"The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof, shit-detector." --Ernest Hemingway
Who could argue with Papa Hemingway's advice? Actually, there are lots of good reasons to argue with him, starting with his suicide. After all, if you off yourself, you cannot continue to detect and eliminate the shit from your writing. You can't do any writing. You can't do anything. Except be dead. Being dead sucks.
Therefore, we shall modify Hemingway's adage accordingly: "The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof, shit-detector with an on-off switch."
Now, a bit on the shit-detector part: a writer must be honest with herself about the quality of what's on the page. She has to know what the prose is supposed to be doing, and she has to know if it's doing it. She has to be able to see when she's bluffing, when she's making smokescreens with words instead of cutting to the chase. She has to recognize when her prose is merely ornamental, and, no matter how much she likes that turn of phrase, if it doesn't do its job, she has to get rid of it. (This is known, among writers, as "murdering your darlings." Here's a bit more on the painful process from a Writer's Digest article by Jim Kelly.)
However. You cannot do the important work of shit-detecting if you haven't written anything. This is why the on-off switch on the shit-detector is essential--do not give this item to any writer on your list unless you have made sure the on-off switch is present.
What I mean is this: to get a draft that you can subsequently scrutinize, pulverize, rewriterize (err, revise), you have to first write something. And a lot of what you write is going to be shit. (Here's a pdf of Anne Lamott's two cents on shitty first drafts.) If that damn detector is going off constantly while you are trying to write, things are going to get ugly. You will get frustrated. You will despair. You will stop writing.
Good writing comes after plenty of shitty writing, but you can't simply skip the shit. You have to go through it to get to the place where you can detect--and do something about--the rotten bits.
But once there is a draft, we have to be ready to look at it for what it is, with eyes unclouded by our own visions of grandeur. "I wrote a novel!" is wonderful. "I'm revising my novel!" is more important.
Here's to working hard, being patient with the shit in your work, and then sniffing it all out.
Best wishes for a peaceful holiday season to all who have been and are celebrating.
*Photo credit: Scott Witt
What's the status of color and other forms of diversity in YA publishing? How does YA publishing compare to the state of things in the industry as a whole?
A couple of weeks ago, Roxane Gay of HTMLGiant published A Profound Sense of Absence, a thought-provoking post on the lack of diversity in the celebrated Best American Short Stories anthology for 2010. Her observations generated a lot of responses, some thoughtful, some contentious. Roxane says of this year's BASS:
What I felt most while reading BASS was a profound sense of absence. Sure there was a story about black people (written by Danielle Evans, coincidentally) and there was a story about a mechanic, to bring in that working class perspective and there was a story set in Africa, but most of the stories were uniformly about rich white people (often rich, white old men) doing rich white people things like going on safari or playing poker and learning a painful lesson or lamenting old age in Naples. Each of these stories was wonderful and I don't regret reading them, but the demographic narrowness is troubling. It's not right that anyone who isn't white, straight, or a man, reading a book like this, which is fairly representative of the work being published by the "major" journals, is going to have a hard time finding experiences that might, in some way, mirror their own. It's not right that the best writing in the country, each year, is writing about white people by white people with a few splashes of color or globalism (Africa! Japan! the hood!) for good effect.
I absolutely believe that getting recognized is generally harder for writers who aren't white and wealthy. This hardly seems like a point worth discussing. My question is: are things any better for YA writers?
While YA publishing has been shamed by recent events (like the whitewashing of covers by Bloomsbury), overall, I'd say that there is a generally positive response to writers who are from underrepresented groups themselves or who feature characters from minorities. I've been fortunate to find an agent and an editor who are sympathetic to my work.
(Picture books are a different story. Now that I'm a mom, I've been pretty shocked at how white and homogenous the kids' section at the library is.)
I would like to think, along with the friend who turned me onto Roxane's post, that part of what makes the YA market robust (in contrast to the anemic general market) is its receptivity to diversity. The hugely talented Sherman Alexie, for example, finally won his first National Book Award with his hilarious YA title, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. As he said when he won the award, "Well, I obviously should have been writing YA all along." (You can see his acceptance speech here, although you have to skip to 4:38 to get past all the introductory hooplah.)
Was the YA world able to appreciate something in Alexie that adult publishing professionals failed to? Or am I hopelessly and wrong-headedly optimistic?
There's more I have to say on this topic, so keep an eye out for thoughts on the representation of culture and race in YA lit and the moral imperative that (maybe) persists in publishing for kids and teens.
I. love. cake. cookies. pies. Anything sweet and full of fat, it seems. I also love vegetables and other things, but these sweet monsters exercise a particular pull on me. Why do we love cake (and other fattening foods)? And what do we do about it when it's true?
I'm not so worried about my figure; there's health to think of. Plus the uncomfortable feeling that something as cute and innocuous-seeming as a cupcake is the boss of me.
So: I continue to struggle to find a way to enjoy foods without letting them take over or endanger my health. This is the time of year that this effort becomes more challenging.
Why do I like cake? David Kessler's The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the American Appetite has satisfying answers on why some foods never satisfy, driving us to overeat. He explores how eating has become an area of our lives where we don't really understand what we're doing or why. Nor, oftentimes, do we understand why certain foods exercise the pull they do over us. Check out these highlights from the book for a few of the insights that it offers.
What I liked best about this book was how it changed the way I view an encounter with tempting foods. No, I am not now Ms. Self-Control, but I do find that it's easier to resist commercial items. I can understand that they've been engineered, not to satisfy my craving, but to encourage it. I really don't like the idea of being manipulated in this way.
Another thing I appreciated was the readability and moments of personal reflection that Kessler offers. Unlike many "dieting" books (and that's not what this is), Kessler's book doesn't feel preachy. We get the sense that he, too, is on the same journey. You can get a sense of what he's like on this edition of Fresh Air.
The problem of showing "love" through food is a topic for another day, although my passion for baking always raises some concerns for me; I want others to enjoy yummy foods from time to time, but I don't want to derail their health efforts.
Here's a sweet treat that won't overwhelm you with calories. It's the "Love Cake" song. A couple of British (?) girls singing about cake, what's not to love? I watch it whenever I need a little lift that doesn't mean blowing my eating goals for the day. Watch it with me now:
A week ago I did a general post on historical fiction. Today I want to add that historical fiction is a way to preserve (or imaginatively recreate) stories that have gone unrecorded. I'll give you an example of what I mean.
In Longview, Texas, where I went to high school, there's no historical marker to commemorate the experiences of thousands of black students in segregated schools. And it doesn't look like there will be one any time soon. Why? Because the Texas Historical Commission has certain requirements for documentation. But the usual sources for this documentation--newspapers, above all--are no help because the East Texas press of the time did not include many events affecting the black community.Here's a bit from a Longview News-Journal article on German Anderson's efforts to overcome these barriers to recognizing an important chapter of black history:
Anderson is coming up against major gaps in the documentation required by the state to back up the history he knows is there. Some of those gaps are the result of the media of the day, including newspapers, turning a blind eye to the existence of schools serving the black population.
"There just was not much written about us then," he said. "I know the Longview Negro High School was destroyed by fire between 1945 and 1946, but there's nothing I've found written about it in any local newspapers."
Good news didn't get coverage, either.
"The Colored High School football team went to the state semi-finals — but there was no mention in the newspapers," he said.
That means the history must be re-created from other sources. While a difficult task, it's important to keep those bits of Longview history from being lost, he said.
Longview, Texas, stands for the broader situation of the black community in East Texas during past years. And while I can't solve Anderson's documentation problems or get that marker up, I can incorporate the stories of segregated schooling in my own writing. So while my novel-in-progress is about a tragedy that takes place in a white school during the 1930s, I also incorporate the experiences and responses of teens from the black community.
This is my way of creating a monument. But I still hope Mr. Anderson gets his marker.
(*Photo: this is the kind of marker Mr. Anderson would like to see for Longview's former black school system. Credit: Matthew High)
And mad props to Blythe Woolston, fellow Carolrhoda Lab rat and author of The Freak Observer. Blythe's novel is one of five finalists for the ALA Morris Award, which goes to a debut YA author for being kickass (Okay, so I'm about a week late with my congrats for Blythe. But I'm about a week late on everything.)
Here's a drool-worthy review of the book:
Readers meet 16-year-old Loa in her guidance counselor's office as she is being encouraged to return to her schoolwork after witnessing her friend's death in a road accident. Although physically battered and bruised, Loa seems disengaged, which is surprising until it quickly becomes clear that this horrific event is one in a series, including the death of her baby sister, that has torn her family to shreds. This text provides a sharp snapshot of Loa's life as she battles PTSD from these events and attempts to conquer related vivid death-related dreams and hallucinations. Anchoring each chapter is a short question or statement, generally related to science, that ties to the forthcoming chapter—although Woolston makes readers work to see the connection, enabling them to understand Loa on another deeper level.·A keenly observant narrator noticing life's small details, Loa holds nothing back, which is both riveting and heartbreaking. An auspicious debut for both the author and Carolrhoda's new Lab imprint.·(Kirkus Reviews)
And another from goodreads.com reviewer Karen Gowen (because we everyday folks matter, too):
This book is sort of like the female version of Catcher in the Rye. Or maybe it would be what Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird might write as a senior in high school, if her best friend had died, and her world had fallen apart, giving her nightmares and PTSD. Can you tell I'm saying "literary classic" here? Because it really is a brilliant little book. I loved the scientific references, and the little bits from the classroom at the beginning of each chapter. It was so lovely to read an intelligent YA novel once again.
Check Blythe out on goodreads.com and review her book if you've read it, add it to your shelf if you haven't!
Also, my RSS feed and I just happily gobbled up Blythe's blog, which is a lovely writerly, readerly, thinkerly potpourri. Highly recommended reading.
Audiobooks are the best. Seriously. For the record: I think listening, while different from reading off the page, is just as legitimate.
I can read so many more books a year thanks to audiobooks, and I'm extra blessed that my local library has an amazing (and growing) selection of YA titles. My favorites from listening this year are Gingerbread by Rachel Cohn, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, and Madapple by Christina Ledlum. These are beautifully narrated. There are a handful of nice audiobook review blogs. One I like is Melissa Brisbin's.
I have secret fantasies of being a narrator for audiobooks, although no one has ever told me that I have a great voice or that I should be on radio. In fact, my third-grade music teacher discreetly asked me to “just mouth the words” before our Christmas program, and my husband is decidedly not thrilled when I offer to read for hours at a time on car trips.
So if What Can’t Wait ever gets picked up for audiobook production, I probably shouldn’t be the one to read it. But I am enjoying reading to my son Liam--at least until he gets old enough to tell me not to.
There are so many amazing stories and settings from the recent and distant past that are worth researching and writing. That's reason enough to work in the historical mode.
But I have a bigger (and perhaps slightly twisted?) reason. It drives me nuts when people wax nostalgic about "the good old days" and complain about our corrupt present reality. I always want to say, "Really? Really? Don't you think people were selfish and rotten then just as much as they are now?"
My opinion is that there is a pretty much steady presence of good and evil in the world, it just gets expressed differently in different eras. If the 1950s offered safer streets than today's suburbs, against that "good" was all the heartache of women raising kids alone while dads worked crazy long hours, the pain of openly expressed racism and painfully closeted homosexuality, and the wounds left by sexual abuse that went unrecognized and unreported in those same "picture-perfect" neighborhoods.
Of course, there are also always folks making choices worth being proud of, whether their world is Internet-enabled or only on the cusp of electrification.
Here's a secret: I'm working on a historical novel, I'm just not ready to talk about it to anybody but my cat. Call it superstition or prudence, but I don't like to "spend" ideas by talking about them before writing them through. It's not just me; smart people like writer Tony Ardizzone say the same. (Tony gave a great class on strategies for writing success at the 2009 Indiana Writers' Conference. If he's ever at a writing conference near you, I recommend checking him out.)
Catching up on blog reading, I came across bad book news about my old stompin' grounds of East Texas in this Bookshelves of Doom post. Turns out that a superintendent in Quitman, Texas (not far from where I grew up), decided to pull Carolyn Mackler's Vegan Virgin Valentine from the middle-school library shelves after a parent complained. The good news: the school board decided to buy out the superintendent's contract (although they didn't explicitly say that it was in response to this action). The bad news: many people in this community and beyond still think "books like" Vegan Virgin Valentine don't belong in schools.
From trolling a few of the East Texas media items (like this one and this one), it seems like the responses that are in favor of the superintendent's actions assume that the offended individuals are somehow speaking up for "the values of the community," as if these were monolithic. The best response to this assumption I've come across is in Barbara Caridad Ferrer's post on the exclusion of Chris Abani's Graceland from a summer reading list based on one parent's complaint:
if this parent objects to the material so much, then fine. Find an alternative. There were three books on that list; students were to read two of them. [...] Because of this woman's complaints, the book has been removed not only from Mandarin High's reading lists, but the whole of Duval County [...] Seriously, this woman has no business dictating that my kid cannot read this book just because she found it objectionable. That's my decision and I would resent like hell anyone laying down that sort of dictum. My kid, my decision. Better still, since we're talking about a teenager, My kid, our decision.
That last bit is really important. Because difficult books (and other media) provide opportunities for families to have important discussions. This, in my opinion, is the appropriate model for involved parents: read with your teens. Speaking of which, Carolyn Mackler, the "offending" author in the Quitman case, is wonderfully supportive of parent-teen book groups as you can see here.
Another recent instance of resistance to the idea that YA fiction may contain challenging content: Ellen Hopkins was kicked out of a Teen Lit Fest in Humble, Texas because one middle-school librarian objected to her influence. Ellen has an excellent post about this maddening situation. Here's what she says about the importance of books that push the envelope and address issues like drug addiction and teen prostitution:
I’m an author who is a voice for a generation that faces real problems every day. An author who tries to dissect those problems, look for reasons, suggest solutions, show outcomes to choices through characters who walk off the page. I’m an author who cares about her readership in a very real way. I am thoughtful, respectful of my readers, and not afraid to tell the truth.
That is what censors fear. The truth. [...] The truth may not always be pretty, but it is positive. What's negative is hiding truth in a dark closet, pretending it doesn't exist.
Author Carrie Ryan takes a strong stance against censorship in this post on why teens need books that show broken, imperfect lives.
Maybe we need to have more faith in teens that reading a book won't brainwash them. That maybe instead it will expand their horizons. And maybe as the adults of the world that's our job - to show them the world and be there to answer questions and support them.
I get it. [...] It's easier to believe that teens aren't dealing with these difficult issues. What parents want to introduce their precious child to all the bad things in this world? What father wants to explain what rape is?
But I need to make this clear, and this comes from my experience and from my friends experiences and from the teens I've talked to: this stuff happens. And it happens to teens and tweens far younger than any of us would ever want to contemplate. They deal with these issues whether we want them to or not. This is life and life can really suck and it can be messy and dangerous and sad. And hiding from it doesn't make it go away.
My conclusion: the books that most offend some adults may be the very ones that teens most need to be able to find on the shelves. Want more resources to battle censorship? Check out the National Coalition against Censorship and George Suttle's page on all things related to censorship and free speech.