Critique groups. sigh. These are hard. Your writing/characters are your babies. Hearing others criticize them can be tough.
More than that. It's the type of the criticism that can hit hard. You can give feedback about prose, long, short, dense sentences, or weak verb usage, sure, but when you criticize the essence of the story or who the protagonist is/represents then that becomes a sore issue.
Lately, I have been dealing with criticism that a character from a story I will dub, P isn't likeable. The protagonist is an ailing woman suffering from an unknown illness who's being given the runaround, and who expresses her frustration with this frequently. I have been told she's not sympathetic. She has demonstrated no BAD behavior, with the exception of snapping at her landlady, a woman who says racially insensitive things--and apparently this makes her not likeable or bitchy.
First, let me say that writing black characters, especially black women, is hard. I don't want to write a *strong black woman, angry black woman, or victim. I also don't want to write a character deemed unworthy of sympathy/love. I have received criticism that this character is one, if not all of these.
I have been quite diplomatic about the criticism, giving everyone the benefit of the doubt about their objectivity, even while pushing to know what exactly about this character makes her unsympathetic and unlikeable.
The responses have been --a) she's snappy with the landlady/bitchy, b) we don't know who she is/she's not relatable, c)she's stupid/incompetent.
Part of me cannot help feel that the repeated criticism that this character isn't likeable has much to do with the difficulty society in general has with sympathizing with black women. That said, I am reluctant to make her a sad victim, since society, and the literary world in particular, thrive on black victimhood. I don't want her to be Patsey from 12 Years A Slave, which I often feel is the only type of black women character deemed sympathetic. I don't want to exploit black trauma.
I mainly write characters put upon by the world they live in (in other words, true to life black people). I write characters who grow into who they are and take what's thrust upon them and turn it into magic and strength.
Another bizarre criticism I received was that I have dehumanized my lead character, making her into a magical non-human--a magic negro. The Magic Negro is a character used in fiction to help alleviate the conflicts and elevate the status of the white protagonist, going so far as to die for the white leads.
This character is set up that way but the moral of the story is that she won't any longer die for anyone's causes. My goal for this particular character is to have her turn her would-be victimhood/magical status into strength and power to help herself. In other words, subvert the plot.
This is an overdue post in my How to be a Woman adventures!
Three weeks ago I finally decided be confrotnational. It was the toughest thing I ever did. I chickened out a couple times, and then finally, on the weekend, I wrote the email.
I did not know what to expect--an explosive argument or a concession and apology.
For years I have been saddled by misplaced, lapsed anger about what I should’ve/could’ve done during past episodes when I felt disrespected/condescended to/bullied. I always walk away, priding myself on my non-violent/argumentative stance. I convinced myself I was taking the high road—when they go low, I go high. Ultimately, this was a lie I told myself, a lie to hide my insecurities, fears, anxieties and cowardice, even. I backed down because I was afraid to stand up for myself. It allowed others to get away with believing they could do and say whatever to me they liked, because I would back down.
This led to years of “chip on shoulder” emotions boiling over. In my head were a slew of "trigger" words: so? No! Go! (spoken condescendingly or angrily). I couldn't escape the ruminations, nor obsessing over every slight. When it got bad, I seriously considered contacting those who’d wronged me in the past to confront them, be it social media or in-person. Ultimately, these solutions felt weird. The past was gone. Here was now. So, I focused on something else –the next time, I’d speak up.
Despite vowing to speak out when I am wronged, I didn't. I still found myself letting incidents slide, partly burdened by my own lack of confidence in my own judgment --did that person mean to speak down to me, I would ask myself. What if I was making a big deal out of nothing? What if I misinterpreted.? At the end of the day, I realized I was stalling and making excuses.
I knew I had to express my feelings. But, how to express myself with words when I wasn't big on talking? I resorted to my strong point--writing. I wrote my thoughts down, went over the words, made sure they said what I wanted to say, tone and everything, conveyed. I did this with the co-worker, and then I hit sent.
The worst of it was over. Once the inevitable happened --my coworker read it and responded, I received an apology. Of course, this went over better than most real life scenarios, and I partly banked on my coworker's personality and professionalism for a smooth resolution. I know in real life standing up to someone, particularly a stranger, or a bully with a bad personality, won’t be so easy. Nonetheless, it’s a breakthrough, the fulfillment of a promise I made to myself too many times to count. Stand up for yourself. Speak up. Keeping it all inside won’t help. Trust me.
How To Be A Woman Tip #1
I am a hoarder. I have known this for sometime. Perhaps it is the fact of growing up working class without much to own, I have developed a fascination with collecting things, including broken or damaged things. The mindset is that broken things can be amended, re-purposed.
I am the type who is fascinated by people who turn throw-away/basic everyday things into art. I get carried away by the guy who makes artwork out of gum, or the woman who re-purposes old clothes into blankets and shawls. In my head, I am this type. The goal is to turn these trinkets into art one day. I am still waiting for that one day that I know in my heart will never come.The end result is that I have "collections" of little trinkets, things the world would dismiss as garbage (specialty store paper/plastic bags, designer tags/ buttons that have fallen off clothes), piling, and need more and more storage boxes.
I am the woman who will keep an old, falling apart piece of clothes because I really like the color, or the design, or out of sentimentality, the reason I still have my old high school gym shorts. I keep bags with broken straps with the intent to sew the strap back on, someday.
Those some-days are not coming.
Increasingly I have a "hunt for the perfect ...." mentally. The perfect sweater, the perfect winter boots, the perfect handbag. I convince myself that once I find the "perfect" INSERT ITEM, then I'll stop looking or shopping. Each time I find the "perfect" Item, then some new item comes around that I think is more ideal. And so the saga continues.
I have spent the last few months in a transitional phase ... donating and/or throwing away items that I cannot wear, don't like, or that can't fit anymore. It hasn't been easy. I buy clothes and shoes not because I need them, but because I want them, and I don't throw things out because they might still fit, and because, growing up, my family amended clothes, not get new ones.
Now, my clothes are meant to represent the woman I want to present to the world--casually professional and sophisticated, part tomboy, with an embrace of feminine aesthetics.
Learning to de-clutter has been therapeutic. Part of my process includes questioning why I have/want things. Often, the answer is that the "item" makes me happy. The rule that's been toughest is the "blind dump."--Throwing things out without checking what it is first. If I throw something away and don't miss it, then it wasn't worth keeping. I have gone through my cupboards and thrown out unused mugs and glasses that have been there so long they've yellowed. I have gone into the bathroom cabinet and decide to either a) use up items that are unfinished (1/4 bottles of perfume, for example), or b) throw out expired or dried/caked up items--I had a few of these). It's been useful.
1. Check to see if you have an item before you buy it.
2. Use up all your partly finished liquids/fluids before you buy more
3. Donate (you'll feel good)
4. Ask yourself why you are keeping this? (need, sentimentally, or just because?)
5. Organize/Label things into types or kinds (it helps to keep track of what you own, and if you can SEE THE LABEL you are more likely to be reminded of what you have and therefore more likely to consult/use the thing). Sometimes items are lost in the clutter, and I forget I have this or that.
6. Don't buy bulk unless it's for frequently used items (e.g. tissue). Limit items to a certain number. e.g, Only buy 5 volumes of one item every month, e.g.
7. Throw out "goods" boxes, after a month. Chances are, if you haven't returned the item after a month, you won't do so ever. If you do need to return it after this time, you only need a receipt.
8. Do a seasonal purge (make this a habit--spring cleaning, etc.)
9. Take a picture rather than keep the "cute" designer label tag for no reason. A virtual "art collection" is just as effective as a physical one. Seriously, taking pictures of things I like, such as a "cute" button or bottle still allows me to create a collage out of that item rather than store those items in boxes at home and never get around to doing anything with them.
P.S. Scanning important documents work, too. Plenty of online storage. If you insist on keeping physical copies, then do so, but purge after three years (government--taxes)--keep things like contracts, mortgage papers, etc.
10. Fold laundry. sheets, etc. Folded clothes take up less space. Seriously.