Tuesday, November 27, 2007

My First Novel

I was a secret writer as a kid. In elementary school, I wrote stories and poems in special blue notebooks I bought at the dimestore and kept hidden at the back of my closet. At eleven, I took on the novel. I would write about slavery, I decided—about a girl my age, escaping from a cotton plantation in the deep South, traveling north on the Underground Railroad. I came home from school every day, closed by bedroom door behind me, and fell into the world of my story. When I finished, I recopied it (forty pages!) in my best handwriting, drew some pictures to go along with it, and made a special front page with the title on it: Slave Girl. Then I sent it off to a New York publisher whose address I found in the front of a library book. Soon I would be rich and famous, I thought.

Alas, soon afterwards, we got to the Civil War unit in social studies and I learned that the Underground Railroad was not a subway train that ran from Atlanta to New York City, as I had imagined it to be. I felt sick at heart, thinking of someone in New York reading my book and laughing at my mistake. You are too stupid to be a writer, I told myself. Quit now, before you make a bigger fool of yourself than you already have.

And I did quit--for nearly twenty years! But I never stopped wanting to write. Nearing thirty, with a husband and two daughters I adored and a teaching job I found exciting and fulfilling, I knew, in my heart, that I’d consider my life a failure if I never even gathered up the courage to try.

It was the mid-seventies, schools were in flux after the turbulence of the Sixties and the social reforms it had wrought, and serendipity had brought me to an innovative program called Learning Unlimited at North Central High School in Indianapolis. Most of the staff members were young, creative, and passionate about education. We declared the whole world our classroom; we declared teachers and students equals, learning in it together. We believed that teenagers were capable of making important decisions about their own lives, and engaged them in the process of choosing, planning and executing their own learning experiences. During the time I taught there, teachers and students traveled to New York to experience the arts firsthand; to the Florida Keys to study marine biology; to the Navajo reservation at Rough Rock, Arizona to observe Native American culture. We encouraged students to draw on the resources in our own community to learn what they needed to know.

We made up our own classes and seminars, too. “Writing in the Real World” was one of mine. Once a week, a dozen or so students climbed into the program van, and I drove them all over the city in search of stories. We visited a map factory, the women’s prison. We went to a nursing home and talked to people about their lives, watched the sound check for a rock concert.

One day, back in the classroom, several students got to talking about what they planned to do when they grew up.

“What about you?” one of them asked me.

“I am grown up,” I said. “Remember? I’m your teacher.”

He pressed me, as teenagers do. “But is that what you want to do?”

“I love my job,” I said. “Teaching makes me happy.” This was (and still is) true.

“Did you always want to be a teacher?” he asked. “Is it the only thing you ever wanted to do?”

Anxiety rippled through me. I’d sworn to myself that I wouldn’t be one of those adults who lied to kids or avoided the hard questions. I couldn’t lie or dissemble now. So I said, as casually as I could, “Oh, once I wanted to be a writer.”

He looked at me. “Wanted?” he asked. “You don’t want that anymore?”

I shrugged.

He kept looking at me.

Busted, I thought. I may find out I really am too dumb to be a writer, but if I want this kid to keep respecting me, if I want the right to keep expecting him to do his best work for me, I’ve got to put myself on the line here and give it a try.

So I began.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Great American Traditions

For years, we had this crazy race on Thanksgiving morning called the Turkey Trot. My husband and his running pal, John, thought it up, possibly under the influence of…something. There was a theme each year, and runners came in costume. For example, "Your Favorite American Place" (I came as the gates of Graceland) and "Your Favorite American Freedom" (I came as the pen that signed the Declaration of IndePENdence.) Rock n’ Roll blasted from a boom-box. We served cheap champagne. I took around trays of powdered donuts and brand X cigarettes. There was a fabulous pageant, too: everybody stood on our porch and sang “Old Mr. Turkey” at the top of their lungs. Very professional. Following, my husband gave a convoluted description of the course, hoping that if the good runners got lost he could win. One year, he wore a pink skirt and wig and ran as a girl, figuring he could at least win that division. He didn’t. (All of which was a moot point anyway, since the winner was drawn from a hat—and presented with a recycled trophy whose engraved plate said “Turkey Drot,” preserving the tradition of the first year’s misspelling.)

Next, we all gathered in the street for the Blessing of the Shoes. This was done by Kelly Flynn (a.k.a Father O’Flynn), who dressed up like a Catholic priest and rambled on forever evoking the aid of every powerful deity he could think of, first and foremost, Notre Dame. One year the weather was crummy so we rented a Port-a-John and put it in the front yard so people wouldn’t track through the house. Of course, nobody used it. So we put it on the back of Steve’s truck and used it to lead the race. That was one of my favorite Trots; another was when my sister and I saw an empty hearse at a stoplight and talked the driver into dropping us off at the finish line.

Everyone loved the Turkey Trot! Thanksgiving is such a great holiday anyway—no hype, no presents to buy—just a great meal with people you love. So the Trot was a perfect way to begin. I did forget to put the turkey in one year. That was kind of a problem. I remembered it about a mile into the race and probably ran faster than I’d ever run before to get home and stick it in the oven. We ate a little late, but so what?

In time, the Trot ran its course (pun intended), and we moved on to other absurdities. I miss it on Thanksgiving morning, though. Of course, we videotaped for posterity! Maybe I’ll get those out and watch them on this cold, rainy, windy morning.

Happy Turkey! (Or tofurkey, whatever the case may be.)

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Book That Made Me A Blogger

I'm always trying to figure out why certain books about kids are YA books and others are published in the adult market. When The Catcher in the Rye was published in 1953, there was no such thing as young adult literature as we know it now. Would it be a YA if it were published today? What about other so-called adult books with teen protagonists--A Separate Peace, Lord of the Flies?

My own career as a YA author began by accident. That is, I'd published one quasi-literary, well-reviewed adult novel that quickly sank into oblivion, as most books like that do; then I'd written a couple more that made the rounds with complimentary but firm rejections. I was the writer-in-residence at a high school for the humanities and performing arts at the time, having my heart broken pretty much on a daily basis by so many of my young writers who were grieving on the pages of their journals and stories about the never-ending wreck of their families caused by divorce. My first YA novel, Wish You Were Here, was born of those years and has at its crux a quote from the journal of one of my best-ever writers: "You can start over, Mom. My parents will always be divorced." Reading it always slices right through my heart and brings that student's deep, paralyzing sadness back to me full-force.

But back to my accidental career as a YA novelist. I never think about an audience when I'm writing, but write from my heart. I wouldn't know how to do it any other way. But writing Wish You Were Here, I felt like I was writing directly to the parents of my students. "Hello out there," I wanted to say. "Step inside the skin of your teenagers and find out what your divorce feels like to them." I have to admit I was shocked--and, okay, full disclosure: crushed--when my agent suggested marketing it as a YA. I mean, were YA books...serious?

Yeah, I found out. They are.

Which brings me to why, after procrastinating about starting up a blog ever since attending Robin Brande's Kidlitosphere Conference in October, here I am...blogging:

Peter Cameron's new novel, Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You.

The cool thing is, I've been a fan of Peter Cameron's for years. Andorra is one of my favorite novels, ever, so I was surprised and really happy to find out that he'd written a book for young adults.

Cameron is a wonderfully original writer, and his narrator James Sveck puts a whole new spin on the identity crisis that is at the core of every good YA novel. James is gay. He knows it, but circles around it endlessly--not because he has a problem with being gay, he's okay, with that, but because he can't bear to imagine being intimate with another person. "I could barely talk to people," he says, so how was I supposed to have sex with them?

There's no easy arc here, this is not the predictable boy realizes he's gay, struggles, comes to terms with it, moves forward with his life kind of story. James is way more interesting than that. The son of divorced, self-absorbed New Yorkers, with a know-it-all sister, a Barnard co-ed who's dating her married linguistics professor, he's spending the summer "working" at his mom's trendy art gallery, where his main responsibility is to be at the ready to make cappuccino and salad runs for the hip young curator there. His idea of a social life is having cocktails with his grandmother. He dreads going to college and spends hours on the internet looking at real estate in the Midwest, dreaming of buying a spacious old home in a small town. He'd live in it all alone and read Trollope without the agony of having to sit in a college classroom and talk about it with people his own age.

I know James Sveck, I've taught dozens of kids exactly like him. He's show-offy with his precocious intelligence, dead-set on being the most ironic person in any room, maddeningly immature in the absurd, circuitous arguments he picks with anyone who tries to talk with him about anything that matters--and so wrecked, so clueless about how to be human, so utterly vulnerable that you want to draw him into your arms and keep him safe at the same time you'd like to throttle him. All the while laughing your head off, because he's really, really funny.

James narrates the events of a few weeks in the summer between graduating from high school and enrolling in Brown University in the fall, from his mother's early return, alone, from her (third) honeymoon through the consequences of a thoughtless mistake that threatens his relationship with one of the few people he actually likes. Along the way, he tells his shrink the story of his disastrous experience at the American Classroom, a national smart-kid seminar he was forced to attend in Washington D.C. as the inadvertent winner of a school essay contest. Throughout the book, he comes just to the edge of thinking about his sexual identity--then feints away. Ultimately, it's about that. But like all good literature, no matter its audience, Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You is really about...everything.

Right off the top of my head, I can think of ten kids who need this book. Funny, though, most of them are at least thirty--still high school kids in my mind and probably in their own, as so many of us are. Still trying to make sense of what adolescence was.