Just a Girl in the World

Today, as you might know, is International Women’s Day, and as I was scrolling through my Facebook feed I was struck by the juxtaposition of two posts. The first was posted by an novelist/missionary I have the privilege of knowing through my work in the publishing industry. She and her husband serve some of the poorest of the poor in Mozambique. Here’s what she has been up to today:

The very next thing in my feed was this “sponsored” post (which is another way of saying it’s an ad):

A cooking hut for a woman being rebuilt with the help of another woman, who will also be helping to rebuild half a dozen other homes, made mostly of natural poles, dried plant matter, plastic tarps, and even garbage. Then a marble kitchen in a $35 million dollar compound.

I clicked through to see what $35 million dollars bought Gwen…

Now, I’m not a redistributionist. People can spend the money they have earned on what they want, and many wealthy people are great philanthropists. This post isn’t about the disparity between Mozambique and Beverly Hills. It’s about women.

And I’m not anti-Gwen Stefani. Like many people of my generation, I am a huge fan of No Doubt, Gwen Stefani’s band in the 1990s and early 2000s. I love her feminist song “Just a Girl,” which came out in 1995 when I was fifteen and felt all of its lyrics deeply. Ms. Stefani has done well for herself, projecting a confident, powerful female persona to millions of girls and women (though lyrics of some other songs and her overly sexual videos may undermine that at the same time).

My novelist/missionary friend from the first post? She writes strong female protagonists, sells tens of thousands of copies of each book, and is the winner of several awards, so she has a reach too. Still, when stacked up against Gwen Stefani and her rock-star kitchen, how many of us might be tempted to feel like the little things we were doing with our own lives just didn’t matter quite as much?

On this International Women’s Day, I’d like to submit that my novelist/missionary friend who is piecing back together grass huts that will likely fall apart again during the next big storm is doing more important and lasting work than Gwen Stefani, and that women should strive to be more like the woman with dirt under her fingernails than the one with the sterile, pristine, marble-ensconced palace who only encounters dirt in the tabloids.

Menial tasks that will have to be redone (like dishes, laundry, and cleaning) are not inconsequential or somehow “beneath” us, despite the fact that, unless you work in the cleaning industry, you do not get paid to do them. To those six or seven poor families who see a woman of God helping them rebuild, my friend’s labors may mean the difference between being safe and being exposed to the elements.

And that woman who is getting back her cooking hut? I bet she appreciates it more than Gwen Stefani appreciates her (frankly hard to look at) rock-star kitchen.

Today’s feminism often looks like a strange combination of worshiping Beyonce and screaming and flipping people off rather than listen to someone with whom you disagree. But feminism that makes a real difference in the lives of women is generally quieter than that. And frankly, it doesn’t pay all that well.

It’s my friend Jamie who works with women in the prison system.

It’s my friend Jeni who is in Thailand working to free women and girls from the sex trade.

It’s my sister Alison excelling at a traditionally male job.

It’s my mom who chose to stay at home with us when we were little, kept a clean house, and cooked dinner every night, but who also went to work when we were older.

It’s all of the amazing women writers I know who create female characters who have the wherewithal to admit when they are wrong and forgive when they’ve been wronged.

It’s the women in my church of different generations who have persevered through hardship, who have raised incredible children as single moms after unplanned pregnancies, who have survived a spouse’s infidelity, who have carried on with grace after the death of loved ones, who have been friends and mentors to other women.

If you are a woman reading this, I hope you won’t buy into the lie that feminism has to look a certain way. That it must be angry or hypersexual. That it must be full of bitter resentment against men or our society. It can simply be you being the best person you can be to your family, your friends, your coworkers, and yourself.

You don’t need Gwen’s rock-star kitchen to feel fulfilled. You don’t have to scream to be heard. Build a grass hut for someone. Get your hands dirty.

You’re just a girl in the world. But you get to decide what that’s going to look like.

My Big News This Week (aka, How I Got My Literary Agent)

If you follow my author page on Facebook, you already know…

I signed with a literary agent last week: Nephele Tempest of The Knight Agency. What does this mean? It means that I now have an official partner to push me toward excellence, bounce ideas off of, and, most importantly, to get my novels in front of the right editors at the right publishing houses. She’ll negotiate contracts, guide me as I develop marketing strategies, and step in to advocate for me when problems arise.

If you’re not a writer, this may be of only passing interest to you. Great! Now the books she talks about writing on this blog will eventually wind up on the shelves. But if you’re a writer, I know that the story of how someone gets an agent is always of interest. So here’s mine.

In 2002, I started working at a publishing house, first in the editorial and subsidiary rights  area, then in marketing. I read a lot of books that were not for English majors–commercial fiction, genre fiction, and plenty of nonfiction. Reading these reminded me that I had always had in the back of my mind that I wanted to write.

In late 2005 I moved from West Michigan to Lansing, where I didn’t know anyone except the man who moved with me. Hence, ample free time. I started thinking again about writing as something I should actually do rather than just talk about. Then in 2006 I started as a docent at the zoo (super fun, made some friends, developed my speaking chops, handled awesome animals, took up lots of my time) and as a graduate student at Michigan State University (super fun, made some friends, further developed my academic writing chops, theorized about interesting stuff, took up lots of my time). Then in 2008 I had a baby (super fun/hard, made a new tiny friend, developed my “being patient” chops — these will be important later — took up almost all of my time).

In 2007, I dropped out of graduate school. The program was great, but it wasn’t quite what I wanted to focus on. In 2012, I quit being a docent at the zoo. The time commitment was big, I had a young child, and I really felt like if I was going to ever get serious about writing, I had to make the time to do it.

Leading up to 2012, I was working on a manuscript. I also started this blog, which is actually my second or third blog. (Some of you have been with me from the very beginning in 2008.) I had called that MS A Beautiful Fiction and I decided to give that name to the blog. That old manuscript will never see the light of day, but it was important to me because it was the first one I actually finished and the first one I ever queried and sent to literary agents to read. I was initially disappointed that no one seemed to think it was publishable, but the process of querying it helped me see some of its flaws and some of my own flaws as a writer. So I scrapped it and thought about what to do next.

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you know that in 2013 I gave myself the challenge to write one short story every month and publish each for Kindle. I had a lot of ideas but I wasn’t ready to tackle a novel again right away. So that’s what I did. I also submitted a number of stories to contests and magazines. One, “This Elegant Ruin,” finaled in the 2014 Great American Fiction Contest from the Saturday Evening Post. That couldn’t have come at a better time for me creatively. Maybe my writing was worth publishing after all.

During 2013 I was also reading voraciously, researching for a book I wanted to write that would tie together events in three different centuries that were heartbreakingly similar. That research became the foundation for The Bone Garden, which I drafted in two months in early 2014. I started querying that book after doing a couple revisions, back in April 2014. In hindsight, that was a bit too early, but some of the early feedback I got from agents rejecting it was really helpful in revising. I continued to work on it and occasionally sent out another batch of queries.

In August 2014, there was some interest in it from two agents, both of whom suggested revisions. I kept working on it, sure that once these revisions were done I should be golden — at least one of these agents would want it. However, with one of these agents we discovered that she had two other manuscripts she was shopping for clients that contained some similar themes and there was a conflict of interest. With the other, it just wasn’t there yet and she passed. Boo. Cue depression.

But no! There was no time for moping, because by then I already had another idea for a new manuscript. I wasn’t just going to sit there. I was going to take more of the lessons I’d learned and channel them into this new project. I was sure this third manuscript, I Hold the Wind, would be “the one.” So I wrote. I wrote during National Novel Writing month (and made it to 50,000 words in that one month to be a NaNoWriMo winner) and continued into the winter and even into the spring. That first draft took six months.

[Let’s pause here for a querying interlude…Even as I was writing I Hold the Wind I continued to work on and query The Bone Garden. On a particular day in February 2015, I got on Twitter and watched the #MSWL hashtag. For those of you who’ve never heard of that, it stands for Manuscript Wishlist. I found a few more agents who were looking for women’s fiction with particular parameters and sent off a few queries. This will be important later…]

In June 2015, sent the MS of I Hold the Wind out to a few beta readers for feedback. In that same month, the shooting at the Charleston church occurred. And I was swept back into The Bone Garden. If you need a little background as to why, you can read this blog post I wrote while I was researching for the book in 2013 and this one I wrote soon after the killings in Charleston. I realized that part of my story — the present-day storyline — needed a rewrite. I worked hard on it for a short time and then decided to re-approach one of the agents who had really loved the story but thought it still wasn’t there yet. Was it there now? That agent was happy I contacted her because she and a colleague at her agency had both individually been thinking about that manuscript they had rejected months before. Yes, they would read it.

Back to I Hold the Wind. I did revisions in August, worked on my pitch in September, and was ready to start the querying process all over again on September 9th, when the Women’s Fiction Writers Association was holding an online pitch event with five agents. Around that time I got an email from Nephele Tempest of The Knight Agency. She wanted to set up a phone call to chat about The Bone Garden, which I had originally queried back in February as part of Twitter’s #MSWL day. I’d sent her fifty pages back in April and the full MS during the summer. I also, out of the blue on the same day, got an email from the other agent who was rereading the manuscript after I approached her with the revision. She was ready to talk about it too. I scheduled some phone calls and did the pitch on the new manuscript.

During our phone call, Nephele offered representation. After talking with the other agent, who also wanted the weekend to read the new manuscript I had for I Hold the Wind, there was talk of more revision needed and no clear offer of representation. I slept on it, and in the morning I had clarity. I wanted to go with someone who was ready to commit to me and my work, who would walk alongside me, who was enthusiastic, who was easy to talk to. Nephele was all of those things. We scheduled another phone call and talked about possible revisions to The Bone Garden before sending it out on submission. That second phone call assured me we were on the same page and had the same goals. I accepted the offer, got the contracts later that day over email, signed them, and sent them out for countersigning at the offices of The Knight Agency.

Yesterday, the signed contract appeared in my mailbox. So it is official. I now have a literary agent and I’m eagerly awaiting her detailed notes on The Bone Garden so that we can move this story along down the road toward publication. Thanks for coming with me on the journey. I’ll be sure to share milestones with you along the way. If you want to be sure not to miss any publishing news, follow this blog (there’s a button on the sidebar) and follow my author page on Facebook. You can also follow me on Twitter @ErinLBartels or on Pinterest.

 

What I Learned from a Chatty Iraqi Woman at the Park

Yesterday I met a woman from Iraq at an area playground. A teacher, she was there with a number of young girls and two other teachers. She has lived in the US for 6 years, coming here with her two young daughters after her husband was killed in the war. She was much more talkative than any other Muslim woman I’ve ever encountered, and I probably see Muslim women every other day in the Greater Lansing Area. It may be because she had been living in the US for so long and spoke such good English that there was no language barrier. We talked for perhaps twenty minutes, and in that short time frame she shared a number of interesting things with me.

First, she was compelled by one of her charges to go down a slide. Afterward, she came back to our bench and said, “I probably shouldn’t have done that. I may hurt my baby.” She shared that she was two months pregnant and that in Iraq, when a woman is pregnant, she basically does nothing but sit around all day. “We are afraid that the glue that holds the baby in will come loose. But American women do everything–they work, they run.” I told her that it was my understanding that as long as you had a normal healthy pregnancy, nothing much was forbidden by American doctors except flying in the last month of your term. She said her husband, who has lived in America for 18 years, told her the same thing. “He says, ‘Get out of the house. American women do not just sit around when they are pregnant.'”

Second, she said that her daughters, now both in high school, live with their grandmother rather than her and her new husband. He had proposed to her not long after she arrived in the US and she refused him because her daughters were “still missing their father.” But a few years later, when he proposed again, she accepted and the girls from her first marriage moved in with their grandmother. “I can tell my girls are sad without me, but it is hard for a new husband and wife to live with older children from another marriage.” I found this very interesting. At first, her focus was on her daughters who were grieving, but then they are sent out of her house, as high schoolers, so that she and her new husband can focus on their new relationship. I’m still not sure what I think of this method of not blending families. But apparently, that’s how it’s done back in Iraq.

Lastly, when I asked her if she liked living here she said yes. She mentioned that her neighborhood was very safe, but that she used to live in the area where two men were shot back in May (you may remember me blogging on that incident). Coming from a war-torn country, she was very concerned that she be somewhere safe. But even in her East Lansing neighborhood, she said, there had been a recent break-in and robbery. I told her that there really is nowhere that is safe from all crime and she seemed surprised by this. This seemed so odd to me since she has come out of a situation in which the worst of human nature is on display.

Soon my son retrieved me and I had to leave. I was reluctant to stop talking with this woman and we never even exchanged names. I don’t know that I will ever run into her again. But I wanted to share our conversation with you. She and I are of different origins and different faiths, but we came together on a bench, connecting first through the common subject of children. We chatted, told each other “it was nice talking to you,” and went our separate ways.

I see those “Coexist” bumper stickers all over town. I’m not a particularly big fan of them because they seem to imply to me that we should ignore all of our difference and leave each other alone. But I don’t want to ignore our differences. I want to discuss them, learn from them, and struggle with them–in a civil manner. And I don’t want to leave other people alone. I want to have conversations and strike up friendships.

My short time with this kind, thoughtful, and sweet-spirited Iraqi woman on a bench in an East Lansing park is what coexisting really looks like, and I’m so grateful that she struck up this conversation with me. I will (hopefully) never know the horrors she had to live through, but regardless of that, we had a lot in common. We both love our families. We worry a little about safety. And frankly, we think that perhaps the new equipment at this playground is a little on the dangerous side for small children.

Thinking of how often Muslims in the US probably encounter hostility from others, I hope that my friendly demeanor reinforced a positive view of this woman’s adopted country. After all, one of the foundational principles upon which this country was built was religious toleration (brought to you by the Baptists via Roger Williams…You’re welcome, America). Toleration doesn’t mean that you accept that the religious beliefs of others are correct or that you never debate about them. It means that you don’t let those differences cause you to persecute those not of your own faith. You live side by side in peace.

So who have you encountered lately that broadened your horizons?

Thoughts upon Entering My Mid-Thirties

When I was a child with elastic skin
I sat in the bathroom
and wondered at my mother’s eyelids
stretched into narrow fissures of flesh
by a finger at the corner
then traced with a brown pencil.

Now my son builds imaginary worlds
in the other room
unaware that I am looking in a mirror
stretching my eyelids into fissures of flesh
with a finger at the corner
and tracing them with a brown pencil.