I have rarely been in as deep an angry funk as I am today. I might have been able to shrug it off if I hadn't found some old, old, old evidence a couple days ago.
I'm not a nice person. I'm told this over and over and over, both by people who profess to care about me and by people who proudly declare their dislike of me. I'm smart and educated and arrogant and I can't stand stupid people, especially those who are too stupid to know they're stupid. My inability to be nice is what got me booted from Goodreads, and I never fought that ban because I've always felt it was justified. They wanted people to promote the books Amazon was selling, even if the reviews were suspect, and I was calling out the shitty books and the shady reviews. Okay, fine.
I'm not a nice person. I get that. I live with it.
And I try not to gloat too much when my ideas and predictions are dismissed on the basis of how not nice I am but then those ideas and predictions come true.
Yes, I do have an "I Told You So" rubber stamp and I carry it in my purse all the time.
It gets used frequently.
Several years ago, I belonged to a small online writers' critique group. There were five or six of us in the group, all traditionally published but struggling to establish solid careers. All of us had put our writing credentials out in public, except for one. We didn't know her real name, or the name she wrote under, but she claimed to have received a very fat two-book contract from a Very Major publisher. The first book, she told us, was published and her editor loved her and they couldn't wait to get the second book. There was a slight problem: She couldn't write any more. She kept getting extensions, but she hadn't written hardly a single word on Book 2.
We had no idea what Book 1 was. She wouldn't tell us because she was so embarrassed at her inability to produce Book 2.
But we were a critique group, so the whole purpose was exchanging manuscripts for purpose of feedback. She kept promising to share Chapter One but she was still tweaking it. That didn't keep her from offering her opinion on our chapters. To say she was vicious would be kind.
Earlier this week I was cleaning out some old computer files and uncovered her critique(s) of the first couple chapters of one of my works in progress. Her comments still stung, almost a quarter century later! But reading them, and reading the responses from the other members of our group -- who mostly disagreed with her -- jogged some things in my memory. I did a little digging in The Archives and put together a few clues, and I was suddenly pretty sure I had finally figured out who she was.
More important, I was pretty sure I had a copy of that one book she had published.
It wasn't in the book of old gothics, but I did find it. And I'm now more sure than ever that I solved this stupid little mystery. (But since I'm not absolutely positive, I'm not going to reveal her name or the title.)
I glanced through the book. It's not a genre I'm particularly interested in to begin with, but it sure didn't grab me by the throat and drag me into a superb story. The writing wasn't exactly spectacular, but it was competent.
Then I went back to those ancient emails from our little group, emails saved in ancient versions of WordPerfect. She was mean to everyone, not just me. Yet no one told her she was mean. No one.
I'm the mean one. I'm the not-nice one.
She finally produced a single chapter of her "new" book. It made no sense. Private, out-of-network emails between me and two other members of the group indicated we had major problems with it, with plot, with character motivation, with writing style. And we were afraid to say anything to her for fear of backlash.
She was that mean. We were afraid of her. I was afraid of her.
But no one every said anything to her about how mean she was.
They told me all the time.
I read through this stuff and kind of laughed it off after I got over the shock. I mean it's from 1995. It's old. The book I was writing then never did get written, and probably never will. No big deal. Two of the other members of our group went on to finish their books and got them published, but then never did anything else. I'm not sure about the other two. I know about me, and I know the resident meanie never finished her Book 2. None of it really matters in the grand scheme of things.
But it did remind me that I'm always the one accused of being mean. I've internalized it and I believe I am mean, I am cruel, I am unfair. I have standards no one can live up to. In other words, I'm a horrible person and people don't like me.
For the past twelve years, I've been involved with my artists group. I've chaired our studio tour four times out of its twelve incarnations. I'm one of only three charter members of the group left on active status. I participate in almost every event. I attend every meeting. I fulfill my volunteer obligation by maintaining an email address list of about 500 people who have signed up to be informed of all our upcoming events; a week before each event I compose an email that I send out to all of them.
Every time I've chaired the studio tour, it's been improved. Attendance has gone up and so has artist participation. Yet I've been accused, in public, of trying to sabotage the event! I've been insulted and lied about, even though I've provided evidence that the accusations and insults are baseless.
I've been threatened with expulsion from the group because I dared to call out one of those who insulted me and lied about me.
Yesterday, after our regular monthly meeting, one of the board members came up to me and begged me to run for the board at our December meeting. I refused, as I always have. There are legal reasons why I do not want to be on the board. But she insisted. She begged. Even though I had voiced criticism of the way this year's fall studio tour was run, she begged me to run for the board and help make change. I wasn't the only person who complained that most of the signs weren't clearly visible. And almost everyone said attendance was down and so were sales. She said I was the first and only person she was going to recruit.
I continued to refuse, until finally I acquiesced. I said I'd think about it and let her know today by email.
I even got BF to listen to me for almost 20 minutes when he got home. He agreed that there are major problems with the group in terms of what it's doing to promote the artists and the art events. He agreed that I could probably effect more change being on the board than being off it. I didn't sleep well last night for thinking about it, and I was nervous all morning while I composed a long response to the person who had begged me to run for the board.
It was a very long response, and I tried to keep it positive. I didn't criticize anyone in particular. I kept it to the issues rather than the people. I even left out several criticisms that could have made a big difference. In the end, I told her I would go ahead and run for the board. I had spent over two hours on this, and a lot of mental effort.
Her response was terse. Basically she said she agreed with most of what I'd said, but someone else had volunteered so she'd let me know.
I felt as if I'd been kicked. I had poured out all kinds of ideas for improving the club, things we could do as a group and as individuals to improve publicity, to gain visibility for our events, and so on. I could have just said, "Yeah, I'll run," but instead I basically gave them a blueprint for the future.
I laughed at her response, and then I cried. She picked my brain and then threw it away. She begged me until someone else, anyone else, came along.
Oh, I know what you're thinking. She's not a writer so maybe I'm reading too much into her brief comment. And maybe that's true.
You don't beg someone to do something you know they don't want to do, and beg and beg and beg, and then when they finally give in, you don't just toss them over for someone else.
Unless, of course, you didn't mean any of it in the first place.
I may be opinionated and arrogant, smart and educated, not ashamed of my accomplishments, but I'm not a bad person. I've gone out of my way to help other people -- especially other writers and the other artists in my club -- and still I'm called mean. I'm not.
Does anyone remember these?
This little gizmo has become the symbol of my life right now. It seems all I do is move fourteen things around in an effort to get one thing where it belongs. Sometimes I feel like just piling everything in the middle of the floor and starting from scratch.
Oh, except that there isn't any room in the middle of the floor either.
Dozens of them weren't in the BookLikes database, and I was too busy the past few weeks to enter them. I'm making a concerted effort this week-end to finish them.
There's a reason for this: they're scattered all over in the workshop and I need to get some of these messes cleaned up!
This has been a week-end dedicated to the cleaning up of messes. I'm not sure how much I've accomplished, but I've been busy.
The big major cleaning/organizing task I thought was finished in the studio last week turned out to be not quite finished. I can put off the last of it for a while, however; none of it is urgent. I did manage to clean enough out there that I actually have counter space in the studio kitchen cleared off so I have room to work. This coming week I intend to expand on that. This is the first time in over a year I've had functional space.
A smaller cleaning/organizing task in the studio has also been crossed off The Eternal To-Do List. I had a substantial quantity of paper that needed to be cut to size for making my origami boxes, but it was scattered in a dozen different places. I gathered it all into one spot Saturday, then sat down with the paper cutter this morning and chopped it all up. Unfortunately, in the process I discovered that I have lots and lots and lots of the paper that's used for lids, and a lot less of the paper to make the bottoms. I do NOT want to have to buy more paper, but it looks as though that is going to be a necessity before long.
Slowly, the chaos is being reduced.
As each chore is crossed off the list, I have more time for the others. Very few of the organizing projects are such that I can just start and work on them until they're finished. Most require some prep, such as locating and gathering all the origami papers in one place. It can be very discouraging to work all day on a project and not be able to mark it off the list! but that's the way it works.
With the gothics, it's a matter of looking them up to see which ones are already in the database, then scanning the covers and editing them to size, then actually entering the information. I'm down to less than 20 of them -- I think -- so maybe that task will be completed tomorrow. Right now it's too dark to make another trip to the workshop.
In fact, it's late enough that I can call it a day and crawl into bed with The Tulip Tree. Although that one little detail was enough to confirm that I had indeed read it before, I remember nothing else about it, so this will be almost like a first read.
There was an interesting thread on Twitter this morning about the pros and cons of teaching "the classics" in high school (or younger grades). Some people felt the dead white male canon was no longer relevant, others thought there should be a new "mixed" canon, and so on. Some tweeters made comments regarding whether or not the classics should be enjoyed on their own or just as cultural icons.
I'm not sure exactly when we began to have assigned readings of full-length novels in school. In eighth grade (age ~13) I remember being assigned Conrad Richter's A Light in the Forest. I never read it. We also had to read Robert Louis Stevenson's The Black Arrow, but I'm not sure exactly what grade that was. I didn't read that one either. Somewhere along the line was Esther Forbes' Johnny Tremain. I had seen the Disney movie on TV, so I didn't read that one either. Oh, yeah. And we had to read The Pearl by John Steinbeck. It got the same treatment from me.
In high school we had the usual: Dickens' Great Expectations in an abridged version in our literature book along with Romeo and Juliet. Nope and nope on those, too. I think Julius Caesar came in sophomore year. Another nope. Junior year was American literature, with Miss Cobb, which meant Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. Maybe The Scarlet Letter was thrown in for good measure, but I'm not sure. I didn't read them. Senior year I had Miss Leonhard with her Thomas Hardy obsession, so that meant The Return of the Native. I managed maybe 40 pages of it before I gave up.
This was not an issue of getting a student to read or to like reading. I loved reading, and I devoured books like potato chips. I read Michener's Hawaii during American history class because Miss Black's teaching was too boring. For my senior English research paper, I read most of Tolstoy's major works -- Anna Karenina, War and Peace, The Cossacks, The Kreutzer Sonata -- and even if I didn't completely understand them, I read them.
Later, years later, I read The Return of the Native and found it fascinating enough that I've reread it several times. I read an unabridged version of David Copperfield and loved it.
Why is it that more than 50 years after I graduated high school, these same issues keep coming up? Why are kids still being taught depressing "life's a bitch and then you die" crap like Steinbeck and Hemingway and Shakespeare? Why can't the canon be expanded to include women writers and writers of color and books written in the 20th and even 21st centuries?
I clearly remember hating The Old Man and the Sea because there was absolutely nothing in it I could relate to. Not the fish, not the old man, not the lions that Miss Cobb said had such immense symbolism. I didn't get it, and I didn't like it, and I couldn't concentrate on it. The same with Thomas Hardy. Egdon Heath was a living, breathing entity to Miss Leonhard, so much so that she and her two equally unmarried English teacher sisters made biannual pilgrimages to England and Hardy country to collect fresh specimens of gorse and heather and other plant to show their students.
Johnny Tremain probably had more relevance to our teenaged selves, but The Pearl sure didn't. Yet these stories are classics. There's something about them that has transcended the popular culture of their time to become universal. Why didn't the teachers then -- or the teachers now -- manage to convey that universality to their students?
When my daughter was in high school and her freshman English teacher handed out a list of acceptable books for book reports, there were virtually no women authors on the list. Not even Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte. Just a bunch of dead white guys. When I confronted the teacher, she looked at me like I was nuts. These were the books that had always been on the list and no one had ever complained before. Well, honey, I complained.
The following year, when my son was a freshman, the high school canon had been expanded, but not by much.
And the kids still didn't read it.
I'm not sure kids are even capable of understanding most of the themes of classic adult literature unless the teacher knows how to make it relevant to their limited experience.
There's a certain similarity between The Pearl and a silly horse story I read in fifth grade, Silver Saddles. The ending is the exact opposite, of course, because the horse story ends happily and the Steinbeck classic is a monumental tragedy. But is the tragedy the whole point of the story? Is that what eighth graders should be taught, that life is a never ending struggle and you shouldn't hope to have anything good come of it because more than likely you'll just end up worse than you were before?
Romeo and Juliet is another tragedy. Why is it still being taught to teenagers who are maybe just starting to experience romance and love and sexual desire? I still remember that English teacher's rapt expression when I said I didn't think kids needed to see love and suicide in the same context without some kind of warning. "Oh, but I just love Romeo and Juliet!" she exclaimed. "It's so romantic!"
Yeah, suicide at 14 is so romantic.
We're a diverse society and we need a diverse canon. But if we're going to impress the importance of that canon or any canon on young readers, don't we have to make it relevant to them? If Jane Austen's universal truth is truly universal, shouldn't there be other examples from literature, from popular culture, from the news, from the kids' real lives?
Maybe I just see all this through the lens of 70 years, or maybe I'm just nuts.