Fiction: I’m sympathetic now…

IMG_0527This winter I visited the state where I grew up.  Culture shock and jet lag were still pushing hard on me, but the local color was stronger than anything else.  Third day in Oklahoma I stood in a motel lobby, listened to an oil field worker talk about his house, car and boat. Then i sat down and started writing.

I’d resisted spurs jangling in Walmart, cowboy hats and trailers filled with farm animals. But I was bitten by the characters I’d cooked up while in the motel lobby in Enid. The characters had a certain way of expressing themselves and their topic. And I had to write.

But then I met old friends and applied the rule,  ‘imagine this person reading your book.’ I couldn’t. I could see me being enraptured by economic and class changes in Oklahoma; but I knew few others would care at all.

Slowly it all added up: people had much more on their minds than I had any idea of.  I decided to write a love story with no large outside complications. No drug addiction, no homelessness, no alzheimer’s, no meth labs.Just intelligent writing and good grammar, high class escape.

Have you heard Schubert’s  Trout Quintet? It’s been compared to a cheerful, active stream.  No shadows, no sadness.  That’s what I’m doing in my new book  of love stories:  not one unpleasant scene. No drugs, no obesity, no violence.    I’ve checked and re-checked sentence structure and grammar.  I found the vocabulary my audience will have. And I found the vocabulary people would easily understand.  I’ve made a dozen passes through the wip, applying Strunk & White’s maxims (‘beware the unnecssary modifier,’for example.)

Writing my fiction, I utilized something that kept getting me published in travel writing for 20 years: flip everything to its bright side. Be optimistic.

In Kathmandu a few years ago I bought David Rothwell’s A to Z of English Literature.  In it he discusses, rather flippantly, the shift that’s taken hold of us all. He remarks, ‘after directing traffic all day or juggling bedpans for eight hours straight, you might not be in the mood for reading Pope…’

Now I’ve come to sympathize. Lots of what I do is boring, seems a bit futile even. Imagine a single parent or even yourself with 5 more responsibilities than you have now.  How much mentally challenging liiterature could you read?

More tomorrow. I really enjoy hearing from you!

Mary Ann

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Fifty Shades of Grey touches us in skillful ways. It goes very deep, deeper than people like to think about.

I had an awesome prof in grad school who made industrial life and literature come alive. (This industrial and technological life is the one all we live in, right now.)

Dr. Sullivan taught me to how to see cracks in industrialized life. I stepped up my watching when Fifty Shades outsold every known book and had record sales with immediate popularity. I don’t criticize Fifty Shades of Grey; I applaud the manufacturers for their cunning, alert marketing!

Writers like Lawrence said that men had been sexually weakened by industrialization. Women were neglected, but they were intact. Their roles still hovered, for the most part, around their homes. The menfolk, though, traded prosperity for the ‘natural’ world and their own power. Men became machine-like without the potent sexuality of earlier days. They’d become tools or puppets, and less than human; women were still seen as powerful, misunderstood animals.

Into the 20th century, women continued to be deified: natural beings, goddesses, earth mothers. But now dehumanizing, sexually numbing work is more equally shared. Both men and women drive buses, are nurses, doctors, orderlies, and technicians of all kinds. Everyone does customer service. Women of all ages are numbed and hopeless: college girls, adult educated women, care givers, traffic police or, whomever you choose. They all need, buy, read and watch Fifty Shades of Grey.

Why? Women, once seen as goddesses, are exhausted from days and years of soul-tearing, meaningless labor. A university teacher, my students won’t consider anything as flimsy as freelance writing. I wonder if a poet now must also have an M.BA. When I worked in Taiwan, the Chinese doctors did! and university teachers aren’t exempt. I won’t pretend that meaning exists where it doesn’t. My students have meth factories or are brainwashed… that’s my opinion most of the time, for what that’s worth.

Interesting times, now, and perhaps people have fewer choices than ever. People feel they must get hooked into the system with its money, power and life-saving benefits.

Why is Fifty Shades of Grey so popular? Translated into 51 languages and coming to your local theatre, too? Please see above, and consider the truth of the matter. It’s as simple as that.

Forgive my cold detachment, but I wonder what’s next?

Note: I’d recommend a month or a few years of reading Lawrence: everything he wrote, not what people wrote about him. I’d further suggest reading Edward Albee’s plays beyond Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf: Counting the Ways, and onward. Read ‘em all. Sylvia, or The Goat, even touches the 20th century and bestiality. It’s fun! Albee’s characters spoke more openly about 20th century sex than anyone, even hotted up contemporary creations.

Changes – like the ones we live with every day — aren’t so powerful when you share them with visionaries and their good books! Dr. Sullivan – and maybe your own friends and teachers do this for you –helped me widen my interests, become less snobbish about ‘contemporary literature only!’ Even Henry James and Edith Wharton and Goethe had plenty to say about what was ‘trending’, steamrolling over their world.

And now their world is ours.

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I recently left China

If you’ve worked in China before, please answer these 3 questions for my book. I promise not to use any information other than your answers. My writing coach convinced me to change my ESL China book from narrative non-fiction to a Friendlier 3 volume digital set of how-to-get, keep and leverage a teaching job in China.

1. What surprised you most about teaching in China?

2. What did you think would be a problem that turned out not to be a problem?

3. What kind of a job did you have? Writing for a newspaper, freelance writing, taking and selling photos, teaching in a university/school, etc.

Many thanks to you. I live now with mountains of paperwork, so can’t talk much about the university itself yet. Too complicated even to take photos! (that’s saying a lot, isn’t it?)

Mary Ann

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I don’t need a lawsuit, and I ask you to look at something and make up your own minds.  I’m pretty sensitive about journalists jumping to conclusions in print. I’m scrupulous and am sure you are, too.


That said, I’d encourage you to read the August 23, 2014 Economist, p. 71, a piece about the unchangeable genes coursing though so many of our systems right now. These substances determine, among other things, a person’s ability to resist drugs and violence.  The hard copy version I read is not exactly what I found online, though. Online it’s not as unfeeling.

Like I said, read it yourself. Those are simply my impressions (after several close readings in a library).

From a romance novel point of view, I’d say this stands squarely against one the main principles of romance fiction: love conquers all.  My last historicals most definitely say this, although my hero and heroines are from the same niche of society.  I’ll change that in my future historicals, be sure of it!IMG_0030

From a literary point of view, I said to myself: what would D.H. Lawrence say?  If a person is brought up in the working class/not middle class, the author in The Economist says it doesn’t matter if that person moves upward economically or spiritually.  Always tainted, always suspect, out of control…

Lawrence had many themes, and hopeless acceptance was one of them. Another was that working/not middle class people had been tampered with less than others, at the time he wrote, but that the industrial revolution and the mechanical side of life was going to change us — all of us — for the worse. We’d lose our intuitions and our sexuality.

This is most apparent in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, though you  might have other ideas and I’d love to hear them.  He also spoke with this voice in Sons and Lovers and in his plays.  


Do look at The Economist, p. 71, Aug. 23, 2014. I was pretty shocked, because I’ve relied on their reporting while I work in China.  Their coverage of the ShengDa riots, for example,agreed with my own experiences (and that’s always nice).


Let me hear from you!  I’m going back there, and need your supportive notes, as always.








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I was somewhat inconvenienced and even insulted when I went to submit my novel and the publisher had just … pulled the plug.


The site was there two weeks before, and then it was greatly reduced. The imprint that was huge stuff then had vanished 2 weeks later.  My 60,000 words, written especially for these guidelines, is now useless.

Friends said, ‘hop to sci fi! sell it to somebody else..  I’m hitting the road. throwing away passwords, usernames, links, sceen shots, vpn’s, pop ups, running tracks, violent situations, easy junk food, dentists who say you have cracked fillings when they need a spot of cash, submission guidelines that don’t tell the payscales so you have to write them 4 times more, I-9’s and W-4’s, publishers, editors, and cheats.


Happy trails. Watch your back.


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Let me soften that statement. Read better books within the same … era, say. I write historicals now, but I read writers who have stuck around as well as people who write historicals now. Fiction isn’t my native soil, so I read a lot. This definitely helps. Learning what the ‘market’ wants is also very important if you plan to publish. Sentence construction, for example; rules have changed as well as the content publishers demand.

One of my book teachers lately: Oscar Wilde puts you into his world immediately, with one declarative sentence. “The scene takes place in a brightly-lit ballroom.” His characters are drawn so beautifully that right away you’re among the ‘ton.’ The elite in London. His people are often superficial, whereas historicals often just skip those things. Anyway, Wilde’s people do get described once, then we go on to other things. He does this well.

Wilde might not be your cup of tea; he isn’t exactly mine, but writing about rich folks in London is one of his areas, in many plays. I forget about the Norton Anthology and trivial gossipy things.

China wrote me; perhaps I’m going back. You never know; I’m in the middle of paperwork now. Teaching in the PRC you know you’re alive…

My new year’s resolution: remember my ‘high thinking’ all day. Don’t get swamped by pettiness. Memorize poetry; think about things I want to know (when was that piece of music composed? for example). Reading about teen suicides & peer cruelty put me in mind of this. Keep thinking about difficult things that matter!

(New Year’s: Buddha was born and died this week end; he also achieved enlightenment. In Thailand, it’s a new beginning.)

Keep well on this holiday. Mary Ann

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ImageA colleague wrote me that he was giving up; the publishing industry was too exacting nowadays. We compared stories about how we got started.  He said that his first attempts at  co-authoring were published immediately and he’d sent in a hand-written manuscript. 

I said that my first piece was published by sending a yoga handout I’d written to a trade magazine. I just tossed it into an envelope and mailed it to their address.  (That began a 2-decade-long business relationship. They published some quite daring things I’d written/experienced, like pieces about massage in Swayambuth, Nepal done by native barbers in quite insanitary conditions; they published many of my spiritual health/ travel pieces, from India, Taiwan and Japan, too.)

The happy, breezy voice in those pieces of his and mine did contain something crucial, though:  the voice of authority.*  Voice is important for readers. Through voice, they can decide if you know what you’re talking about (especially in non-fiction, like I used to write). In your made-up pieces, voice tips readers off immediately. It describes the world they’ve just dropped into, and this voice can lure them into staying.

The opposite to the ‘voice of authority’ is the voice in John Varley’s Beatnik Bayou. In fact, this voice pervades the entire science fiction story beautifully. Even the sex is flaccid and hopeless. We hear the characters tell us, from the first paragraph, that they’re living on borrowed time; this is likely enough the last time they’ll be free.

Some of the characters (like the teachers) are so trapped that they don’t even know they’re not free.  Everything about the actors is a clue to understanding the world and the story.  Their posture, the way they move and sit and stand, what they do in places where there are choices.

I simply hate that attitude of no hope so I’ve been mystified about why the story hooked me so deeply.  I’ve thought about it quite a bit. I’d say that the story’s voice hypnotized me.

More science fiction with similarly constructed totalitarian worlds: Fahrenheit 451 and When the Sleeper Wakes. But both authors (Ray Bradbury and H.G. Wells) created dynamic, feisty heroes.  Bradbury’s narration and hero in Fahrenheit 451 don’t express themselves with hopelessness. It’s more that events corner the hero and he must decide if he’ll remain a tool.

The hero in When the Sleeper Wakes is also a fighter. He has to develop inner strength in order to get through the bizarre circumstances he wakes up to – twice. 

Now you and your short story, novella, etc.: please think of your creation’s voice. Its mood and where it’s going. If you can, look at John Varley’s Beatnik Bayou.  These characters don’t preach, but they express the world he built. And that world is frankly what the reader’s supposed to think about. That kind of life. The players’ movements, posture, actions all feed into that.

I found it on the Net; it’s also in many hard copy short story collections.

Thanks again for the supportive world you’ve built for me and other writers.

Best writing! Great travels! Mary Ann in Thailand 

 * ‘the voice of authority’ comes from Middlemarch by George Eliot. The photo is of the Himalaya near Gamru, India.

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