Why I don’t feel bad about giving up on NaNoWriMo this year

Snow White and the Seven Deadly Sins is the fifth rough draft I’ve gotten out of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). But this is the first time I’ve attempted to finish NaNoWriMo while going to school full time, working 18 hours/week, and commuting 12 hours/week. It was ridiculously optimistic of me to attempt it in the first place, but that’s me. Here I must quote my self-adopted fairy godmother: “Love, as we have already discussed, is a powerful, wonderful, ridiculous thing, capable of moving mountains. And spools of thread.” —Kate DiCamillo, The Tale of Despereaux. And yeah, I really wanted this year’s really cool winner’s T-shirt with the knight facing down the 50k-dragon, but there are more important things. Also, I don’t need another T-shirt.

I’m not giving up on the story itself (Don’t worry, Colleen!), just on the goal of finishing a rough draft of 50,000 words by Saturday (I’m at 26,000-something, I think). Finishing this story has no deadline, but finishing my research paper does. And because I’m writing my research paper on Snow White, the work I’m doing feels like a legitimate contribution to my research.

That’s why I took this class (Contested Bodies: Representations of Martyrdom) in the first place, as research for this novel. I’ve spent this quarter fascinated by all we’ve been learning, synthesizing it within myself, and using that to fuel me forward in both my novel and my research paper. And, because my professor has been skeptical about this paper from (quite literally) Day 1, I’ve also been fueled by a feeling of righteous defensiveness.

I argue that Snow White is a martyr because the Brothers Grimm turned her into one. They took bits and pieces of stories from the oral tradition that were not necessarily religious in nature, fused them together with their own beliefs, and created a deeply Christian story of a sweet little virgin martyr. There’s so much I want to go into. Did you know, for example, that most of the Grimms’ sources were female, but were never credited by name? Did you know that in the original story, it is Snow White’s biological mother, not a stepmother, who jealously tries to kill her? Did you know that, back in the day, all you had to do to be a Christian female martyr was 1- be Christian, 2- be a virgin, and 3- die? Did you know that in art and literature, glass has traditionally been a metaphor for virginity, so the dwarfs are then trapping her in that identity when they put her in a glass coffin? Guh, this is all so friggin’ fascinating and I just want to study and watch and read and write fairy tales forever. (I get to watch “Grimm” and “Snow White and the Huntsman” and “Maleficent” and call it research. My life is awesome.) I finish by arguing that since the Grimms and Disney, we haven’t been content to let Snow White stay a demure, docile damsel in distress. Every time we’ve retold her story, we’ve given her a personality, a purpose, and a weapon.

I think I’ll post the paper here when I’m done, because I’ve been putting a ton of effort into it, and it deserves to be read by more people than just my professor. And that’s why I don’t feel bad about giving up on NaNoWriMo this year. I’m going to end up with a badass piece of work, it will just be my research paper instead of my novel. The novel’s deadline is indefinite and self-imposed. The paper’s deadline is in a week and a half. Time to get back to work.

East of the Sun, West of the Moon

My favorite fairy tale is “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” a lesser-known (in America, anyway) Norse story similar to “Beauty and the Beast.” I’ve wanted to write my own version for a while now, but wasn’t sure what direction it would take. I did know that I wanted to mess with gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation, since I thought the original fairy tale had some pretty effed-up things to say about upholding traditional gender roles. Last school year, however, I did a research paper on it (see below for the full paper) and discovered that it’s actually way more empowering than I had given it credit forwho would’ve guessed that my favorite fairy tale was all about sex? (Don’t tell 18-year-old Me, it’d break her poor puritanical heart.)

There was still one problem: fairy tales in general have a tendency to indulge in the “pure good vs. pure evil” narrative and treat certain nonhuman species as evil (in Norse stories these are often trolls). I’m not a fan of thisvillains that are evil just ’cause they are (lookin’ at you, Sauron) really bug me. So I thought, “What if the trolls in my version behave like internet trolls, who actually are evil?… Wait… What if they were literally internet trolls?!” Thus the idea to set this story in an MMORPG.

This idea is still very much in progress, and I’m not yet sure what all the rules of this particular world are. I want the game to be similar to other MMOs that are already out there, but with a self-generating, self-policing, communal feel. Artists and computer programmers and writers can submit their designs for landscapes to explore, quests to undertake, items to buy and sell. If you start acting like a troll, you get banished. Not sure how this part works—do they get banished to a specific area of the game that’s full of glitches and other people as horrible as themselves? Do they get banned from the game entirely but manage to hack their way back in?

I think the way a person gets to design their avatar is the perfect way for me to play around with gender. A 10-foot-tall bearded giant who uses she/her pronouns. An anthropomorphic orange tabby cat who uses xe/xey pronouns. A genderless, speciesless character who’ll have breasts and a beard one day, and a mermaid’s tail and hawk’s head the next. The story’s character of the white bear who sheds that form at night to become the human he really is—there’s a lot of potential there. I see the story starting out with a destitute guild (instead of a destitute family) whose latest battle has left them with the bare minimum of equipment and gold. I can’t wait to start writing up character profiles and figuring out how to convey all the different audio-visual aspects of gaming into a novel.

What I need from y’all are recommendations for games to try out, as I’ve never actually played in an MMO before. Back in middle school when my best friend and I were really into Redwall novels, she played Furcadia and I wanted to soooo badly but couldn’t because I had a Mac. These days the closest I’ve gotten is watching “The Guild.” So what games would you recommend to me? I love fantasy landscapes and creatures and stories. Any games that are geared specifically toward women, gender-nonconforming folks, and other marginalized demographics are a plus.

February 27, 2014

East of the Sun, West of the Moon

The story starts with a poor husband and father who has many hungry children, and the youngest daughter is of course the most beautiful. One night during a howling storm, a White Bear knocks on the doors and promises the man that if he will give the bear his youngest daughter, the family shall be as rich as they are now poor. The girl refuses at first but finally agrees, and she packs her meager belongings and leaves with the White Bear, riding on his back.
They come to a hidden castle in a mountain, where all is of silver and gold, and the girl needs only ring a silver bell to instantly receive whatever she desires. At night, after she climbs into bed and blows out the light, a strange man climbs in bed with her. This is really the White Bear, who has shed his animal form and returns to his human form at night. This happens the same way every night.
When she returns home for a brief visit, the White Bear makes her promise that she will never talk alone with her mother, or she will bring great misfortune upon herself and him. Sure enough, her mother convinces the girl to talk with her alone and tell her everything about her time in the castle. The mother warns her daughter that the mysterious man could be a troll, so she gives her daughter a bit of candle to sneak back with her so she can look at the man while he sleeps.
The girl returns to the castle with the White Bear, and that night she lights the candle to look at him as he sleeps. She sees the most beautiful prince, and as she leans down to kiss him, three drops of tallow from the candle fall upon the prince’s shirt. He wakes, crying, “What have you done?”
He tells her that he had been cursed by his wicked stepmother into taking the form of a bear, and had the girl only stayed with him for a year without seeing his true form, the spell would have been broken. Now he must travel to the castle that lies east of the sun and west of the moon and wed a troll princess with a nose three ells long [ell: a unit of measure equal to six hand breadths, or roughly 45 inches].
After he is gone, the girl begins a long journey to find him, but no one knows where to find the castle that lies east of the sun and west of the moon. She is aided by three old women who she meets along the way, each of whom gives her a unique gift: a golden apple, a golden carding comb, and a golden spinning wheel. From there she travels to ask each of the four great winds if they know where the castle lies, ending with the strongest, the North Wind. He is the only one in the world to have ever traveled as far as the castle she seeks, and he takes her there.
The girl sits outside the castle window on three consecutive days, playing with each one of the golden items she received. On each day, the troll princess appears and wants to buy the item, but the girl will only give it up in exchange for spending the night alone with the prince, and the troll princess agrees. The first two nights, the girl goes to the prince’s room to find him fast asleep, and no matter how she shakes him and cries out to him, he will not wake. On the third night, he has been warned by helpful staff in the castle (fellow humans who were likewise abducted by the trolls). He pretends to drink the drugged wine that the troll princess brings him, but he really throws it out. That night, when the girl arrives, they rejoice and make their plans.
The next day, before his wedding, the prince requests a test of his bride. He asks her to wash his favorite shirt, which has gotten three drops of tallow on it. The troll princess, thinking this an easy task, agrees. She rubs and scrubs, but the spots grow bigger and blacker. Two more trolls try until the shirt is as black as soot. The prince brings in the girl sitting outside the castle to try to wash the shirt, and as soon as she dips it in the water, it is as clean as snow. The trolls explode in fury, and the prince and his beloved rescue the captured humans and return home.
In my initial interpretation of the symbols in this story, I pondered how the White Bear might represent danger, mystery, transformation, power, the promise of wealth and adventure, and the wildness of human nature. In fact he represents all of these things, but much more.
In my late teens, I loved that this story has a strong heroine that goes on a dangerous journey to rescue her man and not the other way around. In my early twenties, I began questioning what the story was saying about gender and traditional gender roles, in that the girl was expected to sleep with a stranger for a year without questioning it, and that she proved her worth by doing laundry, the task of an obedient little housewife.
I gained a much deeper understanding of and appreciation for this story by reading about it in the book Spinning Straw into Gold: What Fairy Tales Reveal About the Transformations in a Woman’s Life by Joan Gould. Heroines in fairy tales are always on journeys of transformation that mirror the journeys we take in our real lives. A little girl longs to prove herself as a young woman. A young woman yearns to be a lover or wife. A wife longs for a child. An old woman can serve to either aid or terrorize the young as they begin their own journeys. “Wicked or foolish females, by contrast, are those who fail to develop, so that their consciousness does not match their current stage of life” (Gould, xviii).
In “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” our heroine is a young maiden noted for her splendid beauty, a sure indicator that she will begin her journey to becoming a lover. Her father, poor and without prospects, cannot provide for her, and so he has fallen in her esteem from the grand hero that she saw in him when she was a little girl. “He is no longer King, as he was in her childhood; his throne sits vacant, waiting for a younger, more potent male to claim it” (144).
Enter the White Bear. Like in “Beauty and the Beast” and other variations of this story,
The Beast-god, or the human who considers himself a Beast, comes out of his hiding place lusting for a female virgin, not any virgin but the particular one he has his eye on. All-powerful in his own realm, he is needy and suffering in ours, locked in a grim picture of himself that isolates him from humanity. His life cannot take on meaning except through the body of a human female (138).
The girl doesn’t have to go with him, but she does. She is intrigued, compelled, and ready to move on to the next stage of her life. In the original story, the girl is asked more than once. “Are you afraid?” and she always replies “No.” It is open to interpretation whether she is telling the truth or not.
During their time together in the castle, the girl now experiences the new realm of sex. The man is mysterious, and she only encounters him in the complete darkness of night as he enters her bed. As long as she does not disturb the mystery and deliberately ‘cast light on it’ by questioning who her lover is, they can remain together in blissful ignorance and lust indefinitely. But, once again, she is ready to move on. She feels compelled to go back to her family.
At this point, the heroine wakes up from her trance with a start, wondering if it’s right to enjoy herself in this palace with a male so shockingly different. Suddenly her blood family, particularly the circle of women, has a renewed hold on her. Only through them will she find out if she’s leading the life she ought to be leading in this obscure paradise, if she’s as happy as she thinks she is… Separation and return. The shift from blood family to lover and back again. The schism illuminates what is lacking in each of them (171).
The circle of women is often represented by sisters, but in this case it is her mother. The daughter has grown into a woman, so the mother provides her daughter with the tools she needs to protect herself. She lights the candle and sees her lover for what he really is.
Like Bluebeard’s wife opening the forbidden door, she breaks the taboo by shining her light on what she’s not permitted to see, and her curiosity isn’t weakness, as men think, but strength. How can she understand what she doesn’t see, and how can she transform what she doesn’t understand? In particular, she casts light on sex, which is a form of activity that does not like the light. Her love affair may end because of this defiance, but that doesn’t stop her, since she has discovered that happiness, which is what she thought she wanted, is not as powerful as consciousness, even though consciousness brings suffering in its wake, for which men will blame her (180).
The moment of insight is the moment of transformation, during which the two protagonists switch roles. Once the Beast has been seen for what he is, he never appears as the lord of the forest again. Stunned by his new condition, he lies indoors in a trance, waiting to be roused like a male Sleeping Beauty, while the heroine, burning with her new consciousness, displays an energy as purposeful as any mythic hero’s in order to save him (182).
The three golden items were of particular interest to me. In the ordinary world, an apple, a carding comb, and a spinning wheel are certainly ordinary items. In that context, they are symbolic of women’s work: feeding and clothing her family. Add in the magical element of gold, however (symbolic of eternity), and they become something entirely new: keys to another world. The heroine is not tempted by them, for she is motivated by a much higher purpose, but she holds onto them knowing they may be of use to her in her travels, which of course they are. The troll princess, worldly and greedy, is tempted by the golden objects and must have them at any cost.
The three old women who give the heroine these objects are, I believe, symbolic of female knowledge, wisdom, and power. They are the gatekeepers at each stage of the heroine’s journey, judging her fittingness to pass and continue with her mission. Similarly, the elemental forces of the four winds are symbolic of male knowledge, wisdom, and power. They also serve as gatekeepers, in a more wizard-like form, possibly representing fate.
The washing of the shirt I no longer see as a menial housewifely task for the heroine to prove her worthiness of the prince. Because the trolls cannot perform the job, only a human, it is proof of her humanity. It is a seemingly lowly task, showing at once how the work of running a house is both humble and noble. She ultimately rescues her lover and husband not by outside magic, brute force, or trickery, but by being what she is: human, woman, lover, wife. In that, she has truly earned her happy ending.

In which Beth finally figures out what she wants to do with her life??

I had a sort of revelation at work last week. There have been several threads of thought regarding my professional like that have been spinning and weaving and untangling themselves for a while now. The main two are:

1. Yes, I’m going to try to become a published novelist, but what am I going to do for money? No one becomes a successful novelist overnight and I need a career that I find meaningful and satisfying and that will also pay my bills. I’m 29 now and I need to get that shit figured out.

2. I love my job. (I’m a peer tutor at the Writing Center of my college. I’m also now serving on the editorial board for Inkwell, the publication that the tutors at the Writing Center write and publish once a year.) But I’ve known from the beginning that it’s temporary—only students get to be tutors.

And yesterday it all kind of coalesced. It was a particularly inspiring day and I thought, “My job is just about perfect.” I work with a small, close-knit community. I genuinely like, as a person, every single coworker and boss I have (and I recognize how magically rare that is in a workplace). Having a successful tutoring session with a writer, where they walk out feeling more confident, inspired, and purposefulthat’s amazing. Doing the same thing now with Inkwell, where the writer is not a stranger but a friend and coworker, is even better. My work is so important to me. It’s deeply meaningful and soul-satisfying.

The one thing that I feel is missing? Kids. I love and miss working with kids. The years at the beginning of adolescence are intense in every way, and if I could somehow do what I do now, but with young folkshelping them find their voice and use it to make art and meaning in their own lifethat would be perfect.

So what would that look like, in terms of an actual career? I have two ideas.

1. Taking the basic structure and principle of the Writing Center where I work and applying it elsewhere. Whether it’s connected to the public libraries, a school, or an independent organizationcreating a place where young people can come to learn about writing (preferably for free, since class/ability/racial/cultural inclusivity is crucial).

2. Staying at the college where I am now, finding a way to stay employed after I graduate, and creating an after-school and/or summer program for young folks. I recently reread The Wild Girls by Pat Murphy, about two 12-year-old girls who write a prize-winning short story and then enroll in a summer writing program at Berkeley (all while dealing with their dysfunctional families). The first time I read it, I identified more with the protagonist, Joan/Newt. This time, I found myself thinking, “I want to be her” when reading about Verla Volante, the Berkeley student, snappy dresser, inspiring teacher of their creative writing class, and mysterious “good witch or bad witch?” So why can’t I be Verla Volante, and create such a program at Evergreen like they had at Berkeley?

Plus, in my wonderings about “Is an MFA program the right choice for me?” it turns out that Evergreen is planning to roll out its own MFA program sometime in the next few years. “Oh, great,” I thought, “then I’ll never want to leave.” Well, why should I have to, anyway?

Old Stuff

Defensive Acdemia (10/23/14)

All right, Mr. Professor Man. Skeptical about my proposal for my research paper? Don’t think it fits with the themes of the class? Want me to prove it? You want sources? I’LL GIVE YOU SOURCES.

Validation (10/22/14)

YOU GUYS. My coworker just told me that he was program-tutoring earlier and the professor told the whole class that they should read my article in Inkwell.

Inkfest (10/15/14)

I now have an article in Inkwell, and a poem and a short story in Vanishing Point.
Resume-building like a BOWSS.

“God’s Thumbs!” (10/9/14)

I got an idea to write about an undertea (like undersea, but tea) world, and Catherine Valente has already done it. I’m in the midst of writing a dark, twisted Snow White story, and Neil Gaiman has already done it. And I think that I will never be as good as either of these writers whom I adore.
Then I remember the quote in Catherine, Called Birdy: “Remember, Little Bird, in the world to come, you will not be asked ‘Why were you not George?’ or ‘Why were you not Perkin?’ but ‘Why were you not Catherine?’”
I will not be asked “Why were you not Neil Gaiman?” or “Why were you not Catherine Valente?” I will be asked “Why were you not Beth Cook?”

Inkwell, Vol. 9 (9/26/14)

What’s that? Oh, nothin. I’m just a PUBLISHED AUTHOR.
OK, so it’s just a small article in Inkwell: a student guide to writing, which the tutors of The Writing Center at Evergreen write each year. It’s not like I’ve gotten one of my novels published (YET).

But I’m darn proud of it and honored to be featured beside such amazing colleagues, and I’m gonna wear this like a big ol’ peacock feather in my cap. (Oh, and did I mention I’m on the Inkwell editorial board this year? *strut*)

7 Strange Questions (9/?/14)

I read this article a week or two ago, thinking it would be pretty typical for something with a title like that. But I’ve been having a breakout of WhatamIgonnadowithmylife-itis, so what the hell. I found it surprisingly insightful and funny. Read it, don’t just read my answers.
What’s your favorite kind of shit sandwich? (What struggles, sacrifices, and unpleasantries are you able to handle?) 
-I can handle disorganization because I’m good at organization.
-I’m decent at improvising and going with the flow when things change.
-Unless I work from home, I can not handle much more than a 40-hour work week. I’m good at planning and multi-tasking, to make the most of my time, but too much work = too much stress.
-As long as it doesn’t abscond with my personal life, I can handle having lots of Things To Do since I’m good at prioritizing.
-I think I can handle rejection (from publishers) just fine, since that’s more anonymous and distant, and the people in my life who say “Yes!” to my work have real faces to smile at me, real voices to encourage me, and real arms to hug me.
-I’m definitely OK with never being rich, since I have a strong foundation in what really matters in life and a lot of practice in simplifying, which I hope to get better at (more DIY!).
What is true about you today that would make your 8-year-old self cry?
This, I think, is where I excel. There are plenty of things about me now that would make 18-year-old Me cry, but she’s angry and confused.
8-year-old Me was dramatic and colorful and creative and intense and detail-oriented and happy and interested in everything and smart and bookish and friendly.
Nearly-29-year-old Me is still all of those things. Good job, Me.
What makes you forget to eat and poop? (What makes you get obsessive?)
I don’t think I’ve ever in my life forgotten to eat, but I can definitely get obsessive.
-That huge supply closet at SCDspending hours and hours pulling out the chaos, wiping everything clean, and putting it all back onto shelves and into boxes and baskets and drawers with neat little labels.
-Putting the performance order togethertaking eight or nine twisty factors into consideration and color-coding accordingly.
-CDI, and my beloved spreadsheet of oh-so-perfectly organized SOs.
-Computer games with puzzles to solve: The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis, Yipe, Amazon Trail, Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?, The Lost Mind of Dr. Brain, The Time Warp of Dr. Brain. It was about taking all the necessary steps to get to the satisfying end goal of achievement.
How can you better embarrass yourself? (What are you OK with failing at, over and over, until you get it right?)
This one is tough for me because it’s all about vulnerability, and I’ve always been intensely vulnerable anyway.
I fear letting other people down more than I fear letting myself down. If I’m only accountable to myself, then no one but me gets hurt if I fail. But if people I like and trust and respect are counting on me and I let them down, that’s hell.
I think it all comes down to people. I don’t just want coworkers, I want a work community. If the people I work with see me as a worker bee, if I can’t connect with them on what’s important, if they make me feel pressured, then the experience is going to suck. If, however, the people I work with are united by a common purpose and a common vision, if they’re all dedicated to fostering an atmosphere of support and collaboration, then I am happy to embarrass myself for those people. I will fail for them, over and over, until I learn how to get it right.
How are you going to save the world?
Another tough one for me. How can I possibly “pick a problem you care about and start solving it” when I care about all of it? OK, I may not care about a specific South American beetle I’ve never heard of going extinct, but I care about the factors that caused it and I care about saving the planet. Besides, it’s damn near impossible to separate one problem from the others.
Global climate change. Sustainability. Animal rights. Poverty. Corruption. War. Disease. Education. Gender equity. Racial equity. Mass incarceration. Big Agriculture. Corporate monopolies. Government bureaucracy. And on and on and on…

IT’S ALL CONNECTED. Touch one thread and the spider can feel it clear on the other side of the web. So how can I possibly “pick one” unless it’s going to send ripples of goodness into all the others? (Is that what teaching is?)
Gun to your head, if you had to leave the house all day, every day, where would you go and what would you do?
-I’d sit in the children’s section of a library or bookstore and read YA novels. (It’s kind of ridiculous how at home and happy I feel there.)
-I’d find a tea shop with comfy chairs and gluten-free pastries, and write.
-I’d explore odd and beautiful landscapes (leisurely).
-I’d browse antique shops and thrift shops for strange and magical curiosities.
-I’d go to an arts and crafts studio with good music and good company and we’d Make Things.
-I’d do more yoga and take up blues again and even resurrect my tap dancing.
-I’d make sure I spend time with people I enjoy.
If you knew you were going to die one year from today, what would you do and how would you want to be remembered?
-I’d make an ongoing vlog for my future niblings [genderless plural for nieces and/or nephews], chronicling my journey and talking about the Big Important Things (and the Little Important Things) so they know who I was and what I would have shared with them.
-I’d visit all the really bizarre and beautiful spots in the world.
-I’d write furiously.
-I’d bequeath any unfinished stories to writer friends so they could finish them.
-I’d dress fabulous-but-comfy.
-I’d eat whatever the fuck I want. (Not gluten, since I don’t want to spend my last year as a fart machine. Maybe my last day I’d gorge myself on croissants.)
-I’d visit the Henson Creature Shop and the set of the Fraggle Rock movie.
-I’d dance and sing whenever the hell I felt like it.