Finger-banging: free from Plenitude Magazine

Do you ever wish you could know me a little better? Do you ever think to yourself, “You know, Sierra could over-share a bit MORE than she already does”?

Well, you are in luck, friends!

Plenitude Magazine, the best queer literary magazine in all of Canada (and, quite possibly, in the whole world), has posted my short memoir “Spare Change” from Issue 2 on their website. It has such classic Sierra lines as:

“Wait, wait, I thought you were straight!”

“Now I am a fish taco.”

“So, if you two ever break up, you wanna fuck?”

It is also packed with such gems of wisdom as:

“It doesn’t count. It’s clear.”

“I am done with vaginosis.”

“When you’re out late, there is never a good place to shit.”

So for today’s daily dose of exploding heads, Nazi fights, and finger-banging, I hope you’ll check out my memoir “Spare Change.”

Sierra Skye Gemma, punk as fuck, circa 1995.

Sierra Skye Gemma, punk-as-fuck on the steps of Portland’s “The Power House” punk house, circa 1995.

Jonathan Swift

#TBT: A Modest Economic Proposal, Fringe, December 2011

So many pieces of writing are published in small literary magazines, both in print and online, only to slowly fade from view.

A couple days ago I checked one of my links to a piece I’d written for the Vancouver Sun and found that it is no longer online. The article was topical and it makes sense to wipe these out-dated pieces from the Internet, but it’s still a bummer that another piece of my body of work has disappeared into the ether. So, I decided to occasionally re-publish my older pieces here, provided I retained copyright to the work.

Below is a piece that was published in Fringe, an American online literary magazine that went defunct after 8 years of publication. Fringe, and my piece, is still available online, for now, even though they are no longer publishing.



The Occupy Wall Street movement has been spreading like a plague. American protestors are pretty upset that big business got the bailouts while the Regular Joe got diddlysquat. Approximately one in ten Americans is unemployed. All those out-of-work people have one thing in common: a lot of free time for gossip and complaint. Yet, whether you are part of the “99 percent” or the “1 percent,” we’re all in this together. If we want the “occupiers” to stop protesting and get back to work, we must change the current economic system. Capitalism isn’t working and neither is communism. It’s time to find something different that will satisfy both the needs of the poor and the wealthy.

I have rediscovered an economic system that will do just that. History provides us with a successful economic structure that, with just a few tweaks for this modern age, could be just what the United States needs. Although this system hasn’t been in use since the fourteenth century, it was highly successful for over a thousand years in Western Europe. It will provide all the basics for the many unemployed individuals who are fit and able to work. At the same time, it will continue to produce profit for the rich, thereby maintaining the balance of power in our system. Politicians will no longer be under the scrutiny of the public, who will be too busy working. Political parties will not have to distance themselves from their corporate sponsors. Corporations will make even more money. Everybody wins.

First, corporations must buy up the land surrounding their offices, factories, and/or plants, or relocate to newly purchased land in places no one wants to live, like the backcountry areas of Nevada, Utah, Kansas, and Mississippi. On this land, the corporations will build modest homes to meet the needs of a wide variety of family configurations. Everything from shared dorm-style buildings for young, fit, single men and women to one-bedroom apartments for parents with two to three children. Now you might be thinking, “Wait a minute. A one-bedroom apartment for a couple withchildren?” Yes, and here’s why: they will not contain, nor require, kitchens or entertainment areas.

Nutrition facilities will be built, maintained, and operated by the corporations. Communal kitchens will serve a number of functions. First, they will provide people with a sense of belonging to a wider community. Second, they will ensure that optimal nutrition will be available to all. Third, measured meals will keep the waifish fit and the fatties trim. Each day, the nutrition facilities will dispense three meals and two healthy snacks per person, for free.

All living quarters will have free utilities such as local telephone lines, heat, hot water, lighting, and plumbing. Housing compounds will also include free recreation and basic medical facilities. The housing compound construction phase will likely create 300 new jobs for each building project. With projects springing up all over Nevada, Utah, Kansas, and Mississippi, at least 100,000 trades jobs will be created in the first year alone. As construction ends, the facilities will open, creating many additional jobs. Does it seem too good to be true? Well sit back and relax, because I’m just getting started.

Individuals and families will apply to live in these fully furnished homes rent-free for the rest of their lives. In yet another tweak for this modern world, hereditary rights (of possession, not ownership) will be passed to the oldest unmarried child (male or female) who agrees to care for the widowed parent (mother or father). Our society has progressed too far to backstep into patriarchy now. The corporations will subsidize the care of the aging parent as determined by an adjustor, with considerations for length of employment service of the surviving parent, anticipated year of death, and estimated work absence for the care-providing child. The adjustor will conduct a cost-benefit analysis of home care versus corporation-sponsored assisted living or nursing home care. If home care is the outcome, then the inheriting child will provide such care until no longer feasible or required. Other married children will already have moved into their own single-room apartments. Unmarried children will move into dorm buildings at the age of 17. Thus, the inheriting child will have plenty of space to share with their aging parent. In addition to the hereditary right of possession, people will be generally tied to the land, regardless of future corporation ownership, providing additional stability and security for corporations and workers alike. Thus, families and individuals will have shelter and care throughout their lifecycle.

Education and legal responsibilities will be delegated to corporations for the management of their own people, thereby lessening the burden on currently under-funded federal and state systems. Having seen that many Americans are unconvinced that the benefits of higher education outweigh the costs (see, they will no doubt agree that education up to the age of 17 is sufficient. In exchange for taking on the costs of legal and educational services, the corporations will receive an even lower tax rate than the one they currently skirt. Corporations will also receive the added benefit of moulding such institutions to their continued benefit (e.g., training children the value of compliance, making insubordination punishable in their court of law, etc.).

By now, you are probably thinking, “Sure, this sounds great for labourers, but how can we get the corporations on board with this utopian system?” And no doubt, the corporations will be calculating the costs of housing and feeding a nation and wondering how this system will guarantee their continued power and wealth. Stick with me. I’m getting to that.

Every able-bodied person of at least 17 years of age will work four days a week for the corporations on whose land they live. These will be 10-hour days, so although it seems like a short workweek, it is actually only a compressed workweek. Of course, slightly longer hours may be required during peak production periods. The corporations will provide full work uniforms for all employees, including such items as four pairs of underwear, four brassieres (as needed), four pairs of socks, one pair of sturdy work shoes, four work shirts, and four work pants. The work performed will be in exchange for the housing, food, recreation services, medical care, and clothing that the employees receive free of charge. By only working four days a week, employees will still have two days free to pick-up extra work (either for the corporation or for another company) in order to purchase additional items such as extra clothing, make-up, computer equipment, books, and other materials for entertainment and amusement. If an employee chooses to work an extra two days a week, they will still have one day of rest. Some lazabouts may scoff at the idea of one day off, but one free day has been the tradition for much longer than the two-day “weekend.” With all necessities covered by the corporations, an individual could also choose to take three days for themselves to make use of the recreation facilities, confident in the knowledge that all their needs are fully provided for by their protectors, the corporations.

Yes, switching to this new economic system will at first tax the resources of the corporations that are not used to providing for their employees’ needs. They will soon realize, however, that the long-term benefits far exceed the upfront costs to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars. For example, after the initial cost, each human will perform work that would have totaled an annual cost of $30,000 to $50,000 in wages. Imagine that one human now works an equivalent amount of time for the cost of housing, basic medical, recreation services, clothing, and food. In the past, the individual would have paid for these things, which might have cost the individual $25,000 a year. Paying for such things in bulk, the corporation can probably provide these same conveniences for $20,000 per person per year. That is a savings of $10,000 to $30,000 per person for each year of work. Now imagine a compound serving 5,000 people of working age, with an average profit of $20,000 per worker. That’s an extra 100 million dollars in the pockets of a corporation each year; money that would have otherwise been paid to workers in wages and benefits. This added income will quickly cover the cost of construction, the implementation of the services, and the maintenance of the facilities. Every dollar above and beyond this is pure profit.

Weary protestors, eager for the protection and care of the corporation, will be lining up in droves to participate in this new economic system. As generations upon generations of humans undertake this social contract—based on the long-standing tradition of serfdom—they will find little time, nor reason, to protest. The power and wealth of corporations will increase in exponential proportion to the number of humans whom they support. The corporations will finally be able to see how providing for their employees in a responsible way actually leads to more profit. Everybody wins.

Furthermore, we can be assured that this economic system will work. Not only was it successful for centuries in the past, variant forms still thrive today. One only needs to look to other modern day adaptations in the American military and in the factories of China to see that this modest economic proposal cannot fail to serve the needs of the employees while ensuring continued success for owners and shareholders. Most importantly, the scourge of idle time, and the resultant plague of public discontent, will be assuaged.


One of the funny things about this piece is that in any given group of readers (in my experience of workshopping and publishing this piece), there will always be one or two people that don’t realize that this is satire. While it seems obvious to me, and most readers, that this is not a piece to be taken at face value, if you are offended, please read this thorough explanation of satire before commenting below. Also, it would probably be useful to read Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal and the historical context of that piece.

How I Got My Confidence Back, or The Story of Winning The New Quarterly’s Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest

When I found out that my essay “The Wrong Way” had won The New Quarterly‘s Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest, I was ecstatic, but also sworn to secrecy. Considering that the piece was published in November and I now also have an interview up on the TNQ website, I think it is safe to say that I no longer have to keep it on the DL.

So, I’d just like to take a moment to talk about the curse of perfectionism, grad school, failing, and validation—or, how I lost my confidence and how I got it back.

In September 2011, I started an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia. I would say, and I think most would agree, that UBC’s master’s program in creative writing is easily the best in the country. My year was, apparently, one of the most competitive ever.

Of course, I didn’t know that at the time and, on a whim, I applied to the program a mere two weeks before the deadline. I only submitted in two genres (three is recommended), creative nonfiction and screenplay. I wrote at least part of both submissions during that two weeks.

After I submitted my application, I realized that I was never, ever, ever going to get in. I realized that instead of showing breadth in my writing, I submitted the same thing with each piece: comedy. Stupid, stupid! Why did I do that? I was tortured by the fact that there was no way I was going to make it in. I was betting that after reading literally hundreds of applications—probably filled with some pretty serious writing—the Graduate Committee was going to read my manuscript submissions and laugh.

Now that I think back, that is probably exactly what happened. They probably did laugh. But not in a bad way; more like in a relieved way. No doubt, my writing stood out from the mass of serious writing because it was funny and lighthearted and that made it different. Different enough to get noticed.

When I got into the program, I was nervous and excited, but also confident. I had always been at the top of my class. Then I started taking workshops and I realized that we were all The Best. Over 300 applications were received, half of which were immediately discarded because they didn’t meet the minimum requirements of UBC’s Faculty of Graduate Studies. Out of the remaining 160-something, it was whittled down to less than 25 students. I was one of them. I was The Best. Just like the other 20-odd students.

But, if we were all The Best before coming to UBC, we certainly were not all The Best in the program. No, the program only had one person who was The Best and I was most certainly not it.

It’s really hard when you have one of those crazy Type A personalities and some sort of perfectionism death wish and then all of a sudden, no matter how hard you try, you just can’t be The Best. My best—which had always been more than enough—wasn’t good enough anymore. In the past, if I needed to succeed at something that was difficult, I just tried harder. But in grad school, surrounded by astonishingly accomplished and talented writers, I found that no matter how hard I tried, my best would never make me The Best again.

It was a really difficult lesson, but I learned it over the course of Fall Term 2011. I accepted that I would always be on the congratulating side of things and never on the congratulated side. I watched as my new friends were awarded prestigious national awards for their writing and went on book tours. And I was happy for them. Very happy. But I wasn’t so happy for myself. Actually, I was pretty sad.

In Spring Term, things got better. Two small pieces that I had written in Fall Term had been published (in WestCoast Families and Fringe). I wasn’t thrilled because I hadn’t been particularly attached to either piece, but a couple of my classmates pointed out that they hadn’t published any of their Fall Term pieces.

Then I wrote “The Wrong Way” in early 2012. The workshop was divided, literally, in half. On the right, the students felt it was too long and I should cut, with a thousand suggestions of what should be omitted. On the left, the students insisted I shouldn’t cut anything. Andreas Schroeder, our Creative Non-Fiction writing instructor, sat back and watched the argument boil. Occasionally, he would smirk this little smile towards me, as if to say, “Isn’t this funny?” When the workshop was over, he declared how much he enjoyed watching a spirited debate.

Normally, when the camp is deeply divided in a workshop, it means that something needs to change. But after class, Andreas told me, “This essay is practically perfect.” He told me not to submit it to the slush pile, but to only submit it to contests “because it will win a contest.” Knowing that he’d judged many contests, I never doubted him.

Andreas requires that everyone submit a re-write of each assignment. I went through the comments given to me by my fellow students and made some changes and submitted my re-write to Andreas. When he wrote back and told me to change everything back to the way it was except for one sentence, I knew the piece was ready. I had also been scoping out creative nonfiction contests and had decided the TNQ‘s Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest was the best fit for “The Wrong Way.”

In July 2012—several months after submitting the essay—I found myself sitting in the parent waiting room at my son’s tutoring service. I decided to check my email on my phone. When I saw an email from TNQ, my heart sank a little. Like most writers, I am close friends with Rejection. I assumed it would be another rejection, and although I was bummed, I looked at the date and realized that I still had time to submit it to another contest.

Now, remember, I was reading this on my phone, on a tiny screen, just a few words at a time. I saw the sender. I saw the subject line, which read “TNQ Personal Essay results.” Then, just as I was about to read my rejection, I saw that someone had been cc’d the message. As an editor at a literary magazine, I was skeptical that they would cc someone on a rejection letter. That just didn’t make any sense. Unless…perhaps it wasn’t a rejection letter.

And then I was filled with a new thrill. What if I was short-listed?! In that moment, I honestly didn’t even care if I won, I was absolutely thrilled at the prospect of just being short-listed.

Then I read the email:

Dear Sierra,
The editors have completed the judging process for The Edna Staebler Personal Essay contest and I am delighted to inform you that your essay, ‘The Wrong Way’ was the winner. The judges were hugely impressed with your ability to tackle the difficult subject of grief in a way that was personal but not melodramatic and overall felt that it was a thoughtful, original and well-crafted piece. …Congratulations on a superb essay. We look forward to introducing our readers to your fine work.

Best regards…
The New Quarterly

Just like that. Just like that, I went from what seemed utter obscurity to a state of acknowledgement, validation, and acceptance.

Yes, I know it was just one contest. But it was my first. And you always remember your first, right?

Although attending an MFA program, especially the non-fiction class with Andreas Schroeder, led to a vast improvement in my writing, winning the contest gave me a new confidence in that writing. And, well, I think confidence—or, rather, the ability to make friends with Rejection without letting him bum you out when he gets all negative—can make the difference between success and failure.