Why Do I Keep Pestering You for Your Postal Address?

I’m not a stalker, I swear.

I’ve tweeted at least a dozen general requests for postal addresses in the last week, and today alone I’ve pestered four separate people for their contact info via direct message.  Given the number of eyeballs these requests have reached, surprisingly few people have taken me up on the offer.  I don’t think the silence is lack of trust so much as it is a combination of “she can’t actually be talking to me” plus complete bewilderment as to the benefit for either of us.

First of all, yes, I am talking to you.  I want the postal address of every single human being on earth, and I only have 62 of them so far, so let’s get cracking on this.

Second of all, the benefit is largely for me, because I enjoy writing letters, but you might also enjoy getting one more than you’d think.

Why, though?  Why not just send you an email, saying all the same stuff?  You don’t want another piece of paper stuffed in your mailbox that you now have to figure out what to do with.  It’s clutter, it’s junk!  And you’re right, I suppose, and if you feel that way you can toss it away once you’ve read it, just as you would an email.  It honestly doesn’t offend me.  For my part, I keep letters people have sent me until the box I keep them in is full, and then I go through and throw out the ones I don’t feel a sentimental need to keep (and that is usually fully 80% of them).  Some, I will keep until I’m dead.  Some, they might have to bury me with.

Emails serve a purpose, but here’s the thing.  An email sits in your inbox demanding a timely reply or no reply at all.  It’s an imposition, an Open Issue, a hanging question.  An email is vaguely stressful.

Letters are quaint.  They are gestures.  Yes, in some of them I hint that a reply would be enjoyed, but even if you dashed one out right away I wouldn’t get it for three days, so you know it isn’t urgent.  You know that you can reply in a month, or six months, or whenever you feel that same urge that I felt months ago to sit down and spend some time with you.  It takes me 20-30 minutes to write a letter, and that 20-30 minutes is yours alone.  When I’m in letter-writing mode I write about one a day.  Sometimes I binge-write three in a row and then my hand falls off.  Sometimes I go months without writing one.  But every time, it’s a surprise for someone.  It’s never expected.  People don’t go to their mailboxes and frown when there’s nothing from Mishell there.

For someone like me, someone who struggles to find that baffling social “safe zone” between neglect and imposition, it’s important to have a way to reach out to people that’s entirely unattached to guilt.  Oh, sure, sometimes I look at the half-dozen envelopes that have been sitting in my Unanswered Letter Box for months and feel a little twinge.  But only a small one.  Because I know that no one’s life hinges on the arrival of paper in their mailbox anymore.  It’s one of those rare things that is a positive by its presence, and never a negative by its absence.

Also, I can express myself in a letter, beyond just the words I use.  I can choose the paper, the pen.  I can doodle on the envelope or the edges of the paper if I’m so inclined, or dab a corner with perfume.  I can slip in a bookmark or some herbal tea.  Once while writing a particularly sentimental letter, a tear surprised me and smudged the ink — I sent it anyway.  Since paper letters have more of a sense of permanence, of artifact, often I put more care into them than I would an email.  I imagine that each one is evidence of my passing through this world.  Some day, in theory, the letters I send and receive might fall into the hands of a third party and tell them something about me, about my correspondent, about life when and where we both lived.

I have written letters all over the U.S. and Canada, to Israel and Sweden and South Africa, to the UK and to Australia and Singapore.  I’ve even sent mail to people whose houses I could drive to for dinner if I wanted.  I know most of these letters will get thrown away, just as I will throw away most of the ones I receive.  But maybe, just maybe, some of them will be read when the paper is cracked and brown at the edges, when I’m nothing but a name on a gravestone.  Maybe someday people in a post-apocalyptic wasteland will use them to piece together what Los Angeles was like in 2015, before the robot uprising.

Or maybe, if nothing else, you’ll briefly touch something I touched, and read something I gave my hand a terrible cramp writing, and maybe you’ll be slightly happier for it.  That’s good enough for me.

It’s Hard Being Right All the Time.

Take out a blank sheet of paper and a pen.  Go ahead, I’ll wait!

Now number down the left hand side, one through five, and draw blank lines after each.  Got it?  Okay.  Here is the exercise.  Fill in those five blank numbered slots with five things you are wrong about.  Just five.  Go on, I’ll still be here when you’re finished.

Having trouble?  I thought maybe it was just me.  I thought maybe I was the only person on the face of the earth who was right about everything.  What are the odds there’d be two of us?

All right, I’ll stop being a smartass and get to my point.

It’s hard being right all the time — and it can ruin your writing.  At some point in your life, whether through fiction or through an essay, you are going to try to convince people that your take on something is the right one.  Unfortunately, unless you’re a truly extraordinary human being, you will begin this endeavor without first thoroughly and genuinely empathizing with your opposition.

All people believe that they understand all there is to understand about their opposition, just as all people believe that their side of an issue is the correct side.  How do you know if you are one of the huge number of people who are wrong about one or both of these things?  One way is to ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Would anyone I respect actually do/think the things I’m arguing against?
  2. Would any member of the opposition look at my portrayal of them and say, “Yes, that’s me exactly”?
  3. Is there anything in my writing that would make people on my side of the argument uneasy?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, you might be throwing punches at a straw man.  Swinging your fists at nothing makes it pretty easy to win a fight.  But if winning is less important to you than provoking change (or at the very least thought), it may be in your best interest to spend a few moments entertaining the most bone-chilling of questions:

What if I’m the idiot here?

Slip inside your opposition’s skin for a moment.  Retain all your intelligence and powers of reason.  Now find some way, via mental gymnastics, to catch at least a dim glimpse of the truth held in the other side’s point of view. This may take a while.  We’re not looking for a perfunctory nod of “Yeah okay I get it.”  We’re looking for true empathy, the sincere, visceral, emotional experience of holding that point of view.  You’ll know when you have it, because you’ll feel incredibly uncomfortable.

If it helps, imagine it as an alternate universe in which your opposition is actually correct.  Imagine yourself a protagonist in a story set in this parallel world where there really is a God, or where women really are less intelligent, or where people really did evolve from apes, or whatever it is you’re trying to argue against.  Now imagine how you would feel about someone who insisted that the rules of the (now nonexistent) real world applied to this alternate world.  Imagine what harm would come if people in power tried to run the parallel world by the rules of the real one.  Try to viscerally feel the destructive stupidity of that.

This is an extraordinarily difficult but necessary thing to do, and it’s easy to spot writers who haven’t done it (see checklist above).  Only when you are able to phrase your opposition’s side in a way that would make them say excitedly, “Yes!  Exactly!  You get me!” are you at the very beginning of the process of mounting an intelligent counterpoint.

Sometimes, in the course of researching the opposition’s viewpoint, you’ll actually talk yourself over to their side.  And if you do, you should be proud, not ashamed.  Integrity only matters if the thing you believe is actually right.  If not, by all means, please change your mind.

The Art of Being Wrong in Fiction

At the risk of sounding like a Myke Cole groupie (I know he comes up in my blog a lot), his books are a classic example of two sides of an issue given their due respect.  To grossly oversimplify, the two sides of the argument in his books are military vs. mage.

  1. Military: Magic is dangerous on an epic level when uncontrolled, and our job is to protect citizens from threats.  So we train and control mages so they can use their powers for good.
  2. Mage: I didn’t ask for these powers, and yet I’m being penned up and supervised like some sort of criminal.

My natural modes of thought predisposed me to sympathize with the mages and to be appalled by the way the military blithely walked right over their civil rights.  But here is the amazing thing.  All throughout Cole’s books, he kept changing my mind. 

Just when I would be furious at the military for treating mages so cruelly, I would be shown an example of how that same rigid military discipline unlocked mages’ potential and led to amazing acts of heroism.  I’d be shown how selfishness and lack of cohesion caused untold destruction.  And I’d start to think, “Okay, I guess the military are the good guys in this story,” and gamely I’d switch sides.

But then in the very next chapter I would be shown some example of how easily the military’s hierarchy and traditions could be abused to do something inhumane.  So I’d switch sides again only to be shown in the next chapter why the military did that seemingly inhumane thing, and how catastrophic it can be when civilians try to demand their individual rights in the middle of a war zone.  And suddenly I’m looking down my nose at the selfish civilians again.

Eventually, Cole’s stories do choose a side, of sorts.  But you can’t forget the way you sympathized with the other side, and it makes some of the confrontations especially tense and heartbreaking.  There are no idiots in these stories, only frightened people using the rules they understand best to cope with a situation that no one truly understands.

And guess what?  In life, there may not be as many idiots as you think there are, either.

How I Got a Literary Agent.

I’m trying to decide how honest I should be in this post.  I have to walk a fine line between seeming like a professional and conveying the sheer magnitude of the improbability that has just occurred here.

Any of you who have been in touch with me via Twitter or other internet media during the past two years probably remember watching me go through several phases of passive-aggressive rage regarding my novel Borderline.  It’s actually a little bit ironic.  Borderline Personality Disorder, a central subject in the novel, is theorized at present to be caused when an extraordinarily emotionally sensitive child is raised in an “invalidating” environment — that is to say, when the child’s expressions of feeling or perceptions of the world are repeatedly contradicted by the authority figures in his or her life.  “That’s not scary,” says the well-meaning parent, and many things like it over many years, making the Borderline-vulnerable child believe that there is something wrong with her, that she sees a world no one else sees, that everything she feels is somehow a lie that no one else can see or understand.

My relationship with this novel was enough to give anyone Borderline Personality Disorder.  I loved it.  I felt passionately about it.  I tried to share it with other people.  And for the most part, people reacted as though I were offering up a dead skunk.  Over the course of about a year, I did manage to get twelve people to agree to read it.  None of them actually did, beyond the first few chapters, and to make matters more unsettling, they dropped out of communication with me altogether.  As though the novel were not only too bad for them to finish reading, but so bad that it made them think less of me as a person.  One of those twelve was actually a professional critique service.  I got my money back, and said professional hasn’t responded to a single communication since.

Diana Rowland aptly dubbed the manuscript “the Weeping Angels of literature” (Dr. Who reference) because whoever touched it disappeared off the face of the earth.  The novel seemed genuinely cursed.

In the face of this, is it not understandable that giving up on the project seemed like the best idea?  So I did.  I gave up on it.  But then I dragged it out one day, I don’t even remember why, and made one last desperate tweet for feedback.  Amanda C. Davis happened to have nothing better to do that weekend, so she read it.  And she said, “I think you should go ahead and query this.”

I should have seen this for the encouragement it was, but given what I’d been through before, I assumed this was just her way of saying “I don’t think there’s much point in spending more energy trying to fix this mess.  This is as good as it’s going to get.”  So I, incredibly, put the novel away again.  For months.  I only dragged it out when I was halfway through the second draft of my next novel and hit a terrible research roadblock I couldn’t find my way past.  I dragged it out and read it again, and once again I had that bizarre feeling of living in a parallel universe from everyone else who had ever seen this thing.

I loved it.  It had been long enough since I’d read it that I’d forgotten parts of it, and they made me laugh.  I even got tears in my eyes at one point.  I said to my husband, “I love this book.  I would want to read this book.  Why does no one want to read this book?”  I tweeted something to that effect, and Amanda tweeted back, “I’ve often wished there were a sequel to that!”  And it finally clicked that she had actually meant she also liked the book.

In a frenzy of excitement, I queried my dream agent, the one I’d wanted ever since I read an essay on publishing he’d written in 2009.  Within hours he asked for the full manuscript.  So I sent it.  I knew I was in for a long wait, so like a good girl I researched other agents and sent out eight other queries, one each day.  I got about a 50% “send more” rate, which is, as I understand it, spectacular.  But all this mechanical professionalism, this steady train-chug of submission progress, was hard to invest in, because the book was already metaphorically sitting on my dream agent’s desk.  I tried not to even think about it, because when I did, I suddenly noticed all kinds of flaws in it I hadn’t noticed until I realized he was looking at it.  I wanted to yank it right back off his desk and say, “Never mind, I’ll get back to you when I’m a real writer.  I’m so sorry to have wasted your time”  But I didn’t.

I did give up, though.  Again.  I stopped sending queries, because I realized that I’d rather just try my dream agent again next year with a different project than keep offering up what I still wasn’t 100% sure was anything other than a dead skunk.  I had no one’s enthusiasm but mine and Amanda’s to suggest anything different.

Then yesterday, I got the call.  Russell Galen of Scovil Galen Ghosh Literary Agency and his partner Rachel Kory wanted to represent me.  They loved the exact same things about the novel that I did, the things I had stubbornly stuck to even though they blithely ignored genre guidelines.  Suddenly it mattered to me a lot less what those twelve vanishing people thought, or didn’t think, about my novel.  I may never know, and I’m at peace with that.  Because the person who mattered most to me — literarily speaking — felt the same way about my book that I did.  And, bonus!  I’ve met someone new in Rachel, someone young and energetic and hungry and innovative who also loves my book.  Between the two of them, they make, quite literally, the perfect agent.

Of course, I don’t know what Borderline‘s ultimate fate will be.  But I’m not worried in the slightest.  Not only is it in the best possible hands, but it isn’t my only dog in the race.  I have three other series ideas in various stages of development.  This is the end of one phase of my life and the beginning of another.  And if I had been even one ounce less stubborn about this project, even half an ounce, today would just be another day.

Let that be a lesson to you!  And, honestly, to me.  I came within a hair’s breadth of giving up on this book so many times.  And whatever ultimately becomes of it now, it will always be the book that got me a literary agent.