Category Archives: fiction

Messages In YA Literature

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I’m reading several books at the moment, and, as astute blog readers may be able to surmise, one of them is message-driven.

Well, maybe not message-driven. Maybe message-personified is a better description. As in, that’s the entire purpose of the book. A message personified by characters representing the polarized sides of an argument. And from the very beginning of the story, we’re clear on which side we’re supposed to be on. One side is loving and tolerant, while the other is hateful and irrational, immune to reason. Granted, I’m only halfway through the book (a side effect of reading too many at once!) but it doesn’t take a crystal ball to see where this thing is going.

I hesitate to elaborate on the details, because I respect the author and what he’s accomplished in his particular area, and many of his points hold some serious water. The sad thing, though, is that the real world isn’t so clear-cut.

One of the beauties of children’s lit is its ability to help young people grow beyond the concrete, black-and-white morality of childhood. The development of moral reasoning, as put forth by psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, starts with rule-based justification, which deals heavily with obedience and punishment. Most young children adhere to this thought process (and no small number of adults). Adolescents and adults develop more nuanced shades of reasoning involving social pressures and expectations, until finally, the last level (which some people never reach) acknowledges that rules are useful but not absolutes, and that any rule violating universal human rights should be discarded.

This developmental theory explains not what is right and wrong (leave that up to the philosophers and theologians if you feel you can’t trust your own conscience) but how people justify what they believe is right or wrong. According to Kohlberg, moral development is an ongoing process, and it’s my opinion that literature and stories play a big part in that development–not by shoving messages down kids’ throats, but by giving them the tools to figure out their stance for themselves.

The stories we tell young children usually have definite morals because that’s what children understand. By showing them how to put themselves into other people’s shoes (called perspective taking), stories help kids develop their moral reasoning skills. Not everyone is the same as you. People feel different things. People think different things. We have to live with them anyway.

Beyond early childhood, though, kids are able to handle more complex thoughts. As they advance through school, (hopefully) learning critical thinking skills, their stories need to keep up with their expanding views of the world, and they need to better reflect how that world actually works. Kids are going to form some definite opinions about things (have you ever met a teenager?) but their experiences can’t simply be summed up the way their picture books used to it, with the good side clearly presented in opposition to the bad and the obvious consequences played out. The bully gets what’s coming to him, and the hero, who sticks up for the underdog, gets the girl, saves the school, and wins the respect of everyone. (As Oscar Wilde satirized in the words of his silly Miss Prism, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.”)

Besides, any self-respecting teenager can spot a message a mile away, and there’s no quicker way to turn them off than by telling them what to think.

Now, as a thinking human being, I have some definite opinions on things. I tend to think about them a lot, and, as a writer, they tend to pop up in my stories. My recently completed manuscript, Walls, deals with some heavy issues, not the least of which is capital punishment. I have definite opinions on capital punishment. You can probably guess what they are by reading my story, but I tried very very hard not to turn my work of fiction into a polemic against the inequities of the American justice system. That’s no fun to read. Besides, it’s pointless. That would appeal to very few people–in fact, probably only to me. And while I write for myself first and foremost, I want to share my stories with other people, teenagers in particular. I know they think about things, and they come to every story with a preconceived set of notions concerning those things, and no matter how much I beat them over the head with my views, they’re going to think whatever they’re going to think. I’ll have better luck if I present the facts and let them form their own conclusions.

My aim as a storyteller isn’t to get people on my side of any particular issue. My aim is to illuminate that issue within the very specific context of these characters and how it relates to them. I don’t presume to know what’s right and wrong–I’m not even convinced those things can be defined by absolutes. Reading fiction isn’t about absolutes, it’s about people and what they do when confronted by those issues. How a character reacts to finding out her father is on Death Row (for instance) should not be presented as a Worst Case Scenario Handbook, what to do should you find yourself in such a situation. Literature with that purpose is very ineffective and, honestly, embarrassing. It puts me off as a reader, even if I happen to agree with what the author’s saying. 

Now, the passions of an author can be a fine engine for getting a story written. You’re supposed to attack what terrifies you, after all, face the white-hot center of your fear, and find the universal truths buried within. However, once the story lands in the hands of a reader, it’s not about the author anymore. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that, especially when you really care about what you’re writing.

What’s helped me to avoid the tendency to send messages can be boiled down to that old writing adage: everyone’s the hero of their own story. In the words of Tom Ripley, “You never meet anyone that thinks they’re a bad person.”

That bully, or critical parent, or judgmental teacher–whoever is represented by your antagonistic force–has just as much moral justification going on in their heads as your protagonists. Avoid turning your story into a polemic by searching for those antagonists’ redeeming qualities. What makes them worthwhile people? Very few humans are incapable of being identified with (even the most morally reprehensible had mothers at one point), and a story that presents people that way will come off flat and one-sided.

Even if your goal is to present an argument–go ahead, I’m not stopping you–please, make your characters real. Present your argument through the eyes of the characters, fully realized, possessing qualities both good and bad. Make your readers work to find the answers, don’t just hand them to them in black and white. The world just doesn’t work that way. We want kids to learn to think, not nod and agree with every well-formed argument.

Just some thoughts. Back to writing!

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Book Review: World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks

I’ve had a hard time explaining this book to my friends. About all that comes out coherently is, “It’s nothing like the movie.”

Okay, so they both have zombies. And yes, Israel builds a giant walled city and shuts itself in. And that old guy whose job it is to believe the unbelievable, in hopes of preventing another 1973 “Arab sneak attack”? He’s in the book. But that’s about it. No Brad Pitt, no miracle plane crash survivals, no deus ex machina immunity and sneaking around a zombie-infested CDC. By the end of the book all is not peachy keen. We don’t all get inoculated against the virus and are instantly saved. We have to fight for decades against an enemy that is more like us than appearances suggest.

What I try to convey is that, to my NPR-and-Daily-Show-fueled brain, this book accurately depicts what people in the future would say if a Zombie Apocalypse were to hit our planet as it currently stands. Without naming names it manages to perfectly reflect our world. Therefore, this book is less about zombies and more about geopolitics, economics, fear and survival, and deeds both selfish and selfless. It’s a whole bunch about the military, soldiers from every corner of the globe, and the myriad ways there are to kill the undead. (It’s a lot more complicated than you might think.) It’s activists and mystics and detached teenagers and feral children, refugees and pilots and drug companies capitalizing on our panic.

Told in the form of interviews (the United Nations interviewer, unnamed and almost entirely without character, formed the basis of the Brad Pitt character in the movie) that range from just a few pages to dozens, the book is able to cover a wide range of topics and locations from Colorado and Micronesia to China and Finland. Soldiers, politicians, mercenaries and filmmakers recount their experiences in the Zombie War, and some truly are affecting. One woman recounts, with the help of her doctors, her harrowing experience that left her orphaned and alone at a very young age. Another gives a touching reflection on the nature of monarchy and castles in Europe, and another, a rollicking 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea-style adventure in a Chinese nuclear submarine. Many critics have pointed out that the voices of the many interviewees aren’t diverse enough, which may be a valid point, but I hardly noticed. Everything they recount is engaging and varied enough to overlook the fact they all sound like Max Brooks.

And about Mr. Brooks. I’d like to see his research notes, because oh my god this guy talks about everything. I felt smarter by the page.

So hopefully this little review has helped explain what this nifty little book is like. Because yes, while it’s nothing like the movie, it’s also so much more. I highly recommend it, whether you’re into zombies or not.

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“The Reservation of My Mind”

One of my favorite series on writing is The Atlantic’s By Heart series, where writers talk about passages that have influenced them in some way, usually related to writing. It’s comforting to see people who have found some measure of success doing what I’m doing talk about their journey and process in terms I can understand. It makes me feel not so alone, which is good. Writing, a very solitary activity, can sometimes make me feel like the sole survivor of the apocalypse.

(Already I’ve mentioned this series and had the pleasant and shocking privilege to thank the author myself, Craig Nova, who somehow found my little scribble and commented on it. Sometimes I love this Internet thing.)

Today I read about Sherman Alexie, whose selected quote single-handedly changed the course of his life. (Talk about power.) When Alexie was growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation, Indians weren’t writers, so he didn’t even consider the possibility of becoming one. He was going to be a high school English teacher who coached basketball, end of story. However, one brush with an anthology of Native poetry, specifically a line by Adrian C. Louis, opened his eyes to the potential he could have if only he let himself realize it: “Oh, Uncle Adrian, I’m in the reservation of my mind.”

A major theme of this blog has been overcoming a great deal of fear that’s been standing in the way of achieving my dream of publishing a novel. As I chip away at this block, pouring words on it every day for the past year, I’ve started to understand what’s driving me. Maybe I shouldn’t be so shocked to realize that it’s the same thing that’s been standing in my way.

Alexie understands this better than I do, so I’ll let him explain:

The line also it calls to mind the way we tend to revisit our prisons. And we always go back. This is not only true for reservation Indians, of course. I have white friends who grew up very comfortably, but who hate their families, and yet they go back everything thanksgiving and Christmas. Every year, they’re ruined until February. I’m always telling them, “You know, you don’t have to go. You can come to my house.” Why are they addicted to being demeaned and devalued by the people who are supposed to love them? So you can see the broader applicability: I’m in the suburb of my mind. I’m in the farm town of my mind. I’m in the childhood bedroom of my mind.

I think every writer stands in the doorway of their prison. Half in, half out. The very act of storytelling is a return to the prison of what torments us and keeps us captive, and writers are repeat offenders. You go through this whole journey with your prison, revisiting it in your mind. Hopefully, you get to a point when you realize there was beauty in your prison, too. Maybe, when you get to that point, “I’m on the reservation of my mind” can also be a beautiful thing. It’s on the res, after all, where I learned to tell stories.

You know, for many years, I felt very insecure about being a writer—it wasn’t Indian enough. And then, one day, I was on stage and it occurred to me: Wait. I travel the world telling stories. How Indian is that? I’m doing the traditional thing—I’m doing the oldest thing known to humans! Before fire and the wheel, we had stories. Why did I ever let Indians who managed casinos make me feel bad about storytelling?

So there is power in this. I get to pick and choose what the prison means to me, float in between the prison bars, return in my mind when and how I want to. We’re all cursed to haunt and revisit the people and places that confine us. But when you can pick and choose the terms of that confinement, you, and not your prison, hold the power.

What is my prison? The fear that I’m not good enough. Not smart enough, not funny enough, not pretty enough, not nice enough and not happy enough. Nothing I ever do is enough. And through spilling my guts on paper, I start to see shadows of why. Maybe I’ll never figure it out completely (or maybe I will and that will be the signal that my time here is up), but it’s satisfying to get hints of it, in what I read and what I write. It’s satisfying to realize I’m not all that unusual, that my dreams and hopes and fears are shared by millions of others who aren’t as different from me as I thought.

Because that’s the thing about prisons. They make you feel alone. Kind of like writing. . . . (How Sisyphean is that?)

As a final note, if you want a more elegant description of the craziness that is the inside-out writing process (that I tried to describe here and at least some of you liked), then read author Andre Dubus III’s lovely explanation of what it means to dream a novel, also from the By Heart series.

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In Defense of Pretty Much Everything I Attacked Yesterday

Okay so this is why you don’t pick fights with English teachers. I sent my friend my account of our dinner discussion and this is what happened. I post the entirety of her response here, including her lighthearted sign-off because she is just that awesome. And I concede, the English teacher wins this round.

 

Regarding Hamlet, I hope that quote was not my exact language, and if it was, I was thoroughly in the wrong (or else being sassy!). I am confident that Shakespeare wants to present a literal ghost, but there is almost no topic in literature about which I am ready to profess absolutely certainty. Hamlet, perhaps the most notoriously debated work in the language, is certainly beyond certainty (!).

As far as the ghost, we know that Shakespeare makes him visible to the audience, to Marcellus and Bernardo, and to the pointedly steady-minded Horatio (bless him). We even introduce (“Horatio says ’tis but our fantasy”) and dismiss (“I might not this believe/without the sensible and true avouch/ of mine own eyes”) the idea that it is a fantasy. Is the sensible and true avouch of Horatio’s eyes trustworthy in the play? I think so.  I guess if Old King Hamlet’s appearance is a manifestation of madness, it may be the collective illness of an assuredly troubled Denmark rather than Hamlet’s mind alone.

In context of Shakespeare’s ghosts and visions, I don’t think this one is the strongest indicator of private insanity. Is Brutus’ visitation by Caesar’s ghost a sign of madness? I would contrast the stage corporeality of Caesar and Old King Hamlet with Macbeth’s invisible dagger, where the audience is not privy to the illusion, or even to Banquo’s ghost, which appears to only one character and without speech. The ghost’s second appearance in Gertrude’s chamber is not a shared vision, and is more nebulous in my mind…but do we have to insist that if Hamlet sees him authentically once, then this latter vision can’t be deluded? I don’t think so. (I also want to be clear: I am not objecting to the suggestion that the ghost is either wicked or deceptive. Hamlet’s concerns about the origin of the ghost are shared by critics; I am willing to consider that it may not really be good old dad.)

Hamlet’s sanity is a major issue in the play, although I don’t read it as simplistically as visual delusion. This is a demonstrably brilliant youth whose behavior is erratic, irrational, and inconsistent from first act to last. His troubled reasoning, disastrous relationships, and the broken process of his revenge are, in my mind, much more central to the issue of his sanity. (How does he end up fighting a Laertes he admires in the grave of an Ophelia he abused over protestations of love that involve eating a crocodile? Jesus, Hamlet, take a nap.) The hard questions about Hamlet are not what he sees, but how he thinks and why his elegant mind ultimately fails against the brutal reality of Claudius’ Denmark.

Now – and here’s a poor transition – I don’t think the argument about whether the ghost is real is a discussion of symbolism at all, but symbolism is definitely the endless fight the world wants to have with its English teachers. In defense of teaching “symbols” in literature, I am going to put forth the following arguments:

1.      – Not everything “means” (or symbolizes) something, but we can draw well-supported conclusions what elements in a text most likely have significance.

2.      – Determining meaning is not random guessing and is not process unique to each reader. Encoding meaning is not a lucky accident on the part of good authors.

3.      – The possibility of multiple interpretations does not mean that every interpretation is valid, or that a work can “mean anything.”

Before I dive into this, I’ll concede a few things up-front. Playing the authorial intention game is a fool’s errand. Sure, Steinbeck may have meant for The Grapes of Wrath to be about that feeling you get when you love a puppy, and I can’t disprove that. If I slip into lazy language about what an author means, I should be talking about what they do. If that is Steinbeck’s intention, he’s a dismal failure. However, I can still talk about what he does in The Grapes of Wrath because I have the concrete artifact to work from. Do I know that Shakespeare meant the ghost to be real? Nope. But I think everything he does in the play indicates that it’s not imagined in Act 1.

Also, symbolism is a contentious, frustrating term. Sure, post-modernism has taught us that nothing “means” anything. So again, my intention is to look at what an element does in a work. (I’m talking strong interpretative verbs here: suggests, connotes, recalls, repeats, alludes, emphasizes, whatever.) If we want to talk about what imagery accomplishes instead of what symbols mean, that is cool by me as a permanent change.

I am going to start with the pink house and the issue of whether it “means” (or does) anything, and I’ll tie that into how we know that an element in a text may be significant. (I haven’t read The Secret Life of Bees, for the record, and I have no idea about the pink house.)

Now, this pink house could absolutely be a sensory detail. If this is, for instance, coastal Florida and the author is interested in detail-oriented literary realism, then that would be a great assumption. It is a detail that makes sense in the setting, and it fits the larger pattern of the work. Boom. That’s a reasonable reading, no secondary implications. Pink is also a color with connotative value in the Western world (femininity, romance, happiness, sweetness). I might notice, for instance, that the person living in this house matches a widely-held association with the color. I can either decide that it is a coincidence or that the author is doing it deliberately. It seems like a happy, romantic girl living in a black house might be a noteworthy choice. I’d tend towards thinking the same about one in a pink house. Pink houses are also rare in most parts of the world. If this is the wrong place for a pink house, I have more questions. One choice is that the author is a dum-dum. Maybe she is providing an inappropriate details on a whim, and it might distract or confuse readers; it may not be a decision that is effective in the text. Another option is that this detail does function in the text somehow, like drawing attention to a character or situation that is markedly different from the surroundings, or even emphasizing a surreal tone.

How do you decide between these “interpretations”? You look at context. Is this an author in control of their craft (characterization, language, thematic development, etc.), who you can assume chooses their details deliberately? Which understanding is most plausible when you look at the work as a whole? Are there other pieces of information to support an interpretation (Is the house mentioned again? Does the color association hold up? Are there other significant pink objects? Does the detail emphasize a key location in a meaningful way?)? You’re not looking for a single, inerrant answer. You’re looking for the understanding that makes the most sense overall and stands up the best to close scrutiny. The best answer might be “sensory detail; no deeper meaning,” but it might be “only an idiot ignores a pink house.” It is not skeptical to default to “it means nothing.” It is skeptical to look at context and draw a deliberate conclusion about likely meanings. My point here is that it might not have significant meaning, but we can evaluate that claim based on textual evidence.

To give another example. Imagine two books that both mention a deer-stalker hat. One is a realist novel set in northern Canada. In a single scene, a man dressing for cold weather puts on a parka, boots, and a deer-stalker which covers his ears against the cold. The hat is never mentioned again. The second is a young adult novel about a middle-schooler who solves mysteries. She finds her grandfather’s old hat and plays dress-up on the same day she decides to uncover what her creepy neighbor is up to. The hat shows up a few more times, and once it reminds her of something she saw earlier and she discovers a clue. In the first work, you get to assume the hat means nothing. In the second, it’s is reasonable to say “this isn’t a coincidence. This hat is a lighthearted allusion to Sherlock Holmes, and she ‘becomes’ a detective when she puts it on.” It’s a context game, not an argument over opinions on an inscrutable detail.

Obviously, I see interpretation as a process. Can there be multiple interpretations of a single text or detail? Absolutely.Hamlet stands up to several thoughtful, complex, contradictory readings. It’s a complex text. Are there works that do not stand up to close reading? Tons. There’s more mediocre literature than good, it falls to pieces when you start to read closely. Not everything can be “interpreted” well, but again, you can make that evaluation logically.  Does the possibility of multiple interpretations means that everything is subjective? Absolutely not. You can say that the hat in the story represents the girl’s budding sexuality, but you probably can’t support that from the text.

The frustration that English teachers have towards high schoolers who roll their eyes at symbolism is that they are almost never looking at weak interpretations. Gatsby’s green light, The Scarlet Letter’s rosebush, Gilman’s wallpaper. If you don’t believe these elements carry any significance, then the works are bewildering: are the authors just idiots who didn’t realize they kept mentioning this irrelevant stuff at significant moments? If you believe they are significant but the standard interpretations are wrong, then I am genuinely interested in your support. (I admit I am skeptical about whether a close reading of Gatsby can genuinely support an explanation of the green light unrelated to dreaming and longing.) These are images laid out and utilized with repeated, deliberate, focused care. Their meanings are not suggested once, but throughout the works. We teach these specific works because they stand up to scrutiny and can be used to teach the process. Insisting that Hawthorne’s rosebush is a guessing game is insisting that the preponderance of evidence is insufficient for discussion. I don’t know a single English teacher who believes that symbolism is beyond debate: I debate it all the time. But English teachers don’t teach from vague, deeply flawed, frustrating works. We save that for our leisure reading.

High school students hate symbolism because they don’t know how to work through the process. A lazy teacher (or SparkNotes) tells a kid that all those mentions of clothing in Macbeth represent the fact that he does not fit his role, and the kid thinks “Screw you. Those clothes are clothes.” This is the problem if they don’t understand how we reach those conclusions: it supports the illusions that teachers just decide that an element has meaning.

The last thing I am going to address is the idea that symbolism is accidental.  I am tired, so this will be quick. Sure, we have some shared cultural consciousness in a Jungian sense, and sure, meaning often develops organically in writing. But do I believe that Shakespeare’s patterns of symbolically appropriate imagery just show up one per play by luck (growth for Richard III, birds for Macbeth, sea for Twelfth Night, overgrowth and pollution for Hamlet)? No. These things appear in discernible, appropriate patterns.  Yes, there are tons of shitty authors who throw in some cheap symbols now and again. But the authors who have been scrutinized to exhaustion are generally people I believe are thoughtful, deliberate, contentious craftsmen. Can they impose their meaning on my reading? No. But my reading is only valid if I can support my interpretation from the text they craft.

JORDAN IT IS EMBARRASSING THAT I WROTE THIS MUCH AND I AM UNCERTAIN ABOUT SENDING IT. IF YOU ARE NOW FORCED TO TERMINATE THE FRIENDSHIP, YOU MAY REPLY WITH “FIRED” AND I WILL UNDERSTAND.

CHEERS.

THE END.

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Pink Houses, Yellow Wallpaper, and Green Lights: Your Guess Is as Good as Mine

(I apologize to any and all English teachers in advance. I really do love you.)

Last night we had dinner with a lovely group of people I haven’t seen in ages. Our conversation bounced from funny work stories and weddings to physics and Breaking Bad, took a strange detour into dirty Shakespeare jokes before coming back around to the terrible things teachers do to their students (several of us are teachers). After relaying a couple stories about eating in front of kids and not giving a crap, somehow, we ended up back at Shakespeare.

“I can tell you with absolute certainty that Shakespeare meant for the ghost of Hamlet’s father to be real,” said the one English teacher in attendance. I wanted to bring out that the uncertainty of Hamlet’s sanity (arguably one of the major themes of the play) puts even the existence of the ghost into doubt, since the ghost is what triggers his host of erratic behavior. However, I felt it unwise to argue with an English teacher.

My husband though is not so skittish. He recalled his experience in high school reading Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees as one long argument with his teacher. One major point of contention: the color of the famous pink house. She posed the question to the class, “Why did the author choose to make the house pink?” My husband, revealing himself as maybe not a literary scholar but certainly a budding skeptic, replied, “Because she wanted to add some descriptive detail and pink is very descriptive.”

BZZZZ! WRONG ANSWER! While many things in literature are up for interpretation, according to your garden variety English teacher, symbols are DEFINITELY NOT ONE OF THEM. Disagree with this sentiment and prepare yourself to do battle.

Following the relaying of this anecdote, my physics teacher friend piped up with three little words: “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Everyone groaned. 

“I don’t see why it had to mean anything more than her going crazy!” she said. “Because she was definitely going crazy.”

“Well it has to mean something. It’s called ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’ for Pete’s sake!”

It definitely means something. I’ve just come to the conclusion, after years of reading and years of writing, that authors (and especially English teachers), have no business telling us what that something is.

Let me make one point clear: I’m a big fan of symbols. What I’m not a fan of is being dogmatic about them.

Oh sure, there has to be limits. I’m not calling for Anarchy in the UK Lit:

“The green light represents the color of dollar bills, therefore symbolizing Gatsby placing money above his aspirations of true love!”

“M. Night used the color red to symbolize life because red is the color of blood which is the essence of life!”

“Dorothy’s Kansas was black and white because Oz was real and Kansas was the dream world! It’s the Matrix with Munchkins, baby!”

(Okay all these are American examples sorry I failed at extending my comic metaphor.)

Maybe the author intends a certain interpretation. Maybe the entire work is constructed around that interpretation. But I’m going to be so bold as to say that’s her interpretation, and she has no business imposing that upon her readers, beyond the words she’s written in the book. Sure, it’s her book, I’ll grant her that, but that doesn’t give her the right to be dogmatic. If that was her goal, she would have become an English teacher, or included a decoder ring and handy glossary of literary definitions telling us exactly what her crap’s about. Instead, she spent 100k words getting us to think about what her crap’s about. If she could have said it in any less, she wouldn’t have written a novel. She would have written a term paper.

It’s like any work of art. I can stand in front of the wall that is Guernica in the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid and know the history behind the painting, know what Guernica is and what Picasso had painted about, but what I bring to my viewing is entirely my own. Maybe I can’t look at it and say it’s about any old thing (like making breakfast or slaying giants), but no one can tell me my reaction to it is wrong if I view it in complete honesty (and I stood in front of that thing for half an hour with tears dripping down my cheeks).

The best part is, you don’t have to know a thing about the Spanish Civil War to have an honest reaction. Some things are universal while some things are intensely personal. Often, the two overlap.

I say all this not because I’ve had battles with many an English teacher, but because I’ve noticed symbols cropping up in my own writing, completely without my bidding. I understand how fragile they are. Once I seize on one, try to pin it down, nurture it and extend it throughout the rest of the work, more often than not it disappears.

Symbols aren’t deliberate. They’re fungus, sprouting from the very makeup of the work, from the fertile ground of the subconscious. As the writer I can have a hunch about what it means, but anything more tends to kill the mystery and smacks of mental and emotional shoehorning. I try not to tell my reader how to feel or what to think. I trust her to be able to do that herself.

That being said (and here is where I add another disclaimer), we all owe a great deal to English teachers. Good ones show you how to approach literary criticism on your own terms, show you how to have a dialogue with the text, and open up new worlds of critical thinking and reflection. Without English teachers, I’d probably still be reading Illustrated Classics.

Possibly easier to read than the original.

(I promise I’m getting to that post about taking “Show, don’t tell” too seriously. The ideas are mostly there but need a good stitching together with a healthy dose of narrative logic. I swear, if tell myself I’m going to produce something my brain rebels and goes on hiatus. I’m reminded of the famous Douglas Adams quote: “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” I’d never make it as a freelancer. Even traditionally published novelist is looking unlikely.)

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What I Write: Facing the Evil

Dr. Lecter and his patient Will Graham from NBC’s Hannibal

Okay, so I’ve talked a little about why I write. Now…just what the heck do I write?

A handy list of my novels, in various states of completion:

  • at age 12, a blatant Legend of Zelda ripoff
  • at age 14, a less-blatant Star Wars ripoff
  • not long later, a historical fiction about slaves and kings in Fifth-century Wales
  • half novel/half graphic novel about identical triplets and a comic book that takes over the world
  • a hotel that eats people
  • and my current WIP, officially entitled Walls but affectionately known as Julian

That last one…that one’s tough. My novel/graphic novel is very cool, plotty while managing to be intensely character-driven, and if I could just get an artist to turn my script into drawn panels, could actually be something. It’s funny, fast-paced, relatable and accessible. My current WIP…

…is about a guy on Death Row. And the daughter who discovers him, weeks before his execution date. It’s hard to even admit that on a public forum. (And I want to get this thing published?)

When people at work ask what I’m writing (because I try to have pride about being a writer, plus everyone wants to know what I do with my days off, as if it’s any of their business), I simply tell them “young adult fiction.” That’s the category everything falls into, more or less. And it shuts them up enough, even though you’d think, working with kids, writing for kids would be respected. I guess people think Twilight. That’s fine and all, just not my thing.

My thing is apparently dark and evil and unmentionable. A teenager rapes and murders a nine-year-old girl. Sixteen years later, another teenager tries to come to grips with that. What it means about her, what it means about love, what it means about right and wrong. Judgments, personas, and how the past interacts with our lives. Plus graffiti and rock and roll, making your mark on history, your legacy, how you want to be remembered after you’re gone and just how out of our control that is.

Yeah. Try mentioning that in a preschool setting!

My favorite stories have always been about the big things, the dark things, the things that are difficult to explain. Anyone ever read Robert Cormier? For a long time I was obsessed with Neil Gaiman, whose characters always seemed to be in a moral quandary. Lately I’ve been reading Gillian Flynn’s deeply-flawed, unlikable, conflicted characters (she’s like an addiction to something sugary and full of toxins). Recently finished watching Hannibal, ITV’s brilliant Broadchurch, and just started on Breaking Bad. People who do bad things, or try to do good and fail miserably.

Why? Why to we do these things? Why do we hurt the people we love? We commit some terrible acts as a human race, and half the time I understand it while the other half I just sit there, baffled.

Even children. Even little babies, sitting there smacking each other on the head and laughing.

So…what is the most evil thing you can think of, and how can we deconstruct it? Let’s dwell on that for several years of our lives.

I guess it boils down to this, my own personal understanding: everyone is judged. We try not to do it, but a big part of our how our brain works is that it takes unfamiliar experiences and relates them to past experiences. Instant judgement. It’s wrong, it’s necessary for survival, and it results in bullying, social and racial stereotypes, acts of terrorism, and false convictions.

This is Joel Stein, from the latest Time Magazine about getting picked for jury duty:

Judge Richman then asked us each if we were able to avoid making assumptions about the defendant, who was also in the room, based on the enormous tattoo covering his face. I told him I certainly could. But by the 20th time he asked a potential juror, I started to wonder, if, compared with the non-faced tattooed, the face tattooed are more likely to make poor decisions. After all, these are people who walked into a tattoo parlor and said, “I think this design will go well with my face.”

I want to be judged for who I really am, what I do and how I treat others. Everyone does. It just doesn’t happen that way.

So I’m writing a novel about a very bad man because I want to face the evil–inside of him, inside of me. It’s not so different from why my main character decides to visit her dad in prison, how she’s able to go out alone at night and paint her pieces: evil may not shatter when it’s exposed to the light, but it does make it easier to see, and hopefully easier to transform into some better.

Pulitzer Prize-Winning author Robert Olen Butler in his wonderful book, From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction, gets to the bottom of it:

For those two hours a day when you write, you cannot flinch. You have to go down into that deepest, darkest, most roiling, white-hot space. . . whatever scared the hell out of you down there–and there’s plenty–you have to go down in there; down into the deepest part of it, and you can’t flinch, can’t walk away. That’s the only way to create a work of art–even though you have plenty of defense mechanisms to keep you out of there, and those defense mechanisms are going to work against you mightily.

Understanding these things is understanding ourselves. Just like that baby who sits there hitting another baby and thinks it’s the funniest thing in the world, all of us have the capacity to hurt others. We all do it. Some of us enjoy it, most of us bury it in guilt and various defense mechanisms. I want to face the evil, give it a name, and hopefully come out a better person.

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Short Fiction: More Wine, Polyphemus?

(Note: I wrote this in an attempt to convince potential employers I am capable of adapting within the Fantasy genre. They requested Alice in Wonderland. I couldn’t stomach the thought of that, so this is what they got. Although they assured me they liked it, someone else got the job. So it goes.)

So the Greek Hero and the Cyclops enter a bar, except the bar is really a cave, and when the Cyclops is done with his wine, he is going to eat the Hero. The Hero holds up the wineskin.

“More wine, Polyphemus?”

The Cyclops holds out his ivory bowl. “Yes, please do.”

The Hero tops him off, and the sheep in the back of the cave bleat. Perhaps they, being sheep, understand what men do not.

The Cyclops downs it in one go, wiping the dark droplets that cling to his beard. “Hmm, good wine. Very good wine. I have never tasted such wine.”

The Hero holds his bowl, the wine untouched. “And you are not likely to ever again. This is special wine, of my own private vintage.” It sloshes as he chuckles. “You are not likely to have such wine ever again.”

“We have good wine,” the Cyclops tells the Hero, accepting another pour, eying the dark font as it travels from skin to bowl. “The cyclops, that is. Our grapes hang heavy from the vine even though we pay no heed to your silly-assed gods. Think we give sacrifice to Zeus? Think you wrong! Zeus is a fool to expect homage from us.” His words drown for a moment in the sweet, undiluted wine. “Hmm. But this is a bit of ambrosia and nectar.”

In the back of the cave, the Hero’s men watch. Crouched behind the beast’s flocks and pens and jars of curdled milk, they wait, clutching their well-crafted weapons.

The Hero sets aside his bowl and stretches, rubbing the tight muscles of his thigh. “What a shame it is, to drink with such a capable companion and then. . . . Ah, but never mind that, my friend. We shall not think of it. More wine?” Continue reading

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