TO LAY TO REST OUR GHOSTS explores haunted family relationships with empathy and grace

To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts: Stories

By Caitlin Hamilton Summie

Fomite Press: Aug. 8, 2017

201 pages, $15.00


I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. We are in the Golden Age of Short Stories. More story collections are being published now than ever, and the quality is unsurpassed. In general, major publishers don’t love story collections because they don’t sell as well as novels. They’ll use them to introduce a new writer they’ve signed, because he/she will come to them with a backlog of stories which can be released while the writer works on their debut novel (which is what the publisher really wants). It’s a good way to get new talent under contract while they develop (like signing a young baseball player and assigning him to the minor leagues for a year or two). On the occasions when a new writer comes to a publisher with a novel that is worthy of publication, the publisher will use a short story collection as a gap filler to buy time for the writer to work on their second novel.

But, in most cases today, a short story collection is likely to be published by a small, independent publisher or university press. As a result, they fly below the radar and rely on reviews and word of mouth to reach potential readers. That is where blogs and social media can play a key role in helping writers and readers connect.

The latest example of a stellar short story collection from a small press is Caitlin Hamilton Summie’s To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts, a ten-story, 200-page book that deserves your attention. As the title suggests, Summie’s characters are at crossroads of various kinds; they are struggling for emotional independence, attempting to resolve long-standing conflicts (usually familial), and trying to make sense of a complex and confusing world. These are quiet, intimate stories driven by character more than plot, yet they are compelling in both their dramatic tension and often unsettling (but not unsettled) resolution.

Set mostly in rural and urban Minnesota, with detours to and New York City, these stories are probing examinations of the seemingly small, mundane moments that reverberate through our lives. Life-changing decisions or events do not always arrive in the form of violent confrontations or shocking accidents. Sometimes it’s as simple as looking at old family photo albums (as in “Patchwork”) or failing to show up at your grandfather’s deathbed because you just can’t bear it (as in “Geographies of the Heart”).

The opening story, “Tags,” takes place in WWII-era Kansas City, where young Dolores bides her time playing marbles with her friend Jimmy and fighting with her teenage brother Larry while she waits for her father to return home from the war. Jimmy learns that his father has been killed in the war but at least he has his father’s dog tags. The situation will be more complicated for Dolores. Summie sensitively depicts what it was like growing up during the war, when the world was nearly incomprehensible to a young girl.

“Growing Up Cold” finds John returning home to Minnesota from Japan following the death of his sister, Lonnie. The renewal of a long-simmering conflict between John and his older brother James adds to the tension in a family that is now down to three men, his mother having died several years earlier. John has lost his mother, his sister, and, in a sense, his brother. But he has his own way of grieving, which his father and brother find mystifying. The story’s potent ending creates a sort of peace, or at least a truce.

“Brothers” treads similarly fraught sibling territory. A car accident has left 28-year-old George in a wheelchair. He has abandoned graduate school and his girlfriend in Minneapolis and moved to the family cabin in the woods of Wisconsin, thinking a quiet life of furniture making will suit him best now. But his younger brother Ephraim wants him to return to the Twin Cities, to be near him and his parents and close to top-notch medical care. Ephraim’s visit to the cabin brings matters to a head.

“Patchwork,” “Geographies of the Heart,” and “Taking Root” feature the same characters. In “Patchwork,” recently unemployed Sarah MacMillan decides to write the family history, but she encounters resistance from her grandmother, Catherine, who insists that her sister Cecily be left out of the story. That only spurs Sarah on to investigate what Cecily had done to be the subject of such longstanding scorn. Her determination to write about Cecily, while maintaining her relationship with Catherine — and what she learns about not just Cecily, but the whole family — forges a hard-earned respect between the two women.

In “Geographies of the Heart,” Sarah’s grandfather is dying; she is his constant companion, while her sister Glennie, an OB-GYN, is physically and emotionally absent, to Sarah’s constant frustration and disappointment. Eventually, the sisters struggle to reach each other across the resulting chasm.

In “Taking Root,” which concludes the MacMillan trilogy and closes the collection, we catch up with Sarah, who is now married to Al, a religion professor, and the mother of Amelia. They’ve recently suffered a miscarriage, which has left them grieving in different ways. Sarah and Amelia decide to take a road trip, and Al is soon caught up in the labor and delivery of his neighbors, Howard and Norda, which stirs up the recently settled sediment of his emotions. The cavalry arrives in the form of Glennie, now one of the best OB-GYNs in Minneapolis. And Al manages to keep his head above water, where he can see the sunlight.

To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts can sound depressing in the description, but Summie’s empathy for her characters’ humanity is so strong, and her prose so lovely, that a palpable warmth emanates from the stories despite their physically frigid settings. I look forward to the publication of her first novel; the trilogy in this collection suggests that she will be equally accomplished with the longer form.

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Ronna Wineberg: “Nine Facts” About Writing a Collection of Stories

ronna-wineberg-photo-nine-facts-cover

Now that my new collection of stories, Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life (Serving House Books), has been published, I’ve begun to think more about the process of writing—what writing means to readers, what it means to me. I’ve thought about the difference between writing a story and building a collection of stories, and what happens when a book is launched into the world.

A collection is a different entity from a single story. Putting together a book is like creating an issue of a literary magazine. The writer has to consider the individual stories and the composition of the book as a whole.

For my new book, I pulled together disparate pieces of my work and had to arrange the stories in a logical order that made it seem as if the stories were inextricably connected.

I was faced with choices and decisions.  Doubt crept into my thinking. Could I really create a collection of stories that would work and coalesce? I had written lots of stories, more than could fit into one book.  I piled them on my desk and read them, added stories to the manuscript, took out others.  Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life has had a different title, a different epigraph. The selection of stories changed over time and so did the order. When I wrote a story I considered strong, I removed a weaker one from the manuscript.

The book includes two pieces that weren’t part of the manuscript I submitted to Serving House Books.  And as I was preparing the pages for galleys, I decided to add “Bare Essentials.”  I’d removed the story earlier, but the piece tugged at me.

As I read the stories in the collection, I learned that the unconscious has a will of its own.  I was surprised to find I’d repeated similar images, even the same names and words in stories.  I wasn’t aware of the repetition when I wrote the pieces, but it was there, on the pages.  I’d used the word “foolish” too many times, and described buildings as “red brick.”  I had to find replacements.

I didn’t include some of my favorite stories in the book. They either didn’t reflect the book’s themes or touched on ideas explored in other pieces. Parting with these stories was hard, like leaving a dear friend whose company I cherished.

My collection went through many lives.  It was in flux.


A friend recently described a woman, saying, “She lived alone.” She meant that the woman had lived alone as a child. Not literally. The woman had lived inside of herself as a child; she wasn’t heard by her parents.

I found this observation chilling: A child with thoughts and emotions whirling and no place to put them, no receptacle, no possibility of discussion or sharing.  We’ve all had that feeling at one time or another, of not being heard, and felt the tension between what we wanted from parents and what they gave us.

I thought of my childhood and the times when I had experienced living alone even though I was with family or friends.  What are the ways we can be heard?  Some people talk a lot, perhaps trying to compensate for what they didn’t receive as a child. Some retreat into silence, a familiar stance.  And, perhaps, others become writers.  Is that why we write—so our thoughts, voice, and vision can be heard?

The irony is: there’s no guarantee of an audience, even if a story is published in a literary journal.  “There’s no echo,” a writer friend once said.  The story may have a relationship with the reader, one the writer will never know about.


A few years ago I went to a poetry reading. The writer, who was famous, read aloud his poems. They were perfect.  I knew him in high school; he was a football star then. At the reading, he talked about poetry like a man in love.  “I couldn’t find a container for what I felt,” he said, “until I tried to write a poem.”


Some of the stories in Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life had been published in literary journals.  I revised them again for the book.  I’d considered them finished, but realized they needed work. The editor suggested changes, too.  I saw the stories with fresh eyes and altered scenes and images.  I had never been happy with the ending of one. The story seemed to stop; I wrote a new ending.

I labor over a story, examining descriptions, words, images, and character development, and try to make a piece work, even sing, if I’m lucky. This is challenging, sometimes punishing labor.  Even when I’m not writing, a story pours through my mind.  Often the key to a piece comes to me when I’m not at my desk.

Sometimes I never find the key.

I’ve thought about a story in the middle of the night, fallen asleep, and awakened to find the thoughts lost. What seemed essential in the night was obliterated in the morning.

Had I really finished the published stories or just abandoned them?


When I decided I wanted to write, I took classes at the University of Denver in the graduate school creative writing program. I was in my thirties, older than other students—the mother of two children, and then three. I was allowed to attend classes without being enrolled in the program. The professors met with students individually during office hours.  At my appointment with one professor, he said, “What are your goals for writing? What do you want?” He had gray hair and a wrinkled smile.  He was in his fifties or sixties.  He had been writing for a long time.

I thought for a moment.  I wanted to write eloquently like the authors of books I had read and admired did.  I wanted to write a story that worked. To see if I had it in me. And there were stories I felt an urgency to tell. I told him this and also said, “I want to learn to master the form.”

“Don’t you want to write the great American novel and be on the cover of TIME magazine?” he asked.

I imagined he was joking, but realized he was serious. Was this what he had once wanted for himself?

“No,” I said.

What he had suggested seemed to cheapen writing, as if TIME magazine was the arbiter of literary taste.  I was surprised by the question, though I shouldn’t have been.  He was talking about fame, recognition, celebrity.  He knew how difficult literary fame is to achieve and how brightly seductive it is.  He knew a writer had to be realistic: to write, you have to sit in a chair alone in a room and put in the time.  This isn’t glamorous like a splashy photo on the cover of a magazine.  He knew about years of rejection, the small victories of publishing stories in literary journals.

When I left his office I felt confused. Should his suggestion be my goal?

No.  I wanted to write without trying to fit my work into a category.  I wanted to say what I wished without shaping it for a purpose or audience.

I should have told him what T.S. Eliot wrote: “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”

I didn’t know at the time I spoke to the professor that I would have my own version of the TIME magazine fantasy.  I wanted to have a book published by a large New York publishing company, with its resources and possibilities for promotion.

This didn’t happen.  And for a while I was disappointed.  Writer friends told me not to be discouraged; rejection was part of the process, part of the business of writing. They were right.  I collected rejections from literary journals, agents, big publishers, small presses, contests.

Each story of mine that appeared in a literary journal felt like a gift. I began to understand the thrill of these victories.

And I’m grateful that three terrific independent presses published my books and took great care with them, nurturing the work.


After a book is launched, many things occur.  My gratitude.  Reviews.  Or lack of reviews.  Readers’ reactions.  Not only the readers’ judgments about whether a book is worthwhile, their positive and negative comments, but also their sense of what the author has borrowed from life and put onto the pages.  Did that really happen? a reader may wonder.  A writer consciously or unconsciously may borrow elements from his or her own life.  My daughter calls this “the crumbs of your life.”

Readers may see something in the work that wasn’t intended. There is the possibility of misunderstanding.  In my novel, On Bittersweet Place, a scene unfolds in which an uncle inappropriately touches the narrator, Lena.  I made this up.  The incident seemed to describe the uncle’s character and was a burden Lena had to carry through the book.  However, my cousin read the novel and told me that an uncle by marriage had done something similar to her. She was surprised I knew about this. Though that was my cousin’s sense of things, I hadn’t known about her upsetting encounter with our uncle and was shocked to learn about it.  

While I was writing On Bittersweet Place, I read aloud the Prologue to my mother.  Her family had fled from Russia after World War I.  In the book, Lena’s family also fled then. “But that’s not the way it happened,” my mother said after she listened to the Prologue. She frowned, and corrected the facts.

“That’s okay, Mom.  It doesn’t have to be true,” I said.  “This is fiction. It’s a novel.”


A character in “Bare Essentials,” one of the stories in Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life, quotes the sculptor Henry Moore.  His words apply to writing, too. “The secret of life is to have a task,” Moore says, “something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for your whole life. And the most important thing is—it must be something you cannot possibly do.”


When my children were young, writing temporarily whisked me away from the worries, joys, and responsibilities that come with raising a family.  My children are grown; I miss the immediacy of being a mother.  Now writing takes me away from daily obligations and the startling sense that time is passing, more quickly every year, it seems.


I’ve learned that, for me, the process of writing is pleasurable as well as difficult and challenging, but it is the pleasure that I love.  Diving into the unknown.  I didn’t understand this at the time I talked to the gray-haired professor or I would have told him this.

When I’m concentrating on writing, in that special mental space, immersed in the flow of writing, I’m not thinking about real life or having a book published or being reviewed or whether a reader will like my work or not.  I’m not thinking about TIME magazine or misunderstandings or the labor of writing—the decisions, doubt, and revisions—or the crumbs of my life. I am in love with the process, hard as it is at times, in love with what I do in a room alone: putting one word after another on paper or on the computer. Revising those words. I love the joy of creating something new.

When I write, I feel most myself, and not like myself at all. If the work is going smoothly—and even when it’s difficult—I am a happy contradiction. I am ageless. I am young; I am old. I am living many lives. I am the age of whatever characters I am writing about. My characters are my companions.  I carry their baggage, fears, and happiness, their emotions.  I’m wandering in the great green expanse of my imagination, trying to capture feelings and descriptions, images, characters, and scenes before they fly away and disappear.


Ronna Wineberg is the author of a novel, On Bittersweet Place (Relegation Books, 2014), and two collections of short fiction: Second Language (New Rivers Press, 2005), which won the New Rivers Press Many Voices Project Literary Competition and was the runner-up for the 2006 Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction, and Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life, which was published earlier this year by Serving House Books.  Her stories have appeared in such places as American Way, Confrontation, Colorado Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and South Dakota Review, and have also been broadcast on National Public Radio.

Wineberg is the recipient of a fellowship in fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the John Atherton scholarship in fiction from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and residencies to the Ragdale Foundation and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.  She is the founding fiction editor of the Bellevue Literary Review. Her essays have appeared in Ethics in Criminal Justice, River Oak Review, Steam Ticket, The Tennessean, and Writers on the Job.  Please visit her at: http://www.ronnawineberg.com

MY LIFE AS A MERMAID: STORIES explores the lives of women in deep, stormy waters

My Life as a Mermaid

My Life as a Mermaid: Stories

By Jen Grow

Dzanc Books: June 9, 2015

$14.95, 136 pages

It has been a good year so far for short story collections. Rebecca Makkai’s Music for Wartime, Liz Prato’s Baby’s On Fire, and Nina McConigley’s Cowboys and East Indians (just republished for wider distribution) are particular favorites.

But the one that took me by surprise was Jen Grow’s My Life as a Mermaid, perhaps because I was unfamiliar with Grow before Dzanc Books sent me a copy of her book. The title and cover art piqued my interest, as did the fact that Grow had won the Dzanc Books Short Story Competition in 2012. And it turns out that honor was justified because Grow is a writer worth reading.

My Life as a Mermaid introduces us to a range of characters who are, like us, trying to make their way in a complex and confusing world. In a sense, the water image of the title and cover design reflect the human struggle to function in the water in which we swim. Like fish, we often aren’t even aware of the nature of our environment; it’s as invisible as the air we breathe. It also suggests the evolutionary pull that water has on humans, drawing us back to the beginning, security, and contentment.

In these twelve tightly wound and tightly written tales, Grow inhabits a range of characters. The opening title story explores the relationship of two sisters, one a discontented mother and housewife and the other a relief worker in Honduras. The former envies the latter her sense of adventure, fearlessness in the face of actual and existential risk, and her ability to avoid the traps of gender roles that inhibit her potential.

The narrator’s dilemma is clearly presented in these lines. “I fuss over my children in the same distracted, heartsick way while I count the tiny pairs of socks that come out of the dryer. I fold their miniature clothes into piles. Some days I feel like Gulliver, every part of me tied down by Lilliputians, as if, somehow, it is me and not my sister who has wandered into a strange land. The land of marriage, motherhood, and matching socks. It’s not what I expected. How did I choose this, wandering the grocery store with my squeaky cart?” A few paragraphs later, she tells us, “I’m envious. I would run away; I would like to be the kind of person who could run away.”

“Joe Blow,” one of this collection’s standouts, drops us down into the part of town we usually take pains to avoid, and provides a close-up of gentrification’s effects on a rough neighborhood, but one with a distinct character — and many distinct characters. Larry and Roger live in an abandoned pickup truck parked on the street. When Joe moves into the neighborhood, conflict ensues when he begins to renovate his house and clean up the street. The climax occurs when he calls the police to tow away the truck.

“What Girls Leave Behind” is a heartbreaker of a story about a mother who has lost custody of her daughters. In a bittersweet first-person narrative, Grow reveals that the mother is lost as well and that there might well be good reason for her daughters to be with their father. But she is always recognizably human.

The must-read story in My Life as a Mermaid is “Still at War,” one of the best pieces I’ve read about the effects of the Iraq War on those who serve. When Douglas returns home after a stay at Walter Reed Army Hospital, he is not the same man. “I stared at him for a moment and saw someone I didn’t like, a version of a man I might not have married. It was like suddenly realizing one day that you accidentally tied yourself to a stranger, maybe a tobacco-chewing hayseed who was as angry as he was skinny.”

When a man from their church comes over to interview Douglas about his experiences for a human interest piece he is writing for the church newsletter, we see clearly the contradictory nature of those effects. Douglas has lost a leg and is reeling emotionally, unable to sleep without nightmares, watching TV and drinking beer all day. But he puts on a brave face for the interviewer and says with enthusiasm that he’d go back in a second. Is he deluded? As the conversation progresses, Douglas becomes more philosophical and has some powerful words for his interviewer, and his wife.

“I Get There Late” introduces us to a female agent provocateur who imposes upon a married couples she hasn’t seen in years and then proceeds to make all kinds of passive-aggressive trouble. Of course, the most intriguing aspect of the story is figuring out what motivates the protagonist.

“Fixed” is another highlight of this strong collection. A young woman attends a hipster party in a warehouse loft in an attempt to cope with her grief over the loss of her boyfriend to a heroin overdose. It is a perfectly structured, poignant investigation of heartbreak, disorientation, and the yearning to belong.

“Small Deaths” is a gut punch of a story about a woman caring for her dying mother. The narrator’s reaction to her mother’s death is realistically surreal, for we often respond to death in what may appear to be strange ways.

“OK, Goodbye” closes My Life as a Mermaid in appropriate fashion, considering the collection’s themes. Grow has imagined several scenarios in which a woman attempts to leave her husband, but something always goes amiss — until she encounters a self-possessed young woman who inspires her to reclaim her younger self and move ahead without looking back.

Grow’s stories are crisply told, trimmed of unnecessary digressions and prolix prose. The result is a series of probing and memorable character studies of people doing their best to swim rather than drown in the deep and often stormy waters of their lives.

THE OTHER LANGUAGE examines the effects of culture, place and language

The Other Language_Marciano  The Other Language paperback

The Other Language: Stories

Francesca Marciano

Vintage Contemporaries: Feb. 3, 2015

304 pages, $15.95

The Other Language was one of the best short story collections published in 2014. It will be published in softcover on Feb. 3, giving readers a second chance to discover its manifold pleasures. Francesca Marciano is not yet well known to the American reading public (despite three previous novels), but Language has created something of a buzz. (Perhaps Italian writers are catching on after the success of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan trilogy.)

In this collection, Marciano tells the stories of characters who find themselves on unfamiliar turf, literally and figuratively. Most involve people who have traveled to exotic locales (a Greek island in the title story, Tanzania in “Big Island, Small Island,” “An Indian Soiree”), moved from a city to a village (“The Presence of Men,” set in far southern Italy and “The Club,” which is set in Mombasa and coastal Kenya), or who live amidst a different dominant culture (“The Italian System” and “Quantum Theory”). All are disoriented by language or culture, leading them to stray from their normal behavior.

The standouts are the longest stories here: “The Other Language,” “The Presence of Men,” and “An Indian Soiree,” which are 49, 54, and 33 pages, respectively. In the title story, twelve-year-old Rome resident Emma travels to a Greek island for a vacation with her father and two younger siblings following the death of her mother. There she encounters two slightly older English brothers, with whom she is fascinated because they speak that “other language.” That “language” is both English and their seeming worldliness. Obsessed, she finds ways to hang around with them at their Greek vacation home, on the beach, and anywhere else she can. “She didn’t know what she was getting away from,” observes the narrator, “but the other language was the boat she fled on.”

Marciano, who learned English as a teenager and lived in New York City in her 20s and Kenya for 10 years after that, told William Grimes of the New York Times last spring, “You discover not just words but new things about yourself when you learn a language. I am a different person because I fell in love with English. I cannot revert. I cannot undo this. I am stuck.”

“The Presence of Men” follows a divorcee from Rome as she renovates an old house in a tiny southern Italy village. Of course, she takes several missteps, alienating the locals, but the interest is in watching her develop a relationship with the village matriarch Mina, a seamstress. The plot thickens when her brother Leo, a film agent, comes to visit with his movie start client, Ben Jackson, and they befriend Mina.

In “An Indian Soiree,” a married couple who have grown tired of each other take a trip to India. They love each other, but the life has gone out of their relationship and they seem not to know how to rekindle it.

We learn the husband admires some of his wife’s traits, yet it is no longer enough. “He loved her–that went without saying–but they’d been together for almost sixteen years and it was normal to find her tiresome at times. He had to admit it was lovely, the way she found so many things interesting and worth being investigated; it was a sign of her vitality, and he cherished that.”

A handful of pages later we get the wife’s point of view. “They had been three weeks on the road by now and she’d begun to feel how tiresome it was to travel with someone who never seemed to enjoy himself. As usual, she had to do all the work, like a puppeteer moving all the characters across the stage, or a ventriloquist doing all the voices, in order to keep the audience entertained. Sometimes it became too demanding.

Their stay in India has a powerful impact on them and their marriage. The couple, who remain unnamed, are intoxicated by the change of scenery. The wife has gone native in an awkwardly touristy way; when she has an intense dream about a former lover, she believes it’s a message and decides to contact him via Skype. The husband becomes infatuated with a famous Indian dancer who appears to return his interest.

Ironically, the best description of this scenario is found in “The Presence of Men,” when Lara considers love and lust. “Love was a drug, a rave. People got high on it and within half an hour were capable of doing anything in its name. No place was too far to reach, no phone number too expensive to call, no decision faster to make.”

Not surprisingly, they soon commit themselves to courses of action that can’t easily be undone.

The simplest pleasure in this collection is “The Italian System,” the shortest story on offer. The unnamed protagonist is a young woman from Rome who has been living in New York City for seven years. “Ever since she’d arrived in the city she’d tried very hard to become an American, but it had proved hard to blend in. It wasn’t just the accent or mispronunciation of difficult words that singled her out, it was a question of attitude. Of posture, even.” She feels hopelessly foreign. “She, even after all these years, still felt self-conscious, afraid of making a faux pas. She came to feel this was the inherent condition of anybody unmoored from the familiar, and living in a place that is home to others.”

She decides she needs a new project to energize her life. She hits upon the idea of writing a book about being Italian, specifically what makes Italians so…well, Italian, and so popular with non-Italians. She will call her book The Italian System.

Marciano is unsparing in her depictions of these characters’ foibles, but she also shows us their essential humanity. She also writes with a strong sense of place, one that is often palpable, especially when, as in my case, you are reading her stories in January. But what stands out most in these stories is Marciano’s clean, elegant prose. Even the less impressive stories in this collection are a pleasure to read, as you sail along on her controlled and well-crafted sentences.

As much as I enjoyed these stories, I have a few quibbles with The Other Language. Although all the characters are Italian, they didn’t come across as distinctly Italian. I often found myself thinking they were British or just generically “European.” Marciano lives in Rome, but she spent many years living in the U.S. and the U.K., which may explain why her characters feel more like citizens of the world than idiosyncratically Italian. Also, a few of the stories in The Other Language may leave readers perplexed with their inconclusive endings. Marciano’s stories can be deceptively subtle, and she doesn’t rely on pat endings that tie up all the strands.

Still, I am glad to have “discovered” Francesca Marciano, and I intend to make time to read her previous work and whatever she publishes next. You should, too.

Karin Lin-Greenberg, 2014 winner of Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, on Patience and Publishing

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Karin Lin-Greenberg in classroom  Faulty Predictions

Karin Lin-Greenberg has made a splash on the literary scene with her debut story collection, Faulty Predictions. As one of two winners of the 2014 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction (along with Monica McFawn), Lin-Greenberg received a publishing deal with University of Georgia Press, which sponsors the award, for the collection of stories she submitted for the contest. Reading Faulty Predictions, one sees very quickly why Lin-Greenberg was selected for the award: she has command of the story form, great empathy for her quirky and very human characters, and a droll sense of humor that adds an inspired light touch to her tales of family conflict, identity, and coping with a rapidly changing world. I expect to hear much more from Karin Lin-Greenberg after this stellar debut. (My review, posted on September 26, is here.)

In this essay, written for Read Her Like an Open Book, Lin-Greenberg considers the need for patience and persistence in publishing in light of our increasingly impatient culture.

I: Patience, a History

Much of my childhood seemed to be about waiting. I owned a book called Free Stuff for Kids, and on each page there was information about something—a bumper sticker, a button, a poster—that kids could send away for and get for free in the mail. Corporations usually sponsored these free things, and the free items advertised their products. I didn’t mind the advertisements. I just thought it was fun to write a letter requesting a free button and then, six to eight weeks later, find a button declaring I loved a certain brand of cereal in a padded envelope in my mailbox.

There was a book that was extremely popular in my elementary school’s library, D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, and everyone in my third grade class would wait for weeks for their turn to check it out. The library had two copies, the spines on each book reinforced with tape, the edges of the pages rounded from so many readings.

Speaking of the library, there was a section labeled “For Sixth Graders Only,” which contained books with “mature” topics. We would have to wait until our elementary school educations were nearly over before we could even touch those books. Each time I entered or exited the library, I stared at those shelves, thinking of how much longer it would be before I was allowed to read the books. Some of the books I remember residing there were Forever by Judy Blume and The Long Secret (the sequel to Harriet the Spy), and my friends and I spent a lot of time whispering about what might be in those books. (Incidentally, I must say that those gods and goddesses from the Greek myths I was reading in third grade were up to more trouble than most of the characters in the “For Sixth Graders Only” books.)

During junior high, one of my parents would drive me to the Hollywood Video store up the street from our house on some weekend evenings. I’d always go right to the shelf of new release VHS tapes, and more often than not, the movie I wanted was checked out. So I would walk through the comedy section, pick an older movie to watch, and come back the next week and hope the video I wanted was on the shelf. Sometimes it would take a month before the video I wanted was actually available.

I could go on and on about what I waited for during my childhood, but I’ll just give one more example. For my birthday one year, I got a rock tumbler. I plugged it into an outlet in the bathroom and let it run continuously for six weeks. Sometimes I would go into the bathroom and watch the barrel rotate, listen to the rocks clank as they fell to the bottom of the tumbler. Every week or two I’d stop the machine, wash the rocks off, and pour in a finer grade of abrasive grit. The rocks got smoother and smoother, until, during the last week, I poured polishing grit into the tumbler with the rocks, and finally, what emerged six weeks after I started were rocks that were shiny and beautiful.

II: Patience, Revisited

And now? Well, if you want a video, you can likely stream it. If you want a book that’s checked out of the library, you can download it to a device. If you want to know what’s so scandalous about a book you’re not supposed to read, you can Google a synopsis. I am willfully refusing to look up rock tumblers. I don’t want to know that there’s some special chemical that can now polish rocks overnight. I hope there’s not. I hope there are still things that people have to wait for.

III: Waiting

When I began to submit work to literary journals when I was in my mid-twenties, I was unfazed about the long wait times between my submissions and the responses I’d get from editors. After all, I’d been the kid who was delighted when, after waiting for two months, I got a bumper sticker in the mail with the logo of an orange juice company printed on it. I don’t like getting my stories rejected, but I do like getting responses to work I’ve sent out in the world. I have now been submitting work to journals for twelve years, and I’ve gotten used to the slow influx of rejections, some of them coming six, seven, eight months after I’ve submitted. I don’t feel impatient waiting for them; it’s just part of how things work. And once in a while there’s an acceptance, which is certainly something worth waiting for.

Last semester, I talked to the students in my Writing Short Fiction class about submitting work to literary journals. I showed them a packet I’d put together of rejections I’d gotten over the years. Then I pulled up my Submittable account on the screen at the front of the classroom to show them how electronic submissions to journals work. I pointed at the dates when I’d submitted my stories and said that for some of them I’d been waiting almost a year to hear back.

“If you wait for a long time, are they more likely to say yes?” asked one student.

“Not necessarily,” I said. “Sometimes it just takes that long for them to get through the work that’s been submitted.”

“But now you have a book coming out,” said another student, “so that means that these submissions listed up on the screen, they’ll all get accepted, right?”

“Oh,” I said, “no. Not at all. I still get rejected all the time.”

My students looked surprised. Or sort of surprised, but mostly sad. I imagined they were thinking how strange and unfair publishing was. Not only do people get rejected regularly, but you have to wait a long time to get this news. How terrible.

IV: The Kids Are Not Alright

Several weeks ago I accompanied two student editors of my college’s literary journal to a conference for editors of undergraduate literary journals. For two days, I was in a room full of ambitious young people who cared deeply about reading and writing and wanted to edit the best literary journals they could. One student editor, a freshman at an Ivy League university, gave a presentation about the pressure of publishing. She talked about attending a prestigious summer writing workshop for high school students when she was sixteen. One evening a few of the students were sitting on the lawn outside a building on campus where a famous literary journal was edited. The other students—all of them still in high school—were competitively comparing where they’d been published. They were boasting about their contest wins. The young woman felt miserable and dejected because she hadn’t been published yet. She felt so far behind her peers. When she returned home from the workshop, she started entering contests and didn’t win. She felt like a failure.

Oh my god, I thought. I wanted to leap up on top of a table and scream that someone who’s sixteen has all the time in the world. They don’t need to worry about getting published. They don’t need to stress out about contests. Sure, enter contests if you want, but don’t kick yourself if you don’t win. It’s a cliché, but you win some, you lose some. That’s how life works.

But I also understand that it’s not how life works for some kids. Some kids have only known success. And, hey, that’s great, but if you want to be a writer, you’ve got to get pretty familiar with rejection. Even if your work is good, you will inevitably get turned down at some point. While I listened to this young woman speak, I realized that the current epidemic of impatience wasn’t just confined to people not wanting to wait for individual rejections. It also involved people thinking that if they didn’t publish—and maybe if they didn’t get a book contract—before they were out of their teens, they had failed at being a writer.

The Internet has made us impatient by bringing instant gratification to our daily lives, and I think it’s also caused problems with making people too informed about some things. When I was in high school, I didn’t know what literary journals were. I didn’t even know what they were in college. The first time I encountered one was in graduate school, where there were a couple Glimmer Trains on a table in the graduate English office. I picked up one of the journals while I was waiting to register for a class, and then it clicked that stories are published in journals before they are republished in story collections and the yearly best-of anthologies that I was familiar with. So, okay, I was exceptionally naïve about publishing for a long time, but I think knowing too much can cause trouble. Because of the Internet, young people today know all about journals and contests and submitting work. They know who else their age is getting published. Publishing can become competitive, a race. And it’s not a race. Sometimes it takes a long time before work is ready. I’d be pretty embarrassed if the stories I wrote when I was sixteen were available for anyone to read on the Internet. When I was sixteen, I loved writing, but I still had an incredible amount to learn, and I’m so glad I didn’t feel pressure to publish. I’m grateful I had many years in which to write and learn and explore and grow, and I didn’t have to worry about proving myself with publication. I’m glad I didn’t even think about publication throughout high school and college. This is not to say that someone who is sixteen shouldn’t be published. I’m just saying it’s not a race, and there’s no banner at the finish line that says, “If you are old enough to vote and don’t have a book out yet, you’re a loser.”

V: But How Can I Get Published?

Many of my students have asked me how my life has changed since my book was published. “Not much,” I tell them, and they always look disappointed. “I mean,” I say, “it’s a good thing to have work out in the world. But it’s not like winning an Oscar. It’s not like overnight my life has completely changed.”

But here’s one thing that has changed: people have been asking me how they can get published. No one asked me this before my book came out. And, well, I don’t have a secret formula. I submitted, I waited, I revised. I kept working. I took old stories out of the collection and replaced them with new ones each year. I submitted individual stories to journals and the collection to contests. I entered dozens of contests for seven years.

People have come up to me after I’ve done readings and asked for my advice about publishing. I’ve had adults do this, and I’ve had college students do it. I ask if they are taking classes and what they’ve been writing. Most of the time, people aren’t writing much but they have fantasies of being a writer. One man had a penname picked out already. One student—a biology major—said he’d never actually written a story before, but he thought it would be really cool to get some fiction published.

I try to be encouraging and direct people to resources like The Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market and Poets & Writers magazine. If they are students, I encourage them to take writing classes. (I’ve also been told, however, “I don’t have time to take writing classes, but that’s okay because I already know how to write.”) As I’ve talked to more people who want to be published, this is what I’ve learned: a lot of people want to be published, but they don’t want to put in the work to get published. They don’t want to be patient, to work on their craft for years, and then to wait months for responses to their work. They just want to be published and they want it to happen quickly. And here’s the problem (and I apologize in advance for sounding like a curmudgeon): now anyone can be published. I’m talking Facebook, personal blogs, Twitter. These forums are great in many ways, but they also give people instant gratification. Post a photo of your cat on Facebook and within minutes you can get dozens of “likes.” Publish a piece in a print journal and you’re lucky if you even hear from one reader who enjoyed your story.

When I’m dealing with strangers who ask for publishing advice, I just stay positive, encouraging, but when I’m talking to my own students, I can be a little tougher. This is what I tell them: I think the first questions, the questions that should come before “How can I get published?” are “How can I get as good as I can possibly get as a writer?” and “How can I learn more?” I tell them not to worry too much about publishing yet; publishing is the very last step, and in some ways it’s the least important. Getting better is the most important. It’s certainly what I care about with my own writing. I think if I only cared about publishing I’d have given up by now because of all the rejections over the years. But getting better, well, that’s something I can do on my own, something I can keep working on. I can keep studying published stories and novels I admire, I can keep revising and editing my own work, keep pushing myself to do better.

VI: Tumble On

So some final words of advice about publishing: Be patient and be persistent. Keep working on your stories until they’re as strong as you can make them before you send them out. Don’t worry if you’re turning seventeen or twenty-seven or eighty-seven and you haven’t published yet. Let’s go back to the rock tumbler. Let’s turn it into a metaphor. Think of your stories as those rocks that go into the tumbler. They’re dull and dirty when they start, but give them time and steady attention and what happens? They go from rocks to gems. Don’t send your writing out until you’ve worked on it over and over again, scraping away what’s not working, polishing every sentence. Be patient, give yourself all the time you need, and don’t send your work out until it shines.

Photo at top left courtesy of Siena College.

BRIGHT SHARDS OF SOMEPLACE ELSE announces the arrival of a distinctive new fictional voice

Bright Shards of Someplace Else

Bright Shards of Someplace Else: Stories

By Monica McFawn

University of Georgia Press: Sept. 15, 2014

164 pages, $24.95

 

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Occasionally I come across a book that is more challenging than most to review. It’s not because it’s a bad book and I don’t want to write a scathing review; in those cases I just don’t bother with a review (life’s too short to be mean-spirited about a book). It’s because the work is so distinctive or pleasantly perplexing that I struggle to put my thoughts and feelings about it into words.

Monica McFawn’s debut collection is such a book. She submitted a selection of her stories to the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction contest and was named one of the two winners for 2014 (the award is given out biennially to two writers).  And there is good reason for that: although it is still early in her career, she is already writing at an impressively sophisticated level. The result is this collection (published along with Karin Lin-Greenberg’s supremely entertaining Faulty Predictions).

McFawn, who teaches writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, possesses a fiercely idiosyncratic intelligence that is revealed on nearly every page of this eleven story collection.  A few stories  (“The Slide Turned on End,” “Elegantly, In the Least Number of Steps,” “Ornament and Crime”) reminded me of the quirky hyper-modern stories of Karen Russell and Ramona Ausubel (and, to a somewhat lesser extent, of George Saunders). In these cases, McFawn provides her eccentric characters with unique challenges that make for compelling reading even as they keep the reader confused or off-balance.

“The Slide Turned on End” is a brilliant exploration and mockery of scientific and academic research pretensions in which a former biologist and DNA expert becomes convinced that abstract art appeals to us because it captures the essence of our physical selves. He soon becomes a professor of art and a cause celebre in certain circles. A journalist meets with him for an interview, in which O’Hara explains his theory, known as “micro-aestheticism. ”

“‘I realized we humans probably react to art because we must, in some subconscious way, recognize it. Even abstract art. What I’m saying is I think we can sense the tiniest part of ourselves–and our origins–the cells, platelets, and our amoeba ancestors–in these images. And I think that’s what resonates with us when we view abstract art.  We are, in a sense, recognizing the bits.'”

“O’Hara went on to compare this who’s who of abstract art to what he assured me was a who’s who of bacteria, protozoa, and cells. Here and there the resemblances truly were uncanny, but what that proved remained obscure.”

Eventually, O’Hara persuades the journalist to provide him with a drop of blood so they can examine her own “abstract art” under the microscope. This experiment requires the use of a new blood stabilizing agent called Ethiphet. Soon the journalist is experiencing O’Hara’s theory firsthand and discovering new insights into art. But matters do not progress in the way one might expect.

In McFawn’s more traditional stories, she uses her pen as a scalpel to cut to the heart of her characters’ foibles, and in doing so, she tells us much about ourselves.

In the opening story, “Out of the Mouths of Babes,” Grace, a twenty-something oddball is baby-sitting a nine-year-old boy described by his mother as “different,” “special,” and “high-maintenance.”  She is told that young Andy is not to use the phone. Grace soon learns that Andy is a highly capable negotiator; he likes calling salespeople to practice. After speaking with a termite exterminator, Grace asks him if he’d like to try clearing up a mistake on her phone bill with a call to customer service. What’s the harm? But one call leads to another as Andy straightens out Grace’s messy life. “Adult lives spread out before him like big sloppy maps that their owners could not refold.” But the evening doesn’t end quite so well.

In “Dead Horse Productions,” the owner of a boarding stable passes away, leaving her son Bill to attend to matters. Despite his mother’s mid-life discovery of a passion for horses, Bill knows or cares little about horses. He is faced with a dead horse in the middle of winter and calls upon Fran, a former riding student who had become an acolyte and employee of his charismatic mother. They engage in a tense debate regarding how to move the frozen equine from the pasture. Fran wants to use a special massage she’d learned from Bill’s mother that would relax the muscles and allow the carcass to be moved more easily; Bill suggests using the backhoe.

“She was afraid of trying the backhoe. Afraid it wouldn’t work–because if the full force of the machine bore down on the carcass and nothing happened, the floating horse would have moved into a more certain plane of paranormal. Afraid it would work–and his mother and her massage would have been bypassed, overthrown, disregarded, unneeded, unheeded–it would be, for Fran, a death of a god. No, the backhoe would not do. The dead horse was no doubt a mystery, no doubt a problem, but there were many mysteries and many problems, and if you had to forsake something to solve each one you’d have nothing left for your trouble.”

To Bill “the dead horse was a mystery, to be sure, but it was a mystery that had overstayed its welcome. There had been mysteries and inexplicable things throughout his life….One could learn to live with these mysteries, but a dead horse, in all its corporeal fact, could not be endured.”

This encounter between two people incapable of understanding each other leads to a revelation for each of them.

“Key Phrases” finds the manager of Journey’s End Memorials (“our company made videos of deceased loved ones to play at funerals or wakes”) attempting to find a way to fire an incompetent employee, with little success.

In “Line of Questioning,” a college English professor is questioned by the police regarding the nature of his relationship with a former student who has been found murdered. Here McFawn plays with the conventions of such plots and again finds something new to reveal.

“Snippet and the Rainbow Bridge” allows McFawn to demonstrate her impressive knowledge of the equestrian field. Judy and Marti own Heart’s Journey, a horse rescue ranch. Despite their successful business partnership, they have different philosophies of horse care. They retain two large animal veterinarians, Dr. Jim and Dr. Merrill, one Old School and one progressive, whose philosophies align with that of Judy and Marti, respectively. They are faced with the question of what to do about a seriously ill horse with a special talent for painting (yes, you read that right).

The story’s highlight is a brilliant depiction of how a horse’s mind operates. “To live in a horse’s body is to experience a perpetual loop of sensation, as if each nerve ending were being plucked in a pattern….Then, of course, there are the eyes, set on the side of the head. It is like being on a themed ride at an amusement park: everything to the side is thrilling and bright, but the area right in front of the car is black. Your world is peripheral. The blind spot in the center of your vision is your center, dark and certain, a void you can retreat to whenever you want.”

The collection closes with one of the strongest stories, “The Chautauqua Sessions,” in which a successful country songwriting duo, lyricist Danny and singer-guitarist Levi, reunite at a studio in the Appalachians to try to recapture the magic of their heyday. But the chemistry is altered when Danny’s son, Dee, a recovering drug addict, arrives to reconcile with his father. Levi and the ranch-studio’s manager, Lucinda, give Dee the benefit of the doubt, but Danny has seen and heard it all in his long history of coping with Dee’s addiction. Is Dee really clean and sober? Can music bring them together? Will Danny risk making himself vulnerable to more suffering in yet another attempt to save Dee? Danny’s plan to get rid of Dee so he and Levi can work results in an unexpected but entirely plausible series of events that will change everyone’s lives.

Monica McFawn’s stories are not easy reads with simple conflicts and pat resolutions. She leaves a lot to the reader to infer on the way to reaching a final impression of a story’s meaning. While some stories in Bright Shards of Someplace Else are less successful than others, McFawn is always intriguing and thought-provoking, and the quality of her prose is never an issue. This is a smart, ambitious collection of stories by a writer whose initial acclaim is certain to grow.

Author Amina Gautier on Male Verbal Privilege: “Men Don’t Say or Do That!”

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Amina Gautier

Amina Gautier is the author of At-Risk, which won the 2011 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, and the newly-published collection, Now We Will Be Happy, which won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize [see my recent review here]. She has published more than 85 stories in some of the country’s most prestigious literary journals. Her fiction has been awarded fellowships and scholarships from Breadloaf Writer’s ConferenceCallaloo Writer’s WorkshopMacDowell ColonyPrairie Center of the ArtsSewanee Writer’s Conference, and Ucross Foundation. Gautier attended Stanford University, where she earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in English Literature in four years. She then attended the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned a master’s degree and Ph.D. in English Literature. She is currently a professor of English at the University of Miami. A scholar of 19th Century American literature, Gautier’s critical work focuses on such nineteenth century American authors as Charles W. Chesnutt, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Elleanor Eldridge, Benjamin Franklin, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Walt Whitman.

 

By Amina Gautier 

Two years ago, I was invited to a public university in the Midwest to give a reading from my first short story collection At-Risk. Prior to the evening’s reading and book-signing, I was also scheduled to visit an undergraduate course in creative writing where the students had read selected stories from the collection. While visiting this class (whose members were from diverse backgrounds), one male student raised his hand to deliver a criticism of one of the short stories in the collection. Like almost half of the stories in the collection, this one was told from the point of view of a young African American boy. The story was about two brothers who were pulled apart by rumors surrounding the older brother’s sexual orientation. I do not remember what scene exactly the student objected to specifically, but his criticism was, “Boys don’t do that.” When I asked him how he knew that boys did not do or say whatever it was I’d had my male character do or say, his response was, “I’m a guy and I grew up in a household of men. I have three brothers.”

Of course I could have responded with, “Actually, I also grew up in a household of men, and in my experience I have witnessed men and boys do [whatever it was I’d had my male character do],” but I did not. I did not need to justify my writing. It is good and solid and strong and fierce and none of it is written on a whim or without careful research and observation. In any case, I had not written a story that attempted to capture and represent the experience of all boys on the planet Earth from the birth of Cain and Abel to the present day. I had written a story that represented the ways in which one particular African American boy in a particular neighborhood in Brooklyn at a particular time period with a particular family and particular family dynamic and set of circumstances came to do the thing that he did. And I succeeded.

Or I could have responded with, “We are not in the midst of an alien invasion and you have not been chosen as the sole human delegate to represent the species or take the alien to our leader. One man cannot speak for all men, just as one woman cannot speak for all women. As a man, you are joined to other men by your biological similarities. However, you are also set apart from other men by your cultural, racial, national, religious, political and sexual affiliation and by your linguistic and economic background. A rich man may not always make the same decisions or speak in the same fashion as a poor man; an illiterate man may not think in the same fashion as a literate man; a devout man might not see the world in the same fashion that an atheistic or agnostic man would. You do not and cannot speak for all men. You may be able to try and speak for the men in your household, with whom you have conferred and lived and discussed the meaning of life, but even then, you are likely to get some things wrong.”

But I did not say that either.

What I found interesting was his unwavering belief in his ability to speak for the entire male sex and correct the poor female who had gotten it “wrong.” I actually understand the impulse. There have been books I’ve read by male authors where I thought the female characters’ reactions seemed so off—so inappropriate, stereotypical, ditzy or flat to me that it led me to mentally ask What woman in her right mind would ever act that way? Or to say I don’t know any women who act like that. My sentences, however, reflect a different sort of positioning. They do not say No woman would ever do or say that. They privilege the individuality of the character’s experience over mine. No, I do not know any women who would ever do or say the things that I have read certain female characters do or say in novels, stories, plays or poems. But I do not know every woman and if in the context of the story, it is believable that that particular woman would respond that way despite my personal experience which would suggest otherwise, then that’s that (If, however, the context does not make her actions or words believable? Well, that’s a whole other thing.). There are plenty of things that I would not do and plenty of actions taken by other women that personally give me pause, but that does not lead me to deny the diversity of our experiences as women.

This is, of course, not the first time this has ever happened to me. During the process of preparing my second short story collection for publication, one of my short stories had a word changed because the word that I used was not deemed to be a word men use. In this short story, told from the point of view of a younger brother (notice a theme here? Clearly, I like writing about brothers), the two brothers get into an argument and I have my narrator say that his brother screamed at him. The editor told me that I had to change from “screamed” to “shouted,” because men don’t use the word “scream.” The editor is a man, so this is how he knows. This was news to me. Until that moment, I had been ignorant of the fact that there was not a single man on the entire planet, living or dead, who had ever used the word scream.

The two instances I describe are chauvinistic moments of verbal policing representative of the ways in which language gets gendered, where iterations of certain terms and phrases become irrevocably attributed to one sex to the exclusion of the other. This is why women who are emotional are always called “hysterical” and men are merely described as “stressed”; why women who are direct are “aggressive” while men are “assertive”; why women who initiate are “bossy” but men who do so are “leaders.” Language is policed from both the bottom and the top and women are often sandwiched in between.

Few have gone on the record to question Flaubert’s right to write Madame Bovary, Richardson’s audacity to write Clarissa or Pamela, or Henry James’s right to produce Portrait of a Lady all from the points of view of female protagonists, nor tried to police their ability to know or represent what women might do or say, yet when women authors assume a male point of view, there is a frequent backlash. In worst case scenarios, women authors are accused of male-bashing, of hating men to the point where they will deliberately and maliciously use their artwork for the sole purpose of depicting men in negative fashions. In the not so worst case scenario, women are accused of simply getting it wrong, and are seen to be in need of correction. So these women authors are either viewed as malicious or plain old stupid.

When someone says, “Men don’t say that. Or women don’t do that. Children don’t do that. Or Blacks/Latinos/Asians/Native Americans don’t do that,” and justifies it with “I know because I am one, my best friend is one, I have met one, or I have read about one,” instead of acknowledging the limitless nature of humanity and the individuality of every being, the statement erases individuality, categorizes and condenses groups by age, sex, race and other identifying factors and then shrinks individuals even further by then forcing them through the lens of one person’s experience, which is presumed to be normative. If a man utters sentences such as, “Men don’t use that word,” “Men don’t behave in that fashion,” and “A guy would never say that,” he is privileging his own experience as male and as a man, reading it as normative, and conflating an individual experience with a collective one. He is basically saying, “I am a guy and I feel this way. Because I am a guy who feels this way, this feeling must be natural and normal to all guys (in all parts of the world, regardless of education, race, age, citizenship, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, political affiliation, socioeconomic background.) Thus all guys must feel the way I feel. Therefore, because I feel this way, guys feel this way.” When broken down into its implicit parts, it becomes easier to hear how smug, utterly ridiculous, incredibly stupid and reductive such a statement actually is. The statement is not only arrogant, ignorant, and marginalizing, but it is Procrustean. Instead of Procrustes stretching or severing the limbs of unsuspecting travelers in order to force the travelers to fit the dimensions of his iron bed, the utterer of this statement stretches or severs the experiences of everyone else to fit the confines of his world or experiences.

Growing up in a household of men among multiple brothers does not mean that you know masculinity or what men think, say and do. It does not make you an expert. It means that you know what masculinity looks like in your household under the particular set of circumstances in which you and your brothers grew up. Someone who grew up with more or fewer brothers under different religious, economic, social, political, national, ethnic, and racial circumstances will experience a different version of masculinity than you. Both versions will be valid. Your experience gives you access to a community of shared and overlapping experiences; it does not give you a license to authenticate, validate, approve, judge or exclude.

To say that men don’t do or say a certain thing or to say “I don’t know any men who do or say this” and to imply through that statement that men don’t do or say a certain thing asserts either that only experiences which come into your purview are valid or that you are an expert in all things and know everything, so if there is something that you don’t know, it is clearly not worth knowing. There are certainly, on this planet, men who do or say whatever certain thing you just said they do not do or say. Perhaps you need to get out more.

In a world where people have at one time or another legally deemed others to be 3/5 of a person, sanctioned forms of mass extinction of particular ethnic groups, sold men and women into slavery, dropped atomic bombs, sold women and children off for sex trafficking, locked their children in cages, microwaved them in ovens, left them locked in hot cars, attempted to have sex with infants, placed children in overhead bins on airplanes, and dismembered and eaten the bodies of others, I cannot comfortably utter the words “Men don’t do… Women don’t do… People don’t do…” with any sense of authority.

Quite frankly, I can’t think of a single thing I can say that people don’t do.

And that scares me.