Show notes from Episode 25 of About This Writing Thing. Available on Podbean, iTunes, iHeartRadio, and Spotify.
Hello, and welcome to About This Writing Thing, a weekly podcast about living the writing life. I'm your host, Sayword B. Eller, novelist, short story writer, and podcaster.
This week I'm talking about procrastination. I am, as I'm sure you guessed, a major procrastinator. I've struggled with it for years, but this week's episode has helped me to put it into perspective. I hope it does the same for you.
First, though, I want to update you on my query progress. There is none. I am still awaiting feedback on my revise and resubmit from May. This process takes a LONG time, y'all. I'm not even kidding. I've also submitted queries to a few more agents and even a small publisher. I'm sad to report, sad and a little annoyed, that one query was rejected in just under an hour. This lets me know the agent didn't make it to my sample chapters because my query still sucks. I'm going to be talking specifically about queries in an upcoming episode, so look for that.
If you haven't subscribed to my email list yet, I hope you will, especially if you like this show. Subscribers get a first look at what shows I'll be recording for the month. You can sign up at my website, saywordbeller.com
Now, let's talk about procrastination.
It should come as no surprise that I procrastinated recording this podcast. Late last week I was consumed with school work and writing, and then I decided - for whatever reason - to take a three-day weekend, so I didn't really work on anything Monday. Then Tuesday, as is apt to happen to those of us working at home, I had visitors and didn't get to record, so here I am bright and early on Wednesday morning recording the episode you will listen to in a few short hours.
A few months ago I would've chided myself for not getting this done last week, but today I'm okay with it. Maybe it's because I'm the boss and I'll record my podcast when I damn well please, but it's most likely because I am embracing my procrastination.
So, why do we procrastinate and is it exclusive to us creative types?
The good news is, no, we are not the only ones who procrastinate. The bad news, it might be something that was ingrained in our psyches at a very young age. This is why I tend to agree with Julia Hess's philosophy, just go with it.
As an undergrad I procrastinated on assignments. I would wait until the day before, or the day, a paper was due and hurry through it so that I could turn it in and not be penalized. Sometimes, my procrastination was so bad that I would have to ask for an extension. There's a term for the kind of procrastinator I was in college. More on that in a bit. Upon entering graduate school I decided I wouldn't be a procrastinator. No way, not me.
And the lie detector test determined, that was a lie!
I think in grad school I just got a little better at procrastinating. Well, better at managing it. Let me tell you, it's dangerous being a procrastinator as a history major. All that research! Phew! I would do my research but still wouldn't begin my paper until the day before it was due. I was so mean to myself. Especially when I flunked out of grad school, which had very little to do with my procrastination and more to do with the fact that my heart just wasn't in history. I wanted to be a writer. Sure, I was good at history, but I wasn't good enough and that bothered me. I'd always been good at English, always been good at writing. I wanted to do what I was great at, and so I failed at what I was merely good at.
If the question of procrastination were to appear on Family Feud, the number one answer would be "Fear of Failure". Everyone says it. Alain de Botton says, "work finally begins when the fear of doing nothing exceeds the fear of doing it badly." For me, I think this was my problem in grad school. I didn’t feel like I was as good as my peers and I certainly didn't think I was worthy of attention from my professors. I wanted the history degree, but I didn't feel like I deserved it.
I didn't realize it fully then, but Megan McArdle was spot on when she wrote the reason we procrastinate is because "we were too good in English class" (McArdle 2014).
I don't think that clicked for me until 2018 when I transferred from the history program (which I was excelling in) at SNHU to their creative writing MFA program. In the history program I was overwhelmed. It was exhilarating to be so challenged in the history program. I was, after all, good at it. However, I was great at writing and English. When I started the program I was overthinking every single assignment because it seemed too easy. I mean, I went from turning in 8-page papers every week to being required to turn in 2-4 paragraphs.
So my procrastination returned with a vengeance. I was (and often am) waiting until the day my assignments are due to even write them. Two of my best short stories were written in under an hour for class. So when I read McArdle's statement that we were too good in English class, it clicked. When I was a student of history I procrastinated because I was afraid of failing. I didn't feel worthy. But now I procrastinate because I know I've got this. I've always been great at English.
Not grammar, though.
So why else do we do it? UNC-Chapel Hill has a handout for their student-procrastinators that lists 9 contributing factors:
Fear of failure (always #1).
Fear of success.
Fear of losing autonomy.
Fear of being alone.
Fear of attachment.
Because we expect ourselves to be perfect.
Because we don't like our writing.
Because we're too busy.
Because it works.
Stanford psychologist, Carol Dweck, links procrastination to "fixed mind set" and "growth mind set". Those with a fixed mind set believe talent is a fixed thing, so they dislike challenges because they don't feel like they'll learn anything. Those with a growth mind set love challenges because they feel like they can grow and learn from them. They don't believe talent is inherent, they believe it can be cultivated and nourished and only get better. I don't know if I totally buy this hypothesis, though. What if it really is just a fear of failure or success?
It took Camp NanoWriMo in July 2020 for me to really get my new project started. I'd been thinking about it and considering where to go with it for months, but hadn't quite had that moment where it was clicking. I didn't feel connected to it. Maybe it's because I'm still in limbo with my previous project. I'm querying Catching Fireflies and I don't want to have to stop in the midst of my new project to make edits to my old one. I need to be in the right headspace for the projects I'm working on. So I kept smacking into this brick wall with this new project because the old one is unfinished. It was so bad that I thought maybe I don't have another novel in me. I was afraid of failing before I even began.
What are the ways we procrastinate?
Ignore the task.
Over or under-estimate the degree of difficulty the task involves.
Minimize the impact that your performance may have on your future.
Substitute something important for something really important (i.e. cleaning instead of writing your paper).
Let a short break become a long one (hello, Netflix!).
Focus on one part of the task at the expense of the rest.
Spend too much time researching (UNC-CH).
So maybe it's because we were too good in English class, maybe it's because we're afraid of failure, maybe we're afraid of succeeding, or maybe it's every single one of those things. But what if it's something else?
Julia Hess credits Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird with her epiphany that procrastination is an integral part of her process. She happily admits that she puts off the act of actually writing her articles until the last minute. Hess breaks procrastinators down into two categories: active procrastinators and passive.
Active procrastinators are people who thrive under the pressure of upcoming deadlines. They choose to procrastinate because they know it will help them produce better writing. Something I found particularly profound was when she said that the active procrastinator's awareness of how they lack self-regulation means they often have stronger decision making and time management skills than they realize.
Did you hear that, my friends?
As an active procrastinator, I appreciate knowing this. We're so often told that we must be lazy (that's passive procrastinators, BTW) and that's why we put things off until the last minute. I have to tell you, though, the rush that comes with finishing a 27 page paper you started 12 hours before mere minutes of a deadline is difficult to explain. You're not berating yourself for waiting until the last minute anymore. You're elated that you beat it. You won. The feeling returns when you get an A or B on said last-minute paper. Yes, I actually did this for my senior seminar as an undergrad.
There are all kinds of tricks and tips for managing your procrastination. The Mind Tools Content Team lists 8 Anti-Procrastination Strategies:
Forgive yourself for procrastinating in the past.
Commit to the task: focus on doing not avoiding.
Promise yourself a reward.
Ask someone to check up on you.
Act as you go: complete tasks as they come up instead of putting them off.
Rephrase your internal dialogue.
Do least appealing or most daunting task first. They call this "eat an elephant beetle". Sounds yummy, huh?
This morning I made my bed first thing. I find that when I do that I'm more likely to get things done throughout the day. It's weird that beginning the day with a task does that, but who am I to question my brain?
For me, an active procrastinator, I only do the last three things in the above list. I no longer tell myself I suck for not doing a task immediately. When I have tasks that need to be completed, I think about the time I need to do them and proceed from there. Especially when my day or week looks like this one. I prioritize the tasks and work on them one at a time. My homework will, no doubt, be done on Saturday or Sunday, but I know the discussion post has to be posted tomorrow, so I'll get on that tomorrow morning. I absolutely minimize distractions while working. I put my phone on silent or DND and place it facedown, but I don't scold myself for taking small breaks to check social media or email. I do recommend tackling the most annoying task first. Get it over with and move on, that way you can focus on the less annoying tasks without it eating away at your peace of mind.
I'd love to know some of the ways you manage your procrastination, if you have to. Leave me a comment or send me a message and let me know your best practices.
That's all I've got for this week. I hope you'll join me next week when I talk about a major writing weakness for me, pacing.
Do you have a topic you'd like for me to cover? Send me an email: email@example.com
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Thank you for listening. Take care and keep writing!
Resources for episode:
McArdle, Megan. Why Writers Are the Worst Procrastinators. The Atlantic, February 12, 2014: https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/02/why-writers-are-the-worst-procrastinators/283773/
UNC-Chapel Hill. Procrastination. https://writingcenter.unc.edu/tips-and-tools/procrastination/
Hess, Julia. How Procrastination is Actually Part of Your Writing Process. Craft Your Content, April 20, 2017. https://www.craftyourcontent.com/procrastination-part-of-writing-process/
Mind Tools Content Team. How to Stop Procrastinating. https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newHTE_96.htm
At this point we all know Stephen King’s golden rule, “while to write adverbs is human, to write he said or she said is divine,” but how many of us actually use it (King, 128)? Not even “the king” used it in his 1986 novel, IT. The use of adverbs in the text was so overwhelming, I tapped out less than a quarter of the way through. However, I hold no grudges and shan’t dare to point fingers. This is the writing process. We make mistakes, we grow in our craft, and then we tell others they shouldn’t make the same mistakes we have in their work. Hence, why I’m telling you today that sometimes a beat is better than a tag.
The first time another writer said the word “beat” to me was in 2014. I was in a critique group with a hodgepodge of writers. One wrote women’s fiction, two of us were writing historical fiction, one was writing inspirational fiction, and one was writing her second mystery novel. The mystery writer was the most experienced amongst us, having won a St. Martin’s Press prize the year before and having previously been published in both the true crime genre and inspirational. Needless to say, I looked up to this writer bigtime. We all did. These meetings were totally old school. Printed submissions were handed out to each member every month and the next month we returned to discuss the submission, critique notes handwritten in red (GAH!) on our once pristine pages. Okay, not everyone used red. You get my point. Flipping through the critique from my mystery writing pal, two words stood out to me: beat here.
I stared at the words for a few minutes. The implication was clear, but I’d never considered using something before dialogue and nothing after. Is that what the great writers did? Certainly not the ones from the 1990s, and most assuredly not the ones from the 1950s and before. I had a serious thing for mid-century writing at the time. Needless to say, there were a lot of adverbs, my friends. I didn’t know it at that moment, but those two words would change everything for me. Yes, sometimes to write he said or she said is divine, but other times it’s even more powerful to leave them out altogether. In fact, there are some writers that believe you shouldn’t use end tags at all. I’m not completely on board with that. I enjoy Cormac McCarthy but trying to acclimate myself to no quotations and very few dialogue tags in The Road was an exercise in patience. I’m not team “no tags” but I’m absolutely team “use them sparingly”.
Before we get into the meat and potatoes of which is better to use, let’s talk a little about what they are. A dialogue tag is that delightful little indicator at the end of dialogue that lets you know who’s speaking. “What did you think of the concert?” Emily asked. Some people believe the end tag for this particular piece of dialogue would be redundant because the question mark indicates that a question has been asked. However, there’s a little problem of identifying the speaker without it. This is where a beat can be super helpful. Often called action beats or story beats, they are descriptions used before, between, and after dialogue that provide movement to a conversation. We don’t sit still when we’re talking to friends, and we’re especially not stoic during an argument or high stress time, so dialogue – in order to remain true to life – shouldn’t be either. To quote Noah Lukeman, “Characters are not to be quoted, but to speak for themselves” (Lukeman 80). Yes, it is divine to write he said or she said, but it is glorious to show their actions instead.
There are plenty of arguments for the use of story beats. Personally, I think they make a story flow better. This isn’t to say that dialogue tags should never be used. I mentioned my trouble with The Road, right? And McCarthy used about a handful of them in the narrative. No tags is a very stylized choice and it isn’t for every reader. I prefer a tag to no tag, but something tells me that the father/son post-apocalyptic story wouldn’t have had the same impact if I’d been reading he said, she said after every bit of dialogue. Let’s look at this passage from Mary Ellen Taylor’s Winter Cottage:
He lowered his head and cleared his throat. “I went to sea right away. I’ve not been back much since.”
“We needed you.”
He shoved his hands in his pockets. “You were best to live somewhere else. There was no life here without your mother. I wasn’t enough.”
“You were.” (179).
From this passage we know an estranged father is speaking to his child, we know the child must be older now, possibly an adult, and we know this moment is fraught with tension. It’s evident in the way he lowers his head, clears his throat, and shoves his hands in his pockets, and it’s more than evident by the pleading in his child’s short, impactful statements. Would this passage have the same affect if each piece of dialogue was followed by he said or she said? I don’t think so.
Story beats give our characters a chance to move while they’re talking. They can shift, roll their eyes, roll out dough for the pie they’re going to make, whatever, and we – the readers – get to experience those movements with them. This, I think, is why so many of us prefer beats to end tags. Yes, you can still have that movement after a dialogue tag, but as Brian Shawver points out, “[w]e can only handle so much of he said, turning to the senorita and cackling in that distinctive way of his before we see the prose as mannered or repetitive” (Shawver 35). Your characters and their situations are supposed to feel real to the reader. They should see the scene playing out before them and a scene without movement won’t be jumping from any page.
I’m not trying to be down on dialogue tags. Every writer should use them. Seriously. But they should be used sparingly. Especially those nifty little additions new (and seasoned) authors like to use. You know what I’m talking about. Yes, those pesky adverbs! What did “the king” say about them? Oh yes, to write them is only human. In The Elements of Style, William Strunk, Jr. calls the use of adverbs “cluttery and annoying,” and goes on to say “inexperienced writers […] do this, apparently in the belief that the word said is always in need of support, or because they have been told to do it by experts in the art of bad writing” (Strunk 75). Ouch. He’s not wrong. Take a look at these pieces of dialogue:
“Do you understand me?” Olivia asked questioningly.
The addition of questioningly to the end tag is wrong for so many reasons, the first of which is that it is redundant. To say someone asked something questioningly after using a question mark in dialogue is a lot like saying someone shouted after using an exclamation point in dialogue. We know, we know. Not to mention the fact that in this particular instance we’ve driven home the fact that Olivia asked three different times, once with the question mark, once by using asked, and finally by adding questioningly. If that isn’t repetitive, I don’t know what is.
“How could you do such a thing,” John scolded angrily.
“Because it’s my life and I’ll live it as I please!” Pepper retorted.
The use of scolded and angrily in the same tag is also redundant. People don’t ordinarily scold someone when they’re happy. The use of the word scolded would be more than enough if we were okay using the end tag, but as Allison Amend warns, “It can be dangerous to veer too far from the said paradigm. It’s tempting to […] have your characters utter, express, state, announce [etc.], but overuse will provide a trampoline effect, making it seem as though all of your characters are springing five feet in the air when they speak” (Gotham 134). With that piece of advice in mind, I think using a story beat during an argument is much more compelling than using end tags, and they also keep the scene moving in a more fluid way.
In the first example the repetition of the end tag can be eliminated with the use of a story beat.
Olivia dropped her head to the side, brows knitting together. “Do you understand what I’m saying?”
We can see Olivia’s trepidation in the way that she drops her head to the side and knits her brows together. We know she’s silently urging them to get what she’s saying.
How about that second example:
John’s eyes were ablaze, his lips trembling. “How could you do such a thing!”
Equally ablaze, Pepper met his glare, jaw clenched. “Because it’s my life and I’ll live it as I please!”
I’m not a huge fan of using too many exclamation points in a narrative. Too many and it seems like your characters are in a perpetual state of excitement or befuddlement. But here, in this highly emotional moment, it stands to reason that both characters will be shouting. Remember, when it comes to highly dramatic instances in your narrative, less is more. If there’s a tragedy or fight in every scene your readers may become overwhelmed and too exhausted to keep reading. In addition to that, too many highly dramatic outbursts by your main character(s) may signal that they are underdeveloped and need to be fleshed out a bit more. As the queen of shallow, one-dimensional characters, trust me on this. Thank goodness for multiple drafts!
If story beats aren’t your thing there’s no need to despair, no one says you have to use them. I mean, it would be beneficial, but using end tags won’t kill your narrative, just like the occasional tell won’t. The thing to remember is that these elements should be used with a delicate balance. Too many instances of he said/she said in your narrative will become just as distracting as too many unnecessary adverbs. Find your balance, writers, and you’ll find your readers. At least I hope so, for my own sake if nothing else.
King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Scribner, 2000.
Lukeman, Noah. The First Five Pages. Simon & Schuster, 2000.
Shawver, Brian. The Language of Fiction: A Writer’s Stylebook. Hanover & London, 2013.
Strunk, William & White, E. B. The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition. Longman, 2000.
Steele, Alexander. Gotham Writers' Workshop: Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide from New York's Acclaimed Creative Writing School. Bloomsbury, 2003.
Taylor, Mary Ellen. Winter Cottage. Montlake Romance, 2018
Brooks, Larry. Story Engineering: Mastering the 6 Core Competencies of Successful Writing. Writer’s Digest Books, 2011.
Oliver, Laura. The Story Within: New Insights and Inspiration for Writers. Alpha, 2011
McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. Vintage International, 2006.
Hello, and welcome to About This Writing Thing, a weekly podcast about living the writing life. I am your host, Sayword B. Eller, novelist, short story writer, and podcaster. Today's episode marks my twentieth. I never thought I would have this many episodes. In truth, I should have closer to thirty at this point, but I'm happy to be at twenty none-the-less. Today's bonus episode is called Notes on a Scandal and is my review and reaction to the books Excavation by Wendy C. Ortiz and My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell.
Consider this my disclaimer: In this episode I'll be talking about a hard topic that many people don't like to face; sexual abuse. If this is a trigger for you, please exit this podcast episode now. I have 19 others you can listen to.
According to RAINN, the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network, "every 73 seconds an American is sexually assaulted" (https://www.rainn.org/statistics/victims-sexual-violence). This violence isn't limited to a particular race, though RAINN states that Native Americans "are at the greatest risk of sexual violence" (ibid). Unfortunately, the scandal surrounding the release of Kate Elizabeth Russell's My Dark Vanessa may lead you to believe that white women aren't allowed to have the same brutal experiences of other races of women, and they certainly aren't allowed to write about those experiences and be paid well for them. Prior to the release of MDV, Russell was very publicly branded a plagiarist and unworthy of telling such a story.
As a survivor, sexual abuse is difficult for me to talk about and I didn't experience anything as harrowing as Wendy Ortiz, Mary Elizabeth Russell, and the millions of other survivors who've been subjected to sexual trauma, but I talk about it. Even "triggered" I talk about sexual violence against girls and boys, women and men, because I'm sick to death of those who have suffered being told they should just get over it and get on with their lives.
Here's a hard truth, we do get on with our lives, but those voices, those touches, those lingering stares follow us and when we least expect it, they sneak up and remind us they're there.
For these reasons, I've broken down my review into three parts:
Notes on a scandal
Review of both books
Notes on a scandal:
I took a particular interest in two scandals in the last year, that between Kim Michele Richardson (The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek) and Jojo Moyes (The Giver of Stars), and Wendy Ortiz's Excavation and Kate Elizabeth Russell's My Dark Vanessa. In both instances there were claims of plagiarism, though in Ortiz's case those claims came from her fans and not directly from the author herself. It's easy to jump on a bandwagon, especially if you're a fan of an author's work, to defend them to the hilt regardless of what the facts really are. Let's face it, in both cases this boils down to subjective interpretation and misunderstandings. I decided I would read all four books in question and do a reaction review podcast episode for each pairing.
In 2019 I finished the first draft of a book I'd been working on since 2017, Catching Fireflies. This book deals with sexual abuse. I've been trying to find comps for this book for months. As you might expect, there aren't a lot written in the last two years for me to choose from and if there are, I haven't found them. Enter My Dark Vanessa, a book about a young girl's sexual relationship with a much older man. It would be the perfect comp given the similarity of the themes. So I immediately put it on my list of new releases to purchase. Then, on January 19, 2020 Wendy Ortiz, author of the memoir Excavation tweeted, "Can't wait until February when a white woman's book of fiction that sounds very much like excavation is lauded, Stephen King's stamp of approval is touted, etc" (Ortiz, Twitter). Immediately, I was struck. Did Russell, appropriate Ortiz's story? There was only one way to find out, so I immediately bought Ortiz's book and decided I would read them both and form my own opinion, especially since Ortiz admitted that she hadn't read Russell's book and was basing her opinion off of the synopsis she found online. Yes, you heard me correctly. Instead of jumping on one side or the other, I actually purchased both books to read and decide for myself.
Here’s what I learned.
Both books have the similar themes (sexual abuse) and subjects (teenagers having affairs with older teachers), but that's where the similarities as I see them end.
Excavation is a memoir about author Wendy C. Ortiz's long term relationship with her English teacher, Jeff Ivers. It covers their initial meeting, how fourteen year old Wendy tries to appear "disinterested," something she seems to do often in order to "simply observe, absorb," the world around her (Ortiz, Excavation). I found myself comparing my own teenage self and feelings to Wendy, sussing out our differences. She wanted to appear aloof whereas I'd already been introduced to the longings of boys and men by that age, so I wanted to be noticed. My fourteen year old self was all eyelashes and smiles where Wendy's was disinterest and observation. Wendy captures Mr. Ivers's attention quickly, sharing with him a racy novel she's been writing and sharing with her friends. I was also writing a racy novel in high school. I wrote it in journal form and passed it around amongst my friends. Ortiz's novel, however, starts something she doesn't quite anticipate, and is the catalyst for Mr. Ivers believing she is game for his romantic attentions. I'm not blaming Ortiz for what would become a long-term affair with her teacher, continuing long after she passed his eighth grade English class, merely stating what appears to be the beginning point. The move of a child to shock her teacher turns into inappropriate nightly phone calls that evolve into a sexual relationship that is consummated on a blazing southern California day in the summer of 1987. Ortiz at fourteen is suddenly in over her head with her almost thirty year old teacher. I know a little something about seeing things out or letting things happen. I know an awful lot about pushing boundaries and having nowhere else to go but forward when things venture into uncomfortable and inappropriate territories. Wendy pushes boundaries and then gets a bit lost when she has nowhere to go but forward. By the summer, of course, she's ready for something to happen, though I'm not sure she was ready for everything that happens. In true Wendy fashion, though, she goes with the flow even as Jeff is freaking out.
I didn't have overwhelming feelings for any of the adults in this memoir, other than Jeff, of course. They could've been people I knew or grew up around. The men whose eyes lingered on young girls longer than they should, the people who ignored the fact that a grown man would be hanging out with his former female student alone in his home, those who looked the other way when Wendy and Jeff would have obvious lovers spats. What teenage girl would rather hang out with her middle school english teacher than go to the mall with her friends or hang out with kids her own age? It was the 1980s, those questions weren't asked. A lot of things were overlooked and ignored in the '80s, especially if it was inappropriate relationships with young people. I did, however, feel an exception for Wendy's mom, a woman dealing with the dissolution of her marriage, becoming a single mom, and struggling with feelings of failure. She is an alcoholic, yes. She does allow her daughter to do things no mother should, yes. But she's really just doing the best she can.
Others have said this book is a tough read, but I think we should look at it as a necessary read. These things happen; molestation, rape, incest, inappropriate sexual relations, they all happen. We live in a society that insists on keeping these stories in the dark, where for no other reason than their own discomfort they say to stop talking about this. It's a society where even women scorn the #MeToo movement and where they insist that women who "wait too long" are liars only looking to end a man's career, a society where we expect women to sit down to dinner with their rapists and smile and just get over it. Books like Excavation are important. That this hasn't been picked up for reprint by a bigger publisher is beyond me.
Have you ever wondered about the women caught up in a scandal who have a legitimate story to tell but refuse to? Enter Vanessa Wye. It’s 2017 and her former English teacher has just been very publicly accused of sexually abusing one of his former students. The things is, despite the fact that Vanessa had a sexual affair with this teacher, she isn’t the former student accusing him of misconduct. Whether she likes it or not, Vanessa must make an important decision, tell her story to the world in an effort to bring a child predator to justice, or remain silent in the face of scrutiny. Told in dual timelines, My Dark Vanessa asks the question, would you protect someone you love even if you know firsthand how deceptive, manipulative, and devious they can be?
In 2000 fifteen-year-old Vanessa Wye is beginning her sophomore year at Browick, a prestigious boarding school in Maine. Awkward and withdrawn, Vanessa doesn’t have any real friends. She never really fit in at her old school and she’s no longer speaking to her former roommate at Browick, Jenny. One of the great mysteries throughout the book is what happened between the two girls. There is a sense that it’s something major, something that they can’t quite come back from. The actual reason is a letdown, but not entirely unexpected from a teenager, especially one like Vanessa. She cares a lot about what people think of her. More specifically, what she believes they think about her. The most important thing for the reader to know about Vanessa is that she doesn’t have a clue.
Perhaps this is why Jacob Strane sets his sights on her. She’s a loner, quiet, and so obviously lonely. She’s everything someone like Strane needs. So he begins testing the waters with her. Little touches, winks, sharing literature with hidden messages. One thing I found particularly gross was the fact that almost every piece of literature he shares with her is filled with themes of sexual deviance. Always older men infatuated with or in love with younger women, usually girls. He tells her she’s special, that she isn’t like the other girls. He grooms her.
This is where I think everyone is getting it wrong with this book. It isn’t about the relationship between Strane and Vanessa, it’s about victimology and Vanessa being the perfect target. Strane is a predator. By the time Vanessa has him for a teacher he’s been teaching at Browick for more than a decade. It’s obvious, if only to the reader, that he’s done this before and will do it after Vanessa is far removed from his life. He knows what he’s doing, knows how to take it one step at a time, and he knows how to cover his tracks.
Russell did an excellent job showing how manipulative predators like Jacob Strane are, and she did an exceptional job showing how easily a lonely teenager can be duped into feeling loved and the ramifications of what happens to them after the affair is over. Vanessa becomes a master avoider, living her adult life in a fog of drugs, alcohol, and strange men. She is the product of Strane’s tactics, and he fails to show even an ounce of remorse. Russell has stated in interviews that she wanted Strane to love Vanessa. He’s far too narcissistic to love anyone other than himself.
I have a major problem with the author wanting to show that Strane really loves Vanessa in his own way. This relationship is unhealthy, it’s borne from a forty-two-year-old man’s inability to become sexually aroused by anyone older than eighteen. He is quite literally a dirty old man who I feel no sense of attachment or remorse for, a man who not only bends ethical rules but snaps them in half. This is not the sort of relationship to romanticize. The reader should despise Jacob Strane by the end of the book. Personally, I hated him well before. I also take major issue with the number of sex scenes featured in the book. As mentioned, this is not a relationship to be romanticized, it is a crime and is causing irreparable damage to one half of the couple. I understand the need to reference their intimate moments together, but to have so many scenes where their sex is told in detail was too much for this reader.
Finally, I’m angry that Vanessa didn’t grow more as a character. She deserves more than what she gets in the end of this. A slight admission in the closing pages doesn’t make up for hundreds of pages where she’s broken apart and pieced back together by a child rapist. It’s a step in the right direction, but after all of that I needed to see something more from her and she failed me. It is for this reason alone that I gave the book four stars instead of five.
After reading both books back-to-back, I don't believe that Russell appropriated anything. Not once while reading did I flash to Ortiz's book. The characters are made of different stuff, the situations are different, and the outcomes are certainly different. If you put a dozen survivors into a room and have them speak openly about their experiences, how they began and how they ended, chances are you will find commonalities.
I think the argument should never have been that Russell was telling anyone else's story as her own, but how the publishing industry approaches certain books. Ortiz has since tried to clarify her position, that she wasn't attacking the Russell, but was commenting on how unbalanced publishers are with acquisitions and the money they put into certain titles. She's right. If she'd written Excavation as a novel instead of memoir she might have seen the same type of interest as My Dark Vanessa.
Kircher, Madison M, 2020, What's Going on With My Dark Vanessa and Excavation?, Vulture, February 3, 2020: https://www.vulture.com/2020/02/my-dark-vanessa-and-excavation-book-controversy-explained.html
Ortiz, Wendy, January 9, 2020, https://twitter.com/WendyCOrtiz/status/1218999472224493569
Ortiz, Wendy, 2020, Adventures in Publishing Outside the Gates: On the Industry's Gatekeeping, Gay Mag, January 29, 2020: https://gay.medium.com/adventures-in-publishing-outside-the-gates-a06f089c372e
Ortiz, Wendy. Excavation: A Memoir. Future Tense Books: Portland, OR, 2014.
Oswald, Anjelica, 2016, The multimillion-dollar sums that celebrities make on books — and how they actually sell, Business Insider, March 9, 2016: <https://www.businessinsider.com/celebrity-book-advances-2016-3>
RAINN (Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network): https://www.rainn.org/statistics/victims-sexual-violence
Russell, Kate Elizabeth. My Dark Vanessa. William Morrow: New York, 2020.
Russell, Kate E., 2020, Note to Readers, http://kateelizabethrussell.com/note-to-readers.