Writing “White”

WHAT’S PLAYING: Aloe BlaccI Need a Dollar

I spoke to one of my cousins a couple of days ago, and she mentioned that she found my blog on Google and read a couple of posts.

“Oh yeah?” I said, trying to sound casual. “What did you think?”

She was quiet for a long moment and then, “You sound White.”

Now, this is kind of a sore spot for me because I grew up hearing the same thing from Black relatives. To be fair, my cousin isn’t the only one who has made this observation. No fewer than three people have said the exact same thing to me in the past two weeks, and my response is always the same.

“What the hell does ‘White’ sound like?”

Their response is always the same: a shrug and a sheepish grin. “I don’t know. You just don’t sound Black.”

That’s helpful.

I learned to speak English in school. I don’t use slang very often, not even in casual conversation. I don’t have a Southern accent, and the only inflection to be found in my voice is sarcasm. I couldn’t even begin to tell you what “Black” sounds like.

 

I speak six languages, people. Ebonics is not one of them, and I don’t intend to learn. I don’t know how to be anything other than what I am: a multicultural woman who loves to write.

If that’s not enough for you, that’s your problem. Not mine.

Social Media 101 – Facing up to Facebook

WHAT’S PLAYING: Alicia KeysTry Sleeping With a Broken Heart

I joined Facebook a while ago, and I’m still not sure if it was the right move. I am a loner after all. Why go looking for more people to “friend” when I can barely manage the friends I have? I’ve been told that FB is a good place to reconnect with old friends from high school and college. This might be true, but if they were really my friends, then I wouldn’t have lost touch with them in the first place. (Some of you are probably shaking your head at me, but you know it’s true.)

I have serious reservations about social media and how it changes people. I’m “friends” with a few of my younger relatives, and they are completely different online. It’s as if they go from intelligent, well-spoken young people to profane idiots who couldn’t conjugate a verb to save their lives with just a click of a mouse. (You know who you are. Now stop it.) Then there’s the oversharing. (FYI: I don’t want to know what you had for breakfast this morning, or how wasted you got last night. And I really don’t want to see pictures.) The good news is that both issues are easily solved. All I have to do is click a button.

Another good thing is, since I’m not obsessed with making new friends or reconnecting with old ones, FB doesn’t take up too much of my time. I check it maybe once or twice a week at most, and I’ve only posted twice in the last six months.

The problem with FB is that it’s turned me into a bit of a stalker. Not a creepy, rabbit boiling, love-me-or-die stalker. I use it to keep track of what my friends and family are up to and how their lives are going. Which would be fine if I didn’t suck so much at actually checking in with them in real life. Sometimes I go months without talking to them. FB provides me with the unique opportunity to keep abreast of what’s going on my loved ones lives without actually having to speak with them. It’s a loner’s dream. All the important info with none of the messy contact.

Sometimes I wonder if this is healthy. Is it OK to allow a social network to maintain personal connections I should be forming myself? After all, the point of this blog, of all my forays into social media, was to connect with other people. Is it cheating to just sit back and watch my loved ones’ lives unfold on the computer screen without actually joining in?

Truth is, when it comes to connecting with people, I’m crap. I forget birthdays. (Unless FB reminds me.) I have no pictures of my friends or family. (Except for those I’ve downloaded from  FB.) And I couldn’t tell you how old my nieces and nephews are. (No wait, they’re on FB too.)

 Huh.

 Now all I have to do is find an app to take my place at family dinners.

No Pictures Please

WHAT’S PLAYING:  Bruno Mars “Liquor Store Blues”

I hate having my picture taken. If I had to choose between posing for a camera and putting out an oil rig fire with my tongue, I’d be on the next plane to Kuwait.

 

Lately, it’s gotten worse. Now that everyone has a camera/video phone, I’ve gone from antisocial to downright paranoid. I don’t like parties, but on the rare occasions I attend one, I’m jumpier than a bunny rabbit on speed. I’m a basket case, keeping constant watch for a cell phone pointed in my direction, twisting and turning in ways that would make a contortionist proud, all to avoid having my picture snapped.

Why I hate being in photos is a mystery. Even to me. Whenever I decline to participate in group photographs, my friends sigh in exasperation and point out that I used to be a model. True. But I hated it even then. In fact, the only reason I got into modeling was so that someone not related to me would tell me I was pretty.

Earlier this week, I got some bad news from my Social Media 101 teacher. Apparently, people relate best to people they can see, which meant I needed a photo for my blog, website and social media profiles.

 

(Gulp.)

I calmly explained to my teacher that I don’t like having my photo taken. I’d rather people concentrate on my words rather than my face.

He didn’t budge.

I tried a different tack. My hair looks weird on film. I have acne and braces and I don’t even wear makeup.

Nothing.

As I got more desperate, so did my excuses. My eyes are sensitive to light. Cameras give me hives! Scurvy! Rickets!

His reply? Get over it.

So, that’s how I wound up spending five hours changing clothes, rearranging my hair, posing, and later, combing through photographs until I found one that wasn’t too bad, but still looked like me.

 

(You can check out the full size one on the About Page.)

I have to admit that — while it sucked — it wasn’t the torturous, crawl-over-broken-glass-while-gargling-sulfuric-acid, experience I thought it would be.

But if I come down with rickets, my teacher is in serious trouble.

 

 

Writing Under the Influence

WHAT’S PLAYING: Glee Cast “Rumour Has It/Someone Like You”

My boss played a cruel trick on me yesterday morning.

Monday night, I went out with some friends to celebrate the completion of my first draft. I rarely drink, but when I do, it’s usually to excess. The liquor was flowing freely all night long, and I didn’t get home until 4 AM. Two and a half hours later, I got a call from my boss, demanding to know where I was and why I wasn’t at work.  

 

“What day is it?”

“It’s Wednesday,” he replied.

“I thought it was Tuesday,” I said, fumbling for my phone to check the date.

“No, it’s Wednesday. You were supposed to be here an hour ago.”

By this time, I was about ready to cry. Sure that I had lost an entire day to a drunken stupor, I started babbling and apologizing. (Give me a break. It was 6:30 in the morning, and I was still half in the bag.)

After letting me stew for a couple more minutes, my boss finally admitted that he was kidding and asked if I could work that day. I calmly explained that I wasn’t fit for duty, called him a dickhead, and slammed down the phone.

Everyone in the Chemistry Department thought it was hilarious.

I didn’t.

My job has a zero tolerance drug policy for obvious reasons, but I can have a drink every now and then as long as it’s not within five hours of having to report to work. Still, I try to keep my alcohol consumption to a minimum.

More than anything, I hate losing control. Not much in this world falls under my purview, but I can keep a tight rein on my behavior. If I’m going to screw something up, I want it to be because I screwed up. Not because I was too wasted to know what I was doing.

 

I know a lot of writers – some of them very successful – abuse alcohol and drugs. I know many people drink to deal with pain. Life hasn’t been exactly kind to me either, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that there isn’t enough tequila on the planet to make my pain go away. Day inevitably follows night and I’m left bearing the same burden…plus a headache. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not judging. I just have to do what works for me, and that means keeping my head.

Many elements in writing – character arcs, pacing, prose, etc. – require precise and delicate handling. How can I control all that if I can’t even control myself?

Doubtless part of this discomfort stems from my Type A personality, but I think it’s more than that. Chemistry and writing both require a certain amount of cerebral dexterity, and without them, I wouldn’t be able to support myself. I’m not very athletic. I can’t sing or act or dance worth a damn. I’m too shy to try stand up comedy. Let’s face it, being smart is pretty much all I have going for me.

That and a dickhead for a boss.

Who Talks Like That? Using Idioms in Dialogue

WHAT’S PLAYING: Dido “My Life”

Yesterday, a representative from the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) stopped me for a chat. She asked me how I liked being in the Chemistry department.

My answer? “Getting on like a necrophiliac in a morgue.”

Unfortunately, one of the plant managers happened to be passing at that moment.

He stopped and stared at me. “Wait. What?”

“Um, never mind,” I mumbled. “I like my job very much. Thank you for asking.”

The two of them chuckled and continued on their way.

I will be the first to admit that my language can be a little…colorful. It all comes from being raised in the South, where idioms dating back to the seventeenth century are still used in every day conversations.

I hadn’t set out to learn them. English is a hard enough language without having half a dozen expressions for a single concept. (Seriously, it’s ridiculous. And homonyms. Don’t even get me started on homonyms.) It wasn’t easy, but I finally managed to get a handle on the English language, only to move up North and find that I had to learn it all over again.

First, there was the rapid fire speech pattern. Compared to the slow Southern drawl I was used to, it was like being peppered with bullets. On top of that, they kept using words I had never heard before: ayuh, jimmies, and leaf peepers.

Worse still were the stares I got when I answered. Since I learned English in school instead of absorbing it from my family, I don’t have a heavy Southern accent. Or any accent, really. But I do use Southern expressions like “well, shut my mouth” and “bless your heart”, along with a couple of less recognizable idioms such as “how the cow ate the cabbage” and “ugly enough to knock a buzzard off a gut truck”.

Finally, one of my friends threw up his hands in exasperation and said, “I give up. Who talks like that?”

Short answer? I do. And about a dozen other people. (I’m sure there are many more. I just don’t know them. See “loner”.) Not all the time, usually when I’m upset or nervous. Like when a NRC rep stops me in the hall to ask about my job.

Truth is, even without the drawl or accent, my speech patterns mark me as a Southerner. Every word that comes out of my mouth says something about who I am, how I’m feeling and how I perceive myself and the world around me. I’m sure reading this blog has told you a lot about me, more than I’d probably be comfortable with if I really took the time to think about it. It’s a roadmap through my thoughts. (And if you’re still on this journey with me, bless your heart.)

The same should hold true in writing, whether fiction or nonfiction. The dialogue should feel real, but not too real. Get to the good stuff. Idle chit-chat is just filler unless it has a purpose, or subtext, or serves as a contrast to another, more interesting event. Something.

Let’s say I write a scene featuring two men sitting in a parked car. Man A looks up at the sky and says it looks like rain. B agrees and says that it’s been unseasonably warm for November. A nods and wonders if there’s something to all this talk of global warming. Boring.

Now, let’s take those same two men and have them hold the same conversation. Only this time, they’re waiting outside the apartment of a man they’ve been sent to kill. All this talk of rain and global warming occurs while checking weapons, pulling on gloves and glancing at the backseat to make sure they have enough plastic in which to wrap the body.

Now, we got something. A bit rough, perhaps, but you get the point. It’s not about what they’re saying, but what we’re hearing. Just like in real life.

So, give your characters dialogue that means something and keep your readers happy.

Like necrophiliacs in a morgue.

Picking up a Book and Blowing up the Porch

WHAT’S PLAYING: Evanescence “Call Me When You’re Sober

I have two great loves in my life: chemistry and the written word, though the path by which I came to them was a rocky one.

When I was ten, my uncle gave me an old chemistry set, and with my first successful experiment, I was hooked. I spent my days lost in a world of “what-ifs.”

As you might imagine, my passion for chemistry came with a laundry list of issues. Like the time my brother distracted me while I was cooking up a smoke bomb. It took hours to air out the kitchen.

Then there was the incident with a batch of super-charged homemade gunpowder. (I was trying to make my own fireworks and wound up almost losing the porch and my eyebrows at the same time.)

And then there was the time I decided to make a homemade stink bomb. Nothing too difficult. Just cut the heads off some matches and stick them in a bottle along with some ammonia. Give it a swirl and then leave it for 3-4 days. A perfect tool with which to prank my older siblings.

That is, of course unless a certain person who shall remain nameless decided to alter the recipe for maximum stench, and then forgot about it, leaving the bottle in a kitchen cupboard for two weeks during one of the hottest summers on record. And if that nameless (and blameless) child’s stepmother happened upon said bottle, gave it a little shake, and then opened it…. You get the picture. I was grounded for a month and the kitchen was uninhabitable for almost as long.

It was then, that my family embarked on what became known as “Operation: Distract Jacqui”. They knew that reading was the only thing that could compete with chemistry in my mind, and so every time they saw me walking around the house with a glazed look in my eyes that signified my wandering off into “what if” territory, they would immediately suggest I read something. Anything. As long as it didn’t involve chemistry.

It was incredible. Suddenly, I didn’t have to beg for trips to the library any more. If I wanted a book, it was mine. My father would call ahead and reserve a stack of books so I wouldn’t have a chance to browse through the science section of the library. Holidays were particularly stressful.

“But you don’t understand,” he would say, his voice rising in desperation. “If we don’t get my daughter some books for the weekend, she’s going to try to blow up the porch! Again!”

I’m lucky. I get to do what I love and get paid for it. I still wander around in a world of “what ifs,” only this time I’m wondering what would happen if I put an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation. What will they do? How will they react? Will they emerge a stronger, better person? Or will they abase themselves or lose their humanity? What if?

What about you? What led you here? What dreams have you decided to pursue? Writing? Music? Art? How have your childhood fantasies come true?

How Being a Bad Liar Made Me a Better Writer

WHAT’S PLAYING: Paramore “The Only Exception

I am a bad liar. Very bad. Horribly, comically, painfully bad. I sweat. I stammer. And my eyes dart around like neurotic chipmunks on meth. Forget about the rules of morality my parents tried to instill in me. I’m honest because I have no other choice.

But that kind of honesty comes with a hefty price tag. I don’t just suck at verbal untruths; I can’t even lie by omission. I can’t control my face. While the rest of my family has mastered the whole “stone-faced Indian” thing, I couldn’t hide my feelings to safe my life. Not only is my face an open book, it has pictures, diagrams, even Braille. And the worst part is that I can’t tell when I’m doing it. It’s as if someone else is controlling my expressions and I have absolutely no input.

I think it comes from spending so much time alone.

About ten years ago, my very pregnant sister-in-law was asked to act as matron of honor for her best friend’s wedding. And she, in turn, asked me to go with her to the fitting.

Even as a self-absorbed teenager, I was no fool. I knew what was coming. So, I spent some time practicing my expressions in the mirror. I posed, postured, and perfected my “stone” face.

When the day came and the inevitable question – “Do I look fat in this?” – came with it, I was ready.

“No-o.”

My sister-in-law took one look at my face, burst into tears, and then locked herself inside the fitting room. All of her friends took turns trying to coax her out. When they weren’t glaring daggers at me, that is.

All the time I kept saying, “But I practiced!”

Finally, after two hours, we had to call my brother to come and coax his wife out of the dressing room.

I wish I could go back to that day and answer the question my sister-in-law should have asked. The one, in fact, she had been asking all along, but I was too young and too stupid to know it. Truth is, she was lovely. Between the glow of pregnancy and the simple joy that radiated from her in waves, she was luminous. Yes. If I could go back in time, I would ignore the question she had asked and answer the one she’d meant to. (Of course, it’s a moot point now. Ten years and ten kids later, she’s still a size zero. Seriously, her ass looks better than my face.)

I learned a lesson that day that has served me well ever since, and had made me a much better writer.

That was the day I learned to look deeper. To answer only the questions that should be answered and ignore the rest. Readers (especially pregnant ones) don’t really need to know all the details, just the ones that matter. The ones that show more than just what’s on the surface.

What about you? How much detail is enough for you? Not just in writing, but in everything. Are you one of those people who ignore the surface to find what lies beneath? Or would you rather deal with each layer one at a time? How do you fashion your worlds, your lives? When you walk through your neighborhoods, what are the details that jump out at you? Follow you home and haunt your dreams? Is the laughter of the children in the park? Or the scent of your neighbor’s garden? Or is the sight of freshly manicured lawns? What are the details that move you?