NB: a major new podcast

April 1, 2019 § Leave a comment

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Writing from the trashfire that is the UK’s current media landscape, it is such an unbelievable joy to be able to share some good news.

And this is really good news.

Writer/filmmaker/performer Amrou Al-Kadhi and presenter/producer Caitlin Benedict have gathered together some of the most exciting trans and/or non-binary creatives and campaigners in the UK, and made a SEVEN EPISODE LONG series for the BBC.

NB – BBC Sounds

Made by trans people, featuring trans people, covering the topics trans people want to discuss, without compromise – all on one of the biggest media platforms in the world.

This is the trans media I’ve been desperate for. And it’s so, so good.

We’re such experts at sharing the worst transphobia the media has to throw at us (see epic twitter thread here).

I’d love to see us put in even half that much energy into sharing a triumph like this.

Happy listening.

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5 things being a published author has taught me

March 7, 2019 § 5 Comments

Trans Like Me, my first book, was published nearly two years ago, at the end of May 2017. 2018 brought the international tour, audiobook recording, and North American/Canadian release. Today marks the publication of the mass market paperback edition from Virago Press – cheaper, brighter, and easier to stuff in a pocket.

I’ve been thinking a lot about all the things that have changed during this time. When TLM was first released I made a post about what I’d learned during the process of levelling up from a blogger to a published author, as advice to anyone hoping to make the same leap, and as a way of clarifying my own experiences. Looking back now, it feels like I’ve learned just as much during these two years of ongoing book work – speaking, lecturing, recording, marketing – as I did in that initial upgrade process.

It helped me to take the time to figure it out and wrestle it in words. Here’s hoping it helps you too.

 

Lesson One: Your career is your career, and your demons are your demons…

…and the former cannot fix the latter.

For a great many of us, myself included, writing (and art in general) can function as a form of therapy. It’s where we go to explore the hardest, most challenging parts of life. But more than that – it can also be a place where we go to pin our hopes of being validated, of proving ourselves worthy, of finally feeling ‘enough’. And I’m sorry to say this, but that just doesn’t work.

 

That feeling ‘am I good enough?’?  You will never be enough, because nothing can ever be enough to placate that feeling. That’s simply not how that feeling works – it isn’t logical, and it can’t be solved by logical means.

The more reasonable, compassionate part of me is deeply soothed by the way my career has grown over the last two years. More than that: delighted, humbled, scared, and excited. It has made a signifiant material difference to be recognised for my work, to be paid for my work, to be given additional chances to work, and for those chances to be challenging and provide ongoing development.

But I still have those ravenous demons: feed me, feed me, feed me. The ones who can’t acknowledge a good review, or a great audience, or an amazing opportunity, because for some reason it ‘doesn’t count’, ‘it’s not enough’, ‘it doesn’t matter’. They are never satisfied. It isn’t a question of trying harder, because they will undermine every last exhausting effort. They are always chasing after some unknowable, unachievable, imaginary success that will make everything right. You cannot win the game on their terms.

I’m sorry (not sorry) to say that the only thing I’ve found that genuinely helps with those demons is therapy. And writing, while frequently therapeutic, is no substitute for the real thing.

 

Lesson Two: Your life will change, but only by degrees

Obviously, discard this point if you’re JK Rowling. Also, if you’re JK Rowling…no, I don’t have the energy to go there.

Anyway – for the majority of published authors what you’re doing pre-publication is going to be very similar to what you’re doing post-publication. For me that was public speaking, broadcast and print media, lectures, and arts events. I’m still doing all of those things – what’s changed is not the kind of work I’m doing, but the scale of it, and the fact that I’m no longer (always) going it alone. Those changes have built on the foundation I had in place before I even had an agent. And, even with the help of my publishers, I wouldn’t be doing half of what I do now if I’d allowed myself to become complacent.

It is not an easy world out there for most writers. There’s a myth that once you have a publisher you can just sit back and wait for the money to roll in. But the truth is that you have to make the most of every opportunity: make your own events, tap every network, apply for jobs/residencies/placements, sell tickets to shows, promote the hell out of your book. It may not seem fair – it may not match the image of ‘the writer’ that many of us carry around in our heads – but it’s the reality of the industry.

Being published isn’t a Cinderella story – it’s more like slowly building a house from the foundations up.

 

Lesson Three: A great many people who review your book will not, in fact, be reviewing your book

They will, however, be using it as a hook to write about whatever else it is they want to say. Sadly, this applies to professional journalists just as much as to GoodReads reviewers.

It is immediately, and painfully, apparent which reviewers have read the book, and which ones have just read the press release and then skimmed the first and last chapter. These reviewers are happy to ascribe their own views to you, and then go off in whatever direction they please. There’s absolutely nothing you can do about this – and the best advice I can give is to learn how to shrug it off, because it will happen more frequently than it should.

When it comes to reviews, I know that some authors recommend avoiding them altogether. I prefer to take the opposite viewpoint, and look for trends. When it’s clear that the reviewer hasn’t actually read it, then feel free to discard. Of the rest, look for the common denominators, the points that come up again and again, and see how those insights can improve your writing. But don’t let someone take up space in your head when they haven’t even done you the decency of letting you into theirs.

 

Lesson Four: It is impossible to please everyone

Here are some of the things people have said about my Trans Like Me: that it is far too complicated and academic, and that it’s too simple and straightforward. That it placates cis people, and that it’s too angry for cis people to want to read. That only trans people will want to read it, and that trans people have nothing to gain by reading it. That I’m both too didactic and too vague, too extreme and too conservative.

More than any other experience, writing a book has taught me the truth of the fact that the reader is the co-creator of the work. And, in a few select cases, the sole creator.

It’s difficult when the most negative people (and the ones most likely to make up their own version of events) are the loudest, whether that’s through negative articles in the press or bullying on social media. But what really helps me is to remember my original aims with my work, and who it was I actually wrote the book for.

At the end of the day, why would I want to be praised by people I don’t respect? A trans positive book, from a trans feminist perspective, was never going to be popular with the right wing press or online trolls – whether of the TERF or the MRA variety. If it had been popular with them, then something would have gone horribly wrong. Thank god they hated it – it proved I was on the right track.

We – myself, my agent, my editors, my publishers – set out to create an accurate, compassionate book which would break out of the two most popular genres of trans literature to date – the memoir and the academic tome. I wanted to write something which was impeccably researched, and still easy enough to read on the bus or the train. I wanted to write it for the teenager I was – someone desperate to find their place in the world – and for the adults I know now, who want a genuine, open-minded and open-ended discussion about who we are and where we’re going. On every measure we set for ourselves, we have succeeded. What bigots want to say about that is irrelevant.

 

Lesson Five: The work goes on

You will never say all that you want to say in one book. Even that one book will never quite be over – there’s always more to add, always another edit it could have had and, sadly, always another typo to find.

But beyond that book – the work goes on to other books. Other projects. Other ways of engaging. And it’s okay for that to take a while to come into focus. It’s okay for one project – particularly a debut – to be all consuming while it’s happening. It’s normal not to be able to see beyond it, particularly when it hits the stage of writing where it feels like your brain has forgotten that it ever knew any language at all, and your fingers refuse to type.

But that stage does come to a close, and while that is a process of loss and ending as well as celebration and success, it also propels you to the next step.

I don’t know all of what that is for me. I have another book I’m aiming to finish this year. I can’t say yet whether it will be good enough to show anyone, although I’m hoping it will be. What I will say is that publishing a book has allowed me to live its full life cycle in a way that writing books without publication (as I have done before) has not – and that is a tremendous gift.

I hope it’s one you get to experience for yourself.


 

Recommended by The New York Times, Times Literary Supplement, and Publishers Weekly, Trans Like Me is available worldwide in all good bookshops and online, in paperback, audiobook, and e-book.

Book covers

 

What’s the difference between Channel 4’s Genderquake and Jerry Springer?

May 10, 2018 § Leave a comment

Optics, not content. Writing for The Huffington Post on the exploitation of trans people and out of date controversy. Read it here:

https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/genderquake-channel-4-propped-up-old-prejudices-and-dressed-it-up-as-controversy_uk_5af40b2ee4b09bb419e527c8?cf5

An incredibly busy year

April 16, 2018 § Leave a comment

There’s a reason why there was no blogging for the rest of 2017…or for the beginning of 2018, and I think it’s a good one: I’ve been on book tour, on album tour – and writing and speaking everywhere else but here. Only so many hours in the day – and a lot to try to remember – but I’m finally remembering to fill everyone in on the blog.

2017 was UK based: book festivals, community events, training days, university conferences, scratch nights and book shops. The kind of things I’ve been talking about – trans lives, gender, change and hope – are all featured in the BBC Radio 4 show below  – and in the accompanying article.

Word of Mouth

CN Lester on language and gender identity

For the Photographer’s Gallery, I wrote about the challenge of the cis gaze – in the street, and backwards and forwards in time:

Being seen

And for the Barbican: the struggle to understand other trans people without collapsing their realities into our own.

Trans lives: whose words?

 

The highlight of 2018 so far has to be the trip to Sydney to speak to the All About Women feminist festival as part of a trans panel featuring Sally Goldner, Jordan Raskopoulos, and Eddie Ayres. I’m still processing how transformative the whole experience was – but the panel is on YouTube for all who want it:

Feminism Beyond Gender Binaries

And I had the best interview experience ever with SBS…

SBS CN Lester

 

The rest of 2018 is shaping up to be just as full: shooting an art project with Daniel Barter, recording the audiobook for Trans Like Me in May, getting ready for American publication in June , preparing for the most ambitious Transpose ever in December, and gigging/speaking around the country. And trying to finish my PhD.

Twitter and Facebook are best for more regular news – but I’ll try to update here more often. Enormous thanks to everyone who’s read this far – and in particular the people who’ve been reading for years, and the book besides. Onwards and upwards. And, finally, in white tie and tails…

 

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credit to AbsolutQueer photography

The Production of Ignorance

July 25, 2017 § 4 Comments

What the media gets wrong about trans people, how misinformation is perpetuated, and what we can do about it. The first chapter of Trans Like Me: A Journey for All of Us – in all good bookstores now.


 

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Daily Express, January 2011: ‘“Half Man” gets new breasts (and guess who’s paying £78k).’

Courier Mail, October 2014: ‘Monster Chef and the She Male.’

The Times, February 2016: ‘I’m just a bloke, says sex-change soldier.’

Daily Mail, October 2015: ‘Children as young as FOUR being given transgender lessons.’

 

We’re often the butt of the joke: The Sun’s 2011 game ‘Tran or woman?’. There’s an air of the freak show about us, an invitation to peer into the bizarre realities of our lives: ‘Transsexual, 44, elects to die by euthanasia after botched sex-change operation turned him into a “monster”.’ Even when the intent is celebratory, we are marked out as different and strange: CNN’s list of the most influential people of 2014 described actress and advocate Laverne Cox as ‘The Gender Bender’.

Here are a few of the things the media shows, and has shown, trans people to be: confused, deceitful, delusional, damaged, predatory, brave (sometimes), pitiable, pathetic. A punchline, a warning, a mistake.

Here are a few of the things I am: a singer, a teacher of music, a good (if forgetful) friend, a loving child and grand- child, a loved and loving partner. I am a doctoral student, a decent cook, too ambitious, too anxious, a composer of all kinds, and someone who tries, at least, to be better than my worries would have me be. And I’m also transgender.

« Read the rest of this entry »

Questions to Answer?

July 13, 2017 § Leave a comment

I’ve been touring with Trans Like Me for about a month and a half now, and we always run over time in the Q&A sessions. So, it made sense to do an online Q&A – a video for people who like vlogging, and a transcript for those who don’t.

Any questions about trans activism, history, feminisms, futures? About taking a book from inspiration to publication? Leave a comment, and I’ll do my best.

From blog to book: 5 things I learnt along the way

June 21, 2017 § 49 Comments

On December 18th, 2015, I posted a blog entry: the option for my first book, Trans Like Me, had been picked up by Virago, for UK and Commonwealth publication. It’s a year and a half later – and I’ve been in bookstores for nearly a month, with American publication scheduled for next year with Seal Press.

Trans Like Me Side view

When I first began this blog, back in 2010, I never imagined that what I wrote and explored here would form the foundation of a book. I did want to write a book about gender – about being transgender in particular – but always figured it would be an academic text with a long and referential name. I’d seen people blogging with the express intention of getting a book deal, and wasn’t impressed – the results too often veered between transparent and inauthentic, and flat-out desperate.

But plans pan out in odd ways, and (amazingly), here we are. A piece of advice which has always helped me is to write what you’ve needed to read. It’s certainly what I tried to do with Trans Like Me – and I thought it might be useful to do the same thing about what I wished I’d known about the process of writing for publication. Not the nuts and bolts of finding an agent and selling a book (good advice found here) – but some steps which helped me move from writing from a smaller to a larger audience, and to find exactly what it was I needed to write.

 

1. Define your core values

I began blogging for a number of reasons: because I’d been writing for online publications since my teens and had missed it, because I wanted to be part of a broader conversation, and because I wanted to reach out and find more people at least a little like me. Two other reasons: I thought it would help my career in general, and because I believed I had something useful to say. I got the confidence to put those reasons in practice through a workshop I attended at the MIDEM conference in January 2011. Amidst the corporate horror and music-as-commodity, there was some amazing advice on how to build a career as an independent musician. First and foremost: ‘define your values’.

You could be cynical, and call it ‘building a brand’ – but it’s more than that, and deeper. The rest of the seminars talked about creating a persona to sell copy with – but this one workshop explained how to find the best in yourself, learn how to get comfortable with it, and to communicate those values to others. To become secure enough in who you know yourself to be that it becomes your calling card, and protection against the kinds of quick and easy temptations that can scupper a career.

I figured that the best I could bring to my work was my sincerity, my love of knowledge, and my willingness to turn that knowledge on its side and see what changes. Those values gave me a lens to work through, and – when my career picked up and a range of offers started coming in – an easy way to filter out those that didn’t mesh with my deepest instincts. Trust me: if you’re any kind of marginalized writer, the majority of interest you’re shown at the beginning will be on the condition that you fit yourself into a predetermined niche. Knowing what I was best at, what I was proud of, and what lines I wouldn’t cross made it easier to turn down work from tabloids that spread hatred, not to sell a sob story and ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos. Most of us have to make compromises as we go – but I’m really glad I decided on what I would and wouldn’t do before I was put to the test.

 

2. Define your intent

Who are you writing for? Yourself, your friends, your community, the wider world? What is it that they want to read? And how are you prepared to challenge both them and yourself?

I think it’s okay not to know those answers starting out, and to be totally prepared for those answers to change – maybe over time, maybe piece by piece. But I don’t think I would have grown as a writer if I hadn’t paid close attention to which pieces resonated with which readers, and learned how to balance my need for expression with others’ need for information and understanding.

After a few years of writing I noticed that it was my more educational posts that were getting the most hits and shares, and the best feedback. It gave (it gives) me pleasure, and purpose, to be able to help people to learn, and my educational posts were the ones that led to my most high profile and profitable commissions. Snarky, personal posts? Not so much. And, to be honest, I didn’t enjoy them so much, although they felt cathartic to write – I didn’t feel like I was expressing myself so well, and I wasn’t sure how much I was adding to anyone else’s day. So I stopped worrying about writing those feelings and thoughts up as posts: I can send my friends long, snarky rants without anything held back, and can focus the small amount of writing time I have on playing to my strengths.

 

3. Forge connections

This was the hardest step. I’m a performer, so most people assume that I’m super confident at all times. But I’ve had plenty of experience of being judged, hated and excluded – I don’t often find networking as easy as it might look on the outside.

Nevertheless, there’s no way I would have landed a book deal without the kindness of others. And I think that, for most people who want to move from blogging to mainstream/paid publication, forging connections is an essential part of the job.

There’s a lot that’s been written about how to play people and tilt the field in your favour – I’m not so sure about that. But what I have found to help:
* See possibilities everywhere. I was introduced to my agent, Laura Macdougall, by the writer Kaite Welsh. I’d met Kaite through the website the F word – I’d sent a press release for a classical concert, Kaite reviewed it, and I reached out to say thank you. She got in contact for an interview, we bonded, she fell off a stage, the interview was pulled…but we stayed in contact. Which leads to my second point…
* Don’t be afraid to ask for an informational interview.  Shortly after the stage incident, I asked Kaite if she’d be willing to answer some questions about the literary field in exchange for coffee and muffins – and she said yes. You might be surprised by how often people are prepared to say yes. That interview gave me the information and confidence I needed to push for the next stage in my career – and, to be honest, meeting with people you admire, working at the stage above you, helps to get your name into the ring.
* Do your research. Research into the people and the fields you’re trying to connect with, and into the work you need to do. Creating a Life Worth Living by Carol Lloyd, and Beyond Talent by Angela Beeching were invaluable tools.
* Follow up! There’s no point in having those conversations, exchanging those emails, pencilling in dates, if you never make good on them. Set a reminder. And then set several more.
* Identify what it is you have to trade. Writing (and music) are notoriously shitty for paying in ‘exposure’. Nearly all of us have day jobs, and learning the balance between taking unpaid gigs while also learning how to negotiate yourself a living wage is a tough one. But there are times where I think it’s worth it to take unpaid work, and that’s where you’re able to trade something other than money. A singing lesson for an editing session, for example. A charity gig that will genuinely expand your base, while helping a good cause. Know your worth, know what you can give, and make sure you’re getting in return.

 

4. Allow for more time than you think you need

…and know that none of it is wasted if you choose to make use of what you learn.

Writing Trans Like Me

Writing the first draft in one week, 2016

Despite not seeing myself writing a work of popular non-fiction, I was fully convinced (in 2010) that I would be a published author by, say, 2014. I had been writing fiction for years, and had had interest from agents since my teens. I had a novel ready to sell, and was sure that my academic gender tome would be ready before long.

If I’d have known that it would take another seven years, I would have been utterly overwhelmed by that odious mixture of blocked ambition and total sense of failure familiar to so many of us.  It would have crushed me. And yet, of course – obviously – I couldn’t have written this book that I’m so proud of without all of those seven years – sense of failure and all.

Everything I’ve done in that time has helped me to become a better writer – everything. The additional personal hardships I’ve experienced have led me to a greater sense of compassion, an ability to sit with what is painful without the need to be flippant or caustic. All the additional years of teaching and training taught me better ways of expressing myself and communicating concepts unfamiliar to the listener or reader. Broadening the scope of my reading (my early blog posts are heavily influenced by the postgrad music psychology/psychotherapy research I was doing at the time) made my writing more legible. And, as much as it shouldn’t happen: experiencing incremental degrees of crap from strangers on the internet did help me learn how to protect myself – as much as anyone is able to.

For the first time, I’m able to contemplate temporal ‘setbacks’ with a sense of equanimity, rather than panic and shame. You have to get there on your own but, if you’re struggling with a sense of ‘wasting time’ or not being good enough fast enough, please know that you’re not the only one, and that you’re not condemned to feel that way forever.

 

5. Connect the dots

There will always be a glut of writers on the subject closest to your heart. No theme is original, and every field is crowded. But, if you’re going to try, I think the best way forward is to embrace everything particular to your own experience – especially the parts that don’t feel special – and connect the dots to find your place.

Obviously, that’s not how everyone does it. Plenty of people are prepared to lie about themselves, craft a fake persona, for the chance of a book deal: look at the success of Thug Kitchen. I’m sure they’ve made a hell of a lot more money than me.

But I know that what makes me go back to a particular blog, share it with my friends, pre-order a hardback I can’t really afford, is honesty. It’s the combination of experiences and insights that combine to make a truly unique guide to a subject you thought you knew, that allows you, once again, to find the extraordinary in the everyday. It’s watching someone use every talent they possess – whether that’s as a carer, a parent, a teacher, a patient, whatever – as another tool with which to reach their readers.

There are plenty of trans writers out there. There are plenty of non-trans people writing about trans lives. When I started blogging about trans issues, and my own trans life, I didn’t always see how every other part of me could factor in. But the more I did it, the more I allowed my barriers to drop, the more I could do – and the more useful it became.

I would always pick a writer that brings their total self to the page over one who thinks that a ‘writer’ is somehow not a total person. I think that a great many readers – and agents and editors – would agree.

Happy writing.