Because my friend’s daughter just asked, “Will boys and men think it’s okay now to assault me?”
Because one of my husband’s friends was assaulted yesterday by a man on the streets of Raleigh, who did exactly what our President Elect said he can do with impunity.
Because my gay friend wept this week, wondering if she and those she loves will be safe.
Because my colleague just said, “I’m getting myself ready to be referred to as one of ‘The Blacks’ for four years.”
Because her friend in Asheville was just followed by a man at the Wal-Mart demanding to know who she voted for, and when she said, “Not Trump,” he followed her to her car.
Because I am finally understanding with my own fears a small part of the fear and trepidation that one of my black friends describes as daily life for her and her son profiled by the police. Now I get a police state in a whole new way.
Because of my former students who are black and brown and Asian and gay and Muslim and beautiful; because of all the girls and women and boys and men I know who are survivors of sexual assault. Because of two students who I just learned committed suicide because they were not welcome in this world.
Because I just finished a YA novel about a girl afraid to come out, whose friend gets assaulted at a party and then slut shamed by the school community, and who wonders if as a teen journalist she should go the TMZ or NYT route.
Because I’m working on a new novel about extreme narcissism and how its reach is wide and lethal.
Because. Because. Because.
Starting a story is daunting and many of us who write struggle to find enough hours in the week to go deep into a narrative. As I embark on a new novel, three quick ways I use to keep me in the game felt like ones I should share.
This is how we do it. Idea by Idea, piece of paper by piece of paper, line by line.
There are a lot of reasons to write a book, but for me, it’s because I’ve fallen in love with a particular person. (Not actual, though my characters talk to me constantly like they’re very, very real. And love interests, exes, et cetera have fueled some pretty interesting writing in the past.)
I’ve got to know a character inside and out, give them BFF-on-steroids status, and live with them, a good while. I’ve got to know what happened to her before the story and outside the lines (cue an Outtakes file where never-seen-before/ever scenes go to die).
I need to know random stuff like why Minerva loves Wonder Woman and where Minerva sees herself in six years (Columbia, Northwestern, some kick-ass journalism school for sure). Why she named her asshole cat after a 1970s Volkswagen commercial and papers the walls of her bedroom with ancient issues of The New York Times and The Washington Post.
I need to shadow a character, stalk a character, ask incredibly personal questions of the character, before updating my Facebook status to say I’m in this relationship.
Like real love, it takes time, commitment, work. Humility, too. Because walking behind someone will teach you to be silent, listen in, and be ready to have her back when both the lovers and haters come calling.
His Purple Highness, the Prince we all loved, rocked a color that is neither red nor blue. It’s more than a royal shade; it’s the perfect blend that holds all things. Masculine and feminine; hot and cool. Two distinct identities in a loving embrace.
I had my own purple moment these last few days as I wended my way through the health care system.
Last week I saw a doctor who ordered a CT scan. Before she did, I told her what my acupuncturist noted when she treated me. “I may have gall bladder issues,” I said to the doctor. “I have these sore points on my legs.” I indicated where they were.
My doctor nodded and said with wonderful diplomacy, “I think it’s great you seek alternative therapies. Myself, I need visuals and data. So I’d like to run some tests to rule out some things.” Seeing her acceptance of East while she did West, well–it was a violet moment for me.
Today I saw my acupuncturist, CT results in hand. Those results didn’t give an “impression” as the radiologist says, of gall bladder issues, but some other possibilities, maybe colitis. She gave the data careful consideration, then placed needles accordingly across my body. I could feel, from the moment the fine, wavering needles touched my skin, instant tingling and energy swirling. I soon slipped into a restful, half-aware state, as only acupuncture can do for me. I’ve tried regular massage, but I never zone out. Only the needles can work mauve magic. I left the session without a rod of stone-like muscle frozen in my back. I left looser, calmer, happier. Mauve, you might say.
This week I hear from my doctor about next steps, Western style, based on the result of the CT. I will probably see a specialist and work in concert with that person and my acupuncturist. I’ve already begun seeking answers to the most lavender of all questions–what’s a good diet while I learn more about what’s wrong? Because we must live in the in between, right?
If you’re not one to flex with the overreaching metaphor, let me make it plain: Prince, medicine, politics, and so many things, are best handled with lots of purple.
As I write the next draft of Minerva’s story, under the wonderful eye of my agent, Amy Tipton, I am listening to the voice of a teen who declares herself “beyond labels.” Is she gay or is she straight, or is she something kind of periwinkle? Or does she really, truly, have to declare a color?
“Plum,” my mother-in-law would say, as they say in Mount Airy (AKA Mayberry). “Plum pretty.”
In these next weeks of writing, in these next weeks of political conventions, in these tearful and lamenting weeks of violent conflict in our streets, I pray we all bow to the most royal of colors and see the compromise, empathy, humanity, dare I say, mixed blood in all our souls.
I’ll turn back to Prince to set us all on the lovely purple path.
Honey I know, I know, I know times are changing
It’s time we all reach out for something new
That means you too
You say you want a leader
But you can’t seem to make up your mind
I think you better close it
And let me guide you to the purple rain
It was 1986 and I was asked to read at our school’s chapel. The visiting reverend had the gospel handled; I as a senior could pick an appropriate reading to share with all my classmates. I chose the scene where Atticus shoots the rabid dog.
To me, this scene embodies everything that is wondrous about Harper Lee’s writing. A 1930s community is at a standstill from the terror of an infected dog that could end lives. “Nothing is more deadly than a deserted, waiting street. The trees were still, the mockingbirds were silent…” (103) An aging father is asked to take up a gun, in front of his children, because he’s the “deadest shot in Maycomb County” (106).
Atticus protests; he’s not shot a gun in 30 years. The sheriff begs him. His children and Calpurnia stand frozen, breath bated. The scene unfolds with cinematic perfection, every moment a slow motion rendering of suspenseful action and dialogue. Atticus fells the dog in one shot.
And the dog’s name? Tim Johnson. You can’t walk a foot inside Mockingbird without running into rich character, that wry and understated humor alternating with poignant, gut-wrenching honesty.
Jem is astounded his dad is capable of such things. He’s been so embarrassed by his father’s age and infirmity–his inability to play football and the like. He and Scout can’t imagine why Atticus has never bragged about his shooting skill. It’s because, Miss Maudie says, “People in their right minds never take pride in their talents” (107).
The 17 year-old standing before her peers and teachers that day chose this passage for many reasons, not the least of which was loving this book so much. But today I’d like to think it’s because this moment and many of the moments in Mockingbird are about doing the right thing, the humble thing, and the hard thing.
In our country, this book woke up a lot of white people unaware of or unwilling to face racial inequality. Though most still did nothing afterwards, for a moment they got a glimmer of understanding about injustice. It took the voice of a little girl from the Depression era to awaken a 1960s white-majority America to the fact that white privilege does indeed exist, that the drum major instinct–the superiority complex that Dr. King described so eloquently–is a virulent source of racial hatred.
It all comes down to whether your inner sphere is a raging brew of uncontested, ugly desires, or whether you are, as Miss Maudie says of Atticus, “civilized in your heart.” Jem is thrilled to discover this part of his father—the glorious, secret strength that craves no glory whatsoever.
“Jem picked up a rock and threw it jubilantly at the carhouse. Running after it, he called back, ‘Atticus is a gentleman, just like me!’” (107)
Harper Lee created a man whom most men and women never are and never will be. Atticus Finch of Mockingbird is a tenacious fighter for justice, saintly with his patience, and self-sacrificing at the risk of his own and his children’s safety. Atticus Finch of Go Set a Watchman is a fearful old man who rationalizes and intellectualizes his racism. My guess is the truth of any Atticus who ever lived is somewhere in between.
On this day of her death, I salute Nelle Harper Lee. She did something braver than I as a white girl would have done in 1960.
To Ms. Lee, whose magnum opus was one tiny part of a much larger Movement that had been hard fought so long already.
To Ms. Lee, who hating the limelight herself, stowed herself away like Boo Radley to appreciate the finer things of life beyond fame.
Your light is eternal, a steady flame fueling itself, seeking no air or wind from others. Rest in peace after a life well lived.
“He turned out the light and went into Jem’s room. He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.” (296)
Harper Lee. To Kill a Mockingbird. J.B. Lippincott Company. Philadelphia and New York. 1960.
Us writers, we have wa-a-a-a-a-y too much to say. Just like teachers, just like teens. All of whom I’ll find a way to mention in this post.
One time when I was teaching English, I took a group of 10th graders on a walk. We were reading Jon Krakauer’s book, Into the Wild, about Chris McCandless, who risked his life in the wilderness of Alaska instead of embracing a mainstream lifestyle. We took a meditative walk on a trail through the woods in a local park and preserve. “15 minutes of quiet,” I told my class. “That’s all you have to do. Walk. Breathe. Think.”
“Jeremy!” I called as gently as I could. “Please, be quiet!”
“Okay, Ms. Fairchild.” And yet he kept talking.
“Jeremy!” I raised my voice. “I mean it!”
We had quiet for a brief respite. Then: more chatter.
“Jeremy!” I’d had it. “Why can’t you meditate for a minute? Close. Your. Mouth!!!”
“But Ms. Fairchild!” he called back. “I just have so much to say!”
He’s a musician now. I’m so glad I couldn’t shut him up.
I was that talkative kid, and am that kid still. Many people who become teachers are the highly verbal souls, storytellers enamored of narrative and lovers of wordplay. We love the stage, the drama, the moment when the right words fall into the right order.
Minerva Mae Christopoulos is that girl brimming with opinion, and synonym, and late-breaking tickers of news. She wants to be Christine Amanpour. She wants to expose corruption and be a journalist in a world where people are a bit fuzzy on what constitutes honest news. Her hashtag? #truthwillout.
Robin Follet found a way to bring her character to visual life in our collaboration, Minerda, and visualize the writerly kid who keeps jabbering when one no one wants to listen. Robin’s amazing illustrations do the talking, in a way my novel couldn’t. I tried a prologue. I tried weaving in back story, so people could empathize with Minerva and understand why she’s so angry at certain girls when she hits high school. The solution was a prequel in the form of a graphic novella–and it became a rewarding collaboration.
If you know my work, you know that bullying threads through all my books: How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought; in my forthcoming novel, How Minerva Mae Christopoulos Set the Record Straight; and in my short-story collection, The Flat and Weightless Tang-Filled Future. Wherever people indulge what Dr. King called “the drum major instinct,” dividing us up by race, religion, sexual orientation, and every other label, there’s a story to tell about the power plays. I want to explore how we can rise above the meanness.
Bullying is a case of “too much to say” in all the wrong ways. It’s viral now because the Internet lets us wag our tongues all day and night. Anonymously. And what’s the most fascinating thing to wag your tongue about? Conflict. Fear. Hate. We love drama. Our culture is obsessed with spectating pain. We’ve got Twitter wars, we’ve got trolls, and all kinds of new phrases for today’s ways of hating on one another.
As a person with so much to say, and as fallible as anyone else, I have to ask: How can I expose what’s happening? How can I help change the dialogue?
We handed our kids something with more computing power than our first rockets into space–the smartphone–and then we walked away, saying, Good luck out there, kids. Godspeed in the biggest and most unsupervised library/public park/cage fight you could ever imagine.
Art helps us stop and ask why. I write because I figure it’s a way to reach a kid who needs the hotline at the end of the book and get her asking for help. It’s a way to help the parent, teacher, or counselor ask a teen how his day was. This book is for any of us haunted by someone’s words, still rattling our bones and shaking our confidence in grown-up situations, reminding us to change the dialogue in our heads. Maybe because of art, we’re sometimes a little softer, gentler with each other, for having walked momentarily in memory or someone else’s shoes.
Art allows exposure. My books out the dark, ugly scrawl of what we text, post, and tweet, unable to see the face of the recipient but still so sure those words need to be said. All my stories are grounded in the technology of the time and show how we and our kids navigate the wilds of things such as Twitter, Tumblr, ask.fm, and Snapchat. Once you see it in black and white, not so ephemeral, it might hit you in the gut and wonder if you should pass this book along to a teen. That’s some ugly stuff Lyn just printed. Then check a teen’s phone and then you might just pass this along. Because my books celebrate the youth who question this, who want the verbal violence to stop, and who will actually take some kind of action to stop it.
A side note about Snapchat, known as the sexting app: it’s now known for “stories.” One blogger recently shared how and why Snapchat is popular with the under-25 set because of the ability to a) share a tale and b) live in the now, just like physical interaction. You send your series of snaps (stories), the in-the-moment life you’re leading. No filters, no edits, no lies. No comments, no likes.
Less scrutiny means less chance for bullying.
If the epidemic of verbal violence today were a viral or bacterial outbreak, we’d take immediate and forceful action. We’d find the sources of transmission and intervene. Quarantine, clean, remove what’s necessary. We’d wash our hands of the ubiquitous technology–i.e., turn it off, monitor better, say it’s time for a break now–and rest in the moment without comments. My generation wasn’t haunted by tormentors during the ABC Afterschool Specials, because we could turn off school when we got home. We didn’t have to pick up the phone or go outside. We silenced the exchange for a time. We got a break, but kids today do not.
Let’s fill the airwaves and the wifi with whatever is pure, good, right. And whenever we can, stop, disconnect from the drama, and tell the truth.
As Minerva might say, fist in the air: #truthwillout.
There’s no motivation like real, red-blooded beta readers to make you dive back into a manuscript and rip it up.
The beginning dragged, a couple readers said. I dispensed with the first chapter and wrote another.
No one uses the word “frosh,” said a couple others. I hit Command-F and did a nice little replace with “freshman” and “first year” (depending on how eager Minerva Mae was to impress her feminist mentor).
I despise Minerva, said one. She’s a female Holden Caulfield, said another. I hold these two comments in constant tension and wonder if the hate a character inspires in one reader is indeed the flip side of love another might feel. As the Holden Caulfield commenter shared with me, “Trust that a strong emotional reaction is just that…and different than an objective set of criticisms.”
Personally, I prefer hate to apathy.
Comments ranged from serious questions about character choices to concerns about whether Minerva should wear cords, jeans, or cargo pants. All of it mattered; all got attended to. Because there is nothing like getting a play-by-play set of reactions in the margins of your manuscript to make you care about your story in a whole new way.
Thank you, Antonia, David, Erin, Gordon, Jamye, Katherine, Maureen, Sara, Stephen, and Tracy. Your diverse views gave me a robust portrait of how my character affects a range of people.
Minerva has a whole new life now thanks to the hard work of these kind folk who could be reading or binge-watching or retweeting something else. (I know my competition, and it is fierce.) Minerva is ready for agents, and yes, another round of beta readers.
Because an author’s work is never done. I know the novel can’t be all things to all people, but it darn well better try.
In this age of cell phones that are supposedly great technological advances over the land lines of the past, I am the Luddite who bemoans the fact that our connections aren’t always easier now. It seems as if two people on a cell can’t talk at once, so there’s a lot of talking over one another, and some awkwardness as we miss parts of each other’s sentences. There are dropped calls. There’s a heck of a lot of voicemail. Mobile means the phone’s got to go with you, always. A landline phone stays nicely rooted to one part of the house and can be left behind. Listening today can be harder.
My little rant against tech might be analogous to how a parent must feel about the connection with a teen. You try to tell your child to watch out for this, be sure to do that, appreciate what you’ve got. The child nods, “Uh-huh,” with a glazed look in her eye and goes her merry way. She assumes that some things just grow on trees. She thinks she’s a free agent and in charge of all her decisions. She takes parental care, and concern, and money, and love for granted.
My favorite history teacher, Dr. Jack Barnwell, shared some of this parental truth about disconnected kids on my friend Jennifer’s wonderful book blog, Bacon on the Bookshelf. His musings on whether his daughter’s listened to him over the years remind me of my dad’s experience with his daughters. I thought I knew everything at 18 and felt driven to inculcate my dad in all my wisdom once I came back from one year at college. I didn’t think to ask him many questions until later in life.
It’s as my friend Tracy said to me recently, “It wasn’t till my twenties that I realized my parents were human beings.” I knew exactly what she meant the moment she said it, after having raised a teen-ager (or having tried, shall we say). My parents having concerns or troubles? Having private, personal lives? Them feeling exhausted at night? Not really on my radar.
My dad has given and given to me with great generosity for all my forty-seven years. He gave me a peaceful, secure home.He’s put me first so I could have the best education. He’s offered me all kinds of travel experiences. My father has never ceased working hard and being there anytime I needed to talk. He’s always valued my views, my thoughts, my hopes and ambitions. It wasn’t till I got older than I learned how many people don’t get this gift in their lives.
Watching my husband try to guide his son away from assumption and presumption, which is some ways are the flaws of every child, toward awareness and gratitude, I am struck by the incredible grace and generosity of dads like these wonderful men. I don’t think I thanked my father much when I was growing up. I just assumed Daddy would always be there, and presumed he would provide for my needs whenever I asked, or even if I didn’t. I do believe I ordered whatever I liked when we were out at a restaurant, without a second thought as to cost. I shopped for prom dresses and rushed off to college not thinking how anyone would pay the bills.
Dads like mine and Jack and my husband don’t mind that we’re so oblivious in our constant requests and expectations. They love us that much. And that, I think, is pretty amazing.
Thank you, Daddy, for not asking for all you gave me in return. For giving and giving without any promise of return. For making your girls a priority, and loving us in this unconditional way. And thank you for not saying, “Now you’re getting it?” when I came telling you of all my new, late-found wisdom in the last year.
The least I can do for my father is remember how he’s given to me all these years. I can pass on the same unconditional giving to all who are young and assuming. It’s their job to grow up, and it’s my turn to try to be at least half the grown-up my father has been.
The giving is the message, and it will stick in our hearts in ways our words never will.
I might not trust in my mobile phone, but I can trust in this.
Good morning, blog followers! I’m joining a contest, The Writer’s Voice, sponsored by Love YA and Monica Bustamante Wagner, which offers a chance for authors to share their manuscripts with agents. Part of the process is to post your query and first 250 words on your blog.
Dear Agents of This Cool Contest,
I seek your representation for my YA novel, How Minerva Mae Set the Record Straight. It’s a crossover story at 100,000 words for a range of ages, YA meets women’s commercial fiction.
9th grade hasn’t started too well for Minerva Mae Christopoulos, a gifted, weird, wise girl who’s survived some serious bullying thanks to her nebulous sexuality. All Minerva wants is to become the next Christine Amanpour and hang with her best friend, Diana. And though the first goal is looking likely—the school just approved Minerva to be the first freshman reporter—there’s no time to celebrate, because the girls who called Minerva “lez” all through middle school are after Di. They’re not just claiming her; they’re setting her up with a dangerous senior guy. Now Diana’s on the fast track to cleavage-baring camis and the “Hot or Not” tournament.
This can’t be. Minerva will have to muster every bit of journalistic genius to keep Di from becoming #thatslut—and figure out how not to lose a girl who feels like more than a friend.
I’m an indie author of How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought, which was the 2011 first runner-up for the James Jones First Novel Fellowship and has been reviewed in Publishers Weekly. I have a loyal following of readers; a strong website, Twitter, and Facebook presence; and experience with bookstore signings, a blog tour, and a book trailer. I’m also the winner of an Elizabeth George Foundation Grant and in my other life as an educator, have published three books (National Council of Teachers of English and Chicago Review Press).
I’ve included the first 250 words of the manuscript, and I would be happy to send you the complete novel. I appreciate your time and consideration.
Lyn Fairchild Hawks
How Minerva Mae Set the Record Straight
It being the demise of August in Jamesborough, North Carolina, the afternoon heat spreads its suffocating evil upon all creatures such that no sane person should venture outdoors. If I glance out my diamond-pane window above my desk, I have to rub the fog from the glass to see our little neighbor girls across the street, sweating it out under a hoop in the humid air and hellish sun. The house rattles as the air conditioning kicks in, and my hot little attic room, what I call my third-floor garret, the place I nurture deep thoughts as once did great women like Austen and Brontë, finally fills with gusts of air.
I go stand near the vent, flapping my t-shirt. I’m still slick with sweat after my mission into the world—a visit to my future stomping grounds, Jamesborough High. ’Twas all for a noble cause—the sake of journalistic justice.
I can’t wait to tell Di.
A few miles away, Diana Lucy Woods, my best friend since seventh grade, finishes up practice after swimming like the mermaid she is. She keeps insane hours with an elite crew of club swimmers competing for Division I schools. In a few minutes she’ll be here for Ancient Movie Night because it is Friday—the best day of my week. Thanks to my film fanatic father and his massive DVD collection, we hook ourselves up with old-school celluloid so we can hang with gals like Lana, Tippi, and Ava till Di’s curfew.
“While I don’t believe in heaven, I do believe in energy, which is neither created nor destroyed. My mom’s molecules still vibrate in this present universe, dissipating into the soil as we speak; still swirling are also her breaths. And it probably doesn’t hurt that Erin Connelly Christopoulos was a force of nature; the universe doesn’t just forget someone like that.”
— Minerva, in How Minerva Mae Set the Record Straight
Today, Mother’s Day, I’m thinking of all those who miss their mothers very much.
Minerva, the 13 year-old protagonist of my current novel, lost her mother at age 10. Through my writing, I’ve tried to imagine what this is like. Today, in my forties, I still get unconditional love and support from my wonderful mom. So not having the personal experience, I’ve witnessed the bravery of friends and tried to walk in their shoes, to try to begin to understand what this must be like.
I’m blessed to know several strong women who’ve lost their mothers and who navigate health, child-rearing, marriage, and work challenges without motherly advice. They press on without the counsel of someone who’s seen you at your best and worst, who can remind you that this moment you’re suffering doesn’t have to define everything past, present, or future.
When Minerva’s best friend chooses new friends and leaves her alone to navigate the first days of high school, Minerva turns to nature. She hikes up a trail behind her house, seeking the trees and plants her mother once loved. Minerva’s more of an indoor girl, but she knows if she’s going to find any peace, she needs to head outside. She’s on a mission to commune with nature’s energy where she believes her mother still resides.
Out of nowhere, Minerva hears guidance in the breeze. She hears the words of someone else’s voice, but she can’t interpret the message. It won’t be till she suffers some misadventures at the hands of her own hubris that she can interpret what her intuition (or is it her mother’s spirit) tried to tell her. Those words will suddenly make all kinds of sense.
I have a delightful friend who lost her mother very young and still embraces this world and all its crazy with resilience and joy. In fact, she jokes about her “Mom complex” and how it drives her to seek advice from certain grumpy old ladies, ones who makes it their mission to put people in their place. There’s something comforting about being told where to go and what to do by someone with lots of surety. Moms know, and they know best. Whether you lost her young or old, it fits you would seek her again and again, wherever you might find her, and that you’d be drawn to those teachers, coaches, colleagues, supervisors, and other female authorities who can set you straight on the rules of life. Thanks to my mom’s gracious and wise guidance, I know I gather around me those who remind me of her energy and presence, who give you that peace of being known in a particular way.
This same friend is like several others I know who are mothers of a different sort–the mentors, the aunts, the teachers, the friends, the principals, the supervisors, and the neighbors who help raise other people’s children.
I am also thinking today of those who grieve the mother who never was and yet who carry love and light to the world despite the lack.
By a certain age, we all become parents to this world, like it or not. We are all keepers of the village. I lift up those who share their best selves in the face of great loss and who still help mother this fragile place.