifelong, though periodic, hobby. Even though it was only six weeks ago or so, I can’t recall what caused me to want to pick up my iPhone and start capturing again.

But I did, and I have, something like 2500 photos, which is nothing on an iPhone. Hit that Burst button and five seconds later you’ve got 35 photos.

The other thing I did, well, I became a social media harlot. Instagram gave me likes and comments and boy did I do a lap dance, several in fact. My old lover Writing got left in the studio, waiting for my return.

Perspective…#streetphotography #france #documentaryphotography #streetphotographer #igmichigan #streetlife #documentaryphoto #streetphoto #urban #urbanshot #bnw #streetphoto_bw #inthemoment #blackandwhite #blackandwhitephoto #streetphotographers #blackandwhitephotography #bandw #people #candid #versailles #grandparc #fineartphotography #iphonography #bnwbestgram

Writing requires extreme mental diligence on my part. It doesn’t have the ease I find in photography. Photography thrills me. Writing, not so much.

Simone Biles’ coach said in an interview she realized soon after beginning their productive time together that Simone needed to have fun to continue feeling motivated. So she gave Simone fun.

I don’t really know how to make writing fun, except to try to not take myself so seriously. Even saying that doesn’t help much.

Words inspire, comfort and kill. Sure, people go ape-shit crazy over images, like Robert Mapplethorpe’s penises or cartoons of the Prophet.

But Donald Trump wouldn’t be the Republicant’s Presidential nominee if he paraded photos depicting making America great again” (like what would that be? Jim Crow? Concentration camps filled with Muslims?). Nope. Too literal.

Words give us too much wiggle room, too many opportunities for us to interpret a word according to our needs and wants. I despair being misunderstood or, worse, being boring.

All of this is to say I  don’t take much confidence from my writing, not in the way I can, and do, from my photography.

Untitled • Leadville Series (6/6) . . . #urban #streetlife #igmichigan #streetphotography #urbanshot #documentaryphotography #streetphotographer #bnw #inthemoment #streetphotographers #bandw #documentaryphoto #streetphoto_bw #blackandwhitephoto #streetphoto #blackandwhite #blackandwhitephotography #colorado #people #candid #fineartphotography #iphonography #streetart #people #leadville

When I don’t feel confident I put things aside, which results in the worst possible solution: Not writing makes me feel shitty, which in turn deters any interest in writing.

This blahblahblah cycle of write-avoid-write feels ancient and familiar.

Photography, though, has somehow reinvigorated my writing. I imagine my words next to my images and that seems fun.

I’ll try that one for now. Because I must keep creating. You must keep creating. Good day. Bad day. Every day.

Yours in the work,

Jay

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Wanted: Intuition

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Today I plead with each you to follow your intuition. The voice that wakes you at 1:00 am and urges to write an important character sketch; or the urge to return to a just photographed spot and explore further.

On my bike ride home I had a flash of inspiration about some street art I had just shot. Oh! I could shoot it from this angle.”

You can do it another time, add it to your never ending list of things to shoot.”

Then: “What the heck? Why don’t you go back? Ms. H. isn’t waiting for you at home. You have no other obligations. Go! Isn’t this time about pursuing your creative life no matter what?!? Go. Right. Now.”

So I did and found the lovely moment above.  Inspiration is like a renewable resource, but with a hitch. If I don’t renew it when it tells me to then it becomes nonrenewable.

Once delayed it becomes harder to access and less inspiring when it does arrive.

Right now I am writing this to you all as I prepare for a trip to Denver. I could have waited until my return, yes. But why wait?

Once this story is out, Inspiration will have another for me. But for that to happen I must renew it every day.

So must you.

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This One Trick is at the Heart of Writing

In her book, Imaginative Writing, Janet Burroway states, There is a simple trick at the heart of imaginative writing.”

Read the following statement, she asks us: Not everything that appears to be valuable is actually valuable.” We generally understand it. But if the sentence were to be rewritten as All that glistens is not gold,” then, she writes, You literally see’ what I mean.’”

If we use words that evoke our senses - things that can be seen, heard, touched, smelled and tasted - then we can create a world our reader can enter. Consider this passage from A Movable Feast by Ernest Hemingway:

They say the seeds of what we will do are in all of us, but it always seemed to me that those who make jokes in life the seeds are covered with better soil and with a higher grade of manure.”

Would we find an affinity with Hemingway’s statement if it were written in more abstract language? Within each of lies dormant our future selves, a self that will do better in life if one adopts a healthy sense of humor.” Probably not.

Artists other than writers know they create in the realm of the senses. Musicians create in and with sound, the dancer in movement, the painter in light and color, the sculptor in tactile materials. Writers create with words, which in and of themselves are abstractions.

We must endeavor to remove abstract language from our prose, whether it is fiction or nonfiction (but especially if it is nonfiction). Abstract language works well in legal briefs and business proceedings but not novels or short stories.

For those of us driven to write fiction, we want to thrust out into the world the stories that obsess us, in part because I think we are driven to observe and explain human natures. We best do this through using images. Nonfiction will also become more memorable and appealing through the skillful use of images.

Images are a series of words (or a word) that evokes in us two ore more senses. Again Burroway, An image appeals to the senses. This is the foundation of all imaginative writing.”

To write images successfully we must use our senses and our mind. We must know when our language becomes bogged down in abstractions. Burroway offers more than several examples.

A thought without an image:

It is best to consider consequences before proceeding.

An image that describes the same thought:

Look before you leap.

A thought without an image:

The situation is being manipulated by peripheral interests.

An image that describes the same thought:

Wag the dog.

This may all seem overly simple. I know, however, I must remain vigilant to creeping abstractions in my writing. And I know even with twenty years and thousands of words written in my past, I never tire of being reminded of the keystone importance of images in writing.

I’ll close with a Toni Morrison quote from her Nobel Prize speech:

For our sake and yours forget your name in the street; tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light. Don’t tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief’s wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear’s caul.”

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Verb Tense and Writing Fiction

black and white photo of Jean Rhys

Verb tense is a very important tool in the writer’s toolbox. Will you write in the present simple and continuous? The past simple? Both?

Verb tense offers us the unlikely ability to time travel. This becomes particularly important when we explore shifting mental and emotional states of our characters. How authors depict human consciousness fascinates me. As a student of my own mind, I never tire of writers willing to explore this aspect of humanity.

Describing shifting mental states and movement through past and present can be challenging for writers. We must remain vigilant to the need to direct our reader’s attention to the right place (here) at the right time (now/yesterday/tomorrow).

(We need not worry after these details all the time. Sometimes we tell a story using straight past simple. And that’s okay. Really. Not everything need be intricate. Just as it’s fun to read a straight ahead simple romance, it’s also fun to write one. We need that sometimes, so go for it. But I also think it is invaluable for us to push our own comfort zones and use tools we’ve not used before.)

But what do we do when we the right place is in the past and the right time is the present? Why might we want to pursue this strategy as a writer?

Jean Rhys’ Good Morning, Midnight uses verb tenses to signal when Sasha Jensen’s fragile emotional and mental state. Sasha has been rescued by a friend from her room in London where she had been drinking herself to death and sent to Paris.

The City of Light overflows with memories. Indeed the novel begins with her Parisian room querying her:

Quite like old times,’ the room says. Yes? No?’

That the street outside the room ends in a flight of stairs, what they call an impasse,” signals to us Sasha’s emotional and spiritual state and also tells us there will be no happy ending here.

Rhys’ hops through past and present tense with precision. Some of Sasha’s experiences of people’s hypocrisy and cruelty happen in the past, even though the framing story is told in the present. An interaction with a woman at a bar shortly after her return to Paris leads Sasha to beginning sobbing, which causes the woman to scold her.

Rhys uses the past tense here, which seems natural. We know that Sasha Rhys’ conveys this by having Sasha describe the crying incident as That was last night.”

But Rhys wants to blur distinctions between nightmare and reality. How she does this is quite something, I think.

In a brilliant passage, in which Sasha describes a past job, she tells us about this past incident in the present tense. The past is living thing in Sasha, as it is for us. We relive with Sasha the cruel treatment from her manager.

Rhys initially frames the story in the past tense.

…it was a long white-and-gold room with a dark polished floor. Sasha begins her memory/story with a description of the beautiful woman’s dress atelier where she worked for three weeks. Her job was to greet customers and convey them to the next floor. It was dreary.” Management forbade her from reading. I would feel as if I were drugged, sitting there, watching those damned dolls, thinking what a success they would have made of their lives if they had been women.”

(An aside: What a brilliant image, class and gender expectations given to us in such an exquisite manner -dolls versus women.)

Sasha continues to describe a particular day at work in which the London-based managing director visited the Paris shop. She relates her thought process, again in the past tense:

what’s he like? Oh, he’s the real English type. Very nice, very, very chic, the real English type, le businessman….I thought: Oh, my God, I know now what these people mean when they say the real English type,’

and here comes Rhys performing her brilliance as we shift from the past memory to a current action/memory/story that we are all (re)living:

…He arrives. Bowler-hat, majestic trousers, oh-my-God expression, ha-ha eyes - I know him at once. He comes up the steps with Salvation behind him, looking very worried. (Salvatini is the boss of our shop).”

And so we are off. Sasha’s descent is harrowing and Rhys’ writing absolutely brilliant. We as readers become ensnared in Sasha’s teetering madness, in large part because Rhys knows when to use the past and present tenses.

Jean Rhys for my money is a more interesting writer than Virginia Woolf. Rhys hailed from Dominica, and her mother was Creole. Her arrival to London’s high society taught her quickly about upper-crust British racism and classism and sexism. Unlike Woolf, who seemed unable to gain any distance between the world and her class standing, Rhys described upper-class cruelty with a keen, brutal eye.

Her most famous book is Wide Sargasso Sea, a prequel to Bronte’s Jane Eyre” told from the perspective of Mrs. Rochester, the madwoman locked in Rochester’s attic so fascinating and frightening to Jane. Antoinette Cosway, a white Creole woman from Jamaica, is betrothed and married to an unnamed English husband. As their marriage progresses the unnamed husband renames her Bertha, declares her mad, confines her to the locked attic room, where she does indeed go mad.

If you haven’t read Wide Sargasso Sea, please add it to your rotation as well as Good Morning, Midnight. Rhys needed, in the words of Diana Athill, her longtime editor at André Deutsch Limited, a nanny. Athill goes on to say in the video below that despite Rhys thorough inability to care for herself, Rhys was someone worth saving. I agree with Ms. Athill. Rhys’ writing was that important.

(This video contains a super BONUS discussion from Ms. Athill about the differences between working with nonfiction and fiction writers.)

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One Cool Trick to Shift Points of View

A man’s hands are on the handlebars of a bicycle. as we look down the street from his point-of-view

photo by Will White

Shifting between different points of view requires skill. This is something of a truism in writing. There are many who try and fail. The ones who succeed make it seem like they are writing out a laundry list. Their work appears effortless. Today I want to make a case for adding Chester Himes to that small group of writing who can and do shift successfully from one point of view to another.

Chester Himes wrote a series of noir fiction novels in the 1950s and 60s. Set in Harlem Coffin Ed Jones and Gravedigger Johnson work as detectives for the New York City police department. Mordant and fatalistic Chester Himes described a world shot through with racism and classicism that neither Dashiell Hammett nor Raymond Chandler seemed to notice.

Recently I read Himes’ lesser known, All Shot Up (public library). In it Himes offers us a skillful shift from third-person close to third-person omniscient.

Himes creates a kind opening wide shot with a description of the bitter cold and then settles on a medium shot of the man he names joker” at work, a man stealing tires from a car on Convent Avenue. He needs two tires and has managed to remove one.

He had the inside wheel jacked up on the slanting street, making the car tilt dangerously. But he was unconcerned. He worked swiftly, without light.”

A passing car halts his efforts, a Cadillac that looks as though it’s made of solid gold. The joker sees the passengers as a result of the illuminated dash panel. What he sees disturbs him.

The joker’s heart gave a lurch. There was something shockingly familiar about the face. But it was impossible for his own true Sassafras to be riding about in a brand-new Caddy with two strange men at this hour of the night.”

The joker then witnesses the Cadillac hit an old lady crossing the street, or so he thinks. Within moments she is up on all fours, laughing. Just when he and we think she is safe, a black Buick carrying three uniformed police officers hits her square in the bum and sends her to her doom.

Himes continues on with the use of third-person close. The joker becomes disoriented from what he has just observed. The first car wheel he removed brings him back to reality and off he goes, rolling the wheel in front of him.

Now here is where Himes shows us a nifty trick for moving from third-person close to third-person omniscient from within the scene. He doesn’t tell us, he shows us. And he shows us using the motion of the tire.

The Joker flees the scene of the murder with his single tire in front of him. He pushes it away from what has just happened but loses control of the tire as he descends down a hill. The wheel takes a huge bounce in the direction of two police officers. Here our narrator must leave, as he doesn’t want to tangle with the police.

From this point to the end of the chapter, Himes moves to third-person omniscient and uses the wheel as the point of action to weave his descriptions.

The wheel kept on down the street and knocked the legs out from underneath the two cops, knocked down a lady coming from the supermarket with a bag full of groceries, swerved out into the street, passed through the traffic oaf 125th Street without touching a thing, bounced over the sidewalk and crashed through the street-level door of a tenement facing the start of Convent Avenue. A heavy-set, middle-aged man wearing a felt skull cap, old mended sweater, corduroy pants and felt slippers, was emerging from the back apartment when the wheel crashed into the back wall of the hallway. He gave it a look, then did a double take. He looked about quickly, and, seeing no one, grabbed it, ducked back into his apartment and locked the door. It wasn’t every day manna fell from heaven.”

From this point Himes moves into third-person omniscient. Masterful, simply masterful.

I probably would have just started the next chapter in third-person omniscient because I’m no Chester Himes. Thankfully he is a fantastic teacher, and this opening shift from third-person close to third-person omniscient is now a permanent instrument in my writing tool box.

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These 3 Words Will Improve Your Writing Guaranteed

Todd VanDerWeff makes a brilliant case for why most writing fails. We too often use and then” as the connective tissue in a story.

Riffing off of Tony Zhou’s video essay F for Fake (1973) - How to Structure a Video Essay, VanDerWeff describes the three words that structure all great narrative fiction and nonfiction stories: but, therefore and meanwhile.

Here’s how each of these words works in storytelling.

But: This introduces the idea of opposition. The hero has done something, but the villain has done something to oppose it.

Therefore: This introduces the idea of progression. The hero has done something, and therefore the world adjusts to her actions (usually with some new struggle the hero must overcome).

Meanwhile: This introduces the idea of parallelism, of two things happening at the same time, so we can always cut to something else. The hero is saving the world. Meanwhile, her friend is off dealing with the fallout.

These aren’t just good words for fiction writers; they’re good concepts for all writers to keep in mind.

Zhou learned this from Orson Welles’ F for Fake, which Zhou describes as his bible. Please watch the Zhou’s video above and read the full article here. Fantastic, absolutely fantastic.

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Writing Exercise, or Journalism

Several typewriters in a row on a long table.

From the 3:00 AM Epiphany

(More exercises here.)

Journalism. Write part of a story in the form of journal entries. Everything that happens in the story will most likely happen between the entries. Make sure your readers can see the events offstage, but also present your journalist’s blind spots - she will not present the whole story, just parts of it. Your journal writer may not even understand the significance of the events until a few entries later - if ever. Keep all the entries close together in time (within a week or two). This exercise will challenge those writers who think there is no limit to realism: Make sure that the journal writer is still telling a story - showing as often as telling, revealing things about herself. In other words, you have to work just as hard in this exercise to choose the words of the narrator.

February 1

Such an asshole. I can’t believe he keeps asking me to do things that he says are related to my job. No. They. Are. Not. My job is a lot of things but it isn’t the things he says. Or maybe the things he wants.

What does he want? Who knows. I mean really, who can chart the asshole’s trajectory? I can’t. At least not his anyway. And it’s not like I even want to.

On a different note, I’ve been eyeing a new tie at Neiman’s. Tom Ford. Kind of James Bondish in Quantum of Solace. I know I shouldn’t get it. But I do think I deserve it. I’m working with the asshole constantly, after all, having to do his job and mine.

If I make two minimum payments this month, and don’t eat it out for the next thirty days, I think I can do it.

February 3

God he asked me again to do some shit that isn’t related to my job. And then he had the temerity to ask me, well what do you think your job is?” and I said, Not that!”

Doesn’t he know that everyone at work is laughing at him? That he is the joke of the department? He seems to think he can do whatever he wants because he’s sleeping with the Director.

Now. That is just heresay. But they do oggle one another in meetings. So there must be some merit to the rumor, right?

And he is so lazy. What does he do all day? I mean I’m already working on the 53,000 other things he’s given me to do, which, I want to point out, he should be doing since these are manager’s tasks I’m doing, and what does he do?

Go for coffee. A lot. Who takes orders from a barista? If anything, I should be giving him orders.

February 3

He just sent me an email telling me I’m to meet with him and the Director tomorrow. Good. I will be more than happy to tell the Director his precious little boyfriend protege doesn’t do a fucking thing all day except go for coffee.

I’m writing this at the mall. I’ve got that new Tom Ford tie in a box in a bag next to me and a coffee and a sandwich from the little shop next to Nordstrom. I didn’t eat lunch today and I didn’t go home after work. I stayed late at work.

I’m going to wear it to the meeting tomorrow, in my grey flannel suit. The asshole will probably be wearing some shit rayon/polyester/wool number he got from the Men’s Wearhouse on sale. With a matching tie/pocket square combo. God how can a gay  man be such a shitty dresser? I mean the whole thing defies logic. A lazy asshole and a shitty dresser.

February 3

I just have to say I look sharp in my new Tom Ford tie and my grey flannel suit. I tried it on before getting ready for bed.

The asshole will be suitably (haha such a good pun) impressed, I’m sure. Especially with his shitty suit and those fucking square toed shoes he keeps buying. Doesn’t he know the oughts are naught? God sometimes I impress even myself.

I know I could have bought the tie on ebay. But I hate waiting and sometimes those ebayers don’t ship stuff when they say they do. And I’ve been working hard and I really deserve this tie. So I bought it. And I didn’t buy lunch out today, either.

February 5

I’ve been so fucking pissed it’s still hard for me to write even now. I just got off the phone with my lawyer. He told me I need to sit down and write out exactly what happened at the meeting yesterday to the best of my recollection. I also need to print out any emails pertinent to my case. But I don’t know if I can because I don’t have access to that work email address anymore.

He was absolutely shocked when I told him they fired me. He kind of paused and said something, and I said, Excuse me and then he said Okay and told me I need to write everything down.

Well, here it is: I got fired because my now old boss is a fucking transphobic asshole.

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On Proper Word Choice

Dumbledore1 Learning to write is learning to make a series of choices. Which point of view, tense, genre and other decisions are ones we must make as we write fiction and nonfiction. The fundamental building block of writing is the word.  A simple thing. Yet commit to a weak or lazy word and do it enough times and muddled, awkward and ambiguous writing results. I’m editing a piece rejected by several journals. Each clunky word choice leaps out at me. My palm hits my face, repeatedly.  “Why did I ever choose that word? What was I thinking?” Apparently I wasn’t. Which is why I chose poorly. Maybe I didn’t choose at all. As I reread this particular piece I sense I felt rushed, or worse, I neglected to care.

§ § § § § § § § § §

In Starting From Scratch Rita Mae Brown taught me the syntactic differences within English that arise from our two parent languages, Anglo-Saxon and Latin. The earthiness our language derives from the Anglo-Saxon while the action-oriented focus derives from Latin. Brown provides us with a partial list of our two language sources. Reading it I understood for the first time why in English we say both woman and female. A woman is a lot of things a female is not. Yet each word describes something similar. Or does it? Choose carefully. S. I. Hayakawa wrote a beautiful manual of words. For years a Senator from Hawaii he started his career as a linguist (and also a journalist for the Chicago Defender.) His book Choose the Right Word defines, compares, and contrasts words of similar but not identical meaning—such as infer” and imply.” Choose carefully.

§ § § § § § § § § §

Hannah Louise Posten’s Modern Love” article How a Kitten Erased my Partner’s Depression recounts the salutary influence a kitten had on her boyfriend Joe, a man she loves dearly who suffers from sometimes debilitating depression. Of first encounter between the kitten and Joe, she writes:

But then I saw her sly green eyes holding his handsome sad ones, and it seemed as if there were fireworks and unicorns leaping, the aurora borealis descending between them. When the kitten tried to vogue, swoon and crab-leap sideways all at once, consequently tripping over her paws, I think Joe’s eyeballs may have rolled back into his head to reveal two glittery pink hearts pasted onto his sockets in lieu of pupils. The next morning when we woke up, the first words out of Joe’s mouth were, Where’s the kitten?” And the kitten’s first act, when she heard his voice, was to ice-pick her way up the quilt and jump on his face.

Vogue, swoon and crab-leap sideways all at once; ice-picked. If you’ve spent any time with a kitten, you know Posten chose well when she used vogue, swoon, crab-leap and ice-pick to describe the kitten’s actions. Learning to write - and getting better at it - depends in part on your ability to choose the right word and use it at the right time. Choose carefully.

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We, The Narrators - Buddha in the Attic

A man’s hands are on the handlebars of a bicycle. as we look down the street from his point-of-view photo by Will White Julie Otsuka’s Buddha in the Attic tells the story of Japanese picture brides. Women emigrated from Japan to America in the early 20th century to marry men they had seen only in pictures. Hence the term picture brides. Otsuka could have chosen a more traditional first- person- singular or third-person-close point of view in which to tell this story. She instead chose an unusual, novel and, in my opinion, quite successful point of view: first-person plural. Instead of I she gives us We. What Otsuka achieves is spectacular. Buddha in the Attic reads like a non-fiction history book where the facts (“X percent of picture brides came from the Tokyo area. All experienced racism in some form….”) become characters. The historical fact and movement of the picture brides in their plurality become a kind of singular protagonist. This is a book that each must read alone, I think. It’s that kind of experience. Saying Oh, it’s about all the things the picture brides experienced” does little justice to the profound insights I encountered in the pages of Buddha in the Attic. It’s as if I became a picture bride myself yet also did not.

§ § § § § § § §

Otsuka’s epigraph describes her goal for her book. It is taken from Ecclesiasticus 44:8-9:

There be of them, that have left a name behind them, that their praises might be reported. And some there be, which have no memorial; who are perished, as though they had never been; and are become as though they had never been born; and their children after them.

Buddha in the Attic serves as both an explication and memorial for the picture brides. But this isn’t a typical history of picture brides told thorough the story of the Akiko Tanaka or some variant. No. This story is about the thousands of women who left Japan for America. An individual’s story would lose so many of the complex, factual details of the brides’ experiences. So Otsuka deftly keeps the focus on the group.

Some of us were from Tokyo, and had seen everything, and spoke beautiful Japanese, and did not mix much with any of the others. Many more of us were from Kagoshima and spoke in a thick southern dialect that those of us from Tokyo pretended we could not understand. Some of us were from Hokkaido, where it was snowy and cold, and would dream of that white landscape for years. Some of us were from Hiroshima, which would later explode, and were lucky to be on the boat at all though of course we did not know that then.

§ § § § § § § §

This sentence blew my mind. Many more of us were from Kagoshima and spoke in a thick southern dialect that those of us from Tokyo pretended we could not understand.” As I read it, my mind suspended the first-person plural. What I thought was those women from Tokyo pretended they could not understand.” This subtle shift provided the traditional protagonist/antagonist found in fiction writing (and even non-fiction writing). I guess I needed a protagonist. But Otsuka wants something far grander for us, which I think of as the fictionalized portrayal of a group experience. So as I read Buddha in the Attic, I felt involved intimately with a group of women without names or faces. This sounds strange even as I write it out, which is why you must read this book to understand Otsuka’s accomplishment. We talk about the ability of fiction to enliven history. Otsuka accomplishes this and so much more. In a manner both direct and surreptitious, Otsuka makes us both a participant and an observer of this particular historical moment. The first-person plural provided the point of view needed to accomplish this feat.

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