Showing posts with label Zelvin. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Zelvin. Show all posts

03 January 2020

What I Really Think About Sensitivity Reading


I've been a mental health professional and psychotherapist for 35 years, a published writer of novels and short stories for 13. I live in New York with its kaleidoscopic population. For almost 20 years, I've conducted my therapy practice in cyberspace, ie all over the world. Either personally or in one role or another, I've known a vast variety of people intimately. I've heard the secrets and the candid thoughts and feelings of people of every race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic background, from homeless to celebrity, from nun to murderer, from serving military to self-proclaimed anarchist, from survivor of child molestation to convicted pedophile. I've worked with prostitutes and flashers and gamblers as well as the whole spectrum of sex and gender. I've heard from dozens of cops how 911 really felt to them. I've helped hundreds of alcoholics and drug addicts get clean and sober.

Empathy and imagination are the tools of my trade-—or let's call them my superpowers. My body of work attests to my high degree of competence at my trade, indeed, both my trades. If I were a surgeon setting your broken leg, would you insist I couldn't do it without instruction from you because I'd never had a broken leg myself? If you don't like that analogy, consider this: I've spent my whole personal and professional life living with, interacting with, working with, treating, writing about, loving, and in one case raising successfully the ultimate aliens: men. And male writers have been doing the same with women, with varying success. [Pause while I resist the temptation to name names.]

How those who haven't walked the walk, especially of the marginalized, can possibly write authentically about such characters has become one of the burning questions of our time. I don't think censorship by the thought police, aka sensitivity reading, is the answer. Redaction in the name of reverence is the enemy of creativity and pure poison to art itself.

In the 1980s and 1990s, when I worked as a clinical social worker in and later directed alcoholism treatment programs in New York, many staff were recovering alcoholics who used their own experience as an integral part of their treatment technique, much like sponsorship in AA. Credentialing for counselors was in its youth. Many clients in treatment also went to AA, where they were told that "only an alcoholic can help another alcoholic." (At the time of AA's founding, no effective treatment for alcoholism existed.)

I made a conscious decision not to "confirm or deny" when asked if I was an alcoholic myself. Rather than using that stuffy expression, I told them they would have to find another way to decide whether or not to trust me. My professional experience taught me that some clients wanted to hear I was just like them, but others wanted to be assured I wasn't as damaged as they were. Some of my clients were the deeply hurt or angry partners and family members of alcoholics, who wanted to hear I was not another alcoholic. And how about the bipolar clients, the ex-prostitutes, the survivors of child abuse and sexual trauma I treated? Did every one of them need to hear I was like them-—or not like them? Once I lost control of disclosure about myself, it would be gone forever. The only solution was not to disclose anything about my personal experience.

When my first novel about recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler was published, I knew that I'd be asked the same question: "Are you an alcoholic?" I made the same decision again. By then, 2008, readers were looking authors up on the Internet and so were potential clients for the online therapy practice I was now engaged in. One mention on Facebook of what I was or wasn't, and once again, I'd lose control over who knew what about me. And it would unquestionably affect people's judgment about whether I was qualified to write what I wrote, treat whom I treated, or know what I knew I knew. As I've learned over and over, people believe what they want to believe. So I had and have no intention of making myself vulnerable to their judgment.

It's not only online that people continually try to break the boundaries I've set for myself. I wish they wouldn't, although I'm no longer amazed at the way people think they have a right to personal information about someone they don't know. Unfortunately, one of the "family rules" of our society is that it's okay. I've had AA members who've read and enjoyed my book tell me so on the street, which is lovely, and then ask if I'm in the program myself-—demonstrating their imperfect grasp of the concept of anonymity. I've given a reading from my story in Me Too Short Stories and had someone come up, tell me it was wonderful and they're going to buy the anthology, then say, "Was it based on personal experience?"-—oblivious to the fact that they've just asked a perfect stranger in a crowded public place, "Were you molested as a child?"

I'm no longer flustered by such questions. I have a standard way of dealing with them firmly but kindly. I say, "I don't disclose that information." If more is needed, I say it's a policy that I apply to everyone. I may even explain it as a matter of my being a mental health professional. But it's really about my right to myself as my own intellectual property, which is akin to my integrity as a therapist and my creative material as a writer. Only I control what anyone knows about my personal experience. Anonymity means that a person in 12-step recovery has the sole right to share that information outside a meeting room. Confidentiality means that only the client has the right to decide who knows what he or she tells a therapist. And intellectual freedom mean that only I as a writer have the right to decide what I write. Short of hate speech, anything else would be kowtowing to the thought police. I'd give up writing rather than settle for appeasement to such an Orwellian distortion of the concept of freedom of speech and creativity.

Elizabeth Zelvin is the author of the Bruce Kohler Mysteries, the Mendoza Family Saga, and three dozen short stories. Most recently, she edited the anthology Me Too Short Stories. Liz's stories have been nominated three times each for the Derringer and Agatha Awards and appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. In 2020 so far, her stories will be published in AHMM and Jewish Noir 2.

20 August 2016

Outliners Take Note--Don't Call Me a Pantser!



by Elizabeth Zelvin



NOTE: I'm pleased today to welcome Elizabeth Zelvin as a guest blogger. Liz is, she says, a semi-dormant SleuthSayer ("Like writers in general, we never retire"), and she's the author of the Bruce Kohler mystery series: five novels and five stories published, plus two additional stories accepted for publication. Her short stories have been nominated twice for the Derringer and three times for the Agatha Award. Other publications include two historical novels, two books of poetry, an album of original songs, and a book on gender and addictions. Liz lives in New York City and can be found online at http://elizabethzelvin.com, on Facebook at http://elizabethzelvin.com and on Amazon. Good to have you here, Liz!--John Floyd


Having completed the first draft of a new short story and feeling mighty good about it, I got to thinking about my personal creative process, with which I've become fairly well acquainted over the years. I call myself an into-the-mist writer, because when I sit down to tell a story--we're talking fiction here, whether long or short--I can see only a little way ahead of me. I have to peer into the dimness to see my way, and what comes beyond the limited compass of my headlights is a mystery. In fact, it's an act of faith to trust that there's something there, and believe me, I have many moments of doubt.

The image that comes to me when I say the words "into the mist" is a drive I once took along the Blue Ridge Parkway on a foggy summer morning. My husband was with me, but he is a New Yorker born and bred who came to cars late in life, and at the time, I was still the family's only driver. There was supposed to be a scenic view of mountains off to the side, but we literally saw only the gray wedge in our low beams, which revealed swirls of mist, a hint of the winding road, and once a doe escorting a couple of fawns.

That's what writing the first draft of a story or a novel is like for me. I can see a glimpse of where I need to go next. I have a few ideas--like notes in a guide book--of features that may show up along the way ahead. But I'm never sure that I'll get where I'm supposed to be until I get there. When I do, there's no mistaking it. It's my destination, all right. I heave a big sigh of relief--and buckle down to the much easier business of killing my darlings and cleaning up the mess.

I've tried to write the other way: planning in advance, laying it all out neatly. It doesn't work. My creative process starts with my characters talking in my head. (Well, my husband says it starts with "I can't"--but after that.) Anyhow, I can't plan the jabber of those unruly characters. I'm not in the driver's seat. Bruce's wisecracks and Barbara's enthusiasm are a gift from the muse or whatever you want to call it. It happens, and it's the best feeling in the world. All I can do is make a beeline for my laptop or my Post-its or the voice recorder on my iPhone, whatever's handy, and start writing down what they say.

Once my characters start talking to each other, their conversation shapes the course of the narrative, even if I know in a general way where the story is going to end up. My series characters all have strong personalities, and it doesn't take much for them to start talking and acting exactly like themselves. The secondary characters in a particular story spring up as needed. They become my suspects and witnesses and law enforcement folks with their own personalities and ways of reacting to the situations I put them in and the characters they meet. They only come to life because I don't try to stuff them into some preset mold.

One of my favorite true stories from my historical novel about Columbus's voyage in 1493 is how one of the Spanish priests who accompanied the expedition went around Hispaniola collecting what he called folktales from the Taino, the indigenous people. When he got back to Spain, he published a collection of these tales. Like most authors, he was very proud of his book. These simple people have such charming folktales, he said. What a pity that they have no religion! The point, of course, is that the Taino were telling him about their religion all along.

That's kind of the way I feel when writers whose creative process involves outlining call writers like me "pantsers," a term that I consider demeaning. Who are they to dismiss my creative process as "flying by the seat of my pants"? It's my process, and believe me, there are no pants involved--no recklessness or lack of thought, merely an equally valid and effective way of summoning creativity, however different from theirs. So don't call me a pantser!




05 November 2011

“Because I have something to say”


by Elizabeth Zelvin

Last time I was up at bat on SleuthSayers, I confessed that I couldn’t write a cozy, although I know authors who do it very well and whose careers are flourishing as a result. Now I’ll add that I doubt I could write a save-the-world thriller, a locked room mystery, or a a forensics procedural. They’re simply not my bag.

I would add serial killers to the list, except that the protagonist of one of my published short stories is a paranormal serial killer. Another story features a revenge killer. Short stories are a grand medium for trying on voices and subgenres beyond the writer’s comfort zone. In fact, I was perfectly comfortable with these two murderous protagonists, probably because both were female. I have no empathy for men who kill. My characters sprang to life out of that mysterious inner place that we sometimes call inspiration, allowing me to explore my own dark side.

When I was a kid, my favorite book was Emily of New Moon, by L.M. Montgomery, the author of the classic Anne of Green Gables. Emily was another little orphan girl on Prince Edward Island, and her burning passion was to write. The urge to write is a phenomenon to which many writers attest. Thanks to Project Gutenberg, I found the line that was imprinted on me at the age of seven or eight and reinforced through many rereadings: “There is a destiny which shapes the ends of young misses who are born with the itch for writing tingling in their baby fingertips.” When I googled “urge to write,” what popped up first was a quotation from writer Anne Bernays, who says this urge is “mysterious and subterranean...the creative floodgates having been released in a torrent.”

In my current later-in-life (“old” always being ten years more than me) career as a writer of fiction, I have heard many writers, published and aspiring, express the same sentiment. They declare that the impulse to tell stories cannot be denied and that they’d go on writing even if they knew their work would never be published. This claim has always baffled me. Sure, I feel the call of the muse. Yes, my characters talk in my head. In a poem (“Night Poem,” in Gifts & Secrets: Poems of the Therapeutic Relationship, New Rivers, 1999), I wrote:

...a line tugs at my mind
and I go stumbling through the hall
groping for light and pen
each time I lie back down
the images pop up like frogs
clamoring to be made princes
and you grumble and roll over
as I shuffle into my slippers once again
and go kiss the page

Can't help marching to a different drummer
But if asked, “Why do you write?” I don’t say, “Because I have to.” I say, “Because I have something to say.” For years, I said, “Some day, I’m going to write a mystery titled Death Will Get You Sober.” And when I left my job as director of an alcohol treatment program, I did. Why a mystery? Because I love reading them. Why a character-driven traditional mystery? Because I wanted to make my readers laugh and cry. I was proud as punch when SJ Rozan wrote, “Zelvin’s characters are both over the top and completely believable—just like real people.” But what I wanted to say (with humor and without preachiness) was that recovery itself is transformative and that those who embrace is truly turn their lives around.

My historical series about Diego, a young marrano sailor with Columbus, both confirms and denies that I have to write. Diego came to me in the middle of the night, pounding on the inside of my head and saying, “Let me out! Let me out!” He wouldn’t leave me alone till I went and kissed the page to the extent of making some notes. In the morning, I groaned and said, “I don’t want to write this story. I hate research.” But Diego wouldn’t let me alone until I’d found excerpts from Columbus’s logbook online and learned enough to tell the story (“The Green Cross,” published in EQMM). Diego kept revealing more of his story, so I kept writing about him.

So why this particular event in history? Why this outsider point of view? (The marranos were the secret Jews who converted to avoid the Inquisition and the Jews’ expulsion from Spain in 1492.) The process that produced Diego inside my head was completely unconscious (if not paranormal—both he and his sister Rachel feel completely real to me). I’m Jewish, but if anyone had suggested I write about Jewish themes, I would have said, “That doesn’t interest me.” But evidently I had something to say about being an outsider and, in particular, about being Jewish in a Christian society. And woven into the fabric of Judaism is a concern for social justice, which brought me to the genocide of the Taino, about whom I knew nothing when Diego first came to me.

24 September 2011

Character, character, character


by Elizabeth Zelvin

My new blog brother, John M. Floyd, with whom I will be alternating Saturday posts on SleuthSayers, said in his introductory post last week that what matters most to him as a writer and as a reader is plot. For me, it’s character. I can think of many reasons this is so, and they fit right into the task of introducing myself on this new blog.

I write what I love to read.

Complex personalities and intense emotions fascinate me. I love how series characters and their relationships develop over time. I go back over and over to character-driven novels in which the characters seem so real that I experience a longing to be one of them—not to be, say, Harriet Vane or Judge Deborah Knott, but to dine in Oxford with Harriet and Lord Peter Wimsey, adding my two cents (shillings? “P”?) to the conversation, or to hang out with my guitar on that North Carolina porch with Judge Deborah and her family, preferably singing along.

I am a character.
A few decades ago, I was relaxing in a hot tub with a couple of women friends (there’s a great Charles Addams cartoon of three witches doing the same in a cauldron), and one of them said, “What do you really want to be—not do, but be, ultimately?” Without any conscious thought, I said, “A wisewoman and an outrageous older woman.” I’ve been working on both these roles ever since. First I got the “Outrageous Older Woman” T-shirt. Then I wrote the song. And now it’s the title of the album of original songs I’m about halfway through recording.

I’m a shrink.
That’s the wisewoman side of me. I know many people believe that most therapists are crazy. I disagree. If your therapist is nuts or has a disastrous personal life, you’re not getting your money’s worth. Therapy is all about character (although I’ve heard some rollercoaster-ride plots while listening to clients’ stories). Therapists thrive on connection. They love their work because it opens windows onto the intimate world of others. That makes therapists a lot like storytellers. When I was active as a poet, I used to say, “All my stories are true.” As a novelist and short story writer, I say, “I make things up.” (Alternatively: “I tell lies for a living.”) But it’s really the same thing.

I was born to schmooze.
I’m a New Yorker. If I can say it, with my voice, my hands, or my fingers on the keyboard, I probably will. I love book launches and book tours, conventions and conferences, not for the books I’ll sell or the craft and business secrets I’ll learn, but for the schmoozing. Yes, I’m on Facebook. And I do love blogging.

I want to make people laugh and cry.
I doubt that reading exactly which model of AK-47 a fictional assassin used moves even the most technophilic reader to tears. Nor is even the most ingenious locked room puzzle hilarious. Suspense arouses emotion, certainly, and good thriller writers can sure ratchet up the anxiety, frustration, and dread as the reader turns the pages. Suspense works even if the character is so flat that the only possible answer to the question, “What’s he like?” is, “Well, he was Tom Hanks in the movie.” But I don’t like to be scared. I want to be moved. It’s the characters, their emotions, and their interactions with each other that move me, and I want to move readers of my books and stories in the same way.

“So what have you written, Liz?”
Having given you a character-driven introduction, I guess I should mention my publication credits. My mystery series featuring recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler (and his friends, Barbara the world-class codependent and Jimmy the computer genius) started with Death Will Get You Sober and includes Death Will Help You Leave Him and four short stories, the latest just out in the anthology, Murder New York Style: Fresh Slices. The third novel, Death Will Extend Your Vacation, is due in April 2012. My short stories have appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and various anthologies and e-zines. Three have been nominated for the Agatha Award for Best Short Story. The two most recent, both in EQMM, featured Diego, a young marrano sailor with Columbus, whose story continues in a YA novel (so far unpublished). A standalone story about art theft at the Met will appear in EQMM next year. My author website is at www.elizabethzelvin.com. Along with SleuthSayers, I’ll continue to blog weekly at Poe’s Deadly Daughters.