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No True Scotsman: Arguments from Purity

The anecdote that gave the “No True Scotsman” fallacy its name goes something like this: I make the claim that no Scotsman would ever put sugar in their tea. My friend says “I’m a Scotsman, and I put sugar in my tea.” I then counter by saying “well, no true Scotsman would put sugar in his tea.” The fallacy is in the variable definition of what constitutes a Scotsman, basically a “true” Scotsman being only someone who I deem appropriately Scottish. The fallacy applies to all sorts of arguments that base their premise on purity. “No true American would ever support Communism,” or “no true Black person would ever vote for Trump,” or even, more recently, “no true trans person would ever write a story based upon the attack helicopter meme.”

Aside from the inherent logic in arguing from purity — after all, who gets to decide what constitutes a true Scotsman —  there is something dangerous in the way that the fallacy is used to discount and diminish marginalized voices that do not adhere to the acceptable and expected parameters for those voices. While cis het white folks seem to exist in a great variety of forms — allies and enemies, harmful and helpful, and everything in between, marginalized peoples are often held to a higher standard, and are not allowed to step outside of accepted lines. Notice the vitriolic reaction when Angie Thomas, author of bestsellers The Hate U Give and On The Come Up tweeted in support of a white author Sarah Dressen. Dressen had expressed sadness when her books were rejected for a college reading list for being too juvenile and feminine, citing a quote from a young college student as the source of her ire. Thomas, a Black woman, was expected to support the young college student, person in the exchange who had less power as opposed to Dressen, the “powerful” famous writer. Although many white authors also tweeted in support of Dressen, Thomas and other writers of color in particular were called out because it seemed they, of all people, was not expected to side with power. “No true Black woman writer would support a fellow writer instead of a college student,” the message seemed to be.

The No True Scotsman fallacy reared its head again recently in response to the short story published in the speculative fiction publication Clarksworld, entitled “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter.”  The story, author, and publication received substantial backlash, and it was assumed, when the story first appeared online, that the author was certainly a cisgender heterosexual white person. Many even assumed that the author’s name, Isabel Fall, must be a pen name, for only a man would write something so blatantly offensive. “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” played upon the right-wing meme that has oft been used to denigrate non-binary and gender-queer individuals. The author, in response to the “no LGBTQ person would ever write such a story” sentiment of her attackers, felt the need to out herself as a trans woman. The attacks then followed the No True Scotsman fallacy almost to the letter, simply replacing trans woman with Scotsman. Despite the fact that many trans people felt the story resonated with them, and enjoyed the story for the satire that it was meant to be, many felt like the author’s use of right-wing terminology in her story was disloyal and hurtful. A true trans person would never write something that might hurt members of her trans community … right? The author eventually asked Clarksworld to remove her story, a move which reveals the extent to which the controversy personally affected her.

The question then became, are trans writers, Black writers, Asian writers, any marginalized writers, not allowed to take the risks that cis het white people regularly take in their writing? When a white person writes something potentially Harmful (capital H intended), the reaction of the industry is often to close ranks and support the person’s brave effort to do something controversial with their writing. Consider, for instance, when Laurie Forest wrote the controversial The Black Witch, Kirkus gave it a starred review and later even addressed the haters directly, reaffirming its support of the author and the book. The third book in the series will be published later this month. Marginalized people, on the other hand, are often proverbially cast out of the protective circle of the progressive community. In the case of Isabel Fall, even after she revealed herself as a trans women, many still denied her intentions, questioning whether or not she might be a rightist plant. Ethnic Chinese writer Amelie Wen-Zhao actually pulled her own book from publication after Twitter users named her book anti-Black. The author herself claimed that she drew upon her own experience of human trafficking in East Asia, and was not meant as a commentary on chattel slavery (the book was later published, but which much less fanfare and little buzz).  Online Progressive spaces invoke the No True Scottsman fallacy with alarming frequency, but rarely is it invoked equally. Marginalized people must, it seems, be perfect representatives for their group, at all times. They must align with the right people, have the right thoughts, and write the right words. Satire, anger, messy, off the wall, edgy, boundary pushing, and especially in-group critiques — these are dangerous for a marginalized writer, whereas a white writer like me might be celebrated for the same.

While it is true that this is due almost entirely to the way cis het white people view marginalized individuals — as ambassadors for their groups. Marginalized peoples must be wary, at all times, of perpetuating negative stereotypes or Harmful perceptions of their group. Ultimately however, requiring ideological purity from marginalized people simply perpetuates the othering idea of a monoculture, the myth of sameness. After all, even positive stereotypes do harm because they deny the fact that marginalized people have myriad voices, experiences, and truths. Sometimes those voices might make us uncomfortable. They might challenge what we think we know about a group, or about ourselves. We do not have to agree with those voices, but we neither should we suppress them, for they serve as a reminder of the diversity of thought that is inherent in all communities. All Scotsmen, as it turns out, are true Scotsmen.

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Making Bitter into Sweet: Learning to Take Criticism

Putting ourselves out there as writers is hard. The eternal dilemma of most writers is that what we write is often personal, private, and close to the heart, and yet, the very nature of writing is that it meant to be read by others, and we cannot keep it to ourselves forever.  We write alone, but we can’t become accomplished writers without the help of others. But, when we’ve poured our souls into a story, when it comes time to offer it up for critique, it can feel a bit like opening ourselves up for a knife through the heart.

By now you’re probably thinking yeah yeah, I know. If I don’t get critiques I’ll never get better. And that is true, of course, but reader, you have probably heard this before, and it probably hasn’t helped, otherwise you wouldn’t be stewing over that negative comment or getting teary-eyed because someone said your characters were flat. So instead, I’m not going to tell you that you need to take criticism, I’m going to tell you how to take criticism.

Criticism is never easy to receive, but in my nearly forty years on this earth, I’ve heard a lot of it. New writers, or those who have only recently started showing their work to others, take heart in this: criticism becomes easier to take the more you hear it. My own critique partner, Bruce, told me, “When I first started selling articles, I could brood for days on a negative comment. Now, an hour later, and I’ve forgotten it.” Taking that first step is always the hardest, but it gets easier and easier with time. I used to be deathly afraid of flying, not a good fear for someone who lived overseas to have. So, I researched how to get over this fear, and overwhelmingly, the advice was this: fly. So fly I did, and while, I still feel that prickle of fear at takeoff, I get over it quickly enough, and I book flights without a second thought, whereas before I would routinely take the train to avoid flying. Opening yourself up for critiquing is a bit the same. Once you start, the easier it becomes. Now, I actually look forward to posting new work for my critique partners, and while I might feel that tiny prickle of anxiety, it is overridden by the knowledge that my work has gotten better because I took their advice.

Here is the second secret to taking criticism: you don’t have to take it. Remember, your writing is your own, and if you don’t agree with the critique, then you thank the giver and move on. Now, this is said with the caveat that you certainly should not disregard every bit of criticism given, not if you actually want to improve your writing, and the caveat too, that if you hear a certain critique from multiple sources, its probably a valid critique. However, even valid critiques are critiques that you can disregard if they don’t sit right with you as the writer. Ultimately you have the final say. Remember this though: sometimes the hardest criticisms to hear are the ones that your work needs the most. Sometimes we don’t want to hear certain critiques because we know that fixing those issues will be a monumental task. For instance, I knew deep down that my main character was lacking something, but I avoided the issue, telling myself I would resolve the issue in revision. It was only through a conversation with my critique partner Bruce, that I realized exactly what was lacking. The result meant a rather large rewrite, but the new version is undoubtedly superior to the first. If you find yourself particularly resistant to a certain criticism, ask yourself why. What is it about this critique that makes it hurt so much?

Which leads me to this: everyone gets bad reviews, because no one’s writing is perfect. Next time you’re feeling down over a harsh critique, go to Goodreads or Amazon and look at the one star reviews for your favorite book. Believe me, there will be at least a few, and those are fully formed books that have been through editing and revision and probably a few rewrites as well before assuming their final form. No one writes a perfect first draft, and even final drafts will have their detractors. It doesn’t mean the detractors are wrong, but it means that for every hater, there’s bound to be a fan. Find your fans, and make them your critiquers. My critique partners are two of my biggest fans. They love my book, and that’s why they want me to make it better. They want to see it succeed. The best critiques will come from people who genuinely enjoy your work, not people who are reading it out of a sense of duty. Critiques are easier to take too when you’re absolutely certain that they’re coming from a place of love. I know how much my critique partners believe in my work, which is why I don’t flinch when they give me notes.

And here too, is the upside of learning to take criticism well: writing is a lonely process, and it is only made lonelier if you isolate yourself and refuse to share your work with others. While being critiqued can be scary, and tough critiques can hurt, ultimately, if you find good partners, you will gain your biggest cheerleaders. You will gain people who can share with you the ups and downs of the writing process, with whom you can share ideas, who are more than willing to listen to your late night “so hear me out, but what if I …” conjectures. While these sorts of people are hard to find, they’ll be the first people you tell when you finally sign with an agent or land that publication deal, and they’ll be the people you thank first in your acknowledgements, because you know the book wouldn’t be half the book it is without their help. Criticism is hard to take, sure, but the people who take the time to give it, to give honest, thoughtful, and constructive criticism, are giving you a valuable gift. Learn to take it gratefully and graciously, just as you would any gift given with love, even the ones you plan to return the next day.

Diversity, Uncategorized

Cutting Ties: Abandoning Our Problematic Favorites

When recent controversy revealed that J.K. Rowling was, to put it mildly, not an ally of the LGBTQ+ community, I didn’t have much personal stake in the question of whether or not to support the fandom. While I am definitely an ally, I am not a Harry Potter fan. J.K. Rowling outing herself as TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist for those unfamiliar with the lingo), while disappointing, did not shatter any of my childhood illusions, did not make a wasteland out of a beloved fandom. I was too old for peak Potter mania by a good decade, and my own children a bit too young. I do not have my Hogwart’s house listed in my Twitter bio, and while I’ve seen the movies, I’ve never read the books.

However, J.K. Rowling is hardly the only problematic figure to produce beloved content. My first experiences with the phenomena were with the works of Woody Allen and Robert Heinlein. An aspiring filmaker in my teenage years, I watched Annie Hall enough times to memorize many of the lines. Later, I learned of the abuse allegations against him, and that he’d married his stepdaughter. I still think Annie Hall is a great movie, but I won’t spend money on Allen’s films any longer either (and yes, I’m aware he was never convicted of anything, but I tend to err on the side of abuse victims personally). I loved Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land as a fourteen year old sci-fi nerd, and it was only much later, when I read Heinlein’s other work, that I realized the strange incestuous themes running through many of his books, his objectification of women. I was lucky enough never to have been a fan of Orson Scott Card, but many of my generation experienced that disillusionment as well. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s feminist take on King Arthur’s court was my mother’s favorite book at one time, until even she turned out to be a horrible person.

The point being, every generation has it’s let-downs, our idols and heroes who turn out to be rather less than what we imagined. And when our heroes let us down, we’re left with the question of what to do, not with the heroes themselves, who most agree are no longer deserving of our devotion, but with the content that they created. Does the fact that Stranger in a Strange Land came from a man with a perhaps rather sexually twisted mind change the fact that I loved it as a fourteen year old? No. I can’t go back in time and stop fourteen year old me from loving it. Does it sully the memory, at least a bit? Perhaps. As much as I enjoyed the book at fourteen, I won’t hand a copy to my own child, which is a bit sad. My father introduced Stranger to me, and it would have been nice to have something of a literary legacy to hand down to my own children, but alas, that’s not meant to be.

Some suggest that we can continue to engage with the content, independent of the creator. For the Harry Potter fandom, which has taken on something a life of its own, with thousands of fan-created works, a theme park, spin-offs, and fans who consider Hogwarts houses as accurate as Myers-Briggs personality tests, perhaps the creation has indeed surpassed the creator. The sentiment seems to be this: don’t let good memories be overtaken by the bad, and don’t let fans who are new to the fandom be exposed only to bad takes, only to hateful rhetoric. If J.K. Rowling is a TERF, then the only way for fans to get trans positive Harry Potter content is for those fans to create it themselves. If trans and ally fans abandon the fandom, the argument goes, they’ll be leaving the fandom to TERFS and rightists, and perhaps exposing young fans to harmful messages with no correction.

The argument makes a certain kind of sense, and has an added benefit in that no one has to give up their beloved childhood memories, the beloved Hogwarts universe, the beloved Harry Potter community. Just pretend J.K. Rowling didn’t invent it, pretend Harry Potter exists in a vacuum, and continued engagement with the Harry Potter world will be just fine. The problem I have, however, is that ultimately, when Harry Potter continues to thrive, J.K. Rowling continues to thrive. J.K. Rowling has become rich beyond most authors’ wildest imaginings off the back of her creation. Whether we do it deliberately or not, engaging with her intellectual property means giving her a continued platform. As long as there is a thriving Harry Potter fandom, J.K. Rowling continues to make money.

I don’t think anyone needs to burn their Harry Potter books, mind. I still have my ragged copy of Stranger in a Strange Land on a bookshelf somewhere, and I still think Annie Hall is a great movie. I believe that we can acknowledge that sometimes highly problematic people create really good stuff. It’s an uncomfortable reality, that their problematic nature does not automatically make their creations bad. What it does mean, however, is that no matter how great their art is, just as we boycott Chic-fil-A even though their chicken sandwiches are mighty tasty, we do not financially support and give a platform to people who promote hateful politics and policies. Sometimes, the harder a thing is to give up, the more meaningful the sacrifice. Ultimately, if we want a wizarding world that is LGBTQ positive, we should lend our support to original creators, trans creators and allies, who can give us that. Instead of trying to turn the intellectual property of an anti-ally into something that it isn’t, why not give that voice, that platform, to trans creators themselves?

Ultimately, we enjoy what we enjoy, and enjoyment isn’t always a matter of choice. What we do have a choice in is how we spend our money, who we support, and whose voices we lift up. It is absolutely alright to still enjoy the Harry Potter books despite J.K. Rowling’s TERFiness. It is okay to like Woody Allen’s films, to have a soft spot for Stranger in a Strange Land. What is less okay is to continue to promote those creators (well, the living ones), to contribute to their wealth, to amplify the voices of people who do not contribute to the world in a positive way. Some people might suggest a massive boycott campaign, but quietly withdrawing support may be even better. After all, the worst fate of all, for those who once courted notoriety, might be to slip quietly into obscurity, unremembered and unloved.

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Blood Heir: a Review and a Reflection

I have a confession to make: last Spring’s controversy over the highly anticipated YA release Blood Heir, by Amelie Wen-Zhao, only made me want to read the book more. Not necessarily because I was that drawn in by the plot (very loosely based on the historical story of Princess Anastasia Romanov), but because my inner drama-llama wanted to know what all the fuss was about. I assume I’m not alone.

To recap, Blood Heir was very nearly “cancelled” when accusations started appearing, based on advance copies of the book, that the Blood Heir was anti-Black. Op-Ed articles appeared in Vulture and Slate and the New York Times, and Wen-Zhao, a Paris-born Chinese citizen and long term resident of the United States, ultimately pulled her debut book, effectively cancelling herself. Later, she announced that the book would be published after all, but at a much later date. At the time of the controversy, only a handful of people had read the ARCs, and so it was hard to really get a firm grasp, as an outside observer, on what exactly had happened. Adding to fuel to the media’s flames were claims that all of this had started as some sort of personal Twitter beef, which prompted much hand-wringing about how social media could ruin the career of a new author out of spite alone.

I hadn’t read the ARC, but I remembered feeling a pang of sympathy for Wen-Zhao, recognizing in her many of my own Beijing and Kunming-based friends, people who had grown up in international communities with a sense of social justice that was disconnected from what is expected in American progressive circles. The issues were different, and in Beijing, oppression was much more likely to be class based than racially motivated. Wen-Zhao claimed that her portrayal of indentured mages was meant not as a commentary on race-based chattel slavery, but on the human trafficking problem that is so prevalent in Asia today. I remember feeling a hint of irritation, as someone with a more international background myself, that the US-centric assumption seemed to be that Wen-Zhao, a non-American, was obligated to write to American sensibilities.

On the other hand, I saw the point. The main complaint seemed to be a complaint about a child who had been (possibly) coded as a person of color dying so that the main character might live. There were also complaints about “oppressed mages” as a problematic trope in general. While Blood Heir is hardly the only book guilty of this sin, the point stands that treating oppression as somehow an inevitable reaction to the “danger” posed by the oppressed class seems to imply that oppression happens for justifiable reasons — which is clearly not a message that needs to be perpetuated.

But none of it mattered until I could read the book for myself, and way back in April, around the time the story reached its peak, I could not. However, it is now December, Blood Heir has been out for a bit under a month, and I have, finally, read it, and finally, I can say something educated, something informed, about this whole controversy, right? But here’s the thing: I thought Blood Heir was an alright book, and that’s about it. Is it groundbreaking? No. Is it terribly offensive? It’s not that either. Is it awful? No. In fact, it’s pretty run of the mill YA fantasy fare. A lost princess, a roguish thief, enemies to lovers, mages with different affinities — none of this treads new ground. And I’m left wondering, quite frankly, what all the fuss was about.

It is quite possible that in the intervening months between the would be cancelling and the eventual release, Blood Heir was scrubbed clean of any hint of scandal. The fact that the oppressed mages are in fact indentured workers, lured into unfavorable contracts, rather than chattel slaves, is made abundantly clear. Many of Wen-Zhao’s affinites are also portrayed as having extremely mundane magical powers. During one key scene, the main character, Ana, and her young charge May, are given cookies by a girl who is described as a “grain affinite,” an unglamorous magic if I’ve ever heard one. It seems that in this world most of the affinites, instead of being feared, are seen as useful commodities. Ana herself is feared, and for good reason, since she can drain a full grown man of all blood in a matter of seconds, but overall, rather than fearing affinites, the rich seem perversely intent on collecting them, like some grotesque version of human Pokemon. May, whose death in the original controversy provoked much outrage, is no longer explicitly coded as Black, but instead is, at best, racially ambiguous, with aquamarine eyes, tan skin, and dark hair.

I don’t know if the controversy made Blood Heir a better book because of the controversy, but I am certain it became a more careful book. But for all that care, I have my doubts that the critics will truly be satisfied. While yes, there are some crucial distinctions between chattel slavery and modern human trafficking, the way they’re depicted in fiction is always going to strike some similar crucial chords. I could refer to Wen-Zhao’s affinites as slaves and still not be wrong, and readers unfamiliar with human trafficking in Asia will still read Blood Heir and see echoes of the slave trade.

Furthermore, some of that painstaking, but ultimately futile care that Wen-Zhao took to make human trafficking in her world explicitly NOT reminiscent of the Atlantic slave trade, was effort that could have been spent on the narrative. The end of Blood Heir feels rushed, and certain revelations come late. While the main characters are well-crafted, side characters are introduced and only minimally developed. I would certainly have liked to understand better, say, the connection between Ana and her childhood friend who is the world’s equivalent of a Marxist, if only to make it less jarring when Ana eventually agrees to one day run away with him.

At the end of the day, Wen Zhao’s book left me vaguely unsatisfied. Perhaps I expected something either blatantly offensive, or a book that unequivocally got it right. Instead, it was something in-between, and I am left wondering whether or not the initial effort at calling out Blood Heir might have been better spent elsewhere. When there are so many good — no, great — books out there, books that handle sensitive issues with impeccable grace, books that are excellent examples of representation, why do we not instead focus on those books? Because here is one thing I know for certain: Wen-Zhao’s book got much more attention for its imperfections than it would have otherwise. YA fantasy releases come and go, and it takes quite a lot for a book to truly stand out. This book, while it is an entertaining read and I might pick up book two in spite of everything else, is not remarkable. I don’t know that it ever was. So why did we all collectively spend so much time on it back in Spring? Could we not have better spent that time lifting up great books that got things right? Books like The Merciful Crow by Margaret Own, (which tackles injustice in a fantasy world better than any other book I’ve read this year), or non-problematic #ownvoices books like We Hunt the Flame, by Hafsah Faizal, or Spin the Dawn, by Elizabeth Lim?

Ultimately this is perhaps one of my biggest problems with the idea of (forgive me for using the term) cancel culture as applied to literature: the results are ultimately dissatisfying and no one really wins. Major popular white authors are never truly canceled, and continue blithely along, while marginalized writers must respond to the criticism or else risk their careers. Wen-Zhao’s book is perhaps the first time we’ve seen a book undergo a revision after a near-cancellation, and the results are honestly underwhelming. It occurs to me that this might be the difference between a careful book, and a good book. And perhaps we’ve got it backwards. Perhaps, rather than rewarding the caution needed to not get it wrong, we need to reward the bravery necessary to get it right.

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Serving Two Masters: When a Teacher Tries to Become a Writer

I’ve been a teacher for 15 years. It wasn’t my first choice of profession, no, rather, I was somewhat pushed into it by circumstance, that circumstancing being my life in China. In 2003 a foreigner in China had few options. You could study Chinese, you could sing and dance onstage, or you could teach. Since my student days were over and I was not much of a singer, I chose teaching. Initially, like many foreigners, I was an English teacher, although after some years I carved out a niche for myself teaching AP History courses and eventually I transitioned into college application counseling.

Years later, when I returned to the USA, I had acquired my teaching license and set about finding a position teaching in public schools. My reasoning was that my career was built upon education, and people do not just up and switch career paths when they’re nearing 40. Especially not if they are trying to rebuild a life in the home country after nearly two decades abroad.

And so I became a teacher. In China, teaching was not a particularly taxing profession. For one, we were generally limited to 20 or so contact hours per week, with the rest of the time spent planning and grading. For another, teachers were well compensated, and college counselors even moreso. I left China with fifteen years in the educational sector, and that experience had granted me a comfortably lifestyle. I was able to balance teaching with my other hobbies, passions, and pursuits relatively easily. And while I never got serious about writing a novel while I was in China, I dabbled in creative writing all throughout my time there, with shorter pieces and novel fragments. I never felt like teaching impacted my ability to creative, to give my all to my craft.

Teaching in America has been something else entirely. Just at the time I was starting to get serious about finishing my novel and pursuing publication, I started working at a Texas public school district. My workload increased — I was usually teaching, or in contact with students, for at least 35 hours a week. While in China I had mostly worked with elite children who, while they had their issues, came from stable loving upper middle class homes. They were not coming to school hungry, or sore from beatings, nor were they working multiple jobs to provide for younger siblings. I never once, in China, dealt with a teen pregnancy. And while in China, the biggest behavioral issue I dealt with was perhaps an errant cell phone in class, in Texas I dealt with students snorting cocaine of the desks in the library. Teaching in the United States requires an almost unlimited capacity for empathy and creative problem solving, which, unfortunately, precisely what is required of a writer.

Are writing and teaching entirely incompatible? I wouldn’t go that far. I’ve managed to accomplish a lot on my school holidays, and I can be productive on the weekends when I’m not too burned out. Towards the end of a semester, though, writing gets hard. When I’ve already exhausted my emotional capacity during the day, I barely have enough of me left to give my actual children, much less the fictional children that inhabit my pages. Over the recent Thanksgiving holiday, I probably edited over 20,000 words of my first draft, but this work-week, I’ll be lucky if I can edit one fifth of that.

The parts of your brain that come into use when teaching and writing are frankly, too similar. While there are plenty of career teachers who have gone on to become successful writers, I think that most of us, at some point, are faced with a difficult choice: keep teaching, and allow our manuscripts to stagnate, taking years to finish what could be accomplished in months, or give up teaching, give up a lifelong career doing something important and meaningful, a career that is a source of stable income and personal satisfaction, in order to pursue writing more seriously.

Perhaps this is my end of semester burnout speaking, but recently I feel the pull towards my words more strongly than I feel the pull towards the classroom. Children deserve teachers whose heart is always there in that classroom, not teachers who are trying desperately to hold a tiny bit back for themselves, for their own creations. I feel immense guilt at my inability to be the kind of teacher that gives and gives and gives, but the truth is, I’ve given for a long time now. My words, perhaps, can be a gift as well, a different kind of giving.

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The Thief

The crowd at the bar had started out as a pulsating mass of  bodies, crammed onto the small dance floor, jumping up and down in time to the dance-hall reggae mixed by a skinny white boy in a backwards baseball cap. But it was well past midnight, and the crowd had now thinned to a smattering of die-hard drinkers, clustered around a few tables, talking in hushed tones occasionally punctuated by a laugh or a yell or the slam of a shot glass on the bar as a final round was ordered. The music calmed by degree, the dance hall giving way to Toots and the Maytals, giving way finally to Chinese folk rock by the Wild Children.

I sat with my boyfriend, Jun and the barkeep, Old Liu, and with another foreigner, an Australian named Blake. Jun was slumped drunkenly on the table, head resting on his forearms, while Blake and Old Liu talked quietly about what seemed to be a grave situation. I placed my hand gently on Jun’s back, and his eyes fluttered open.

“Let’s go,” I said, and he nodded.

I turned and took my bag from the back of my chair, and fumbled for my wallet so that I could settle up at the bar. I found my wallet, but noticed with a start that my cell-phone was gone. It was small Sony-Ericsson, cheap and functional, but precious nonetheless as my only means of communication in this country where cell-phones had replaced land-lines a good decade before they would do so back home. “My phone’s gone,” I said, panic entering my voice. Old Liu and Blake halted their conversation.

“When did you last see it?” Old Liu asked.

“I checked the time maybe a half an hour ago,” I said, frowning.

“The thief must still be here,” Old Liu declared. “No-one has left since then.” He looked around the room and narrowed his eyes at one table. Standing up he wasn’t much taller than me, but authority filled every inch of him as he swaggered over, pointing his finger at one man in particular. I recognized the man. He was an oddball sort who had been hanging around various tables all evening, latching on to foreigners to practice his English, but who didn’t seem to actually know anyone in the room.

“You,” he said, pointing aggressively at the man. “Empty your pockets.”

The man, intimidated, backed up, and the people at his table dispersed, disavowing him immediately, as if to say ‘we’ve nothing to do with this guy.’ “I didn’t do anything,” the man protested.

“Like hell,” Old Liu said. “I’m calling the police — you’re a thief.”

I shook Jun, who had fallen asleep again. “Jun,” I said. “Wake up. My phone is missing and Old Liu is picking a fight with that weird loner from earlier.”

Shenme shiqing? What’s going on?” He rubbed his eyes and sat up.

“Look,” I said. Old Liu now had the man in a hold and was marching him over to the bar, where the bartenders were darting their eyes back and forth at each other.

“Call the police,” Old Liu barked at them, and then to me, he added “Gen, come over here. I’ve got your phone thief.”

I pulled Jun up out of his chair and towards the bar with me. “Are you sure this is him?” I looked skeptically at Old Liu, who was holding the man’s arms behind his back. For his part, the man, a scrawny thing with thick glasses, shaggy hair, and an ill fitting blazer, looked terrified.

“I’m telling you, I didn’t take it,” he said.

“Where is the phone?” I asked, to no one in particular.

“He handed it off already,” Old Liu said, and spat on the floor. “But he’ll tell us where it is, don’t worry. The cops are on the way.”

“How do you know it is him?”

Old Liu fixed me with a frustrated look, and turned to Jun as if he could somehow explain this to me in a way I would understand. “This guy doesn’t know anyone, but he’s been hanging around all night long. If he’s not a thief, what the hell is he doing here?”

“I was just wanting to make some foreign friends,” the man’s voice rose an octave, in a panic. “I’m not a thief!”

“Shut up, thief,” said Old Liu. “Jun, want to give me a hand here?”

I don’t think Jun even heard Old Liu, as he was leaning heavily on my shoulder. “Tou hao yun,” he said. “My head is spinning. Can we get out of here?”

Old Liu sighed and rolled his eyes towards the heavens. “Unbelievable,” he said.

Luckily, or unluckily for the accused thief, the police appeared, and Old Liu explained the situation to them, while they wrote things in their little notepads. Jun slumped against me, barely awake.

“Gen, we need to go to the station and give them a statement,” Old Liu said.

“It’s fine,” I protested. “Really, I’ll get a new phone. It isn’t a big deal.”

Wrong answer. Old Liu glowered at me. “I caught your thief, now we have to make sure he is punished.”

“Look at him though,” I said, gesturing to Jun. “He’s barely conscious.”

“Put him in a taxi and send him home! He’s not your responsibility.”

“He’s my boyfriend,” I said, and Old Liu scoffed.

I narrowed my eyes. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing, nothing. Come on, we’ve got to go.”

Knowing I was beat, I shook Jun off of my shoulder once again. “We need to go to the police,” I said. “I’ll meet you back at home, ok?” I turned to Blake, who was still standing by, watching the entire scene play out, looking equal parts amused and alarmed. “Help me get him home,” I said. “You know where I live.”

“Of course Gen,” said Blake. “You go deal with this thief, your boy will be fine, I’ll tuck him in for you safe and sound.”

I frowned, not sure if Blake was mocking me or not, but too tired and annoyed with the entire situation to care. “Let’s go,” I said to Old Liu.

We followed the police around the corner, walking to the station, which was perhaps a block or two away, not far. This was one thing I loved about our city in those days. It was imminently walkable. We passed a late night barbecue stand, and my stomach grumbled at the smell of roast mutton. Maybe I’d get a few meat sticks on the way back, I thought.

When we arrived at the police station, the police had me fill out a report, which I only managed with the help of Old Liu filling in the characters I couldn’t remember. Then, one policeman, an older man, perhaps fifty, with greying hair and a potbelly, took Old Liu aside and said something to him quietly, gesturing down the hall, and then gesturing towards me. I couldn’t hear the details of their exchange, but it made me nervous nonetheless. Old Liu walked over and placed a hand on my shoulder. “We should interrogate the suspect now,” he said.

“We?” I said, confused. “You mean the police?”

“No, not the police. Me. You.”

“I don’t want to interrogate anyone,” I said, panicking now. “I don’t know how to do that.”

“We don’t interrogate with words, Gen,” he said. His manner was patient, but I felt the fool anyhow, unable to grasp this seemingly simple situation. He sighed. “I can do it, you watch.”

It dawned on me what Old Liu meant, and I shook my head. “I don’t want to watch.”

Old Liu nodded, as if my frailty in this regard was altogether expected, and he was simply waiting for the confirmation he needed. “Then you wait out here, I will do it.”

I didn’t answer him, not wanting to appear as if I condoned this turn of events. I felt, at once, deeply uncomfortably with what was likely taking place, and the gin I’d drank early churned in my stomach. I didn’t quite understand why Old Liu was so intent on punishing this maybe-thief, and I was even less clear as to why the police were allowing him to interrogate, as he put it, the man himself. I paced the hallway, wondering if perhaps I should just go home, when finally he emerged, knuckles clenched and reddened, and nodded at the police officer who stood at the doorway. “He’s yours now,” Old Liu said. “I’m done.”

“Is that it? Did he confess?” I tried to peer through the doorway, but the officer was blocking my view.

Old Liu shook his head. “Stubborn goat,” he said. “Ready?”

“Yes,” I said, eager to leave this place. The fluorescent lights were too bright, the walls too white, and I had a strong sense of wrongness, of being somewhere I was not meant to be, seeing things not meant for my eyes. With a nod to the police officers, Old Liu and I went out into the cool night air, leaving the thief behind us.

I passed by the barbecue stand again on the way back, but I turned away, now the opposite of hungry, and hurried down the street. At the corner, I bade Old Liu goodbye, and thanked him for his help.

Yinggai de,” he said, and belatedly, I understood. He’d done his duty, shown me his loyalty. I was a friend, and for me, he would do what needed to be done. The thief himself was inconsequential.

When I returned to my apartment, I found Jun sprawled facedown on my bed, still in his clothes and shoes. I quietly untied the laces and pulled them off, and then, kicking my own shoes and jeans off, I curled up next to him. He stirred slightly beside me and turned around, pulling me tight into his arms. I buried my head in Jun’s chest, breathing in the cigarette smoke and whiskey scent of him, and tried to forget the frightened eyes of the thief.

Uncategorized

Writing and the Sunk Costs Fallacy

Not many people know this, but my current manuscript started off as something else entirely. I was about 90k words into the novel, a character driven fantasy set in the foothills of the Himalayas, when I decided I needed to rewrite the thing entirely, reworking my point of view character, my protagonist, even my tense. My antagonist became my protagonist, my past tense narrative became present tense, my third person became first person. The end result (I am on the second draft now) is barely recognizable as the same novel, and yet it is, objectively, a much much stronger piece.

 
If you’re pondering a re-write but are reluctant to actually commit, likely you’re struggling with something known as the “sunk costs fallacy.” The sunk costs fallacy is the impulse that tells us to keep waiting for the bus because we’ve already been waiting for twenty minutes so if we give up now, that twenty minutes will have been wasted. The sunk costs fallacy tells us we need to stay at a job we hate because we’ve already been there for five years and if we switch tracks now we’ll have wasted those five years. It tells a couple who has been together for a decade that they can’t break up now because then the previous ten years will have been for nothing. For us writers, the sunk costs fallacy tells us that because they’re already 90k words into a novel they had better see it out to the end, otherwise those 90k words will have been wasted.

 
The truth is, when we invest time, resources, and emotional energy into something, we often hold onto it a lot longer than we otherwise should. We have an attachment to that thing that is no longer connected to the happiness we get from it or the utility it brings, it is purely based upon an irrational idea that giving up on this thing will signify that all previous time spend on said relationship, project, job, or book will have been a ginormous waste. Herein lies the fallacy: whether or not I decide to rewrite my novel, the time I spent on it is irrevocably lost. Continuing to write a novel that I probably should re-write is not going to make the previous time I spent on it any more valuable, any more than continuing in a dead end relationship will justify the previous time spent in the relationship. The costs — time, money, energy, emotion — are sunk already. They’ve been spent, they’re gone, and they’re not coming back. We can sink more costs into them, or we can change track, taking the lessons we’ve learned from the first go round to our new endeavor.

 
The 90k words I previously wrote were not a waste. Through them, I realized what my narrative was lacking. Namely, the plot was meandering because my main character lacked a clear purpose. You know who did have a clear, and actually rather sympathetic purpose? My antagonist did! Without those 90k words though, I would not have thought of the story in those terms. It became extremely clear to me, almost from the moment that I had the idea, that I needed to do this re-write. The story came together in a much more coherent way, and when I sat down to write it, what came out of my fingers was first person present tense. I showed the sample to a critique partner, asking if the POV and tense, which was not my usual, worked, and I got a resounding thumbs up. So I kept going, and committed to the re-write.

 
Chances are, if you’re considering a major change, whether it be in your manuscript or in life, somewhere inside you already know that a change needs to take place. When my manuscript just isn’t working on a fundamental level, I know, and while I can try to convince myself otherwise, ultimately I’m just prolonging the inevitable. The thing about sunk costs is that the longer you delay the change, the more those costs accumulate. Every day that I spend toiling over a dead-end manuscript is a day that I spend not fixing the problem, not making progress. My writerly advice to my readers is this: do it. Take the plunge. Rewrite the thing from page one. Don’t worry about wasted time or energy or emotion because it’s already wasted and you’re not getting it back. The only thing you can influence, from here on out, is the project’s future outcome. You know what’s got to be done, so give yourself permission to go ahead and do it.

Uncategorized

Marrow and Bone

Sometimes I miss China so much I can’t breathe. I get a panicky sort of feeling, as if my old life is drifting into the background and soon will become nothing more than an anecdote told affectionately at holiday gatherings. “When we lived in China …” “Back when we were in China…” I cling to every scrap of the country that so generously transformed me from a ridiculous adolescent child to a slightly less ridiculous adult, and I crave what I can no longer have. If my memories are air, I gulp them in deep breaths, reminding myself that this happened.

People who are of two places know well this unique and exquisite sorrow. China was my home for a decade and a half, and it created me — not the same way it created my husband. He was born in the 70s to the tail end of the Cultural Revolution, to a farming village in the southeast part of Yunnan, to the banks of the Nanpanjiang river that claimed his oldest cousin, to tanks rolling through the Yunnanese hills, off to fight the Vietnamese in a forgotten war, to a birth policy that forced family members to commit atrocities, to a new China that had no place for the likes of him. China shaped his very being. He is Chinese, of China, in a way that I will never be.

Still, China created me in a different way. People who are of two places know this dual creation. When you arrive in your new country, you are born again. You learn a new language and stumble, like an overgrown child, through basic interactions — buying apples from a seller on the street, hailing a taxi, paying your bills. Everything simple is complex anew. Slowly, you learn a new way of being, new rules of interaction. If you stay there long enough, those ways, those rules, they become your own. My husband is now reborn in America — learning anew how to be. In your new country there are small revelations almost constantly, until one day, there aren’t. Nothing surprises you, because you too, are a part of the surprise.

How can I explain this to other people, people who have only ever experienced that one life on their own shores? I moved to China before cell-phones, before Twitter, before Facebook. I moved to China during the Bush years, during the Iraq war. When Obama was elected, I was in China. When the financial crisis of 2008 hit, I was in China. When Donald Trump took office, then too, I was in China. While people back home experienced — whatever they experienced (I still cannot even properly say what the touchstone events of the Western world were, I was not there.  A decade and a half of current events, hit songs, actors, shows, fims, memes … I do not know) — I experienced SARS. The Sichuan Earthquake. The Beijing Olympics. Riots in Tibet. The terror attack on the Kunming train station. The rise of Xi Jinping. I’ve never taken a cross country trip in my own country, but I’ve traveled the length and breadth of China. I speak the language — speak a dialect even. To look at me, I am wholly American, but there is a segment of my soul, fifteen years long, that belongs to another place.

To be of two places is to forever miss one or the other. When I was in China, there were days I longed for my home soil. For the salty air of the Carolina coast. For the ambient sound of my own language, effortlessly understandable. For the tastes of home — butter and cheese and beef. For the right to vote, for the right to participate in government, for the ability to speak out. I longed for those things too. An now, in America, my longing turns the other way. The smoky smell of the village. The incessant popping of firecrackers. The taste of rice noodles and fermented tofu. The mountains. The music. The sound of the dialect that I fear I will lose. Even things I am not supposed to miss. Is it terrible to admit that sometimes I miss the order of an authoritarian state, the near surety that no gun would ever harm me? (I know, it is my privilege, my husband’s Han Chinese privilege, that we had this surety. Others do not. In America too, I am privileged with the freedom that others do not have).

Today, my children willfully forget their mother tongue. I once fretted that they would never speak English, but now, Chinese eludes them. My husband and I speak to them in the harsh fourth tones of the Kunming dialect, desperate to preserve what America would have them forget. “What’s the use?”  They say. Indeed. What’s the use of memory? When I write, my memories flow, they wreck my heart with longing, but no matter how many pages I fill, they will never be enough. China is not yours to write, still others say, and they are right. It is not my own. It is only that part of my soul that China created that I can lay claim to. And so, again and again, I return to China on the page, sucking out the marrow of my second life like it were a great soup-bone (yes, I ate those too, with straws and plastic gloves. If you know, you know). I suck and I gnaw, but the flavor of the bone never fades, the marrow still flows.

Uncategorized

Lessons From Film School: Dialogue

Not too many people in my current life know this about me, although in my old life it was common knowledge: I started out university as a film major. A film major at not just any film school either, at the University of Texas Radio-TV-Film school, which consistently ranked among the top five film schools in the nation. I wanted to be a director or a screenwriter — I hadn’t settled on which. Film school had not been easy to get into, and it turned out it was even harder to complete in any kind of reasonable time frame, full of upper level classes restricted to ten students out of fifty competing for slots. After I spent a semester studying abroad in China, I got bit by the expat bug and was hungry to leave the United States again, hungry and impatient. I changed my major to Asian Studies and never looked back.


Well, that’s not quite true. Sometimes I look back. I wonder what might have happened if I had stayed the course. One of my old cohort moved to L.A. after school and became a producer. Another stayed in Austin, but still in the industry. Perhaps, I too, could have made a career out of film, but I chose China instead. So, although I sometimes did look back, it was never with regret, because China changed my life and made me who I am. I probably made a good choice.


However, film school left me with some habits, and studying screenwriting taught me enough to know, as a writer, that fiction writing and screenwriting are two entirely different beasts. There is some crossover, though. Although I sometimes cringe when I read fiction writing blogs or internet posts that seem to draw their examples entirely from film, television and anime, my background in film wasn’t entirely useless to me as a writer. So, without anymore preamble, I present to you the writing lessons I learned from film school.


The most important lesson I learned from film school is probably the most obvious one — the importance of dialogue. As a former screenwriter, I learned to write lines and lines of snappy and concise dialogue, the kind of dialogue that is filled with subtext, that hardly needs any filler. In fact, I took the dialogue lesson so much to heart that there are times when I know that my dialogue more resembles the dialogue of a screenplay — spare with description, no dialogue tags — and I’ve had to go back and clean it up. Here’s the thing though — it is easier, in almost all cases, to add than to subtract. A writer who can learn to write tight, clean dialogue without all of the fussy descriptions can add in necessary descriptions and tags usually more more easily than the same the same writer can edit out or pare down descriptions.


But the lack of description isn’t what makes film dialogue unique. Good screenwriting conveys in dialogue only the necessary information, no filler, while still (and this is the important part) telling us precisely what kind of character we’re dealing with. Every line is leading us towards the inevitable conclusion. Take this exchange from Alan Sorkin’s The Social Network:

Eduardo Saverin:
They’re saying, the Winklevoss twins are saying that you stole their idea.

Mark Zuckerberg:
I find that to be a little more than mildly annoying.

Eduardo Saverin:
Oh? Well, they find it to be intellectual property theft. Why didn’t you show this to me?

Mark Zuckerberg:
[flippantly] It was addressed to me.

Eduardo Saverin:
They’re saying that we stole theFaceBook from Divya Narendera and the Winklevosses.

Mark Zuckerberg:
[trying to grab the letter out of Eduardo’s hands] I know what it says!

Eduardo Saverin:
Did we?

Mark Zuckerberg:
Did we what?

Eduardo Saverin:
Don’t screw around with me now. Look at me!

Mark Zuckerberg:
[Mark begrudgingly looks up at him]

Eduardo Saverin:
The letter says we could face legal action.

Mark Zuckerberg:
No, it says I could face legal action.

Eduardo Saverin:
This is from a lawyer Mark, they must feel they have some grounds.

Mark Zuckerberg:
The lawyer is their father’s house council!

Eduardo Saverin:
Do they have grounds?

Mark Zuckerberg:
The grounds are our thing is cool and popular and HarvardConnection is lame! Wardo, I didn’t use any of their code, I promise. I didn’t use anything! Look, a guy who builds a nice chair doesn’t owe money to everyone who ever has built a chair, okay? They came to me with an idea, I had a better one.

Eduardo Saverin:
Why didn’t you show me this letter?

Mark Zuckerberg:
I didn’t think it was a big deal.

Eduardo Saverin:
[sighs before sitting down beside Mark] Okay, if there’s something wrong. If there’s ever anything wrong, you can tell me, I’m the guy that wants to help. This is OUR thing. Now, is there ANYTHING that you need to tell me?

Mark Zuckerberg:
[very pointedly] No.

The dialogue, even without context, is packed with subtext about the relationship between Mark and Eduardo, even foreshadowing the eventual downfall of the relationship that ends with Eduardo being pushed out of a company that Zuckerberg essentially saw as his and his alone. It tells us a lot about Zuckerberg himself — his way of pushing others away, his arrogance, he refusal to take any challenge seriously. It’s a brief exchange, but every line is essential.  


Not only is screen dialogue tight, it tends to be quite voice-y, giving important hints about character that cannot be delivered through expository detail. Is the character a cynical sort, full of sarcastic quips? A worrier? A nurturing type? Personality is often conveyed through dialogue in film because dialogue is, while not the only tool the filmmaker has to convey what kind of person the character is, it is perhaps the most powerful one. One of my favorite films in my film school days was P.T. Anderson’s Boogie Nights. The film tells the story of a sort of found family of pornography actors and directors and has probably some of the most memorable characters to come out of the rich cinema scene of the late 90s. The loveable screw up of a main character, a bright eyed teenager whose stage name is, ridiculously, Dirk Diggler, is brought to life entirely by Anderson’s dialogue, masterfully delivered by Mark Wahlberg.

One of my favorite quotes from the movie comes from a point in the film when Dirk is near his peak as a porn star, when his dreams are coming true and his ego is growing along with his fame: “What can you expect when you’re on top? You know? It’s like Napoleon. When he was the king, you know, people were just constantly trying to conquer him, you know, in the Roman Empire. So, it’s history repeating itself all over again.” The film never lets us forget — Dirk just isn’t that bright. He has more charisma, ambition and energy, than he has sense. How does the film show us this? Through Dirk’s words. The muddled historical allusions show us Dirk’s bluster, his need to be seen as a someone, his almost desperate desire to impress, to be a somebody (several times througout the film, Dirk repeats his mantra “I’m a star, I’m a star, I’m  big bright shining star.”). At the same time, the line reinforces the idea that, although Dirk may be at the pinnacle of his career, he is, for all of his aspirations, for all his bluster, nothing more than a porn star.


While film dialogue and novel dialogue are not always the same beast, there are lessons in dialogue writing that any aspiring fiction writer can take to heart. The ability to write tight narratives and dialogue that drives the story forward, rather than meandering along aimlessly is a skill that every writer, no matter the medium, must eventually master. In film, because of built in time constraints, this becomes absolutely imperative, but the novelist will also find that these lessons are not wasted on fictional dialogue either. Ultimately, as writers, or job is to push the story forward while building characters and creating atmosphere. Our characters own words can be the best tools to do just that.

Characters, General Writing, Uncategorized

Transparency and the Writer

Recently, together with my online student, a seventeen year old boy from Guiyang, I’ve been listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s newest book, Talking to Strangers. While generally audiobooks are not my thing, Gladwell’s book is a different sort of audiobook altogether. More like a podcast, Talking With Strangers explores all of the ways we perceive and misperceive people we don’t know, using interviews, stories, and research. While most of the chapters are fascinating, for this writer, chapter 3 in particular, entitled “Transparency,” was particularly enlightening.

Transparency in psychological terms, refers to how well a person’s personal mental or emotional state understood by others. The illusion of transparency is the idea that most of us tend to overestimate how well others can perceive our emotional or mental state — that is, we believe that others can tell when we are happy, sad, angry, confused, etc. We believe that our facial expressions, actions, and body language are expressive enough that our mood should be “transparent” even without us saying anything.

Talking to Strangers refers to a study done by Carlos Crivelli in which he showed pictures of various facial expressions to Spanish schoolchildren. When the schoolchildren saw a face with a downturned mouth, they were easily able to identify the face as sad. Wide open eyes and an open mouth indicated fear, knit brows indicated anger, etc. This is unsurprising, of course. These are the same expressions that writers routinely use to express emotions in our own stories. “He knit his brows in confusion.” “Her eyes widened” “Her mouth dropped open.” They’re also the expressions we see actors use when they are portraying an emotional moment.

Crivelli then showed the same photographs to Trobriand islanders, whom he’d been living with and studying for some time. Crivelli had learned their language and had been accepted in Trobriander society — the people trusted him, and what’s more, Crivelli spoke their language and was able to understand their responses without complicated secondhand interactions. However, the islanders response to the pictures was The Trobriand islanders did not identify the same emotions as the Spanish schoolchildren at all. Where the Spanish schoolchildren saw fear, the Trobriand Islanders saw aggression. The only emotion that showed any sort of consistency was happiness — it seems the Spanish schoolchildren and the Trobriand islanders both recognized a smile as a sign of happiness. In order to confirm his suspicions, Crivelli and his team traveled to Mozambique and did the same experiment with a group of fishermen known as the Mwani. The results were similar — while the Mwani recognized a smile as a sign of happiness, frowns, scowls, raised eyebrows, and open mouths were all interpreted in a variety of ways, none of which corresponded with the responses of the Spanish schoolchildren.

The obvious conclusion seems to be that facial expressions are culturally bound, but as it turns out, the obvious conclusion in this case is not necessarily the correct conclusion. While it is true that different cultures seem to have different perceptions of what a surprised face or a sad face should look like, the reality is that even within the same culture, we have trouble identify emotions through facial expressions. Talking to Strangers discusses the experiment done by two German psychologists, who put participants into a shocking situation and had them rate how surprised they were at the exact moment the shocking image appeared, and then compared the self-rating to a still photograph taken at the same moment. Very few of the participants faces showed the classic “surprised” face with an dropped jaw, wide eyes, and raised eyebrows. Instead, their faces showed a variety of different expressions. And this is where the illusion of transparency comes in. All of these people believed that their shock and surprise would be written all over their faces for everyone to see — but it wasn’t. An observer looking at the still photos of the participants, devoid of context, would not have recognized the emotion on their faces as surprise.

According to Gladwell, our facial expressions are a kind of folk psychology. Drama and fiction have reinforced the association of certain facial expressions with certain emotions and so we believe these are the actual expressions. It turns out, however, that our expressions are, if not arbitrary, than at least somewhat distinct and unpredictable. For the writer, the implications of this are clear — the facial expressions and gestures that we’ve painstakingly studied (how many of us have a copy of the Emotion Thesaurus? I know I do) in order to add realism to our characters may have nothing at all to do with actual emotions our characters are meant to be feeling.

Does this mean that we should discard these typical emotional signifiers as writers? Not necessarily. After all, regardless of whether they’re folk psychology or not, readers understand these facial expressions as universal. However, I can’t help but think of all of the possibilities this knowledge opens up. Instead of my character widening their eyes in surprise, I might give them idiosyncratic mannerisms. Although I would have to establish context, why couldn’t I write something like, “A always furrowed her brows when she was surprised, B had noticed”? And of course writers do like this, but what these studies show us is that these sentences would actually be more accurate than one depicting the typical expression of surprise.  Listening to this chapter, I felt a sense of possibilities unfolding.

Like most of us, I’d accepted the idea that emotions are universal and that facial expressions naturally reflected certain emotions. To learn that, if I was writing an ancient Roman historical fiction I would technically be inaccurate if I wrote, for instance, a Roman centurion frowning in consternation, was a bit of a surprise. However, the power of the written word is such that fictional depictions of emotional reactions have created a sort of template for an expected emotional reaction that have nothing to do with what the subject is actually feeling.

This template is what causes the “illusion of transparency” and makes us think we are so much better at discerning another person’s emotional state than we actually are. In fact, according to Gladwell, we are terrifically bad at reading each other’s faces. Many of history’s great misunderstandings have come from this sort of confidence in our own ability to read others (Gladwell gives the example of Chamberlain famously declaring that Hitler seemed like a trustworthy and honest person, and Hitler then proceeding to make a complete fool of Chamberlain). Thinking about each time that I may have written something along the lines of “I could tell by the way her face did X that she felt Y,” I couldn’t help but laugh. In fact, the idea of transparency has unlocked for me all sorts of opportunities for glorious misunderstandings and conflict. What more could a writer want?