Note: Some of this post is adapted from “How Much Reality Can I Take,” posted originally on April 16, 2011.
“Time for another sweeping generalization: YA novels will end with more connections (new ones or healed ones) than disconnections. And most certainly, the book’s major relationships will not be left disconnected.….that teen reader is delivered to an emotionally safe landing place. The assurance that there will be such a landing place represents the line between YA and adult literary fiction.”
By page 24 of the YA novel Rage: A Love Story by Julie Anne Peters, we learn that the protagonist, Johanna, has lost her mother, has been abandoned by her sister, has been assaulted by a mentally disabled boy at school, and has a crush on a decidedly violent girl named Reeve. Oh, and did I mention that Johanna works for hospice?
When I pick up novels, I need a coherent story woven to produce meaning. I don’t turn to narrative for a “here’s what’s happening” reflection of reality, the fact that life is terrible sometimes or all the time. There is plenty of hell on earth to go around–disconnection, as Qualey calls it, abandonment, and abuse. Johanna of Rage connects with no one, really, in these first pages and is pretty much abandoned or ignored by everyone. She also shows no signs of conscience or love. Her actions are based on either fear and lust.
This doesn’t mean Johanna won’t find parts of her best self beyond page 24. I just wasn’t willing to wait around for a sign.
By page 24 of my YA novel, How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought, we’ve seen Wendy at age 15 ripped from her home to a new state, furious with her narcissistic mother, and bullied by a Mean Girl. Enough bad things happen that a writing partner told me at one point during the drafting process, “I just want to see Wendy happy.”
I understood what she meant. I answered this concern by showing Wendy passionate about something, which led to new chapter where Wendy struts down a school hallway with her life soundtrack blaring, Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.” Wendy’s not doing cartwheels of delight, but she’s empowered and she’s inspired, enough to take on the Mean Girl. I also revised to introduce two other teens, Tanay and Andrew, who reach out to Wendy and show an interest. It’s not happy-happy-joy-joy portrayal of life, but, there’s some hope for real relationship.
Is that enough light to balance the darkness? I like to think so.
I’m a huge fan of The Wire, The Killing, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and House of Cards. I willingly follow gruesome mafia killings, sociopathic politicians, and desperate drug deals. I do avert my eyes, I do gasp in horror, and I do think about these situations long after the credits roll. Why? In each of these stories, someone has hope, faith, or ambition to change something. The characters grow, they face consequences of their actions, and they struggle to find meaning. Even the sociopaths get their due; no one escapes unscathed.
Officer McNulty of The Wire strives to be “natural police,” and Bunk and other cops rise to the occasion alongside him. In Episode 4 of Season 1, McNulty and Bunk return to an old murder scene, and while cussing colorfully with gruesome images of the murder victim splayed out on kitchen linoleum, garner enough evidence that sloppy police work didn’t recover before. They go back to do a job right, and amidst the graphic horror of things, there is renewal and hope.
Weeds, on the other hand, I had to stop watching. Tell me if you love it and found a moment of redemption; I couldn’t stick around with the careless, flippant, and nihilist lifestyles.
I write about sexual abuse and recovery. I write about racism and adultery and envy and isolation. There are sociopaths, and there are pedophiles. But as I present shades of various hells on earth, I need to know there is love and redemption somewhere in this mess. I need my Wendys to find a reason to keep dancing.
Nihilism supposes that no one’s looking out for us. No one cares now or later. If the world you write about has no journey towards Good or Right, just photographic rendering of actions, habits, and tendencies, then those readers like me who believe there’s a purpose to our lives may not stay for the rest of the show.
At the end of the movie Immortal Beloved, the young Beethoven races away from home in the middle of the night, having been beaten horribly by his father–so badly, he will one day lose his hearing. The movie imagines young Ludwig diving into a pond and floating, a smile lighting his face as he suddenly sees the glorious array of stars in the pitch-black night. The soundtrack swells with Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, often called “Ode to Joy.” In the midst of great sorrow is respite and healing peace. While his ears ring with pain, the boy still hears the strains of a melody in his head, beauty he will one day create.
We all seek joy, that “bright spark of divinity” Schiller wrote of in his poem “Ode to Joy” and Beethoven set to music. Literature can give us that safe landing space where happiness thrives. Stories can let us trust for at least a moment, perhaps only in our heads, that all is well.
How much reality is too much reality in a young adult novel? Let me know your thoughts.
Ask these questions of your favorite YA novel:
“What bothered me a bit with the world building was I just felt like the school Wendy attended was racism central. I know that racism is a huge problem is some places, but it just felt a bit over the top in the beginning of the book. Luckily, about a third of the book in, the over the top racism thing stops, and the world building becomes more believable.“
– from a review of my novel, How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought.
How well did my novel capture race relations in a North Carolina high school? An author can fail at making a setting real or at making readers care about a character’s situation. The reviewer didn’t buy my portrayal of a world where white girls at Wendy’s school would say:
“This place has gone goth, ghetto, and Mexican.”
“I don’t see race. I think the people who always talk about it are the racists.”
Perhaps the issue is characters talking about race too much. Maybe the reviewer’s point is that racism can be seen and heard but not necessarily discussed with the frankness or detail my novel uses.
Perhaps the issue is subtlety. The argument this reviewer makes against my fictional school, “racism central,” is that I should have captured the more subtle ways racism plays out.
But is it subtle if it’s your race that feels the discrimination? I’ve had few experiences with prejudice, and 99% of the time, it’s not been because I’m white.
Read Chapter 2 of my novel and see what you think.
Then ask yourself: What was the racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic composition of honors classes at your high school? What happened in your class when you talked about any literature where race relations were depicted? Which authors did you read in English class?
Who got suspended at your high school? Was it a mix of genders, races, and economic classes, or did it tend to be certain groups?
I wonder where this reviewer grew up and the demographics of the community. I wonder if there are any schools in the area that are desegregated but not integrated, where “separate but equal” lives on in its 2014 manifestation. Many schools are no longer Little Rock’s Central High School of the 1950s, but listen to today’s Central High students speak on the lack of integration:
A black side and white side of the cafeteria. If we aren’t truly integrated yet, what is the work left to be done?
When I read a book that touches on race, I might find my critique saying, Dear Author, Racism is still a real issue. Please render it more believably. I’m less likely to say, Racism is over. Please let’s talk about something else.
I see racism every day. Any racism is “over the top” to me. And as easily as we want to wish away a book’s portrayal of social injustice, I also wish it could stop so easily in real life.
Obama’s election didn’t solve racial hatred or resentment. It didn’t stop the fact that your grandparents survived Jim Crow or your grandparents helped keep it alive. It doesn’t change the fact that some institutions, run by certain cultures and genders, keep certain myths and prejudices alive. I’ve seen racism in my workplaces—white people confusing black people with one another, faces I can’t imagine could ever be confused. I’ve heard patronizing statements or questions asked about the education and competency of people of color, despite an excellent track record of performance. I’ve seen people make decisions–I’ve helped make decisions–that are ignorant of certain constituencies needs because I assume every grew up and thought like middle-class, white me.
Even last night’s playoff footage–the interview between black Richard Sherman and white Erin Andrews–can’t be seen without the racial lens all Americans bring. Why else would Twitter go wild with such racially-laden language that Erin Andrews had to step up and tone things down? Perhaps we could talk about football and sportsmanship only…but we can’t, because this is America, and we have a racial history in all things. I like how blogger Tommy Tomlinson takes a wider, athletic view of the landscape as he discusses the behavior–and context–of Richard Sherman, my fellow Stanford grad.
These small stresses every day—what is the long-term impact of these judgments and barriers on people reminded daily they wake up black or brown or yellow, not white? Does it become “over the top” after years of facing different treatment? I can look at the rate of heart disease in some communities and wonder how those trends happen. Is it purely genetics?
The point is to ask.
Acknowledging white privilege is not about browbeating whites or white people’s self-flagellation. It’s not about lumping all whites into one box. As a grandchild of immigrants who struggled hard to survive in the United States, who escaped war and privation to reinvent themselves here, I have some opportunity for sympathy, to better understand stories of those families who had fewer choices or life-and-death choices. (You can read about Katherine Schlegel Fuoco, my grandmother, here.) I don’t empathize with enslavement, but I can try to imagine. Acknowledging both the points of commonality and the points of difference is where I can begin. I can face facts of my ancestral privilege and wonder why.
A white person’s job isn’t to sound the gong of how horrible whites are. My job is to resist prejudicial habits and grow sensitivity and empathy. It’s my job to examine the tape of judgment playing in my head when I recoil at something, feel superior to anyone with what King called “the drum major instinct,” or want to separate people into categories. Ask why, right away, and wonder if my judgments are sound. Ask if I would treat someone of a different gender or race or sexual orientation differently in this same case. Ask. Think. That’s a start.
Racism is over, right?
Racism is over? Right on. Thank you, Dr. King, for articulating so well that dream we pray one day shall come to be, this dream that needs time, love, and labor still.
See my other posts on the topic of race relations in America.
Two Girls + A Car, the Passing of a Pop Icon, and a Devil to Dodge…and L.A. Bound….
Will They Make It There?
on Blog Tour
More sites to be listed soon!
Recently I had the pleasure of reading and signing at two North Carolina independent bookstores–Purple Crow Books and McIntyre’s Books. With fellow author of Skater in a Strange Land, David Frauenfelder, and as part of the writers’ co-operative True North Writers & Publishers, I had a chance to share my YA Manifesto and speak of Doris Betts, our beloved mentor.
Check out the wonderful film made by my stepson, Henry Darr, who not only captured events at these great stores but also captured who I am as an author.
There’s nothing like the intimacy of a place packed with books and readers. You feel your heart accelerate as you try to read with feeling and bring your book to life for an audience. You sweat through your clothes, but happily, because the place is full and friends are smiling and you are finally in community with the larger world, not just in your own mind with your characters’ voices. You take questions, you shake hands, and you try to keep your hand from trembling as you sign, thinking hard once again of the best thing to write. You say to yourself, What a beautiful thing that people are willing to leave their homes to hear me and be together; how wonderful is it that someone gets up day after day and unlocks a shop full of rich, luminous, colorful books!
I’m all for ebooks, but I love print pages in my hand, too. I love seeing books stacked up on my nightstand. The world feels full of possibility when there are too many books to read. And walking into a place full of stacked shelves, with the papery scent of dust and carpet and bindings…it’s a pleasure that hasn’t changed since childhood.
When was the last time you strolled a bookstore, browsed, and bought?
“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
St. Paul, 1 Corinthians 13: 13
Before you question this narcissistic start to a Father’s Day post, bear with me. I believe there are two types of people: those who are successful with the help of their dads, and those who have achieved in spite of their dads. I am blessed to say I’m successful thanks to my father.
A male role model must be many things: forthright and honest, loyal and dependable, driven and persistent, and vigilant and protective. It’s a bonus if he is fun, kind, and excited about life. I got the complete Dad package.
During a self-publishing journey, you need a lot of support. You need a cheerleader with faith and business sense. My dad has been at my side throughout this process, suggesting new ideas and sending me the latest updates from bloggers and industry experts, doing research, building Excel spreadsheets, and asking sales and marketing questions. He has my back in an enterprise that has no clear or “right” trajectory. There are some parents who might say, “Are you really sure you want to do this? Isn’t it a lot of work? Why don’t you wait it out another few years (never mind the three spent querying the industry and working with an agent) because the traditional path seems like a safer bet.” Instead, my dad captures all the confusing Excel data from Amazon, Kobo, Barnes and Noble, and Smashword and brainstorms how a developer needs to create an app to automate such a process. He compliments my writing efforts and sings my praises to friends and family. He loves to see me shine, and with that special Dad pride, he can make me look even brighter.
My father’s actions relay to me that no matter what I attempt, I can do it. A daughter needs that kind of optimism if she is to undertake an artist’s life.
My dad modeled risk-taking to me since my childhood. We moved from Southern California to Northern, to Belgium, back to Northern California to North Carolina as he pursued various opportunities with his work. I learned that new places hold possibility, that people of other states and countries have fascinating histories, and that there are good people and new friends everywhere. I learned that over time, one can adapt to new situations and discover new sides to oneself. My dad thrives on meeting new people, making new friends, and trying new foods. He handed down to me that same zest for experimentation and newness.
In the ed world, one will often here the phrase “lifelong learner” as a descriptor for a teacher’s ideal persona. Ever curious, open, and excited, this kind of teacher inspires his or her students to embark on the learning journey. That phrase fits my father perfectly. This is what he’s taught me: to treat each day as a new opportunity and an ambitious adventure.
My dad is a man of many gifts. He knows people the world over who are grateful for his leadership, mentorship, and business savvy. With all these talents he’s always been extremely humble and does not call attention to himself. He is the kind of worker right in the trenches with everyone else. It wasn’t until I was out of college that I began to appreciate all he had done and was pursuing. And he still thinks my little business enterprise is worth his time and attention.
Love is reliable and shows up every day, just like a good dad. It is consistent, persistent, and trustworthy. A great father’s love is full of faith and hope. I will be forever grateful for my wonderful father who has shaped me, my view of myself, and my happiness.
“I’ve lived in silence and denial for 22 years and I can’t spend another moment in that. In order to truly heal I have to speak my truth and I have to speak the whole truth.”
– Wade Robson
Dancer and choreographer Wade Robson has gone public with a claim that for seven years, Michael Jackson sexually abused him. When asked why he is telling this story now, he said:
“All it takes is a little bit of education into child sexual abuse and realizing how unfortunately typical my scenario is. The trauma and the psychological effects of child sexual abuse last for so long. I had no understanding of this until up to just over a year ago. I’m just at the beginning of my healing process. I ‘m sure I’ll be dealing with this for the rest of my life.”
What Robson calls “typical” makes sense to me. As an educator, friend, and girlfriend, I’ve heard many tales of sexual abuse from survivors. People are afraid to come forward, and so they don’t. Children are shaped by the adults, and if an adult who is a constant presence and influence tells you the earth is flat, the sky is fuchsia, and sexual abuse is love, then you believe it. Later, when these same survivors are cutting, isolating, rebelling, or contemplating suicide, many times they don’t call the abuser a predator. They keep silent, feel terrible, and ask themselves, “What’s wrong with me?”
As the character of Wendy says in my novel, “I’m bad. Hounded by night creatures. Stamped by the smoothest of criminals.”
Survivors might even protect the perpetrator and return to him. There still can be trust and loyalty in the face of abuse. The relationship between predator and victim is emotionally complex and can be paralyzing static. When ages are dramatically different, the dynamic is not unlike a carnivore with fangs sunk deep in the weaker animal. Imagine hearing when you are seven, You’ll go to jail. I’ll go to jail. This is love. This is right. It’s you and me against the world. We’re soul mates.
Do you easily lose that imprint to trust your abuser, that stamp so deep it forms daily thought and action, automatic as your ABCs? Do you just slough off those routines and habits like a cloak and say, I’m over it? I remember unpleasant incidents from 1978, 1981, and 1983. And those fifth, seventh, and ninth grade moments still impact how I see myself. Sometimes I am still that embarrassing nerd who uses too many big words, that “big palooka,” or that girl in the “dog parade.” If I still recall these little slings and arrows from formative years, I can’t imagine how sexual abuse might have changed my life. I know my self-perception and esteem is shaped by my interpretation of those experiences. We evolve in response to experience; it doesn’t disappear but gets locked into our bones.
So if Robson was indeed abused, to say that Robson should have just outed his story at 14, 24, or even now—like that’s an easy thing—is like me saying I should feel comfortable broadcasting how Carolyn mocked me in front of the fifth grade class and Colleen called me a big palooka in front of two girls in the Parish Hall and Andy called me and my girlfriends “the dog parade” in the freshman hallway. These aren’t trophies from my adolescence I like to brag about; I look weak, ugly, and lame. Again, these are just the little wounds of everyday living; these aren’t sexual violence or trauma.
Just like coming out of the closet, there is much to lose when you voice your truth. If people know you’ve survived something ugly—never mind your claiming that someone they like has committed evil—you are not only truth-teller but life-changer. You are breaking the rules of the game, stopping the dance, and flipping others’ perceptions. You will be hated for speaking up.
You may wonder, why risk it and speak up now and take up the fight? Robson’s detractors claim he’s a liar who wants money. Perhaps. Perhaps Robson is making this all up, and he’s not experiencing PTSD in his thirties, and he doesn’t need justice. Perhaps he’s only money driven. Perhaps.
But this is not my battle nor me trying to prove Robson right or wrong. I don’t know him personally. This story, to me, is about why survivors don’t tell truth right away, and what the dynamic of abuse creates. Instead of taking sides, we should ask, How does abuse happen, and how do predators work? How long does it take—or should it take (because people ask, “Why’d he wait so long?”)—a survivor to confess the abuse? What does the data say?
In my book, Wendy nurtures a rarefied Michael Jackson obsession. It’s a point of connection between her and her mother’s new boyfriend, who gains her trust through music and charisma and attention. Her mother ignores her, but he doesn’t. As he gains her trust, her crush ignites, and her hopes for a stable future with him as a potential stepdad soar. Until the day when the flirting goes way past flattery to molestation, and then rape.
At first Wendy thinks it’s her fault, that she somehow brought this on herself. It doesn’t matter that she’s 15 and he’s 45. She still takes full responsibility. She says, “For nights I’ve dreamed of cleavers separating his hand from his arm, his head from his neck. But each dream ends with my hands, arms, head flying into outer space.”
As I wrote this book, I had in the back of my mind the testimony of several people (friends, former partners, and former students). I read The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse with its stories of many survivors. I learned about profiles of predators, the patterns of grooming and abuse, and the trauma that persists long after the crimes have stopped. I listened to evangelist Joyce Meyer’s story. But I don’t pretend to be an expert. My fiction bubbles up for many reasons, and no doubt one of them is response to stories told to me, my artistic processing of the tears, fear, and physical and mental breakdowns I was privileged to share.
Wendy knows one thing for sure: her voice will out. She doesn’t know how or when, but it stays like a chant in her head her when she can’t sleep at night. “Coming soon,” she says, “The Big Reveal. This girl will peel back the glittering glove, and she will doff her mask.”
Wendy Redbird Dancing wants the truth to unfurl. Maybe Wade Robson does, too. But since I’m not his judge, I’ll trust only in my fiction. It attempts to represent the testimony of those I love. And that testimony tells me that sexual abuse happens, it’s hard to tell, and the outing of it can be a lifelong journey.
This Mother’s Day, I’m thinking of those who are unable to celebrate. Those who never had a mom to begin with, even if technically, there was a mother in the house.
In my novel, How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought, Sunny Revere is not a good mom. She is a classic narcissist, obsessed with finding and keeping boyfriends. And there are many–a “revolving door,” as her daughter describes it. Also top of Sunny’s list is the pursuit of her own happiness–political dreams and artistic interests. In between, if her daughter happens to cross her path, Sunny will occasionally parent. She thinks she’s a great mom because she strives to be Wendy’s BFF.
At 16, Wendy is well aware of these stark facts. She has accepted and so far, survived her mother’s weaknesses with a certain amount of stoicism. She says, “With Sunny it’s best to sift out troubling information, as she’s flummoxed by most facts. Facts require decisions, and Sunny’s best at dithering.” Sunny has spent a lifetime flitting from one location and job and boyfriend to another, dragging Wendy along, and never facing the black-and-white truth of parenting: sometimes, you have to put yourself last.
Wendy’s built the necessary walls to handle the perpetual transitions. But the one thing Wendy finds she can’t face so easily is abuse at the hands of her mother’s boyfriends. She will spend a lifetime overcoming these traumas.
“My mom forgot to get me a birthday cake.” “My mom didn’t show up for the one award I got in middle school.” “My mom pretended the abuse wasn’t happening.” Over the years, I’ve heard such stories from students or friends, or I’ve seen them happen without the person complaining. It was just assumed Mom had too many things to do, or that she had a date, or that the house is always a little bit crazy or chaotic whenever mom is there.
Those who grow up with a non-mother can turn out to be many things. They might be resilient, persisting no matter what life hands them. They may be possessed by their own victimhood, demanding much from a world they feel owes them something. They may be hardened, even flat-lining, or addicts, liars, and cheaters. They may be loving and embracing caretakers, giving relentlessly to others, swearing to never inflict on others what they suffered. They can be so busy trying to prove they are worthy that they achieve great success. However they evolve, the mark of the bad mother stays with them.
When I write about a situation like Wendy’s, it’s out of sympathy, not empathy. I try to relate, but am blessed to be a spectator. In my book, I was able to write a dedication to both my parents:
All I know is, I am so loved I can’t measure it. I am able to write today because you always gave me hope and space as a child to let creativity flourish. You gifted me with trust that my ideas matter.
My mother, Katherine Fairchild, is a loving, brilliant, and beautiful woman. She is incredibly selfless, having sacrificed herself for me countless times. My accomplishments, my hopes, my joys, and my sorrows have always been of great interest to her. She is delighted for me, concerned for me, and willing to listen endlessly. She is happy to spend time with me, anytime. She has never been one to ask, “But what about me?” Unconditional love is my mother’s specialty. I credit her with being the mother of my inventions.
Now she is gradually doing more and more for herself. We call her the best writer in the family and celebrate her occasional focus on herself. She recently published a story called “Sunday at Aunt Seri’s,” a vignette from her childhood that captures the beauty and strangeness of a visit to an aunt’s hardscrabble farm where turkeys swarm her like oncoming and relentless waves. My mother is gifted at capturing images and moods, and her characters are authentic. She has also crafted several stories where oddball characters muddle their way through life in great seriousness that turns slapstick.
For someone who never has said, “I deserve,” my mother deserves far more than she’s ever given herself. I hope this Mother’s Day weekend she will take a note from her daughter who has been allowed to grow up self-directed and self-confident, without someone else’s black hole of neediness interrupting her development. In other words, I want my mother to give herself the same attention she always gave me. Meanwhile, I have a role model who inspires me to ask how I can be less self-focused and more selfless.
Not everyone gets a mom like mine. Today, I celebrate Katherine Fairchild and the blessing I have in her. I also celebrate those who have overcome their mothers with grace and courage.
It’s April 30 and I just learned yesterday that April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
I’m troubled that I didn’t know, considering the book I’ve just written. How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought is about many things–race, family, identity, and religion–but its basic story is that of a young woman who survives the trauma of sexual violence. My book is part of awareness because I have met so many survivors over the years whose stories made me cry, wonder, and pray. Out of the unanswerable questions about human evil and horror we perpetrate on one another, a story emerged that I had no choice but to tell.
Talk early, talk often. Prevent Sexual Violence. SAAM’s slogan resonates because I just wrote a portrait of a noncommittal and wandering mother who never broaches such subjects with her daughter. The greatest sin of omission we can commit as parents, guardians, and educators is not talking about these issues. If we don’t discuss with our children and teens their rights to their own bodies and ways to keep themselves safe, then they will flounder at best and risk trauma on their own. And what child or teen knows how to deter a sexual predator or an assaultive partner?
Though talk won’t guarantee 100% safety, it will shine the light on a subject that thrives in the dark. It will force perpetrators to stop, one by one. Let’s try talking.
It was about the time that certain U.S. congressmen started rationalizing rape or explaining it away that I knew How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought had something timely to say. It’s an old, old story, the threat of sexual violence, the ignorance about why it happens, and the hatred of the victims. We must stop blaming or ignoring those who seek help or speak later rather than sooner. We must stop getting squeamish or offended that someone wants to raise something so “awful” or “ugly” or “inappropriate.” What’s more inappropriate–the discomfort of this discussion, or rape? What’s more unpleasant–allowing a secret to be said, or living day and night with the terror of it?
When Wendy finally finds someone who will listen to her, her first thought is to blame herself. She says, “I am supposedly a smart girl, an old soul. Smart girls know better.” Is it any wonder, when certain legislators running this country would tell her the same lie? It’s your fault someone raped you. You brought this on yourself.
There are college women unwelcome on their campuses who are now fighting back. There are military personnel who are saying, Enough. And everywhere we turn, in every community great or small, there is a child or a teen who is looking for someone to ask him or her the right question so the words may finally flow.
Talk early, often, and now. It may be the last day of April, but the awareness can grow anytime, anywhere, no matter what the season.
The Bard just shows up in my stories. I can’t stop him. He’s persistent like that.
All those teen years of re-reading the plays sealed the first set of words in my head: Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, and Hamlet. (Thank you, Ravenscroft High School, for giving me Angela Connor, teacher extraordinaire, and a play every year to capture my heart.) Getting the chills as I tried to speak Shakespearean, I couldn’t believe at age 14 anyone could pen words so beautiful, so lively, so incandescent.
Serving as an English teacher for over thirteen years was the second seal upon my heart: you can’t teach well if you don’t read along with your students. So the Bard’s pages got marked up yet again, highlighted with not only my impressions but tons of teaching ideas.
So whenever I’m writing short stories, the Bard’s words play along like a soundtrack in my head.
In my short story “The Flat and Weightless Tang-Filled Future,” Ronalda is an unhappy small-town woman trapped in a complicated suburban life she can’t comprehend. It’s 1976, and when chatting with her neighbor, Diane, who quotes Shakespeare, Ronalda remembers the time her husband dragged her to see the 1968 Zeffirelli film, Romeo and Juliet. Ronalda doesn’t comprehend Diane’s love of books and words.
“You got a case of think-too-much.”
Diane says, soft, “O teach me how I should forget to think.”
“What’s that?” Ronalda sits Bradford in the high chair and rifles through the cupboard.
“Something I read.” Diane gets pink, grabs cups from the shelf, then looks hopeful. “You ever read Shakespeare?”
Ronalda pulls out a jar of applesauce. “They made us back in school, but I never could keep my eyes on it. Mama always said, ‘Books collect the dust.’ Traded all of ours except the Bible one time at the swap meet.”
“I been picking it up again—Romeo and Juliet? Kind of sounds like the Bible.”
Ronalda wonders whether that’s blasphemous. Instead she says, “Darryl took me to that movie one time, that Zepparella one. All I remember was it had naked bodies in it. Darryl took it so serious. I was teasing him and I said, ‘Look at you, all tore up’—but he just kept saying, ‘It ain’t right. No way out. Fate’s got us all screwed.’ I couldn’t make heads or tails of it.”
“He must have meant the Prince,” Diane says. “He’s the one who said, ‘All are punnashed.” She looks dreamy, like she might take off with those long legs, shoot into the sky like a Hollywood starlet, an Esther Williams riding fountains.
“Funny how they talk,” Ronalda says. “How do you keep it straight? And who has the time?” She wrestles with the lid.
By the time this story of Ronalda’s day ends, one might say that all are punished.
In my debut novel, How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought, Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice show up. Sixteen-year-old Wendy has just been yanked out of a California life where she had the lead in Twelfth Night alongside her best friend, and Wendy might never forgive her mother for this sudden move to North Carolina. There’s a ray of hope when she makes the acquaintance of two students in her English class, Andrew and Tanay, finding that she and Andrew can connect over the Bard. He’s returning her Walkman to her, one that a Mean Girl just tried to steal, and sees the cassette inside it.
He laughs. “Thriller. That what you listen to?”
“But you’ve got an iPhone.”
I shrug. It is none of his business, my retro philosophy of purity, simplicity, and innocence that was the 1980s.
“Can you do that zombie dance?”
I roll my eyes. “There’s so much more to Michael than little monsters. Give his lyrics a listen and you’ll see the light.”
His grin—a toothpaste smile designed to electrify teen girls—says I amuse him. “Oh, I know the word according to MJ,” he says. “How it don’t matter if you’re black or white. But the Bard, now that’s my boy. ‘If you poison us, do we not die?’”
“‘If you wrong us,’” I say, “‘shall we not revenge?’”
I look over my shoulder. Tanay’s face says she’s not too fond of this exchange.
By the end of the novel, race and revenge have played out their strange and horrible consequences in what I hope are redemptive ways.
This week as the terrible events in Boston unfolded, I was struck by the both depravity and heroism of humanity on view in the same moment. As reporters wondered who could perpetrate such a crime, as police conducted a manhunt, we shook our heads; then as we saw footage of people running toward the blast and heard more evidence of people opening up their homes and restaurants to help, we felt hope. Hamlet said it best:
What a piece of work is a man! How noble in
reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving
how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel!
in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the
world! The paragon of animals! And yet to me, what is
this quintessence of dust?
Happy birthday, William. It’s been 397 years of beauteous words, illuminating wisdom, uproarious comedy and heart-rending tragedy, and transcendent rhythms. When you passed in 1616, you could have no idea how long you would live for us.
I was surrounded by an eclectic group, including a screenwriter who also considers himself a novelist, a personal essayist, and a newspaper editor. Across from me was a published author (several fantasy novels). She spoke of how great it felt to hear from kids who had read her books, or parents who were excited to try her work because their children loved it. One girl said she collected hardbacks and loves to see them lined up. None of them own e-readers.
A listening audience of 16 and 17 year-olds will hold a mirror up, that’s for sure. As they listened carefully, and I chatted away at super speed, what I saw in me was a gal full of self-publishing tips: someone eager to share what she’s learned lately about royalties and cover design, platforms and launch planning. In other words, I was all business.
I know this because I was also flanked by a young man who was curious but not “aspirational,” as he put it, when it came to writing. Yet he asked some great questions and stayed engaged the whole time. The personal essayist said she didn’t feel led to see her work published; she wrote for herself, for pleasure.
I can’t get either of these kids out of my mind, because they represent to me something I lose every day when I’m too much business. Whatever I do in this writing career, I must never lose the joy of writing. That “kid in a candy store” feel I had as a kid at age nine, writing pages and pages for any purpose, just because the spirit moved me–that little girl must stay strong inside.
When the young author shrugged that all her many books weren’t vetted by “real people,” I offered some thoughts about the demise of the Big Six (now the Big Four) getting replaced by The Crowd out there on the web, that can now tell you directly what The People want to read. But I wonder if I should have said, “No, no, no. Why did you write in the first place? For the supposed editors and agents and publishers–who I’ve left behind–or for you and your dreams? Whatever you do, don’t lose that muse, that passion, that vaulting ambition to put your words out there. At the end of the day, that is what we have, for sure. Nothing else is guaranteed.”
Even if years from now she views her earliest efforts as dross and nothing like what she can do now, she knows how important it is to finish what you start and stay committed to an idea, a character, a story. I wouldn’t be a self-publishing author if I didn’t have this drive.
Kids in a candy store have two missions: get massive quantities, and go for the sugar high. Writing has always been a grab fest, gulping down great words, addictive, and energizing. A rollercoaster charging down the hill, guaranteed to get you happy.