23 September, 2015

So You Want to Write a Memoir

The memoir genre is reportedly flooded these days and I've discovered several of its nuances by following and reading the works of Mary Karr, a contemporary master of memoir writing.  In Stephen King's On Writing, he raves about Mary Karr and her obvious gift for being incapable of writing an uninteresting sentence.  I couldn't agree more.  As I'm reading through her latest release, The Art of Memoir, I'm recalling both the joys and the horrors of the process as I've finally linked with a literary agent and completed my upcoming memoir, The Desert Warrior.

While Karr's style is unique, and she capable of luring a reader in to a whirlwind of her life experiences.  However, once I finished The Liar's Club, I even wondered how the hell anyone got me to read a book about an industrial East Texas town.  If no one - especially if Stephen King kept quiet - told me that the book was excellent, I would never have bothered.  There's nothing about rural, industrial, or even cosmopolitan parts of Texas that interest me whatsoever unless it's about brisket joints in Austin or Wendy Davis.  Yeah, that's about it.  But Mary Karr changed my mind through the act of sharing a specific period of her life.

While reading memoirs is a must if you're writing a memoir - and believe me, you will need to read exponentially more pages than you actually write - I would also like to save you time.  Below, I've included steps and a few hyperlinked writing resources for you if you decide to write your memoir one day.

Things you should be able to accomplish, in order, for your memoir should be:

1. Write a good 15-20 pages of the book.  Minimum.  Don't worry about finishing the book right away.  Here's some sage advice from William Zinsser, author of Inventing the Truth, On Writing Well, and other fantastic books that eloquently explain the genre.

2. Write a Book Proposal to clarify to agents and publishers why they should publish your book and why it will sell.

3. Write a Query Letter to acquire a literary agent. Some agents may request your first chapter or two, and some may ask for a Book Proposal - which often includes the first 1-2 chapters of your book. Don't send the queries just yet though! Writer's Digest has an excellent series called "Successful Queries" which features examples of query letters that actually worked in getting an agent.

4. Use a site like Query Tracker to keep track of who you query. You don't want to make the mistake of querying the same person twice, or querying someone who already said no.

5. Research which literary agents to query. Some agents only represent fiction, some only romance, and others nonfiction, or mystery. Query agents that represent the memoir genre if you're writing a memoir. Query only fiction with agents who represent your type of fiction, and so on.

6. For some extra advice on the memoir writing process, here's an extra post to help clarify what may feel like quite the lonely process.

So there's my two cents on shortcuts that will save you extra time an energy that could be used in actually writing your book.  Don't wait for someone to tell you that you're a writer.  Go out there are write, write, and write some more until you are able to purge every morsel of your core into a book you can appreciate and be proud of for years to come.

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18 September, 2015

Lioness Leadership: It's Not Enough to "Lean In" - You Must Also "Show Teeth"

How dealing with combat operations and managing crises as a young female Army sergeant on Team Lioness taught me to both lean in and asserting myself sans apology.

In 2004, my life changed forever as my team and I set foot in Iraq.  On a wintry, starry night flying from Balad to Ar Ramadi, we held our rifles and loads of gear we'd have with us for the rest of our year-long deployment.  We were miles away from Ramadi, but you could feel and smell it prior to touching ground.  Really, the scent of burning trash and feces was undeniable.

  We waited until dark to take the flight to Ramadi on a helicopter into the even colder and windy night air that dropped us off in an area so dark my eyes only adjusted to see a hill of sand and a road lined with concertina wire behind us.  As we carried our gear from the chopper and headed to the Motel 6-looking Iraqi Special Forces compound, I fixed my eyes and my mind on my new home.

  It wasn't long before the young specialist, named Mattingly, on my 4-person team and I were queried about a program called Team Lioness.  Team Lioness was a group of females that were attached to Marine infantry and Special Forces units to conduct personnel searches, checkpoint operations, and house raids.  As a program, it had launched from the brainstorming sessions of male Marine and Army officers in Iraq's Al Anbar Province who saw the need to incorporate women into these traditionally male combat arms units in some of the bloodiest counter-insurgency battles of the Iraq war.

   While Mattingly and I became part of Team Lioness, the other two males on our team - previously critical of women in the military and seemingly gung-ho for combat - nervously bowed out of combat missions all together.  In the coming months, I was able to partake in missions with units I never expected to work with directly outside of my medic and mental health duties.  Some of the lessons learned were hilarious, terrifying, and sometimes depressing, but I walked away with a new perspective on life.  Many of those lessons learned on the battlefield ring true today as a professional, a grad student, and now a mother.

Here are a few morsels of knowledge acquired from Team Lioness that women anywhere could use:

Don't minimize who you are to make anyone feel better

Downplaying accomplishments to play up your attractiveness or likability is so Stepford Wivish.  If your professional skills or other cool talents scare off potential friends or allies, let them run so they can make space for people of value.  Women have every right to take their business seriously and be unapologetic for their success.   We don’t need to downplay what we've accomplished to be liked and if you find yourself doing this, ask yourself at what cost might it be to your own self-worth.  Being coy under pressure may be the result of social pressure to fit in, but you don't have to submit and hide your strength.  Being confident, strong, and capable are fantastic leadership traits that should be valued most by you first.  Everything and everyone else is secondary.  When you believe in you, others will too.

There is nothing strategic in being a hot mess 

Pop culture makes it easy for women to retreat to demure damsels in distress and chastises those who speak out in opposition.  It's not an easy role, but there's nothing strategic or tactical appearing to be a helpless hot mess.  Don't do it.  Making yourself appear visibly disorganized or flustered may make you appear as a target or liability rather than an ally or peer.  In situations where others are counting on you to get a job done - whether on a battlefield or in a boardroom - lacking the appearance of confidence or courage may hurt you.

Grow greater, not complacent - even in relationships

Combat is filled with tests. Tests of your courage, tests of your ability not to fall apart while watching your battle buddy die, tests of your physical endurance under stress, and tests of your overall sanity.  In love, as in war, you must not lose yourself, but rise to the occasion - but you should not be alone in doing so.  There's a problem in not growing into a better, stronger, more capable version of yourself when in a romantic relationship or even in friendships.  If you learn nothing from war or love, you might be doing it wrong.  If you find yourself or your partner to be complacent or even apathetic, whether in war or in a relationship, prepare for pain.

Stop the dumbing down of young girls

Toy commercials of Bratz dolls, Barbie, and other hyper-sexualized and stereotypically gendered products constantly flood media outlets send out a bizarre message to young girls - a message that says to mind your looks and abandon your wits.  In dangerous situations, abandoning a sense of empowerment, awareness, and overall capabilities to keep oneself alive could prove costly if not deadly.  Instead of buying your niece or daughter a doll made up of twist-ties for clothing and makeup that would make RuPaul blush, take them to a museum or gift them with some GoldieBlox gear.  In war, and in life in general, you cannot afford to be sans awareness or dumbed down.  And we cannot afford to let this happen to the next generation of women either.

Check yourself and defend yourself

Women are often targeted for violent crime and pop culture is partially to blame for this.  Women are often depicted in the media as helpless and victims of crime, and life often imitates art and vice versa.  Women, or anyone else, who are victimized are not to blame.  However, learning to think and operate tactically can help you identify and avoid threats, and even de-escalate or, ahem, "neutralize" in a dangerous situation when needed  This story of Krav Maga and gun violence in an interpersonal relationship helps sum this point up, but beware of triggers.

Victims aren't to blame, it's the offenders

One the more disturbing images from Iraq that haunt me is the extent of exploitation I've witnessed, not just by insurgents, but locals as well as those I served with - which was another level of betrayal explained in other blog posts.  Call out sociopaths and offenders for what they are and if you're lucky, you'll get to do what these women (above) in India did to these reported rapists.  Covering for, or excusing, behavior that is detrimental to others or yourself is doing favors for no one.  If you see injustice, speak up, speak out.

Locate your allies and network

No woman is an island, and it's in your best interest to know where the exits are in a building and where your friends are in times of trouble.  Developing professional and interpersonal ties is to your benefit, but this is an area that you can never quite leave to complacency.  Figure out who you can trust in various situations as not everyone will have the same strengths or weaknesses - and return the favor by being an ally for someone in times of need as well.

Speak up with confidence

The tragically cool, interrogative tone as described by Taylor Mali (above), just isn't helpful when you need to be heard. In order to be taken seriously, don't qualify your f***ing statements with, you know? Right? or any other terms that only take away from your ability to assert yourself.  It isn't enough to feel what you're saying, you have to at least sound like you not only know what you're talking about, but to sound credible as well.  Speaking as though you're constantly asking questions can make you appear as though you have little to no faith in your statements.  As a lioness in the wild prepares to lunge forward toward a threat, prepare to show your "teeth" through demonstrating confidence and assertiveness.

Stop apologizing for having a voice

Don't prepare people for your strength by saying sorry before saying something assertive or even controversial.  Own your voice, and get in the habit of speaking up without qualifiers, ums, or other fillers when you can take the time to say what you need to in the manner you need to say it.

You are valuable, and anyone who tells you otherwise can pound sand
You are needed, you are valuable, and we need you to have a backbone to fight for the next generation of women too.  And if anyone tells you you're not good enough, strong enough, smart enough, or anything else that demeans your worth, feel free to say this:

22 June, 2015

Apolitical Intellectuals

There are a few poems or pieces in which I think to share via blogpost, but this is certainly an exceptional one. "Apolitical Intellectuals" by Otto Rene Castillo sheds light on societal complacency and how we must push ourselves toward the greater good and become a better version of ourselves. "Apolitical Intellectuals" questions the inertia of supposed leaders in times where critical analysis and corresponding action are needed most. The poem sets the scene in a time where social change is needed while leaders remain inactive, even in their impending demise. That time is now.

Otto Rene Castillo is a renowned Guatemalan poet and revolutionary who was born in 1936, and was forced into exile following a Guatemalan coup in 1954.  Upon return to Guatemala, he became an active member of the Guatemala Workers Party while also founding a theater group.   Castillo was later assassinated by the Guatemalan military in 1967.

"Apolitical Intellectuals"
by Otto Rene Castillo

One day
the apolitical
of my country
will be interrogated
by the simplest 
of our people. 

They will be asked 
what they did 
when their nation died out 
like a sweet fire 
small and alone. 

No one will ask them 
about their dress, 
their long siestas 
after lunch, 
no one will want to know 
about their sterile combats 
with "the idea 
of the nothing" 
no one will care about 
their higher financial learning. 

They won't be questioned 
on Greek mythology, 
or regarding their self-disgust 
when someone within them 
begins to die 
the coward's death. 

They'll be asked nothing 
about their absurd 
born in the shadow 
of the total lie. 

On that day 
the simple men will come. 

Those who had no place 
in the books and poems 
of the apolitical intellectuals, 
but daily delivered 
their bread and milk, 
their tortillas and eggs, 
those who drove their cars, 
who cared for their dogs and gardens 
and worked for them, 
and they'll ask: 

"What did you do when the poor 
suffered, when tenderness 
and life 
burned out of them?" 

Apolitical intellectuals 
of my sweet country, 
you will not be able to answer. 

A vulture of silence 
will eat your gut. 

Your own misery 
will pick at your soul. 

And you will be mute in your shame.