I've been meaning to write this ever since I saw the BACT show at Readercon. This is respectfully dedicated to my favorite troubadors (unless they hate it, in which case I have no idea how the hell it happened, and clearly I was hacked by some, well, HACK or something).
And the Queen I Loved
There's a beat that moves blood-deep
and soul-wide, a pulse trembling
in the breathless silence between songs.
A reign of music, a queendom of note and word
bounded by their enthroned majesties,
the mysteries in which they initiate us.
A tarot-casting of queens, merciless
in beauty, matchless in wisdom.
And the queen I loved: wasp-sharp
words building a paper nest in the ear.
Dark mother, she may doubt
her crown awaits, but we have already
bent the knee before her.
And the queen I loved: wild sprite
spun of thistledown and profanity,
her tales troubling the steady turn of history,
her snake-oil truths a remedy we drink deep.
And the queen I loved: quiet sorrow
plucking ballads from air and bone
and the rust-red dust of other worlds.
A silk ribbon of song around our throats, our hearts.
And the queen I loved: generous merriment,
sovereign of wonder, her every step crossing
a stage only she can see. She will bow
at the finish, but we are the ones humbled.
And the queen I loved: drawing stairs
from her harp strings, a flight to heavens
unexpected, a honey-drenched dream
from which we awake only reluctantly,
if at all.
What palace can match this court, what earthly ruler
can dream of challenging their supremacy?
A few bars of music, a sentence or two,
and an ordinary room transforms.
What luck, to stumble upon a dream
made flesh for a moment, a vision
spun solid beneath our feet.
In a recent post on Dear Author, Michelle Sagara talks about the Alpha Male in romance novels
. She’s writing in response to another post by Kameron Hurley, and both essays have valuable points about the trope and about the way we perceive male roles in literature and culture. But there were a few things I wanted to add, both in terms of the definition of the Alpha Male, and the rather less discussed Alpha Female.
First, I think that too often the term ‘alpha’ is used carelessly. It’s thrown around to explain behavior that ranges from bullying and stalking (as Hurley points out) to simply being forceful, determined, and self-assured. In truth, I find the latter end of the spectrum far more attractive, both in fictional characters and the real-life individuals I meet. And I really can’t speak to those who find the stalkers and bullies appealing. There’s nothing particularly self-assured or confident about needing to control others.
Here’s where I think Sagara’s explanation hits on the visceral appeal of the alpha hero: in his devotion to the woman he falls for and to the life he’s building. Sure, billions in the bank and a nice set of abs is part of the fantasy, yet for a lot of women I think those are merely the icing on the cake. I think the following quote from her post addresses this appeal:
Michelle Sagara says, Whatever he sees in the heroine, he sees. He wants it. He does not care about her status harming his. He does not care how other people see her, because frankly, why the hell would he? He’s secure. He doesn’t want her because other people would, or do. He wants her, period. He is never, ever going to be the husband who tells his wife, ‘you better start working out, you need to lose some weight’ because he’s self-conscious about how other people will judge him for having a chubby wife. He is never going to be concerned that her age is showing; he is never going to have an affair with a random, twenty-year old secretary, etc.
Readers give consent to the relationship not because the hero is an asshat, but because the hero is an idealized grown-up. His ego does not require bolstering: he could not care less what other people think of him. What he needs, undiluted, is the heroine.
So why is this significant? Let me explain.
By the time I reached my junior year in college, I’d given up hope of finding anyone to date, never mind marry. I could see the writing on the wall in high school, after my first boyfriend (who lasted all of five weeks) broke up with me. A year later he admitted that it was because ‘other guys were making fun of [him] for dating the smart girl.’ The same sort of thing happened a few more times. When I asked adults for advice, I got two responses—either a suggestion that I ‘tone it down’ so guys wouldn’t feel intimidated, or a promise that things would be better in college. They’d still have fragile, fragile flowers for egos, of course. But *somebody* was bound to be enough smarter than me that he wouldn’t be terrified.
Guess what? College turned out to be more of the same. That was hugely disappointing for me—I’d naively assumed that at BYU, where the library boasts that ‘The Glory of God Is Intelligence,’ there’s be more of a rush to date girls who were intelligent, confident and ambitious. But nope. Guys still chased the ‘pink and fluffies,’ as my roommates and I called them. They just looked for a veneer of spirituality to go with it.
I joined clubs. I waited patiently for guys to ask me out on dates. I gave up on waiting and asked the interesting guys out myself. The only thing I didn’t do was ‘tone it down,’ because as much as I wanted to be popular, be datable, I didn’t want to spend an evening (or God forbid the rest of my life) pretending to be something I wasn’t. The end result? Two dates in over two years. It was discouraging. Being told, “You scare people because you’re too intense,” was heartbreaking. I get that a big part of having a successful life means finding ways to grow and improve, but hearing that some basic, fundamental aspect of yourself—one that, in other circumstances is considered valuable—will prevent you from having a meaningful relationship kind of crushes the hope right out of you.
I still dreamed. I wanted to meet my own version of Lloyd Dobler from ‘Say Anything,’ who loves the class valedictorian unreservedly, who sees past the dismissive assumptions everyone else makes about her. But I’d definitely begun to suspect that Lloyd was nothing but a fictitious character, and that no real, live man could be that awesome.
I finally met a guy who wanted to date me, and that was fun, and then one night as we were driving around, we started talking about the situation in the Middle East (this was in 1990, in the buildup to Desert Storm. Like romantic troubles, there is always a situation in the Middle East). I expressed my disagreement with my date’s opinion, rather vehemently. And then I said, “Oh well, so much for this relationship.”
At the next stoplight, he turned to me and said, “You should say what you think. *I* think it’s sexy that you’re smart. I’m tired of dating girls who couldn’t find Afghanistan on a map.”
(Spoiler alert: fast forward 24 years, and we’ve been married almost 23 of those years, and have three kids. Because, dear reader, those were *exactly* the words I’d been waiting to hear. Like in the Michelle Sagara quote above, he wanted me because he wanted ME. Not only did he not care what anyone else might think, I think he’s still rather shocked when anyone else fails to notice what he sees in me.)
The thing is, I married an alpha male. Granted he doesn’t have a ginormous bank account, and he’s a little smooshy because he likes my cookies a bit too much. But he’s always been confident, ambitious, and clear on what he wants in life. He’s a great leader, not because he pushes (though he can if he needs to) but because he’s willing to step up and get things done, and he takes care of his people. He’s the Alpha Male of our little wolf-pack.
In some ways, I’m a lot like him, and that’s probably part of why we’ve worked so well together. Granted, at times he behaves like a jerk, as alphas do, but then sometimes *I’m* the jerk. I’m more a Siberian tiger alpha than a wolf alpha. I tell people that ideally the kids would have to fend for themselves once they can hunt up their own breakfasts, and Doug would only be allowed home when I want to mate. This is an exaggeration, but only a little one. And it takes effort to make that intersection of strong personalities work. But that being said, it’s a hell of a lot better than spending a lifetime with someone who expects me to ‘tone it down’ and be a little less than I am to save him some discomfort.
To return to literature, this is probably why my favorite Alpha Males have always been the ones who have a strong Alpha Female with whom to run. If you haven’t yet encountered Elizabeth Peters’s delightful Peabody and Emerson mysteries, start with The Crocodile on the Sandbank
. Or if fantasy’s more your thing, check out Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate
series. In both those series, the blustering Alpha Male is countered by the wiles of his female counterpart, who has her own goals and ambitions and refuses to bend to society’s dictates. Their relationships may be highly combustible at times, but there’s nary a whiff of the man dictating terms. He may try, but he’s not going to get very far.
In real life, alphas of both genders end up carrying a lot of responsibility. We become the go-to folks in many situations (and at least from my own experience, there’s an element of feeling I have to be responsible in order to justify my awkward and unorthodox existence).
Again, with reference to Michelle Sagara’s post, I agree that part of the Alpha Male fantasy lies in having a relationship with someone who’s willing to carry some of the emotional weight, who has confidence and doesn’t need constant hand-holding in order to get things done. And that’s where the Alpha Males (and, if I may be so bold, the Alpha Females) can be worth their weight in gold.
As with most anthologies, Terra Mechanica
's steampunk visions vary in style and execution. Though not all the tales were to my taste, enough of them caught my interest to make this a worthwhile read. In "The Journey of Inspector Roux," by C. R. Simper, I figured out the plot twists fairly early on, and it had some awkward moments (Moroccans speak French or Arabic, not 'Moroccan'), and yet the plight of the main character drew me in, and I found myself a little teary by the end. TC Phillips' "Ripper Bound" invoked some truly interesting technology. And Scott Tarbet's "Ganesh" set up a globe-trotting adventure, the origin tale for a ship with a very human soul. One of my favorite stories (and I'll admit to being biased here, since it's by my good friend Jay Barnson), "Dots, Dashes, and Deceit," takes two adventurous young women, a man who's been sorely underestimated, and sets them in the path of some international criminals. The other stand-out for me was Rie Sheridan Rose's "Seven-year Itch." Though fairly light on the steampunk elements, its folkloric tale of a deal with the devil was deeply involving. Terra Mechanica
may not do much to challenge standard steampunk tropes, but it does present some truly entertaining tales. I consider the evenings I spent reading it time well spent.And here's a link.
Forgive the shadows—
I can only cast so much light,
skeins of spellwrought glory
curling through the wood,
kindling memory and hope.
A century’s wait, two, more—
and you a flicker of dream
reflected in a cursed mirror,
a voice heard like distant thunder’s
promise of storm.
I gave you a bitter blessing—
the sharp-edged future
in all its bright pain
and glorious failure,
and take a madman’s love
in trade. No bargain this—
our loss woven into the pattern
of any glimmer of success.
A touch, a touch
and a fading bloom,
a witch’s gift born of blood
and faltering courage.
It was very hard to decide upon a winner for the faux bio contest. I procrastinated for a few days, hoping for some kind of extinction-level event to take the pressure off, but I suppose those never happen when it's convenient. (Also, if it did happen, the collection would never see print, so . . .)
Without further ado, I present to you the glorious winner of the faux bio contest, happy_gogogo
"Deep within the foggy and dense forests of New York, Jennifer Crow weaves spellbinding works of literature while taking care of her family. In her spare time, she can be found on fossil digs attempting to complete her private dinosaur exhibit, as well as training her army of crows against the oncoming zombie apocalypse. Ms. Crow also enjoys knitting and volunteering."
I have to admit, this won on the strength of a private dinosaur exhibit and an army of crows, because SERIOUSLY, how awesome would that be?
Honorable mentions go to asakiyume
and to Joshua Gage. Though sadly, this only gets you bragging rights, plus a year's supply of my admiration.
Thanks to everyone who entered, and stayed tuned--I'll let you know when The First Bite of the Apple
is going to be released into the wild.
I think I had a revelatory moment, driving to Barnes and Noble this morning to write. For a while now I’ve been mourning the state of the publishing industry, especially as it applies to me. You see, I realized that no matter how hard I work, I can never have the career I once dreamed of, because that world just doesn’t exist anymore. That’s just the way things have shaken out, and in the general sense I’m not inclined to wring my hands overmuch. Change is woven into the nature of things, and it’s what makes life interesting. People are still writing good stories, regardless of whether or not the format or springboard changes.
That being said, it’s a bit shocking when it dawns on you that the road you set out on has petered out into a trackless wilderness. I had a very clear picture in my mind of what I wanted and how to go about getting it. I worked with that end in mind. I bought into the myth that if you just work hard enough for long enough and believe enough, sooner or later I’d get to that published-ever-after part of my story.
It’s hard not to grieve the death of that dream. It’s been hard not to get lost in that grief, pummeled by the storm of voices that tell me how it REALLY is, what I must do NOW, where the money is going to be in a decade . . . It’s super confusing, even if you’re not watching something precious die.
I wish I was the kind of person to just get over things. But I’m not. I cling to dreams and hopes and ideals far longer than they serve me. One of the downsides to that is the perpetual ‘stuck’ feeling that inevitably follows when you trudge along on a path that doesn’t actually exist.
So today, on the road, I was thinking about what metaphorical journey I’d like to be on, what I can let go, what I need to keep in order to still be ME. And the truth is, more than anything I want to tell stories. I want to tell stories and have people read them. Read them and maybe come away from those tales changed in some way, or freed, or just lifted for a time out of the mundane.
I’m a storyteller; that’s not a part of me I’m willing to let go. But the thing that dawned on me is that, while I’m sad that I can’t have the life I dreamed of, it also frees me. I don’t have to keep doing the same things over and over without seeing any results. I can be a writer and also choose to be sane and productive and maybe even happy one fine day.
So, though I’m not sure what road I’ll find myself on next, it’s time for something different. It’s time to let go of the past and figure out how to have joy in the things I love instead of that incessant sense of inadequacy and failure.
And for the first time in a long, long time, I’m starting to feel a little excited.
Just a reminder that I'm closing the faux bio contest at 7 p.m. today, so if you'd like a chance to win my new poetry collection, come up with an awesome fake bio for me and post it soon.
For those who may not have seen the announcement on Facebook and Twitter, I have been agonizing over the bio for my upcoming poetry collection (The First Bite of the Apple, coming soonish from Elektrik Milk Bath Press. It will contain a selection of my poems with folklore, mythology and fairy tale themes) . . .
And then, inspiration struck! Why should I toil over a description of my dull life, when my friends could make up something way more amusing?
So, if you'd like your very own free copy of my collection, write me an outrageous, amusing bio. I'll choose a winner next weekend, which means you'll need to post your (my) bio here, on Facebook, or on Twitter by 7 p.m. EST on October 11th.
If you have any questions, fire away. Otherwise, I look forward to reading your creations.
I'm just finishing up Max Barry's Lexicon
, which besides being a bang-up thriller, is a meditation on the power of words. Most of the characters are 'poets,' people who have the ability to influence others through their understanding of human nature and language. But there are some words beyond even their power, and the whole scenario gets tied back to mythology about the confusion of tongues (like the Tower of Babel story from the Bible).
I love words. There's a thrill, especially in writing poetry, in finding just the right word for what I mean to say. I think it also ties in to what people have been saying about performance in asakiyume
's journal. When we tell a story, or sing a song, or recite a poem, we're (hopefully) building power. In Barry's novel, the poets break down listeners' resistance bit by bit, gaining their attention and working through the layers of the mind, until at last they're in control. Performance isn't that invasive, but at the same time, there's a sense of building rapport and using it to affect the audience on an emotional level. First the hook, then the rising tension, the notes you have to hit just right
, and finally the climax.
Reading this book is going to change how I look at my work as I rewrite, which makes it one of the best kinds of stories. I'm actually kind of excited to grab one of the novel drafts and start revising.
"God does have a name. It's not what you think."
The quote above is one made by James Morrison on Twitter last week (more or less--I don't have the exact phrasing with me at the moment). It was one of those lines that raised the hair on the back of my neck, and I knew I'd have to write something to go with it. Hopefully it does justice to its inspiration.
Normally I don't publish drafts publicly, but I told James I'd let him see the end result. (And James, if you read this and end up writing a story, I'd love to read it.)
The Secret Name of God
You might have fallen
into the thousand outstretched hands
for you called, called
out to that comforting presence
you longed to remember.
While your knees ached
and your shattered heart
battered the walls of your chest,
you whispered all the worshipful names
etched into your being
over a lifetime in purgatory.
You desired nothing more
than this: the comfort born
in silent suffering, the sacrificial
offering laid out on cold stone.
But human voices can’t speak
the secret name of God, unforked tongues
stumbling over harsh syllables
driven like nails into soft flesh.
Given this truth, this irrevocable law
decreed in the heavens, cast
like flaming stone into the fragile
dwelling-place of the soul,
every tear you wept sank
into sterile soil, and salt built
like a poison between you and this deity
who reclines on a throne
so far beyond your imagination
you cannot touch its footstool,
not even in dream.
Perhaps, should you weep long enough,
copious offering of griefs unassuaged,
your god will turn your life sideways,
a pillar of salt lodged in the throat
of the world. And in that moment,
tell God to choke on your wrath, and
let him feel the absence of heaven
that is the silence you leave behind.