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?


Say My Name

In the last season of “Breaking Bad,” the character of Walter White, a genius chemist gone rogue to the meth business, tells a fellow dealer, “You know who I am. Say my name.”

“Say my name,” represents the ultimate victory of Walter’s runaway ego. It represents his id gone wild, where Walter’s demons have fully conquered his love of family and any prior moral compass. He wants to rule the world as “Heisenberg,” the man who cooks the purest meth on the planet. Demanding his name be said celebrates the evil he has fully embraced.

The Iagos, the Hitlers, and the shooters get a lot of press. Anderson Cooper tells us so from his outpost in Connecticut right now. He explained why CNN would not give the shooter’s name tonight.

I read the names of the children and adult victims of this most recent mass murder and I want us to say their names with reverence, with silence on either side, with prayer. I want to take these names in and not forget them.

I see many classic names on this list, names that have crossed centuries. I see a name I’ve never seen before. I see names from many cultures. I see names from the Bible.

I sought comfort and looked for quotations by Dr. King. In my search I found a blog by California Congresswoman Maxine Waters, who remembered Dr. King less than a year ago in the wake of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and her constituents being shot. Ms. Waters also held up the names of those in her community who had recently suffered another outbreak of gang violence.

Aaron Shannon Jr., 5
Kashmier James
Taburi Watson, 14
Lewis Smith

When there are no words, only silent prayer where the soul cracks open, speaking a name can be something sacred and selfless, not at all about ego. There must be something higher, the Soul says, when tragedy tries to turn us hopeless or believe the world is only full of demons. We return to the departed and their names and say, We won’t go there. 

As Fred Rogers told us, Look for the helpers. Here are more words to help us talk to our children right now.

I will look, and I will listen. There are so many beautiful names to say. Let them ring. 

Charlotte Bacon, 6
Daniel Barden, 7
Rachel Davino, 29
Olivia Engel, 6
Josephine Gay, 7
Ana M Marquez-Greene, 6
Dylan Hockley, 6
Dawn Hocksprung, 47
Madeline F. Hsu, 6
Catherine V. Hubbard, 6
Chase Kowalski, 7
Jesse Lewis, 6
James Mattioli, 6
Grace McDonnell, 7
Anne Marie Murphy, 52
Emilie Parker, 6
Jack Pinto, 6
Noah Pozner, 6
Caroline Previdi, 6
Jessica Rekos, 6
Avielle Richman, 6
Lauren Russeau, 30*
Mary Sherlach, 56
Victoria Soto, 27
Benjamin Wheeler, 6
Allison N Wyatt, 6
*Some news organizations are spelling the victim’s last name differently.

Filed Under: demons, hope, loss, sorrow, tragedy  

Teaching During a Tragedy: Remembering 9-11-2001

English teachers pick up tragedy, horror, and the grisly details of human behavior every day. That’s the normal fare of classroom literature; we deal in anguish and suffering while parsing metaphor, symbol, and paragraph. The racism and incest of To Kill a Mockingbird; the bloodbaths of Julius Caesar; the horror, the horror of imperialism and slavery in Heart of Darkness. Teachers must walk a line of clinical curiosity to help students see the craft behind the passion and the pain. Sure, I’ve done a lot of dramatic readings, dragged my students up to the front of the room for role plays, and insisted students see the beauty, meaning, transcendence, and emotion. But like many of my colleagues, I’ve rarely forgotten my role and mission as skill mentor. We’ve got work to do here, people.

Words like competencies, skills, and grades cease to mean much when bad things happen for real, off the page: real deaths, real hurricanes, and real Twin Towers falling. When they’re happening while class is supposed to be in session.

10 years after 9-11, I struggle to remember how or what I taught that Tuesday. I recall a student rushing into the classroom at break (was it about 9:45 AM?) to tell us to turn on the TV, turn on the TV! I sat in shock with a small group of students watching news footage. I remember a student crying next to me; I put my arm around her; and I believe I said to her, “Are those people–” Did I actually ask, Are those people jumping from the burning buildings? I couldn’t believe my eyes anymore than my students could.

Because nothing was making sense, I moved in very slow motion that morning. It hit me right about then that my sister had just moved to Manhattan (less than a month before, so I still pictured her elsewhere, not having yet visited), and my best friend from high school lived there, too. I began making phone calls from my classroom. My father assured me my sister was okay; or, at least she’d said she was when she called my father sometime after 9:00 AM. 10 blocks away, 10 years ago, my sister felt the whole building shudder and knew she had to leave, right away, without really knowing why. She would then spend four hours walking home, covered in dust and debris, and we would hear the whole story days later. I would learn that my best friend and her husband heard the news before they left for work that day; that they, who often worked 9:30 AM to 7:00 PM, a New York schedule, missed being near the terror by the mere fact of routine.

Then a student asked me to come outside and pray with them at the flagpole. This student had just formed a religious group on campus, asking me to be the advisor, and despite lots of resistance from the faculty, we were allowed to meet in an unused room before school began once a week–Wednesdays. But on that strange, slow-motion Tuesday, no one seemed to much care about following any rules or who was doing what. We gathered out there in sharp September sun, under a bright blue sky, and in a shaky voice, with all of us holding hands, the student led us in prayer.

My other block class that day watched TV with me; I felt it was necessary for us to see what was going on. Then I turned the TV off at the sight of crowds celebrating somewhere in the Middle East. One of my students later told me the footage was contrived–that no one was actually celebrating at the news. I still don’t know the truth, but I very much hope she’s right.

None of the above qualifies as teaching. It was response, mere response, a matter of being there, moment by moment, trying to grasp the events and their magnitude. The rest of the day is a blank to me.

I asked students to journal about it the next day. I remember grim faces looking back at me while I told them writing can help us process and help us heal. At least, I think that’s what I said. I gave a very vague prompt, probably asking them to write whatever they felt. We wrote together. I always let my students fold over pages for privacy, and I can’t tell you what anyone wrote.

10 years ago on a Tuesday, I did not teach. I was physically present, I was observant, I was reactive. I was a person trying to understand what was happening and to not cry in front of my students. I had no comforting words, just a knowledge I had to keep moving through this like every other American. I, usually the question asker, had too many that day and the rest of that year no one could answer. And I could not hand my kids these insecure, tragic, and painful queries for study.

Today if I were in a classroom I could, no doubt because questions 10 years later would be different for high school students who were 4, 5, and 6 that day, who may never have been to New York, and who know no one there. I’m not sure. But I can’t ignore the event anymore than I can ignore metaphor when it’s time to teach it. Perhaps a teacher’s Hippocratic oath is to do what we believe aids healthy learning and human development. That does include stopping a task to remember the past; it includes giving honor to people and events over pacing guides and curricular goals. Stop, drop, and heal. For all those legislators and officials who would give teachers another duty for their plate: let me say we educators strive toward–dare I call it?–spiritual competency, human feeling, on those days that are anniversaries, when we can’t ignore what’s gone before and that which yet may never be parsed, ever, to a test’s satisfaction.

Writing Prompts:

— What are your strongest memories of 9-11-2001? Are any memories ones that you still struggle with? Are there any ones that you cling to?
— Is there any element of strangeness to your recollections of that day, making you wondering if your memory serves you right? Do you wonder if any memories might have tangled with others’? What parts of the day are blank to you? What do you ask yourself now about that day that you wish you could remember?
— What has this tragedy meant to you over the last 10 years?
— How has your perception of this tragedy changed?
— In the wake of the tragedy, has there been any event that has continued the pain for you or started the process of healing? What would those events be?
— Do you believe in anniversaries? Do they help you and others you know? Why or why not?
— Should schools provide official recognition of landmark dates since national tragedies? Why or why not?
— When a tragedy strikes, how have you handled yourself, responded to your students, and addressed your curriculum on such a day?
— What do you want the children of tomorrow to understand about 9-11?

Filed Under: healing, teaching, tragedy