Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Guest Post Wed: Doll in the Family

From Dennis Milam Bensie (Chapter 1 from Shorn: Toys to Men)



Novelist James Jones enlisted in the Army and left his hometown of Robinson, Illinois in 1939. His experiences during the attack on Pearl Harbor inspired his first published book, From Here to Eternity.
For his second book, Some Came Running, he used Robinson as the backdrop. This semi-autobiographical novel centers around a failed writer named Dave Hirsh, orphaned as a child, who comes home after serving in World War II to a fictionalized version of Robinson (renamed Parkman, Indiana) to find family divisions, sexual repression, and other unsavory vices. The book was described as shrill and bitter by its critics. The 1958 Oscar-nominated film was a scandal when it played at the Lincoln Theater, a few blocks away from Jones’ childhood home.  
My dad was a local hero similar to characters in any of James Jones’ war themed novels. He returned home to Robinson from the Korean War allegedly the most decorated soldier in Crawford County, having earned four purple hearts. He married my mom in 1951, two years before the end of the war, and struggled to settle into a job and married life. He later gained an enormous amount of weight. Seldom emotional or affectionate, my dad was undoubtedly the king of our house and was never very open-minded or worldly. I knew that he loved my mom, but I saw him kiss her fewer than three times in my entire life.
The roles of men and women have always been clearly defined in Robinson. As a boy I felt I had nothing in common with my dad, so instead, my mom was my hero. Mom had a kind heart and ran our household quite well. Like my dad, she held down a factory job most of her life. It was nothing for her to make dinner, read half of a romance novel and still manage to grab an ax and chop limbs off of a tree in the front yard. My dad rarely moved from his recliner in front of the television, which he occupied every evening. When he tipped the scales at over three hundred pounds, my mom tied his shoes for him every morning before work without complaint.
My parents had been married almost fifteen years by the time I came around. We lived in the country, seven miles outside the Robinson city limits. I had no brothers or sisters, and no neighbor children lived nearby. I was a lonely and shy child. Exposure to other kids was limited to school time and family get-togethers, where I played with the five or six cousins who were around my age.
When I got my very first report card, my Kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Wallace, stated that I “seemed to prefer the company of girls. Maybe the boys are too rough?”
The comment bothered my parents. There was good reason for their concern; I ran like a girl, talked like a girl and acted like a girl. However, I don’t remember ever really wishing I was a girl. I was a boy and never wanted to change that. I was simply effeminate and liked “girl” toys rather than “boy” toys.
I remember playing with dolls with my cousins at their house. I loved to play with dolls. I thought dolls were wonderful replicas of people and vastly more interesting than inanimate objects like trucks and cars. There was no one to play with at home, so I would have been content to surround myself with dolls. My dad, however, disapproved.
“I told you, Denny: boys don‘t play with dolls,” my dad would gruffly declare.
Out of desperation, I wondered if paper dolls were somehow more acceptable than three-dimensional dolls.
The fact that all of the details were drawn on seemed to make them less likely to breach gender taboos. I negotiated with my mom and talked her into buying a set of Archie Comic Book paper dolls for me. I lied and said I would play with Archie and Jughead more than Betty and Veronica, but the girls always seemed to have more interesting clothes and hair than the boys. I felt sneaky when I played with them. On the rare occasions when my parents had company, I was told to hide my paper dolls in the back bedroom to avoid embarrassment.
“You don’t want people to think you’re a sissy, do you Denny?” my dad warned.
I wasn’t sure if my parents were more worried about protecting me or themselves from embarrassment. My paper dolls were the only toy I was ever told to hide.
When the Archie paper dolls wore out, I asked my mom to buy me another set of paper dolls to replace them.
“You’re too old for that,” she said. I hoped my mom didn’t tell my dad I wanted another set.
My grandma was always less uptight about my girlish qualities and interests. I never felt judged when spending time with her. She was my maternal grandma and the only grandmother I had left. There was a toy box in her garage that contained a few dolls I played with. They were hand-me-down baby dolls that were broken and dirty from years of play and abuse administered by my older cousins. It was very hard to muster enough imagination to enjoy playing with those dolls.
A few days later, after my mom said no to getting me another set of paper dolls, I asked my grandma. She enthusiastically said yes. Grandma helped me pick out a set of teen fashion model paper dolls that had cool outfits and a different hairstyle to go with each look. The set was special to me because there were only girl dolls. I was relieved because I didn’t have to pretend to play with the boy dolls as much as the girl dolls. That afternoon, as I sat at my grandma’s house cutting out the dolls, I felt liberated. She even helped me do some of the cutting. It was strange and wonderful to be sitting out in the open with a doll in my hand. I wasn’t hurting anyone, and no one was going to hurt me.
Grandma and I agreed it was a good idea to leave the paper dolls at her house and made sure to hide them before my parents picked me up. Grandma and I both knew the only ones I was hiding the dolls from at her house were my parents. I hoped someday to have an interesting doll of my choice that I would not have to hide at all.
Over the years, I had a few GI Joe dolls of my own. Because of the doll’s military theme, my dad never had a problem with them. I had absolutely no interest in anything military, but liked the clothes-changing possibilities of my GI Joe. I was lost for enjoyment beyond that. I loved fashion, so I designed a strapless gown for GI Joe by cutting the toe out of a tube sock. Yet, I wanted to make real clothes for GI Joe. I taught myself how to sew by hand and began making more dresses out of my mom’s fabric scraps.
I really wanted GI Joe to have long hair like a girl. I quickly became skilled at making little yarn wigs for the GI Joes and taping them to their heads. I spent hours styling the action figure’s yarn hair, braiding and combing the hair with a wide-tooth comb. It didn’t matter to me that GI Joe had a flocked beard and mustache. In my mind, he was a beautiful young woman.
With no brothers or sisters to distract me, I spent all my free time immersed in my feminine fantasies, alone in my bedroom with the door closed. My parents seldom disturbed my playtime. It wasn’t unusual to come home from school and spend the entire evening in my room with my GI Joe in drag, only emerging to eat a quick dinner or go to the bathroom.
I made sure to keep the drag GI Joe all to myself. My choices during playtime would surely be questioned by my parents, especially my dad.
Changing GI Joe’s gender gave me an exciting idea when Halloween came around:
Every Sunday night I watch the Cher show.
It is my favorite show because she is funny and has very long, pretty hair. I want my hair to look like hers so I could have lots to play with.
If I had hair like hers I would be happy, but I know people would think I was doing something wrong.
My Dad would be mad.
Boys are not supposed to have long hair.
I will tell Mom and Dad and everyone I am going Trick or Treating as a hippie, but secretly I know that my Halloween costume is Cher.
The most important part of the Cher costume to me would obviously be the wig. There were no wig shops in Robinson. It didn’t matter because I decided I could make my own Cher wig. I took my mom’s rubber swim cap, poked holes in it and meticulously tied long pieces of black yarn into each hole to make the wig. I spent hours and hours handcrafting the wig, trying it on many times during the construction period.
When I was finished, I was more excited about Halloween than I had ever been in the past. I was also excited because I knew I had a wig to play with after Halloween. Mom caught me wearing the wig, along with the fringed vest and bell bottom pants from my costume, and singing along with Cher to “Half Breed” on more than one occasion.
That homemade yarn wig was my favorite toy for over a month. I styled it over and over with pins and braids and anything else I could come up with. I also created many fantasy characters and situations while wearing it. I liked to pretend to be all of the things little girls pretended to be: princesses, gypsies, teachers, fashion models.
I didn’t have a Styrofoam wig head so I made a block for the wig by stuffing and molding a pair of Mom’s pantyhose around a large circular Crisco can. I tacked the wig to the can with thumb tacks and even drew a face it.
It eventually became less and less important to actually wear the wig on my head. It became much more interesting to manipulate the fantasy character than to actually wear the “skins” of the characters. I started altering the wig less with braiding and pinning and became drawn to more serious styling techniques that involved cutting the wig. I knew that the yarn would not grow back, and eventually, I would not be able to play with the wig in the same way. I cut the wig a little at a time, pacing myself to make the experience last as long as I could, examining all possibilities of each length. The wig went from Cher to Marlo Thomas length then ended up as a Liza Minnelli bob.
I discovered that I really enjoyed cutting the yarn hair into different styles. Cutting hair made me feel powerful. At this point, I didn’t really understand what the power was or the validation it could provide. It wasn’t long before my parents found out that I had a campy attachment to that homemade wig. By Christmas, the yarn hair was cut short and the cap was beyond repair. Mom wasted no time tossing it in the trash.
Once the Cher wig was gone, I became desperate for anything I could put on my head and pretend was long hair. I figured out that a bath towel could be thrown over my head to frame my face and fashion a beautiful, ultra-long head of pretend hair. The same could be done with a long silky scarf or a T-shirt. These household items let me cleverly continue experiencing my long-haired fantasies.
My dad teased me in his gruff manner, often demanding that I stop acting like a girl. His tone not only frightened me, but often made me feel like I was doing something shameful.
  

About the Author:


Dennis Milam Bensie grew up in Robinson, Illinois where his interest in the arts began in high school participating in various community theatre productions. Bensie’s first book,  Shorn: Toys to Men was nominated for the Stonewall Book Award, sponsored by the American Library Association. It was also a pick in the International gay magazine The Advocate as “One of the Best Overlooked Books of 2011″. The author’s short stories have been published by Bay Laurel, Everyday Fiction, and This Zine Will Change Your Lifeand he has also been a feature contributor for The Good Men Project. One Gay Americanis his second book with Coffeetown Press and it was chosen as a finalist in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards and the Indie Excellence Book Awards. He was a presenter at the 2013 Saints and Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans. Dennis lives in Seattle with his three dogs.

You can find out more about Dennis Milam Bensie, his memoirs and World of Ink Author/Book Tour at http://tinyurl.com/lhtvxyt

To learn more about the World of Ink Tours visit http://worldofinknetwork.com  

Friday, July 19, 2013

Interview Friday with Dennis Milam Bensie



Dennis Milam Bensie grew up in Robinson, Illinois where his interest in the arts began in high school participating in various community theatre productions. Bensie’s first book,  Shorn: Toys to Men was nominated for the Stonewall Book Award, sponsored by the American Library Association. It was also a pick in the International gay magazine The Advocate as “One of the Best Overlooked Books of 2011″. The author’s short stories have been published by Bay Laurel, Everyday Fiction, and This Zine Will Change Your Lifeand he has also been a feature contributor for The Good Men Project. One Gay Americanis his second book with Coffeetown Press and it was chosen as a finalist in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards and the Indie Excellence Book Awards. He was a presenter at the 2013 Saints and Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans. Dennis lives in Seattle with his three dogs.
 

VS: Dennis, I want to thank you for being my guest here on The Writing Mama today. What do you do to help balance your writing life with your family life?

Dennis: I am single and do not have a family. I would love to have a family and hope to find a LTR someday. I balance my writing life with dating and the pursuit of finding that life partner. That is what my book, ONE GAY AMERICAN, is all about.

VS: It is a great book too, but before we get into you recent memoir, how long have you been writing?

Dennis: I have always written. I have journaled my whole life. My high school newspaper was the News N’ Everything. I wrote a poem called Eight Ball for extra credit my freshman year of high school, only it wasn’t structured as a poem--it was a very personal essay about suicide. My English teacher showed the poem to the faculty advisor of the school paper, who rearranged it as a poem and asked for permission to publish it. I agreed on the condition that they not print my name with it. It was a mystery to many who the student poet responsible for Eight Ball was. I later submitted the poem to a national high school poetry contest (with my name) and it was re-published in a anthology. I published the poem again in my first book SHORN: TOYS TO MEN. That was my start.

VS: It looks like real life has been at the root of your writing from the beginning. What inspired you to write your memoirs?

Dennis: I had so many secrets in the first forty years of my life. It is hard to maintain secrets, at least for me it was. The secrets were sort of supporting a lot of guilt and shame. I got to a place where I just wanted to let all my baggage go. I was accused by one reviewer of being “too honest”. Another calls my book, “a confession and a gift”. I don’t think he meant that as a compliment, but I took it that way. I figure if I write it, no matter how ugly it felt, then it is out there and it becomes history and I can move forward. There is nothing left for me to hide. Hopefully others resonate with the experiences I write about and can let go of their pain, too.

VS: You know, the world might be a better place if we were all a bit more honest and heartfelt in our dealing with each other like you are Dennis. Okay, to switch topics for a second...what is a typical writing day like for you?

Dennis: I write at home mostly. Some days it’s torture to get something accomplished and other days things just fall out of my head like a rainstorm. The best writing days are when I lose track of time. I get what I call “Howard Hughes-ey”. I lose track of everything and shut myself inside my tiny condo for days. I forget to eat. I don’t bathe. I don’t talk on the phone. Sometime I will tape my writing pages all over my walls so I cam organize them. I will leave all kinds of things taped all over my place for days, even when I take a break
from writing. I can get rather obsessed with what I am writing.

VS: That's okay. I tend to talk to my characters aloud so my kids think I have multiple personalities. I think what ever works for you to get the writing out is what really matters. Is your family supportive of your writing?

Dennis: My parents are gone and I don’t have any siblings. My family is my close group of friends that I have had in my life for years. They are supportive, but I think they get tired of me asking them to beta-read for me. I have given them a lot of my stuff to read; much of it in it’s infancy and pretty bad.

VS: Yes, you do talk about losing your parents in your memoir, One Gay American. However, I am glad you have surrounded yourself with a family of friends and they are helpful with your writing. I think it is hard for those outside the writing world to understand us sometimes. With that, can you share with us a little about your current memoir, OGA?

Dennis: ONE GAY AMERICAN is a coming of age story of my life as a gay man. I was born in 1965 and I have been lucky enough to see the rise of gay culture in American after the Stonewall riots. I grew up as America grew more aware of the LGBT community. Each chapter of the book begins with a few words about where America was with gay tolerance at the time of that chapter of my life.

VS: You know as I read your book, it brought back many memories of my own childhood and I remembered many of the events you talk about. It was so moving to see the same world through anothers eyes and different lifestyle than my own. I was deeply moved and I found myself wondering what did you find to be the most challenging part of writing your memoirs?

Dennise: My books are very raw and personal. I had to get real and get honest with myself before
I could honestly say the things I wanted to say.

VS: Well from an outsider's perspective, you did it. What part of your memoir(s) do you feel really stands out to you personally?

Dennis: There are two parts of ONE GAY AMERICAN that really stand out as my favorite. The chapters “I Was His Heir” and “Fried Egg Sandwich” both deal with my relationship with my father. I recently did a reading and signing for the book in Seattle and read these two chapters. It was hard. It’s one thing to read or write the story, but these two chapters in particular are overwhelming to speak and present at the gathering. Very Emotional stuff.

VS: What event do you feel was the turning point for you?

Dennis: The turning point in ONE GAY AMERICAN was realizing I was gay and needed to live my life as a gay man. I was 21 years old and married to a woman at the time. That was back in 1986 and I was in rural Illinois. I had wanted the American Dream of a family--a wife and kids. I realized that I wouldn’t be authentic if I stayed in the marriage and tried to live my life in that box. Divorcing and addressing my homosexuality was a big deal.

This was years before WILL AND GRACE. The AIDS epidemic was just starting. There was a whole list of reasons to stay married and conform ...but I couldn’t do that.

VS: Very true and I admire your bravery for taking that step. Do you have any other works in progress? Can you share a little about them?

Dennis: My third book is about my secret adoption. In 1981, my best friend from high school told me I was adopted. It turns out everyone in my small hometown knew I was adopted except for me. My adoptive parents were unable to have children and adopted me from my adoptive father’s fifteen year old niece. I grew up not knowing that my cousin was my birth mother. I grew up with lots of lies and family secrets. The book digs deep into the shame that used to surround adoption in the era my parents adopted me. I hope to
finish writing it by the end of 2013.

VS: Sounds like another wonderful memoir and one I'll be very interested to read. When sitting down to write, what do you feel are the basic ingredients of a good book?

Dennis: My publisher at Coffeetown Press once told me that my memoirs read like fiction. Not that they were untruthful, but it was good storytelling. I think you have to have a good story and tell it well, with language and style.

VS: I think that is very true. Have you received any awards for your writing?

Dennis: My first book, SHORN: TOYS TO MEN was nominated for the Stonewall Book Award sponsored by American Library Association. It was also named by the International gay magazine The Advocate as “One of the Best Overlooked Books of 2011” in their December 2011 issue.

VS: Where can the readers of The Writing Mama find out more about and your
writing?

Dennis: They can visit my author blog at: http://dennismilambensie.com

VS: Thank you again Dennis for being my guest today and you can find out more about Dennis Milam Bensie, his memoirs and World of Ink Virtual Tour at http://tinyurl.com/lhtvxyt

Friday, July 12, 2013

Book Signing: VS Grenier at Sunset on the Square!



Author VS Grenier will be at Sunset on the Square at the Heritage Writers Guild (HWG) booth each event night to sign books, talk about writing and joining the HWG League of Utah Writers Southern Utah Chapter.

ST. GEORGE, UT   Sunset on the Square (SOTS), Friday night FREE family movies on the Town Square in the City of St. George is a huge success with more than 2000 attendees per event.  The event is hosted by Write It Up! and the City of St. George.  Now in its 7th year, SOTS features family oriented films the second and fourth Friday of the month, May 24, 2013 through August 23, 2013, Town Square Park will host local residents for a FREE movie in the park.  Movies will start at dusk, but the fun will begin around 5 with food, games, AAA Water Balloon Challenge, booths, prizes and dancing.

This year there are many great movies and special events scheduled, including BOOK SIGNINGS by HWG AUTHORS!  
“Sunset on the Square has been a great event to work with the City of St. George.  The community loves it, and the kids just have such a wonderful time.  There just is no better way to spend a Friday night than under the stars watching a great movie with your family.” explained Dawn McLain, the Event Coordinator.  
There is a Charity of the Night at each event.  Proceeds from Blue Bunny and other vendors will be donated to help those charities, including HWG.  Prior to the movie attendees can enjoy great entertainment, music, food, book signings and prizes.
The Travel Connection is providing this year’s Grand Prize, a 4 day cruise for 2 on Princess Cruise lines.  Throughout the season 3 people will quality to win each night.  The Grand Prize winner will be announced before the movie on August 23, at the close of the season event, Chamber Night.
Join us in Town Square Park, every 2nd and 4th Friday of the month thru the end of August.  This season’s schedule includes:

June 14 – Life of Pi
June 28 – Night at the Museum:  Battle of the Smithsonian – Museum & Arts Night
July 12 – Ice Age:  Continental Drift
July 26 – Hook – Nonprofit Night
August 9 – Nightmare Before Christmas
August 23 – Princess Bride – St. George Chamber of Commerce Night

Special Events include:
June 28 – Museum & Arts Night – Featuring local Museums and Artists (HWG is the charity of the night)
July 26 – Charity Night - Not for profit organizations are welcomed to participate at a special rate.  Each will be highlighted throughout the event allowing the community members to get to know what services are available in our area.
August 23 – Chamber Night - Sunset on the Square will feature St. George Chamber Night where chamber members are encouraged to participate at a reduced rate.  

Sunset on the Square is a FREE family night out for the community with movies played on the big screen outdoors. Each event starts at 6, community members should arrive early with their blankets and chairs to get a great seat.

Sunset on the Square is sponsored by KCSG Television, Findlay Automotive, AAA Insurance, The Independent, Cherry Creek, Family & Kids Magazine, The City of St. George, Write It Up!, The Spectrum, The Travel Connection  and Williams Services.

For additional information about participating or sponsorship opportunities call Dawn McLain at (702) 860-2341 or e-mail dawn@writeituponline.com.