Thursday, October 25, 2018

Dilley, Texas

When I talked to family and friends about the Dilley trip before we left, I made it sound as if I’d be something of a hero. At least, I described it in positive, heroic language: it was a legal mission trip, I’d be able to help people who couldn’t help themselves, it felt like the best thing I could do with what I’d learned in law school up to that point. Looking back, I recognize that it was a little bit of an ego trip. But I had the best of intentions. I wanted to be a hero not for the glory and recognition, but because heroes help people; they save the day. I thought I could pay it forward by giving back. I’ve been incredibly blessed all of my life, especially with educational opportunities. I figured I should use some of my blessings to bless others, and I must admit it sounded like a noble and heroic thing to do. At least, that’s how I talked about it to other people.

As an English major, I studied the hero archetype in literature classes spanning everything from epic poetry to the post-modern novel and even film. Heroes aren’t difficult to recognize because they’re pervasive in oral tradition and modern culture. In contemporary terms, however, we often simplify the concept. The default hero is the person or a group who succeeds—the one who wins the game, saves the day, defeats the enemy, or prevails against the odds. So I thought, accordingly, that I was going to Texas to win. That was my first mistake.

In Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the hero’s cycle includes a call to adventure, a mentor, a series of obstacles or struggles she (the hero) must overcome, a quest she must fulfill, and a transformation she undergoes as a result of these battles. The last step in the cycle describes her return to the community she left behind when she was called on her quest. As she returns, she brings something with her that infuses new life in that community. Sometimes it’s a physical object: a golden fleece, an ancient weapon. More often, the “thing” with which she returns, the solution to the problem that sent her on the quest in the first place, is her own transformation. Her struggle to pass through hell and back (often literally) provides her with the knowledge and the strength she needs to face and defeat the enemies threatening her both at home and abroad.

Thus, Telemachus returns from his journey with his father and a certain knowledge that he is the son of Odysseus and the rightful heir to the throne of Ithaca. Frodo and Sam (and Merry and Pippin) leave the One Ring in the fires of Mordor but return to the shire with the confidence and tenacity to oust Sharkey and Wormtongue and to restore order. And Harry defeats Voldemort, not with the elder wand but with a simple disarming spell and the protection of his mother’s love.

So my plans for placement break were supposed to follow this pattern: I answered the call to adventure when I applied for the Dilley project with the law school. I had plenty of mentors and no shortage of obstacles, not the least of which was my lamentable Spanish. Although I only spent five days inside the facility, it was plenty of time to transform me into a different person than I was when I left. And I returned home transformed (and more than a little overwhelmed) at the experience.

But ever since boarding the plane in San Antonio to fly back to Utah, I’ve been asking myself whether I actually fulfilled my quest. If I did, I guess my hero cycle is complete and I can turn in this reflection paper and go home. But if I didn’t, am I really a hero? Probably not. And if not, what was the point of my journey?

After a great deal of reflection, I have reached a conclusion sparked, in part, by my conversations with family and friends after I came home. At first, people asked, “Oh, did you have fun?” That was a difficult question to answer. But an even harder question came when I explained what I did in Dilley, and they replied, “Thank you for your service. I’m sure you did a lot of good.” For some reason, this was not what I wanted to hear, although I didn’t understand how or why it was such a distasteful sentiment until I’d heard it multiple times from multiple people. Then I realized that I’d had the whole thing wrong from the beginning. Their gratitude for my “service” made me feel hollow, like I was taking credit for a heroic effort I didn’t deserve. Because the thing is, I failed. I’m not a hero—at least, I’m not the hero of this story.

But if I’m not the hero, who is?

Well, obviously, the true heroes are, or should be, the women and children of Central America. I know this implicitly, without reference to linguistics, history, philosophy, or academic authority, and that sounds like it should be easy to prove.

Step one: the call to adventure. Although “adventure” is too bland a word to describe her call to leave her country, there is always a moment where the Guatemalan or Honduran or El Salvadorian woman rises up and says, “Enough is enough. I won’t stand by and watch the monsters destroy everything I love. I will save what is most precious to me.” So she gathers her children and she flees, often into dangers as great or greater than the ones she left behind.

Step two is meeting a mentor, but I’m skipping that step for obvious reasons. Step three: Overcoming obstacles. The woman in these stories struggles through malice, violence, oppression, depravity, and loss, often with only the vaguest sense of what awaits her when she gets beyond these obstacles. I don’t know what sustains her through the journey, but I do know that it refines her. It makes her beautiful and tough and strong, yet it leaves her humanity intact, which seems beyond miraculous to me. She fights for her own life and the life of her child every day, exhausting her physically, mentally, and emotionally. But when her child needs a kind word or a soft touch, she can still hold him and soothe his sorrows.

Step four: Fulfilling the quest. Finally, she arrives at the river. She’s almost made it! Her quest is at an end, so she thinks. And she wades or swims across, carrying her children, if necessary, to the land of promise. It must be better here; it must be worth the sacrifice she made.

But just as I thought I was making a heroic journey to Dilley where I would have the opportunity to save the day, only to find that I was absolutely wrong, I wonder if she thinks the South Texas Family Residential Center is a poor reward for a job well done. Detention, credible fear interviews, reasonable fear interviews, and asylum cases seem like an awfully complicated, lengthy, and torturous way to say, “You lost. You’re not a hero. We don’t have anything here that can help you. All your suffering has been for nothing.”

Step nothing. If the quest is not fulfilled, the hero can’t return, transformed, bringing new life into her community. It ends here.

During the days I spent cloistered in a CFI Prep room that was always too hot or too cold, I heard many cases, some stronger than others, that fit. But still others were just too weak. They had a story, but it wasn’t a story we wanted to hear. It wasn’t a story that interested the law. And even those stories that were good enough to pass the low bar of a credible fear interview will probably not be good enough for permanent asylum in the United States. Either way, most of the women will find themselves returning home without having fulfilled their quest. They were transformed, but to what end? Why did they go through all of that heartache if it didn’t work?

As soon as I came to terms with who should be the true hero of the story, I began to wrestle with this second question. If the hero loses—and according to almost all definitions of success, an asylum claim rejection is a failure—can she still be a hero? No matter what happens with her claim, this woman is not going to spend the rest of her days in paradise. If she stays in the United States, she’ll still be poor. She’ll still struggle to find work and feed her children. She’ll continue to suffer in so many ways. She’ll have to deal with prejudice because of her gender, her nationality, the color of her skin and the language she speaks. She’ll worry about the ones she left behind in her country, and she’ll try to make enough money to send for them, but even if they make it here, that will only mean she’ll have one more mouth to feed. She’ll have to work very hard, and she’ll still be lonely. So how can I call her a hero? How can I believe that her life mattered at all?

The answer that I desperately want to be true is in her story.

There is value and power in telling your story to someone—anyone—willing to listen. The Greeks believed that there were two paths to immortality. The first path was through your children. When you have children to carry on your name and your legacy, you can live through them even after you have died. The second path to immortality was through story. Think about Achilles, Odysseus, Beowulf, Siddhartha, Arthur, Hamlet, and countless others. In a way, they are still alive because they told their stories and someone heard them. Telling a story establishes a sacred trust between the one who tells it and the one who hears it. It validates the storyteller’s experience and makes the events in the story real—more real than they were when they happened. Telling a story creates truth and listening to that story recognizes that truth.

In Spanish, to feel is “siento.” To say, “I’m sorry,” you say, “lo siento.” I feel you. And while my Spanish is limited and mostly incomprehensible, I know how to say, “lo siento.” Better yet, those words encapsulate the one gift I did give these women. I listened to their lives, witnessed their heartaches and traumas, the depths of their sorrows and the intensity of their struggles, and I said, “I feel you.” I testified that they lived, that they tried, and that they were transformed.

I want the gift of hearing these women to be what completes their cycle and transforms them into true heroes. I have no idea what will happen to them; if I think about it too much, I feel paralyzed at the hopelessness of their plights. But I do know that each woman I interviewed found her voice. She told her story, and I heard it. That makes her a hero.

***

At least, that is how I want the story to end. I’m about 65% confident that it should. I still worry, though, that I’m extracting a meaning from all of this that the facts simply won’t bear. I’m trying to justify my experience so that I don’t just shrivel up and blow away in the face of their injustice and my own helplessness. Maybe we are none of us heroes. And maybe God has simply turned away His face from their suffering.

But in my heart, I can’t believe it. I remember precious moments when I sat across from these women, knowing them each by name, and I heard them. And if that was the only thing I could do for them, I hope, with all my heart, that in that moment, it made them the heroes of their own stories. It made them heroes in my eyes; maybe that’s all that matters.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

A Time to Every Purpose

On late summer evenings,
I straddle the edge between awake and asleep,
lights all out and
windows open wide.

The wind,
tired of lining out leaves and branches that refuse to stay straight,
sidles into my bedroom,
knocking around the blinds and
checking some papers on the dresser
before wandering back out.

I know these nights are not the time to make plans.

They are only for listening --
to the faint, minor tones of a near wind chime, and
to the plaintive chirrup of a nearer cricket.
Listening to the rustled whispering of dreams queueing up.
But mostly, listening to
tomorrow settling in to wait until dawn.

For hope is a morning bird,
but peace hides in the shadows of dusk.

Monday, June 18, 2018

A Flash of Insight On Being The Writer

Dear Writer,

I've been thinking about this for a long time -- years, actually -- ever since I started down the road of pouring my energy, my ideas, my whole soul into a manuscript I hoped would someday blossom into a real, published novel. I've spent decades opening myself up, like you, to judgment and criticism, exposing the dearest parts of myself and my dreams to strangers and critics. I've been a critic myself, as a writing teacher, as a beta reader, and now as an intern. But I am absolutely convinced that

the writer's job is the hardest of them all.

That's right. Sure, it's difficult to develop the taste, the skill, and the sensibility to identify what's wrong with a manuscript and to offer that kind of criticism. It's hard to judge someone else's work -- or, at least, it's hard to do it well. It can be challenging to find exactly the right words to describe what's not working and why. It's also hard to just say no without offering a querier any feedback on what's going wrong. But no matter how difficult it is to identify the flaws in someone else's work,

it's harder to actually write a good book.

So when you feel judged and critiqued and mistreated because so many people standing between you and your publishing goals seem to be looking down their noses at your efforts, when you wonder who died and pronounced them the gods of taste and literary refinement, when the last shreds of dignity and pride bristle at yet another form rejection in your inbox, remember this: their critiques may be spot on, they may be exactly right about what's wrong with your work and what you need to fix, but that doesn't mean they're better than you or they can take anything away from you.

You are still a writer. You are doing the hardest job of all.

I have played the piano since I was a child and the organ for almost as long. I have had numerous occasions to play the organ for large groups of people: 500 to 800 church-goers in one room. I love playing the organ because it has all kinds of stops and associated sounds. There's something satisfying about feeling (not just hearing) the sound reverberate under your fingers, especially if you turn on the great bass coupler. Have I ever made mistakes while playing the organ in front of those 500-800 people? You bet! But one thought provides all the solace I need to move past those mistakes and keep playing: I'm the one on the bench. None of those 500 to 800 people are playing the organ. 99.9% of them wouldn't even begin to know how, and of the .1% that do, none of them are volunteering to take over for me.

So it is with you. You're on the bench, pounding out your story with all the stops open. Your job is the hardest of all, but you're still doing it. Props to you, fellow writer. No matter how much the critics rage or rave, you're still doing the hardest job of all. And don't you ever forget it.

Love,
Shaunna

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Thoughts on Reading Queries

I've found myself in a most unusual position this summer. Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up. I know of more than one published author who started out interning for a literary agency and then used what s/he learned to write an effective query letter (and manuscript), land an agent, and get a book deal. I don't know of anyone who started out querying and then became an intern. Until now.

In the course of my work for the ELA (Excellent Literary Agent) this summer, I've been tasked with sorting through her query inbox and reading partial and full manuscript submissions. It's enlightening to be on the other side of the query stream.

When I wrote my first novel (over ten years ago) and started learning about publishing, agenting, and querying, I didn't know what I was doing (of course). And even though I haven't exactly come full circle, I do have some valuable thoughts on the subject that might be interesting to...nobody actually. I don't think anyone reads my blog anymore, given my two-year radio silence, but I've started posting again anyway, mostly for my own amusement.

So here is a thought: sorting through incoming queries is like taking a standardized test. That's something I know lots about, actually, because I taught LSAT and SAT prep courses for the Princeton Review (in what feels like another lifetime), and because I'm very good at taking standardized tests.

When you take a standardized test (if you wish to do well on it, that is), you have to approach it from a certain frame of mind. If there are five answer choices, four of them will always be the wrong answer. If a test taker approaches each answer choice by looking for how it could be right, she'll never get through the test. The only way to succeed is to look for something that's wrong. After all, there's an 80% chance that any given answer choice is wrong.

When you take a standardized test looking for what is wrong with each answer, you chug through the questions before the time expires, and you usually do very well. I have found that the same frame of mind applies to the intern reading queries.

If she spends her time looking for what's right with a query, she'll probably find something about 80% of the time. The world is full of writers, and each person, as a unique child of God, has a different story with a unique set of strengths. While it would be truly heartening to request to read the full manuscript for every query in an agent's inbox, the intern would never get through them before the time expired. Just like a standardized test, see?

So the smart intern who has an inbox of three dozen queries to sort through in less than an hour does what any good test taker does: she looks for what's wrong with the query so she can quickly weed out the ones that aren't going to work. And like any good test taker knows, some wrong answers are easy to spot. In the world of queries, here are some good ways to eliminate a query without reading it twice:

1. Character soup
The intern doesn't need to know the first and last name of your main character and his or her five best friends. If you want to include those characters, you can simply refer to them by their relationship(s) to the MC. So the MC's mother doesn't need a name, just a designation as the MC's mother. You don't need last names, either. Those just take up precious word space. We populate our books with characters we grow to love almost as much as our own children, and we don't want them to feel left out of anything. But the query is not the place for them. Here, as in Coco Chanel's world of high fashion, less is more.

2. Word Count
A first-time author with a YA Fantasy clocking in at 200,000+ words is a first-time author who hasn't spent any time researching what sells and what is traditional. If you want to write a 200,000+ word YA Fantasy, you can. It just can't be your first. Plus, it feels like it's only 200,000+ words because you're too in love with your babies to kill them, and no agent wants to hold your hand through chopping your novel in half. Not going to happen.

3. Theme v. Plot
Wordsworth said literature should both delight and instruct. It's fine to put themes in your writing. Don't point them out in a query, especially at the expense of detailing the plot. The plot is the delightful part of a book; the theme is the instruction. Leave the theme analysis to those stuffy college professors who have nothing better to do than publish papers in literary journals that nobody, not even the intern, reads. Use the query to tell the intern who the MC is, what choice s/he has to make, and what's at stake.

Of course, if you haven't read the QueryShark archives, you should do that first. But I think it's valuable to consider the query process from the intern's point of view. If you realize that your query is read, not for what's RIGHT but for what's WRONG, you can pass the first hurdle by making sure nothing is glaringly wrong.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Ode to Dirt or How Do You Vacuum a Vacuum?

O Dirt! Where do I find thee? Let me count the places.
Under my children's fingernails and in the folds and grooves of their ears,
In the washing machine where the water doesn't reach and the lint collector where the crevice tool won't reach either,
On the window blinds (of course) and the tops of the baseboards,
In the bathtub after draining the water to find each rubber duck traced in dirt on the porcelain,
Ground into my carpet and tracked across my kitchen and (after a rousing wrestling match) sprinkled like salt on my sheets,
In all the places I clean daily and weekly and monthly and never, and even in places I thought were perfectly sealed.
You sly exfoliant, you!
I lay awake at night, conjuring schemes for your eradication, my critical thinking skills taxed to the utmost at the contemplation of your demise.
And yet, without you, where would I be?
What would I do with myself, had I no dirt to clean?
How would I sleep at night, not knowing how to fill the endless hours of the next morning, frozen in the suspense of a spotless day?
And so, I salute you, devil though you may be, in your red and dusty glory, for because of you, I have learned.
Because of you, I am strong.
And also, you can vacuum a vacuum with another vacuum or with a husband willing to give you a hand.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Living Deliberately

I've been thinking about how to live more deliberately—about how to get as much as I can out of life while I still have time.

There are a lot of options. I could abandon my family and live in a cabin in the woods that I built with my own two hands. But I love my husband and children and hot showers and indoor plumbing.

I could build a well, install solar panels, disconnect the internet, and go off the grid. But I'm not Amish, and I don't know how our landlord would feel about that.

I could sell or give away everything I own and join a minimalist commune. But my family members must reach their own conclusions about the value of material goods; I can't do it for them.

I've decided that, rather than follow some extreme, transcendentalist measure, I can simply make more conscious deliberate choices about what I consume, especially what I consume online.

This leads to my decision to abstain from participating in two of the largest social media outlets: Facebook and Instagram. Of course, since Facebook bought Instagram, it's just THE largest social media outlet.

I haven't really been active on Facebook for several years. I deleted the app from my phone two years ago and only logged in to post something really significant—such as notice of my acceptance to law school and the fact that we were moving.

When Facebook bought Instagram, however, and started using the FB algorithm to order my Instagram feed, that was the last straw for me.

You see, I like having choices. I don't believe the companies who run these social media outlets should decide which of my friends' posts will interest me the most, which ads will be most likely to make me pause in my scrolling, etc.

When a computer algorithm chooses what to display, and when a company accepts marketing dollars in return for filling my newsfeed with ads, I no longer have a real choice in what I consume. If I open my account and look through my Newsfeed, I've already consumed all those ads and all those "relevant" posts, even if I didn't want to.

I know that opting out of social media is not a realistic solution for everyone. For me, however, it feels like the right thing to do. I'd like to take more care of how I spend my time and attention. I want to live deliberately and consume modern culture deliberately.

What about you? Any ideas on how you can better "suck all the marrow out of life so that, when you die, you do not come to find that you had not lived?"