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Minerva with Too Much to Say

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.”

But Jeremy couldn’t stop talking.Minerda hides in the girls' bathroom after being bullied by other girls in school.

“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!”

“Okay, okay!”

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.

What is Special? Indie Bookstore Signings

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? 

Shakespeare in My Heart

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.speare

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?”

“Yessir.”

“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.

Writing Prompts:

  • Have you re-read a line from a favorite book or poem lately? Go find it, read it, and hear your voice saying it aloud. If you like Shakespeare, let his words fall trippingly off your tongue.
  • Have you ever said, “Fair play,” or “foul play”? How about “good riddance” or “fight fire with fire”? Thank Shakespeare for coining these and any other eloquent phrases that are everyday idioms now. Try one of these phrases to start a poem, story, or essay.
  • Pick up a play or movie that has something to do with Shakespeare. Check out PBS’ great series, Shakespeare Uncovered. Write something in response to what you read or see.
  • Copy ten lines of Shakespeare and home in on a few words or phrases. What are all the possibilities in those words when you think about performing them? What ambiguities does Shakespeare leave available for us and actors to fill in the gaps? What does he teach about human nature that inspires your own good thoughts and perhaps writing, too?
  • Head to HappyBirthdayShakespeare.com and enjoy the tributes.

Finding My True North

It’s hard to believe that a year ago, I was struggling to edit yet another draft of my novel and hoping it might be the version my agent would be willing to shop to publishers.

I would have never imagined a year later I’d have already published a collection of short stories and be on my way to  launching my debut novel. That after almost a decade of work on the former and three years on the latter, I’d be enjoying an adventurous, never-a-dull-day year of publishing on my own terms.

I might say I’ve found my true north.

The idiom captures the difficulty of knowing one’s right direction in a world of magnetic forces that would have us wander this way or that. I spent two years of my life querying agents, working with one for over a year, and revising the manuscript constantly according to potential market specs. There were some dark moments of staring at a screen in a panic (my words have failed me!); arguing on a phone (you think the point of my novel is to get 16 year-old girls of bland suburban tastes to read it? Who ARE said girls–I don’t know them!); or questioning my own instincts about Wendy’s character (are you clinging unreasonably to her beliefs and obsessions?).  I wondered if I’d deluded myself that I ever had a chance in this business.

I had to regroup and let my faith rally, and I had to remind myself that I am a writer, first, last, always. Not a second of that wandering and wondering was a waste. Every moment taught me skills and strengthened muscle for the moments I live now, full of trust my words are beginning to have a reach I’ve dreamed about.

No, my numbers haven’t knocked the Kindle best-sellers out of the park. But slowly, surely, great news trickles in daily, after two months of only a Kindle edition. A friend 3,000 miles away wants a signed copy of the collection, now that my paperback came out last week. A group of high school students will be discussing “Midrift.” Eight wonderful reviews are up on Amazon. Kind, unsolicited emails arrive from readers. An interview will happen next week on a nationally-syndicated radio show.

I’m having a lot of fun, too. I’m sharing my cover design with friends, family, and a support team, seeking people’s gut reactions and design eye. I’m talking sales and marketing with my dad, and getting requests for images and URLs from my web designer. I’m arranging head shots with a former student, Teresa Porter, who is pursuing her dream of photography–now a busy professional winning awards and penning a blog that’s gone viral, because she’s speaking her true north-truth.

“Can you believe we’re here?” she said to me the other day. “You getting published, and me with a photography business?”

My first reaction was to laugh with delight. Those who know the intense type-A worrier that I am can attest this is not my typical first reaction to things. Which tells me I’m true-northing it right now, truly.

I am also very excited about a co-operative venture I and two other devoted students of Doris Betts have recently undertaken: True North Writers and Publishers. Bob Mustin and Dave Frauenfelder, my partners in this venture, are passionate, gifted writers with whom I’m honored to be associated. We encourage one another’s work, promote it, and plan some exciting events for signing and sharing this summer.

Our first precept is Scribere quam videre scribere. To write rather than to seem to write. (If you know the North Carolina state motto–Esse quam videri, To be rather than to seem (to be)–and if you try to write regularly, you know what we mean!) We’re NC writers sharing authentic writing for the New South, and we will keep each other honest in this endeavor.

My ship sees its way clear right now, the waters glassy with calm, the lighthouse straight ahead. My compass doesn’t waver. I know that when the clouds gather, the sky roars, and the swells rise, I’ll have to grab a little bit tighter to that instrument and trust, trust, trust. But for now, I’m loving the peace and the joy of following my true path. So grateful I’m able to be here!

Check out the Kindle edition of The Flat and Weightless Tang-Filled Future or the paperback edition.

 

Take a Chance on Some Writing

Today is a free download day for my collection of short stories, The Flat and Weightless Tang-Filled Future.

This collection offers tales of obsessive teachers and distraught parents, technology run amok and technology to the rescue, and clashes between conservatives and liberals. Race, sex, religion are also fair game. My stories have received recognition in Relief Journal, from the AROHO Foundation, and from contests such as NCSU, Glimmer Train, and the Writers’ Group of the Triad. 

It is viewable on Kindle and with a free Kindle app on iPad, iPhone, PC, Mac, Blackberry, and Android phones.

Perhaps someone you know, a person not so sure who this Fairchild Hawks character is, will take a chance on my writing.

Perhaps you will.

Check out the reviews and sample here.

I hope art spreads and people keep reading, reading, reading as much as they can.