Saturday, October 13, 2012

Kind of a Big Day

I started my Friday tucked in the corner of my French café with J.K. Rowling, listening and laughing as her interview from last week played on my laptop.  She told a story in passing about the first book she’d ever made, when she was six, about a rabbit.  But before the conversation moved on, she said in retrospect what was important about that book was that she’d finished it.  That finishing a story was the mark of someone who truly wanted to write.  A renewed commitment to Dark Room flooded me.  It was close, but it wasn’t finished.  Not yet.  Not really.
Later in the day, after teaching, I sat again with my laptop this time watching my daughter in gymnastics class.  Next weekend, I am taking a class taught by Laurie Halse Anderson.  Each of the twelve students is assigned to a critique group of four led by an assistant teacher.  I’d received my critique letters from the rest of my group.  The critique letter from the assistant teacher arrived during gymnastics class.
What is beautiful about this letter is that it started to make sense of these other scraps of feedback I’d gotten along the way, feedback that had nagged at me because I’d had the same worries myself, really.  You know the worries I mean.  You know something is bothering you, you hope you’ve addressed it, but you’re not sure.  Then you get feedback and, even if it doesn’t offer suggestions you feel would help, it points directly at your nagging concerns.  So I’d come to the point where I knew certain things had to be addressed.  What set this letter apart was that it offered alternative approaches to the issues in my story.  It didn’t just say, “This isn’t working here,” but went beyond to say, “Try this, this, and this.”  Suddenly scraps of feedback I’d pushed to the back of my mind shifted and began to fit together like a puzzle; scenes of my story began to shift opening doors in places I didn’t know existed.  I only have to open them.  This is exactly why Jacqueline Woodson said, “Take classes in which the teachers and students are authors you admire.”  Just like when I went to the Highlights Founder’s workshop, Starting Your Novel, with Patti Lee Gauch and began to learn the mechanics of story building, I have a feeling I am going to learn exactly what I have been trying to figure out about pacing and threads.
There are voices though.  Voices that have said out loud through my own lips, “This novel is ready to go out.  I’ll work on it mid-October through December 31st, and then the agent queries are going out.  It’s time.”  These are the voices who know the need for recognition, the need for others to affirm what you’ve been doing is valuable, the need to see something on the shelf, a reward for these ten years of work that are supposed to lead to expertise, the need to start on the next story idea.  But these are dangerous voices and artificial deadlines that have nothing to do with art.  “How do you ever know if you’re done?” my husband asks.  I think is has less to do with the product than with your growth as an artist.  If a piece is teaching you ways to grow as an artist, presenting doors to you, you have to go through them.  I have to go through them.  Do I wish I could predict a query mailing January 1st?  You bet I do.  Do I wish Laurie Halse Anderson would say, “Why are you even here?  Let me call my agent.”  Of course.  But the fact of the matter is I’m landing exactly where I need to next weekend in Vermont.  In the hands of those I most admire, in the hands of teachers who will propel me onward.
I wish when I got back I had eight-hour days to gallop through the next phase of revision.  But I don’t.  I have two hours every morning, and then I have to go to teach.  Teaching has stopped me from writing before, but I can’t let that happen now, not this close, not with J.K. Rowling’s voice in my head saying, “What’s important is that I finished.  You see, I think that is the mark of someone who truly wants to write.”  I have to worry about art now.  I have to grow, even if more slowly than I want.  I have to finish.

Monday, October 8, 2012

New Writing Places, New Challenges

I have arrived in October with some new places to write and some new challenges.  Let me catch you up.
            I think I threw a tantrum or two in June because I was caught between plans for a new draft and a house full of people home from school.  As far as the new draft went, I had never gone that far before, the revisions I was attempting were a whole new type of work, and they required the utmost concentration.  As far as my house went, the people descending on it for summer only including one husband and one seven-year-old daughter, but gone were my mornings on the couch with laptop and a sleeping dog on either side of me –dogs, if you haven’t tried them, are wonderful writing partners because while they provide company and warmth, they don’t break your concentration unless the mail carrier stops by.
            So the first thing I did was start trying a bunch of new places to write.  Starbucks wasn’t bad, though the music was a bit loud and apparently the volume is corporately controlled.  Our library just installed new desks with outlets along a wall of sunny windows, and the chairs are pretty comfortable, though if someone with an ipod sits next to you intent on ruining their ears, it can ruin an afternoon of work.  It didn’t take long to find my new favorite place.  La Chatelaine on Lane Avenue.  If you arrive right at 7:00AM you can get in four good hours of work before the lunch crowd hits.  The music is all in French so it didn’t break my creative trance at all.  And the friendly wait staff got to know my usual –a chocolate croissant and a cup of coffee after, after only a few days.  Just look at my favorite little corner:

            I sat my butt right there for six straight weeks every morning Monday through Friday and polished up my draft to take to a class taught by your hero and mine –Laurie Halse Anderson, in October.  I thought after that I would rest up, go to my brother’s wedding in New York, and celebrate the beginning of school and the dawn of a new era of creative rejuvenation.  Then life happened.
            While away in New York our local school district came across the application I dutifully submit every year, and they called to offer me a full-time teaching job.  I counter-offered saying I would take half-time teaching Integrated Studies to 2-5th graders and acting as the Gifted Ed. Teacher Leader, if they could find someone to teach the math in the mornings (Math makes me cry.).  I did not think they’d call back.  They did.  It couldn’t be turned down –half-time, in the afternoon, I could still take care of my own second-grader in the mornings and afternoons, no grading to speak of, and a lot of money.  I’d have my mornings to write.
            Starting only a few days before school opened, we all knew it would take a good six weeks to learn the new job and get things off the ground and running.  I spent two weeks of my mornings going in to work on curriculum.  I spent the next four weeks of mornings being exhausted and reading for my October class.  Now here I am in October, and the biggest challenge I face is myself.
            It is very easy to let a part-time teaching job grow into a full-time one, very easy to spend a morning checking email so you can get a running start when you go in at 11:00AM.  But that’s not the hardest part for me.  That just takes discipline and practice –when it’s 2:30PM that’s got to be it until you get back in the next day at 11:00AM.  I can do that.  What’s hard is maintaining my creative mindset.  Thoughts creep in like:

1)    What am I going to do about that fifth grade kid who should be taking chemistry at the high school and resent discussing the book we’re reading in my class?
2)    Are the parents pleased?
3)    Did I forget something?
4)    Did I #$@*% up something?
5)    Should I make tomorrow’s dinner ahead of time because tomorrow I will be exhausted when I get home?

Teaching is a very to-do list kind of a job sometimes, except the to-do list never goes away.  And I grew up one of those people who learned to get their to-do list done before she played (aka writing).  Teaching is very analytical –thinking through objectives, correlating lesson plans with progress reports, keeping records, contacting parents, planning, planning, planning everything into little boxes.  Honestly, I have been feeling cramped into my own two-hour little box every morning…just when I was about to really spread my wings.
            It’s very challenging for me to be in the present moment, here, now with my tea and toast and my laptop and dogs, when I glance at the time and calculate I have an hour and a half until I have to go in.
            Maybe even more challenging is feeling a sense of control over my identity.  I liked the freedom a day gave me to be who I wanted to be –listening to my NPR stories, taking the dog for a walk when I got stuck on a scene, making a literary life out of drafts, writing groups, blog networking, and publishing research.  Now that I’ve had a taste of that, teaching cramps my style some.  Who am I?  The teacher?  I don’t feel like a teacher, and when I do, I’m not sure I love it.  Teacher feels like years of marching through the step-scale of the salary table, micro-worrying over meetings that won’t mean a thing in two weeks, and still there is that hard nut to crack, that kid who just wants to explode things with a chemistry kit, what to do about him?
            Maybe you’re misunderstood when you’re a writer.  Maybe people don’t give you credit for doing anything real until your book is on the shelf.  Maybe they keep asking that annoying question –so what are you writing about?  But the freedom.         The     free     dom    to shape a creative life, to run on that high all day when you’re making something.  To fly in the face of what you’re supposed to do.  To write the underbelly of school and student’s lives instead of analyzing them into little boxes.  To give yourself permission to see it as you see it, even if no one else dares look under there.  That.  Felt.  Good.  That’s hard to slip in and out of on one five-minute ride to school.
            So my new challenge is to take less of my teaching self into my writing time, and more of my writing self into my teaching time.
            Meanwhile, my daughter is taking a Saturday morning art class, and tired as I am, I spring out of bed at 7AM these crisp Saturday mornings to drop her off and land here:

My new favorite place to write –The North Market.  I wander through the farmer’s market outside, decide on Mediterranean or Vietnamese to take home for lunch, grab my chai latte, and head upstairs to write, looking down on the lush produce and flowers, the fragrance of vanilla waffles and foreign spices drifting my way.  In this place, it’s easy to be Entirely Present.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Summer 2012

     Summer 2012 has introduced a few challenges:

           • Residual exhaustion from a hard year.

          • An 8-week plan to revise at a whole new level I know nothing about except that it 
            seems to be slow, more intense, and require a lot more concentration.

          • Searching for a place and time to write now that the family has descended on 
            the house.

          • Not missing summer: watching my daughter catch fireflies, hitting the pool, 
            letting a day unfold, doing something for fun and not because you have to do it.

     So in the interest of attending to these things, the Writer Girl blog has got to go on hiatus until school starts in September.  I'll be back then though with some great suggestions on where to write, some insight on a new level of revision, and a look into characters who tell stories inside your story.  Until then, go mix up some lemonade from actual lemons.  See you in September!

Monday, June 4, 2012

What Makes YA YA?: A Recap

Over the last seven weeks we’ve explored seven characteristics that make young adult literature uniquely young adult.  This week (in part as I just finished my novel’s third draft –hooray—and I need to regroup), the recap is below.

• Young adult stories marinate in ANGST.  Not the laughable, melodramatic angst often associated with black-clad, love- lorn teenagers.  Angst that comes from feeling things first before understanding them intellectually. 

            • To teens, LOVE feels real, complex, and unbelievably urgent.

• For better or worse, young adults live in THE NOW, and young adult literature pushes the boundaries of living only in the present moment.

            • Young adults readers are in active pursuit of THE TRUTH.

• Young adults read to know they’re NOT ALONE, to experience the relationships they want, and to find invitations back to family, in particular the perspectives of old people.

• Young adults read for a demonstration that life is going on ELSEWHERE, to see themselves in more interesting settings, to learn what they can’t at home.

• Young adult read to be introduced to options they didn’t know they had through protagonists who TAKE ACTION, and so the ending of a young adult novel is usually a new beginning.

This list certainly does not claim to be exhaustive.  I’d love to hear if anyone else has more important descriptors to add!

Coming soon… characters who tell stories and great places to write!

Monday, May 28, 2012

Taking Action

            Young adult literature is also about taking action.  Young adults are ready to take on the world and see what they can do about things from the personal to the global.  If you can’t make a difference, what does any of it matter anyway?    Impelled to act and bursting from the limitations of childhood, young adults are raring to find ways they can make an impact.  I think three important characteristics of YA fall underneath the Taking Action umbrella:
            • Young adults read to grow up, which necessitates distinguishing
                their individual independence from family and peer group.
            • Young adults also read to be introduced to options they didn’t 
                know they had and protagonists who take action.
            • The ending of a young adult novel is usually a new beginning.
            Because so many of my other What Makes YA YA? posts have included spoiler alerts and because this final installment requires discussing the endings of YA books, I’m going to use S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders to illustrate my points.  This is the forty-fifth anniversary of this classic young adult novel, the first many of us read.  So if you haven’t read The Outsiders sometime in the last forty-five years, be warned…I’m telling the ending!

Young adults read to grow up, which necessitates distinguishing
their individual independence from family and peer group.
            Okay, now I’m going to take you back.  Remember when Ponyboy and his friends meet Cherry Valance, and he realizes she’s not like any other Soc he’s ever met?  He admires her as an individual distinct from her peer group.  Afterwards, Ponyboy comes home late, and big brother Darry gets angry and hits him.  As a result, Ponyboy runs away from home and Darry’s aggression, asserting independence from his family’s ways.  By the end of the novel, Ponyboy comes to see his own unique qualities apart from the Greasers –remember Johnny writing to him to “stay gold”?

Young adults also read to be introduced to options they didn’t 
know they had and protagonists who take action.
            Ponyboy also learns there’s more to life than the Greaser ways of loyalty, violence, and vengeance.  On the run after his friend Johnny accidentally stabs a Soc, they come across a burning church with children inside.  The boys rush in to rescue the children.  Taking this action changes everything for them.  Ponyboy, who is rescued by brother Darry, realizes how much his brother cares for him.  Johnny, though charged with manslaughter, feels he can die redeemed for having saved the children.

The ending of a young adult novel is usually a new beginning.
            The Outsiders is a great demonstration of the ending as a beginning.  After Johnny dies and Dally, torn up by the tragedy, commits suicide, Ponyboy falls sick for days.  He returns to school, only to face his dramatically dropping grades.  His English teacher, perhaps seeing Ponyboy’s proclivity for the written word, offers to pass him if he writes a good theme.  Inspired by Johnny’s note to “stay gold,” and beginning with the opening line of the novel itself, Ponyboy writes about the recent events he’s experienced.  The reader is left to believe Ponyboy’s assignment is the novel, itself.  We leave Ponyboy, assured he will follow his writing dreams.  We see, as in so many other great YA novels, the young adult taking what he’s learned from his challenging experiences and turning it into a new beginning.  And how appropriate, because, indeed, adolescence is the road we walk to the beginning of our adult lives.  How conscious we are at this time of life that the actions we take impact not only those around us, but also the very door we choose to step through into an adulthood of our making.

Monday, May 21, 2012


            I just had the best weekend!  I took a trip to Central America, back to my early twenties, to those days of bus rides on the edges of perilous cliffs, shared fries and beer for lunch in Europe, washing my underwear out in a sink, and getting lost in markets of artists and street food.  All the while, figuring out who I wanted to become.  More accurately, I read Wanderlove by Kirsten Hubbard.
            Wanderlove might be the quintessential example of my next descriptor of what make YA YA, that is:

Young adults read for a demonstration that life is going on elsewhere, to see themselves in more interesting settings, to learn what they can’t at home.

A Demonstration Life is Going on Elsewhere
            Hubbard’s protagonist, Bria Sandoval, knows she lives in a bubble she must escape.  Though she’s not sure where she wants to go, where people go when they travel, she knows she wants to go…somewhere, to immerse herself in a life that is rich because it is new to you.  It doesn’t take many pages before Bria challenges herself to ditch her old fogey tour group and leave the beaten path with two backpackers friends.  Her journey includes frenetic Central American cities, lush jungles, and deep blue ocean.  Along the way, Bria reflects insightfully on the world she’s discovering.
            Bria is instantly conscious of her effect of the places she visits:

“But by renouncing Western culture –or by trying to escape it, whatever –aren’t you also spreading it?” I ask.  “Like the first European settlers coming to America?  Bringing their European diseases and infecting the natives?  Even if you don’t mean to, something always sticks.”… “I mean, isn’t there a McDonald’s in Chimaltenago now?”

            She also explores her relationship with the people who actually live in the places she visits.  She struggles with how to be a visitor who is respectful of the lives and culture of the people.

Starling sits across from me.  “You think only broke people can backpack?”
“No, but…”
I guess I never really thought about it.  On first reflection, simulating poverty seems deceitful, like panhandling for fun.  Isn’t it offense to the truly impoverished?...I guess that’s something you carry with you as a person who travels with his or her eyes all the way open.
“But what?” Starling prompts.
“well, Rowan and I discussed this kind of thing a lot,” I say slowly.  “How a person sees more by traveling cheap.  More of the real world, at least.  And then, once you’ve traveled this way… it probably wouldn’t feel right to travel in luxury, even if you could afford it….”
…”First-world guilt.”

Of all the backpackers she admires, it is Bria herself who befriends a native woman, Sonia, who invites her for breakfast and shares about her own days of travel.
            By the end of the novel, Bria has a sense not only of the real world she is visiting, but also a respect for its history.

All I know about the Mayans comes from my muddy memories of tenth-grade world history.  It’s funny –I’ve been so upset with myself for not reading about destinations as they are.  It never occurred to me I should also read about how they were.  People really lived here: thousands and thousands of them.  And now they’re gone.

To see themselves in more interesting settings
            Bria certainly wants to imagine herself in more interesting settings.  I can understand that.  It’s a way of freeing yourself from the limiting expectations of your home.  And you tend to be attracted to places that value what you uniquely value, places that bring out the self you want to be.  Even more interestingly, Bria’s imagined self changes over the arc of the novel.
            Staring at the travel brochure for her pre-packaged tour, Bria imagines:

I could picture it already.
I would glide from ruin to ruin along La Ruta Maya, in a caravan of beautiful, happy people, and I’d be the mysterious one, gracious and profound.  Butterflies would float down from the jungle canopy and alight on my bronzed skin.  I would wear silver necklaces and ankle-length skirts that shifted in the breeze.

            On the trip to Guatemala, Bria finds herself in an airline seat next to a backpacker girl them embodies a more true version of the traveler self Bria would like to be:

On the squeaky-clean airplane, she looked out of place.  But now that we’ve landed, I realize she’s perfect.  All three of them are.  Perfectly disheveled, perfectly irreverent.  Real-life vagabonds with mismatched clothes and jewelry, scuffed leather sandals, and too much sun.  The kind of traveler I didn’t know I longed to be until right his very second, as Marcy and her husband, Dan, whose comb-over is flipped the wrong way, attempt to herd me outside.

            Once in Chichicastenango, Bria captures an even further-developed picture into what draws her to visit foreign places:

From the hill where we stand, it unfolds like a Mayan blanket: a chaos of market stalls stretching as far as I can see.  People flow along the tilted streets, dressed in indigenous clothing of clashing prints and patterns.  An old man in a cowboy hat staggers past, bent double, carrying a pile of quilts.  Cooking smoke distorts the air.  Stray dogs bark; babies squall.  I smell incense, hot grease, the smoke of firecrackers.                                                                                         
It’s claustrophobic.  Overwhelming.
And I want nothing more in the entire universe than to dive headfirst into the kaleidoscope of colors, to let them whirl around me until I become a fractal of light.

            By the end of her trip, Bria’s vision of herself is revised yet again, this time incorporating the true self she knows from before her past went awry with some of the freedom she’s learned from her travels:

But it’s like I said before.  There needs to be a destination, even if it’s way off in the haze of my unlived life.  And in that life, I’d like to be an artist.

To learn what they can’t at home
            Maybe most important of all, thought, young adults travel and read about foreign places because going to these places, even if only in a book, is a way to learn what they can’t learn in their neighborhood, from their same old friends, from their parents.  Sometimes it takes an outside perspectives, seeing yourself through the eyes of other people in other places to not only free yourself from the limitations of home, but also to affirm the hopes you’ve had for yourself all along.
            Bria’s travel partner, Rowan, articulates this perfectly:

“Stop right there.  You don’t have to make excuses for your experiences –ow can you?  They already happened.  And you don’t have to dwell on them either.  Just look to the future.  Like we were talking about.  You can’t control the past, but you can control where you go next.”
                        I nod.  “That’s why I’m here.”
                        He nods back.  “Me too.”

            Further along in her trip, Bria realizes her journeying has freed her from the lockstep path of home and from the limitations she’s placed on herself.  Being in a new place has helped her imagine new things for herself in the future.

…How I have no idea what’s waiting for me on the other side of this trip  --a thought that terrifies me but, in a strange way, exhilarates me too….”

            It is also only by challenging herself to jump in to this trip and its experiences that she can stand on the brink of her own past mistakes and face them honestly.  You can’t do that in a place that’s entirely safe.  A Bria who stayed in California would never have been pushed to the point depicted in the passage below:

             Because I’m the one who gave it up.  Of course I’m talking about my art, but not just my art.  That’s not all I lost.  I gave up who I was when I was an artist –a version of myself so happy it scared me.  Not the invented part girl I tried to become tonight.  I didn’t like her at all, actually.  I like Bria who drew.  Bria who was happy.
I’ve spent so much time blaming everybody around me for what happened in the last few months.  But in the end, I was the one who let myself go.
                           And it pisses me off.
             …Letting it [art] go meant I had no outlet.  Maybe that’s one reason I stockpiled my anger until it colored my world black and red.

            But Bria also doesn’t just take on the perspectives of those she meets.  She explores them and makes them her own:

This whole vacation, I’ve been throwing myself headlong into some situations, holding back from others, without any framework or road map –anything to extricate myself from Toby and my past.  And Maybe that’s what Rowan did, I realize, during those “meaningless” years before we met.  If he kept moving from place to place, person to person, experience to experience, maybe somehow he’d stumble upon the best way to heal.
But there has to be a destination at some point, doesn’t there?  Otherwise, we’re just wandering around aimlessly, endlessly.

            And the love story thread aside (and it’s a good one), even when Bria appears to be facing loss yet again, her travel brings her to a new place as a person.  She is stronger herself, first, before Hubbard wraps up the love story.  Her travel has changed her irrevocably.

So maybe I messed up this Rowan thing.  And it’s going to hurt for a long while.  But this time, I’m not going to let that pain hold me back.  Instead, I’m going to let it propel me forward in the best way….I won’t let good things pass me by, ever again.  And I’ll always, always hold onto what I love.

            Even in novels that are not about travel, I think all these points hold true.  For the young adults unable to hop a plane to Guatemala or wherever, they need only open a book to leave their world and re-envision themselves.