A little while back a mom emailed me because she was worried about the topics her teen daughter was choosing to write about (including incest, violence, and other uncomfy topics). Since then, I've gotten a few similar letters, so I thought I would share my thoughts on ways of responding respectfully to teen writing--even when it doesn't look like what parents might prefer.
If the topic of teen writing/reading as a starting place for crucial conversations interests you, check out my post on the whole "YA books are too dark" controversy.
Thanks for your confidence that I might have some wisdom to offer. Here's my take as a writer, teacher, and also a mom.
I get why you're concerned about your teens' writing. Still, I think the best thing to do is to keep the lines of communication open and not try to control what they explore in writing. Ditto for their reading. The reality is that teens will read what they want--either with our knowledge or (if we try to limit their access) without it. But when we know what they're reading (and even read the same things), we can use that material as a starting point for important discussions.
To be honest, it's my experience that by age 12-13, many young people are either involved in or intrigued by what we parents consider "adult" behaviors. Helping our teens navigate these adult waters--that's the privilege (and burden!) of parenting and mentoring.
One thought: talk with your teen about why the situations they've written about intrigue them. See if you can't also help them see the blessing of a "boring" life as well as the depth of the scars that those "interesting" experiences might leave on those who have suffered them. I hear from young people with "boring" lives who say that reading my first novel, WHAT CAN'T WAIT, made them appreciate their parents' support and involvement--even those aspects that they might previously have resented.
Hope this helps!
Ashley Hope Pérez
Here's today crazy idea for creativity in a nutshell: deprive yourself of everything interesting and stimulating to force your brain to generate something interesting of its own.
Before you get too amazed or weirded out on me, let me announce that I cannot take credit for this plan: it comes from Twyla Tharp's book, The Creative Habit. Tharp is a hugely creative person (dancer and choreographer), but she chalks most of that success up to discipline. Here's a bit from Chapter 1 to show you what I mean:
After so many years, I've learned that being creative is a full-time job with its own daily patterns. That's why writers, for example, like to establish routines for themselves. The most productive ones get started early in the morning, when the world is quiet, the phones aren't ringing, and their minds are rested, alert, and not yet polluted by other people's words. They might set a goal for themselves -- write fifteen hundred words, or stay at their desk until noon -- but the real secret is that they do this every day. In other words, they are disciplined. Over time, as the daily routines become second nature, discipline morphs into habit... More than anything, this book is about preparation: In order to be creative you have to know how to prepare to be creative.
For starters, Tharp is not saying that writers should stop reading and learning from great books. Tharp will be the first to tell us that we should attend with great care to works we admire (should like to stop people everywhere from listening to music while they work, for example. We ought to be single-mindedly listening to really honor the music).
But when it's time to create, Tharp advocates an absolute fast, no goodies for the brain. Bore yourself so that you will make something up out of desperation.
Tharp describes not even letting herself read the label on the cereal box, but even if you don't want to go that far, consider scaling back your multi-tasking and entertainment fillers. Instead of texting or playing fruit ninja (guilty, guilty), try using time waiting in line, on the metro, driving, or whatever to cook the project you're working on. What small problem can you turn over in your mind? What small advance can you make?
Especially when I'm in the revision phase of a project, I have to scale my audiobook listening way back to make sure that my brain stays on the job of my book.
So there, go forth and get bored. And then get creative.
A while back agent-turned-author Nathan Bransford did a "Five Openings to Avoid" post that takes a jab at some of the obvious and overused openings that circulate, especially among novice writers.
You know, the story that starts with a character gazing at herself in the mirror just so the writer can work in a physical description. That kind of thing.
I was in the final revision stage for The Knife and the Butterfly when I read Bransford's post. The Knife and the Butterfly begins with Azael, the protag, waking up. So imagine my chagrin when I saw the following on Bransford's list:
A character waking up: Sure, there's probably a good reason the character is getting woken up. Maybe their house is on fire/they're late for school/they just realized their insides are being sucked out by a sea monster. But not only is waking up overdone, what exactly is gained by showing a character wake up? Why not just cut to the insides-getting-sucked-out chase?
This is pretty true. But it's also important to know that there are plenty of good reasons to do things that are, by and large, a bad idea. What to do in my shoes?
Sit down and make sure you have lots of good reasons for why you've written something the way it is. (And, no, the fact that your current opening is already written is not a good enough reason to leave it.)
Here's a strategy that I use for endings: write 10 alternative endings to what you thought "had" to happen. You might still come back and decide your original direction was the right one, but you'll also have carefully considered your alternatives.
For The Knife and the Butterfly, I spent a day brainstorming alternative openings before deciding that it needed to open as it does, that my reasons for breaking the rules trump the reasons the rules were in place.
But you be the judge. Here's the opening few paragraphs from The Knife and the Butterfly.
I’m standing inches from a wall, staring at a half-finished piece. Even though I’m too close to read what it says, I know it’s my work. I run my hands over the black curves outlined in silver. I lean in and sniff. Nothing, not a whiff of fumes. When did I start this? It doesn’t matter; I’ll finish it now. I start to shake the can in my hand, but all I hear is a hollow rattle. I toss the can down and reach for another, then another. Empty. They’re all empty.
I wake up with that all over shitty feeling you get the day after a rumble. Head splitting, guts twisted. All that’s left of my dream is a memory of black and silver. I sit up, thinking about snatching the baggie from under the couch and going to the back lot for a joint before Pelón can bust my balls for smoking his weed.
Except then I realize I’m not at Pelón’s. I’m on this narrow cot with my legs all tangled up in a raggedy-ass blanket. It’s dark except for a fluorescent flicker from behind me. I get loose of the covers and take four steps one way before I’m up against another concrete wall. Six steps the other way, and I’m bumping into the shitter in the corner. There’s a sink right by it. No mirror. Drain bolted into the concrete floor. I can make out words scrawled in Sharpie on the wall to one side of the cot: WELCUM HOME FOOL. I turn around, already half-knowing what I’m going to see.
Bars. Through them, I take in the long row of cells just like this one. I’m in lock-up. Shit, juvie again? It’s only been four months since I got out of Houston Youth Village. Village, my ass.
I sit back down on the cot and try to push through the fog in my brain from the shit we smoked yesterday. Thing is, I’ve got no memory of getting brought in here. It’s like I want to replay that part, but my brain’s a jacked-up DVD player that skips back again and again to the same damn scene, the last thing I can remember right.
You can read a longer excerpt from The Knife and the Butterfly here, or buy the whole book in February!