Another “fuck you” to Clean Reader

I had planned on posting this last week, but when I realized last Wednesday was April 1st, I decided to push the post back a week in favor of a post about the ten year anniversary of my grandmother’s death. Then I ended up working 12 hours yesterday, and didn’t much feel like spending more time in front of the computer screen after that. But even if I’m a bit late to the party, I wanted to share my thoughts on the Clean Reader kerfuffle.

A few years ago, my mother scolded my brother for swearing at the dinner table. She rarely does that anymore, seeing as my thirty-plus-year-old brother is probably a lost cause, but for whatever reason, she scolded him that day and she trotted out the old adage about swearing being a sign of poor vocabulary. I vehemently disagree with that statement, so I informed her that I sometimes swear as well. Did she think that I have a poor vocabulary? After all I’ve made my living as a freelance translator for several years, and I’ve never met a language teacher who didn’t love me. She looked at me like I had grown a second and a third head.

It’s safe to say that a lot of what I write would be unaffected by Clean Reader. But sometimes I do include some choice language. When I do, I would very much like that choice to be respected. I understand that some people object to swearing and that’s their right. If I am speaking to someone whom I know does not approve of swearing, I will be considerate of that and not swear in front of them. However, despite not letting f-bombs fly at every moment, I am not against swearing, and I feel that is my right.

Some say that readers should be allowed to consume the books they have purchased any way they please. Clean Reader is simply an advanced way of going through a book and sharpie-ing out the bad words. They say this as if they are assuming that I’m okay with a person doing that. I’m not. Not really, though I recognize that it’s perfectly legal, not to mention that it’s utterly futile to try and stop it. Still, I aim to say something with the stories I tell, and if my words are changed and watered down to support the moral agenda of someone else, it’s no longer my story. Maybe my themes get muddled. Maybe my characterization suffers. Maybe it completely destroys my message. Whatever changes are made, there’s a good chance they interfere with my original intent. That’s true whether you do it with a sharpie or with Clean Reader, but at least the sharpie method is cumbersome and impossible to utilize on a large scale. Clean Reader, on the other hand, provides censorship at the click of a button.

Many balk at that big word, censorship. Surely editing out a few cuss words isn’t censorship? They bleep out words on TV all the time*. What’s the big deal? In my mind, censorship is exactly what it is though. I chose my words carefully,  then someone else came along and changed them to suit them and their beliefs. What is that, if not censorship? How can it be anything but censorship? Am I not allowed to choose words that suit me and my beliefs? I hardly think that Clean Reader is the top of a slippery slope that ends in book burning and the demise of civilization, but it’s bad enough in itself.

The file isn’t being edited, the creators of Clean Reader say. The original file is still there, in all its uncouth glory. Semantics, I say. Clean Reader may technically be legal, but there are a lot of things that are technically legal that I don’t agree with. It’s a loophole. Actually editing the file is illegal. Making it appear edited is not. But the end result of editing and making the text appear edited is much the same. The bottom line remains that Clean Reader takes a person’s words and allows a reader to make them more palatable, regardless of the author’s intent. I’m certainly not saying that every writer weighs their every ‘fuck’ and ‘shit’ carefully; sometimes swearing is just swearing. But the writer has a right to use those words, and nobody should get to put other words in his or her mouth. You don’t like it, nobody is forcing you to keep on reading, and nobody is stopping you from never again picking up a book by the same author.

But people who dislike swearing want great books too! Why should they miss out on all those great books, just because there’s language they don’t agree with? To that I ask, why shouldn’t they? If they make the choice to avoid swearing, good for them, but that choice comes with a sacrifice. Most choices do. Not everyone has to accommodate them. There are plenty of books out there that have little to no swearing. They’re not missing out on all great books, just the ones that don’t conform to their idea of morality. If authors could opt in, then sure. I’m not against so-called “clean” books, and I have nothing against people who do not want to be exposed to swearing. I just don’t want my beliefs to come second to theirs.

Let’s not forget that there would likely be quite a lot of noise made if the tables were turned and someone created a similar app to turn “clean” books into dirtier versions, or to replace all mentions of God with Allah. If one author doesn’t want his or her “fricks” and “shoots” to be turned into “fucks” and “shits”, is it so hard to understand that another author might not want their “fucks” and “shits” turned into “fricks” and “shoots”?

Let’s also discuss some of the choices the creators of Clean Reader made when creating their filters. Is vagina considered profanity? Do women only have “bottoms” below the belt? Is breast a dirty word? I for one struggle to think of a less profane word for female genitalia than vagina, and “breast” is about as innocent as you get as well. In fact, I cannot for the life of me understand how “chest” is less profane than “breast”. I can see why you would blank out many words referring to the human anatomy (even though I obviously disagree with blanking out any words at all), but those? It makes it abundantly clear that the creators consider the human body to be profane in general, and I have absolutely no wish to further that belief in any way. Clean Reader would have forced me to do just that, and the creators of the app would have made money from it to boot.

The fact of the matter is that the words Clean Reader blanks out are heavily biased towards a specific belief system, which I happen to not share. I’m aware that Clean Reader can’t reach into my mind and stop me from writing anything profane. I can still use the words I feel are appropriate for the occasion, and those words will still be there underneath the filter. But if the reader can choose to brush aside my views, my choices, my beliefs with the click of a button, what does that matter?

*I don’t, in fact, agree with bleeping out words on TV either.

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The words we leave behind

My beloved grandmother has been gone exactly ten years today. Her death remains the single most painful experience of my life. I miss her more than I ever imagined missing anyone, and that longing has not been diminished by the time that has passed. A decade later, I would still give almost anything to see her again.

When my family was deciding what to do with her things, her death was still too raw for me to contemplate living without her. I didn’t want her things; I wanted her. As I sat there, silent and distraught over being in her house without her, my father slid her wedding band over to me. It’s become one of my most precious belongings. Even though some have told me I shouldn’t, I’ve worn that ring nearly every day since I got it. I don’t care what other people say; I want to look down at my hand and be reminded that even though she’s gone now, she was here once.

Of course, I have other things that came from her. Presents she gave me, cards she wrote. And I was adamant that the red leather photo album she kept under her living room table be brought to our house. It mostly has pictures of my father and uncles as small children, but there are others too: My grandmother as a four-year-old. My grandmother when she was my age, wearing a pretty coat and clutching her handbag. A young version of my grandfather lying in the grass on a hillside, wearing a stylish fedora. Another one of my grandfather with his arm around another woman with the playful caption “boo!” I love looking at the familiar faces in these pictures, but they can only give me small glimpses into that long-ago time.

Her journals provide a somewhat better view. Unfortunately it turns out that my face and laugh aren’t the only things I inherited from my grandmother: her journal entries were every bit as sporadic as mine are. Two small notebooks spanning all the way from 1989 to 1996 are all I have. There may have been others, but if so, my grandmother either threw them away or they just got lost at some point. I wish there were more.

I’d missed her terribly while I was an exchange student in America, so before she died, I had made vague plans to spend more time with her before going off to university. I wanted to get to know her as a person rather than just as my grandmother. And then she was just gone. Now, there are so many questions I never got to ask, and they no longer have answers. Instead I have her words. They are not enough, not by far. But she can still speak to me through them. As I was reading one of the journals today, a particular passage, written in May of 1991, struck right home:

“Maybe it’s because we think that our lives are about to run out and we haven’t achieved what we were hoping for.”

It pains me to think that my grandmother had dreams that went unfulfilled. She probably did; no one ever has all their wishes come true. Some things are outside our control, and there’s no amount of hard work that can change that. I hope she knew that her life was worthwhile, despite the things she didn’t achieve. My life was made infinitely less when she was no longer in it. But even if she did know that, would she have chased a different life if she was given the chance? What would she say to me if she were here now and knew that I’m fighting my own dreams every step of the way, because I’m scared it might not work out? I doubt she’d want me to spend the remaining years of my life as I have spent the past ten. She loved me as much as I loved her. She would want the same for me that I wanted for her: Every dream fulfilled.

Taking writing off the shelf

This is the fourth version of this post I’ve written since July last year. Who has ever heard of a blog post that has been nearly a year in the making? Perhaps it is fitting though, since my failure to actually complete the post would indicate that I have not, in fact, been ready to start writing again. Am I ready now? I’m not entirely sure, but I’m more ready than I was last summer. At that point I think my desire to write was much greater than my ability to. For a number of reasons, I simply lacked the necessary mental space to dedicate time to writing on a regular basis.

Despite attempting to at various points in my life, I’ve never before been someone who writes every day. At times, I’ve written frequently, and sometimes even many days in a row for a long stretch, but never every day, period. Ever since my early teens, I’ve been the on-and-off type, simply because short bursts of frantic activity were what worked best for me. I would blatantly disregard the advice to have a set schedule, yes, but after taking a few days or weeks off, I would always come back to it with new energy. Until I didn’t have any energy left over for writing at all.

The dry spell started nearly four years ago, when I hit a rough spot financially. I was about a year into my job as a freelance translator, and still in the process of proving myself as a competent and reliable worker. In addition, I was a student with a more than full course load. Needless to say, the combination of studies, a rapidly increasing work load and the constant worry about money was a rather trying. There was always something I was supposed to be doing. I handed in work assignments, because I had to. I went to lectures, attended seminars, wrote papers, took exams, because I had to. Just these basics were often a struggle, but anything beyond seemed insurmountable.

Others may speak of writing as a necessity, something as essential to them as breathing. At times I’ve felt shamed when others talk like this, despite having a very pragmatic approach to writing in general. I’ve never truly related to what they were saying though. If I stop breathing, I will die. If I stop writing? Life will go on. Sometimes I’ve even thought I might be happier if I decided to give up on writing altogether. But somehow, I always seem to end up with a pen in my hand. So even after four years have passed without me accomplishing much in the way of writing, I’ve always believed that I would some day return to it. It didn’t happen when I thought it would, but over the past six months or so, the desire to write has hit me more often. Acting on the desire is still difficult 99% of the time, but the desire is there. I’ve written more in the past month than I did in the entire year that came before it.

I get discouraged a lot, because I’m having a hard time getting into the groove I used to have before the dry spell, or at least the groove I remember having, regardless of whether that memory is real or not. It also seems as though my inferiority complex has grown while I wasn’t looking. I’m finding it very hard to think about people actually reading my words. Someone will inevitably judge them, misunderstand them and misinterpret them. And sometimes I will most likely say stupid things, which is a dangerous pastime on the Internet. I think I find that particularly hard to accept. All my life, people have labeled me as smart, and I’ve been desperate to not prove them wrong.

But now I often find myself wanting to say more stupid things, as long as I’m actually speaking. I want to be louder! My natural inclination is to listen rather than to speak, to defer to others, let others decide and avoid attention at all costs. My opinion has never seemed to weigh as heavily in my mind as other people’s. Right now, it feels like I’m almost taking up a negative amount of space. I’m thinking about what everyone else wants me to do rather than what I want. And what have I ever gotten out of that? Nothing. Sure, nobody ever looked at me and thought, “there goes brainless”, but if that’s the best epithet I get, I will consider my life well and truly wasted.

My twenties have been a dark decade, and now as I’m about to enter my last year of it, why not try something new? I’m not quite sure what that means yet, exactly, but one thing I’m certain of: I will dedicate myself to the words again and through them show myself that brighter days are possible.

On being a woman

As the title suggests, I have plans to be slightly philosophical again today. The reason for that is that this past Monday, I received the results of what’s probably the most important blood test I’ve taken to date: a gene test.

My maternal grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer, and passed away at age fifty, just weeks before I was born. Then six years ago, almost to the date, my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and while I was fortunate enough to keep her, her illness alerted the doctors to a possible gene mutation in our family. More specifically, a mutation in the BRCA gene.

If you have a normal, non-mutated version of this gene, your body will produce a protein that protects you from various forms of cancer, especially breast and ovarian cancer, but also from a number of other types.

If, however, you have a mutated version, something goes awry in the process of making this protein. As far as I understand, your body still produces the protein, but a far less effective version, leaving you less protected. With a mutated BRCA gene, a woman has a 60-80% chance of getting either breast or ovarian cancer during her lifetime. Those aren’t nice numbers.

As it turns out, my mother is a carrier of a mutated BRCA gene, giving me and my siblings a 50/50 chance of being carriers as well. Being a self proclaimed worry wart and hypochondriac, I was completely convinced that I had inherited the gene, but I was rather calm about it. In fact, the doctors whom I had my mandatory consultation with, seemed to think I had more feelings around the possibility of having this mutation than I actually do.

The way I saw it, I either had the gene or I didn’t. If I didn’t, great. If I did, I would rather know about it and take the necessary precautions. I’m happy to say that I do not have the mutated gene, but like I said, I went in to get the results utterly prepared to be told something different.

This means, of course, that I’ve spent a bit of time thinking about what it would be like to live with the knowledge that I had a significantly increased risk of getting breast or ovarian cancer. The recommended course of action is to get yearly scans, and, after producing the desired amount of offspring, having a hysterectomy, and possibly a mastectomy.

Many women feel that these procedures rob them of their womanhood; I balk at the idea of taking out my ovaries and cutting off my breasts, but for entirely different reasons. I would probably have elected to have both the hysterectomy and the mastectomy in the end, because I think I will always choose life over anything else, but I’m glad it’s a choice I don’t have to make.

However, I can’t imagine feeling less of a woman if I were to get rid of my breasts and ovaries. I’m utterly secure in my womanhood and in my sexuality, and I’ve never found cause to question either. I’m not the stereotype of a woman, and I’m glad for that, because stereotypes are so impossibly limiting. No living, breathing person is a stereotype. We’re all more than the flesh we walk around in, though the world around us always tries to push us into its neat little boxes. Women are like this, men are like that. But we’re not.

Of all the traits I have, you can’t point to anything and say “this is what makes you a woman”, be it physical or psychological. We are not our sex, but living beings responding to the world around us. But everyone’s just guessing; no one really knows what it means to be a woman, or a man for that matter. We just make it up as we go along, whether we apply our theories to ourselves, or to the people we meet. Being a woman, being a man, being human… It’s all just improvisation.

Why so skeptical?

The kerfuffle around the late release of the e-book version of the final book of the Wheel of Time has had me thinking about e-readers this week. More specifically, I’m wondering why people are resisting it. Maybe I’m the exception to the rule, but despite being a book lover for as long as I can remember, long before e-readers were even on the scene, there has never been a time when I’ve been skeptical towards them. I didn’t get one until my parents gave me one for Christmas in 2011, but that was always more about lack of money than a lack of desire to have one.

I understand that people love physical books. I love physical books. Flipping through the list of book on my Kindle can’t compare to standing in front of my overflowing bookshelves to pick out just the one I’m in the mood for. It’s the same thing with brick and mortar bookstores. I’ve spent far too much time (and money) in such places, and gotten far too much enjoyment out of browsing to ever want to see them go away.

However, all the things I love about a physical book are secondary. When it comes down to it, it’s not the act of reading I love. It seems like they’re inextricably intertwined, but the act of reading is to me simply a means to reach my true love, which is the stories. I don’t care whether they come to me in the form of audiobooks, if they’re carved into stone tablets— or if I have to press a button instead of turning a page.

I don’t think I will ever forgo physical books completely, but on the flip side, if my Kindle ever breaks, I would find it difficult to forgo that too. It has introduced me to stories I never would have taken a chance on otherwise, and quite frankly, it’s made my book habit a lot more sustainable, not to mention the favor it has done the people who have to help me when I move.

What about you? Are you welcoming e-readers, or do they have to pry paper books from your cold, dead fingers?

Goals

When I first started school, my teacher would hand out worksheets at the beginning of each week, detailing our homework for every day of the week. You knew exactly what you were expected to do, and when you were expected to have it done. This was an environment I excelled in. My mother grins when she talks about how I told her that she would never have to nag me about my homework like she did my brother.

I was true to my word, too; I may not always have enjoyed doing my homework, but I thrived on the structure that school provided me with. It was never difficult for me to sit down to get my homework done, and I always settled down at my desk as soon as I came home. No dawdling, no fuss. Friends were invariably told to wait if they came to hang out before I was done. By me, not my mother.

Then, towards the end of elementary school, things changed. We were still given worksheets at the beginning of each week, but instead of detailing what needed to be done each day, we were told what needed to be done each week. That’s when I started slipping. Without specific tasks to complete each day, I started leaving things to the last minute, and that’s the way it’s been ever since.

My procrastination has led to a lot of frustration for me. Not just academically, but in most aspects of my life, including writing. Over the years, it’s become increasingly clear that I need to make changes, and, thinking back on the ease and willingness with which I did my homework, I think that’s the key. What works for me is to take small steps and reaching partial goals rather than trying to build Rome in a day, so to speak.

Last semester, I had three very simple goals to help me do better academically. I would go to the library every day of the week, I would read the assigned articles before every lecture, and I would create a clearer separation between school and free time (i.e. not study after getting home from the library). I won’t say that it worked perfectly, but it worked well enough because the goals were specific and not terribly hard to reach. In the past, I’ve always lost motivation because of my tendency to bite over much more than I can chew, and nothing is more disheartening than setting yourself a goal you cannot reach.

So I’ve decided that I will apply the same principle to my writing. Every day in 2013 I will write at least 100 words. To some, this might seem like a ridiculously small number. Why even bother turning on your laptop for such a measly progress, right? But I can already tell that it’s working for me. I’ve been doing it for a little over a week, and unlike other goals I’ve set myself, I’ve actually met this one.

It’s not like I have an excuse to not do it. It takes all of two minutes. And then, once I’m warmed up, I often keep going. The first day, I wrote 112 words, and it was agony. The second day, I wrote a little more. The third, a little more. And so on and so forth. I’m not expecting it to always be a little more, but a lot of days it is.

My goal is a minimum. I can exceed it if I want. But there’s no pressure to. I still get the satisfaction of having reached a goal, but there’s no guilt when I can’t carve out an hour to write in a schedule that is crazy and unpredictable most of the time.

So that’s my writing goal for 2013, and hopefully, beyond. What’s yours?

Definition of a writer

I’ve written and rewritten this post many times. Some versions only got a first draft, others went through a second, and some even a third. It seemed to me that the first post I ever made on this blog should be a memorable one, a post that could trick everyone who read it into thinking that I’m clever and eloquent. But no matter how many drafts and versions I went through, nothing seemed like it would be good enough to mark my debut into the world of writers’ blogs. In fact, the more I wrote, the less clever and eloquent I felt. Maybe blogging wasn’t for me after all.

This indecision reminds me a lot about what I go through when I write fiction. I’ve got a lot of ideas. Sometimes new ones come to me daily. Sometimes even more frequently. Sadly, few of them are ever more than a few hastily scribbled words so that they won’t exit my head as quickly as it entered. I’ve written novel length pieces before, but at the beginning of each, I always have so many questions to pull me down. Am I a good enough writer to tell this story? Is this story good enough to be told? What if I inadvertently say something with the story that I don’t want to say? What if people don’t like what I have to say? And at the end, I’m none the wiser about the answers.

In the end, it comes down to one thing: fear. Fear of putting myself out there, fear of being me, fear of being misunderstood, fear of not being liked, but most of all, fear of being defined. I hate the idea of labeling myself and being labeled. I don’t want to be one thing; I want to be everything. I want to elicit laughter and tears, rage and joy. I want to make people stop and think, and I want to make them race breathlessly towards the end. I want from my writing what I want from life: Every shade of every emotion, and insight into every human condition. Most of the time, it seems like too much to ask. But I need to ask anyway.

I can’t be afraid forever. Or maybe I can, but I can’t always let that fear dictate my life. If I want to be a writer, I have to write, regardless of whether the output warps the perfection in my head, and regardless of  the opportunity that it gives the world to define me. If I put words on paper, I may lose my mythical “one day”, but “one day” won’t come at all if I don’t start walking towards it. So here’s my first step.