How High Does the Body Count Have to Climb Before We Say “Enough”?

Another day, another mass shooting, another cry for gun control, another example of Washington doing absolutely nothing but mouthing platitudes.

Sunday’s horrifying LGBTQIA hate crime at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and the utter inability (or disinclination) for our government to enact any kind of sensible, pervasive, and strict legislation in the face of the gun lobby that bribes, bullies, and subdues our Representatives, Senators, and President fills me with an inexpressible melancholy.  People are dying.  We do nothing.

Gun supporters will tell you that there are plenty of laws on the books that regulate guns.  Gun supporters will tell you that it’s not the guns that kill people, it’s people who kill people.  Gun supporters will tell you that there’s no way you can predict who will use a gun unlawfully, that the majority of gun owners are lawful citizens who would never think to kill anyone.  Gun supporters will tell you that the Second Amendment provides for their lawful right to own, collect, brandish, and use weapons, and that anyone who wants additional gun laws are in fact impeding their Constitutional rights.

I’m not a Constitutional lawyer.  I don’t know the ins-and-outs of law and the history behind it—and I recognize that it’s a complicated issue that harkens back to pre-Revolutionary times.  So you might say, what right do I have to interpret the Constitution?  I’ll tell you.  The same right to interpret it as all the gun-addicted, death-and-violence-loving, NRA supporters have, who twist the Constitution to suit their purposes.

I can’t see how the Second Amendment (to wit:  “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed”) which clearly refers to militia (which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as a “military force raised from the civilian population of a country or region, esp. to supplement a regular army in an emergency, freq. as distinguished from mercenaries or professional soldiers”) can possibly mean the average American citizen, sitting in his (or her) home, who is not a member of a military force (such as the police, the Army, or the National Guard) hired to defend the country.

I can understand about owning a gun for “personal protection” or owning a rifle for hunting, though I would not personally own a firearm for either purpose.  I don’t understand why the average American citizen needs to buy a military-style AR-15 (or any other assault weapon that can shoot numerous, gratuitous rounds of ammunition in a matter of seconds), or why the average American citizen needs to build a personal arsenal.  We are not expecting an imminent invasion from hostile forces.  No country is declaring war on the United States; there is no expectation of conscription to fight invaders, and thus no need to hoard assault weapons.  How can the average American citizen possibly justify owning one or more of these weapons for either personal protection or hunting purposes?  What purpose can such a weapon serve, other than to kill mass quantities of human beings in as little time as possible?  People are dying.  We do nothing.

To me, the slavish, almost masturbatory desire for guns and violence, the veneration of violence as entertainment, the irrational fears propagated by right-wing radio and television personalities (and people who unquestioningly accept what these warmongers and fearmongers are peddling), the prison industrial complex mentality, and our culture’s toxic masculinity, are literally killing us.

We think the only way to protect ourselves is through deadly force; we don’t care about reason and diplomacy and compromise.  We value property above human life, which is evident in so many states (23) adopting Stand Your Ground laws.  We normalize active shooter training in daycares and college campuses (I attended one last week as part of a day of professional development in academic advising)—as if it’s ok that we have to teach children how to avoid getting shot right alongside teaching them reading, writing, and arithmetic.  We listen to media organizations that constantly barrage us with a diet of threats and racist rhetoric, and so we begin to believe we really are under attack. We accept uncritically the language of these media and potential Presidents whose sole purpose is to make money and to accumulate power—they don’t care that they spew hate, misinformation, and racist ideologies.  They don’t care that they whip people into a frenzy of fear, as long as they get a big fat check in the process.  We don’t care that gun manufacturers come out every year with more powerful weapons that promise higher kill counts and sell them at gun shows…to the average American citizen.  The deaths of human beings mean nothing to the gun industry and gun supporters.  People are dying.  We do nothing.

In the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting (where 20 children at an elementary school died, as well as six adults) which should have been, but wasn’t, a watershed moment to overcome our American anathema against enacting the fiercest gun restrictions yet, a 2013 article on CNN Money reported that a ban on assault weapons could impact Smith & Wesson stock shares by 40 cents a share.  While Smith & Wesson expressed sadness at the deaths of these children, they nevertheless saw a spike in sales for assault weapons as gun enthusiasts purchased record numbers of these weapons merely on the threat of a ban; projected earnings for the company in 2013 was approximately $580M, by the way.

And it’s not just the gun manufacturers getting rich.  According to a 2015 Fortune Magazine article tracking the political lobbying and campaign contributions spent by the National Rifle Association, the NRA spent over $30M in funding government officials and campaigns, and an additional nearly $20M to “candidates who tweeted ‘thoughts and prayers’ after the San Bernardino shooting.’  Our politicians welcome these contributions and consequently continue to stymie any efforts to make gun laws more restrictive.  It’s quid pro quo.  The Center for Responsible Politics reports that among federal candidates in 2014, the NRA directly pledged nearly $1M among the Republican and Democrat House and Senate members.  Granted, the direct contributions are small, ranging from $250 to $9,900, but our government officials know what side their bread is buttered on.  If the NRA is willing to support our lawmakers, lawmakers are unlikely to vote against NRA interests.  It’s as simple as that.

Somewhere along the way, we decided that the lives of human beings were less important than our acquisition of money.  Somewhere along the way we decided that the deaths of our fellow citizens was an acceptable tradeoff in order to “protect” our property.  Somewhere along the way, we sacrificed the belief in a civil society to embrace the law of the jungle.  Kill or be killed.

And as much as it seems like I am tossing the blame at our political leaders and the NRA, the fact is, there are still more of us who believe in restrictive gun control than who don’t—and if we collaborated en masse, through letter campaigns, through lobbying of our own, through marches, through activist means, through voting in third and fourth parties who are not beholden to Super PACs and gun lobbies, maybe we could put a stop to this gun addiction.  People are dying.

But we do nothing.  We are all complicit in the deaths at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, at Sandy Hook, at San Bernardino, at Aurora, at Columbine—and all the other mass shootings.  Good, law-abiding people are complicit.  We have learned a kind of helplessness; we wring our hands and pray, but accept becoming inured to the horror of these daily mass shootings because it’s painful and wearying to think about them.  We have adopted a worldview that says nothing we do can matter.  That nothing we can do will change our cultural attitudes and beliefs.  That nothing we can do can stop the killings.  And so nothing changes.

But we have to combat that pessimism that keeps us immobilized.  We have to believe that we can change things.  We must.  Americans are dying.

There have been five additional mass shootings since the massacre in Orlando—five.  Five mass shootings since Sunday.  Five.  I can’t wrap my head around this.  Can you?  Five mass shootings in three days?  This is not war-torn Fallujah.  This is America.  In toto (again, according to the Center for Responsible Politics), there have been 16 mass shootings, 69 deaths, and 100 injuries from guns in June 2016 alone—and the month is only half over!  (Of course, this doesn’t even take into consideration any deaths by guns for “regular” property or drug-related crimes or things like domestic partner violence.  I’m sure the June body count is much higher when you put all the gun deaths together.)  In the face of these shootings, how do we sit back and do nothing?  How do I?

My family’s safety and right to life is more important than anyone’s need to own a gun.  Isn’t your family’s?

Write your Congressmen.  Write the President.  Tell them that the death of Americans by Americans with guns is not acceptable.  Tell them the cost-benefit ratio is too high.  Tell them the sacrifice is too much.  Tell them to embrace stricter gun laws especially for assault weapons, and if they don’t, you’ll support candidates who do.  This is not a Democrat/ Republican issue.  This is an issue of basic human rights.  Don’t we, as Americans, deserve to live, free from the persistent threat of imminent death when we go to nightclubs or daycares or movie theaters?

Writing letters not your thing?  Then volunteer with or donate money to gun control advocacy groups (such as the member organizations of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence or groups like the Violence Policy Center and Everytown for Gun Safety).  Don’t be complicit in the deaths of our fellow citizens any more.  Don’t stand by any more.

Writing a letter to our government officials or volunteering a few hours with advocacy groups may not seem like much, but it’s a start, and I am doing it.  We have to start somewhere.  Americans are dying.  We must, must, must do something.

Writing and Dithering

The second Hecate Applebough book (sans title, at the mo), grueling though it was to write, is completed, and I feel a sense of accomplishment about that.  It took longer to write, probably because I wasn’t on the high of NaNoWriMo, and of course, Christmas and New Year’s and the beginning of a new semester intervened, and there’s just a lot of things you have to get done at the end of the year, making writing another novel difficult.  (That sounds so pretentious right, “another novel.”  Gag me.)  I still have to tweak a couple of scenes before I will be satisfied with it as a first draft.  (Although of course no one is satisfied with first drafts, but you know what I mean.).  And I might have to seriously reconsider some other scenes which I know why I wrote them the way I did, but I don’t love them, and they need fixing.

But I knew I had to get Hecate Applebough 2 done so I could start the third one, which I’ve done in the last few days—and somehow I have a good feeling about this one.  Like I’m going to try to make it much more lighthearted, more comic.  I think that was my problem with the second one—it was like a goddamned angstfest—NOBODY was happy in the entire book.  I kept just making everyone miserable—like, it was a contest with myself:  how much can I screw with Cate’s life?  Just how twisted can I make her relationships?  Can I make some of the minor characters sad?  Yes?  Great!  And kind of what I wound up doing was making myself miserable in the process.

Don’t get me wrong, while I’m my own worst critic, and by the very nature of breathing, I assume everything I write is utter and total crap, there are “moments of possibility” in it, but the moments of pure dreck outweigh the possibilities of goodness.  I keep thinking, if I were Cate, and that was my life, I would probably swear off men forever and become a hermit.  The men in her life really are just fucked up—I wasn’t totally being funny when I joked about naming the second book Hecate Applebough and the Fucked Up Men in Her Life, because they are just such drama queens and so needy and complicated.  Honestly, I don’t know Cate stands me.  She must think I’m a total bitch to keep putting her in these stupid, angsty situations with men who don’t know what they want.

Which is why, as I said in a recent tweet, I need to let this book mellow.  Because it’s very raw, and it’s very overemotional—not like melodrama, but yeah, kind of sudsy at points.  I need that time away so I can come back to it fresh.  And maybe with some distance I can figure out what I really wanted to do with that second book and see if I can’t get it more there than it is right now.  (Of course, it will need substantial revision—I just want it to be a good first draft that will make revision be something hard but worthwhile instead of painful just to get to ok-ish-ness.)

And writing the third one will help me a lot because I am determined to make it fun.  Cate needs a break from constantly having her life explode in her face—and I need a break from that too.  I suppose, all fiction authors are either consciously or unconsciously trying to work out the crap of their own lives, and it manifests in the lives of their characters.  I know that I’m working through some issues—that sort of became obvious in the second book, because Cate is always thwarted, she always thinks things are settling down and then, hello, some tragedy or another happens and she’s back down in the sewer trying to dig her way out.  And that’s kind of how I feel my life is.  Of course, I don’t have two hot guys vying for my affections, so I can’t relate to her on that level (alas and alack—that might be a fun problem to have!), but that’s just a mask for the angsty things going on my life, I think. (So personal life spoiler alert:  I have problems and bad things are happening.  And who suffers?  Cate.)

Anyway, not to give away too much about the plot, but the third book already is starting with the comic premise that Cate, Val, and Lonny are all going to visit her Dad in Nebraska for Spring Break.  Book 3 starts on the airplane and I had a good time writing Val and Lonny sniping at each other and Cate just rolling her eyes, and now they’re in Nebraska and she’s dealing with her stepmother and her infant brother, and the change of scenery, away from Sunderson Academy and the Study Salon, is doing me a lot of good.  I’m really hoping that I can sustain the humor because Cate deserves a little happiness after what I’ve put her through.  But on the other hand, it wouldn’t be Cate’s life if it were charmed.  So I have to figure out how much I can torture her and still keep the majority of the book breezy.

In other news, I admit that I’m still vacillating back and forth whether to share Book 1 with Brilliant Fiction Writing Friend.  He’s super persuasive, with his metaphorical chisel that chips away at my protests (plus his company is awesome).  My insecurity, however, is equally persuasive—pugnacious, even (which means it usually wins out when I have these “what if” wars in my head).  But he said something to me the other day that—guilted isn’t the right word—tipped the balance in his favor a little more, let’s say—something about making editing a part of his professional development, and that my book would help him work on those skills.  And frankly, when he pitches it like that, and I can see letting him read HA1 not as an opportunity to deprive him of time he could be writing, were he so inclined, but as opportunity for him to grow in a way he’s interested in growing, well, how can I turn that down?  That would just be mean of me.  And of course, if he didn’t have my book to read, he has other people whom he could help, so it’s not like he’ll languish if I said no (and really meant it).  So, why not let him help me, right?  But…blah blah blah.  Shut up, JC. (Can’t you for once just accept good fortune?)  (Not easily.) (OMG OMG OMG, I realize, I write this blog the same way Cate writes her diary—I’m such a headcase.) (Please send help.)

Anyway, apropos of nothing, please enjoy a picture of sleepy TimToms, who has been keeping me company today as I’ve been writing.

2016-01-30 16.28.27

Seriously, JC, They Make Pills for This

My novel went on a “first date” yesterday.  Metaphorically speaking.

What I mean is, it is in the process of being “courted” by a potential future editor, which is to say, my Brilliant Fiction Writer Friend™ (whom I’ve mentioned before in this blog), who, despite not being a fan of YA, has graciously, and generously, and kind of insanely agreed to read my NaNoWriMo novel Hecate Applebough because he believes in me as a serious writer (even a serious writer of fluff), and sight unseen is willing to work with me to revise it and maybe make it into something good (or good-ish).

I must admit I am in the absolute worst dither of insecurities about my writing ever.  Like I’m back in my first creative writing class when I’m 20 years old, and so shy about what I’ve written that I really fear—not just that what I wrote is crappy (because that is surely a given)—but that I will have a) inflicted my mental crappiness/ drivel on another person; b) wasted someone’s already limited amount of leisure reading by forcing them to read something appalling (and deeply flawed on all levels); c) imposed on someone’s friendship, even when they offered, even when they are doing their best to wear me down to make me agree to continuing this part of the writing process (and I am deathly afraid of imposing on people, like pathologically so); and d) allowed someone to discover proof  that I’m not nearly as hilarious and awesome as I think I am.  (Perhaps that last fear on the list sounds trivial or frivolous, but I assure you, it’s a deeply-seated fear.)

It’s really a weird place to be in—like I believe in my ability as a poet.  I might be having a shitty time convincing contest editors that my volume of poems is fantastic, the next best thing, blah blah, and they need to publish it already, goddammit, but I don’t doubt in any fiber of my being that I’m a poet.  When I think “JC,” I think “poet.”  These ideas fit in my head together, like synonyms.  And sure, it makes sense—you think about all this time that I’ve worked on writing poetry, that I earned that Ph.D. in poetry—I mean, if I didn’t see myself as a poet after the time I’ve invested in it, that would be a huge (and annoying) problem. (And would make having to pay back student loans even more of an insult.)

Except, I don’t want to be just a poet.  I have more words in my head than that.  I’m not saying I believe BFWF that I’m a “novelist” either (just by virtue of having written 1.99 “novels”), but limiting myself to one version of “who I am as a writer” doesn’t fit me any more either.  Of course, in terms of writing fiction—well, I still feel like I’m still 20 years old, with zero experience—but there’s an expansiveness that’s been coming the last few years, a real desire to try something new, and to tell stories that take more than a page.

That narrative bent in my writing and my voice is there—and let’s be honest, the poetry world does not appreciate narrative as a form.  So, I need to use forms that narrative work in… which is why I wrote Hecate Applebough, which is why I also write these memoir-y vignettes that seem to find homes in little journals too.  Hmm.

But getting back to the possibility of having a real reader/ editor:  I was asked if I want to be worn down.  That’s a hard question to answer.  Like, realistically, who wouldn’t want a person you admire who is brilliant and has critical and practical expertise and proclaims a genuine wish to help you succeed to be the one who reads your book and helps you edit and revise it—the two hardest parts of writing?  You’d have to be an idiot to turn that down—particularly when there is so little return in it for them.

(But to be fair, my idiocy is well-documented.)

As I’m thinking about this and talking myself in-and-out of this amazing opportunity that has shown up in my life like a late Christmas gift, I realize my fear isn’t anything like worry that I’m a “fraud” as writer.  I don’t question I’m a writer, per se.  Because there’s so much that goes into writing beyond the actual writing of whatever the piece is, you have to believe that you’re a writer deep down in your heart because if you don’t believe it, then what is the point of doing this really lonely, difficult  (and often barely rewarding) work?  Once a piece of writing is released into the world (and that’s after the writer has spent her time polishing her poem or story until it gleams) you can’t control the people who read it.  If your submission (or your “novel”) shows up on a day that the editors/ grad students working on a journal are on the rag, or hungover, or pissed off at their bosses, or they hate anything that smacks of genre or narrative poetry or they just read a great bird poem right before they picked your bird poem up from the pile and so can’t imagine any bird poem after the one they just read as measuring up (or whatever), your writing, no matter how good it is, won’t go beyond the first pass.  It might not even go beyond the first lines. (I say this as a person who has participated on the grad student side of the journal publication process.)

There’s so much luck involved in a person’s work entering the wider world by being published. And forget about the accolades.  You have to believe you’re a writer—because the odds are so stacked against you that your work will ever resonate with anyone and find a home in their journal or on their upcoming publications list.

So it’s not a matter of lacking faith in myself as a writer (in the generic sense) that is the stumbling block with my sharing Hecate Applebough—the fear emerges from the realization of just how drafty the first draft is—and sharing a piece of my writing with someone that is 98% imperfect terrifies the fuck out of me.

Because when I share my poems with people, they only see them after—typically—the poem has gone through 8-10 drafts already.  Like my writing group?  I show them poems that are, to my mind, already mostly good.  Poems after I meet with them may go through another 5-10 drafts, but when the writing group sees them initially, they don’t see the first draft.  They see something I’m not ashamed to show.

First drafts are unfit to be seen by anyone.  And Hecate Applebough is a first draft.  I mean, it’s prettier than a first draft, in that I’ve line-edited it, I’ve changed some words here and there, or added a few scenes to smooth over some plot holes.  But the aggregate is still first drafty.  (It’s so drafty, it needs to wear a coat.)  And sharing imperfection with someone, even someone as committed to helping me as BFWF is (someone who expects imperfection, moreover, so I’m not going to shock them), even someone who is my friend, is just one of my worst anxieties.  It just seems so wrong—so contrary to my process.  So naked.

And I guess I either need to get over myself and stop being so crippled by self-doubt and all this blather and take the opportunity because when the Universe wraps it in a bow, how stupid do you have to be to say no?  Or I just need to STFU about this book and move on to the next thing and be satisfied with sabotaging myself (again) and learn to enjoy obscurity and blown chances.

(Ugh.  When I put it like that, suddenly I think I must be pretty foolish to have spent 1400 words to realize I planned to say “Yes” all along.)

P.S.  I know BFWF will have read this post (being one of my Five Faithful Readers). And BFWF will think “I knew it.”  But I’m pretty sure, recognizing the kind of headcase I am, that I will change my mind at least 58 more times.  Possibly more. So certainty tonight may shift back over into uncertainty many more times before I actually hand a copy of the book over.  Fair warning.

P.S. #2  BFWF should in no way feel compelled to comment or to cheer me on. (This post is not a plea for more convincing.)  Sometimes I blog just to take the edge off my neuroses.