Monthly Archives: April 2011

Bust a Myth: “I was infertile because I wrote novels/had a career in my twenties and thirties”

In honor of National Infertility Week, I’m hijacking my own blog to talk about a topic seemingly unrelated to novel writing: infertility. Although, if you like to see infertility as a metaphor for writers’ block, or vice versa, it’s not such a leap.

The infertility-awareness and advocacy group RESOLVE has asked bloggers to “bust a myth” about infertility this week. So here’s my myth: Young women aren’t adequately aware of their waning fertility, and if they’d just read the statistics and snag a mate as soon as possible, they wouldn’t have to suffer in the future.

There are a few reasons I think this myth, which I often see voiced or at least implied in articles and news stories about infertility, is hogwash. Sure, there may be studies showing that young women in their twenties and thirties underestimate when and how steeply fertility begins to decline. But who the hell are these researchers surveying? Don’t these women realize we’re supposed to live up to the stereotype of being desperately aware of our biological clocks? My counter proof is purely anecdotal, but by the time I had an opportunity to try to get pregnant, at age 33, I was scared shitless that I might have trouble conceiving.

And that leads me to another reason this myth is silly: It’s not like every woman has a suitable baby-daddy lined up by her mid- to late twenties. At 28, I’m pretty sure I was “ready” to have kids — if only it hadn’t taken me another five years to find and marry the right guy. And the myth makes it sound like women, all on their own, are postponing child-bearing, when in reality — well, you know what they say about the tango. Men are postponing what sociologists call “family formation” too, for whatever reasons.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog that my novel was a lifeline during my struggles to conceive. And so were my friends and my social life, and my job, and the co-workers who kept me sane and crossed their fingers that my fertility treatments had worked and sent me chocolate when the treatments repeatedly failed.

The novel and the career and the social life weren’t impediments to my starting a family. And I suspect a lot of women are like me: We build a good career and single-person life because there’s no opportunity to have kids in sight, not the other way around.

And even if I had — as some people do for a variety of solid reasons — actively decided to have kids at a certain, later-than-30 age, that wouldn’t have made me or my husband to blame for our unexplained infertility. Doing stuff with your life before you have kids is not a medically proven cause of infertility.

In fact, as others have pointed out, a good percentage of infertility has causes other than the woman’s age. Also, people in their twenties suffer infertility, while others have no trouble conceiving at 35 or 40. And there’s no way of proving that those of us who “waited” till our thirties or forties and did have trouble wouldn’t have gone through the same thing if we’d started trying earlier.

I’m not disputing the fact that women’s fertility decreases with age. I’m just saying being aware of that fact doesn’t make infertility go away, or make it suck any less when it happens.

Information about infertility

National Infertility Awareness Week

Bloggers busting infertility myths

Get Your Characters Some Exercise

I promised I’d post an exercise in creating action and character movement. So here goes.

Step 1: Choose a character from a story or novel you’re working on. If you don’t have an off-the-shelf character, use someone you know, like your mom, your spouse, your neighbor, your co-worker. Don’t worry. They never have to read this.

Step 2: Take your character for a walk. Use a setting from your story or novel, or a place you know, like your neighborhood or the city you live in or a hiking trail you frequent. What does your character see? Have them use at least two of the other senses as well. Tell us what they’re thinking and feeling as they walk.

Step 3: Put a barrier in your character’s way. Describe it. Then tell us what happens next.

Step 4: Now have someone following your character. How does your character realize that someone’s on their trail? What does your character do? What does the follower do?

Step 5: Put another barrier in your character’s way. This time, they have to deal with being followed and figuring out how to deal with the barrier at the same time.

Step 6: Go back to the beginning. Give your character a companion. At each important juncture, they disagree about how to proceed. How does that change the scene?

I just made this exercise up, which means it’s untested. Plus I’ve heard that adult learners never follow instructions. With those things in mind, I’d love your feedback if you end up trying the exercise out. How’d it go? Did you change anything up? If so, what?

Lessons on Action From Conan the Barbarian

For the past few weeks I’ve been working on a chase and escape scene. (My novel centers on the historic invasion of a major Islamic city.) I like making characters move through space. But in a first draft especially, action scenes can be challenging. In particular, I’ve been having trouble with verbs and pacing.

I told my non-reader husband about this dilemma, and he, being a rocket scientist,* had a great solution. He pointed to me to the collection of Conan books he inherited from his older brother.

Now, Conan’s a bit pulpy for me. My novel has more (ladeeda) literary aspirations, but I learned some lessons from the chase scene (the first chapter of the first book I cracked open, no less!) I skimmed — both about what to do and what not to do. I also got some strategies from the section of Tea Obreht’s “The Tiger’s Wife” that I’m reading right now.

Here’s the advice I’ve given myself about verbs:

  • When your character is running, or doing some other simple action, just go ahead and use that word instead of some fancy synonym.
  • Along those lines, don’t be afraid to repeat simple verbs like run, walk, sit, say. Don’t overuse them, of course, but a reader notices them less than sprint, stride, perch, opine.
  • If you use any of those fancier words, your character had better be actually doing those things.
  • Come up with a metaphor that enables you to use a verb you normally wouldn’t use to describe a particular action. For example, your character is a flame that burns across the floor. Terrible metaphor, but you get the point.
  • Sentence fragments. Again, don’t overuse this technique, but it allows you to skip a verb or two. (See?)
  • Make something other than your character, say an inanimate object, the subject of the sentence. I’m stealing from Obreht here: Instead of “They came around the bend and were surprised to see a house,” write “The house surprised them.” (The second is amazingly better, isn’t it?)

I’ve got no advice on pacing at the moment, if you were hoping for that. But stay tuned, and I’ll be posting a writing exercise for anyone who wants to play around with action and making characters move.

*Technically, he’s a mechanical engineer who works in the aerospace industry, but that’s kind of longwinded.

Finish the Goddamn Thing (Five Years and Counting)

Five years ago this month, I started writing a novel. At the time I remember thinking, “This will probably take me four or five years.”

Now, I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. But I’m amazed at how realistic I was. In fact, half a decade later I’m not ­done – but I’m getting there. This blog has been quiet, but I’ve been bearing down on the last sections of the book, and now I’m making major revisions to the final section. Then there’s the prologue to write. Then more (but less strenuous, I hope) revisions to smooth things out.

I’m not celebrating this five-year anniversary, because it’s too soon to celebrate – that will happen when I finish the goddamn thing. But I do want to mark it, to pat myself on the back a little for making it this far, and to acknowledge all the other people in the world who set out on long creative journeys while juggling family, work, friends, faith, and life.

Sometimes writing a novel feels out of control – there are those night sweats where you wake up thinking, “Will I ever finish this goddamn thing?” But my novel has also given me excuses to take control over my life at times when I felt a deep loss of it. When my husband and I were having difficulty conceiving, I applied for and got accepted to a writing residency, an amazing experience of writing all day, every day that I otherwise might not have had. When it seemed like motherhood and work were too much, I applied for a county arts grant. Three weeks at the Library of Congress researching my novel and ogling shelves and shelves of books. It wasn’t relaxing, but it was awesome. When it seemed like motherhood and work were too much again, I cut back my work hours so that I could work on my novel during the day, and be a less-stressed wife and mom in the evening and on weekends.

Doing things for ourselves, taking control: These are things many of us struggle with. So even though there have been times when the novel was REALLY STRESSING ME OUT, it’s mostly been a lifeline for me.

The people around me have been a lifeline too: my husband, who always supports my crazy ideas, and the coworkers who stepped in for me in my several leaves of absence, and my mom, who was busting with pride at the thesis reading for my creative-writing master’s, and the random person in the audience who said she couldn’t wait to read my book when it was done (God bless her), and my teachers and classmates in the graduate program, who made me feel like there was a reason to keep writing, and my friend S, who actually seems to be enjoying reading my drafts.

When I finish this goddamn thing, it’ll be for them as much as for me.