Check out my feminist theoretical chit-chat about women in magical realism.
Come to BookTube with me to learn about magical realism.
This week I had a chance to talk to author and writing coach Cami Ostman about her writing services and some advice on starting a writing group. To learn more, visit her online at http://www.camiostman.net.
ESH: What kinds of services do you offer to writers?
CO: I’ve done some writing coaching, and typically I offer specific feedback on writing according to the client’s goals. It’s super client centered, so if somebody is wanting to publish traditionally, then I keep an eye out for what would make that a more likely outcome for them. Some people just want to write a memoir so that their grandchildren will know who they are, so for those clients I focus on telling the story.
I attend to the skill level of the writer, so if a writer is really strong, I’ll try to push them harder. I have other writers who can’t work with the material as creatively as others, so I basically help them keep the story really solid.
I also coach people in building nonfiction book proposals and author platforms. Basically, it’s about how to publicize themselves before, during, and after publication so they can have the best chance of getting themselves out there when they’re ready.
ESH: Do you have any upcoming workshops? How can people reach you?
CO: I will definitely be doing the 6-week Quest Memoir workshop again. I do a free workshop at the beginning to basically help people decide if what they’re working on is a “quest” memoir. With a quest, there are two parts: there’s the journey you take, whether physical or metaphorical (climbing a mountain, maybe, or navigating a divorce), and there’s the look at what you learned on the journey, with takeaways for the reader. The workshops help people work on those two parts. I teach people how to read one another and listen to one another because the best way to hone skills as a writer is to hone skills as a reader. Workshoppers can do 5–10-minute readings of their work, and for those who don’t have work started, I offer writing prompts to get things going.
The workshop is offered as a conference call with PDF materials to follow. I also create a secret Facebook page where people can interact after each lecture and workshop.
The other thing I offer is the Second Wind program, which helps middle-aged women with transitions in their life. I would say that it’s writing intensive, even though it doesn’t focus on publishing. There is a lot of journaling involved. I will be adding a Writing for Healing program in 2016 as well.
ESH: You mentioned you also work as a therapist. How does that background inform your work as a writing coach?
CO: With nonfiction, publishers are looking for a combination of good stories and takeaways, or scenes that other people can take for their own lives. I think that that’s a little bit of a hard thing to get at. When I was working on my first memoir, my writing coach described to me that I needed to add in the takeaways. As a therapist, I understood this well. In therapy, people tell stories. My job as a therapist is to chisel away at the story until it has meaning. To me, that’s kind of the whole point of a story—how to use the story to figure out your life moving forward.
ESH: Tell me more about your group, Red Wheelbarrow Writers.
CO: Red Wheelbarrow Writers started, really, accidentally. A friend of mine, Susan Tive, and I invited Brooke Warner to come to Bellingham to give a workshop on writing and publishing. We sent out a notice to all the writers that we knew in the whole world, and we also invited Laura Kalpakian to give a workshop as well. One night, after a workshop that we gave, we were like, “Hey, everyone, let’s go get a drink for happy hour,” and the happy hour was such a huge hit. People read to one another from what they were working on for the workshop. So every month we did it, and it’s turned into this huge thing. Every month we gather at a local bar and have an open mic with ten spots. We are not a critique group, so we just cheer one another on.
We’ve expanded to collaborate with local bookstores, and we do a project each year for NaNoWriMo. It’s the most amazing community-building activity because people are excited to come.
ESH: Can you recommend other online resources for budding writers?
CO: A lot of people look for critique groups, and those are hard to put together because you need to find people who are a good fit. I think starting a happy hour is a lot easier because people will come. It’s easier for people to commit to. With the happy hour group, we’ve been at it for so long that we’ve been able to see people’s writing come from draft to publication. It’s really cool to see.
If people want to see the Red Wheelbarrow model, they can Like the Red Wheelbarrow Facebook page. Everyone is welcome to participate there and to use that as a framework for starting their own successful writers’ group.
I had a chance to sit down with my good friend and fellow writer Jessica Prado, whose new novel, Silver Awakening, released in 2015 in paperback and eBook. She had some great ideas to share on how to write a debut novel as a busy mom and how to navigate the world of e-commerce once the writing is done.
ESH: You have a novel out now. When did you start writing it, and did it start out as something else?
JP: It started as a short story back when I was in college. I think that the idea started at that point, however it evolved a lot from what it was originally. I really only had a few passages written originally.
ESH: What kinds of things did you learn in school that helped you write your first novel?
JP: English wasn't my major—I was actually an art major. I've loved to write, and when I was in grade school I wrote this little book called Winter Is Fun. That was my first book that I ever wrote. Of course it’s not published or anything, but it was bound in construction paper. I’ve always known I enjoyed writing, so in college I tried to take classes that geared toward my interests in creative writing. I think what I learned there was how to edit things down and cut things out. I’m pretty good about not getting so attached to something that I can’t cut it out, and I think that helps me with pacing in a story.
ESH: You've mentioned before that you're a big reader. What kinds of influences do you have? Which writers do you like, and what have you learned from them?
JP: I’m more interested in story than in individual writers. If a story appeals to me, then I’ll read it, but at the end of the book, I want to feel good. I’ve read a lot of fantasy and young adult fiction. Obviously Harry Potter is one of my favorites because there’s just so much fantasy in it, and it’s clean and it’s fun and it makes you feel so good when you read it. I’ve read a lot of the Other World series, and right now I’m reading the Miss Peregrine’s series. I was a photography major, so I love the photos in that one along with the style and the fantasy elements. I don’t read a lot of romance novels, but I love books that have romance in them. I liked Twilight, even though there were some things about it that I would have done differently if I had written it. [laughs]
ESH: You mentioned before that you had some friends read your manuscript early on. Did you ever take your book to a workshop setting to get feedback that way?
JP: I started a group that I called my Secret Readers' Club. It started as a Facebook group that was just my friends and a few family members who love to read. I got a lot of feedback on the early parts when I was developing the story. They helped me with organizing the book. An example of this is when I wrote the first chapter. I started out with all of Noah’s perspective and then all of Silver’s, and then after workshop I went back and added transitions instead.
A lot of what I struggled with, that I think the Secret Readers’ Club helped a lot with, was the love scene. Love scenes are such a sensitive subject, and I had to be really careful about making sure the characters were still likable afterward. I think I tested it out three or four different ways with the group, and I could not have written that part of the book without them.
ESH: Can you tell me a little bit about what it’s been like in terms of getting something sold online as a paperback and an eBook?
JP: That’s actually really hard, and it’s still new for me. Where I’m at with it right now is, I kind of feel like I’d like to conclude the series before I start marketing it. When I talk to other authors who self-publish, they’ve shared their experiences about marketing pressure and not worrying too much about the first book. A lot of times people want to buy a book once the series is finished, so I’ve just been doing my own little promotions here and there until the rest of the series is ready. I’ve done a few Facebook ads and promoted my book on different blogs and things as well, and I’ve followed a lot of marketing advice I’ve found on the web.
ESH: If someone came to you (maybe someone reading this conversation) wondering where to start when writing a novel, what would you suggest?
I started with kind of a bulleted outline in Word showing the general story of the novel. It did change when I ended up writing the story, but at least having that simple nutshell helped get it going. It also helped in writing the chapters, with what needed to happen in each one. I kept a lot of notes, especially because I was working with fantasy, and I used Track Changes comments in Word to keep track of things that I wanted to do as I was editing. Now that I’m doing my second novel, I have all the comments from the first one in its own document. I can go back and use it, especially when I’m keeping track of time divergence. That has helped me a lot.
I don’t think I’ve gotten though a single feminist research project without seeing a reference to Alice Walker’s book In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. As I bummed through a mall bookstore on a rare day off last week, I picked up my own copy, designed in purple, in true Alice Walker fashion, and sped home to start reading.
I had known that this was a book about womanism, Walker’s term for a deeper shade of feminism that embraces black heritage, love, curves, food, camaraderie, and joy. What I did not understand is that the book is an excellent source of literary criticism in the feminist world, particularly with respect to how black culture has often been marginalized. Reading Walker’s critical work gives deeper perspective on both her creative work and the works of other women who have faced marginalizing forces in their own literary production.
Rather than go into the whole book (the entire thing is an enjoyable and critical read), the best place to start learning with Walker’s book is in the very first essay, “Saving the Life that Is Your Own: The Importance of Models in the Artist’s Life.” In the piece, Alice Walker discusses a key problem that she and other womanists and black woman writers have faced in writing creatively. She mentions Toni Morrison’s famous advice to write the kind of books that you, the writer, want to read. Walker takes this advice a step further, detailing how many of Toni Morrison’s works are without a clear influence because of the canon’s marginalization of black women’s stories, told from their own perspectives. Walker digs deeper, recalling her own discovery of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, which had been out of print by the early 1970s. This discovery sparked a need in her to uncover other black woman writers and storytellers to help establish a literary tradition that subverted a canon that is ultimately sexist and racist.
The first time I picked up Zora Neale Hurston, it was 2001 and she was back in print and featured on high school summer reading lists, thanks to contemporary writers like Walker and Morrison. For me, it wasn’t strange at all to see a black womanist tradition forming before my eyes, but for Walker writing her essay in the 1970s, that canon needed some help to emerge. Walker’s main point in the essay is to draw on Morrison’s advice to become your own role model in writing creative work, breaking down fences in literary style in the vein of Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s unique unfolding of magic realism or Toni Morrison’s girlhood perspectives on beauty, sexuality, northern racism in The Bluest Eye. Today's literary canon is still far from perfect, but it's been refreshing to track the re-emergence of fascinating writers like Hurston and Ella Cara Deloria, who lost traction for a while mid-century.
Walker’s essay on creative bravery sparked my own thought process in a very strong way. Her analysis is framed within womanist fiction but urges all writers to go beyond trend or established literary models and discover new ways of doing things. For someone like me, a new-ish creative writer operating in a world of glittery vampires, swooning love stories, and other market-driven tropes, it’s enormously helpful to begin thinking of story and narrative not in terms of how other people do things but how I want to do something. Alice Walker gives me and writers of all backgrounds permission to pull in all corners of our lives—the mundane all the way to the fantastic—to come up with a new tradition. As we take new steps, particularly in the world of making feminist literature more widespread, we also lay the path for others who might otherwise lack influences to join us. By saving our own literary lives, we make tremendous strides in creativity and in forging new avenues of literary thought.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Brontë
Most feminist book lovers I’ve met can’t get through a top-five list without gushing about a Brontë, and I’m not going to be the one to change that stereotype. Having fallen in love with Charlotte the semester before, I started reading into the lesser-known sister and her two modest novels during year one of graduate school. Agnes Grey appealed to me, with its Anne Shirley–esque theme of the independent, working governess, but the moment I skimmed the back of a dusty copy of Tenant I fully recognized myself. The book is about a crappy, failed marriage to an oppressive A-hole and the heroine’s steps toward independence, new love, and even a budding art career—practically the story of my life after college. While there are some points of plot that are a little bit cringe worthy by modern standards—like the trope of the angelic, long-suffering wife who for moral reasons should not officially divorce her abusive, philandering husband—the novel holds so many questions that would have been crucial for me as a wee middle school girl about to walk right into the trappings of patriarchy, the cultural marriage mandate, and sub-par male-female relationships.
The Kitchen God’s Wife, by Amy Tan
In a similar vein to Brontë’s novel, The Kitchen God’s Wife braids together a rich historical setting with a feminist narrative that can be an enriching place to start for teen girls. A few scholars I’ve read, including Karen Dodwell, talk about removing the feminist discussion to a faraway culture or time period to help newcomers to feminism understand and process it better without getting all tangled up in their own cultural scripts. (Think in terms of modern-day conservative students shying away from Shulamith Firestone but fully embracing Charlotte Brontë.) In pedagogy—or in my reading recommendations to my former teen self—this suggests potential for a historical Chinese diaspora novel like The Kitchen God’s Wife, which shows old and new, East and West, while bridging those gaps to illustrate the universality of the themes without reinforcing orientalism or cultural chauvinism. This book was an eye opener for me to pick up as an adult due to its domestic violence themes, especially on the emotional front, so a teenager could do much worse than to learn about good and bad relationships in the milieu of Japanese-occupied China during World War II, from one of the best modern American writers out there.
The Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler
I’ll just come out with it: I am a dystopia junkie. Dystopia, plus any other iteration of Foucault’s –topias, for that matter, from Thomas More’s Utopia or Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies, to heterotopias like Piper Kerman’s Orange Is the New Black, to downer dystopias like The Parable of the Sower. Octavia Butler’s novel about US societal collapse in the not-too-distant future is an engaging piece of ecofeminist thought that is age appropriate for teens. Unlike many teenage dystopias, Butler does not focus on the constructed totalitarian society but examines California life as it crumbles from unsustainable environmental, economical, and social practices. Aside from the mind-spark messages that would have been new to me as a middle schooler, the book is simply well written and engaging. A book like this one, if read early, would have opened the door for me to engage with ecofeminism as well as a canon of dystopia writers like Margaret Atwood, Cormack McCarthy, or Ursula K. LeGuin—some of my now favorites, who I didn't even know about until college—a little sooner in the coming-of-age process.
The Girls of Riyadh, by Rajaa Alsanea
This novel wasn’t around back when I was in middle school in the late-1990s, but I wish it had been, and I wish I’d had the foresight to pick it up. As it happened, I was 25 when I bought the bargain hardback, which I’d judged for its striking foil stamping and for the title’s proclamation that this was a novel about girls. I started reading it on a rainy day in my study and didn’t put it down until I’d turned over the final leaf. Unlike so many of the books I’d read so far, this book was not written from the Western perspective, and it served as my introduction (as a mostly Christian American from a tiny midwestern town), post-9/11, to what real Muslim women’s lives are like in a place like Saudi Arabia. This wasn’t a Westernized reactionary piece, out to “rescue” all Middle Eastern women, and it wasn’t an outright vindication of the godliness of Islam and the evils of the West. Because this book failed to fall into either stereotype of how Americans tend to see Islamic life, it affected my reach into world literature and global feminism in a deep way. In short, Rajaa Alsanea’s perspective on being young and educated and fashionable in an Islamic state helped elucidate for me the real feminist questions happening in the Islamic world, outside of the blurred contexts of Desert Storm, 9/11, and other East/West battlegrounds. The novel is written in the form of an e-mail publication, with teen-accessible language in the English translation. If this book had been in my hands in the late nineties, I would have been able to skip all the Western-born stereotypes about Islam and jump into something useful.
Originally posted May 1, 2015
In just under a year, Charlotte Brontë turns 200. It feels appropriate, to me, to be gearing up for her birthday celebration as I launch a zine exploring feminism and girlhood from a textual perspective. Birthdays are—if nothing else—a mark of time well spent, a simple increment on the trip from being a kid to being a grown up. And Charlotte certainly had a lot to party about.
But she wasn’t alone in her literary greatness. A lot of people know that Charlotte wrote her tales of female stars alongside her two sisters, Emily and Anne, but a lot of casual readers miss out on the whole package when they just remember the Brontës for Jane Eyre. Even Charlotte herself felt like her sisters deserved wider credibility:
“I may sum up all by saying, that for strangers they were nothing, for superficial observers, less than nothing; but for those who had known them all their lives in the intimacy of close relationship, they were genuinely good and truly great.”
It’s safe to say the Brontës wrote a lot from experience, and a lot of that had to do with each other. Their sisterly collaboration in the creative sphere remains, even today, prime fodder for girls to soak up between basketball practice and math homework. Reading Anne and Charlotte, it’s apparent that the feminist utopia, or females gathering around for mutual influence, meant a lot to their idea of bringing up stellar girls. Charlotte has Jane spy on a group of Brontë-esque sisters as they bat ideas back and forth by the hearth and sets parts of Villette and Jane Eyre in girls’ academies. Anne shows Agnes Grey opening a girls’ school with her mother and even has her heroine Helen Graham adopt her mother’s maiden name and set up house and shop with her lifelong female servant and good friend. Something about the community of women and girls clearly fed the Brontës and gave their stories a uniquely girl-positive light. Both in their fiction and in real life, the sisters explored their mutual creativity through words and art, leaning always on each other for support, criticism, and muse.
The trio’s childhood home and ground zero for their work is now a museum, operated by the Brontë Society, and their communal writing table is now a fixture there once again thanks to a generous grant. Sitting around that table, these literary sisters brought so many of us our first awakenings of a raised consciousness, and even more still a recognition of our maturing selves. Even though not all books dwell at great length like Jane Eyre does on girlhood, all tackle the coming-of-age progression and show strong girls who notice wrongdoing, work hard, and make a mark, eventually evolving into strong women. For that, the novels are detailed roadmaps for navigating girlhood. We readers find in these books a critical eye cast toward the pressures on girls and women, and if read carefully, they’re a great primer on growing up.
We don’t have to dig too far at all to find glimmers of how to be a successful girl in the novels, and at the same time, there are countless hints toward the restrictions these brilliant women faced as they made their way as writers. After all, the three wrote mid-nineteenth century, all publishing originally under masculine—or at least neutral—cover. The world didn’t know Charlotte, Emily, and Anne for some time, but they ate up Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Brontë scholar Winifred Gérin attemps an explanation. She ties at least Charlotte and Anne’s pen names to female figures that were objects of their admiration. This feels a bit more positive than calling themselves by random masculine names, but even so, it remains that the sisters could see the need for some kind of unobtrusive cover in the first place. Like Malala Yousafzai writing under the name of her favorite Pashtun heroine to protect her identity, the Brontës lived in a world beset by backlash anytime women tried to do something public. The feminine-masking pen name concept feels retrograde in twenty-first century Anglo-American society, where we have things like Title IX and sexual harassment laws in the United States, but it feels pretty brave, looking backward, to take on even male-sounding names if it means getting your work out there for people to read. The Brontës didn’t dismantle the father’s house, but they did rework the tools to build the addition.
A lot of the positive girl buzz generated in the Brontë novels stems from the fact of the family’s lower middle class station. The family wasn’t rich, but they had education and each other. One could do much worse than to take Agnes Grey and Jane Eyre as instructional booklets on owning girlhood. Anne writes Agnes in a somewhat autobiographical way, giving her an education and a job of her own. Agnes moves away from home while young with a thirst for earning her bread. She uses her humble and industrious upbringing (with parents encouraging her to be an actor in her own fate) to land a governess position over girls in much fancier positions than she’s used to.
When Agnes cares for a well-to-do Rosalie Murray, she looks on as the girl makes vain choices that ultimately land her in a less-than-happy situation. Rosalie likes the finer things and dreams of being a titled lady above all else—not unlike the vacuous Lady Lowborough of her other cautionary proto-feminist novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Agnes, though, comes from a set of parents who married for love over money. She grew up hearing her mother say she’d rather live in a cottage with Richard Grey than in a palace with any other man, and she finds out later that her mother was disinherited from a sprawling fortune because of the marriage. While so much girl fiction—contemporary and otherwise—seems to focus on the marriage plot and the pursuit of a prince, Agnes’s story dwells at length on the folly of thinking in terms of marital gain alone. Agnes knows she has to work hard right from the beginning, and she feels her social disadvantage at not belonging to the well-primped and wealthy set, as well as her gender disadvantage at not being born male and able to be an agent over every aspect of her happiness.
In a strikingly modern passage, Agnes looks on as Rosalie is showered with happiness, all because of her beauty and her willingness to play into the scripts that dictate how girls should perform their femininity. Rosalie is raised to value flirting and love matches over bookishness—Agnes’s strong suit—and the double standard between the Christian ideal of inner beauty and the reality of outer beauty’s power is not lost on our heroine:
“It is foolish to wish for beauty,” muses Agnes. “Sensible people never either desire it for themselves or care about it in others. If the mind be but well cultivated, and the heart well disposed, no one ever cares for the exterior. So said the teachers of our childhood; and so say we to the children of the present day. All very judicious and proper no doubt; but are such assertions supported by actual experience?”
Agnes is understandably bitter at how unfairly things are shaking out for her, despite her hard work toward the ideal of cultivating her brains over her looks. She goes on to say that if a girl is pretty and good, she is praised for both, while a plain and good girl scarcely makes a mark on anyone. Likewise, pretty girls who are awful on the inside get away with things that a plain girl never would. It’s a stark lesson and an interesting assessment that still holds weight for girl readers today. Girl culture critics Susan Douglas and Joan Jacobs Brumberg are right at home with Agnes in their dissection of why we value pretty over good or smart. What’s disappointing is that almost immediately after Agnes’s bold critique of beauty standards and performing femininity in exchange for happiness, she admits that she’s begun to take a page from Rosalie in dressing prettier for her crush, Mr. Weston.
The societal compliance ends up working out for her. Agnes ends up with Weston in the end (he shows up out of the woodwork to marry her, as so many nineteenth-century heroes do), so Anne has just proven through Agnes that women have to make concessions if they want certain kinds of happiness. Agnes Grey is a very clear criticism of what too much money and vanity can do to people, but she applies an inversion technique to show—quietly and without rocking the boat—why that kind of thing still short changes women in the long run, just like she shows Tenant’s Helen Huntington nearly undone in the end by following the good girl trope all her life. It all feels a lot like awkward teenager Daria of the 1990s MTV series, whose defiance of acceptable teenage girliness is met with awkward moments on the show, but for the purpose of asking us to re-evaluate the way we think about girl scripts. Daria is a feminist with one outfit in her closet, but when faced with her crush, she still ends up getting her belly button pierced—against her normal judgment—to appear dangerous and sexy. It’s a way to show that girlhood is a minefield of double-standards and forced compromises, even within feminism, and that it’s human to get sucked into what you’re fighting.
All of this Anne talk is not to diminish Charlotte. In fact, Jane Eyre feels like a companion read with Agnes Grey. Both star governesses who rose from modest means, dealt with spoiled wealthies, did their work demurely, and ended up with some variety of happiness. Unlike Agnes’s “prince” though, Jane’s is loaded—but blinded—at the end. I hesitate to position Jane Eyre as a road map for girls because Jane’s relationship to Rochester feels more like a caretaker role, something Nel Noddings might endorse for its care ethic and Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar might decry for its angel-in-the-house female martyrdom. Both novels seem flawed in that neither Jane nor Agnes seemed to have much choice over whom they fell in love with, and they do both circle back to a convenient ending served with wedding cake. On the other hand, they are also alike in that they show strong girls rising up and doing something in a world that says they should probably be written under pen names. The novels aren’t perfect, but then feminist scholars have been squabbling for decades over what makes a text feminist. Ideas range from female authorship to womb allegories, and it feels like there will never be a quickie answer to how exactly a text can be feminist. And that’s why it’s so exciting to study.
With several semesters of women’s studies behind me, I revisit the marriage plot in the Brontë novels and start to think of it as more of a reward for doing the feminist thing than a damning tell of non-feminist writing. In a highly matrimonial world, it makes sense that a writer has to show her readers that they can paint, write, teach, work, and be strong while still attaining the socially acceptable happiness of marriage. The message to girls seems to be that it’s okay to be both subjects and authors; feminists don’t have to end up alone with their work, and their generative power doesn’t have to stop with childbearing. While the fantasy of “having it all” needs some work—via squashing gender bias in the K–12 classroom and creating a world where women have access to childcare and equal pay—it’s heartening to see books written in the 1840s with something to contribute to that ideal besides, “all that satisfaction will be too much work.”
So for that, I praise the Brontës. They may not have been as overtly polemical as Mary Wollstonecraft or rocked as many boats as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but they did something that in the right light feels a whole lot more effective than being an ardent proselyte for feminism. They took themselves and their ideas and wrote them into a narrative that many girls can relate to. They drew politics from the public world and made them comfy within the personal. Call it the power of storytelling. Through fiction, the Brontës reached girls and women of all ages, many of whom had no previous care or idea of what a feminist looks like. And in their vast and enduring impact on girls’ coming of age experiences, I totally agree with Charlotte—they were genuinely good and truly great.