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I. AM. ALIVE! & the end of Senior Thesis

May 24, 2013

*The climax of 2001: Space Odyssey soundtrack plays in the background*

DA-DAH!

Okay, okay, let me explain.

First off, I’m sorry for the absence. If you follow me on Twitter, you know I’m alive, but otherwise not so much. My break from social media has mostly been due to senior thesis and finishing up my Bachelor of Arts degree at Scripps College. Yep: this is a fully-qualifed BA holder typing this. Graduating felt great (and sad, but mostly great).

Back to what’s been happening: after my last post on it, The Bound Chronicles has been getting more of the same revise, revise, revise treatment. I don’t know if I can thank my two thesis readers (previously referred to as Thesis Reader A and Thesis Reader B) enough for what they’ve done: it’s a much better novel for the attentions they’ve paid it.

My second thesis reader/Thesis Reader B/TRB read a draft soon after the last post, and she said she liked it overall. She’s a literature professor at Claremont McKenna College, and her speciality is in the medieval era: I was especially eager to have her on the team in order to point out historical inaccuracies, which she did. She also noted some rough patches in my prose and plot, which I have since attempted to smooth out.

In addition in the draft I gave her, each of my chapters had a proem before it: a quote out of one of my favorite pieces of medieval literature, Sir Gawain & The Green KnightSir Gawain is a medieval alliterative romantic poem that tells the story of King Arthur’s knight Sir Gawain facing off with a supernatural knight who is literally colored green. Here is the Wikipedia article. Here is the Sparknotes. And here is my favorite translation available on Amazon. Really, it’s the best one. Armitage, the translator, keeps the alliteration and poetic beauty of the original words wonderfully.

My reasoning for using Sir Gawain quotes is I thought a lot of my characters matched up with the poem’s characters (Sir Gawain is the original monkling trio, Morgan is Maclinmun’s mother, King Alfred is King Arthur, Mary is the tempting wife etc), and Gawain’s emotional tripping up point in the poem is Dubslaine’s and Maclinmun’s exactly: “my downfall and my undoing; let the devil take it/Dread of the death-blow and cowardly doubts/meant I gave in to greed, and in doing so forgot/the fidelity and kindness every knight knows.” However, Sir Gawain was written down in the late 14th century in southeast England, and while it could have been verbally sung years before that, it’s highly unlikely to have reached my characters. TRB encouraged me to use bona-fide Anglo-Saxon literature for proems, and I extensively pilfered from The Exeter Book, mostly the elegies, which you can peruse here because isn’t the internet fabulous?

On the Thesis Reader A (TRA) side of things, I had a lot more edits, grammatical or otherwise. Mary’s character, the magic, the poisoning, the not-so-accidental gay porn (I’m sorry!), and some weird misunderstandings had to be smoothed out and polished. TRA read my thesis the most, and I’m mildly surprised she didn’t burn it to a crisp sometimes.

One interesting thing that came up was when I was speaking with a publisher. Don’t get excited: it was at a joint CMC & Scripps alumnae panel event to help students. This man was the guest speaker, someone they’d invited in. He had been in traditional publishing a long time and had broken off to form his own academic publishing company. Anyway, I wanted to ask him about current publishing feelings towards book series from new authors, and along the way I told him about this whole project. He looked me up and down, eyes growing wary, and shifted in his seat: uncomfortable-like. He then said agents and publishers will have two concerns about me right off: (1) can I, as a woman, write men well, and not only men, but monks, and (2) why am I choosing these time periods and what are their marketability.

All I could say was, “Excuse me?”

I also mentally shouted some rude things, and it was all in reaction to the first concern. A hundred blog posts, coursework readings, Feminist Frequency Youtube videos, and everyday realities of living at a women’s college that supports women and feminism sprang to my mind, and I had to calm them down and shut up and not attack this man. He was just demonstrating a reality, and it was better I heard it from him than a hundred rejection letters later.

AND DO YOU KNOW HOW MANY TIMES WOMEN ARE MISREPRESENTED IN THE MEDIA AND/OR THEIR CHARACTERS ARE JUST SEXY LOVE INTERESTS WITH NO DEPTH, MY GOSH.

*calm* Anyway, so he explained more what he meant while I was trying to control my face out of the disgusted/murderous look it was probably wearing. His daughter is a romance writer, and he mentioned that in her main male character was a bit…girly (in my mind I responded: maybe he is girly, gender is a spectrum, he doesn’t have to be a macho man). He suggested that before I send it places to make sure a man read it and was able to identify with/recognize the male characters as male, which is reasonable. I’d already sent it to some male relatives and plan to pass it to more, anyway. We’ll ignore the fact that this is a historical fiction novel, and gender might, I don’t know, call me crazy on this one, have been constructed differently 1,122 years ago. I mean, I’m following this advice accidentally anyway, I’m willing to alter small things if a male reviewer thinks the males are a little strange (but they’re supposed to be strange did you even read it), and I want to write stories that appeal broadly, but DUDE. You would never ask this of a male author about his female characters!

The rest of this first concern was about if I could write monks. He mentioned that he just finished studying theology, and many of this friends/teachers were monks. He was worried because they’re often misrepresented in the media, which is a concern I can more readily respect and sympathize with. I was able to speak at this point and asked, “Well, what would assure you that I knew what I was writing about? What can I say? I did a lot of research in the library and on the internet: could I show you a bibliography or something?”

This did not seem to assure him; in fact, I think he shifted further away, almost leaning away. I mentioned that I had TRB who specialized in medieval things, and proceeded to enlarge the truth to say she specialized in medieval monks. “And she’s looked over? She supports you?” he said.

“Yes.”

The man visibly calmed and stopped leaning away from me. “Then just sign all your emails and queries with your initials and you should be fine.”

He might have meant it as a joke, but I found it in no way funny. If I want “Natalie Marie Cannon” on my book cover, then the rest of the world can deal with it and get their patriarchal heads out of their dirty patriarchal arses.

Also, apparently I have to get an expert in ninth century Irish monks to sign off my work???? What is this, primary school?

So…besides being very angry about this and stalking home to rant at the poor Invisible Ninja Cat, I did bring it up with TRA. Her blank look of “what” was mildly amusing, as was her asking of “who was this, again?” She was quiet for a moment, but then said that my male characters are fine and that we don’t even know how gender was constructed back then because, you know, 1,122 years have gone by. That information is lost to us, and our only guesstimate available is the literature, which is physically and culturally limited (ex. there’s not a whole lot on medieval lesbians, but you know they existed because humans have been lesbians since forever. If you would like to dispute gayness existing, I would like to point to Gilgamesh, the oldest surviving piece of literature, whose very male protagonist “will take him [Enkidu, a fellow male warrior] into [his] arms, embrace and caress him the way a man caresses his wife”). Yup. Put that in your iPad and smoke it.

As for the second concern about time period marketability, yes, I will need that. I graduated from a liberal arts college, so I should be able to explain that not only I, but other people find these periods fascinating. Americans don’t know about Anglo-Saxons and that Vikings TV show was super popular–obviously they’re interested. Americans have a longstanding love affair with Queen Elizabeth and Victorians (steampunk or otherwise). The 1920s are coming back with Gatsby, and who doesn’t love exploring the darker sides of the human psyche? Modern times books featuring young women are filling up the YA shelves. Look, there, I did it. Whoo.

Towards the end, everything got rushed and blurred and there were a string of all nighters. One time I was lying down in a chair with feet propped up and my computer on my knees, editing while eating chocolate chips off my stomach. Also, I may have turned my music down when I heard the Invisible Ninja Cat wake up so she wouldn’t know I was (still) awake and then turned it back up and sang along once the shower was running because I assumed she couldn’t hear me and found out later that she could.

But, at 3:30pm on April 26th, my thesis was bound and turned into the Registrar’s Office.

I proceeded to eat cake, sleep, be completely disoriented upon waking, go out for drinks and dinner, play board games, and then drop off to sleep.

And that’s how you do an undergraduate senior thesis.

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From → Thesis

4 Comments
  1. Actually, Natalie, people do ask male authors that about their female characters, all the time. It’s called feminists and woman’s colleges, and it’s also one of the main reasons most males write their main characters from the male point of view.
    It’s one of the biggest issues both genders face when writing. I’m not saying this guy was 100% right, but it’s a question you’re likely to be asked or is likely to be asked about you, and it’s not an unfair one (see Virginia Woolf, a room of one’s own on androgyny). It’s a question that should constantly be asked of all writers about their characters of the opposite sex. It’s something I question myself about all the time, as I should.

    And, this might surprise you, but as someone who’s actually looked into this, gender norms, excepting sexual preference standards which have had a few minor blips, gender constructs have stayed remarkably stable throughout history in most culturally and militarily dominant societies. Rome, Greece, Babylon, Ancient England… By and large (obviously there are cultural variants, but at the root of the thing), it’s not changed very much, even after thousands of years.

    BUT GO YOU for finishing and being fabulous and still living! 😀

    -C

    • You bring up good points, Charlotte. Thank you for commenting, and in response let me clarify a few things.

      First, the comment that ‘you would never ask this of a male author about his female characters!’ was directed at the publisher and publishers specifically, not the general public or a book’s audience. It’s hard for me to imagine A PUBLISHER asked Steven Moffat, Jonathan Franzen, or Neil Gaiman if they could write realistic female characters. Feminists and women’s colleges do often ask males about their female fictional beings, yes, and I’m getting this nauseous sort of feeling I’m going to be asking them for the rest of my life (I actually met some self-identified anti-feminists the other day, and it was awful).

      For your next point about opposite gender writing, yes, I know it’s a thing. Writers usually want to mimic reality as realistically as possible, and there are serious biological and (sometimes) culturally-wired differences between the male- and female bodied. However, I would like this thing to NOT BE A THING. I want my characters to be PEOPLE/HUMAN BEINGS, and I don’t want to have to think about if my character can contemplate the nail polish or not because they happen to have certain genitalia. This is an arguing point in ‘The Bound Chronicles’ because the two characters inhabit both biological body types throughout the centuries, but are, in essence, the same two characters. They might have a preference for one body type over the other, and this preference will fluctuate. Dubslaine prefers a male body while Maclinmun changes his male preference to that of a female body during the 1800s. I know this viewpoint does not entirely gel with the present reality of gender and the publishing industry, but by writing, promoting, and selling this book series, I’m working towards a future where gender doesn’t matter. It’s, paradoxically, by going into the historical past, but what comes before shapes what is and what is to come.

      And as for history, you are exactly right, and, as a historical fiction writer, I want to be historically accurate with my constructions of gender. There are certain recognizable, culturally-based actions, thought processes, spaces, appearance etc. that only males perform, inhabit, and produce, and in return they are recognized as male by other members of society. I’ve got to deal with that and write some of that. I will.

      This publisher did bring up something that will plague me until I’m a more known author with decent sales and a regular audience of readers. It’s good it came up now as opposed to later. But his bluntness, his body language, his tone of voice all shouted that he thought I could not possibly write such a book as I’m writing, that I was a silly, irreverent little wannabe, and I was angry. He wasn’t just giving a friendly warning that these questions would be asked, he was seriously doubting that I, as a young woman, could have the skills to research and write the book series I plan to research and write. He had literally just finished a speech telling us to break moulds and write what we want and start the movements we want. What sort of cognitive dissonance is he inhabiting?

  2. … K, I promise I read the whole thing, and there’s lots of fair points, but can I just say that this is the most beautiful sentence you’ve ever written? “What sort of cognitive dissonance is he inhabiting?” 😛 Perfection. If you can use that in a piece of fiction or even a poem (ESPECIALLY a poem), three gold stars. Maybe an extra for poetry. And it has to make sense.

    Challenge delivered!

    -C

  3. So…try this poem out for size. It doesn’t have the exact exact wording, but you never said I had to do it on the first try:

    “Maclinmun”

    Where shall you lay your bones?
    A promise to God,
    it’s as binding
    as your body beneath the earth.

    A promise to God,
    given without any silver pieces,
    as your body beneath the earth,
    as the sort of cognitive dissonance you inhabit.

    Without any silver pieces,
    you’re bent to time,
    as the sort of cognitive dissonance you inhabit,
    and you’ve broken enough to split mountains.

    You’re bent to time,
    to wander the fields of consequences
    and you’ve broken enough to split mountains
    And now he’s never coming back.

    To wander the fields of consequences,
    you must find happiness besides the stones
    And now he’s never coming back:
    only respite a coffin’s breath of the dust and dirt.

    You must find happiness besides the stones,
    only respite a coffin’s breath of dust and dirt.
    So crack the marrow ‘round, and—
    where shall you lay your bones?

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