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How Much Reality Can I Take?

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.”

– Marsha Qualey, “Real or Imagined: The Line between Young Adult, Crossover, and Adult 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?

On page 24, I had to put the book down. And ask myself: In my fiction, how much reality can I take?HWRDSTDAON 300x200

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. 

  • Do you recall reading a book or seeing a film at a young age that marked you for life? (For me it was the amputations in Gone With the Wind; at age seven I was haunted for days by the scene of a solider screaming, “Don’t cut! Don’t cut!”)
  • If you read my Wendy novel, is it “young adult” or better described as “young adult for adults”? At what age would you introduce it to someone, and why? 
  • What young adult books have you read that ride or cross the line? Which ones are “just right”?

Writing Prompts:

Ask these questions of your favorite YA novel:

  • Is there realism?
  • Do characters act “in character” and follow a code of consistency?
  • Is there an arc, or journey, that transforms a character?
  • Do things “fit” together? Is there coherence among plot, character, setting, image, etc?
  • Is there emotional connection between characters?
  • Is there redemption and hope?
  • Does the story accurately portray young adulthood while allowing an “emotionally safe landing space”?
  • Is there enough resolution balanced with realistic limbo and possibility?

 

I Have a Question

Random questions from my week:

Image found here

  • Why do some people’s sneezes sound like a raspberry? A sputter explosion? (Mine, for the record, sound like a dog barking.)
  • Why do some people keep their cranky child in a cafe when it’s clear the child wants to leave? And another question: when did public spaces become our living rooms–a place to let it all hang out–rather than a place of privilege we share with others?
  • Why did the employee of Trader Joe’s thank me for admitting I broke a carton of eggs? Who doesn’t report the mess she made and ask to pay for it?
Rant over. Rants are ugly but perhaps not so bad in the form of rhetorical, unanswerable questions. 
Literature at its best is the answer to a question told in images, characters, and events. While rants can sound alarm bells and beg for much-needed mercy and attention, they can also lose the opportunity for readers’ best thinking and grappling with the question themselves. Screaming and spewing anger from the rooftops isn’t literature. Art becomes diatribe, no longer experience but polemic. 
The best teaching is also question-driven rather than fact-driven. Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, two ground-breaking educators, talk about Essential Questions: those dilemmas, challenges, and open-ended problems of a discipline that drive scientists, artists, engineers, philosophers, doctors, architects, environmentalists–any profession–to quest after new answers. Our kids, just like our readers, should spend classroom time in the pursuit of the Big Questions. The challenge is in making the experience, whether literary or educational, an engaging and compelling trip. 
Milan Kundera talks of the novel this way:

The stupidity of people comes from having an answer for everything. The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything…The novelist teaches the reader to comprehend the world as a question. There is wisdom and tolerance in that attitude.

If we comprehend life as a question, and if we make art from our questions, then we engage in a great act of faith. We believe that answers will appear; that revelations will ensue; that God, the Universe, Spirit, or Energy is on our side, and that there is not randomness but order to be revealed.

HOW WENDY REDBIRD DANCING SURVIVED THE DARK AGES OF NOUGHT asks

  • How does a child survive chaos and abuse?
  • How do we define spirituality?
  • How does a self-proclaimed freak make friends?

Apparently Padgett Powell wrote a whole book of questions that might be a great start for those of us stuck in the answers.

What questions are you asking in your writing? In your teaching? And are you doing your best while in cafes and grocery stores to not rant at your fellow man?

Writing Prompts

  • Story idea: A boy who asks irritating questions finds himself ostracized. Where? By whom? When? Why?
  • Story idea: A teacher comes into her classroom one morning and finds a strange question on her board. Unravel a story of who wrote it and why and the consequences of the question writing for students, faculty, administration, and parents. 
  • Write a list of 10 unanswerable questions running the gamut from love to medicine, relationships to house cleaning, any stickler queries that needle you when you can’t sleep. Whatever keeps you up at night, whatever’s made you wonder where in the hell the answer is, write those questions down. Now which one would make a great story? A great novel?
  • Take those questions to people you trust and discuss answers that work and don’t work. Write a poem, short story, or essay with one of the answers.
  • Write about a person who never asks you any questions.
  • Ask yourself what questions you’ve asked lately. Are you comfortable or uncomfortable in a space of “not knowing”? Write about that.
  • In what place in your life are you most open to asking questions? The least? Why? Is there room for breakthrough–or at the very least, writing about it–to get to the other side of your lock-step, paradigm-stuck thinking?
  • Take one of my questions above–about sneezes, kids in cafes, or miscreants in grocery stores–and start a story. 
  • Check out the writing prompts I share at my post, “Ask and Ye Shall Irritate.”

How Much Reality Can I Take?

“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.”

— Marsha Qualey, “Real or Imagined: The Line between Young Adult, Crossover, and Adult Fiction”

Photo by Nathan Cook

By page 24 of 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?

By page 24 I had to put the book down. And ask myself: How much reality can I take?

What we like to read is all about taste–whether you like chocolate with your peanut butter in an orange wrapper or chocolate so dark and pure from a Belgian clime that it tastes like butter…I know people who would gobble either. I’m not much of a memoir or nonfiction reader, so it’s no surprise that 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. I can turn to truTV (supposedly “actuality”) for that. I also don’t need darkly realistic fiction with no sign or hint of redemption (see my guide for signs of redemption in a work).

I know life is terrible sometimes or all the time, depending on who you talk to and when you talk to them, and I don’t avert my eyes from the news. There is plenty of hell on earth to go around–disconnection, as Qualey calls it, or abandonment and abuse. Johanna of Rage connects with no one, really, in these first pages and is pretty much abandoned or ignored by everyone. And she shows no signs of conscience or love. Her actions are based on fear and lust.

I know this is how humans behave, and some people run on these two gears only most of their lives. I wouldn’t want to be friends with them, though. I consider my reading much like my taste in chocolate–something I want to keep around and maybe try again sometime.

M or F? by Lisa Papademetriou and Chris Tebbetts I did keep reading. Some would say it is unrealistic because there’s a Gay/Straight Alliance at school with kids who are definitely out and there are devoted environmentalist teens. Having taught at schools where this is possible, I question those who say it can’t happen, but all the same, I don’t feel a novel must represent the majority or the average rather than the exception. But let’s get beyond details of scenery and character type: let’s get to meaning, because this book has plenty of it. M or F? follows the relationship of Frannie and Marcus, two devoted friends who share a brain. They think alike and care deeply for one another. Marcus has been out to Frannie since he moved to the school, and they accept one another, foibles and all, with open hearts. When Frannie falls for the environmentalist who also strikes Marcus’ fantasy, things get interesting. Their struggle with romance and friendship ignites a series of IM high jinks worth following.

Bleah! Sounds like a romp, you say. The feel-good movie of the year! Give me stark reality. I want blood, guts, murder, real–with a healthy dose or redemption.

I can hang with that, too. I just started watching two series–The Wire and The Killing–and love both. I loved The Sopranos and Six Feet Under. Why do I stick with gruesome mafia killings, violent deaths of teen girls, and desperate drug situations in low-rise projects? Because in each of these I’ve mentioned, someone has hope, faith, drive, or ambition. 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. Somebody went back and did 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.

M or F? deals honestly with sexual orientation and young love. It also explores loyalty between friends and how we can betray one another while pursuing our own desires. This important exploration makes the book worthy of a classroom read, and co-author Lisa Papademetriou also provides a teacher’s guide for this purpose. There’s lust, but it’s not reveled in with graphic sidetrails the way Rage quickly descends. I believe in describing teen lusts and teen dreams, but like the judge, I know when things wax a bit too pornographic and don’t care to quote it for you. Or, let’s put it this way: before you show me your panties, show me your brain. I want to know why I should like you as a person before you undress.

In Rage, I know that Johanna means well, trying to tutor the violent boy and serve at hospice, but she goes through the motions of serving, either spacing out while someone dies to fantasize about her love interest, Reeve, or trying to escape when forced to tutor the violent boy. She is powered by loneliness and lust. Her best friend asks her to leave the house so she can sleep with her boyfriend.

Now this portrayal is authentic and no doubt strikes a chord with teens wracked by these struggles. We are selfish creatures in high school and act out of our worst desires. A teen or adult reader may appreciate this honest mirror and want to immerse herself deep in the ugly of the moment. Johanna is a lost protagonist, headed into a downward spiral after a dangerous girl. The blurb promises this: “In the precarious place where attraction and need collide, a teenager experiences the dark side of a first love and struggles to find her way into a new light.”

I don’t think I can wait around for the “new light.” It’s not that I can’t hang with trouble. It’s just that I need to know that Johanna has something to cling to–a decent friend, a concerned adult–and not a careless teacher who leaves her alone with a violent boy or a self-centered older sister or best friend. I haven’t met a redeeming soul yet by page 24. There is a hint of Johanna’s mom being a good force, but that’s not fleshed out yet.

I think about “how much realism” issue all the time because I’ve had an least one writing partner say of my WIP, ST. MICHAEL, PRAY FOR US: HOW WENDY REDBIRD DANCING SURVIVED THE DARK AGES OF NOUGHT: “I just want to see Wendy happy.” I understood the comment, and how I answered it is was by showing Wendy passionate about something. I wrote a new chapter where she 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, she’s inspired, she’s angry, she’s righteous. After this scene she takes bold action of revenge. Within the next 15 pages, there are three “interventions” by individuals striving to connect with this alienated, freakish girl: two teens and a teacher. I can’t say there’s much happy-happy-joy-joy swirling and very few warm fuzzies, but, there’s some hope for real relationship.

In the first 24 pages, I can’t find a single soul who Johanna would want to trust. That scares me a bit. Realistic? Sure. Readable? Not so much.

I write about sexual abuse and recovery. I write about racism and adultery and envy and isolation. Sociopaths. Pedophiles. Life is ugly and that’s a truth key to my tale. I present shades of various hells on earth. But call me Pollyanna or Fairy Tale Fanny, but I need to know there is love and redemption somewhere in this mess.

Nihilism supposes that no one’s looking out for us. No one cares now or later. If the world you write about has no Good, no Right, just habits, traditions, and other human endeavors of an anthropological bent, then those readers 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 crossing his face as he suddenly sees the glorious array of stars in the pitch-black night. The soundtrack swells with “Ode to Joy.” Here in the midst of great sorrow is sudden respite and healing peace. The boy still finds beauty in the strains of a melody he will someday create while his ears ring with pain.

Maybe Johanna will find love and light somewhere within the pages of Rage. I hope so. Maybe someone else who likes a certain kind of read will stick around to see.

Redemption versus nihilism. Guess which wins for me, every time?

Writing Prompts:

Ask these questions of your YA manuscript:

Literary Goals:

• Is there realism?
• Do characters act “in character” and follow a code of consistency?
• Do things “fit” together? Is there coherence among plot, character, setting, image, etc?

YA Goals:

• Is there emotional connection between characters?
• Is there redemption and hope?
• Is there enough clarity in the resolution for YA (ages 16-18), balanced with some realistic limbo and possibility? Does the story accurately portray the liminal stage of young adulthood while allowing an “emotionally safe landing space”?