Monday, September 30, 2013

Bloody Hell, Needles Scare Me

I would have made the absolute worst junkie in the world. There are few things that freak me out more than needles piercing skin. I'll never forget the (second) time I got my ears pierced, that inimitable SQUEAK I heard and felt, deep in my bones, as the head of the needle penetrated the last layer of skin. (The old school way with ice, potato, and white thread, followed later by broom straw to stretch the holes.)

Note: no photos of actual blood OR needles here, for those as squeamish as I am.

When I was in labor, somehow I was persuaded to get an IV. Being a gullible, first-time mom, all someone had to say was "It's for the good of your baby," and I'dve agreed to have my head amputated with a pocket knife.

I told them, "I'm really scared of needles."

"Oh, we'll be quick," the nurse lied.

After poking around in my left elbow for several centuries and not being able to find a good vein, they moved on to my right arm. Where they popped a vein, and then returned to torture me on my left side some more, finally getting the IV in.

About five years ago, I decided I needed to grow up (in some if not all ways). It's not within my skillset to cure cancer or bring about world peace, nor within my budget to make substantial contributions to other organizations, but I could help save some lives in my own way.

I was determined to get over my childish fear of needles and start donating blood.

My one-gallon donation pin!
I'm 50% there. Still terrified of needles. When I have to have blood drawn for lab tests, because we all do, I can't stand to watch the needle going in, nor can I watch blood being drawn from anyone else. Not even on TV or in the movies.

I can't even watch those nature documentaries with a close shot of a mosquito sucking blood, for cryin' out loud.

But I have become a (semi-) regular blood donor. I've had lapses; gone off schedule for a year when I got my tattoo, and again when I was eating ibuprofen like TicTacs last year with the advent of my frozen shoulder problems.

I'm far from the most impressive donor, but I am proud to be working on my 2-gallon pin.

And if I can do it, wuss that I am, chances are, you can do it.

The temporary interview rooms are private.
They ask questions about your height, weight,
check your blood pressure and iron levels...

Must Have Blood

To be a donor, you need to be over 110 lbs (no problem there), in good health, and not be having sex for money or drugs, or intimately involved with someone who is having sex for money or drugs.


There are other questions about medications, medical conditions, life style (see sex for money/drugs), and travel. I always feel like The Most UNExciting Woman in the World, when I get to the travel questions: Have you lived in or traveled for three or more months in any of the following countries..? No, I haven't lived in the UK, Iraq, Africa, the West Indies, etc.
Most of the questions you answer yourself, in private, just you and the laptop.
Then someone comes in to check your answers and ID.

No, I have not been anywhere or done anything even vaguely dangerous, m'kay? Though, lest they think I am too old and boring, I am always tempted to brag about the time I almost had a one-night-stand with a sexy nightclub bouncer from the Caribbean.

The the nice little girl follows up on my pregnancy answers to the questionnaire: When did your last pregnancy end?

Me: "Uh, 1988, miscarriage."

Her: "What month and date?"

Me: "Geez, I don't remember - that was over 25 years ago! Do you remember everything from 25 years ago?"

Her: "Uhm," she looks away, "I wasn't actually born yet...?"

The only thing worse than humiliating oneself is not even maintaining shred of self-respect in front of taxidermied animals.


Identity Thieves Need Not Apply

One of the things that gets old, quickly, is that at every step of the process, the Red Cross people ask for name and date of birth. When you check in, when you start the interview process, when you are lying down about to donate, somebody is always coming up to ask you who you are. So far, while I may have flunked the Dangerously Exciting Life test, I have always been able to correctly verbalize my name and Date of Birth.

One you've completed the initial screening, they print about 10 labels. (more?) Labels are placed on each blood bag, on each blood vial, and for all I know, there are extra labels who gather together and party with Elvis the Elk afterward.

The blood collection technicians use electronic scanners to verify
the right donation bags and tubes are matched with each donor.

The first time I saw them bring over a set of donation bags, I almost levitated off the table. They expected me to fill all that?

You only have to fill ONE 8 oz bag; same as a small disposable water bottle.
Afterwards, provided your blood has no cooties,
it is separated out into red blood cells, platelets and plasma, and given to recipients.

 One donated pint of blood can save THREE lives

I won't lie - sometimes all doesn't go according to plan. There's an anti-coagulant packed in the tip of the needle, and sometimes that stings upon needle insertion. I can NEVER stand to watch as they stick the needle in me, and I've had a couple "bad" donations where my veins have not wanted to play nicely, resulting in some minor bruising. I've never passed out, but have seen a few high school girls do so.

I still get more out of giving than there are drawbacks, even as a total needle-scaredy-cat.

These blood testing tubes are filled from the overflow from the lines that go into the blood bags.
They are then sent off to be tested for HIV, West Nile, hepatitis, and other potentially communicable diseases.

Come for the blood donation, Stay for the cookies

Generally the whole process takes about an hour. 15 minutes to check in and review the reading materials. Another 15 minutes for the blood pressure and laptop quiz. Another 15 minutes or so for the actual donation, and then 15 minutes in the "canteen area," sucking up water and juice, eating cookies and snacks, and high-fiving the other blood donors.

I have been offered cookies the like of which I've never seen on grocery store shelves. I've also met some extremely interesting people. (As a writer, new hunting ground, yesss!) This last time, there was a young bearded man totally grooving on the idea your blood could be put into someone else's body! and save his/her life! Was that not the most awesome thing, ever?! (Enthusiastic Young Man also shared that he was passing on the raisins offered as a snack choice, since they gave him gas. Elvis Elk and I shared a secret laugh.)

Blood drives occur in all sorts of interesting locales. I've donated at actual Red Cross centers, at high schools, at local gathering spots, but one of my favorites is the Burbank Elks Lodge.

Because between Elvis up on the wall, the fairy lights around the edge of the room, and this glittering mirror ball. gently swaying in the breeze from the AC unit, it's like all our blood donations were having a party.

Watching the glitter ball, as I tried to remember to squeeze the hand ball every five seconds,
was soothing and hypnotic.
If blood had a disco theme song, what would it be? Staying Alive? I Will Survive?

Eventually, all good things must come to an end, and the blood is packed away. Is it bad of me that I was checking out the storage boxes...

...and truck, and contemplating an urban fantasy-type story where a gang of vampires began stealing a box or two of blood from the Red Cross trucks?

I didn't hang around long-enough to work out all the specifics, but that would be one way for a vampire to get by, in a pinch.

So there it is. Donate blood, receive a multitude of story ideas, characters, locales, cookies.... there is much material in the situation that any writer can make use of, for the price of a pinprick.

Not to mention the feeling-good-about-saving-a-life thing.

Have you ever donated blood?
Got a funny or scary story?
(Feel free to share or reTweet, if you found this post useful or interesting.)
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Monday, September 23, 2013

Being Honest, or Career Suicide? #BookReviews

Writer's Stop
Writer's Stop (Photo credit: Stephh922)

Should Writers Ever Review Books?

Not long ago, popular blogger/author Kristen Lamb (#MyWana) posited that it's not fair for writers to  review books, because we thereby suck all the magic out of it for the readers. The following comment debate (in which I participated) was sometimes heated, sometimes an amen chorus, sometimes almost tearful disagreement.

Some pointed out that if writers didn't review books, many authors, especially indie authors and midlist authors, would have few reviews at all. All indications are that having reviews do help sell books. Until they have at least 25 posted reviews, books aren't "visible" on Amazon's radar, and authors aren't even allowed to pay to advertise their books there.

The grudging consensus among many commenters was that maybe authors giving reviews was okay... as long as it was always a positive review.

You know, like Thumper's parents taught us all...

I, too, was brought up under the same platitude. Ironically, in my life the person who most frequently repeated "if you can't say somethin' nice..." was my control-freak grandmother, whose razor-sharp tongue could have been registered as a lethal weapon.

Much as I adore Thumper, respect Kristen Lamb, and feared my grandmother, I have come to strongly disagree.

Who Is a Writer, Anyway?

Are you not "really" a writer until you have sold or self-published a book? What if you have short stories published? What if you're a published journalist or essayist, and perhaps working on a book? Is it okay to review if you "only" have a blog? What if you're an avid reader, and love reviewing books, and have just started, shyly, to post book reviews in the hopes of building up your writing chops to write your own novel, someday?

There are many different kinds of writers, and wanna-be writers.  I don't think even the most successful authors would place a dividing line between themselves and the aspiring writer with big dreams. I think that people expressing themselves through writing is almost always a good thing (barring suicide and bank robbery notes).

Some People Will Write Crappy Reviews

They'll review a book they didn't finish, blast a romance novel for not being a murder mystery, or vice versa. They'll complain that a Fifty Shades style erotica novel had too much kinky sex. They'll reveal spoilers, they'll be cloyingly flattering about their friends' books, and try to destroy any potential competition for their own work.

Amazon has restricted reviews by "official" authors for the latter reason, which I think is silly. Because there's nothing to keep an author and friends from opening up 2, 3, 6 sockpuppet accounts under different names and eddresses, and doing the same thing, if they really want to.

Some Writer Reviews Will Help Sell An Author's Books

Sometimes even a negative review helps sell a book. Controversy can be golden; people hear that half the people who read book X loved it, and half hated it, and that very passionate disagreement will inspire many people to buy it and make up their own minds.

Sometimes an honest review might sell a book that the potential reader is on the fence about. I recently reviewed a book and explained that I found the beginning hard to get into, but further on, I really got sucked into the story and the characters. If you had downloaded the sample chapter and also struggled to get through it, and read some reviews that said, "Keep going, it's worth it!" wouldn't you be more likely to buy the book?

Some Negative Reviews Simply Reveal that the Reviewer Is an A$$hole

The grammar freaks... as a Reader, I am on the fence about the reviewers who point out every misplaced comma, period, and misspelled word as if they get a commission for finding them. While, yes, I might notice them, a handful of those kind of mistakes ain't no big deal. Sometimes, I see a "bad" review of those kinds of nitpicks, and think, "Clearly, you went a-hunting for anything and everything you could find wrong, yet this is all you've got...?"

On the other hand, if a book is absolutely loaded with bad spelling and grammar and the formatting is a mess... That says to me that the author and his/her editor (if any) were unprofessional, and did not respect the Reader. If you're going to put a book "out there" that you want me to care about, that you want me to spend my hard-earned money and my time on, you'd better care about it, first.

Like the airlines used to say before you deplaned, "We realize you have other choices..."

Let's face it, there are few book reviewers who have the influence of  Siskel & Ebert, able to kill a book with a single one star review (and even their reviews, influential as they were, sometimes were wildly at variance with a film's commercial success). Though a negative review might hurt an author's feelings, unless s/he gets into a flame war with a reviewer, does it measurably impact sales?

Malicious, snarky reviews are more about, "Look at me, aren't I clever!" than about the book. As a Reader, I know how to discount those. Do they truly harm the author?

Not that feelings are negligible. Being a writer is hard; we have to take our skin off to tap into all those sensitive, easily bruised feelings we want to express in our writing, and at the same time, learn to turtle up so it doesn't kill us when people criticize and reject our work.

And yet... what hurts more? Getting a review that points out glaring weaknesses in a book, or putting out a book that was Not Yet Ready for Prime Time, and getting no or only "fluffy kitten" reviews from your best friends?  Then the next book you put out there sells even fewer copies. Some have said that if what you get is silence, and even your mom won't buy your next book, you'll figure out what went wrong. As a writer myself, I'm not so sure I would intuitively know where the hamster fell off the wheel.

If you get 6-7 reviews that all say the protagonist is weak, and readers didn't connect with him/her, you can fix that in your next book (after you stop crying).  Too much description, not enough description, weak plot, too much plot, slow start, saggy middle, these are all things that are fixable.

You can't fix polite silence.

Revenge Reviews and Sock Puppet Reviews

Recently there was an online kerfluffle about an author's not-yet-released self-published book. Accusations of bullying and threats flew back and forth, most being vastly overblown, IMO. The very young (22 y.o.) author was deeply hurt by the one star review(s), some of her friends came to her "defense" with heated remarks to the reviewers like "stick your hand in a blender" and "go hang yourself."

The author also indicated in various exchanges that at least one of the five star reviews posted was from her own "old" account. Her books aren't the kind I would normally pick up anyway, but as a reviewer, even if she doesn't release a book for years, I'm going to remember her name and stay away from her work, because who needs that kind of hassle?

There is also a chick-lit writer I will never pick up again, after she and her husband/assistant verbally beat up on a fan-reviewer on her FaceBook and other pages. Said fan-reviewer had expressed being thrilled with other books by said author, but disappointed in the latest one.

Some would say, if the review is negative, or could be taken that way, rather than posting it, you should track down the author's eddress and discreetly send it to her/him.

Stealing from a lovely lady:

Authors are not always innocent victims of online bullying; they often open sock-puppet accounts to give their own books a five-star rating, pay for reviews*, solicit reviews from family, friends, and acquaintances with the explicit demands that ratings be X many stars, and sometimes you can't tell which are the authors-behaving-badly, until you encounter them. One author who solicited me for a review was so enraged by the four-star review I posted (in which I thought that the beginning was depressing, but the ending made up for it and overall it was a great book which I recommended) that she devoted an entire blog post to trashing me (by name) and then posted the link and tagged me in it on FaceBook. Yikes!

I've also "met" some wonderful authors online who were appreciative of any review, even a negative one, and had some good, civil online discussions about exactly why a book or story didn't work for me. I still would advise any author to engage reviewers with caution - some will be spooked by even a quick "thank you."

*Note - giving away copies of books via NetGalley, Smashwords, Story Cartel, Goodreads, The Masquerade Crew, or their own blogs and asking for reviews is a very different critter than paying for reviews via outlets which guarantee X many positive reviews for XX dollars.

Who Are Reviews for, Anyway?

Reviews are: 1) for the other Readers, 2) for the other Writer, and 3) for the Reviewer

1) Our first loyalty, if we review, should be to the other Readers. What did we like, what did we dislike? Do we feel that at the listed price, a reader would be getting his/her money's worth? Maybe you don't read reviews as all. But if you do, when you are wearing your Reader hat, do you respect or trust the the opinion of reviewers who rate every book as four or five stars, who never, ever, report being slowed, stopped, or bothered by anything in a book?

Possibly, we might want to include a trigger warning, if some unusual "thing" isn't included in the author/publisher's blurb, "Despite the gentle and sensitive way it was handled, [spoiler alert] it crushed me when they had to shoot Old Yeller, because I just lost my own big yellow dog." Rape, domestic violence, binge eating or drinking, cancer, miscarriage or stillbirth - these kinds of things could send an unprepared reader into an emotional tailspin. I've seen one review where the reader freaked out about a BDSM book that included a menage scene - that reviewer had no problem with the bondage or whippings, it was the threesome that squicked her out.

Old Yeller (1957 film)
Old Yeller (1957 film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
2) The other Writer deserves our respect as a professional.The point of a review is NOT to give a full negative-as-possible critique and leave her (or his) skin hanging on the wall, bleeding, like it's a trophy. It's to evaluate, as a Reader, what we liked about the book. Maybe we did like everything. Maybe we liked everything except X - and a mature and professional author, like Stacy Green, will listen and learn from what we have to say.

3) Reviews are a way for a writer to learn to use her voice, to perhaps connect with readers with the same tastes, as well as leave a footprint in the publishing world.

The argument has been made if we, as writers, ever say something uncomplimentary about anyone, it will comes around to bite us in the tail. The publishing world is small, "they" say. Don't burn any bridges, "they" say.

I do agree with Chuck Wendig that "the juice ain't worth the squeeze," in that spending our time as a writer trashing other works is not the best use of our time. Negativeland was an interesting read, but I don't want to live there.

I've never yet written a book review with the goal of humiliating an author, and I tend to go gentle on the indie-published writers. (So much so that one author, for whom I had left a review pointing out several of the problems in his debut novel, wrote to me to thank me - and to ask me if I wouldn't edit his next book for him! I declined but pointed him in the direction of Absolute Write water cooler and Writer Unboxed.) I try to find something positive to say about every book, even the few I have rated at less than three stars.

Reviewing may not be the right thing for you to do. You have to respect your brand and your goals in this rapidly changing publishing market. I still don't think "we writers" as a whole should enter into an informal ladies-and-gentlemen agreement to not review books because some people think it's not polite.

Some people think we should stop talking/writing/discussing a lot of sensitive topics, from rape to abortion to mental health issues. But when we do stop discussing them, it doesn't seem to make society as a whole a better place. Seems to me that what we need to do is discuss these things more, until we can learn to do it politely, reasonably, and kindly.

My Gut Instinct Says That Giving Up My Voice Is a Bad Idea

There may be a time I don't do as many reviews, because I am too busy with my own stuff. But one of the main reasons I began writing is that I love books. I love reading them and I love talking about them and I love writing them. For me to give up writing honest reviews because I want to be a commercially successful writer someday is asking me give up at least part of my voice,

Calling on the lesson from another Disney movie...

When Ariel gave up her voice, she almost lost the very thing she forfeited it for, the Prince. He'd fallen for her beautiful voice, not her legs, and was almost tricked into marriage with the woman who did have the gorgeous voice.

(We can take many other lessons from The Little Mermaid about investing all your dreams in a relationship with a man, but that's another post.)

Not every writer can or should give book reviews - be true to your brand whatever it is. But I challenge the idea that doing reviews is in poor taste or bad manners a betrayal of the Secret Authors' Club Rules. Even if a writer occasionally admits that s/he didn't like a book (a one-star review, the horror!), this should not be a signal of career suicide.

Clearly, other writers have other opinions. What are yours?

If you are published, indie or traditional, would you like all other writers to stop reviewing your work, even if that means you would get perhaps a third or less of the reviews you get now?

How do you deal with a negative review?
Do you, yourself, write reviews? Why or why not?
Your thoughts?

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Monday, September 16, 2013

The Wisdom to Read Leesa Freeman

One of the best things about being a writer as well as reader is getting to meet some of the brilliant writers out there, both long-established, and new and emerging. I "ran into" Leesa Freeman on the Writer Unboxed FaceBook Group, and as a result got to enjoy her fabulous debut novel, The Wisdom to Know the Difference, which is about addiction, recovery, and love. She graciously agreed to do one of my ten question interviews.

1) If The Wisdom To Know The Difference was shelved in a bricks-and-mortar bookstore, where would it be shelved - and why?

For a while there I thought it might end up in the New Adult section, based solely on the character’s age, but after doing more research I think it’s more commercial fiction because of its subject matter.

2) You choose to self-pub this book via CreateSpace. Did you always plan to go in this direction, do you have a long sad tale of trying to find an agent/publisher, or...? Unpack that choice for us, please.

It’s not so much a long, sad tale as it is one of learning from my mistakes. The first book I wrote was epic. I didn’t know what I was doing and when I queried agents with my 210,000-word tome, I’m sure they had themselves a hearty chuckle while typing out their rejection letter. When The Wisdom was finished, I had learned so much in the interim, but I wasn’t quite ready to put myself through the query process again.

I will say that I am waist-deep in that process for my newest book, Into the Deep End, because I do believe I can learn so much as a writer from it.

3) This is a fictional tale about addiction and recovery. What kind of research did that entail?

When my mom – who was a psychotherapist - read it, she asked me if we needed to have a “conversation.” Her way of asking if it maybe wasn’t a bit biographical. In truth, I spent a lot of time reading blogs and books written by recovering addicts; sorting through different drugs, what they do and how they are used; and what the recovery process is for many addicts. After that, I pushed myself to really explore Todd’s self-hate and anger, to take myself to its deepest level and then go further.

4)  Likewise, Todd begins modeling, first for college students, then for a "name" photographer. How much research did you do into those worlds?

In that case, less than you might think. I took a photography class way back in high school in which I learned a lot of what Shawna teaches Todd about developing film – of course I had to look up the process again – but I vividly remember the frustration of working in complete darkness. As far as the photography world goes, though, I more or less took the big names from what could’ve been Scott Mitchell’s early career – Mapplethorpe, Helmut Newton, and Bill King -  tossed them together and hoped it worked. I also figured the best way to sell a fictional character as a big name was to lay it on the table without apology, add some real big names in the fashion industry, and don’t blink.

5) Wisdom is being told from first person POV (Point of View) from a young man. Assuming you yourself have never been a young man...? How did you make that choice? Todd's voice sounds very male to me, but I've never been a young man, either.  Have you had young men read it and offer feedback?

This book was actually born out of that epic tome I talked about earlier. Todd is a character in it, and when I was done with it, I couldn’t get his voice out of my head. He left me no choice but to write him, so I did. And yes, actually several male friends have read it and commented on how accurate they thought he is. That might be one of the biggest compliments I’ve received. (Well, that, and asking if I am a recovering addict. I think…)

6) Following up on that question, at one point, I kind of closed one eye and imagined a gender flip, that Todd was female, his love interests male. I would've been a little uncomfortable with some of his actions and choices, if he had been female, and believe that some readers might also have carried a double standard into the story. (Slut-judging/shaming.) Do you think there is greater social forgiveness/understanding for male addicts/alcoholics, rather than female, or am I way offbase?

No, I think you’re right, we do have different standards for men and women in our society – men are allowed to act however they want to, whereas women are allowed to feel however they feel. Going into this, I was very aware of that double standard and very much afraid of writing from a male POV. What I realized one day, which pretty much saved my bacon, was that I wasn’t writing about a guy who just happened to be a person, but that I was writing about a person who just happened to be a guy. It was a distinction that allowed me to let him feel what he felt without asking “would a guy feel that way?” If he does, he does. The other thing that helped was taking out that internal “filter.” Because I didn’t have to worry whether he would come off as a slut, etc. I was able to write what I wanted without asking “how will readers react to this?” It was extremely liberating and allowed me to really find his (and my) voice.

7) Though there is some family friction, in large part, Todd has a large and supportive family. While that didn't prevent his initial issues with addiction, did it play a big part in his recovery? What about the role of his 12-step group?

Todd’s biggest issue in recovery is his own self-loathing, standing in direct contrast with the acceptance he receives from his family. Yes, they are sad/hurt/afraid for him, but it’s the juxtaposition of their love that stands in bas relief against his pain, and what he ultimately needs to find for himself. By the same token, his sponsor, Michael, refuses to take his crap and hands out a couple good doses of tough love. Todd needs both to accept himself in the end.

8) What's the most valuable tip you've gotten - about writing, recovery, laundry, or life in general?

Follow your soul. For years I thought I would be fun to write a book, but never could find the courage to do it. Or I’d talk myself out of it – what do you say for 200 pages??? But once I gave myself permission to try, just try, yeah, it was hard at times and involved a huge learning curve (see 210,000-word tome), but I simply can’t imagine anything I’d rather do.

9) What's next for Leesa Freeman on the novel front?

Right now I’m in the query process for my novel Into the Deep End about Luke Stevenson, a young man who was on the cusp of achieving his dreams of swimming in the Olympic Trials and leaving his New Mexico town behind when a drunk driver crossed the yellow line one rainy night. In an instant, Luke lost his best friend Rob, his twin sister, and his sense of normalcy when he woke up in the hospital an Incomplete T11 paraplegic. [Bev here: I'm totally intrigued and looking forward to the read.]

Fingers crossed.

10) What question haven't you yet been asked, about this book or your career, that you've been waiting for someone to ask you - and what's the answer?

Gosh, um, I suppose how much of my personal beliefs went into this book? And I honestly, this book is rife with them. Which hasn’t happened since, but this book in particular brought out all kinds of potentially controversial topics for me.

When Shawna is taking pictures of Todd, he says:
My dad, the incredibly liberal UU minister, believed that because God created human beings, we each had a bit of His creativity in us. Like a wave is part of the ocean and therefore has its characteristics, so we have the characteristics of God. When I was a kid, the analogy made absolute sense, I’d been to the Gulf of Mexico. I’d ridden in the warm surf, tasted the saltwater as it washed over me. I understood the force of the waves and respected the power of the ocean.

…But I had long since stopped thinking of myself as a wave; I was too busy trying not to drown.

Later, when talking to his brother, he asks when Troy knew he was gay, and Troy’s response is to ask Todd when he knew he was straight. Troy goes on to explain his sexuality to Todd this way:
“I have this theory,” Troy said, reading my face. “See, people think of sex like a light switch, do you like guys or girls? But I think it’s more like a continuum and the only question is where do you fall on that line? Some people, like you, could only be with someone of the opposite sex. Some, like Ashton, could only be with someone of the same sex. And then there’s me. I enjoyed myself when I was with any one of the girls I was with. Well,” he smiled, “most of them. But when it comes down to it, I’m much closer to the ‘gay’ side on the line, than the ‘straight’ side.”

headshotsmall.jpgLike I said, it hasn’t happened since, not really, but if you want to know how I feel about certain things, just ask Todd.

A native Texan, Leesa Freeman enjoys escaping the chill of New England, if only in her imagination, often setting her stories in the places she loved growing up. Some of her favorite moments are the ones where it’s just her, her Mac, and simply conversing with the people who live inside her head, and sharing their lives with those who take the time to read her stories. She lives in Connecticut with her husband and two daughters, where she is also an artist, avid baker, a self-proclaimed music snob, and recovering Dr. Pepper addict. 

Have you read The Wisdom to Know the Difference, or added it to your TBR list?
Got a question or comment for Leesa?

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Monday, September 9, 2013

Slut of the Month: Hwang Jini, Korean Poet and Courtesan

Hwang Jin Yi (film)
Hwang Jin Yi (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Was Hwang Jini the Lady Gaga of 16th Century Korea?

At a time when most women (and men) throughout the world were illiterate, she became famous throughout her country for her beauty, intellect, dancing, and poetry.

Jini (Hwang being her family name) lived from about c. 1500-1560, during the reign of King Jungjong. In English, her name is variously rendered as Hwang Jini, Hwang Jin-i, Hwang Chini, and Hwang Jin-yi. In Hangul, the form of Korean used at the time, it would be rendered: 황진이.  She also had a p0rn name, er, a kisaeng name, Myeongwol, Shining or Bright Moon 명월.

Her mother was of cheonmin (the lowest societal rank) birth, her father rumored to be an aristocrat. Because children inherited their mother's rank, despite her talents and beauty, Hwang Jini was not an eligible candidate for marriage to a yangban (양반) - nobleman or gentleman. Or even a commoner. Slaves weren't permitted to marry.

A Misfortune of Birth Was Our Good Fortune

If Hwang Jini had married a nobleman, her main duties would not have been writing poetry, but making babies (sons, if you please), holding ceremonial rites for household gods and ancestors, and never leaving the house with her face uncovered. As a neo-Confucianistic, more patriarchal political and social system developed, Korean women in all classes lost rights and freedom they had long enjoyed. Brides now moved in with their husbands' families, rather than vice-versa. A system of dividing the living quarters by gender began to be implemented. Widows were informed it was much more virtuous for them to starve to death than to remarry.

Some remarried, anyway, and some yangban women even wrote novels. But it seems for most Korean women, the higher the class status, the lower amount of personal freedom.

Who Was Really the Slave?

Legend has it a nearby bachelor died of love for Hwang Jini. She had relationships with many notables including Ji Jok-am, and philosopher Seo Gyeong-deok.

Kisaeng (also spelled gisaeng), sometimes called ginyeo (기녀), were female Korean entertainers similar to the Japanese geisha and the ancient Greek "hetaerae." The term literally means prostitute,[1] although some kisaeng were not prostitutes.

First appearing in the Goryeo Dynasty, kisaeng were legally slaves of the government, required to perform various functions for the state. Many were employed at court, but they were also spread throughout the country. They were carefully trained, and frequently accomplished in the fine arts, poetry, and prose, although their talents were often ignored due to their inferior social status.

Women of the kisaeng class performed various roles, although they were all of the same low status in the eyes of yangban society. Aside from entertainment, these roles included medical care and needlework. In some cases, such as at army bases, kisaeng were expected to fill several such roles.

Hwang Jini Did Not Become Famous for Her Needlework

Not that there's anything wrong with being a "crafty" woman. However, even in a class of women trained to be charming and attractive, she stood out as exceptional.

The clip below shows Hwang Jini, the graceful dancer, as represented in the popular 2006 Korean Television series.

Hwang Jini - Rock Star

Hwang Jini portrait from 1910 text book
Hwang Jini portrait from 1910 text book (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
She did more than dance and, er, entertain with her body. She used her voice and her mind.

Poetry is about saying much in as few words as possible. The style of poems Hwang Jini wrote - sijo - must meet extremely complex requirements while remaining... poetic.

via Wikipedia:
Sijo may be narrative or thematic and introduces a situation in line 1, development in line 2, and twist and conclusion in line 3. The first half of the final line employs a “twist”: a surprise of meaning, sound, or other device. Sijo is often more lyrical and personal than other East Asian poetic forms, and the final line can take a profound turn.

Sijo is, first and foremost, a song. This lyric pattern gained popularity in royal courts amongst the yangban as a vehicle for religious or philosophical expression, but a parallel tradition arose among the commoners. Sijo were sung or chanted with musical accompaniment, and this tradition survives. The word originally referred only to the music, but it has come to be identified with the lyrics.
동지달 기나긴 밤을 한 허리를 버혀 내여
춘풍 이불 아래 서리서리 넣었다가
어론 님 오신 날 밤이여든 굽이굽이 펴리라
I will break the back of this long, midwinter night,
Folding it double, cold beneath my spring quilt,
That I may draw out the night, should my love return.
Another version of the poem and an analysis, via the Asian Files:
Oh that I might capture the essence of this deep midwinter night 
and fold it softly into the waft of a spring-moon quilt; 
then uncoil it the night my beloved returns.

This sijo is deceptively simple; it is composed with the central image of an eternal night, one that is both cold and loveless, but one that is ultimately transformed into a warm spring night of love and joy. The process of unraveling the cold night unifies the poem in a combination with a series of contrasting emotions and images—dark and light, warm and cold, perpetual and transient—rendering the poem as an analog to the various states of existence.[xii] Life on earth is thus transient and eternal given the emotion or setting in which an individual finds himself in a single moment of time. Love, Hwang Jini posits, is similar to this paradigm of time and space; it is both timeless and transitory.

The "It" Girl of 16th and 21th Century Korea

Although popular in her own time, the stories of Hwang Jini have enjoyed a resurgence in modern times. Novels and books written about her. A popular television series and movie.

Of course, the stories have been more than a little Hollywooded up.

And the Take-Away on Hwang Jini Is...

from the Asia Files:
Hwang Jini managed to attain a considerable degree of economic independence and had the unique opportunity to socialize across social boundaries due to her wit and self-cultivation.[xiii] While today she embodies the “emancipated, urbane womanhood” of the modern Korean woman, Hwang Jini’s poems reflect a blend of traditional values and deep self-perception. These poems suggest a remarkable emotional freedom rooted in Hwang Jini’s complex position in the societal norms of Joseon Korea. However, they are tempered against feigned sentimentality and impassioned longings—both of which were deemed unacceptable by Confucian doctrines. While Hwang Jini mingled through the social classes and had brief but celebrated love affairs with various men, her poems intriguingly mirror that of a self-composed woman with not only elegant tastes, but more importantly to the denizens of the Neo-Confucian minded Joseon dynasty, a woman with a keen sense of place and devotion to those she loved.

I have to confess, during the research for this piece I developed a mad girl-crush on the woman. That her legend endures to this day speaks to what an incredible woman she was.

A Word on the Use of "Slut" for Women of Color

Of all the women who are slut-shamed or otherwise called nasty names in American culture, women who are African-American, Latina, Middle Eastern, Native American, Asian, or otherwise "dark" have been and continue to be especially targeted. As a white woman attempting to be sensitive to the concept of privilege, I considered not using the word "slut" for any posts on women of color in this series. Perhaps modifying it to the word "sl*t...?"

After much sleeping on it and pondering, I decided not to be chicken-shit about it. The whole point of this series is that NO woman deserves to be slut-shamed or ridiculed for being frank and outspoken, for being powerful, or for being sexual. We cannot suck the venom and power out of the word "slut" if I apply it here only to white women. So, with apologies to any women of color who may feel triggered by the word, I am presenting the viewpoint that the insult "slut" has become a badge of honor, a demonstration by the fearful that our feminine power and strength frightens them, and that all of us sluts are in this together.

Past Sluts:

Upcoming Sluts of the Month:
  • Mae West
  • Joan of Kent
  • Cleopatra
  • Sandra Fluke 
  • Morgan le Fey
  • Aspasia
  • Madonna
  • Liz Taylor
  • Dorothy Parker 
  • Kassandra of Troy
  • Tullia d'Aragona
  • Josephine Baker
  • Marie Antoinette
  • Lillie Langtry
  • Eleanor Roosevelt 
  • Rhiannon
  • Shelley Winters
  • Mary, Queen of Scots
  • "Klondike Kate" Rockwell
  • Catherine de Medici
  • Lucrezia Borgia
  • Umrao Jaan
  • Sarah Bernhardt
  • Matilda of Tuscany
  • Cher
  • Eleanor of Aquitaine 
  • Theodora (wife of Emperor Justinian) 
  • Angelina Jolie
  • Jeanne d'Arc
  • Margaret Sanger
  • Coco Chanel 
  • Isadora Duncan
  • Sappho
  • Joan of Kent 
  • Dorothy Dandridge
  • Eva Perón
  • Susan B. Anthony
  • Natalie Wood
  • Diana, Princess of Wales
  • Hillary Rodham Clinton
  • Mata Hari
  • Lady Gaga
  • Malala Yousafzai

Would you rather be a proper yangban wife, or a kisaeng like Hwang Jini?
 Would she be high on the guest list for your cosmic dinner party?
Your thoughts?
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Monday, September 2, 2013

Happy Labor Day!

If you're looking for the Slut of the Month... hey, even a working girl deserves a day off now and then.

Please enjoy your Labor Day, and come back on Monday, September 9, to read about Hwang Jini, Korean courtesan and poet/songstress. [Hint: If you sign up for email delivery of this blog, you'll never miss a single slut.]

Here now a short teaser from the Korean television series loosely based on the life of Hwang Jini.

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