07 April 2014

I Said a Blog Hop, the Bloggy to the Bloggy to the Blog Blog Hop (& etc)

My good friend (& owner of Zia's brother-from-another-mother twin greyhound Briscoe) Claire Zulkey has passed me the Blog Hop Baton, which means I'm answering the same questions Claire answered last Monday and her friend Annie Logue answered two weeks ago & so forth back into the darkest days of last month or whatever.

Claire pitched it as "a great way to generate content for your blog!" and not "Jesus Backes, you haven't updated since Christmas," which was awfully kind of her. She's a good friend.

What are you working on?
I'm in the early stages of a brand-new YA project, which is very exciting because it's the first true first draft I've had on my desk in years. It's still at the pure potential stage. It's also exciting because last year was not a big writing year for me, so to be back in the groove & actually be making progress on something feels pretty great. Last week I had coffee with my old friend & mentor Mark Baechtel, and he asked, "Are you writing?" and I said, "YES!" and he reached across the table and high-fived me, and I've been smiling about that moment ever since.

How does your work differ from others of its genre?
I'm not totally sure how to answer this, other than to say that no one else has ever lived this life of mine, and so no one but me can write about the world as I know it. One of my goals in this current project is to get as close to capturing communication and dialogue between friends and family as I actually experience it rather than as it seems to happen in popular literature -- that is, I'm trying to write people who sound less like characters and more like people I actually know. It's been a fun challenge.

Why do you write what you do?
I find the teenage experience to be so compelling -- teens have many of the same experiences and emotions as adults, but because they're experiencing it for the first time, they have a much smaller life context or framework through which to view that experience, and less of an emotional certainty that they'll survive whatever they're going through. I love being able to re-visit that immediacy and rawness of going through things for the first time. It makes for fun fiction.

How does your writing process work? 
It keeps changing. These days, I try to write a little bit every day, because I find that by touching base with my story every day -- if only for 15 minutes -- my brain stays focused on questions of character and plot, and in my freetime it dreams about what should happen next. When I go a few days without writing, however, my brain starts asking much more destructive questions -- instead of "what happens next?" it starts asking "what's the point?"

For me, the hardest part of writing is actually sitting down to do it. By writing every day, I keep the path back to the page well-traveled, and it's easier to get there again the next day.

 Next week, authors Christa DesirHeather Demetrios will pick up the baton & tackle the same questions on their own blogs. Bookmark their pages now!

06 December 2013

Christmas Music That Doesn't Suck (Part II)

Hey friends! Thanks for the great music suggestions you gave me in comments & on Twitter. As always, you are the best.

Here's the other Christmas music mix I made last year. This one is more low-tempo, perfect for curling up in front of the fire (or the "fire") with a Tom & Jerry and your favorite two- and four-legged critters.

Note: you may want to avoid this mix if you're having a rough year. It definitely skews a little sad. (On the other hand, you may want to wallow in holiday sadness, in which case just put Tom McRae's Wonderful Christmastime on repeat & weep your way through the next few weeks.)

Holiday Chill (2012 Mix) 

White Christmas | Otis Redding

Christmas Time is Here | Diana Krall

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel | Punch Brothers

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day | The Civil Wars

Beth/Rest (Solo Piano Version) | Bon Iver
* not technically a Christmas song, but it sounds like it should be

The Hounds of Winter | Sting

Baby Come Find Me at Christmas | Rachael Yamagata

Holiday Road | Matt Pond PA
* one of those instances where the cover is far superior to the original (which, let's face it, is kind of terrible)

The Bells of St. Mary's | Sheryl Crow

Colder Weather | Zac Brown Band
* also not technically Christmas, just cold & sad

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas | James Taylor

Wonderful Christmastime | Tom McRae
* from now on, this is the only version of this song I will accept. Sorry, Sir Paul.

Joy is Within Reach | Adrienne Pierce

Hymn for a Winter's Night | Sarah McLachlan

The Heartache Can Wait | Brandi Carlile

Some Children See Him | Lisbeth Scott

Wexford Carol | Moira Smiley

Amazing Grace | Cat Power
* "Amazing Grace... you know the rest" kills me. Every time.

(See Part I for a more cheerful mix!)

02 December 2013

Christmas Music That Doesn't Suck (Part I)

Look, it's not that I hate Christmas music.

It's just that I've worked in retail.

In the fifteen years between 1995 and 2010, I spent eleven working in retail, restaurants, cafes, and other Christmas-music-mandatory jobs. And of course that Christmas-music-mandatory playlist comprises about thirty songs. Thirty songs on constant repeat. Eight hours a day. Five days a week. FOR A MONTH. It's enough to make anyone stabby.

But to make matters worse, those thirty songs include -- among others -- a song that's not only smugly colonialist, but also factually incorrect (why yes, Band Aid, Africa does have rivers! Perhaps you've heard of the NILE), a song that's -- let's face it -- real rapey, and a song SUNG BY CHIPMUNKS.

No adult should have to listen to chipmunks singing against her will.  

On the other hand, I love music. I always have music playing: at work, in the car, while I write, while I read, while I clean the house, always. I believe in and rely on music's ability to evoke a mood, to change the setting, to pick you up, to calm you down. And I believe very strongly in matching the music to the occasion. There are certain bands, albums, and even genres that I only listen to at certain times of year. I have playlists for every season of the year, for St. Patrick's Day, for Mardi Gras, for the early weeks of winter, for Saturday mornings in summer.

I want to love Christmas music. I really do. I want to deck the halls and trim the tree and have a merry little Christmas with a fabulous seasonal playlist. I can't help it if Burl Ives makes me break out in hives.

So. For the last few years, I've been collecting non-standard Christmas songs -- some jazzy, some bluesy, some emo indie folk rocky, some flat out drag-queeny -- and making myself Alt Christmas playlists. Last year I burned some mixes for friends and family, and when I pulled them out over the weekend (No Christmas music until after Thanksgiving! That is the rule!), I was charmed anew, and figured I should share.

Merry Christmas. :-)

Holiday Cheer (2012 Mix)

Merry Christmas, Baby | CeeLo Green (feat. Rod Stewart)

It Really Is (A Wonderful Life) | The Indigo Girls

I Hear the Bells | Mike Doughty

Even Santa Claus Gets the Blues | Marty Stuart

Please Come Home for Christmas | Aaron Neville

Shakana Santa Shake It | Bo Dollis & Wild Magnolias

Santa Lost a Ho | Christmas Jug Band
* file under So Wrong It's Right: "But there ain't no joy / Cause just one toy / Is missing from Santa's shack. / He never had a doll go AWOL / once he got her in the sack."

All I Want for Christmas | Puppini Sisters
* old-fashionedy Andrews Sisters style cover of Mariah's song. ADORABLE.

Christmas Lights | Coldplay

Mary | Heart

Joseph, Who Understood | The New Pornographers

All My Bells Are Ringing | Lenka

Someday at Christmas | Stevie Wonder

Christmas Island | Leon Redbone

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen/We Three Kings | Barenaked Ladies (feat. Sarah McLachlan)

Wish You Well | A Fine Frenzy

Oklahoma Christmas | Blake Shelton & Reba McEntire 
* I make no apologies.

Your Holiday Song | The Indigo Girls

Auld Lang Syne | Andrew Bird

(for a sadder -- er, quieter -- mix, see Part II)

ps. Obviously I'm a sucker for a great cover. If you have any suggestions, please leave them in the comments!

29 May 2013

What I Read and How I Lied

Dear Cute Boys From My Teens and Early Twenties,
Thank you for all the books, movies, and music you introduced me to. I appreciate your hard work to shape me into the perfect girlfriend share your passions with me. Sometimes I even adopted them as my own (see also: CommonX-Men MoviesBob Dylan). A few of the books you made me read suggested have become lifelong favorites. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, for instance — I probably wouldn’t have spent the entire summer after ninth grade reading it if I hadn’t wanted so badly to impress you. I remember lying on a pile of suitcases and sleeping bags in the back of my dad’s 1986 Nissan Stanza wagon, struggling to understand Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality as we drove across the same roads Persig had traveled by motorcycle.
Cute Boy, I haven’t seen you in over a decade, but I still love the book.
Unfortunately, your suggestions weren’t always so successful. You were so earnest when you handed me Jonathan Livingston Seagull, murmuring about how it had really changed your life. When you asked about it later, I held your trembling gaze. “It really spoke to me,” I told you. “It just meant… so much.”
“You really understand me,” you said.
Cute Boy, I lied. JLS didn’t mean anything to me. At 16, I found it both simplistic and strange. The grainy gray photos of actual seagulls distracted from the metaphorical aspect of the story. It’s a story about someone who wants to transcend the bounds of ordinary society! But wait — no, maybe it’s actually about seagulls?
Plus, to be honest? I was starting to notice that you were actually kind of a snob, Cute Boy. Some of my best friends were seagulls. Just because someone doesn’t want to transcend their plane of existence doesn’t mean they’re not fun to pass notes with in study hall. Not to mention, Jonathan Livingston Seagull looks down his beak at all the dull boring seagulls who just think of flying as a way to get food. I have news for you, JLS: seagulls gotta eat. And so do people. Sometimes you have to stop trying to transcend the limitations of your small town life and just take a girl to prom.
Cute Boys, a hint: maybe lower the bar a little when you lend me your books. If you preface it with, “This book totally changed my life and shaped me into the person that I am,” and then I read it and think it’s dumb? Sorry, but I’m going to judge you. I’ll probably still think you’re cute, but not as cute as the boy with great taste in literature.
And also? Know your audience. When you handed me Ishmael with evangelistic zeal and promised me it would, like, totally change my life, I was 21. Honey, I was raised by liberal hippiefolk; I got on the “Humanity Must Love & Respect Mother Earth” train in elementary school. If you’d given me Ishmael in sixth or seventh grade, I bet it WOULD have, like, totally changed my life. But by senior year of college? I was on the “Question Everything! Truth is Subjective! There Are Many Valid Points In The World and Also Many Ways To Poke Holes Through Arguments!” train by then.
Sorry, Cute Boy, you were way too late with this one. But you were also cute, so when you asked what I thought of the book, I stared deeply into your eyes and murmured, “With gorilla gone, will there be hope for man?”
And finally, my dear, adorable boy, let’s talk about your favorite book ever. The one that inspired you to find yourself and leave it all behind, you know? Into the goddamn Wild. Cute Boys (and I hate to tell you this, but there were SEVERAL of you who wanted me to read this book), I pretended to understand your need to prove yourself against an imaginary “untouched” American wilderness.
In fact, I researched it!
I read articles and books about feminine and masculine constructions of landscape and wilderness and masculinity and manhood, and even as I lied to you about how much I loved this book, I tried to sneak in alternate perspectives on the story. Like: this is pretty uniquely a boy’s story. A girl couldn’t just hitchhike across the country without constantly being in danger of being raped. Also, a girl couldn’t just go out into the Alaskan bush for months on end without packing several boxes of tampons, which she’d then have to bury so as not to attract all kinds of wildlife who might be interested in human blood.
And also? Abandoning your family isn’t heroic, it’s MEAN. And tramping out into the middle of nowhere with NO RESEARCH and NO EXIT PLAN isn’t heroic, it’s hubristic and dumb.
I don’t care how cute you are, Cute Boys. These days, if you tell me this is your favorite book? I will probably yell at you about the Myth of the American Adam and lack of coming-of-age ceremonies for boys in our culture and how if you love the wilderness so much you shouldn’t just leave your car in a culvert. And then I will shove some books at YOU: Rebecca Solnit and Annie Dillard and Mary Austin. Barbara Kingsolver and Keri Hulme and Jean Rhys and Stephanie Kallos.
Because here’s the thing, Cute Boys: it’s high time you started reading books in attempt to impress ME.

19 May 2013

Thoughts on Parenting a Writer

(From a talk I gave to parents of young writers at the Illinois Young Authors' Conference this weekend.)

Good morning. I am honored to be here with you, and thrilled to be a part of this wonderful celebration of your children.

I’ve been asked to speak to you today about how to be a parent to a writer. To be honest, I’m not sure I’m the right person for the job. The only parenting I do is for my dog, a retired racing greyhound, and though she’s been talking about writing her memoir for years, she’s pretty lazy, and spends most of her time sleeping. So far, there’s no evidence to suggest she’s written a single word. On the other hand, she is still alive after four years with me, so I guess I have that going for me in the parenting category.

I am a writer though, so while I’m not sure I can dole out too much parenting advice with any real authority, what I can do is share a little about what it means to be a writer, and give you some insight into the writer’s mind, and what the journey and process of writing often looks like, and offer some suggestions on ways you can support the writer in your house.

I’ve also been teaching writing for about fifteen years, and in that time, I’ve worked with a lot of writers, at all stages of their journeys – from elementary and middle school students first discovering the fun of inventing stories, to high school students attempting first novels, to adult writers with manuscripts under contract to be published.

I’ve also met a lot of parents of writers, and unfortunately, not all of them would have come today. So let’s begin with that: you’re here. You’re already doing a great job. Trust me, even if your kid was rolling her eyes at you on the way here this morning, the fact that you showed up counts for a lot, and she won’t forget it.

Now, before we get into what it means to be a writer and what you can do to support the budding writer that lives in your house, let me get something out of the way right off the bat: it is possible to make money as a writer. Not a lot of money, maybe, but at least half of my friends are writers, and none of us is homeless. Most of us even have health insurance.

I mention this because it’s often the first thing I hear from parents – including, at times, my own. As an adult, I understand that it comes a place of love, and maybe a little bit of fear, too. Of course you want what’s best for your children, and part of that includes security, comfort, a roof over their heads, food on the table, adequate health care… and, you know, it would be great if they’re not still living in your basement twenty years from now.

But when I was growing up, the question of writing and money caused me a great deal of anxiety. Claiming the word “writer” for myself took an enormous amount of courage. I spent my teen years scribbling in notebooks, composing stories and poems and essays, capturing the details of my daily life. Writing. I wrote constantly. I never went anywhere without my notebook and a pen. And yet, I never wanted to call myself a writer – that word seemed too big, too real, too distant. I imagined a day in the future, long after college, maybe, when I’d live in a big city and sit in a cafĂ© and write… have my own apartment with a little desk and a lot of books… work as a waitress or a barista or some other romantically artistic job… and then – then! – maybe I could call myself a writer. I had this vague, romantic idea about what it might mean to be a writer. I didn’t know much else, but at the time, that vague idea was scary enough. Did I really have what it might take to be a writer? Could I really grow up to live the writer’s life? No matter that I was already doing it: I was writing all the time.

I was already a writer.

It took me years to figure that out, though, because there was so much mystery and romance bound up in my idea of being a writer. It was mostly Hemingway and Fitzgerald, sitting at cafes in Paris, with a little bit of Kerouac road tripping and maybe a dash of Mary Oliver out looking at the birds. I don’t know, and I didn’t really know then. All I knew was that I wanted it. I wanted to be a writer. 

But every time I shared this dream with an adult, they would inevitably say something like, “Good luck making money!” or “What’s your day job going to be?”

Look, I get it. We Midwesterners are a pragmatic lot. We come from generations of laborers and factory workers and farmers. We know that life can be tough, and we know that it requires hard work. But when the little fledglings of dreams smash into those hard walls of pragmatism, it can be hard to recover their wings. Sometimes, you just want to stay on the ground.  

After I graduated from college with my degrees in English literature and education, I moved to New Mexico, and for the first time in my life, when I told people that I wanted to be a writer, they didn’t ask about a day job. In New Mexico, if you say, “I want to be a writer,” the person you’re talking to will likely answer with, “Cool! I want to open a charter school for transcendental leadership,” or “Cool! I’m building a house on the mesa using recycled beer cans and old tires.” It’s a weird place. But in that permissiveness, I found the freedom and safety to finally, finally claim the word writer for myself. In New Mexico, I lived in a little house in the mountains and wrote the first draft of the book that grew up to become The Princesses of Iowa, my debut young adult novel.

The flip side of all that permissiveness is that no one ever gets anything done. So after four years there, I found myself longing for the Midwestern protestant work ethic and ambition, and moved to Chicago…. where people started asking me about my day job again.   

The problem with the day job question, though, is that – in addition to reinforcing this idea that that you can’t make money as a writer – it equates success with making money. It seems to suggest that you’ll only be a real writer if you make money from writing, and since you probably won’t make money writing, you’ll never be a real writer. It makes the idea of being a writer feel even more impossible and out of reach.

It also seems to draw a very narrow definition of what being a writer means, and what making money as a writer means. Because yes, it is true that it is difficult to make money writing poetry, or even writing novels. That probably won’t change in the future. But some people do make money writing poetry or novels, and lots of other people make money writing TV shows or movies or magazine articles, and many, many more people make quite a bit of money writing copy for corporate websites and blog entries for businesses and running social media campaigns. One of my friends is even a freelance dictionary editor. There are, in fact, tons of ways to make money as a writer. And some of us are teachers, and librarians, and editors, and booksellers. Some of us have totally unrelated day jobs and use those jobs to feed our work, like John Grisham writing about lawyers, or William Carlos Williams writing poems on his prescription pad.  

One of our primary tasks as adults is to seek, constantly, a healthy balance between that which brings us joy and that which keeps us safe, alive, productive members of society, etc. If we’re lucky, we find meaningful work that brings us joy and also pays enough to keep us and our kids clothed and fed. But we all strike our own bargains with life. Some of us work jobs we don’t care for, but which allow us to spend our free time doing what we really love. Some of us choose to live with less in order to spend more time focusing on what really matters to us. We all struggle with this, not just writers.

At the writing school where I teach, we offer some classes and camps for teens, but most of our creative writing classes are for adults. Surprisingly, one of our biggest years was 2009, right after the market crashed. Our classrooms were flooded with newly unemployed people from the financial industry, many former English majors who had decided to take high-paying jobs in “sensible” industries like banking. Soooo when that didn’t work, they came to take writing classes, to become freelance writers, to finally begin their novels, to do what they really loved.

How many jobs can we list as “sensible” or “secure” in the modern economy anyway? The job security that our parents and grandparents had, where you could spend your entire adult life working for a company and they would give you a gold watch when you retired, where loyalty to a company mattered and was rewarded, where you were guaranteed security and a pension – if those jobs exist now, they’re hard to find, and I suspect they’ll be even harder to find in the future. Your children will face a job market that’s ever-changing, constantly evolving, with organizations that have little reason to reward loyalty or offer security. Perhaps the great jobs of the future don’t even exist yet; fifteen years ago, no one could have predicted that “professional blogger” would be a job.

I’m sure that when you think about your creative, interesting, strange, hilarious child, you would rather see her grow up to live her life in a creative, interesting, strange, and hilarious way, and not allow all that amazing creativity go to waste in some high-paying but unfulfilling job. Or, if she must work a high-paying but unfulfilling job, we hope that it’s only part time so she can spend the rest of her energy on her one-woman traveling puppet-show soap opera. As long as she’s happy.

And anyway, your job as a parent isn’t to be the bringer of harsh reality – your kid will get that enough from the rest of the world. Everyone else in the world will happily line up to tell your kid that she’s not good enough, not talented enough, that she’ll never make money, that the economy is terrible and no one’s hiring and she’ll never get her dream job and she’ll have to work at Wal-Mart for the rest of her life and die alone, surrounded by cats. I promise you, there’s no way your kid is going to grow up not realizing that our society requires you to find some way of earning money, no matter how oblivious to this truth she may seem now. She’ll figure it out.

Your job is to be the cheerleader, the encourager, the unflagging belief in her strength and talent and intelligence. When she tells you she wants to be a writer – or a pilot, or a marine biologist, or the person who dresses up like Goofy at Disney World – your job is to say, “Cool! I wonder what steps you might take to get closer to that dream?”

The thing about writing is that – to writers –  it feels just as necessary as those other life essentials. Just like exercise or eating well – when I’m not writing, I feel sluggish and unhappy, and I’m really impossible to be around. Many days I don’t want to write at all, but I force myself to, because I know that I’ll feel better afterward. This, I’m told, is how many people feel about going to the gym. Gloria Steinem said, “Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don't feel I should be doing something else.” I would add that writing is the only thing that makes a day feel like it didn’t go to waste. I could have the most productive day in the world – I ran all my errands, paid all my bills, attacked some household project, called my grandmother, washed the dog – but if I didn’t write, it feels like I somehow let the day slip away. On the other hand, if I get up in the morning and get even a good half hour of work done, I can spend the rest of the day eating ice cream in my pajamas and feel like a success.

Which is why the binary of “be a writer OR make money” doesn’t really make sense, anyway. If someone tells us that they’re training for a marathon, we don’t automatically ask, “What’s your day job?” or “Does that come with dental?” Of course we don’t. We understand that people train for marathons for all kinds of reasons: to get healthier, to prove something to themselves, to get the endorphin high, to push their own limits. And honestly, there are probably lots of people that do it just because it seems like a good idea, or because it makes sense to them, or because a day when they got outside and ran five miles feels better than a day when they didn’t.

Writing is the same. For most of us, writing doesn’t feel like a choice, exactly. It’s something we’re compelled to do, something we do because we know that certain stories will haunt us until we put them on the page, something we do because the best days are the ones that involve at least some time at the laptop or notebook, fiddling with the work in progress or polishing up a draft.

What matters, then, is the process of writing. The product – the story, the novel, the poem, the essay – that’s secondary. Whether or not a draft is “good” or working is almost beside the point. One of the annoying truths of writing is that your first draft is almost certainly going to suck, and you just have to learn to live with that, and trust that it will get better in revision. There’s always, always room for revision.

Writers often get asked for advice on this process, for advice on how to become a better writer, and they always answer the same way: you have to write a lot, and you have to read a lot. There is no shortcut. There is no quick solution. You must write a lot and read a lot and then write more. If you don’t enjoy this process – if you don’t come to understand that indeed, the process is all that matters – then all this writing is going to be miserable for you. In order to be a writer, you have to write. In order to be a better writer, you have to keep writing, and push yourself, and trust in the process of shaky first draft and revision and revision and revision.

So, if your writer shares her work with you, be supportive of her hard work and the journey she’s on. Celebrate the act of writing, acknowledge all the effort that has gone into a story or poem – the effort of putting the words on the paper, and also the work of imagining the story in the first place, and of being bold enough to attempt to translate that story from imagination to page, even while understanding that it will always, always lose something in the translation.  

Ask her questions about her craft and her process. Ask what inspired her, what kinds of questions she was exploring as she thought about writing this.  Ask her what was hardest about this piece and what she’s most proud of. Don’t mention publication unless she mentions it first.
Remember that writing itself is the reward.

And let her go without writing if she wants to. Never nag her about writing, even if she’s cheerful when writing and completely unbearable when she’s not. It’s okay if she starts a hundred stories and doesn’t finish a single one. It’s okay if she wants to quit writing for a while. We all need fallow periods, time to refill our imaginations. And if your writer decides to stop writing and focus on her new dream of becoming a professional tuba player, that’s okay too.

Writing is hard, and writing is scary. We spend our lives developing strategies to deal with our most powerful emotions, our most primal urges. We build walls to contain our own demons, and we establish boundaries for ourselves to protect us from our own deepest longings and fears. We find ways of not getting swept away by our own anger and grief. We learn to bite our tongues, we learn that if we don’t have something nice to say, we probably shouldn’t say anything at all. We learn to be polite. We learn to look on the bright side of things, to put on a brave face, to smile in the face of adversity, to keep a stiff upper lip. We learn that some things aren’t discussed in polite company, that every family has its skeletons in the closet and they’re best left alone in the darkness. We learn to equate silence with safety, for ourselves and for those we love. We learn not to ask questions. We learn restraint.

Part of what makes writing so scary is it asks us to let the demons out of their cages for a few hours, and we fear we may never get them back in. Writing asks us to go into the darkest, scariest parts of our own emotional selves and come back with a few paragraphs of unvarnished truth. Writing demands that we stop biting our tongues, that we look straight into all of life’s ugliness and sorrow and horror and report back on what we see there, in honest and unflinching detail, without sugar coating or silver lining. Writing makes us ask the questions we’ve been trained never to ask, and to share the answers when we find them. Writing wants us to spill the secrets we carry, our own and those we’ve kept for others. Writing pushes us to stand in the ocean of our own grief and anger and fear and despair and insignificance and powerlessness and love and regret, and makes no promises that we won’t get swept away in the process.

As a parent, of course, you want to protect your child from everything in the world that’s scary, or dark, or hard, or sad. I understand. But the power of writing is that it gives children the agency to investigate life’s scariness and darkness from a safe distance, to let their own monsters out of the closet for a few hours and explore the power they have. So let your writer experiment. Let her have secrets. Let her have her own folder on the family computer. Avoid the temptation to read through her notebooks. Writing should be her safe haven, her place to experiment, her place to work through her confusion and feelings and thoughts.

Let her fail. Let her write pages and pages of painful poetry and terrible prose. Let her write bad fan fiction. Don’t freak out when she shows you stories about Bella Swan making out with Draco Malfoy. Never take her writing personally or assume it has anything to do with you, even if she only writes stories about dead mothers and orphans. You have no idea where her stories come from. Her dead mother story might come not from a place of wishing you were dead, but rather from a place of loving and needing you so much that she can’t imagine living without you. Perhaps she’s afraid to lose you, perhaps she’s struggling with the idea of growing up and leaving home and living on her own. Fiction can offer a place to work through these kinds of questions and fears. Don’t take it personally; her stories are not about you.  

Let her find her own voice, even if she has to try on the voices of a hundred others first to do so. Let her find her own truth, even if she has to spin outrageous lies in search of it. Remember that her truth isn’t the same as anyone else’s truth, and that even if you were there with her when it happened, your memories of a moment will likely be vastly different from hers. Let her tell her own truth, even if you’d rather not hear it. Let her write thinly-veiled memoirs disguised as fiction. It’s okay if she massages past events to make a better story, or leaves entire years of her life on the cutting room floor. It’s okay if she writes about characters who have nothing to do with her life, her experience, or her world. That’s what fiction is.

Writing can also be lonely. Creativity often comes from a place of longing, of quiet, of boredom. Our culture has gotten bad at being bored. We’ve forgotten how to be quiet. We’ve forgotten how to be alone. I actually worry about this quite a bit in regards to myself, and my own writing.

Ten years ago — even five years ago — if I was meeting a friend for coffee and she was late, I would sip my latte, look around the cafe, idly listen to other people’s conversations, pull out my journal and write for a few minutes. Today? Left alone for more than 15 seconds, I pull out my phone, text people, check my email, update Twitter: “Meeting @bestfriend at @coffeehouse!”

Often, I don’t even have my journal with me, a fact that would have made my 21-year-old self shudder in horror. She carried her journal everywhere, and wrote in it at every opportunity: on the bus, in the cafe, on a bench after class, alone in a diner. She used her journal as a way to connect with her own thoughts, to check in with herself, to mull over stories she was working on and jot down images, questions, fragments of sentences and verse that came to her in moments of quiet.

Ten years ago, I used to walk between 2.5 and 5 miles a day, every day, without an ipod or cell phone. I paid attention to the streets and the houses and the way the light on the trees changed from day to day, season to season. I wrote poetry in my head, untangled scenes, relived conversations. Wondered. Noticed.

Now, the idea of taking an hour to do nothing but walk makes me jittery. “What a waste of time,” I think, even though I honestly believe otherwise. Well, the artist in me believes an hour-long walk isn’t a waste of time; my internet-addled self spends the ten-minute walk home from work mentally tweeting every. single. thought. Truly, it’s exhausting.

Writing is hard. Being alone with one’s own thoughts is hard. Being quiet is hard. The internet is easy, and validating, and distracting. It doesn’t ask you to confront your deepest fears and most painful memories. It doesn’t force you to be honest with yourself. It doesn’t ask anything of you, really. It’s the all singing, all dancing, constantly updated, constantly moving show of lights and colors and witticisms in 140 characters.

I believe that our subconscious minds are much smarter than our conscious minds. After all, our subconscious minds build our dreams for us, build them by pulling together disparate images and people and moments, by creating a language of strange imagery and metaphor in order to help us gain greater understanding of the things we think about, our concerns and fears and wishes. Isn’t this our job as writers, as well? I believe the best writing comes from our subconscious — it percolates there, beneath the surface, and emerges as inspiration. The trick is that we must step out of our own way in order to access it — must not let the conscious mind interrupt with its nervous chatter — and the only way to do so is to be quiet. To focus. To be alone with our own thoughts.

So let your writer be bored. Let her have long afternoons with absolutely nothing to do. Limit her TV-watching time and her internet-playing time and take away her cell phone. Give her a whole summer of lazy mornings and dreamy afternoons. Make sure she has a library card and a comfy corner where she can curl up with a book. Give her a notebook and five bucks so she can pick out a great pen. Insist she spend time with the family. It’s even better if this time is spent in another state, a cabin in the woods, a cottage on the lake, far from her friends and people her own age. Give her some tedious chores to do. Make her mow the lawn, do the dishes by hand, paint the garage. Make her go on long walks with you and tell her you just want to listen to the sounds of the neighborhood.

Let her be lonely. Let her believe that no one in the world truly understands her. Give her the freedom to fall in love with the wrong person, to lose her heart, to have it smashed and abused and broken. Occasionally be too busy to listen, be distracted by other things, have your nose in a great book, be gone with your own friends. Let her be lonely. It’s okay. Great creativity and innovation comes from loneliness.

Let her make mistakes.

Let her write poetry on her jeans and her shoes and her backpack, even if you just bought them brand new.

Let her sit outside at night under the stars. Give her a flashlight to write by.

Keep her safe but not too safe, comfortable but not too comfortable, happy but not too happy.

Above all else, love and support her. Love her and believe in her. Love her, and let her go. In the end, your love is all that matters, and it will be enough. The rest will come from her.

15 May 2013

Should I Worry About The "Rules" of Fiction?

The other night in my YA Novel class, we were talking about the usual things: structure, pacing, scene vs. summary, what makes a good first chapter, how to weave thematic and emotional hints into your story early so later events feel organic, how a story makes promises to the reader, etc, and my students kept coming back to different "rules" of fiction they'd learned over the years. These "rules" (and I can't type that word without quotation marks, not in the context of fiction writing) were limiting, reductive, and often contradictory.

Always start in the middle of action! Never start with dialogue! Give us some emotional context before you jump into the action! Always start with dialogue! Never use dialogue tags! Only use dialogue tags like "said" or "asked." Make sure your protagonist is likeable! Don't make your protagonist a boring Mary Sue! 

The list is endless. 

Regarding any "rules" of art, I have a few thoughts. 

One, that anyone who tells you that there is only one way to create a work of art is a) gravely misinformed or b) hopelessly reductive and/or c) probably trying to sell you something, mostly likely his overpriced class/book/seminar. 

Two, that if there *were* one clear set of rules of fiction, writing books would be way easier and also way more boring.

Three, even within the context of certain "rules" that you have decided make sense and apply to your own work, part of the fun of creation is exploring ways to subvert, bend, push against, or upend them. 

Four, with writing (as with all good and creative work), anything that helps you to keep going, keep writing, and keep creating is good as long as it works for you. Anything that keeps you from writing and stops you from creating is not currently helpful, and should be (at least temporarily) ignored. Ultimately, writing is about figuring out how your own mind works, how your own creative brain works, and what works or makes sense to someone else might not work or make sense to you, and that's PERFECTLY FINE. 

If all of that is too much to process, I have made a flowchart to help you decide whether or not you need to worry about all the "rules" of fiction floating around in your brain, and how they should or should not apply to your work-in-progress.  

That should clear things up. :-)

08 May 2013

Happy One Year Publiversary, Princesses of Iowa!

In honor of the one year anniversary of the publication of The Princesses of Iowa, here's a beautiful movie my good pals at Very Clever made.

Note: this gorgeous little film is just one person's take on the book's prologue. Yours might look totally different, and that's okay.

Note also: That one person is a man in his thirties, who heard me read the prologue at a party about a year before the book came out. Despite its title, cover, and subject matter, The Princesses of Iowa has been surprisingly popular among adult men. Relatedly, a group of teenage boys once suggested we publish a "boy version" of the book, with a brown paper cover and the title "The Hot Chicks of Iowa." It's not the worst idea I've ever heard....


15 April 2013

Behind the Book Interview

Had a great time chatting with the ladies at Behind the Book this weekend (and got an excuse to head down to one of my favorite bookstores in Chicago, Open Books. Bonus!). They threw some great questions at me, including one that no one has ever asked me before. 

Check it out over on Chicago 3 Media: Behind the Book with M. Molly Backes

11 October 2012

What We (Should) Talk About When We Talk About Big Bird

It’s been a week since Mitt Romney made his now-infamous remarks about Public Television during the first presidential debate: 
I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I’m going to stop other things. I like PBS. I love Big Bird. I actually like you too. But I’m not going to — I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for it.”
Within minutes, the internet was buzzing with Muppet jokes, and Fired Big Bird was tweeting at Fired Grover. The hashtag #OccupySesameStreet was born. Muppet John Stewart took over on The Daily Show. Even President Obama got into the act, joking about Sesame Street on the campaign trail, and putting out a campaign ad featuring Big Bird.

Interestingly, the debate wasn’t the first time Mr. Romney has mentioned Big Bird on the campaign trail. According to abcnews.com, Romney has been specifically referencing Big Bird since December:
“We’re going to have to stop some things we also like.  I mean, I like PBS, for instance. I like my grandkids being able to see Bert and Ernie and Big Bird, but I’m not willing to borrow money from China so that PBS doesn’t have to run advertising.” (Romney, March 2012)
Clearly, the comment wasn’t off the cuff, nor was it unintentional. Going after public funding for the arts, public radio, and public television is nothing new, but normally that involves accusations of the liberal elitism of NPR or moral outrage over Piss Christ, not threatening a beloved American icon. Everyone with a beating human heart loves Big Bird. Why in the world would Mr. Romney repeatedly – and specifically – bring him up?

Some have interpreted it as an attempt to make Mr. Romney seem more human (“All humans love Big Bird. I love Big Bird! Therefore I am clearly a human”), or to reinforce an image of Mr. Romney as stern-yet-loving paternal figure (“I like Big Bird too, kids, but we can’t afford him, and anyway it’s past your bedtime”), or perhaps merely to reassure us that he lives on the same planet we do (“Sure I have a yacht and an Olympic horse and four houses, but I love Big Bird – I’m just like you!”).

Maybe that’s all that’s going on here. But as a teacher who spent the early part of my career working at schools in rural, low-income areas, I can’t help but wonder about the underlying race and class issues at play here.

History of Public Television

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting was created by an act of congress and signed into law by Lyndon Johnson in 1967, in response to a 1961 speech by then-head of the FCC Newton Minnow, who described television as a “vast wasteland… a procession of game shows, formula comediesabout totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence,sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters,more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly, commercials -- many screaming,cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom.” (Some things never change, am I right?)

This speech – commonly known as the “Wasteland Speech” – advocated for programming in the public interest, which led to the formation of the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television, which in turn led to the creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Put simply, the purpose of public broadcasting was to create “high culture” to counteract the “wasteland” effects of commercial television’s “low culture.”

Included in the Carnegie Commission’s recommendations were two revolutionary ideas: that television could be used for educational purposes, and – more specifically – that television could prepare children for school. “Public Television programs should give great attention to the informal educational needs of preschool children, particularly to interest and help children whose intellectual and cultural preparation might otherwise be less than adequate.” (Spring, 326)

The Children’s Television Workshop grew out of the Carnegie Corporation, in the first attempt to bring these revolutionary ideas to life, and in 1969, they aired the first episode of Sesame Street.

Sesame Street as Educational Gap-Closer

According to Paul D. Slocumb, Ed.D., author of Removing the Mask: Giftedness in Poverty:
“Students from enriched backgrounds typically perform better in school than those from poverty, as measured by standardized achievement and intelligence tests…. In educated households, the children have environmental opportunities and experiences that foster and encourage skills and academic performance to a level higher than students who don’t have such opportunities. Students from educated households are exposed to more abstract uses of language, more complex planning processes and procedures, schemas to organize space, precise use of words and phrases to describe objects and tasks, assignment of abstract values to time, and labeling part-to-whole relationships. Such exposure allows students to develop mental models, which serve as tools to get meaning from things they read, hear, and experience in school and in the outside world.”
Children of parents with limited income and education are already at an academic disadvantage by the time they enter school. Sesame Street was expressly created to help close this achievement gap between low-income and middle- and upper-income children entering school. Joel Spring, author of The American School: 1642-1996, describes Sesame Street’s original educational goals:
“While Sesame Street was supposed to appeal to a national audience, concerns with educating the children of the poor directly influenced the overall goals of the program. [...] The emphasis on preparation for school and concerns about children of the poor determined the basic shape of Sesame Street. The staff decided that poor parents wanted their children to achieve in the basic subjects of reading, writing, and arithmetic. The major complaint of these parents, the staff felt, was the failure of the school to teach these subjects. Therefore, the staff concluded that the program should focus on preparation for learning these subjects in school.”
The desire to help prepare low-income children for school wasn’t limited to television, of course. Around the same time, in 1965, as a part of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” campaign, the Office of Economic Opportunity launched Head Start, originally conceived as a catch-up summer camp to help get children living in poverty ready for kindergarten.

Educational television offered one strong advantage over Head Start and other such programs, however: it was available to children in all geographic areas. To appeal to children from low-income families (and in particular, those in urban poverty), Sesame Street was set in an urban, racially diverse environment, but its creators knew that its success would come in appealing to all children.

In order to do so, Sesame Street sought to entertain and educate an audience not just of different racial and economic backgrounds, but also of different ages. Specifically, the Muppet characters were designed to reflect different developmental stages, in order to cover different curricular needs, to address the concerns and experiences of different ages, as well as to play to a broader audience of children. Big Bird, for instance, is modeled after an inquisitive 6-year old, while the impulsive Cookie Monster is babyish, right down to his grammatical errors (“Me want cookie!”).

The World as It Might Be

Chief advisor for the Children’s Television Workshop was Gerald Lesser, Bigelow Professor of Education and Developmental Psychology at Harvard, who had a great deal of influence over Sesame Street’s educational and ideological goals. Television, he believed, could offer “a vision of the world as it might be.”

As an example of this, Lesser described an urban bus ride, as depicted by Sesame Street:
“Now, we all know that a bus driver is often not our best example of someone who is courteous and civil. But on Sesame Street’s bus trip, the driver responds to his passengers’ hello’s and thank-you’s, tells a child who cannot locate his money, ‘That’s all right, you can pay me tomorrow,’ and upon seeing a young woman running after his bus just as it has left the curb, actually stops to let her on.” (Lesser, 95)
Lesser himself acknowledged this as an “outrageous misrepresentation” of real life, but “We wanted to show the child what the world is like when people treat each other with decency and consideration. Our act of faith… was that young children will learn such attitudes if we take the trouble to show them some examples, even if we stretch familiar reality a bit in order to do so." (Lesser, 95)

Another example of this “world as it might be” vision was in the way Sesame Street’s multi-racial cast lived, worked, and played together in integrated harmony – while, on the news and in the streets, white and black civil rights protestors clashed with white police and soldiers. (In 1970, a state commission in Mississippi voted to not air the show, stating that "Mississippi was not yet ready" for the show's integrated cast. The decision was reversed after the vote was leaked to the New York Times, gaining national attention. [Newsweek])

Why Sesame Street Matters

For more than four decades, Sesame Street has done what it set out to do in the late 1960s: teach basic alphabet, reading, spelling, and math skills to children while modeling values of kindness, consideration, and friendship. The magic of Sesame Street is that it’s managed to teach these lessons without being preachy or pedantic. Could it achieve the same magic while having, as Mr. Romney suggests, “Big Bird look at cornflakes from time to time”? I don’t know.

Mitt Romney was in his twenties when Sesame Street first aired, but for those of us who grew up in the 70s, 80s, 90s, or 2000s, the cast – both humans and muppets – feel like old friends. For people my age, Mr.Hooper’s death in 1982 was one of our first – if not the first – experiences of losing a friend. (And I don’t know about you, but I still get a little choked up when I think about Big Bird waiting for Santa, shivering and blanketed in snowflakes, while the residents of the street grow increasingly worried about him.)

For those of us with educated, middle- and upper-income parents, Sesame Street was a fun, educational show that helped us to ask questions we might not have asked otherwise, exposed us to racial diversity we might not have seen otherwise, and made us sing, laugh, and explore our feelings along the way. But to those of us with uneducated, lower-income parents who often worked multiple jobs and didn’t have the time, energy, or skills to read to us, teach us our letters, numbers, and colors, Sesame Street was an important resource that provided us with the knowledge and skills we needed to be successful in kindergarten.

Without Sesame Street, Mitt Romney’s grandchildren might miss the friendship and humor of characters like Big Bird, Ernie, Bert, and Elmo, but they’d still have access to the early educational opportunities and skills they needed to be successful in school. They’d be just fine. But other children – including many of the children of Mr. Romney’s 47% -- would enter kindergarten facing an even steeper learning curve, one that might prove too steep to scale in a single year. These children might find themselves falling farther and farther behind, blaming themselves for their academic struggles, eventually deciding that they simply weren’t cut out for school, and give up.

Whether or not Mitt Romney likes Big Bird is not the issue. Sesame Street matters not because it’s likeable, but because it seeks to provide pre- and early-literacy education to millions of at-risk children, to close an often overwhelming academic gap, and level the educational playing field so our children – all of them, regardless of racial, cultural, economic, or educational background – have full access to the America -- and the American dream -- we've promised them.

01 October 2012

An Open Letter to Book Banners

Dear Book Banners,

First of all, let me thank you for all the hard work you do. Without you, we wouldn’t be celebrating Banned Books Week in the first place! Just plain “Books Week” is much less exciting. By trying to get books banned from schools and libraries, you confer a degree of sexiness and danger on us that we might not otherwise have. Wait, do I sound sarcastic? I’m trying not to be sarcastic, Book Banners. I sincerely believe that you are trying to do the right thing, in your own mind, and I admire that. I’m not saying I want to hang out with you, but I get where you’re coming from. You want to protect kids and make the world better for them. So do I, and though I disagree about your methods, I think there’s a good number of issues we can agree on.
For one thing, we both agree that books are powerful! Every time you get up in front of a school board or town council and petition them to take a book off the shelves, you’re reminding us of the power and importance of books. You inspire us to start a dialogue about what books are and what books should be, and whether they should describe the world as it is or the world as it could be, and who should be allowed to read or restrict which books. These are interesting, often enlightening, conversations that frequently motivate people to go read the very books you’re trying to ban. Which is great! Anything you can do to get people talking about and reading books helps us all.
For another thing, we both agree that parents should know what their kids are reading. But while you seem to think parents should know so they can know when to take a book away from their kids, lest any dangerous ideas seep into a child’s brain, I think parents should know what their kids are reading so they can know when to swoop in and ask, “Do you have any questions? What did you think about the scene where the protagonist did that shocking thing? Have you ever heard of anyone doing that in real life?” Books can be great springboards for discussions, especially about issues that might be too hard or scary or weird to talk about in real life – a veil of fiction can give children that extra layer of safety to ask big questions. I used to teach 7th and 8th grade English, and we would have discussions like that a lot. Kids asked me questions like “Why did Hitler hate the Jews so much?” and “Why did the jury think Tom Robinson was guilty when Atticus proved he couldn’t have committed the crime?” and “What is rape?” and “Why would a society choose to stop feeling love and pain?” Are those scary questions for children to ask? Sure. Are they important questions for children to be asking? Absolutely.
We do seem to disagree, Book Banners, on children’s intelligence, wit, and strength of character. You seem to think that one stray reference to witchcraft or masturbation will shatter a child’s world forever. I think children are stronger and smarter than that. I think that kids can read about all kinds of things without immediately running out and doing those things – for instance, I read Native Son when I was fifteen, and to this day I have never beheaded a white girl and stuffed her body in a furnace. I read The Catcher in the Rye when I was fourteen and I’ve never had an awkward encounter with a prostitute. I read A Wrinkle in Time when I was eleven and have not yet managed to become a time-traveling witch (though maybe one day…).
Though we don’t always agree, Book Banners, I do admire your passion and tenacity, particularly in the era of online bookstores. Trying to restrict or ban a book is mostly a symbolic gesture in our culture, one that doesn’t honestly do much for your cause but which does a lot for ours. You remind us to love and honor books and of their significance in our lives, past and present. You remind us of the strength and beauty of the Bill of Rights, particularly the First Amendment, and you remind us how lucky we are to live in a society that treasures such a right. And by your vehemence – even by your professed disgust and hatred! – you remind us, in the words of Elie Wiesel, that the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. I thank you for not being indifferent.

  Love, Molly

This post originally ran on The Debutante Ball blog, September 28, 2011.

27 August 2012

Child Transportation Safety Tips

Today on the internets, some of my parent friends started talking about front-facing versus rear-facing child seats. Apparently it's a big subject! The subsequent discussion quickly turned tense; it seemed everyone had an opinion about how best to keep their child -- and everyone else's child -- safe while traveling.

In light of this discussion, and while child safety is on everyone's minds, I thought I'd share some helpful lessons I learned in my own childhood.

Child Transportation Safety Tips
From The Adults Who Supervised My Childhood

1. When driving long distances, make sure the children are safely zipped into their Pound Puppy or Rainbow Brite sleeping bags. 

If you put the seats of your station wagon down and let them stretch out in the back of the car, properly zipped sleeping bags will keep them from pinching each other while you drive, therefore keeping everyone safe and happy. As long as they're lying down, they don't need seatbelts, because they're sleeping, and nobody needs to wear a seat belt when she's sleeping.

This child could totally still ride
on a bicycle baby seat

2. When driving long distances, or into any vaguely wild, remote area, or anywhere, really, be sure to have a cooler* full of cold beer cans available at all times.

These will come in handy in emergency situations, such as a child accidentally stepping on a nest full of yellow jackets after you encouraged her to go walking on some abandoned train tracks in the middle of the Blue Ridge Mountains while you went to go pee behind a tree. When your child is stung eight or nine times, the cold beer cans will help to soothe the stings while you frantically drive to the nearest Ranger Station.

*Note: If it is the 1980s, feel free to drink while you drive, because apparently that is still legal.

Helpful hint! Teach your child to identify yellow jacket nests at an early age, as well as other natural hazards such as rotting logs, uneven terrain, and bears.

3. When transporting children in a pickup truck, instruct the children to lie down in the bed of the truck as long as it is moving. 

It is never safe for children to stand in the bed while the truck is in motion. Have the children hold a blanket over them, so the cops can't see them. Remind children to hold tight! It gets windy back there.

Fun family tradition! The baby gets to ride in the cab.

4. Never allow a child to drive a car until her legs are long enough to reach the pedals. 

Unless she's sitting on your lap, in which case it's probably totally fine.

5. Children grow quickly! Prepare yourself for the day when your child outgrows the rear-mounted baby seat on your bicycle.

If she's outgrown the baby seat, do not try to squish her into it. Instead, have her sort of perch on top of the seat with her coltish legs hanging over the edge. When she outgrows that, teach her the rules of bicycle safety so she can use proper arm signals as she rides on your handlebars.

6. When tobogganing with your child, be sure to choose the steepest hill in town.

That way, when you suggest she stand in the back of the toboggan "like a dogsled musher," her fall will be swift and she'll have plenty of room to roll down the hill.

7. Teens and cars can be a dangerous combination. Distracted driving is deadly driving! 

If your teen won't stop rolling her eyes, sighing, and listening to obnoxious music on her walkman, make her a nest of pillows, blankets, and sleeping bags on top of all the suitcases in the back of your SUV. She'll have a comfortable spot to write her moody poetry, and you won't be distracted as you drive!

Safety tip: a sudden stop could be hazardous for a nested teen. In case of a sudden stop, warn your teen to hold tightly to the back of the seat, the interior roof handle, the clothes hanger hook, or anything else she can grab. Alternately, gently suggest that your teen try to sleep on her pile of suitcases and sleeping bags, because as everyone knows, nobody needs to wear a seatbelt when she's sleeping.