Speaking Truth

You’ve all probably heard of Dove’s #SpeakBeautiful campaign by now. If you haven’t, brief summary: Dove (parent company: Unilever) has partnered with Twitter to call out women who tweet “negative” (um, hello, subjective) things and to encourage (read: command) them to speak beautiful—to say only positive things and to smile!

Okay, so…I get that this is well-intentioned, at least from a marketing perspective. I get that Dove is trying to show the world that they care about women. But this campaign…it just…no.

I’m writing this in a hurry, so instead of offering references to studies, personal testimony, and so forth, I’ll offer an anecdote:

My ex used to control my speech. Don’t say that, you sound stupid. Don’t talk like that, you sound like a thug. Maybe he thought he was helping me. I don’t know. Because what he ended up telling me, every time, through those admonitions, was that who I was and how I chose to speak wasn’t good enough. That I could be better—I could be like him—if I simply changed my words.

But I didn’t want to be like him. It made me feel confused and terrible and sad and alone. So alone. And then later, when I was going through a very hard time in my life—my divorce from the aforementioned ex—I wanted desperately to tell someone how much I was hurting and how unvaluable I felt. But, in their well-meaning ignorance, everyone simply told me things would get better, to buck up and think positive, and it would all work out in the end.

It did work out in the end, but it took me a lot longer to get to that point because I had spent so long being silenced. First by my ex, then by people who didn’t want to hear my pain. I spent so long feeling isolated after realizing that I had no one to talk to who was willing to understand, and it drew out that time of pain and delayed my healing.

Listening is hard work. Listening and not judging is hard. And with #SpeakBeautiful, Dove seems to be taking the easy way out, silencing women who are struggling and sweeping them out of sight so others don’t have to deal with the tough reality of life.

But in the end, life is a full, whole thing. Truth is a full, whole thing. Beauty is only a part of that. Good and bad, beautiful and ugly. That’s truth, and that’s life. When Dove tells women to speak beautiful, they are telling women what we’ve heard all our lives: You’re not entitled to the whole pie. Here’s your slice, shut up and be happy with what you’ve been given.

And I just have to say again…

No.

I choose not to #SpeakBeautiful. I choose to #SpeakTruth. And the truth I am speaking today is this:

When you tell me to speak beautiful, you are silencing me.
When you publicly shame me into speaking beautiful, you are not talking to me.
You are talking to everyone else.
You are telling them that my words are toxic, which makes me feel like you are telling the world that I am toxic.
You have told me to buck up, that things will work out in the end, and after silencing me, you have left me behind.

I want you to stop this, Dove. I want you to instead think about what it means to speak truth. What it means to say instead:

I hear you. I am listening. I will not judge. Pour out your sorrows and I will help you carry your burden without judgment and without abandonment. You are a woman. You are a human being. You are allowed to feel deeply, whether joy or pain, because that is part of life. You are entitled to life.

Speak truth.

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How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love “Alpha” Males: A Guest Post by Elisabeth Lane

Hi, everyone! Audra here. Elisabeth Lane, whom many of you know from Cooking Up Romance, is here to talk about fantasy love objects, alpha males, and relatable heroines. We’d love to hear your thoughts on her thoughts, so please feel free to comment and add your own perspective. And if you have a chance after you read this post, head on over to her blog and check out her awesome recipes and creative reviews of romance novels. With that, take it away, Elisabeth!

We’ve all seen references to Book Boyfriends and Book BFFs, right? Heroes we’d like to date? Heroines we’d like to clothing shop and have coffee with? It’s a common way of parsing how readers react to romance characters. I’ve done it myself. If we don’t fantasize the heroine as our best friend or the hero as our boyfriend, what good is the book, right?

Wrong. At least for me.

I recently found a theoretical framework for exploring reactions I have to characters that are more complicated than a man I’d want to date or a woman I’d want to hang out with: Laura Kinsale’s essay “The Androgynous Reader” in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women. While I don’t agree with everything in the essay, and some of the assertions were tentative, and it was written quite a while ago (1992), and it didn’t take into account queer romance at all, and it was focused largely on historicals featuring privileged white characters (got all that?), it gives a different perspective on reader identification with characters than I had seen before. Specifically, that female readers identify equally with romance heroines and heroes, stepping into the shoes of both hero and heroine at different moments in the story. And while fantasy relationships may play some part in reader-character identification, it may not be as much as is sometimes assumed.

The Book Boyfriend/Book BFF convention is a mild form of an assumption that crops up now and again both in and out of the romance community that the hero’s primary function in a romance is to be a reader’s love object: a fantasy man to attach fantasy feelings to. And the heroine’s primary function is to be a placeholder for the romance reader: the object of or even competition for the hero’s affection. And while that may be true and the full story for some readers, I (and Kinsale in her essay) wonder if that’s not simplistic. After all, whether romance readers identify as feminist or not, many would bridle at the high-handedness of an average romance hero if directed at us in real life. No one is going to bundle me into any carriage against my will any time soon.

I thought I would need a heroine to relate to, or a man sexually interested in women to hook my fantasies. Wouldn’t only some kind of destructive or ascetic desire for unrequited love put me in the role of a straight woman lusting after a gay male character? Or internalized misogyny: a straight woman wanting nothing to do with other women and their struggles with systemic sexism? I couldn’t wrap my head around it. But suddenly in queer romance, I had a whole new way to experience the romantic story arc and the characters that create it in a way that took me by surprise.

In queer romance I was reading heroes (whether male, genderqueer or trans*) as people with their own motivations and desires, not as fantasy objects or love interests because I had no expectation that they should function that way. Previously I had only been conscious of reading heroines like that. I found myself less judgmental toward heroes who wronged their romantic partner as both partners are marginalized by society at large. It turns out when you remove my innate protectiveness of heroines (to be read alternately as my BFF or myself), I’m able to more effectively put myself in the hero’s shoes, not less. This was a huge revelation! I didn’t need a heroine or a man sexually interested in women to connect with a romance!

Books like E.E. Ottoman’s trans* romance A Matter of Disagreement or KJ Charles’ m/m romance Think of England left me more attuned to the motivations of heroes across the board: motivations that were independent of his romantic interest in the heroine because there wasn’t one. No hero-as-fantasy, no heroine-as-reader-placeholder and yet they are clearly romances. There is identification with these characters, their struggles and their romantic arcs, independent of fantasy.

Alpha heroes might not display every characteristic I’d like to see in heroes (or that the men I know and love personally display). Plus they might display lots of characteristics some of us would prefer to avoid. I’m not unequivocally defending alpha heroes, who are particularly tough to take when they lack vulnerability and deprive others of agency and because I have concerns about portraying masculinity in such narrow ways. However, the level of competence, confidence and even arrogance they’re allowed to have seems like it could be vicariously thrilling, even for someone not of the same gender.

Take defending someone physically, a hallmark of many alphas. It’s not an experience most romance readers have every day (regardless of gender), and in fact, might not be capable of depending on the circumstance. So instead of looking at an alpha hero and being afraid that we don’t measure up (or being afraid of him, period), we can look at him as a version of ourselves we don’t typically feel comfortable expressing. Women at least are supposed to step out of the way, mediate, and make sure everyone is comfortable in society’s conception. We don’t, by virtue of size or sense of entitlement, often get to insist that other people must see things our way the way an alpha hero can. His power becomes our power. Strength that could be considered threatening is placed on our side.

Maybe I’m a weird reader (and truly, there’s plenty of evidence for that), but looking back at my reviews with the proof of reader identification across the gender spectrum, it’s clear that I have found both heroines and heroes equally intriguing. And it’s been seamless, regardless of romantic and sexual pairings. One example is Ash from Alexis Hall’s Glitterland because I have made nearly every single one of his mistakes, if not in so dramatic a fashion. That love story was a spiritual one for me, an example of God’s love, extended by one imperfect human being to another without either of them having been “perfected” first. And for totally different reasons, the hero of Jeffe Kennedy’s Ruby, Bobby Prejean, who is a more of an alpha, though not one in the motorcycle gang mold. Because, well, I want to be him when I grow up. I envy his competence and his utter lack of apology for being exactly who he is. People must take him on his terms or not at all. This standard applied to alphas generally makes them less problematic for me as a character type, even if it doesn’t erase all my concerns about them.

When characters are reduced to fantasy romantic placeholders at any point along the gender spectrum, it doesn’t honor the fact that some romance readers seem to draw insight, strength, comfort, and satisfaction from a wide variety of characters. In the future, I will be more careful about the language of “fantasy” as regards romance, because really, I don’t think character identification has ever been quite that simple.

About Elisabeth
curI live in the Washington, DC suburbs with my husband and our dog. I spent nearly 15 years in marketing before quitting to become a full-time housewife. I sit around all day eating bonbons and reading romance novels. Okay, not really. But I am a housewife and I do read a lot of romance novels. I started reading romance in high school. And I started cooking long before that. I love to experiment in the kitchen, go ballroom dancing and spend lots of time in thrift stores looking for mid-century modern pottery to add to my collection.

On my blog, I match the romance novels I read with a recipe from my personal archives or just make up a new one. I post a couple times a week, most often a book review with a recipe, but sometimes just my thoughts on a particular romance topic.

Read more about me and my adventures pairing romance novels with food at cooking-up-romance.com.

Posted in Writing Wonkomance | 7 Comments

The Hard Part About Writing

Amber2014I’ve been enjoying Amber Belldene’s posts so much that I asked her to do another guest post in my place. If you haven’t met Amber or read her yet, she writes paranormal and contemporary (new book out last week! One Sinful Night in Sao Paulo). She’s also an Episcopal priest, which influences everything she writes, from blog posts to books. I’ve always loved her tagline, “…because desire is divine.”

The hard part about writing is getting better at it.

It’s probably not author-brand savvy to admit I had not mastered writing when my first book was published in 2013 or that I still haven’t learned to dominate my muse nor made craft my bitch.  But heck, this is Wonkomance, where writers get real.

I hope you’ll get real with me about how growing as a writer means a deeper kind of struggle with craft.

In my life, I’ve gotten better at other things.  I became a better knitter, and I loved to tackle more challenging techniques.  I trained until I could complete triathlons. I’d like to think I’ve grown as a priest too, since being ordained.  I’ve certainly grown comfortable in the pulpit and at the hospital bed in ways I once thought impossible.  In all those cases, my growth was profoundly rewarding.  Mastery made things easier and more fun.

Can someone please tell me when that is going to happen with my writing?

Because the more I do it (and hopefully, get better at it), the harder it feels.  Sometimes it’s hard in a good way, and sometimes it’s just plain painful.

The best analogy I have for this is a musical one.  I’m no musician, but this works for me:  When I first starting writing, I was essentially picking out a tune, like I do on my kids’ xylophone. Slow, linear, not a bit of polyphony, and always something familiar.

My grasp of craft was so limited I didn’t really understand the difference between a symphony and a single line of melody. Or, better said, I had an appreciation for a lush, symphony-like book, but didn’t understand the elements of craft well enough to know how to get from melody to harmony and beyond.

And thank God! It gave me a fool’s courage to start. If I’d had any notion of how much I didn’t know, I would have faltered at the bottom of page one.

Now, I am probably writing music for trios and quartets. I’m still far from a symphony. But every sentence I write feels harder than those first sentences.  I am simply aware of so much more. Aware of how, in the best books, every word and sentence is doing about a million things—it’s contributing to voice (character’s and author’s), characterization, plot, theme, mood, trope, and ties in to larger issues like stereotypes, gender role, and the conventions of the genre. Each word is working in harmony with and counterpoint to every other.  There’s more.  Even if I managed to write down all the facets I can attend to on my best writing days, a true master, a composer of symphonies, could add a dozen more words to the list.

As my writing buddy Mark Pritchard says in a Yoda voice, “Now you have begun to truly write.”

Before we started writing, most of us had probably read enough to have a solid intuition about how to do it, had paid attention to craft somewhat unconsciously, which is why we have that fool’s courage to start, and why others encouraged us to keep at it—they saw some kernel of unsuckiness in our beginner’s work.

But when suddenly we become self-aware, conscious of what once was automatic, it only adds to that sense of labor, not mastery. We have eaten from the tree of knowledge, we know we are naked and we’ve been kicked out of the Garden of Eden, forced to toil.

Even outside the Garden of Eden, eventually some things do get easier.  When I was bemoaning the “it gets harder” problem on Twitter, Emma Barry pointed to a particular aspect of style essential to the romance genre: Deep Point of View, and how now she can do it easily, perhaps even automatically.  Ideally, we become that fluent with many aspects of craft.

In the flow of drafting a scene, when I can cage my internal editor, I often enjoy a sense of ease.  Even in the revision stage, I sometimes see something I might not have seen before, come up with a solution, and feel really happy about it.

But it never feels like mastery.

Perhaps you will tell me I’m just not there yet.  A sense of mastery will come. One day (and everyone’s journey varies in duration) I will arrive at the writer’s paradise of ease and fun in this work. Other aspects of writing have come when I was certain they never would (namely, I think I’ve finally stopped pantsing).

Maybe you’re waving at me from that sunny shore of mastery at this very moment. Yay, you! I’m not even especially envious, though I doubt I will ever get there myself.

In fact, I’m not sure I want to, even if I sometimes wistfully wish it were easier (also, that I had more time).

I’m not arguing the best art is born in suffering or anything maudlin like that.  Just that with greater self-awareness comes the potential for greater satisfaction in the struggle, even if less satisfaction with our product.

The wider our eyes are open, the more we will inevitably see how, say, the book we set out to write was inherently limited by its premise, and yet it was a story we longed to tell. The more we will make conscious, creative choices others disagree with and take flack for it.  When these critiques appear in reviews, we will not be shocked but instead nod our head and agree and keep on writing the next story, hopefully a better story, but it won’t seem better, because by then our threshold will have risen yet again.

It’s like the reverse of how, when I see pictures of myself ten years ago, looking younger and thinner, I recall how I still thought I needed to lose five pounds.  When I skim through a published book I wrote months or years ago, I am already cringing over how much better I could make it, if I could only do one more revision.

Growing hurts.  We writers may develop thicker skin to the criticism of others, and we may also learn to manage our self-criticism, but I don’t think there is any way to escape going deeper into the struggle with our own vision and aspirations. It’s a little (or maybe some days big) fire always burning inside us, a flame of inspiration and purification, to refine ideas.

I’m trying to embrace it. I’m trying to have the courage to feed that fire and to keep working on the projects that scare me, that kick my ass, the ones I just want to finish but must find the patience to make better because I have gotten better as a writer.

If you haven’t reached that paradise of mastery yet, I’m glad to have you out here with me, toiling in exile from Eden.  I appreciate your courage, the risks you take.  I appreciate your honesty and vulnerability.  I love your books.

The hard part about writing is getting better at it.

The best part is not struggling alone.

About Amber

I grew up on the Florida panhandle, swimming with alligators, climbing oak trees and diving for scallops…when I could pull myself away from a book. As a child, I hid my Nancy Drew novels inside the church bulletin and read mysteries during sermons—an irony that is not lost on me when I preach these days.

I’m an Episcopal Priest and student of the worlds’ religions. I believe stories are the best way to explore human truths, and I’m passionate about the deep ties between spirituality and sexuality. Some people think it’s strange for a minister to write romance, but it is perfectly natural to me, because the human desire for love is at the heart of every romance novel and God made people with that desire.

I write paranormal, historical and contemporary romance and live with my husband and two children in San Francisco.

Find out more about me and my books at amberbelldene.com.

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