Damned If You Do, Damned if You Don’t – MFA debate raises its ugly head

In light of an age old writerly debate starting once again, a story:
When I graduated with my Bachelors, I was excited. I was the first from my family to get a college degree and managed to go to an Ivy League school. I worked my ass off to go through there and had so many barriers, including a family who thought that by me going to school I was saying I was better than them – I had to sacrifice a lot just to get those four years in.
Newly minted diploma in hand I go to interview one in a suit and meet with some HR person and talk about my degree in Film and English and my love of anime and am familiar with about two-thirds of the ones she mentions.  This was early nineties so it was Robotech probably movies like Barefoot Gen and Grave of the Fireflies.  I was part of the Anime club at college at one point as well and was of the generation when it was initially called Japanimation.  She likes me so I go to a second interview.  Then I meet the vice-president and she shows me around.  We talk pay – it will be NYC abysmal at about 30K to start. The main job, though, will be watching videos to correct the english of subtitles and then writing DVD copy.  It’s explained that some of the videos are incredibly rough and misogynistic and at the time I don’t care.
Then I meet the president of the company.  He has his office overlooking Central Park and is wearing a cowboy hat and has his cowboy boots propped up on his desk.  And he says to me:
“Everyone speaks very highly of you but there’s no way I’m hiring some privileged ass Ivy League (he might have ended this with bitch).  I wanted to bring you in to tell you that in person, that these kids like you who don’t know how to work and have it all handed to you come in here thinking you can do a job or deserve one because you went to those schools won’t work for me because you don’t know how to work. You can’t do anything.  You’re just useless kids riding off of mommy and daddy’s money and want me to wipe your noses at your desks.”
I tried to protest – I knew work!  He was judging me harshly based on this pre-conceived notion.  I’d made it through three other interviews talking about the work and work ethic, and here he was telling me how useless I was and my degree and how I didn’t know a thing about work when since about age 9 I had been instrumental in getting food on my families table, from selling comics to baby-sitting to other things.  I wanted to scream about tirals of my life.  Why was he judging me like this?
He didn’t listen.  The VP who was in the room was mortified and apologized to me profusely.  I didn’t get the job and decided to temp for a while after that to get my bearings.
How does this tie into the MFA debate?  
There is no right way to do anything and no matter what you do someone will try and shame you for it.  And let me be clear – THIS SUCKS.
There is no right way to write and become a writer either and this is tripping people up.  There is STORY and there are ways to tell a STORY but there are multiple ways stemming from multiple cultures and if you are lucky you were exposed to more than one idea of STORY and can appreciate the variety out there.  That’s rare and goes into the question of why TOCs pop up with all white male authors – it’s a tradition ingrained.
When someone’s mind is set, like the gentleman interviewing me, there’s also really no way to change their mind and THIS ALSO SUCKS.
There are writers who suffer for their art there are those who do not.  There are those who are raging alcoholics and have many cats there are those who do not.  If all art was the same and came from the same roots – well think how boring that would be, or think of how hard that would be for someone who wanted something different (which is also what we’re going through now, writing has been the same for so long it’s hard to accept people outside that sameness tradition because people just don’t know how.).
What I also see in the MFA debate that I saw in my interview was an irrational bias that seemed to stem from jealousy or the idea of fairness.  It was unfair I got to go Ivy when that gentleman hadn’t.  This was something my mother had said, that it was unfair I got to go to school when she hadn’t.  And it’s something I feel a lot too when I look at some of my MFA peeps getting published – the females in my program, 2 out of 3, went there married and knew they would never have to work after.  It was a throwback at times, being around women of leisure who in the past would have learned embroidery and here an MFA was a modern day woman of leisure activity.  I found it incredibly unfair that they didn’t have to fight to be there and every day was a tiring fight for me.  I found it unfair when they started their own presses after the program to publish each other.
In the initial swing from unfair there is pride.  I know I have to work.  I know I have worked and my writing will reflect not that writing from a place of privilege, but the writing of a ‘fully formed human’ and there’s judgement there.  That judgement definitely still pops up when I hear how these people once again published each other and the connectivity at play, the fact that they are in a world I am excluded from even though we did the same things.
In the end, it’s a debate with no winning rhetoric.  Some people go to MFAs, some don’t.  Not all who go to an MFA continue to write after, not all who struggle at home to write continue.  Not all MFA people are successful, not all those who struggle are.  Whether you went to one or not you’ll run into people who think you’re awesome and you’ll run into people who think you suck for the decisions you made in your life and won’t care to hear the backstory.  Yes, MFAs can help depending on what you want to do and how you leverage them, as can creating your own virtual MFA through the numerous online workshops (thinking Critters for one has churned out amazing writers).
There are choices we make in our lives and careers, and they are made from various data points.  Not all choices may seem available to all people but they shape who we are and how we view the world and thus how we create our art.  It’s hard to judge a person on their choices when we don’t know their backstory (technically, it’s incredibly easy to do that.  It’s why this post started.  But I feel I shouldn’t so easily).
MFA, non-MFA – we need to work more on exploring and expanding the definition of ‘GOOD WRITING’ and change the debate because it’s part of the larger issue of a limited cultural view.

On Writing While Female – Part III

Part I

Part II

I now write my experiences.  The female experience.  How when I take public transportation men don’t take no for an answer when asking me to ‘get freaky with them’ and have followed me, or punched the side of the train behind my head.  How I can’t walk outside because that’s ‘male space’ and if a man talks to me and I don’t respond, it’s a violation of their domain and they get angry, scream, threaten.  How so many of us have been violated in some way or another by men.  (So, two things here.  I have had two serious stalkers in my life, both ended up in jail for seriously hurting and in one case killing other people.  When life as a female comes up in social groups I often say I haven’t met a woman who hasn’t had a stalker.  And guess what?  Everyone then comments on theirs from the past.  I still haven’t met a woman who hasn’t had a stalker.  The other thing is the percentage of women that are molested.  Last time I followed the stalker question up with this one, every woman also raised their hand.  It’s harrowing, but none of us weren’t in some way violated.)

It’s not easy to identify as female, and there’s a reason I’m saying ‘identify as’ rather than ‘am’.  And it goes to the abuse.  So much abuse.  To be female is to not belong except as an object.  It is to fight every day just to stand.  To feel like you need to apologize for everything, every thought, that you have to step off the sidewalk to a curb when a man is walking down the middle if you don’t want to get run into.  To not matter.  This was drilled into me.  My brother was a man and mattered, I did not.  A common poem repeated in my house was, “A Woman a Dog and a Walnut Tree, the more you beat them the better they be.”

Of course I didn’t want to be female or a girl or anything like that, but I knew I wasn’t a boy and couldn’t be a man.  I denied my gender and sexuality for a long time, and feel I’m still in the process of claiming it.

Writing female is hard because there is this history of female voices not being anything but chatter.  Background noise. The braying of a mule or barking of a dog.  And this, I think, is the most horrifying thing of all and is certainly a horror motif- to be screaming as you’re attacked but having no sound come out.  No one to hear you despite being in a crowd.

And there aren’t spaces on the Table of Contents for you either.  Because editors raised the same way as I, on male stories, say ‘I judge the story, not the writer’ but arne’t seeing the limitations in their view when they read.  They aren’t see the limitations in their idea of a ‘good story.’

And this is why, as hard as it is, I write horror.  I write female.  I’m balancing out the use of male characters now, but I try to be cognizant of their use, the maleness, and why I am writing them in.  It’s time to get the word out that female leads, female writers, that what they have to say in the canon matters.  We do that by writing it.  By not fitting in anymore, but standing up and out despite the new horrors that come from this simple act of defiance.  I’m tired of being a man’s shadow.  I am my own person, and my own writer.  It may greatly limit my chances at publication, but when I do get a story published I no longer feel I’m part of the problem or ‘passing’ as a female who can write as well as a male.  I’m a woman who can write well.

My name is Victorya Chase.  I identify as female.  And I am a writer.

(Tomorrow – Part IV – What can we do?)


On Writing While Female (Part II)

For Part I please go here:  Part I 

I started writing women.  Strictly women. If there was a romance needed, they were both women.  Or, in one case the lead was a woman and she turned to a Real Doll. And (even though I said I wasn’t going to muddy with race, here I go) I wrote non-white.  I mean, I had lived in NYC a long time before I went to grad school.  I don’t think I had a single white friend those 14 years, not a close one at any rate.  So why was I writing all white characters?

The response was not good.  In fact, I got comments about how I was weird.  Asking why I wasn’t writing about white people, etc.  And these were the written comments. (one poignantly asked, “What’s with all the Asians?  She also asked why my lead wasn’t a waitress because she did live in NYC after all, sigh.”)  I was veering from the contract I had signed by going to an MFA – to propagate dominant culture.  To be part of that ivory tower system of sameness.  This anger toward me meant I was going in the right direction.  But I was being alienated even more.

As part of our graduation we had to stand in front of an audience at a scheduled reading and be the ‘opening act’ for a published writer, friends of the faculty usually.  I read a piece that not only was modular, but the star was a non-straight half-Filipina woman.  This piece has since been published and then reprinted twice (Dreaming of the Mananangaal).  While for my peers, those I had gone through 3 years with, I had attended their readings, given some bottles of wine at their readings, congratulated them, etc. I got one text congratulating me and a lot of faces that turned away.  NOT ONE of my professors attended my reading.  Not even my thesis advisor.

However, the rest of the community was amazingly supportive.  A professor who had been pushed out (and is now the head of a wonderful community based writing program) said it was probably the best student reading in five years.  Undergrads were energized and coming up to me saying how much I had inspired them.  One of the poets in the program told me how beautiful the piece was, and how he thought it was poems at first and then it morphed into a story.

And I finally realized that I was on the path to my voice.

Back to Horror

When I’m asked why I write horror I say that I don’t, that I just write about being a woman and since most editors are male, they read it and go ‘shit, this is scary’ and suddenly there I am on the TOC with the menfolk.

I wish that statement was more joke than it is.  The story in Cemetery Dance is based off real events not just for me, but for many women.  When a woman says something, it isn’t always believed.  In fact, there’s a general institutional doubt of women speaking the truth, or their voices being valid.  If I go back to my MFA class, so many times a female would make a comment and the professor would nod, then a guy would make the same comment and the professor would smile, validate, and leap the conversation off of it.  This happens A LOT.  It’s like I’m standing in a room with a hand over my mouth (not my own hand) when I speak.

My story, “Anti-Theft,” deals with a woman who is having things replaced in her home and the cop who doesn’t believe her.  And I’ve had that happen too- only even more dire.  I got a death threat from a person from my past after they saw my name in an antho.  The threat was in writing.  Part of it said the phrase used in every Criminal Minds episode, “I love you too much and you are hurting me by staying away.  It’s a nine hour drive to where you live.  If you don’t reply in your own handwriting I will drive over there and purge you from my life.”

No shit, right?  Clear as day?  I mean – I hadn’t contacted them for ten years, I was in a different state and this shows up certified mail having never given out my address.  No brainer.

The male cop said, “They just love you and miss you,” and no amount of WTF read the letter, look at this, understand they’ve killed my pets in the past would convince him that I was anything more than overreacting to a missive of love and longing.

This happens every time I go to the doctors, too.  I’ve had very harrowing experiences when the male doctor has just told me I have anxiety, or as a woman I do certain things, think certain things, that I’m not really sick even though I am (one led to a rough exam I should have reported, but I was convinced it wouldn’t do any good).  They ignore what I am saying and focus on the gender, and the devaluing occurs.  (This is also part of why I now work in with doctors even though I don’t go to them as often as I should- my pat answer to what I do is ‘teach them to not be dicks’ which is way hard to do).  Women doctors do the same thing.  Medicine is a patriarchal institution and just as my first story that got me ‘into the establishment’ was about a man because that’s the story I learned was important, so do women doctors learn to distrust female patients.

(to be continued. . . .)

On Writing While Female (Part I)

Hi.  My name is Victorya Chase.  I identify as female and I’m a writer.

*Swipes brow*  Whew, now that that’s out of the way. . .

I say that because it is still an issue, will be an issue for a while.  The establishment is changing but it takes generations for real change to occur, because we have to change foundational thinking about people, about gender and race and that doesn’t happen over night.  What happens first are the discussions and the token few.

To some degree, I feel there are some great discussions about inclusion happening and there is is definitely some tokenism going on and that’s the point we’re at in publishing.  There are the designated women (I’ll try not to muddy the waters by keeping it to women and not race, realizing issues of race representation is entwined) who are allowed in the big horror anthologies.  There are the names over and over again- and sometimes the only female name on the cover, in the TOC, announced by editors who say ‘hey, we published a woman!  Look!  Here’s “Only Female!”

And I’ve been that only female.  Yeah me!  I’m being allowed to play and be a representative of my gender in this field.

Two of my own examples that come to mind are:

Cemetery Dance.  I was in issue #72 and just over the moon.  This is THE mag for a horror writer to be in.  Stephen King, Poppy Z Brite, Clive Barker – they’ve graced the pages.  Then little ol’ me got in.  And the Table of Contents of my issue had names I knew and had read:  Stephen King (omg!) and Norman Partridge to name a couple.  And at the bottom of the list of male names for those authoring stories in the issue (two Stephens, a Norman, Tim, and Richard to be exact – what wonderfully upstanding male names!)  Was mine, Victorya Chase.

Lamplight:  Volume 3 Issue 4.  I had been rejected from Lamplight twice so was just in shock when asked to be the featured artist.  That’s perseverance and all those Horatio Alger American Dream stories for you!  Seriously, the editor had been working on the e-book version of another anthology I was in and dug my incredibly bleak story and we started a conversation.  We actually talked a lot as the issue came together because he was upset that I ended up being the only female there with a story (There was another in the issue, Kelli Owens, a continuation of her serial novella).  I am heartened that this initial discussion has turned into continued ones about race and gender representation in our art.  And this time my name was first (yeah!) and the male names were cool (Davian, Kealen, T. Fox and John)

Now for Some Background on Me

When I started writing in earnest, like every good writer I wrote what I knew emulating what I had been taught.  I got into my dream MFA program while still in my twenties – Alabama. It was a top 25 MFA program.  And the story that I wrote was about a man who lost his son in a school shooting and his relationship with a woman with Alzheimers living alone and who had lost her son.  She sees this guy and believes him to be her son, and he plays along as he’s too overcome with grief to face his own loss.

It was a good story.  I mean, I was offered a place in a good program and 14K a year to go there and free tuition.  A lot for a story.

I didn’t accept the offer.  Something was wrong.  My voice wasn’t strong enough.  I wasn’t ready to make the commitment yet.  Plus, I didn’t have the money to actually GET to Alabama at the time.

I decided to write in earnest after that and apply to other programs in two years.  I saved my money, got my first acceptance (for an anthology that screwed over all its contributors, oh Devil’s Food, what a learning experience) and was blogging every day about my PTSD as a means to find my self.

When I had more than lunch money in my savings account, enough to actually move, I applied to MFA programs again.  I got into a couple, wait listed at a couple, didn’t reapply to Alabama because I felt bad at turning them down last time and like they’d hold a grudge.  I had no reason to feel this way, but did all the same.  This time the story was about a brother and a sister living in NYC.  It was very Mamet in that ‘fuck’ was every third or fourth word.  It was angry, like I was at the time.  And raw, like I also was at the time.  And still relied heavily on a main character being male because that’s what I read.  That was what was published, stories about men.  They mattered.  And it not only got me in to programs, but one paid to fly me out.  It gave me an extra fellowship of 1K to help me move.  Score.  That one story got me 15.6K a year plus the 1K and the flight.  Not bad.

But when in that program I began to notice something.  ALL the stories were about white men.  Here was a room that was half women, half men and EVERY SINGLE STORY being written starred a white man.  Or, if they weren’t the main character, they were the focal point of the attention of the female character.

I had gone to Barnard in undergrad, the birth place of feminism (per the brochures), but it was in that first semester that what I had learned then hit me.

What. The.  Everloving. Fuck.

I had been writing myself out of not just my history, but my future.  I had been focusing on the wrong experiences in my writing.  I was a parrot.  I was part of the problem, not a solution.  I mean, I grew up a non-white poor kid in Arizona.  My family teamed up with a Mexican family and we dumpster dove for food.  After Barnard I was seen as a white upscale person because of those four years and light skin, but white upscale was not my experience.  Where was mine on the page?  Why was I writing to begin with?

Spring – Movie Review

I have been watching a slew of movies lately.  And finally the last season of Orphan Black.

It’s dangerous watching Orphan Black before other mainstream media.  You begin to think women might matter in the world of modern entertainment.

Hint:  They’re starting to, but we aren’t there yet.

Spring has popped up on some best of lists for the new year.  I’ve seen it in my feed with people speaking of its virtues in hushed tones, that there’s a secret to the film they don’t want to spill.  That it’s genre defying and the like.

But the deciding factor to me watching it was that I have Amazon Prime and it was there.  As was I.  And I didn’t want to do much else but watch a film.

As I watched Spring I kept getting confused by the lead male actor.  He wasn’t Ethan Hawke.  He should have been Ethan Hawke.  After all we have Before Sunrise, Before Midnight, etc. and wasn’t this in that same world?

Turns out it’s the kid from Thumbsucker, a movie I remember enjoying.  This was another ‘man goes to foreign land falls for foreign woman and they talk a lot’ film.  Not that that’s all it was.  But that is the plot.  And then it wants to change it up a bit by the ‘secret’ of the woman being possible not human, possibly human but with just a demonic defect.  That leads to some for sure humorous lines and scenes, but doesn’t change the realm of the film.  It’s there, but they still want to love each other, explore each other.  It is still a film of a boy going to another land and falling for someone there.

And as I write I should clarify that all these films also involve not just going to a new land, but a European one.  To meet a white woman. Who is skinny.  It’s funny that there is a line that addresses this, where the lead male says he doesn’t like stick skinny women but those more like the heroine. . . who is stick thin so I don’t get it.

Of the characters outside the two lead. . none really are women.  It wasn’t a bad film but it wasn’t groundbreaking, really.  There were interesting parts, some good lines, some good visuals of ‘the monster’ and the like.  The actors do their job well.  There is interesting talk here and there.

If you love those Ethan Hawke films, the genre of overseas love stories, and the occasional CGI monster – you’ll like Spring.


Movie Review – Bloodsucking Bastards

I like horror movies, especially funny ones.  And when I saw advertisements for Bloodsucking Bastards saying it was basically “Office Space” mixed with “Shaun of the Dead” I was intrigued.  Then I saw that I don’t have to venture to a theater and deal with other people but could stream it on Amazon and was sold.

Basic Premise:  A dude, played by Fran Kranz (Cabin in the Woods, Dollhouse) wants to be sales manager, not just acting sales manager, at a dead end office where no one really works.  Instead, they bring in someone from outside for the job.  Suddenly people begin working harder – because they are becoming vampires.  It takes our hero a while to figure it out, but then he does and wants to rescue his woman who is the HR manager there.

Review:  I feel as I get older representations of gender are important to me, and it’s hard to ignore how blatant this movie is in reinforcing the idea that women just don’t matter.  It takes place in an office, so there could be many women in here.  Yet there are three that speak at all.  Three.  Two of them speak to one another at one point in the movie, and it’s about the main character.  In fact, it is downright problematic how women are treated in this film.  Let’s briefly look at the three women here:

The receptionist:  She is pretty but mousy.  Men want her, but she only wants the main man.  When she becomes turned, to the joy of the men in the office, her sexuality is awakened.

The fat chick:  She is fat.  Men don’t want her.  They make fun of the ‘vampire’ when he hits on her.  She exclaims that she is ‘a virgin’ (because why would anyone ever want a relationship with a fat chick?) and then moans sexually when bitten.

The allowable female:  She is slim. She has short hair.  She was in a relationship with the main character, but that stopped when she said she loved him and he just said ‘no.’  She is the prize he needs to win back.  The movie makes a big deal in the beginning about stating why she is attractive – she’s a man with a vagina.  She’s like one of them, not like the way women are, she’s not a woman, she’s a man you can have sex with w/out being seen as gay.  The only thing female about her is her genitalia, thus, she is a good woman you can be in a relationship with.  Because who wants to really be in a relationship with a woman when men are so much better?

This was all so obvious throughout the film it was hard to not feel uncomfortable, as a woman, watching it.

This movie felt more like a prolonged episode of Workaholics with a lot more blood.  Were there spots I laughed?  Sure. It followed what is becoming a basic ‘horror comedy’ formula now.  Slackers work in such monotony they don’t notice when taken over by the supernatural.  They then notice, have to fight for the first time, and win.  The main guy gets the woman at the end.  They quip back and forth a lot throughout the film.

It might also be good to mention race in the film.  There is one black guy who gets lines.  He’s the security guard.  He defers to the main hero throughout, and eventually sacrifices his life to save the white dude.  Because, of course.

Overall – eh.  I’m getting tired of being shown over and over that women just don’t matter.  There were definitely some funny parts to it.  It’s got a lot of blood but is done comically and isn’t scary.  If you like Workaholics, you’ll probably enjoy this as well.  Just don’t go looking for revolutionary or out of the box as much as retread tropes.

An Update!

GAR and random ARGHS.  Life and work and all the distractions that poses to real writing.  Or fake writing.  Or writing in general.

In other news, besides binge watching Teen Wolf on MTV, which is a darn good show, I have still gotten a few stories out there.  not as many have landed as in the past, but I am aiming for better markets.  Such as Lamplight, who after saying no a couple times then came to me and gave me a preemptive yes, which is always lovely.

So, I have a new story out with them right now.  Featured artist no less.

Go forth, tell me what you think!

Literary Chess – Take #2

As some might remember, my friend Adam and I began a game of literary chess.  The initial post is here, but in a nutshell, I wanted to slow down writing and add in some unpredictability.  I thought back to those old days of chess by mail, where you wait a week to know how your partner moved and then you send back your move.  I thought it would be cool to do that in the literary world- have a partner and volley back and forth.  Thus, literary chess via twitter was born.

Well, the second iteration has begun with the grandmaster that is Jacob Haddon.  You can follow us at the twitter hashtag #literarychess.

Of course, we encourage others to begin their own games (and I’m always up for players!)  The rules are. . you make your own rules.  Do you want a rhyme scheme to be followed?  What about length, both in time to respond or in lines?  Maybe you want a prose piece, not a poem.  Maybe not.  And even with the team making the rules, you develop your own strategy for response and see what happens.  The only concrete rule is each line has to fit into twitter length and include both the hashtag and other players name (so they know you made your turn).

Happy playing!

When it all works

When I’m writing and it’s going well it feels like I’m talking out loud.  Which is troublesome when I’m a crowded room, like now.

Sometimes it’s like I suddenly remember all the lyrics to a song I’ve never written before.  The tune is flowing through my fingertips, the keyboard my piano.

When it doesn’t work I realize it can often be the rhythm that is off, which is why I’m not beholden to the keyboard.  There is a physicality to thought and story that needs to be expressed.  I like having different ways to physically write around.  I have an old electronic typewriter that takes some strength in my fingers to use, and the aggressive clacking as each key strikes the paper can fuel my fire when the mind wants to grasp something else.

I have pens and different weighted papers around.

If I’m at my computer, I don’t have a chair but rather a giant ball to bounce or twist on as I type.

But now, now there is singing and I worry others might here before the tune is ready.  Plus, they’re all taking a test.


The Best Intentions

Of course, I had hoped to update this blog regularly.  And of course, I let other things get in the way and become excuses.  Because really, they’re just excuses.  Good ones- depression the main reason.  It gets there.  It’s an ocean and the waves were breaking pretty damn high for a while there.  It got scary.

But I’m still here.  And I have new items up for consumption.  So consume me.  I have since been published in The Unlikely Journal of Entomology.  It is an amazing issue and I’m humbled to be in such company.  They also interviewed me, and that was an interesting experience.  I’ve only had a couple interviews before.

The folks at Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing published an e-chapbook of a story.  I have long loved that story.  It’s dark.  It involves smooshing pennies.  And the editorial comment for one section was simply, “Holy Shit” so you know it has class.

I also got word that the next issue of Cemetery Dance will include my story.  It’s many many years in the making for me, but I’ll be sharing a TOC with Stephen King.  How amazing is that?