MWW16: Learning to Lead, Learning to Chill Out

Bear with me here, because this is going to be a long one. My Facebook memories are full of MWWs past and I’m gonna get emotional and nostalgic.

2016 was my fourth year at the Midwest Writers Workshop. I started out in 2013 as a little baby agent assistant intern all excited and nervous and no idea how to talk to anyone, much less my agent, Victoria Marini, so mostly I hung out with my fellow interns and hovered awkwardly. It was amazing. It’s where I met and became friends with Summer Heacock and Roxane Gay. It’s where I solidified my friendships with Jackson Eflin and Brittany Means, who are two of my best friends, and have been with me at every MWW since.

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2014. Jackson and I are the only returning interns, so we start calling ourselves Katniss and Peeta. Brittany moves from attendee to fellow intern. I assist Bridget Smith, and delight in telling one man that he was the first and one of two full manuscripts she asked for the whole weekend. Daniel José Older is there, and to this day, if you mention his name around us, we’ll all sigh dreamily and talk excitedly about how his keynote speech kept everyone on the edge of their seats. I’m more confident. People recognize me. People are excited to see me! I’m excited to see them! This internship is quickly becoming about the community almost more than the professional experience.

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In 2015, I don’t apply for the internship – I get asked to return, and to lead. I take the agent assistant interns, and Jackson takes the social media counselors. We get to go to a few committee meetings, we get to train our crew, we basically run that shit. The interns are a tight-knit group of nerds. I assist Janet Reid and have a damn good time doing it. Between that and leading I don’t have much time for rest but tbh that’s how I like it. I do the after-partying, I’m comfortable talking to faculty and agents, and I don’t know how I’d survive any of it without Summer as one of my best friends.

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You’d think, after all that experience, that I’d go into 2016 all smooth and carefree and ready to take on the day.

Uh, no.

This year, I wasn’t assisting an agent. I was just in charge of a group of interns who were trained in a class taught by MWW’s awesome leader, Jama Kehoe Bigger. I went in thinking I’ll have nothing to do and my interns barely know me at all, what will they think of me? I know how to be a leader, but I felt like now I was seen not as a leader and friend, but a leader and adult and boss and I didn’t know how to be that.

I didn’t know any of the agents. I was nervous as hell to meet Julie Murphy. Brittany and Jackson were going to be there, but for the first time none of us were working in the same area. Summer was going to be there but MWW moved to a much larger space, and I didn’t know how much I’d see her. There was a mix-up with the T-shirt place, and I didn’t get an intern T-shirt – the largest they carried was a 2X and there’s no way that’s fitting me.

My anxiety basically ruled me that first Thursday of MWW16. I didn’t feel in control at all. I didn’t feel like I belonged like I had every other year. The first night, my friends and the 2015 agent assistant interns all get the same frantic message: I think my interns hate me.

To everyone else I probably seemed a-okay, if a little manic. But oh man, I was a mess that first day. 13692626_10157132830700697_5023136383583059040_n

Don’t worry. This isn’t a tragic story. It didn’t stay that way.

It helped, definitely, that while I didn’t have an intern shirt, I did have a tank top that Jackson screensprinted for me. I can’t pretend that having “QUEEN” printed on my back didn’t help the confidence.

Sure, I didn’t see Jackson and Brittany and Summer as much as I wanted – I kind of want to be around them like all the dang time – but I did see them. Any time we all had breaks, we found an empty space and talked and decompressed and had fun.

Maybe, occasionally, too much fun.

I talked to Julie Murphy on multiple occasions and didn’t die at all. I also probably didn’t embarrass myself THAT much! I eventually just calmed down and put the fangirling aside and learned to be a person.

Mostly.

It also didn’t hurt that there was a Pokestop in the Student Center and that, along with Summer, intern Kara Harris, and agent Molly Jaffa, we kept it in lures for most of the weekend. I caught a Scyther on Thursday night and it definitely wasn’t during a time when I should have been paying attention to something else, shut up, it was a SCYTHER, what would YOU have done???

And the interns? They were smart and funny and WAY prepared for their jobs. They handled me emailing them a dozen times each day with pitch requests and schedule changes from attendees, they got to know their agents, they bonded with each other. A few of them have already put up blog posts about their time at MWW and their desire to return.

And I guess it didn’t turn out they hated me after all.

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A Guide for Skinny Writers Who Want to Write Fat Characters

Are you a skinny writer? Do you want to write an awesome fat character but aren’t entirely sure of the best ways to describe them, of the pitfalls to avoid?

Fat lady (me) reads about being fat

Fat lady (me) reads about being fat

Well, I can’t tell you the absolute no-error, no-pissing-any-fat-person-off way to doing this, because fat people aren’t a hivemind and because the fact is that when you’re writing outside your experience, you’re gonna mess something up. You’re going to say something that makes a person you’re trying to represent go, “Wait a second, that’s not how it feels. That’s not what it’s like to be me.”

You cannot perfectly represent the fat experience in a single character. You can’t perfectly represent the fat experience in a hundred characters. Fat people, like all people, are just too different.

BUT ALL IS NOT LOST. There are things that you can keep in mind, things to avoid, things to consider doing. As a grade-A, certified, obesity-promoting fat person, I can at least give you a place to start. I’ve written a couple of personal essays on this topic (here and in TEDx form here) and opinion-y blog posts (here and here) that you can also check out.

(Note: Not all of the links in this blog – especially to the Tumblrs – are going to be SFW. Click with caution.)

Without further ado, here is my Guide for Skinny Writers Who Want to Write Fat Characters.

What Kind of Story Do I Write About a Fat Character?

Any story!

…Almost.

Here’s the thing. If you’re a skinny writer, and you have always been skinny, please, please, please do not write about the fat experience. Do not write books about what it’s like to be fat, especially not if you’re like “being fat is awful!” Do not write books about fat characters on weight loss journeys. Do not write books where the entire plot and core and theme is that this character is fat and this is what it means to them to be fat.

If you’re a skinny writer, do not write books about fat characters being fat.

You can write a story about anything else. In fact, I WANT you to. I want you to write stories about fat children saving the world, I want you to write stories about fat teenagers falling in love. I want you to write stories about fat adults getting pulled into murder mysteries. Write stories about fat adventurers, fat teachers, fat office workers, fat pirates. Take ANY story that you’d write with a skinny character and give it to a fat character instead.

But don’t write a story about what it’s like to be fat. That’s not your story to tell. Leave that to fat writers. Instead, support us by writing all those other stories.

But Isn’t Fatness Part of a Fat Person’s Everyday Life?

Well, yes!

My fatness is on my mind a lot. Sometimes it’s practical. I take up more space than many people. When I go to a new restaurant, I don’t always know if a booth will be big enough for me or if I need to get a table. When I’m about to get into a crowded car, I need to point out that more people will fit in back if I’m in front. When I need new clothes, I know that I’m not likely to just find them at the mall. I probably have to go online.

Sometimes, it’s on my mind because the world won’t stop reminding me that I’m fat and they hate me for it. It’s summer, so even sites I normally enjoy are posting diet tips and weight loss stories. I’m a loud fat activist, so some days I end up blocking a lot of people on Twitter who popped up to yell at me for my fatness. Some days I’m just having a bad self-image day. Some days I’m just tired of being strong.

But other days it’s positive. Other days, a new dress arrives, and I look real damn cute in it. I post selfies on every social media I have and feel good about my body and myself.

My fatness is on my mind a lot. It’s an important part of me – but it’s not the only important thing about me.

It’s not how I make all of my decisions, or all of my connections with other people. It’s not the only thing I ever think about. It’s not on my mind every hour of every day.

Your character can think about their fatness and be affected by it, but you should write stories where the most important thing about your fat character is not that they’re fat.

How Do I Describe a Fat Character?

This is probably the most-asked question I see. My thoughts on the matter are really pretty simple:

Don’t avoid the word “fat”.

Simple, but also a little tricky. Fat activists and a lot of other fat people have reclaimed it and are happy to use it – in fact, even prefer it over any other word – but a lot of people have trauma associated with it. It’s very difficult to escape the negative connotations built around it.

It wasn’t until very recently that I would even say the word fat out loud to describe ANYTHING – another person, an animal, a wallet – because I thought everyone would somehow suddenly notice that I was fat. Like it was a secret I was keeping and as long as I never hinted at it, no one would know. I would kill to just not be fat.

You, as a skinny writer, need to know this. It’s a loaded word. Respect that.

I happen to be of the opinion that it’s a word we should be using more, not less. We need to use it positively and neutrally – as an adjective, not a description of worth – and eventually it won’t be quite such a bad word. There’s power in casually calling a character fat, the same way you’d call a character tall or mention their brown hair.

So, call them fat. For me, this is far preferred to words like “plump” or “chubby”, because those are just euphemisms. It’s what you say when you don’t want to insult someone by calling them fat, and ideally, you’re creating an environment in your story where “fat” isn’t an insult in the first place.

I also don’t much care for “curvy” unless it’s a word fat people are using on themselves. From skinny people, especially skinny men, that usually means, “Yeah, she’s fat, but I’d fuck her” or “I’m really attracted to this fat girl, but I’m ashamed of it. If I say she’s curvy, maybe people won’t judge me as much”.

Both are gross.

Don’t waste your time with weight and dress sizes. They don’t say anything about what a character looks like. One size 20 doesn’t look like another. 250 pounds on someone who’s 5’4” isn’t always the same even on someone of the same height, and it’s definitely not the same on someone who’s six feet tall.

I could be about seeing a fat character say she’s 300 pounds and she’s happy with herself, but you may want to consider if you’re able to handle it well. Talking about numbers – about weight, clothing sizes, measurements – is a HUGE trigger for many fat people. It has to be handled with a lot of care and nuance that skinny writers might not have just because they’ve never been in our shoes.

Instead, just call them fat. If you want to describe them more than that – this is kind of specific to your writing style – talk about how they carry their fat. Do they have a lot of belly fat? Is it mostly in their thighs? Do they have large arms? Are they just big everywhere? Fat people are not all fat in the same way.

I really liked the way Julie Murphy talks about Willowdean’s fatness right in the beginning of Dumplin’ – she’s going to work at a fast food place where the uniform options are pants or a dress, and because the elastic on the pants won’t stretch over her hips, she has to opt for the dress. This spoke volumes to me as a fat woman and told me that I wasn’t dealing with the smaller fat people I’m used to being given leading roles. Will is well and truly fat.

Go look at a fat positive blog – like Chubby Bunnies or Fat People of Color – and see the many beautiful shapes and sizes that fat people come in if you need some help.

What Kind of Person Should They Be?

Any kind of person! Seriously! Any kind. Fat people have all kinds of personalities and motivations. We can be in any of the Hogwarts Houses. Fat people are all races, ethnicities, gender identities, sexual orientations, all everything.

Do keep intersectionality in mind. People are complex. We are rarely just one thing, dealing with just one oppression, or benefiting from just one privilege.

Use me for example. I belong to several marginalized groups – I’m fat, I’m a woman, I’m bisexual, and I have disorders and trauma.

But I also have a lot of privilege – I’m white, I’m cisgender, I’m (almost entirely) able-bodied, and (at this point in my life) I’m pretty financially comfortable.

All of these things are not separate from each other. They intersect and interact. Being a fat woman means I deal with all kinds of problems that fat men don’t, but being a fat white woman means that I’m safe in ways fat women of color aren’t. I face stigma for my fatness, but I also escape other kinds of stigma because I’m not a fat person in a wheelchair. I don’t have to try and navigate food anxiety while also navigating the shit people get for being on food stamps.

Different intersections face different problems and privileges and you have to keep that in mind. When you write at intersections that you don’t have experience with, it’s more research, more time.

Yeah, it’s complicated, but so are people. So is writing. It’s worth it.

This also means that you shouldn’t just be writing fat people who are also cis and straight and white and neurotypical and able-bodied.

Some people might say something like, “Oh, what will the SJWs want now, a fat black autistic trans woman in a wheelchair and in poverty?” like it’s a joke, but that’s not a joke. That person exists. That person deserves respect and representation.

I will give you a caveat: Keep stereotypes in mind. Fat people are often written as lazy, messy, and greedy. Those are real qualities that real fat people have, but because these are traits that have traditionally been used as ways to oppress fat people, writing a character like that requires a lot of sensitivity and nuance.

Same for when you consider their confidence levels – they’re often either written as completely hating themselves, or as having this over-the-top confidence. I think it’s good for skinny writers to lean more towards writing fat characters with a good amount of confidence, but just like anyone else, fat people have bad days. You’ll just have to consider how much of that is important or worth putting in your story. A fat werewolf girl saving the galaxy probably isn’t having a lot of days thinking about her body. Or maybe she is. It depends on your story and your focus.

Think of it like this – if you wouldn’t be putting those thoughts and bad days in with the same character but skinny, think about why you’re doing it when they’re fat. Is it just because you think fat people are supposed to hate themselves?

Writing fan characters with stereotypical traits can be done. In fact, it should be done, because lazy, messy, greedy fat people with confidence all over the spectrum exist and deserve to be told that they’re human beings, not stereotypes.

As a skinny writer, you should consider if you’re the right person to do that.

What Else Can I Do?

RESEARCH!

Do some looking around in your genre for other books that feature or star fat characters. You might try things like “fat positive [insert genre here]”. There’s a good chance you won’t find a lot.

It can also be worth your while to look at what books are criticized for their poor portrayals of fat characters. You’ll start to get an even better idea of what to avoid.

Go read up on some fat activists. Some big names in this area to get you started are Ragen Chastain, Marilyn Wann, Virgie Tovar, and Substantia Jones, but there are loads more out there. There’s fat activism all over social media, especially Twitter and Tumblr. Go look up fat voices and listen.

The last thing I’d like to say before the resource list is this:

One of the most radical things you can do is write a fat character who’s just living their fat life, going on adventures, and being happy in their own bodies.

Some Extra Resources Just For You

I’ve linked to a bunch of stuff in the post itself, so check those out, but here are some other things. I’m sorting them into three categories –

  1. Articles and essays about writing fat characters or insights into fat activism and fat life.
  2. Sites centered entirely on fat activism and/or fat positivity.
  3. Fat activists on social media. I don’t think any of them talk 100% all the time about fat activism because, well, people have many interests. They’re still important to follow. I’m particularly including activists here that run along various intersections.

I am CERTAIN that I’ve missed things while putting this together. If you have anything or anyone that you think I should add, let me know in the comments or on Twitter or in a message. I will keep this list updated. I could especially use more articles because tbh while writing this post I completely forgot almost every great fat article or essay I’ve ever read in my entire life.

Articles and Essays

http://bookriot.com/2015/07/10/combating-fat-phobia-ya-lit/

http://feministing.com/2015/09/18/we-need-to-center-not-exclude-black-women-in-fat-acceptance-movements/

http://www.ravishly.com/2015/09/17/tips-flying-while-fat

Fat Activist/Positivity Sites

http://fatbodypolitics.tumblr.com/

http://thisisthinprivilege.org/

http://pocfatfashion.tumblr.com/

http://sizeacceptanceinya.tumblr.com/

http://fuckyeahchubbyguysofcolor.tumblr.com/

Fat Activists

http://queerandpresentdanger.tumblr.com/

http://marfmellow.com/

http://mightyfemme.tumblr.com/

http://culturalrebel.tumblr.com/

https://twitter.com/fangirlJeanne/

https://twitter.com/misskubelik/

Cool Thing Roundup: TEDx, Publications, and Midwest Writers

I kind of thought that after I graduated, the writing and reading slumps I’d been in would magically dissolve. I’d have loads of free time since I was taking a break before the big job search. I wouldn’t have classes or homework to exhaust my energy before I could get around to writing or pleasure reading. The summer was gonna be magic.

Well. Uhm. Yeah. It hasn’t quite worked out that way.

I’ve been feeling pretty shitty about this, to be honest, like I’m defective and I should be ashamed that I’ve only read four books this month and that my word totals leave something to be desired.

Weird how shaming myself into a spiral doesn’t help my productivity much.

This week, I realized that the past few months I’ve been apart of several really cool things that I didn’t celebrate on the blog. Right now, I kind of need a confidence boost, so allow me to be just super, super self-indulgent and tell you about all this cool stuff.

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TEDxBallStateUniversity

I got a really cool chance to speak at a TEDx talk at my school. It’s actually a reading of my “Fat Revolution” essay – a version of which I’ve posted before. This one is revised and, in my opinion, way improved. Here’s the video:

Side B Magazine: Attacking Our Assault

For Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Side B Magazine did a special online issue. I was asked to contribute, and they published my short essay, “Not the Men You Know”. One of my best friends, Brittany Means, is also in the issue, and quite frankly her talent consistently blows me away.

It is probably self-evident but I’m still gonna say that reading our essays and the other essays in the issue comes with a pretty hefty trigger warning on sexual assault and abuse.

You Are Here: Finding Yourself in Middletown

My last semester at Ball State, I had the great luck of taking the first English senior seminar taught by a creative writing professor – the wonderful Cathy Day. The class was based around how to do research while writing fiction.

Ball State is in Muncie, Indiana, which was the basis for the Middletown study in the 1920s. Using research from the original study, subsequent studies, and dozens of other sources, my classmates and I created our own version of Middletown and wrote a linked short story collection set there.

The collection is called You Are Here: Finding Yourself in Middletown can read it here. My story is the last in the collection, titled “Between the Beams”.

Stomping Ground

indexAlong with working on You Are Here, I was also taking a class called Creative Writing in the Community with Lyn Jones, who is possibly the most organized professor I’ve ever had and makes impossible projects (like putting together a book in a few weeks) totally possible.

In this class, Ball State English students get together with elementary school kids in the Muncie and surrounding communities and write. I worked with two amazing sixth grade girls, Sara and Marisa.

At the end of the semester, we sorted through the mass of material we’d gathered from these kids and put together a book.

You can buy Stomping Ground on Amazon, and perhaps I am biased but you should seriously consider doing so. The range of talent and emotion and depth presented by these kids was stunning. I was incredibly lucky to work with them and proud of the book we produced.

#MWW15

Last but DEFINITELY not least is the fact that I will be interning at the Midwest Writers Workshop for the THIRD TIME (read about my first two years here and here) as an agent assistant.

Oh, and this time, I’m also the lead intern. They actually just made me in charge of these people.

tumblr_miadpnO4iR1rgz9z1o1_500Okay, it really will be fine. The other interns are amazing, smart people and I’m only one of two interns who even has two years of experience to back me up. (This is me convincing myself that I’ve got it.)

I think that’s all I’ve got for the cool things round up, although if my calculations are correct there should be another publication post coming up in the next couple of weeks. In the meantime – I love all of you, you’re beautiful, and here’s a truly amazing reminder that my dear friend Katy made for me:

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What I Learned Interning at the Midwest Writers Workshop

This year for the second time, I interned at the Midwest Writers Workshop as an assistant to literary agent Bridget Smith. It was an amazing weekend. I met really cool people, I got to see some great friends that I’d made last year, I met the guy at Midwest that looked like John Green (seriously), and, of course, I bonded with my fellow agent assistants and we all joined Starfleet.

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we regretted this when we realized we were all wearing red shirts

As the workshop drew to a close, there was one question I started getting over and over: “Do you feel like you learned anything?”

I never knew quite how to answer. I certainly felt like I’d learned something, but I didn’t know how to quantify that into a list of facts. I spent two days sitting in as Bridget took pitches and critiqued query letters, and somehow I felt like this should have given me a unique insight into the publishing world and I should have been able to come up with clever answers and guidelines for other writers preparing to pitch. I wanted to be able to show the more experienced, published writers asking me these questions that yes, I had learned quite a bit, and now I was closer to being One of Them.

Except that I didn’t have clever answers or guidelines or proof of my legitimacy. Anytime I was asked, “What did you learn?” I floundered.

But I’ve been thinking about it, because I knew I’d learned something and that I’d keep getting asked and I wanted to be able to have that conversation and blog about it.

So here’s my answer.

I learned the importance of preparation.

One of the questions that Bridget kept asking in the pitches – if they weren’t answered in the pitch itself – was, “Do you have any comp titles?” This question tripped a lot of people up. Some didn’t know what comp titles were (they’re books that your book can be compared to) and many others just said they weren’t very good at comp titles. I’d be the latter. I think it can be hard for writers to come up with comp titles in part because you don’t want to think that your novel can be easily compared to something else. You want to be unique.

Doing something new is great, but having comp titles ready in your pitch or query letter does more than just telling an agent what your book is like. It tells them that you’re reading the other books in your genre. You know what’s out there, you know why yours is different and new. You can say, “Here’s where my book belongs.”

Of course, sometimes you don’t know what to be prepared for, and you totally mess up, and that’s just going to teach you what to be prepared for next time.

This is also the section where I value someone else’s preparation. Last year at Midwest, I discovered that the majority of the chairs in the alumni center are not exactly fat-person-friendly. They’re narrow and painful to sit in. This year, it was my #1 anxiety, especially since I had a brand-new tattoo on my thigh that wouldn’t appreciate the bruising pressure of sitting in too-small chairs for two and a half days.

When I arrived for my first day, fellow intern Jackson Eflin greeted me with, “Oh, and I found a folding chair for you. It’s by the piano.”

tumblr_m29qy29eYO1qj1lh8This simple, thoughtful act of preparation completely changed my conference experience and made me a happier intern.

I learned that it’s worth it to get over my fear. 

Before I started researching the writers that would be at Midwest, I hadn’t heard of Daniel José Older. I found him on Twitter, and followed him, and looked into what kind of stuff he writes. I realized pretty quickly that he was really cool and someone I needed to be listening to and reading (and you should, too). I was thrilled when I got the chance to interview him for the Midwest Writers e-pistle.

I’d actually kind of built that to fangirl proportions by the time Midwest rolled around, and I knew that this was my chance to meet him and talk to him but I was terrified. So terrified, in fact, that I was going to be thrilled if I could just introduce myself to him without sounding like a dumbass. I wasn’t going to get to see any of his sessions because I was too busy being an agent assistant (though I did get to see one and it was amazing) so I figured, okay, an introduction is as much as I’ll get.

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dreams do come true

By the time the workshop and after parties were over, I’d gotten a selfie with him, MFA advice, and pointed him to my much-beloved Alpha workshop.

Meeting Bridget for the first time was also pretty freaking scary. I wasn’t pitching her. I don’t have a completed manuscript. But she’s still a literary agent and she’s still an amazing connection that I could make. What if she didn’t like me? What if she thought I was annoying or had bad taste? What if she found me more annoying than helpful?

Striking up conversations with her was hard, but I did it, and I learned a lot through that. She talked about the frustrations of not being able to place a brilliant book just because it was part of a trend that editors were sick of, about books she really loved, about what she wished she saw more of in books. We had a lot in common and a similar sense of humor, and I, at least, had a great time spending the weekend with her.

I learned not to doubt my contributions in the literary world, however small they may be.

I’m an undergrad college student with one story published in my college’s lit mag. I do this blog, but I don’t really update it enough. I’m working on being someone in the literary world, but right now I barely make a blip.

But those blips still mean something.

When my friends want YA recommendations, they come to me. They trust me to point them towards something good. The agent I assisted at Midwest last year, Victoria Marini, trusted my taste enough that she hired me as a remote reader for the manuscripts she receives. I don’t read loads, but I read what she sends me, and I give her my opinions, and sometimes those opinions make a difference.

This weekend at Midwest, I had writers telling me how much I helped them when I didn’t even realize I was helping. They told me that I provided a positive and supportive atmosphere going into their pitches. Pitching an agent can be seriously scary, and I helped some of those writers feel a little more at ease.

Maybe in the big scheme of things, that’s not a lot. I didn’t get anyone signed. I didn’t get signed myself. I don’t have a book out. But I’m still immensely proud of the small things I’ve done and I need to stop underestimating myself.

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This was my second year at Midwest Writers. Last year, it convinced me that the literary community is where I belong. This year, it convinced me that not only is this where I belong, but I can make a difference here, if I can work past the anxiety and self-doubt and the fear.

Here’s hoping they let me do it again next year.