Friday, February 19, 2010

Just a Quickie Today -- It's Been a Busy Week!

Crossword Man and I are off to Brooklyn this afternoon for the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.  I competed last year (it was a bit like taking the bar exam...) and I am pleased to announce I will not be competing this year.  But Crossword Man will be, so I'm going to support him.  Hey, a hotel room, the Olympics, my laptop -- I'll be just fine.

What a weird week it's been.  All About Romance has a blog post on Modern Romance that is deja vu all over again.  When I married for the first time in 1999, there had been a decade, it seemed, of dire news items on how rare it was for women over 40 to marry for the first time.  I've now done it twice.

But then so much about me isn't statistically relevant these days.  I have lived virtually every minute of my life in the narrow-end of the bell shaped curve; it's a wonder I don't have a permanent stoop (I'm 5'11", which is in the top 1% or so for white women my age, I'm obese and thus also in the top 1% on that scale).  So -- old, tall, fat and still unmarried at age 40: it was a bloody miracle I could get married at all.  For all those reasons, I didn't even bother leaving a comment at AAR -- I figure I'm just too odd to have anything useful to say.

I'm still not sure if my comments at Jessica's blog, Racy Romance Reviews, have helped or hindered the discussion on feminism.  I have gotten a lot out of it, and really appreciate the various points of view that have been expressed.  Jessica will forever go into my pantheon of people who taught me something absolutely essential to my understanding of the world, myself, and my place in the world.  And she did so, I think (I hesitate to suggest another person's internal motivation) because she realized that I wasn't there to argue but to learn.  It's generous of her, Laura Vivenco, Sunita, Liz, Ann Somerville, Diana, and Lynn Spencer to take the time to read my long anecdotes and comments, and respond thoughtfully and with their own perspective well-expressed and illuminating.

There, too, my oddness is a factor.  I'm odd because I come from an odd family (dominated by strong women who are all well-educated, well-employed, and accomplished; I give some examples here), because I had an odd childhood (the abuse I suffered is, sadly, not that odd, but the details of what was done to me, by whom, and what I did to survive it combine in a way that is, undoubtedly, unique).  So I look for oddness in the world.  I don't look for patterns and similarities because, by definition, all the people in the wide part of the bell-shaped curve are unlike me.

This week has taught me that I need to see the patterns of sexism, and an independent study of feminism will be valuable toward that goal.  I'm not the same person I was a week ago; it's a cliche, but change is good.

Last item:  I blogged a while ago about how I was writing romance fiction but didn't really want to talk about it because like all difficult and lengthy endeavors, having people ask how it's going isn't always fun.  I don't blog about my writing, and I don't tweet about it.  But a funny thing happened a while back that resulted in my being asked to send an agent my work.  I'm months away from where I thought I'd have to be to query anyone, so this was both a surprise and a huge opportunity.  And a bit of a risk.

The agency in question has passed on my work.  That's not entirely surprising, but it does leave me with those feelings of doubt and uncertainty, both large and small.  I know I'm being irrational even to question my decision to write romances, but that's a hard thought to expel from one's mind.  A more rational question is whether there are deficiencies in my writing, and if there are, are they always going to be seen as deficiencies?  In other words, did the agency reject my writing because it doesn't fit their preferences, or because it won't fit anyone's preferences?

Look, I know this isn't a sprint, it's a marathon.  I know I'm still in the early stages of this process.  I know I shouldn't take this personally.  And I know I need to continue to believe in the quality of my work, even as I accept and benefit from all constructive criticism.  I know all that and I'm doing all that.  But rejection is still rejection, and we're not properly plugged into the world if rejection doesn't sting a little.

At the end of the week, I've been educated, engaged, exposed to new ways of looking at the world, and I've endured the first tiny "ordeal by market," as my grandfather called it.  And I had a sad realization: A friend once told me that her mother had made lampshades out of all her rejection letters; what can I do with rejection emails?

(Crossword Man just said:  You can make e-lampshades.  Can we tell he's a software compiler?)

This is what the ACPT looked last year, when I did compete.  I'm the second from the left in the front row: white shirt, black cardigan, knitting.  Yeah, so that's not exactly like the bar exam, where knitting would not have been allowed, but look at that room.  That's 650 people all solving puzzles under test-like conditions:  just like the bar exam!


  1. Thanks Magdalen, and for your contributions to the discussion, which is still ongoing.

    Congratulations on your rejection! If you got this far without trying, imagine what luck you will have with a completed manuscript and single minded focus.

  2. Ah, Magdalen, I hear you about the bell curve thing. I never seem to have hit average. Nor popular, for that matter.

    It's the latter that has caused me to fret about my own writing. I'm a wallflower at parties — in good part because of my own extroversion. But a part of my wonders, if people don't find me interesting in person, why would they ever enjoy my fictional world?

    And yet I write. I can't stop myself.And I'd like to believe I'm becoming a better person for the effort, whether or not someone in New York ever thinks I can pull in a crowd.

    May I suggest that your own comments about learning imply you have the same values?

    And so, I tip my hat to you. This submission may not be right for this agent at this time, but writing is people growin' stuff, m'dear. Maybe one day we'll both burst that bell curve open and make it irrelevant.

  3. Magdalen, I love your candor and your self-awareness and your humor. If your "oddness" contributes to that, then you are blessed. I've always danced to my own music and am drawn to people like you who do the same. I loved reading your real life stories and the fact that you tell them so eloquently is a bonus. I dropped out if the discussion only because it veered back into eye-glazing text, essay, and blog links full of sound and fury. Real life stories told by those who lived it are ever so much more illuminating and interesting. Well, that and the fact that I was patted on the head, reprimanded, and dismissed. I still think, after all the intellectualizing that most young women don't get what recent feminist history was really like. Because they're talking, citing text and not listening.

    I sat at a (large) dinner table one night with Gloria Steinham and listened raptly for hours. A delightful sense of humor, a firm grip on reality, and a desire to listen to other women is what I remember most about that night. Once I had a sit down with Katharine Graham to discuss what we used to call career pathing. Sadly, Post Newsweek sold our station so I ended up working for a bunch of colorless men in suits after the heady days of working for Kay Graham.

    I'll be at the head of the line to buy your book when it's published. Does this qualify as fan mail?


  4. Jessica -- Thanks, I appreciate your optimism. I'm pretty sure some Aristotelian logic could poke a couple holes in that sunny picture, but heck, Aristotle's dead and I'm still writing.

  5. Hope -- I feel good about writing now after I did the whole "late bloomer" thing. I wanted to write in my 20s but I suspect I didn't actually want to get published. (They say fear of success is actually just fear of failure. They are wrong.) Now that I'm grown up (hee hee) I'm banking on that little hiccup being gone.

    Warning: blatant plug coming up. I write more about being narrow-end of the bell shaped curve at my "non-romance" blog, cunningly entitled Life at the Narrow End of the Bell-Shape Curve. I don't post there very often, but there's some fun stuff in the archives.

    My thesis is that we narrow-end people all have our narrow-endedness in common even if what makes us different is ... well, different. Like we're all at the far ends of the spokes of a wheel: we're all unlike the hub-types, but we have in common being unlike the hub-types.

    And yes, I totally want to add "romance novelist in her 50s" to my resume of "narrow-end" accomplishments. Let's do it together!!

    Diana -- Thank you for liking my stories. I amuse myself, but it's a huge relief to know I can appeal to someone else. And yes, I am fond of the illustrative example!

    As for conversations with wonderful women, I had a great talk with a client, the chief legal officer of a Fortune 500 company. I explained to her my theory about why some women in our age group were feminists in theory but sexist in execution.

    I said I thought it was because growing up they had the professional ambitious dad (lawyer, engineer, doctor) while mom was educated but home with the kids. Because these women had gotten their sense of ambition from dad but their sense of self from their mothers (and because, back in the 60s & 70s, stay-at-home moms were as valued as they are today), these women are driven to achieve what dad achieved, but they have a hard time valuing their own achievement when their moms were not valued and didn't value themselves.

    (My problem was the reverse: My dad was successful but not ambitious and he never valued his success; my mother had a great sense of her own value in the world. That meant I was confident but unambitious. Unambitious associates don't suck up as much as they should. I used to drive some of the women partners crazy!)

    I figured women whose moms had great self-esteem (whether working outside the house or not, incidentally) were much more tolerant of other successful women in the workplace. My client completely agreed because, she said, her mother had a wonderful sense of self.

    Now -- all of that is more individual psychology, and I'm a NEW & REFORMED woman, eager to admit that individual psychology doesn't explain everything. But I do still think I was right about the nasty woman partner who told me I said things wrong, but then couldn't think of an example.

    I love that I have a ready-made fan! For you, Diana, I will get my novel(s) written so that you're not left standing in line for too long!

    Thanks for the kind words.

  6. Will think on the parental influence, which admittedly is something I've always avoided analyzing too deeply. I had unhappy parents and realized very early in life that whatever good things were to come to me would require me to take care of it myself. More later after I think about it.


  7. My comment has turned into a 2,000-word rant on the injustice of the Swiss system towards mothers who want to work. Probably of interest to no one but myself, so I'll try some ruthless editing.

  8. I very much enjoyed the conversation! With regard to "oddness", I think most people have at least one aspect of personality or life experience that probably would fall to the narrow end of a bell curve. I think these things that make us a little different from the norm give people something unique to bring to a discussion. All this by way of saying - please don't hold back on commenting just because you think you might be outside the mainstream of a particular discussion.

    Re:Taking the bar exam again - You are braver than I. I don't think I EVER want to take a bar exam again.

  9. Diana -- I know exactly what you mean; I figured out a long time ago that if I wanted nice things (back then "things" was all I aimed for), I had to figure on getting them for myself. It's not a bad philosophy to have as we emerge from dysfunctional families of origin. I'm now figuring out how to allow myself more intangible rewards... (Keep watching this space for progress on that front!)

    Sarah - I really do want to read your 2,000 word rant about the Swiss cultural and systematic inequities toward working women with children.

    Lynn - I would have had to take the bar exam if I'd wanted to be licensed to practice in New York State (only 20 miles away), and there simply is no way. I could do it, but the theoretical rewards are swamped by the very real costs.

    The crossword puzzle tournament isn't quite that bad (I'd remembered it as 7 straight hours of puzzle solving, but that was a wild exaggeration -- it's a couple hours in the morning, two hours for lunch, and maybe three hours in the afternoon, plus one large puzzle on Sunday morning) but the pictures (I'll post one in the main body above) do show how grim it can be.

    Thanks for the nice words. I agree that a lot of people are in the narrow end; the trick is getting us to acknowledge each other while also respecting our differences.

  10. Re: the picture - wow! That does look pretty intense.


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