"That could be our town," I heard people saying on Friday as the tragic events at Sandy Hook Elementary began to come to light. "That looks so much like my son's school," one mother said in the doctor's waiting room where we sat watching the news. In the faces of the victims, we see our own children, our own teachers, our own friends, colleagues, and family members.
I am still shuttling between disbelief, sadness, anger, and fear.
Fear most of all.
But yesterday, one mother's words made me realize that my fear--that something like this might happen in my community--was nothing compared to the greater terror of fearing that her child might commit a similar act:
I live with a son who is mentally ill. I love my son. But he terrifies me. A few weeks ago, Michael pulled a knife and threatened to kill me and then himself after I asked him to return his overdue library books. His 7 and 9 year old siblings knew the safety plan -- they ran to the car and locked the doors before I even asked them to. I managed to get the knife from Michael, then methodically collected all the sharp objects in the house into a single Tupperware container that now travels with me. Through it all, he continued to scream insults at me and threaten to kill or hurt me. [...]
When I asked my son’s social worker about my options, he said that the only thing I could do was to get Michael charged with a crime. “If he’s back in the system, they’ll create a paper trail,” he said. “That’s the only way you’re ever going to get anything done. No one will pay attention to you unless you’ve got charges.” [...]
No one wants to send a 13-year old genius who loves Harry Potter and his snuggle animal collection to jail. But our society, with its stigma on mental illness and its broken healthcare system, does not provide us with other options. Then another tortured soul shoots up a fast food restaurant. A mall. A kindergarten classroom. And we wring our hands and say, “Something must be done.”
I agree that something must be done. It’s time for a meaningful, nation-wide conversation about mental health.
While there has been some debate regarding the "facts" behind the "I am Adam Lanza's Mother" post that has gone viral, I think the basic issue--many young people with mental health problems are not recieving adequate care and treatment--is one we all ought to be attending to with as much care and attention as the question of better gun control in this country.
There. After a whole morning of typing and deleting sentences, I said something about the shooting.
A while back, a blog reader asked this question in response to a writing inspiration post:
I hear authors talk all the time about how awfull they used to be, and how they're glad that first book they wrote won't ever see the light of day, etc. But they say they thought they were hot stuff while they were writing those not so great stories . . . So, my question to you, how can you tell when you work stops being crap, and starts being more like the work you admire? When you publish a book, are you ever afraid that in a few years your writing will be so much better, and you will be embarrassed you let that earlier work into the world?
The truth is that I don't know when that frontier from embarrassing to worthy is finally crossed. Usually it happens when I'm not paying attention, when I'm just trying to get from really crappy to less crappy.
There are things about "finished" work that a writer will never be wholly satisfied with. Somebody said that you don't finish a book, you simply abandon it. And he was talking about published work!
What I do know is that there are many writers who will never find readers because they can't bear the gap that always remains between what we write and what we dream of having written. They can't stand for readers to read the work that is, so they never publish at all. But I say that is a shame.
Regarding the last question, I don't think there's anything to be embarrassed about in "young" work. Every book sets its own terms, and its success depends on how well it fulfills those terms. In general, a first novel--my own What Can't Wait included--is a bit less ambitious, trying to do something small well rather than trying to take over the world and failing. (Of course, there are exceptions, like Junot Diaz's first novel, to name just one.) I feel my second novel, The Knife and the Butterfly, attempts something larger and riskier. I stepped outside of my comfort zone with the plotting, for example, and there's something of a paranormal twist.
For me, being a writer means embracing the challenge of working with words--and pushing the envelope of what I'm able to do with each word. I know that I'll (still) write a lot of crap along the way. I don't think the crap every goes away. But most of it stays in writer's notebooks and scrivener files that the reader never sees.
This is another reason that a good editor is indispensable. He or she will usually spot any crap that tries to sneak into the final manuscript.
I'll admit it: my imagination sometimes gets me in trouble.
On my way to the gym this morning, I got to hear Nancy Pearl talk about Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein on NPR. I reviewed (and LOVED) this book, and I loved that a YA novel was being discussed alongside great adult fiction. Right on the heels of the thought, "Yes! CNV so deserves this!" came wild imaginings of one of my own novels featured in a similarly prominant media source.
As much as writers talk about writing as its own reward, I think most of us dream of some kind of recognition. Success takes different forms, from fantasies of praise from a writing workshop leader to dreams of scoring an agent or a book deal. After publication, there are reviews, awards, book lists, and sales, all of which can offer a (usually brief) high for the beleagured writer. Kind of like a cupcake... it's pleasurable, but it doesn't really satisfy for long.
I don't think there's anything wrong with imagining these outcomes or even doing the professional legwork (networking, promotion, etc.) sometimes required to make them possible. But I think it is crucial to keep this secondary dimension of the writing career clearly separated in our minds from the real work of writing: crafting superior stories. Without a clear division of labor and energy (preferrably with the lion's share going to the "real" work), it's easy for the marketing and promotion to take over, and bitterness may result when a writer realizes that effort in does not always match results when it comes to gaining recognition.
Better, I think, to choose opportunities for promotion wisely and to invest most of your energy in writing the best next novel that you can for readers that you care about. Keep that focus, and any recognition that comes along is just icing.
I dragged myself out of the dissertation cave long enough to vote... and to make an appearance at STACKED for the Contemporary YA week to talk diversity. Here's a bit:
Often I hear from readers of What Can’t Wait and The Knife and the Butterfly with questions along the lines of, “How did you know it was like this for me?” Readers of What Can’t Wait sometimes assume that I’m telling my own story (I’m not, except in that something of every author lodges in her books), but since The Knife and the Butterfly deals with gang culture and is narrated from a Salvadoran-American teenage male’s perspective, the question is all the more frequent in that context. How does a nerdy, twenty-something mother make the leap into that world.
You can read the rest of my engaging rambles over here.
It appears I have a new authorly addiction: Skyping with students. In the last month or so, I've been lucky enough to have a Skype author visit with students almost every Friday. Forget chicken soup for the writer's soul--these chats are RED BULL for this writer's soul!
A month ago, I talked with students at Yes! Prep Gulfton (in Houston) which is in the same neighborhood as Chavez High School, where I taught six years ago. In the past two weeks, I've made new friends through chats with book clubs in Georgia and Kentucky, both of which were reading What Can't Wait because it was one of the recommended books on their state's reading lists. (Yay for the awesome librarians who made this happen!)
I do charge for the Skype chats (we have to pay for Liam's daycare somehow), but I am pretty sure I enjoy the experiences at least as much as the students do. They remind me that there are real students out there (some of whom rarely finish a book) who are benefiting from my labors. And their stories and questions send me back to my work revising novel #3 with a sense of urgency, excitement, and energy.
The only downside of Skype is that I haven't mastered the virtual hug. But otherwise--amazing.
Q: How do you push yourself to improve as a writer? Do you have any tips for us writers who are just starting out?*
A: Read. Everything. Seriously, reading a ton of fiction is a fiction writer’s number one job, besides writing. I'm a firm believer in reading great books--how you define "great" really depends, of course--but I'm also a fan of reading not-so-great books from time to time. In fact, you can learn an amazing amount from books that are far from amazing. Anyway, you should read in three ways:
(1) just going along, sort of soaking up awesome writing even if it’s completely different from what you want to do. This is how I read Haruki Marukami’s work. I just hope something sinks in.
(2) very deliberately paying attention to a writer’s moves. I tend to struggle more with plot than character development, so I tend to obsessively chart the plot development in books that build tension and effectively weave together many threads. Then I try to see how and when I can make their moves work in my own fiction. This usually happens in revision.
(3) learning what NOT to do. When something makes you groan, pay attention. What went wrong for that writer? How would you have fixed it? Where did the problem start? Sometimes, for example, the problem with the ending of a book is somewhere in the middle.
Of course, aspiring writers need to WRITE, too, but that's obvious. Never underestimate the power of your reading to transform your writing.
Sometimes when Latin American literature comes up as one of my areas of research in a casual setting, I hear things like, "Oh, so you read Borges, right?"
Don't get me wrong: Borges is great--and important. So of course I read Borges. In fact, I studied in the very building at UT-Austin where he once gave lectures as a guest.)
But there are important literary horizons beyond Borges in Latin America, even in Argentina itself. If I had it my way, I'd beam any eager readers straight into one of my comparative literature classes, but in the absence of Star Trek technology, I'll settle for putting you on the track of a fabulous series of articles that introduce readers to important Argentinian writers (beyond Borges).
These features from The Argentina Independent showcase about a dozen Argentine fiction writers and poets such as Rodolfo Walsh, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Ernesto Sabato, Roberto Arlt, and (my personal favorite as well as one of the subjects of my current dissertation) Silvina Ocampo. A few of my own thoughts about her here.
The essays give a biographical overview as well as a bit of soci0-historical context, but their best traits are the enticing bits of literary history. Here's a passage from the feature on Macedonio Fernández:
Wrestling earnestly with the question, “How can we commit ourselves to love whilst facing the certainty of death?” the novel concerns itself with the idea of non-existence. A collection of characters, including the president, the gentleman who does not exist, the lover, and the author, gather at an estancia called ‘La novela’ where they are to be instructed in the art of non-being.
Subtitled ‘The first good novel’ and unabashedly described by the author as “the best novel since both it and the world began”, ‘Museo de la novela de la Eterna’ was written alongside a collection of intentionally bad writing titled ‘Adriana Buenos Aires’ and subtitled ‘The last bad novel’.
Together the two novels represent an extended experiment in writing, a museum of possible literatures, and secured Macedonio’s reputation as a writers’ writer.
Want to go beyond Borges? There's one idea of where to start. Now go read.
It's a rare thing, maybe, for an author to celebrate her book being locked up. But in this case, going to lock-up means being freed to find a new audience--and getting my book into the Michigan Reformatory library.
I stumbled across the fabulous and quirky Prison Reviews by Curtis Dawkins, who writes for BULL Men's Fiction. I loved the stories that lead into the reviews--which sometimes have to do with his experience in prison, sometimes not--and Curtis is a smart and uncompromising critic.
I had my publisher send The Knife and the Butterfly in hopes of getting a prison review, and Curtis rocked my world last week by writing a review of the novel that is fabulous and unlikely in equal parts. A taste of the unlikely:
Surprises are like those scared animals—you have to surprise them by hiding your desire to catch them. You have to wait patiently for them to wiggle through an unseen crack while your mind drifts to dinner. Your hand is cramped from holding the binder twine tied around the stake propping open the oak barrel and your hungover, trap-builder buddy is snoring under a tractor out back. If the critters know you’re waiting, they’re gone, and it might be a coon’s age before they show their anxious faces in those parts again.
And a taste of the fabulous:
That’s why this book is important. “Important” may be a term used too often in blurbs and reviews (it should only be used when the book could truly save lives), but it’s one I don’t think I’ve used in a review before. It’s easy to see these abrasive youngsters dying on the news and dismiss them as somehow deserving of their bloody death. But, as The Knife and the Butterfly makes clear, they have grandmothers and little sisters who love and will miss them—Regina and Meemaw are two of the most touching characters I’ve read about in a long time. The gang-bangers only want what everyone else wants. They only want to leave their mark on the world—in this case that mark takes the form of tagging the buildings and boxcars in Houston with spray-paint, which serves as a perfect metaphor for the transitory nature of all of our marks.
Check out the whole review. And while you are at it, think about sending Curtis a book yourself. He has a wish list of books he'd like to read and review, but he is also open to surprises, as seen above. All books get a second life in the Michigan Reformatory library for use by other inmates. Notice that books must be sent directly by the publisher or a vender and must be new.