Book club questions: If You Have to Ask

Last week I was delighted to discuss (actually, listen to others discuss) If You Have to Ask, as the featured author at a local book club. While it was invigorating to hear smart, thoughtful women discuss the characters and their (often not-so-smart) choices, it was also nerve-wracking. It takes a solid stomach to put your work out there, as most authors and artists agree. Luckily someone brought some pinot.

Here are the questions we discussed, below. I was also asked if the book is autobiographical. The short answer is no (which is ultimately the long answer, too). But of course, all writers borrow from life. Trying to parse that is a losing battle though.

Warning! There are a couple spoilers here…

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Thank you, Roxane Gay

Bad Feminist, a book of essays by Roxane Gay, appeared at my doorstep magically. Okay, not magically, but as a surprise gift from my friend Cristina. She told me about the book over email and asked me if I was interested in reading it, and having a two-person book club with her. I was. The book appeared a few days later, which I wasn’t expecting.

I didn’t know Roxane’s (if I may) work before finding the book in my hands. Cristina is good at that, introducing websites and authors and shows that are speeding by while I’m looking at hummingbirds out the window or old British crime dramas. I’d like to attribute this to her living in LA and me living in a small town, but even when I lived in LA this was the case. She’s up on it.

Bad Feminist is about as good as it gets for me. It’s one of those reading experiences that says all of the things you’ve been feeling for so long but had either begun to doubt or had given up on putting into words. It’s liberating, it’s comforting, it’s complex. It doesn’t try to solve, but instead, acknowledge. It’s powerful.

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Can we be kind all the time? Really?

I’m all for kindness. It’s a big deal. It’s a gesture of our shared humanity, a nod to how hard things can be. But that’s just it. Life as a human can be hard. So why expect that people be on their best behavior ALL THE TIME? Isn’t the expectation of universal, 24/7 kindness a form of oppressive perfectionism that gets in the way of our humanity?

Sometimes things suck and we can’t spare a smile. I think the world can deal with this. It’s not an affront. I’d rather know reality than a weird sunshine-y rainbow version of your day.

This isn’t meant to be a rant so much as a demonstration of concern. I work with young adults (new adults?) – college students – and there is a culture of positivism that threatens to crowd out real feelings. Being in your early twenties can be a tough time.

Even more importantly, there isn’t a universal experience. Not everyone has had kindness shown to them. Not everyone has had a charmed upbringing. Not everyone feels like the world is theirs for the taking. The culture of positivism seems dangerously like a culture of privilege. Or, a means of denying our full humanity.

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His & Hers: A shifting definition of “reputation”

Photo of flowers in NYC.

Flowers have a reputation for being pretty.

Here’s what comes to mind when I think about reputation, first related to a woman, then related to a man:

  • Rizzo from Grease.
  • A nameless businessman.

Huh. Interesting.

Reputation + Woman

My first thoughts, as a woman, about women, is related to sexuality. Even though I’m a pretty modern lady. I’m even a feminist lady. I’m even someone who gets mighty mad when conversations turn judgmental about what choices a woman makes about her body. But still, I am a product of my culture.

In the novel I’ll be revising this weekend for hours on end, several of the characters are women of a certain reputation. As in, they have had many relationships, encounters, pregnancies, abortions. What will people think of these women? How will they care about them? What may make it easy to dismiss them?

It’s easy to say, Don’t care what people think! What does it matter? Screw ’em all. Except it does matter, because what people think about women influences the legislature they write and the ridiculous bills they pass.

Reputation + Man

Then when I think about the word reputation and man together, I just get a faceless suit who has built some sort of professional bio that people can recite when he walks by. Oh, Bob? He built that department through years of emails and meetings. I really respect him.

Inspired by The Daily Post.

Humorous erotica? Is that a thing?

The other day my friend Michele mentioned humorous erotica. Wait. Is that a real thing, I asked? Sure, she said. Ah-ha! I thought. Maybe that’s what I wrote?

Photo of lights in branches

Romantic lights to get you in the mood.

Here’s what I know for sure:

1. Bea’s Notes is meant to be funny and realistic. It’s not sexy times through a fuzzy filter. It’s the real, awkward, deal. I loved reading Judy Blume when I was younger, so I was definitely inspired by her books. I’m thinking of Forever.

2. I started writing the short story when I realized I had a hard time writing sexy times in my novel. The scenes always ended up hilarious, even when they were supposed to be, well, sexy. So I went with it in Bea’s Notes.

Okay. So, I promise I won’t keep writing about Bea’s Notes, but while it’s available for free, I want to let people know it’s there (until January 11).

Read an excerpt:

Bea was so wet she felt soggy.

It had been raining for three days straight and everything was damp to its core. Deeply damp, Bea thought. She was rushing back to her dorm in yet another downpour, her hood pulled low over her forehead. Her backpack was heavy on her shoulders, the papers inside no longer dry. Bea didn’t believe in umbrellas, they were too encumbering. She preferred to rely as much as possible on her own brain and body, so she dashed from one overhang to the next and tried to read the sky.

Finally Bea reached Manzanita Hall, where all the biology and botany and forestry majors lived in a Tudor style industrial block. You could wring out these bricks like a sponge, Bea thought. She used her key card to get into the building and walked the three flights of linoleum stairs to the room built for two girls that now housed four. Bea would have taken the elevator except she was wearing her pedometer and wanted to be sure to reach her 10,000-step goal for the day. When she opened the door, she saw that no one else was home, so she plopped down on the bottom bunk where Meredith slept. Meredith always made her bed as though she lived in some scene from a lifestyle magazine. She had decorative pillows, with fringe and lace and everything. They were really soft but seemed sort of ridiculous because in reality, Bea knew, the room was like a business envelope: full of promise, but in actuality, filled with junk. That was something her father liked to say.

Bea had been in lab since nine that morning, recreating an experiment she’d done in high school. It was stupid, not especially challenging, but not especially easy either. Just stupid.

What do you want from a mid-tier public university? Bea had thought to herself during a lunch break of pretzels and frozen yogurt. That said, Woodland was the right place for her, because she wasn’t exactly the best and the brightest. She was mid-tier, too. It didn’t bother Bea. She was happy to be free of the pressures she saw her older sister suffer, always having to come up with some new collaborative humanitarian project or non-profit organization. Bea knew she didn’t want to go to grad school.

Whatever, thought Bea. She’ll be a virgin for ten more years and I’ve already done it three times!

Want to read about her first four times? Bea’s Notes is free for Kindle through January 11.

Don’t own a Kindle? It’s okay! Kindle books can be read using the Free Kindle Reader App for your Web Browser, iPhone, iPad, BlackBerry or Android.

I’m an atheist feminist who loves dairy.

Those damn Twitter bios. Some seem so expert, so effortless. Yet I edit mine constantly. Is this a reflection of my identity? My shifting identity? Wait, is it shifting? Am I shifty?

Who is Lauren Kells, really?

I use a pen name. It’s not an alternate identity, it’s not my Sasha Fierce, because it’s me writing. It’s just the thought of everyone out there in the internet universe knowing that it’s me, really me, that girl with the troubled teeth and very poor choices in boys, is too much. Not that anyone cares.

But I’ve always loved to write. I nurse the writing all the time, regardless of whether or not I’m getting it down. There is always a scene, a detail, some dialogue that I’m working out. And while it’s fun to write for my own comfort, I’ve begun to think it may be even more fun to write and find readers.

Desk

The scene of the blog.

Why are you here?

I’m here to figure this place out. I’m here because I found myself feeling a little jealous of people who were doing it, sharing their voices and putting it out there, making connections. I’m here because I’ve been busy writing stories about a girl who wants to feel in control of her new sexual self (Bea’s Notes), and a novel about a woman who has to navigate her love for an unavailable man (If You Have to Ask). I’m here because it’s easy now, to blog, to publish, to DIY.

More about atheism and feminism

I’m not trying to be splashy, these are core beliefs, central to my identity, that inform my writing. I believe that men and women are awesome and equal. I believe that this is it, there is no higher order, so we better make meaning now before it’s over. And, while we’re at it, let’s watch lots of Woody Allen movies.

No, I’m not going to get into a conversation about how I can be both a feminist and a Woody Allen fan.

If you like this, maybe you’ll like that

Part of the idea is that if you like the blog, you may like my other writing. My characters are often feminists, or at least struggling with cultural expectations of what it means to be a man or a woman. They may get an abortion and be fine with it or question the existence of God and be crushed about it. They may have close friendships with other women, the kind you miss in media. They may wonder about parenthood and whether or not their future is with a man or a woman.

So yes, I’m an atheist and a feminist who loves dairy. Also, wheat. I hope we can talk about these things kindly, together. If not, at least I’ve got my nome de plume.

This post is inspired by Zero to Hero. Do you like it? If so, please consider following my blog!

Also, I just read Brave New Bullying by Kristen Lamb. It’s given me more to think about when it comes to using a pen name.