Tuesday, 11 December 2012

The Road to Flawdom...

David and Bathsheba

She broke your throne, and she cut your hair, and from your lips she drew the Hallelujah....     --- Hallelujah, Leonard Cohen

Something about Leonard Cohen's song, Hallelujah, breaks my heart. The lyrics are raw, pure, and nearly double me over with emotion. It's a lament of pain, disappointment, and things not so pretty in relationships.

Much of the lyrics, such as, I've heard there was a secret chord, that David played, and it pleased the Lord...and...You saw her bathing on the roof, her beauty in the moonlight overthrew you...and especially, the baffled king composing Hallelujah give me the impression of---because they seem to speak of King David---themes of seduction, temptation, betrayal, lust and...cheating. Infidelity.

Which strikes a chord in me, as an author, regarding my recent struggles to meld myself into the romanctic genres, the traditional guidelines of romance writing.

I'd been advised that, when it was hinted that the hero in my novel had cheated, readers don't like cheaters.

Readers don't like...

Last week I wrote about romance guidelines. Not only in m/m fiction (which my book happens to be), but in all romance genres...m/f as well.

So this is, I suppose you could call it, phase two of my grappling with writing in the real world. That world beyond writing for fun like I used to do in the old days. In the days of yore, when I first began to write, my characters could do anything they pleased because nobody could see them except me. They were protected by that wonderful privacy shield of writing-just-for-me.

Now, it's beyond the guideline phase and into issues with what readers do and don't like.

And it is confusing. It is intimidating.

Readers DO, overwhelmingly, like flawed characters. The demand is for flawed characters. These flaws often include bitter dispositions, substance abuse, issues of past abuse which turn them into angry individuals, selling themselves for sex, using other characters to get what they want, physical handicaps. Sometimes even just plain creeps for no good reason. And the list goes on.


The one flaw, one of the most common and emotional imperfections in the world of relationships---cheating---is, I am told, often taboo to write. The never-never-land of writing, the forbidden zone. It's not always avoided, of course, but it is a touchy subject matter.

Once, during a discussion on a forum, a heated debate erupted over the subject, with the majority rising up in arms over cheating main characters. The debate became vicious, names were called, cuss words flying like crazy. It was a hot, hot, hot button. The voice was clear, the people had spoken: NO CHEATING in romance fiction.

Which brings me back to Kind David. An icon in religion, a renowned man of valor and passion in history, a powerful king, a poet, a lover, a husband, a father, a...cheater.

Wait. It gets worse. Not only did David lust for a married woman, but his passion drove him to commit the hugest crime of all---he had Bathsheba's husband murdered. Talk about drama. But it was real. It was no make-believe fictional novel, it was real life.

Cheating. On a big scale.

And yet? David is beloved in history. His poetry, The Psalms, are revered. History adores the man. David was even called a man after God's own heart.

As powerful as he was, this king of Israel, he was flawed. In my mind, he's very likely one of the most perfect examples of flawed human nature I can think of.

And what about fictional characters who cheat?

What about ol' Scarlett O'Hara?

Gone with the Wind

Poor Scarlett. She never got her chance to cheat, but she sure wanted to. I say poor Scarlett because, when she and Ashley were spotted in an embrace, Ms. O'Hara was forced to wear that deliciously devilish red dress as a sign of the harlot the town felt she was. And, yet, Mr. Wilkes---who was just as guilty as she was---got For He's A Jolly Good Fellow sung to him. Double standard, but that's another story.

What about Fatal Attraction?

Fatal Attraction

Okay, so that was a case of cheating gone way wrong. But...but...the hero, who blatantly cheated on his lovely, always-smiling wife still managed to be the hero in the end. He fell from his heroic throne for a minute, but regained his noblity before all was said and done.

One of my very, very favorite films, How to Make An American Quilt, deals with another aspect of cheating. A young fiance having a last-minute fling, therefore cheating on her fiance, with a steamy Latino.

How to Make An American Quilt

And one of the most loved infidelity films/novels of all, The Bridges of Madison County.

The Bridges of Madison County

And don't forget lovable cheatster, Don Draper, from the television series, Mad Men. Oh, my. Mr. Draper has had more extra-marital affairs and rolls in the hay than the modern calculator can compute. And get this. He's not even remorseful. Oh, wait, he might have been apologetic for a minute when he got caught. And yet? The audience loves the man. Somehow, he wriggles out from under his girlfriends' beds the unscathed, beloved hero we just can't stay mad at.

And, oddly, Don Draper is one of my favorite characters. The writers have produced a realistic, extremely unapologetic image of a human complete with every flaw imagineable. Everybody knows a Don Draper. Every office has one. Why pretend the Drapers of the world do not exist, and why pretend they can't actually be just...people.

Don Draper and one of his many affairs, Mad Men

Is it the fact these films/novels are mainstream that lets them slide under the Cheating Hero/Heroine radar? Is it just romance fiction where infidelity is not accepted as a human error? Embraced as a flaw?

I'm not arguing. I'm just confused. I'm not condoning cheating. I'm just frustrated at tiptoeing through the land mines of do's and don'ts in the romantic fiction genre, at the codes used to make the decisions as to which human failures and flaws are forgivable by the reader.

As for David, the King? Even after committing adultery, he was forgiven by God. Oh, the powerful Israelite suffered hugely for his mistake. But he was forgiven.

Although he's no fictional character, he still remains one of the most potent examples of a human to commit such crimes against humanity---which included murder---and still somehow, because we were endeared to him, emerge from the rubble as the hero.

To me, flaws aren't limited to guidelines dictated by a genre.

So my question? Can a hero or heroine commit the act of adultery and still manage to redeem themselves?

I believe they can. It is a challenge, I'll admit, to bring them around full circle. And, if an author can convincingly meet that challenge---to deliver this situation with the delicacy necessary to handle the highly charged emotional explosive it is---then I see it as a human flaw that has its place in romantic fiction.

How do you feel? Have you read books that contain cheating characters? What did you think of them? Were you able to forgive them?

Sunday, 23 September 2012

I Never Met One, But...

I’m excited today to have author Dorien Grey visiting in my ‘house’. 

I love Dorien’s writing—whether it’s on his blog, his website or in his books. Mr. Grey has a wonderful gift of putting his heart into his thoughts in such a way that bring such tender yet vivid color to what seems to be ordinary life. I’m always amazed that he says exactly the complex feelings that touch most of us, things we long to say—only he says it in a way that makes one quietly just think, “Ah. Yes. That’s it.”

Here are some ways to link with this wonderful man:
And you can Facebook with him at: http://www.facebook.com/dorien.grey?ref=ts

Now, here is he is. Dorien Grey….

“I Never Met One, But....”
For Carol Zampa

I was thinking for some totally unknown reason of an episode of a TV show called The White Shadow, which ran from 1978 to 1981. It was about a high school basketball coach (Ken Howard) mentoring a group of all-American jocks. I watched it only when there was nothing else on that I particularly wanted to watch. But I'll never forget the episode in question, in that it got all sorts of buzz for being boldly daring. It seems that a new player on the team is suspected of being...well, you know...one of those. (It turns out he isn't, of course, thank God, but...) The harassment of the poor kid becomes merciless until the coach bravely calls the team together for a lecture on tolerance. When the word “homosexual” or “gay”—I forget which one was used—pretty daring right there, comes up, the coach says, and I quote: “Well, I've never met one myself, but...” I switched channels and never watched the show again.

My immediate reaction to the coach's incomprehensible response was, You never met one yourself? Look around you, you idiot!
That one sentence fragment held the key to the repeal of D.O.D.T., the gradually-being-won battle over marriage equality, and the slow crumbling of intolerance over one's sexual orientation. Our society had been locked in a vicious circle: I'm sure many if not most straights honestly believed they'd never met a homosexual simply because they were unaware they did! And gays were so justifiably fearful of harassment or far worse, that they could not or would not correct this misconception. It was only when gays began coming out of the closet that the tide began to turn. The more straights were made aware that they actually did know gay people—that one of their acquaintances, or friends, or co-workers, or relatives was gay and did not fit the stereotypes society had cast them in, the less fearful, hostile, and judgmental they became.

I'd heard gays say we all hid behind those who did fit the stereotypes—they were our protective coloration: if you didn't fit the stereotype, you were okay. It was, and I'm sure even today is, not unheard of for gays to enter straight marriages for the egregious protection of “But he's married. He couldn't possibly be gay!”

I grew up at a time when homosexuality was a crime in many states, and where gays had no legal rights or protection anywhere in the country; where you could be fired, or be evicted from your apartment for being gay; where gay bars were routinely raided...the arrests providing a steady stream of income for city coffers in the form of heavy fines just for having a drink in the wrong place. I myself was the victim of entrapment in Los Angeles in 1966, when good looking policemen were routinely sent out to lure gays into approaching them, then arresting them for “lewd and lascivious conduct.” (In my case, I was approached by a very handsome young man who then arrested me when I talked to him. I had not propositioned him or said one single word that I could not have said in front of my grandmother. Yet the police report he filed on the incident sounded like the script for a porn movie. I of course protested my innocence, but who would believe the word of a faggot over a solid defender of public morals?

I have been gay since I was a child, but I was never bravely gay like those who fought the police at the Stonewall Inn, or in front of Los Angeles' Black Cat, where a patron had been beaten to death during a police raid. I have marched in gay pride parades, but I have never helped organize a protest march or physically manned the barricades and literally risked my life. 

But I don't fault myself too strongly. I have done what I could to show straights that gays are just as human and decent and worthy of respect as they, and that who one chooses to love does not matter so much as that one does love. I would like to think that John Milton was right when he said that “they also serve who merely stand and wait.”

I would also like to think that were The White Shadow to be on the air today, the coach would know far better than to say “I never met one, but....”

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Bonsoir, Petit Garcon...

Patric Michael

“How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.” 
― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

No long posts today. No points to be made.   I just want to take a moment to say goodnight---no, not goodbye, as this person was just too vital to ever admit he's really just...gone---to a precious friend who lost his long battle with cancer on Tuesday.  

Patric Michael. 

 Petit Garcon? Somewhere, in the course of conversations, I addressed him as Petit Garcon (little boy) and it became my name for him. And, good friend that he was, he let me call him that.  

Patric was a beautiful man. An author, an artist. One of the most brilliant minds I've ever known.  

He was a mentor to so many authors, this gal included. 

What touched me most about Patric was the journey through his illness. Watching a man reconcile himself to the inevitable, witnessing his growth as he faced the challenge, and admiring his peace about what he knew was going to come. If Patric was afraid, he never let on.  

There will be many tributes to him, so I'll not elaborate on my own.   What I want to do, though, is leave you with a glimpse of HIM. Something to share, something that paints a better portrait of him that my words ever could.  

Once, he and I discussed fireflies. Yes, fireflies. He'd authored a story in an anthology in which fireflies were a horrific entity (it was a horror anthology, after all..lol).   But, on the subject of fireflies---to show the tender, sensitive side of himself---he sent me this little snippet once. And I don't figure he'd mind my sharing it.  

So...in my bidding goodnight to my Petit Garcon, my dear friend, let me share this beautiful insight into his mind....  
  When he was a kid, he and his friends spend endless summer nights lurking beneath these same trees playing tag and munching fruit, spitting seeds at each other and laughing. His real father had been alive then. Alive long enough to teach him how to catch and hold the fireflies that even now glittered amidst the tall grass and dark red leaves.

He snatched one out of the air, almost without thought and stared at it cupped between his shaking hands.

“Don’t squeeze too hard, Danny. Cup your hands, like this.” Raymond Ellison demonstrated, allowing his son to peer at the softly glowing insect trapped within the cage of his hands. Faint green light spilled between his fingers. “You try it.”

Danny swept his hands through the tall grass and giggled as his efforts produced not one but two ‘lightning bugs’.

“I got two!” He crowed, holding up his prize.

“You sure did.” His father said, approving. “Look at them for a while, then let them go, Ok?”

“Why?” Danny asked, his small round face clouding with confusion. “Why can’t I keep them?”

“Because they will die if you do.” Raymond said, opening his own hands. The firefly flexed its wings experimentally. “They can’t live in captivity.” He said as the inset flew away, stitching indignant green fire into the warm summer night. He pulled his son onto his lap.

“There are some things in this world that cannot be caged.” Raymond said as he looked at the green light flickering in Danny’s hands. “See how they flash on and off like that? It means they are afraid.”

Danny studied his lightning bugs for a moment, then looked up into the trees. Lazy green light flickered in long, sweeping strokes. He looked at his bugs again, watching the stuttered, abortive light and thought he understood.

“If they are afraid for too long, their own fear will kill them, son. You don’t want that, do you?”

Danny hesitated. He opened his hands doubtfully and watched as the flickers lengthened and brightened. He tossed his bugs into the air and turned to his father. His doubt vanished in the bright gleam of his father’s smile.

“Good boy!” Raymond said and Danny grinned, glowing like a firefly himself in the light of his father’s pride.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

The Gospel According To...

If anyone says, "I love God," yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. (1 John 4:20)

Remember these guys?

I remember, as a young girl in Pasadena, Texas, an incident that didn't didn't make sense to me at the time. I was too young for it to have any mental impact one me.

A neighbor, just a couple of doors down, employed a Negro housekeeper. The friendly local order of the Klan----whose regional headquarters was only a few miles away on Red Bluff Road---paid a visit to our neighbor and gifted her with a burning cross in her front yard.

So young, this meant nothing to me outside the sensationalism of the FBI questioning the neighborhood and the community buzz of the incident.

But I did sense enough to be haunted by it. I'd never been raised to see anyone as anything but human. I'm grateful to my parents for that. Yet only when I grew into adulthood did I actually grasp the meaning of those events---HATE.

I had intended to post a vintage photograph of a Negro lynching from days gone by. But do you know what? They were too violent, they were so heart breaking I couldn't use them. It caused great pain to even glance at them. Bodies---young, old---hanging from trees, charred to cinders from stakes. The horrible denominator most of them had was crowds of gleeful spectators.

One photograph even showed a man, handcuffed and hanging from a tree branch, with a young girl staring up at his body as though she was in front row seats at Ringling Brothers. The photo was taken around 1914, and I wonder---hauntingly wonder---if that child ever, EVER had trouble sleeping at night.

Damn, as a kid, I could hardly sleep after an episode of Twilight Zone. And THAT was fiction, make-believe. This child watched a man hang by his neck until he was dead---and God only knows how horrific that must have been---in real life. And she smiled.

Most of us today are abhorred by this hatred. Churches preach against it. No hate, no hate, love thy brother, love thy brother. Love one another. Love thy brother as thyself.

And yet...and yet...communities band together to do just the opposite. To hate their brothers and sisters.

If you think crimes such as took place with the lynchings were a thing of the past, think again.

If you're like me, your mind quickly makes a path to young Matthew Shepard, who was murdered in a vicious hate crime on October 12, 1998. Tied up, beaten, and left to die.

He was only one of so very many.

The thing that torments me about this hate? So much of is, just like the KKK, based ridiculously on scripture. Multitudes of people have taken something, some out-of-context reference, to justify their HATRED. And it is just that...HATRED.

The sad thing? The person who they so erroneously use as their champion for this hatred---Jesus Christ---was himself a victim of intolerance. He died at the hands of arrogance and hatred. The 'church', the elite religious ones, scorned him, hated him from the moment they heard his voice and his far-fetched, crazy ramblings against arrogance and self-righteousness. His adult life was a constant run from those who willed him dead. For what? For being different.

What the sanctimonious voices who promote hatred do not realize is that, if Jesus walked among them today, they would be protesting him just as their kind did during his lifetime.

For every religious pharisee who condemns the gay community is one who would have barred Jesus from the very church he founded. He would not, today, probably have been welcome in many religious establishments. He would have been just too damn radical for them. He would have suggested they allow gay men and women into their sanctuaries. For that, he would have not been welcome.

Don't kid yourselves, oh pious ones. Jesus never said a lot of things you give him credit for---things you've taken out of context in order to support your bigotry and hatred---but he DID say that to shun those among you was to shun HIM.

So you, the chicken place who pays millions to promote discrimination? Trust me. Jesus, whose name you commit your hateful acts under, is surely not smiling upon you.

And, in closing. I believe in angels. And I believe those lovely stories about how they walk among us. And I believe, with everything in me, that----by shunning those whose gender you cannot tolerate---you are very surely shutting the door on many of those angels who tread among us.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

His Name was Jim...

“You use a glass mirror to see your face; you use works of art to see your soul.”
--- George Bernard Shaw, Back to Methuselah

No wordy speech from me today. Instead, to coincide with my review at Miz Love and Crew Love Books (see entire review here) of Rick R. Reed's novel, Caregiver, I invited Rick to be my host for the day. He's going to share the story behind the book with us, and we're going to have the privilege of getting a glimpse at what makes this book so beautiful. 

Before he takes the floor, http://www.rickrreed.com/  as well as his blog http://rickrreedreality.blogspot.com/

So...let me now hand over the blog reins to Mr. Rick Reed...

His name was Jim. He's the reason I wrote my novel, Caregiver. People who come to the book without my personal history might come to it with the idea that it's simply a fictional love story set in a time when AIDS was a death sentence (1991).

But Caregiver is much more. It's based on the life and death of my friend, Jim, for whom I was an AIDS buddy when I volunteered at the Tampa AIDS Network back in '91.

I call Jim Adam in the book, but everything that happens to him in the novel happened in real life--sickness, dying, life, jail and, ultimately, love, which never dies.

The book is a tribute to him and its messages--that love can arise from loss and that one person can come into a life and mark it for eternity--I hope resonate.

Below is the real story of Jim and me, which originally appeared in an Alyson anthology called, Last Date.

I’m driving north on Florida State Route 75. It’s August and the flat land stretching out on either side of the highway looks baked. The slash pines, palms, and cypress trees stand like stalwart sentinels against the blistering sun: brave.

The car hums along, the whirr of the air conditioning compressor keeping me company. I’m too jazzed to listen to music.
I’m on my way to a date with Jim. It’s been a while since I’ve seen him, since he moved from the Tampa Bay area up north to Raiford, which is a good three hours away. I can’t blame Jim for the move (it wasn’t his choice), but it’s been hard not being able to see him the past month. Oh sure, we’ve written and Jim’s a great one for letters, especially since he can draw hilarious caricatures of the people he’s meeting in his new home.

But there’s a disturbing edge to his letters, too, and I know some of these people have been less than kind to Jim. The name-calling, for one thing, breaks my heart. But thank God Jim has a sense of humor, otherwise I don’t know how he’d get through each day.
I know he’s been hanging on for this date, which we’ve had planned for a while.
Finally, an afternoon with Jim. I didn’t know, four months ago, that I would grow to love him so quickly.
I drive on, the broad expanses of rough grass and hearty trees being replaced every so often by strip malls and towns with names like Ocala. The pavement shimmers before me in the heat. My tires hum. An armadillo hurries alongside the road. A mosquito splats against the windshield, leaving a swath of blood.
I remember the first time I met Jim. It was another blistering summer day (funny how in my memories of the two years I lived in Florida, it’s always summer, even when the memory took place in December or February). Jim and I had been set up and these kinds of dates always put me on edge: they never worked out.
When Jim answered the door, I was sure that this set-up date would work out like all the others: completely inappropriate. Other people never seemed to have the capacity to pick someone out for myself that I would choose on my own.

And this guy who opened the door immediately put me on my guard. I mean, I enjoy a good drag show at the local bar as much as the next guy, but here in Brandon, Florida (a suburb of Tampa, full of kids, trimmed lawns, and swimming pools), a smart little black dress and pearls just seemed out of place, especially on a very handsome blond man with great blue eyes and a nice, tight build.
But there was Jim, all smiles and beckoning me to come inside. I went into the little bungalow he lived in with a roommate (who was at work). The place was typical Florida, one-story, stucco, with a schefflera bush in the front yard, and that peculiar, tougher-than-nails, fire-ant infested grass on the front lawn. Inside, pastel walls and beige furniture completed the picture. The Golden Girls could have used the place for a set.
And there was Jim, smiling at me in his sensible matron’s outfit and just putting the finish creases on a little ironing he was doing just before I rang the bell. The whole scene made me think of a cross between June Cleaver and RuPaul.
I wasn’t sure what to say. But that really didn’t matter, because Jim was more than ready to take over (once he’d made certain I had a fruity cocktail in my hand, even though it wasn’t yet noon), telling me all about his recent move down here from Chicago (I had the same story to tell, but I wasn’t to learn until much later how very different our respective moves to the sunshine state were), his love for Barbra (need I add a last name here?), and how his health was improving under the abundant Florida sun.
I learned fast that day that clothes don’t always make the man and that Jim would turn out to be one of the bravest men I’d ever met.
It’s been a long drive and I’m glad to finally be pulling up in front of Jim’s new home. Raiford, Florida is north central Florida…typical of the state, but not the kind of look one usually associates with Florida (white sand beaches, aqua-marine waters, palm trees swaying in the salty breeze): Raiford is kind of grim and parched looking, especially the wide open spaces where Jim’s new home sits. It’s surrounded by dry brown grass…stretching infinitely to a blazing blue sky, where the sun beats down, relentless.
A tall fence surrounds Jim’s new home, with no nod to adornment (Jim, with his graphic design background and his love for the visual arts, I’m sure, did not approve). This fence was made of foreboding chain link and twice the height of a good-sized man, topped with razor-sharp circles of barbed wire. The only thing that looks halfway decent is the curving arch over the entrance drive and the stone monument just beside it. The arch tells visitors, in curving steel, that this is the Florida State Prison. The stone monument spells it out further: Department of Corrections, Florida State Prison.
This is where they send the big boys: the felons.
I can’t imagine Jim inside. He’s been hanging on for our date.
I can’t wait to see him.
When Jim and I went on our first date (after our getting-acquainted morning cocktail hour at his house) we went to Ft. DeSoto beach, a beautiful stretch of white sand just off of St. Petersburg Beach. Because it’s in a state park, the beach is backed up not by high-rises with balconies overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, but with a view that nature intended. Instead of bricks and mortar (and the attendant Florida tourists), Ft. DeSoto beach has only sand dunes, sea grass, and mangroves as a backdrop. It’s another blazing hot day and I’ve brought lunch for Jim and me (with a thermos full of mai tais…Jim’s favorite) and we spend the entire afternoon listening to the waves roll in and watching a matronly pair wade along the shoreline, net bags in hand, collecting starfish and shells.
Jim tells me about the last job he had before he went on this extended period of unemployment and how he worked as a graphic designer. He tells me about what led to his dismissal: picking up a stranger one night and bringing him back to his workplace. Out of lube, and always imaginative, Jim went into his supervisor’s cube and found some very creative use for the waxy (and slippery) substance those in the cosmetology trade call lipstick. The couple made quite a mess, not the least of which was Jim’s being fired the next day.
Jim was like that: a little imp, unable to play by the rules.
Life has a way of biting those who go against its conventions by biting them in the ass.
Getting into the Florida State Prison is a lot easier than getting out, but there are some obstacles. In order to arrange for my date with Jim, I had to go through the chaplain, who put me on the very short list of visitors who could come and visit him (not that there was a long list of admirers waiting to be put on that list; only Jim’s family so far had come to check him out in his new digs—and they had made the trip all the way from Downer’s Grove, Illinois). Once inside the prison, I had to go through an anteroom, where I had to sign in and then subject myself to being frisked, right down to removing my boots to ensure I wasn’t securing a file in the heel or something. I understood the precautions, silly as they were. Yet Jim was in no shape to escape, even if I had somehow managed to smuggle in everything he would need to slip through Raiford’s well-guarded walls.
Security wasn’t as tight for my last couple of dates with Jim, which had taken place at the Hillsborough County Jail. There, things weren’t as grim, or as lonely. I would line up with a whole room full of chattering visitors, get checked in, and then be off to converse with Jim through a wall of Plexiglas, under the admiring eyes of some of the other inmates. Jealousy is such a petty thing, and particularly annoying when you’re trying to have an intimate moment with your date, while those behind him wonder what it would take to make you their bitch.
But that was before Jim’s case was adjudicated and they sent him north, to the state prison. That was before Jim began to get really sick.
Now, a guard down a colorless hallway leads me to the prison infirmary. I know this will be my last date with Jim and it’s hard not to recall all the laughs we shared before he was caught (he had violated his parole in Illinois, where he had been convicted of grand theft auto) at various beaches along the Gulf of Mexico, in Cuban restaurants, just listening to music at my apartment.
It’s also hard not to remember the additional details that brought him here: how, in a fit of depression, he had set fire to his roommate’s house. What did he have to be depressed about, anyway? He was only dying from AIDS (this was in the early 1990s and the drug cocktails that would keep many of his brethren living full lives were still on the horizon), isolated, and on the run from the law. Why be sad when he could number his only friends (me) at the number one? Why be sad when my friendship was not borne out of a common love for the arts and sarcastic observations about life, but instead courtesy of the Tampa Aids Network, where I had volunteered to be an AIDS buddy and was assigned to Jim?
I wasn’t sure I wanted to see Jim. He had written me, before he was confined to the infirmary, about how the other inmates taunted him and called him Spot, because of the Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions that covered him from head to toe (and continued, even now, to eat his fragile body and soul alive). I didn’t know what to expect. The last time I had seen him, he was still vibrant, still Jim: a little blond man with a quick smile and bottomless kindness.
I knew he had deteriorated…and I knew it was going to be bad.
Jim was alone in the room of the infirmary where they had done, I suppose, what they could to ensure his comfort. Other beds awaited other inmates, with maladies less deadly, I hoped, than Jim’s.
And there he was. Asleep. He looked frail and vulnerable, not at all what you’d imagine if you thought of the terms “convicted felon” or “state pen inmate.” His face, once tanned and vibrant, was covered with purple sores. My Jim had turned into a monster in the short time that had elapsed since we last saw one another.
He turned to me and opened his eyes. At least his eyes, blue as those waters we once sat beside, had stayed the same. It took him a minute or two to recognize me, but when he did, he smiled. I moved close to the bed and took his hand. With my other hand, I touched his forehead, where a fever raced around inside, hot as the air outside these prison walls.
I don’t remember what we talked about on our last date. Probably not much; Jim drifted in and out of sleep while I stood beside him, sometimes even in the middle of a sentence: mine or even his own. He did manage to tell me about his parents’ visit the day before, how his mother had collapsed in grief the moment she saw him.
I wanted this last time of ours together to be meaningful. But what, really, is there to say, at life’s end? I leaned in close and kissed him, my cheek brushing up against one of the lesions. It felt crusty.
The only thing left to say, really, at the end of life, or even the end of a perfect date are three words: “I love you.” Jim whispered back, “I love you, too,” and then he fell asleep.
I crept away.
Jim died the next day. The chaplain very kindly told me, when he called, that he thought Jim had hung on long enough to see me. I hung up the phone and slipped outside to my patio and looked across the surface of the pond just steps away. A wind rippled across the deep green water, making the grass at the water’s edge sway. A white ibis pecked at something along the shore.
I thought of a silly drawing Jim had sent me a couple months ago. It was a colored pencil caricature of a fat middle-aged woman I had written about; she was naked and riding a surfboard. Jim had called it “Amelia’s Hawaiian Adventure.”
The picture made me laugh when all I really wanted to do was cry. But my eyes were dry. Maybe it was just Jim’s influence as he looked down, trying to replace grief with hilarity. I laughed until I was almost breathless and had to sit down, cross-legged, on the concrete.

Finally my laughs turned to sobs and I faced away from the pond and toward the sliding glass doors. The glass was bright with sun and I swore I could see Jim reflected there. He mouthed some words and I strained to read them through my tears. “Glad you could drop by.” I swallowed, containing myself and think: me too, Jim. Someone else might think our last date was kind of sucky, but for me it was perfect. After all, a perfect date is marked by a timeless connection and an intimacy borne of true love. Maybe I didn’t get the chance to bring you flowers or candy, but this date we had…well, it will be the one that will always stand out in my mind as my best, because I like to think that I sent you off, free, with the words “I love you,” lingering in your mind.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Apology to a Book...

“No name-calling truly bites deep unless, in some dark part of us, we believe it. If we are confident enough then it is just noise.”  ― Laurell K. Hamilton, A Stroke of Midnight

If you haven't already thought I was certifiable (crazy, that is) by now...well, you will after this blog.

But I came to terms with something recently and I wanted to share it.

Last year, my very first book, Candy G, was published.

Like all new authors, I was in the clouds. The entire experience from writing the words The End to the offering of a contract to the first glimpse of the cover to THE event...its release.

And, then, like all authors---new and veteran---I got reviews.

Most authors may have much more confidence that I; feedback may not affect them. Bad reviews may just glide off them like water on a duck's back. Good feedback may just be taken in stride.

Not me.

Oh, I got many wonderful reviews...some I didn't even have to pay for! (Joking, joking). Even some of the not-so-good reviews cited some very good, strong positives about my writing. Most importantly, many took my book seriously. My chest swelled, of course, with pride.

But here's the kicker.

Those weeds---those unavoidable yet necessary weeds called negative feedback---cropped up in my lovely garden of praise.

In retrospect (you know how you remember the harsh stuff more than anything else?), I think the worst hit to my pride was for a reviewer to call the plot 'silly'. Ouch
To compound the fracture of the embarrassment, the reviewer's tone was---and gods, how I hate this word---snarky. It made fun of the plot. To have my book mocked on a very well-known review site in such a demeaning fashion was hurtful, especially as I was a new author. Welcome to the world of thick skin development! Double ouch.In my smashed ego-vision, I saw the reviewer as a sort of Skut Farkas, making fun of my silly story and taunting me to run home and tell my mommy.

Oh, hey, I'm not arguing and I'm not pitying myself. I'll be the first to admit the plot probably was kind of silly. I learned the hard way---which I have to admit might be the best way---that plotting is not my strong suit in writing. I DO have many strengths, but, alas, plot creation may not be among them.

Even this realization doesn't discourage me. I'll learn to put the iron to my writing weaknesses. To acknowledge those issues and thereby work on them can only improve my skills.

What DOES bother me is that I took that one weed and held it close to my heart, clung to it and, for some reason, set it as the standard for my self-confidence.

After that review, I even found myself warning potential readers, Hey, the plot is pretty silly, just warning you. Or, Hope you enjoy my silly little book.

Tragically, I constantly referred to my book as silly. And I meant it. I really believed---because someone poked fun at my book---it was a piece of garbage.

Shame on me.

Recently, after the first year had passed, after I'd resigned myself to having a 'silly' book to my  name, after apologizing constantly for the book itself---I took a look at Candy G.

And you know what?

I just about cried---first, just from reliving the memories of writing it, the pride in being accepted by the publisher, the thrill of it all. And, finally, I cried because I'll be damned if I didn't see my baby through new eyes, and actually found myself admitting it wasn't such a bad book after all. It had its good points as well as its bad, and I was sorry that I'd spent so much negative time on being embarrassed by it.

It was a first book. Some write perfect first books. I did not. Yes, the silly plot hadn't miraculously changed in a year's time. It was still there. But I finally allowed myself the pride I should have had all along. I realized what was THE silly thing was to have judged and condemned my own work based on one comment in one review. I'm not saying I should not take the feedback seriously. I should. And I do.

But I shouldn't have lost my pride in my work---which put the shadows of doubt on any future works, in my ability---based on one little neutron of negativity.

I'll always embrace humility in my work, but I'll write to the best of my ability and I'll try to embrace my pride as well. A happy medium of both, I hope.

So...Candy G...I owe you an apology for letting myself ever be ashamed of you. You weren't such a bad little book after all.

Friday, 8 June 2012

The Wall and the Door...

“Don't spend time beating on a wall, hoping to transform it into a door. ”  --  Coco Chanel

After a long, exhausting battle of trying to beat my characters into submission, to keep them within the original little pod of imagination they sprang from---I had a revelation.

I suppose you could say my characters and I had a revelation. Or was it a battle of wills, a tug-of-war over who they were supposed to be?

It was simple, really, and liberating.

Some time ago, I'd already made the decision to expand my
repertoire to include my love for male/female romance.

The truth? Even then, as excited as I had been to reach this decision, I still felt a little guilt, the tiny feeling that I was betraying my genre, the m/m romance. Can one even betray a genre? I didn't know, but I felt uneasy anyway.

Many authors of the m/m genre are exclusive, will readily tell you they will not---cannot---write hetero romance. And I respect that. They have their reasons, and I understand them.

Hell, I love my male/male romance so much, it is such a powerful force for me. In fact, my latest WIP had begun its telling as het romance. There it was, a story which had been formulating forever. And, when my fingers touched the keyboard, the characters came to life as men. Who knew?

They knew.

But, still, there remained that sad little empty feelilng. One of my characters---one of the first romance heroes I ever concocted, a straight man---who I wrote so many stories about but never finished---still remained patiently on the sidelines while I passed over him again and again.

I, personally, find it hard to deny that woman in me that begs for romance between a man and a woman. But, as strong as that inner pleading was, I still denied it. Part of me was afraid to mix genres. In reality, I see now the urge may not have been strong enough---not ready yet---and I wasn't really denying, I just simply wasn't ready.

But then something happened that told me it really wasn't my decision at all. Something that revealed to me that I am really only a set of fingers bringing characters---who are already alive and bursting with the need to be born---from my heart and into the written word.

And it was a very simple thing.

I'd struggled with a WIP. A male/male romance. Put it away for a bit. I love, love, love the characters, the plot, the setting. Why, the main character---the namesake of the story---is a man after my own heart, essentially the man of my dreams. A wonderful Latino, even patterned after my favorite Hispanic leading man, Eduardo Yanez.

Eduardo Yanez

And then it hit me. I knew what was wrong. The character was not gay. When this realization dawned on me, it troubled me. Damn, it was like killing a loved one. You no longer exist. I can't write you. You're not YOU anymore.

But, yes, he still IS himself. He just prefers women, and he's meant to be with a woman.

Once the guilt---yes, guilt---eased, I felt the most amazing, rejuvinating energy. I was not betraying my character. I was not turning my back on a genre.

I was simply acknowledging a fact. I was accepting it. And it was wonderful.

By restricting myself to a genre, I'm---and I only speak for myself---I'm denying characters in my head who have no place else to go if I do not write them. I'm turning my creativity into a 'planned parenthood' of sorts. I'm using an unnatural selective system.

Now please do not get me wrong. Some authors are only comfortable with one genre. And they are following their natural instincts as writers. They are following the voices that speak to them individually.

And THAT is what I'm talking about. Natural instinct as to what you must write. Many only hear hetero voices. Many only hear male/male characters in their hearts. Some, like me, hear both.

Those voices---whoever is speaking to the author---are what the author must heed.

Upon accepting this, I cannot describe the exhileration I experienced. It was a natural thing, as beauiful and right as the ocean rushing to shore. And to know that I could no more confine my characters to one box than I could actually keep that ocean from rushing to that shore was pure freedom.

I'm happy.

And please, again, understand that I only speak for myself. This is a strictly personal experience.

Hey, my male/female romance may flop. Honestly, it doesn't matter. It can't matter. Because I can't, even if I tried, stifle their voices. My characters will be what they will be, and I'll love them just as they are.

Well, once they tell me who they are, that is.

Monday, 23 April 2012

I Used to Be Indecisive...Now I'm Not Sure...

And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise.  The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.  ~Sylvia Plath

Today I turned over the manuscript for my latest story, PURLY GATES (under my Vastine Bondurant pen name) to be formatted for publication. 
I finally had to relinquish it, let it go, let it be done. A fellow author told me---and I loved her way of putting this---that the painter just has to know when the work is done, and she has to lay down the paint brush and say, It is finished.

So I did just that. Laid down the paint brush.

After sending the manuscript off to the formatter, I had to stifle the urge to shout, Wait! One more thing! I'm sure something's missing! Don't work on it yet! Let me take just...one...more...look! It's going go be self-published, after all. Surely subject to much more scrutiny than if I'd submitted to a traditional publisher. Get it back! It's not ready! That internal doubt screamed again. But, no. I just let it go and resolved that I'd done the best I could.  Two full edits, numerous betas. Let it go

Most of you know how long a second book was in the works for me. Forever, or so it seemed. My first novella, CANDY G, was released March 2, 2011. 

I've always chalked this tortoise pace up to just...slow writing. Hey, I'm slow as molasses! It' just my pace, and that's all there is to it!

But during the process of getting Purly Gates ready for publication, it hit me---I mean like a piano falling from a building---what my biggest writing obstacle is. Why I sit and stare at the computer screen---the starting words for sentences, scenes, paragraphs, poised just out of reach of my brain. Scenes as clear as day, as vivid as any scene in any movie. But stalled somewhere between the brain and the fingers. 

Doubt. No confidence in my own ability to transport the words from my head to the screen. 

I realized I'm one of those authors who panics and freezes---simply CANNOT grasp the old proverbial trapeze bar---without a partner, without the safety of a net.

What I mean by that is: I realized I need constant reinforcement. Constant. Approval from others for every word, every thought. Sounds quite silly, but it's the truth. Yes, I need that other partner on the trapeze in order to perform. If there is no other swing, no hand to grab---someone to assure me this word is correct, that this thought is logical---then I can't...swing. 

One little word of disagreement during a critique and I immediately cave. I instantly doubt my own ability to create. I freeze. As silly as it seems, I often even want to just rely on that other person to tell me what to say. I am that unsure.

And that slows my writing down to a near non-existent pace. It paralyzes me, this indecisiveness. It is crippling. 

I wonder---and desire it with all my heart---to know how other authors manage to swing on their own trapeze, to walk the tightrope without that safety net? How do they just...know...when their own voice is right-on? When perhaps the other voice is wrong? 

Where does this confidence come from? With time? Experience? When do you learn to trust yourself, to know when to disagree with certain feedback and stick with it?

I remember once during the writing of a story, I'd painted a scene: a garage apartment on a residential piece of property. A long gravel driveway led to the detached garage and the dwelling above it. Someone reading this scene corrected me, told me a subdivision in a barrio district such as I'd written would not have a long drive. The yards in these areas were too small, they insisted.

True to my usual insecurity, I almost made the correction, almost changed to property to fit the other person's vision. 

But...but...NO! What was I thinking? I was painting this scene straight from life. The very description of a garage apartment in a low-rent district in my home town, a lot I passed daily on my way to work. Wait just a minute! See what I'm saying? 

Even for something I wrote from experience, right out of real life, I almost changed this image, almost altered the very nuance of the scene I was creating. Almost. I refused to change it. I'd say I was proud of myself for relying on my own instinct and vision, but...hey...I nearly succumbed to my doubt. I actually halted, froze, and got discouraged. Actually sat there thinking I just can't do this. I can't rely on the images in my head, I can't depend on my own choice of words. I suck at this.

I'd love to say I'm writing this blog because I've overcome this crippling condition. But I haven't. I merely realized, for the first time ever, that it IS a problem, that it is THE problem in my writing. 

George Canning said, Indecision and delays are the parents of failure. And that is true. Painfully so for me. 

I don't know if time will be my savior, if simply writing, writing, writing will build my confidence. And by the way. How the hell did I ever GET so insecure about my writing in the first place? Is it a matter of putting too much weight on the input of others? IS their word gospel? How do you know when it is and when it ISN'T the gospel according to someone else?

Just when do you learn to swing without the net? No, I don't mean without feedback at all. No way. It is crucial for me. But when will I reach the point I just...know...I'm right? 

I think, when I reach this point, I'll write faster, I'll be more sure of what I DO write. 

But, until then, I'll just think of the of the words of Oscar Levant and smile. Once I make up my mind, I'm full of indecision.