Monthly Archives: August 2013

Limited Time Offer

My last post generated a bit of controversy amongst readers and friends. Some insisted that I thoroughly could write fiction if I chose to dedicate the time and effort to improving my craft. I was perhaps a bit too surreptitious in the first paragraph–I wanted to allude to the fact that, indeed, there is some choice involved.

However, I still maintain that I can’t write fiction, and here is why:

At present, there are forms of writing that in which I am far better. I write memoir and poetry well. I’m further ahead the learning curve with both of those art forms. And I have a pressing deadline: I must have writing samples prepared for graduate school by the end of the calendar year. This must be the best work I’ve ever written. And it needs to be in the genre I choose to write for graduate school. The schools want me, amongst other things, to write in the forms in which my writing is most mature. My fiction writing is not possibly going to get there by the end of the year.

There is another, deeper concern involved as well, also related to writing. I don’t have much time to write. I don’t mean in my day–I mean in my lifetime. All I have to do in life is a limited-time offer.

Act now and we’ll throw in this free waffle iron! Photo by Cloganese. Via Flickr.com

I’m not wanting to sound alarmist and melodramatic, prognosticating my death. But I have to be honest. I wasted an entire decade of my life in ex-gay therapy–time I couldn’t commit to personal or professional development because it all had to take a back seat to the impossible attempt to turn into a heterosexual (or a giraffe, which was just as likely and just as necessary).

And I can’t necessarily predict a long life, either. Though my mother’s family tree is filled with centenarians, it’s hardly the case for my father’s side. Indeed, I buried my father when he was only 59. I am also (as I have discussed previously) diagnosed with psychiatric illness. Those who suffer mental disorders can expect a lifespan 25 years shorter than those undiagnosed. And it’s not because of suicide, like you might think, but rather from physical ailments that go untreated because doctors ignore symptoms, believing they’re just in the patient’s mind.

Believe me, I hope to beat every one of these statistics and become yet another centenarian to grace my family tree. But, with all of these factors taken into account, I perhaps am more deeply aware of my mortality than some. Seeing a parent die when you’re only 23 can do that.

So I run on the assumption that I’m not going to be around as long as the next guy. And I have a lot that needs to be said. I often say that mine is a case of the message being more important than the messenger. And I write so that something of me will live on after I die.

So it’s not for lack of desire that I don’t write fiction. I simply must focus my energies on my strengths, so that something worthwhile comes of the time I have left on this planet. This to me is far more important than my random desires.

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Why I Can’t Write Fiction

I half-joke that I don’t write fiction because I don’t care about entertaining anyone. That’s not entirely true. For my writing, I can appreciate entertainment as a means to an end, but entertaining someone is very much not what drives me as a writer. To inform, to inspire, to motivate, to challenge: these are what I hope to accomplish.

However, I avoid writing fiction mostly for a fundamental reason: I can’t. Oh, I’ve tried. I’ve crafted entire universes within my head, replete with curious characters, and have worked to translate it all onto the page. But the effort always falls short.

Last fall I took a course in short fiction.  I set one of my stories in a pub in northwest England, and spun a tale of struggle and despair that repeated itself from one generation to the next. The premise was strong, and it made a solid point. However, when we workshopped* the piece in class, my instructor (the phenomenal Ed Bok Lee) said that my story was like a stillborn baby–it had all the pieces but it had no life in it. My classmates all said that, though I had created an interesting story, they didn’t care about any of the characters. And I asked–begged–Ed, “How can I breathe life into my writing? How do I get people to care about my characters?” He replied, “I can’t answer that for you; you have to figure it out for yourself.”

Well, I have finally figured out what my big problem is, and I can best explain it by talking about The Sims. If you’re not familiar, The Sims is a series of computer games in which you “create” people–looks, personalities, everything–and then have them live out their lives in neighborhoods you create. You can basically do whatever you want with the game. You can have lots of control over their lives, or very little. (You want to have some control, though–they have a nasty habit of not getting to the bathroom in a timely manner.) Sims can have well-matched personalities and live in harmony, or you can create them to be in constant conflict. There are also cheat codes that allow you to make their lives easier or harder.

Guess which I do? I provide them unlimited money so they can have the best of everything and so that they invest zero time in a career, focussing solely on relationships and hobbies. And those relationships? Pure bliss.

In The Sims, I create a perfect, conflict-free utopia. It reflects the way my imagination works–the same imagination that ends up on paper whenever I write fiction. And conflict is necessary to motivate the action in a story.

I don’t think any of this is a bad thing. I created the utopias in my mind precisely to buffer the harsher realities I’ve had to face in life–and those realities have given me plenty to write about in the form of nonfiction. On the flipside, my utopias stem from my ideals, and my ideals in turn show up in my nonfiction.

The only thing I have lost is the ability to invite others into the paradises in my head. I wish I could–they’re quite lovely.

*In writing, to “workshop”means to work with a group of writers in order to gain constructive critique of specific pieces of their writing.

Out of Order (Forever?)

Photo by Andrea R (flickr.com)

Claire Robertson* is one of the strongest people I know. She survived a kidnapping as a child and a sexual assault as an adult, and fights Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result. She worked as a nurse, but a serious accident meant back surgery and physical disability. During the surgery, doctors discovered that she has a rare congenital connective-tissue disorder that will only get worse.

She fought for several years through multiple denials to procure Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). When she finally received it, her monthly payments were $650 per month—nowhere near the $1,000 per month she had been told.

Her husband Brian holds a Master’s degree in history. However, the downturn in the economy has eliminated all hiring in his field, vacancies only coming when someone retires or dies. He looked into going back to school to teach junior-high or high school, but a change in the curriculum meant that he would have to work for a semester in a full-time unpaid internship, with no time to earn an income. He works from home as a medical transcriptionist, a field in which wages have plummeted over the past several years as more and more of the work has been outsourced to India.

Claire and Brian have two children, both of whom have autism. Their daughter Alexis graduated from high school a year ago, but presently lives at home as she struggles with major bouts of depression and suicidal ideation, as well as with the same connective-tissue disorder Claire suffers. Alexis hopes to go to college to study veterinary medicine. She has been trained as a PCA and serves in this role for their son Ethan, but the work is only sporadic—Alexis made less than $4000 last year. Ethan is nine. A bright and loving child, he nonetheless battles severe autistic symptoms. He is enrolled in special-education courses and requires various rehabilitative services.

Brian averages $1400 a month; however, his income can vary greatly because it depends on how much work he is assigned. Sometimes he earns nothing in a pay period. On rare occasion he gets paid overtime. When Claire started receiving SSDI, the family lost their food stamps entirely, and Ethan’s monthly SSDI payments dropped from $641 to $350—not really enough to pay for Ethan’s medical needs. All but Brian receive medical insurance through the state of Minnesota, which has one of the most generous state-insurance programs in the United States. When Claire began receiving SSDI, she was automatically moved to Medicare insurance (she had no say in the matter), for which she must pay $101 per month out of pocket, on top of high copays on her dozen-plus medications. Brian was dropped from state insurance entirely because his employer offers insurance—never mind the fact that the premiums in the employer’s program exceed Brian’s entire income. Thus Brian has no way to treat his own multiple medical issues, which include high blood pressure, sleep apnea, and depression.

Two years ago, the Robertsons were kicked out of their home illegally by a new landlord, and didn’t have the resources to fight it in court, so they found themselves temporarily homeless, living out of a motel. They found one house in their price range and bought it, but it has major structural issue, including a roof that needs to be replaced, for which they lost their homeowner’s insurance and now must pay for the roof out of pocket. Moreover, the house does not have a ramp for Claire to use her wheelchair, and the Robertsons cannot afford to build one on their own. They have requested assistance from Habitat for Humanity, but that organization must wait for funding approval from the government before they can proceed. They hope to have the ramp installed sometime next year.

The Robertsons just received a letter stating that, because of the handful of checks for which Brian was paid overtime, not only have they lost Ethan’s $350 monthly check entirely, but Social Security has declared the loss retroactive—the family must pay Social Security $1400 to repay the SSDI payments they had been receiving since May.

I write all of this for two reasons. First is to bring awareness to just how severely broken the assistance system is in the United States. It operates on a binary structure—either one is entirely on the System or entirely off. Furthermore, the income threshold at which one is kicked off the System is well below what one can afford to live on (unless one is in subsidized housing, which, because of long-standing application freezes nationwide, for all intents doesn’t exist unless you’re already living in it). Almost anything one can do to move oneself into safe financial straits is prohibited. Some people “know” the System is broken (and even more broken now because of cuts to poverty programs like Head Start and public housing, thanks to Congress’s sequester). But knowledge often is not enough to prompt one to action, which is why I asked Claire if I could share her family’s story. I wanted to put a face to what is going on in America.

The other reason I am relating this story is because I wish to serve notice to anyone who would dare write off the Robertsons as “lazy” and would tell them to “just get a job”. If you think that, first off, you haven’t read a damn word I’ve written up to this point.

And where do you suggest they “get a job”? Jobs are scarce, and the ones that are available are part-time and/or pay next to nothing nothing (thanks in large part to profit-hoarding and a refusal to invest in the country’s infrastructure, education, etc.).

If you had the gall to express such ideas to my face or to the Robertsons’, I wouldn’t blame myself or them if I/they slapped you—and I’m a pacifist. But folks never express these ideas face-to-face. They do so from the safety of blog comments sections, ballot boxes, and legislative office.

Finally, if this is your response, I’m going to question how you were raised. I was raised not to judge any human being until I had walked a mile in their shoes, and if you were raised differently, then I would ask you to make up for your poor parenting and re-educate yourself. If you don’t, you’re the lazy one, for not exercising your brain or your heart.

*Names changed to protect identity.