31 October 2007

Nanowrimo'en, or All Nano's Eve

Happy Halloween! Whether you celebrate Halloween – Samhain – All Hallow’s Eve – Dress Like a Tart Day – Hide From The Neighbor Kids Day – Night of Culturally Sanctioned Vandalism – or Yay! I Get To Dress Like Batman Day, (*cough*RoryCobb*cough*) one thing’s for certain: someone…somewhere… is putting a dress on a Boston Terrier.

Fun fact: the Irish brought Halloween to America! That’s right, before the Potato Famine, those Puritans were waaaaaaaay too boring to observe Halloween. It took the fun-loving, hard-drinking Irish to popularize a holiday that allows you to dress like a sexy leprechaun and get totally shitfaced. Thanks, Irish Ancestors!

In other news, it’s NaNoWriMo’en, the Eve of National Novel Writing Month, or as I like to call it, NaOnMoOuYeWheYoFriArAcInQuePloCha SetWorCaAbTheProYoMaOnYoNo. (Incidentally, I’ve decided that November is ALSO going to be National Stop Spending Your Retirement Money at Starbucks, Molly! Month. You can do the acronym yourself.)

According to Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo, over 90,000 people will be participating this year! Think about that: if those 90,000 people write, on average, just 25,000 words (half the monthly goal), the total words written will be 2,250,000,000 words in one month! Though Milan Kundera surely disapproves, I love it.

I love the convergence of so many voices telling their stories. I love the celebration of writing and creativity and caffeine-fueled enthusiastic madness. I love a massive group deadline (second only to April 15 in this country), and the chance to share your deadline-induced misery with 89,999 other people. I love posting wordcounts and feeling like someone other than my own prone-to-excuses lackadaisical conscience is holding me accountable for my productivity or lack thereof. I love reading what my friends write. In fact, I wish that ALL my friends would write at least one novel, particularly if that one novel is a thinly-disguised memoir. Even better if everyone in my family wrote a thinly-disguised memoir, and then let me read it. As long as it didn’t lead to prolonged discussions of commas, punctuated (ha!) with claims that “that’s what the nuns told me to do,” I think that reading novels written by family members would be wonderful.

In honor of NaNoWriMo’en, here are a few suggestions to get you going:

1. Go to the NaNo website and create a profile for yourself. This will provide untold hours of procrastination and happy distraction if (when) you need it. Also, you’ll get lovely encouraging emails from Chris Baty and others.

2. Choose the names of your characters before midnight tonight. That will keep you from wasting precious November minutes playing on the Social Security Baby Names website. (I’m one of 108 Mollys born in Wisconsin in 1980! Neat! We should have a party!)

3. Brainstorm possible settings, conflicts, situations, and random other characters that you can throw into your novel when you get stuck. Keep a list – flowchart – pictograph – whatever – near your writing place. If all else fails, make your main character fight some ninjas. This, I believe, is the most commonly-used plot problem solver in NaNoWriMo. I bet even Water for Elephants had some ninjas in its first draft.

4. Make yourself a goal calendar, charting out your target wordcount for each day of the month (or, if you’d rather, for key days: Nov 3 = 10%, Nov 10 = 33%, Nov 15 = 50%). This way, when you have 25,000 words written on November 18, you’ll know at a glance that you just need to write 5,008 words to catch up. Easy!

5. Plan to write a thinly-disguised memoir. If it worked for F. Scott Fitzgerald, it can work for you!

6. Write with other people. The NaNoWriMo website can hook you up with other people in your town who are writing. Even the tiniest town can have a NaNo write in. I had one when I lived in Tijeras, NM, population 501. Granted there were only three of us, but it was really great.

7. Have FUN. Amuse yourself. Write funny scenes, put your character in impossible situations and watch him work his way out, write vengeful portraits of people who have wronged you, complete with descriptions of their awful personalities and flawed bodies. Re-imagine scenes from your own life where the character does exactly the opposite of what you did. Send her to the moon. Go crazy!

8. Write! Turn off the TV, disconnect from the internet, turn off your phone. Write! Don’t worry if it sucks, don’t worry if it doesn’t even make sense, just write! Go forth and make words! Write write write!

Happy writing! And remember: VICTORY WAITS ON YOUR FINGERS!

30 October 2007

Should Writers Watch TV?

Yesterday, someone called me and said, “This is Arthur from Dish Network, and I’m calling as a follow up to see how your service has been.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “You must have the wrong number.”
“Oh.” He paused, and kind of laughed. “Well… do you need a satellite dish?”
“No, sorry,” I said. “I don’t even have a TV.”
“You… what?” he asked. “WHY NOT??

Whenever I get asked this – not a lot, but enough – I get embarrassed. I don’t want to come off as self-righteous or pretentious; I’m not a card-carrying TV atheist. I love my cell phone and I have a deeply meaningful relationship with my laptop. I just… don’t have a TV. I never have. Of course, I’ve lived in houses with TVs, grew up with TVs, am not opposed to watching TV when it’s convenient, but I’ve never personally owned a TV, and I really see no need to in the future. (When I moved to Chicago, my father practically begged me to let him give us one of his extra TVs. He didn’t understand how I could be okay without one. I love him and I generally let him give me trinkets that he thinks will improve my life, over the door hangers and night lights and rubber bands, but I wouldn’t take the TV.)

Yesterday, Laurie Halse Anderson posted a blog entry about TV. Specifically, she says that writers should turn off the television.

“Some people see their television and movie-watching as a critical part of becoming better writers. They feel that the exposure to Story structure (Plot A, Plot B, Plot C, character arcs intersecting, etc.) that they get out of watching well-written shows helps their writing. I've had folks argue with me that they must watch TV to write books and write them well enough to be published.”

She goes on to say that she disagrees with this, that the only way to become a better writer is to read books. (I would add: and to write!)

On one hand, this is pretty straightforward, good advice. I don’t know about you, but TV really makes me dumb. For me, TV has always been a sort of pacifier, something to soothe me, to shut out the world, and keep me from thinking too hard. Kurt Vonnegut said, “What passes for culture in my head is really a bunch of commercials.” Last year, I lived in a house with like six TVs (though only three or four of them actually worked) and I found myself engaged in such noble pursuits as rushing home to catch two full episodes of “Kate and Ally” and hotly debating which team had a better chance to become the Ultimate Coyote Ugly Girls. I really wasn’t writing much at all.

So yeah, absolutely. Turn off the TV, sell it on Craigslist, chuck it out the window.

But. I must say, in the sake of fairness, that the person who taught me how to plot was an avid TV watcher. He claimed to have learned everything he knew about plot from watching tons of TV as a teenager and young adult. Granted, this person was the kind of freaky genius who learned from nearly every experience, and who was reading Nietzche at fourteen, so maybe he’s the exception to the rule. I know also that he’d read some “How to Write Your Screenplay” books before we worked together, and maybe reading them taught him more about plot than watching TV did, but he always credited his understanding of plot to watching TV. (Of course you don’t need TV to learn about plot. When I think of plot, I think of Romeo & Juliet. Its tragedy is its inevitability.)

On the other hand, Mr. I-Learned-Plot-From-TV’s characterization skills were a lot weaker, which perhaps supports Laurie Halse Anderson’s claims after all:

I see a consistent weakness in the writing of young people and writers who don't read much. They fumble with narrative description. They are great at dialog and they often get the bones of their story laid out well. But the actual description of scene action, setting, the observation of small details which reflect the emotional journey of the character - all that stuff is not up to snuff.

Her observations are consistent with what I’ve seen of young writers, as well. However, N. and I were just talking about how some shows are all character and relationship, with very little plot. That one Cosby episode where there’s a snake in the basement? All character, and it’s absolutely charming. What makes it sparkle is watching each well-drawn character react to the problem of a snake in the basement. The analytical watcher could learn about character from a show like that, but you could probably learn just as much by watching your family talk to one another over dinner.

Then there’s the question of culture. TV saturates our culture. It’s in the doctor’s offices, the restaurants, the salons…. “To tivo” is a common verb. Sweeps week passes for news in even the most legitimate newspapers. Sometimes I wonder if what we call culture isn’t being replaced by what TV writers call culture. As a writer, it’s your job to stand apart, witness the world, and then tell about it. Can you tell the truth about our culture if you don’t watch TV? Are you too far outside without one?

The moral of the story is… I guess I don’t know. I’m a little surprised that I’m debating this with myself at all, when a few years ago I would have said,
absolutely, get rid of your TV if you want to be a writer. Read more books and write more stories and stop watching the antics of those wacky Keatons. But now…maybe I’ve just lost the militant certainty of youth, or maybe I’m just loathe to be prescriptive in anything when my own life is so up in the air. Maybe I still haven’t gotten over that one commercial where the sad TVs look to the sky. (What passes for culture…)

What do you think? Kill the TV or learn from it? Study dialogue and character on your favorite shows, or on the bus ride home? Watch to join the culture, or turn it off to tell?

29 October 2007

Monday Mélange


First of all, and most importantly, I met this dog over the weekend. If we’d been living in a pets-okay place, this dog would now be a part of my family. You probably know that I fall all over most dogs I meet, but this dog was special. She has SUCH a sweet personality, and seemed very person-oriented, which is especially amazing considering she was recently rescued from a neglect situation. She recently had a litter of puppies, hence the saggy nips, and she's such a sweetheart that NewLeash made an exception to their no-pit-puppies rule, assuming that the babies would be as even tempered as the mama. Also, she has very soft fur and a big broad pumpkin face, and when I saw her she gave me some kisses in my palm.

Please, someone go adopt this dog, and call me when you do so I can come over to your house and pet her pretty pumpkin head every day.

In other news, Saturday’s “Bittersweet Brood” sparked some interesting follow-up conversation, which you can read here and here. Regardless of your personal feelings about the increasing “populism of the arts,” and whether it will serve to unite or isolate us, it does seem that there will always be interest in the process of writing and the mind, habits, and lives of writers, even if we don’t actually want to do the work of writing ourselves. Look for another conversation with Sarah next Saturday.

Speaking of the process of writing, I recently re-read two books on the subject, Betsy Lerner’s The Forest for the Trees and Stephen King’s On Writing. Interestingly, I found Lerner’s book more useful than I did the first time I read it, in 2002; I remember getting stuck on a paragraph that talked about people growing out of writing after college, and having a little meltdown. (“Most people, even those who wrote as children or showed promise as teens, usually give up shortly after college. Writing, like drugs and recreational sex, becomes an activity associated with youth.”) Yikes! I had just graduated from college – was I going to give up writing? I realized, for the first time, that writing was something I could lose, could walk away from, could let go. Until that point I’d congratulated myself on every journal filled, every writing anniversary passed, thinking that after some number of pages or years I would be a writer forever. I’d been writing for five years, seven years, filled 20 journals, 27, 30….but I had played the violin for ten years and walked away from it. What was to say I wouldn’t do the same with writing?

That existential crisis soured the book for me then. Re-reading it now, I found it to be interesting and illuminating. Lerner spent years as an editor, and writes at length about the editor-author relationship as well as the business of publishing, two subjects that are very mysterious to the outsider.

King’s book, on the other hand, while a quick and fun read, was less useful to me this time around. His advice tends toward the “Use straightforward dialogue tags, don’t use too many adjectives, kill your darlings” kind, which though very useful for beginners, isn’t too interesting to me now. The book itself is entertaining for the personal anecdotes and language alone, and at the end he talks about the accident that nearly killed him. Read it as sort of a memoir with some tips for rookie writers, but if you already know not to over-use stupid dialogue tags, don’t expect it to revolutionize your writing life.

And finally… the lovely and talented Miss Elodie has joined the ranks of the walking. According to her mother, Elodie can take eight whole steps before she falls on her head. Congratulations, Elodie! And enjoy this period of your life when the simplest achievements earn you fabulous praise. Nobody congratulates you on walking when you’re almost thirty. Though if you ask for them, you can sometimes still get complements on your socks.

27 October 2007

Bittersweet Brood: Conversations with Sarah

I wanted to interview writer (and fellow Grinnellian) Sarah Aswell on my blog. When I proposed it to her, she said, Why don't we have a conversation? That might be interesting.

So we did. And it was. In fact, it was so interesting that we decided to create a weekly feature: Bittersweet Brood. Each week you'll find half the conversation here, and half on Sarah's site. Enjoy!

Bittersweet Brood: On Writing

Sarah, you recently started a blog, BROOD, which, with its recipes, Cat on a Diet feature, book, music, and film reviews, and Sarah v. Spears Success Tracker, defies easy categorization. How have you navigated the strange territory between the public and private spheres? How do you write about your personal life for public consumption?

Sarah: In graduate school, I experimented a lot with non-fiction genre-bending. This was after reading Geoff Dyer's undefinable Out of Sheer Rage, a book about a book he never wrote about D.H. Lawrence. Around this time, I was very torn about which genre I belonged in -- did I like personal essays or the bigger, more universal issues? And Dyer's book was a wake-up call: writing an honest, interesting non-fiction article without the personal stuff is near impossible. There will always be personal bias, so why not share it with your audience and have fun with it? If I'm in a bad mood when I review an album, you'll hear about it. If I post a recipe, it won't just be how to make something -- there will be history and anecdote (and mistakes) mixed in.

So -- I try to swirl public issues and my private life all the time. Sure, you read over and over again not to write about your cat or your boyfriend. But my cat Ripley helps me write about pet health, and my boyfriend helps me write about love and relationships. The mistake is in not making your personal experience universal or current. I hesitated a bit before posting Kinds of Missing because it was so personal, but the email response I got was huge and very touching -- since the idea of what it means to miss someone was central and everyone has experienced that feeling, the essay had legs.

I also find that using traditional fiction writing techniques makes personal non-fiction a lot more interesting to read. Molly -- you also write both fiction and non-fiction. How are these processes different for you and how are they the same? Does one affect the other?

Molly: For me, fiction and non-fiction overlap a great deal. Like you, I find it both uninteresting and nearly impossible to write straight, unbiased non-fiction, and over the years I’ve been encouraged not to. Jackie Stolze, the editor at Grinnell Magazine, would tell me, “Don’t write an article about graduation, write me about Molly Backes at graduation.” And then she’d pay me to do it.

Of course, as any writer knows, the second you commit something to the page, it becomes a sort of fiction, regardless of how hard you try to stay true to what really happened. You have personal bias, discrepancies in memory and perception, and as a story teller you’re always making choices about what to include or not include, what to emphasize and what to ignore. As a fiction writer, I think I’m more guilty of this than most, because I tend to believe that sometimes fiction tells the truth in a way that non-fiction can’t. And I’m generally willing to exaggerate and withhold for the sake of the story. I call it “fictional license,” my dad calls it “the gift of Blarney,” and my best friend calls it “lying.”

On the other hand, I think the best fiction contains a large amount of truth. As a writer, you’re trying to capture some essential truth about what it means to be a human, even if you have to tell a story about robots and moon rockets to do so. One of the most gratifying responses to a story is: “Yes, that’s exactly how it is!”


Read Part Two

26 October 2007

The Only Clinton I Ever Wanted To Smooch

I must admit, I have always felt a fondness for the Clintons. Chelsea Clinton, born February 27, is just a few weeks older than me. We were both 12 in the 1992 election. Unlike Chelsea, I was lucky enough to suffer the early onset of adolescence out of the public eye. Chelsea was named after a Joni Mitchell song; I was named after a pre-natal macrobiotic vision my hippie social worker mother had. Bill Clinton seemed like someone who might have been friends with my parents in college. I could imagine them sitting around some grungy dorm basement, Bill with his sax and my mother with her hammered dulcimer, laughing and talking and definitely inhaling. Hillary Clinton reminded me of my stepmother, because they’re the same age and they’re both lawyers and they had very similar hairstyles through most of the 90s.

I’ve spent fifteen years with the Clintons, and they always felt kind of like my family, only richer and more highly scrutinized. I was totally willing to forgive Bill his transgressions, just as I forgave my own good old Dad for all the times he forgot to pick me up or embarrassed me or whatever. You know dads – they’re nice guys but they mess up sometimes. All the accusations of Hillary being too tough, too unfeminine, a ball buster, whatever – that was cool, she was just a strong, powerful woman like my mom. I respect women who can bust some balls. And Chelsea? I forgave her any number of weird hair days and gross outfits, with the desperate hope that the world would forgive me my own.

But. There is one place in which those Clintons deviate significantly from my own family, and it is perhaps the one thing I absolutely cannot forgive them for: the Clintons suck at keeping pets.

You won’t be surprised to know that my all-time favorite Clinton, even more than coke-snorting Sabrina The Teenage Witch guest-starring Roger Jr., was Buddy Clinton.

Oh Buddy, you were the one Clinton for whom I had nothing to overlook. You were by far the snuggliest Clinton, and the most faithful. You were the only Clinton I ever wanted to smooch on the face. You were a million times better than Lyndon Johnson’s weird dog Yuki, and so much sweeter than Caroline Kennedy’s pony. Who wants a pony? I just wanted you, Buddy, you little scrapper.

Sadly, Buddy only lived a few short years before he was killed. The Clintons let him run loose and he was hit by a car. Unforgivable. AND, Clintons, Buddy was the SECOND dog you lost in the EXACT SAME WAY. Didn’t Zeke teach you a lesson, Clintons? How could you let Buddy go in the very same, tragically predictable, way??


And THEN. To add insult to injury, Clintons, to add abandonment to death, you DUMPED SOCKS. You gave him to Betty Currie! You can’t just give a family member away, Clintons! Don't you know that it’s a crime in Hollywood?

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, Clintons, to lose one pet may be regarded as misfortune. Losing two is carelessness. And losing THREE? Clintons, I love you, but you’re out of the family.

25 October 2007

NaNoWriMo!



There’s only one week left in October, and we all know what that means: one week until National Novel Writing Month, or as I like to call it, “National One Month Out of the Year When Your Friends Are Actually Interested in Questions of Plot & Characterization & Setting & Wordcount & Care About The Progress You’re Making On Your Novel,” or “NaOnMoOuYeWheYoFriArAcInQuePloCha SetWorCaAbTheProYoMaOnYoNo.”

NaNoWriMo is easier to say.

National Novel Writing Month is based on the premise that everyone wants to be a novelist, but not, you know, all the time. Just sometimes. Being a novelist all the time is a total pain in the ass, especially given the eleven months out of the year when your friends are NOT actually interested in questions of plot & characterization & setting & wordcount & don’t actually care about the progress you’re making on your novel. It’s waaaaay more fun to be a novelist when all your friends are, too, and everyone has her own little page on the NaNoWriMo site that keeps track of wordcounts, where you can see how many words your best friend has written and make sure you write that many PLUS TEN for the day so that you can prove, once again, that you are better.

Writing a novel in a month is like running a marathon. (Or so I assume. You will never find this girl on a marathon course, I will tell you that much, unless it’s one of those hilarious romantic comedy moments where through a series of bizarre and unforseen hijinks I suddenly find myself in the middle of a sea of smelly runners, all of whom are conspiring to keep me from achieving whatever goal it is I’m after.) People probably run marathons to prove something to themselves, something about dedication and persistence and strength and achievement. They do it so they can say “I ran a marathon!” which is something that no one can ever take away from you. They do it for the sheer adrenaline and the camaraderie and the feeling of being a part of something bigger than themselves, something global and epic and amazing.

And that’s why we NaNo.


My best NaNoWriMo was 2005, when I had a bunch of 7th and 8th graders writing novels with me. In October, we all voted on whether or not to take on this crazy project, and almost everyone voted yes. I promised them that for the entire month of November, they wouldn’t have to do anything in class but work on their novels. I worked on mine, too. All month we talked about characterization, plot, setting, structure, timing, tense, point-of-view, rising action, climax, dialogue…all the boring stuff you have to learn about in English class, but for one month it ACTUALLY MATTERED to the kids, because as they learned, it’s helpful to know story elements when you’re writing a story. When they got stuck, we talked about plot twists and dream sequences and new conflicts and ninjas. When I got stuck, I looked up from the student desk where I was writing and asked them for help. “Maybe one of your characters should write a letter!” “No, you should add dialogue!” “Dream sequence!” “Ms. Backes, do you really need help, or are you procrastinating? Get back to work!”

At the end of the month, I had 135 novelists. Together we had written over one million words. It was awesome. We even got written up in Weekly Reader Magazine.

Last year, I wasn’t allowed to do NaNoWriMo with my students because it wouldn’t help them perform on the standardized tests they had to take in January, February, and April. It probably would have made them better readers and writers, better able to engage with a text due to their deeper understanding of the choices an author makes, more critical, more thoughtful, and more creative. It probably would have helped their self-esteem and strengthened their ties to school, would have helped them to see themselves as active co-constructors of knowledge rather than passive receivers…but no, it probably wouldn’t have helped them bubble in their standardized tests.

Not that I’m bitter.

This year, I’m going to deviate from the rules a little (some would say “cheat”) and work on a book that’s already been started. It’s a re-write of my 2005 NaNo novel, which was really quite awful. Let’s hope the re-write goes better. Technically you’re supposed to start on page one at the beginning of the month, but as Jill said last night, “If I’m going to write 50,000 words, they’ll be for the novel I’m already working on!” But I won’t count any of the words I wrote before November 1, because that would be cheating for real.


Friends, you have a week to prepare yourself for this challenge! Use it to get extra sleep and clean the house, because you won’t have time for petty chores when you’re trying to hit your 1,667 words a day. Sign up on the NaNoWriMo website. Add me to your friend list!

If you’re in Chicago, there’s a kickoff party this Saturday night, October 27, from 4-7 pm.

And, speaking of parties on Saturday, Gary Paulsen will be at the Harold Washington Library Saturday morning at 10:30 am to accept the Chicago Tribune Young Adult fiction prize. Gary Paulsen, author of books like Hatchet, has the life I dreamed of in third grade: he writes books and he mushes the Iditarod. BOTH. Also, he wrote one of the best memoirs ever, My Life in Dog Years, which made me cry like a third grader. It’s a great read.

And finally, a shout out to fellow NaNoWriMo novelist Sara Gruen, who has written several best selling NaNoWriMo novels. So… it can be done.

Which reminds me of yet another reason to do NaNoWriMo: you can say things like "fellow NaNo novelist Sara Gruen." That alone should justify a month of crazy deadlines and flimsy plots.

Good luck!

24 October 2007

I Hate Loathe Detest Revision



I really hate revising. I know I'm not supposed to admit this. As an English teacher, I always pretended to love revising. Actually, as an English teacher, I did love revising, but only when the kids did it. Offering suggestions for revision, and then watching someone else revise, can be an absolute joy. You get to be a kind of midwife for their work, helping to turn and shift it so that it comes into the world fully formed and lovely.

If the editor is like the midwife, speaking in soft, encouraging words and dressed in muted earthtones, it follows that the writer is the one giving birth, screaming and sweaty and begging for drugs.

I really, really hate hearing authors rhapsodize about the joys of revision. I mean, if you loooooove revision, that's great, but please acknowledge the fact that it is HARD and it is WORK, so that those of us who don't sit down with our magic pens and zen-like appreciation for every task don't feel completely inadequate. Revision can be tricky, intricate work, like brain surgery, where you attempt to fix the things that aren't working without hurting the things that are. Revision means thinking analytically about all the tiny, subtle details that make you a terrible writer. Revision means facing the gaping plot holes, the sloppy characterization, the confusing time frame and setting, and embarrassingly awkward phrasing of your first draft. And you call yourself a writer? Were you DRUNK when you wrote this?

Of course, the awfulness of revision is nothing compared to the horror of seeing your humiliating first draft actually published. And maybe that's why authors profess to looooooooove revision so much. It's HARD and it's WORK, but it sure beats public humiliation.

23 October 2007

Babies are the new Gen X

Recently, one of my best friends from college had a baby, so: Congratulations, Cam & Sarah! I can’t wait to tell little Jack about how I was the first person who ever got his daddy drunk.


A week later, my awesome little niece Elodie celebrated her first birthday, so: Happy Birthday, Critter! In a few years, I’ll tell you all about how your mommy and daddy took me to a Drag Show at the Gay ‘90s and got me drunk.

Driving up to Wisconsin last weekend, I suddenly realized: Oh my gosh, Elodie and Jack could go to college together! N. wasn’t impressed. By now she’s more than used to me announcing mundane facts in revelatory tones. Yep, she said, they sure could.

Okay, I said, I understand that what I’m saying isn’t actually that interesting on the surface. Two babies could grow up to go to college together? Well, who couldn’t? Anyone can go to college anytime in their adulthood, so technically, Elodie and Jack could also go to college with me, if for some reason I feel the need to go back to college sometime in the mid 2020s.

The point is – Elodie and Jack, ages one year and one week, respectively – belong to the same world. And we, their parents and the friends and siblings of their parents, do not.

Each generation grows up in its own world. My generation, born in the late 1970s and early 1980s, is maybe the tail end of Gen X, maybe the MTV generation, or possibly the beginning of Gen Y. We used to be cool. Time magazine put us on the cover. Corporate America targeted us as their ideal market. No matter. In the eyes of Elodie and Jack, we’ll be as uncool and uninteresting as the fogey Baby Boomers were to us. It’s humbling, really, knowing that no matter what you do, there is one little person on the planet who will never think you’re cool.

We had four generations at Elodie’s party. Maybe four and a half, depending on how you count them. Elodie, in the baby generation; her parents and aunts, born in the 70s and 80s; her grandparents and great-aunts and great-uncles, born in the 40s, 50s, and 60s; and her great-grandmother and great-great-aunt, born in the 20s. Over brunch, E’s great-uncle and I laughed at great-grandma’s stories about her childhood and her father’s childhood, in which Halloween was “more tricks than treats!” She told us that she’d gotten in trouble with the police one Halloween when they found her soaping her father’s store-front windows. Her punishment? Cleaning the windows. This was probably in the early 1930s. Her father – Elodie’s great-great-great grandfather – had played a prank where he and a friend dropped an effigy from the roof of the theatre and let it swing as the audience was leaving a spooky show. “Some of the ladies were fainting from shock!” This must have been around the turn of the century; his pranks led to his enrollment in a military academy.


Everyone at the table – everyone over the age of 18, at least – laughed at these old stories. Partially because they don’t match up with our sedate imaginings of the olden times, and partially because Helene, in her 80s, was so funny in the telling. It’s hard to imagine a time when Helene was the baby generation. It’s equally hard to imagine a time when Elodie’s parents and I will be the great-grandparent generation.

Elodie and Jack will grow up in a world where we, their parents and aunts and parents’ friends, will always be adults. Maybe they’ll realize, in the mid 2020s, that their parents are people. Maybe in the late 2020s they’ll realize that their parents weren’t all that different, in their youth, than they are.


Maybe they’ll start drawing parallels between their own lives and the lives of their parents. Maybe… and this is a big maybe… they’ll even decide, retroactively, that we were cool too, in our late 20s and early 30s. Maybe they’ll even think that we all could have been friends, if we had been born in the same world.



But probably not.

22 October 2007

Sexy Halloween

J: So… what’s everyone going as for Halloween?
A: I’m going as Sexy Zebra!
Me: I’m thinking about going as Sexy AIDS victim.
Everyone: ….
C: Are you actually going to get AIDS? Because I know a guy….

Years ago, my sister and I started a competition to see who could come up with the most inappropriate “Sexy” costume, in reaction to the “Only night you can dress like a slut and not be judged by other women” phenomenon of Halloween in Girllandia. Before I moved to New Mexico, the only first-hand experience I’d had with Sexy Halloween involved accidentally walking into a party/fight where all the girls were mad at each other because they had decided to go as Hooters girls for Halloween but then Group A had gone out and gotten their Hooters tee-shirts without Group B, who then retaliated by going out and getting Hooters *tank-tops,* which were sluttier and therefore better, and in the end all the Hooters girls were mad at each other. Ali and I managed to log about five minutes at that joyous occasion before heading back to my dorm room where we drank a handle of rum and played Drunk Super MASH, a college twist on an old favorite.

At Grinnell, we valued cleverness over sexiness. People dressed as showers, as a menstrual cycle, as Zelda Fitzgerald, as Eve (naked, but not Sexy Naked….weird naked), as “myself in 10 years when I sell out to Corporate America.” It wasn’t until I left that little bubble and went into the real world that I encountered Sexy Halloween in all its absurdity.

A few minutes after my sister and I started one-upping each other with Sexy Inappropriate costumes, my then-roommate walked into my room to show me her costume: extremely high heels, a tiny miniskirt, a baby-tee, and a black eye. “Ta-daaaa! Do you like my costume?”
“What are you going as?” I asked. “Sexy Domestic Violence Victim?”
She seemed slightly offended. “No! Mischievous tomboy!”
“In those heels?”
“I wanted to be a Sorceress,” she said. “I have an awesome velvet cape. But… it’s not sexy enough.”

Really? The ironic thing was that this same girl had JUST been talking with me about the silliness of Sexy Halloween earlier that day! How can you laugh about it and then – not an HOUR later – buy into it? How can you stand there and tell me you’re a feminist and then not wear the velvet cape you want to wear because “As a girl, you have to be sexy!”



When did the Halloween sea change occur? When did we shift from being cute and even scary to sexy? I clearly never got the memo – I went from being “Old Man” (complete with wite-out in my eyebrows that didn’t come out until Thanksgiving, thanks Mom!) in 1993 to “Social Construction” in 2000 without much in-between. Maybe there was a day in high school where they pulled all the girls into the health teacher’s room and said, “Now that you’re seventeen, you must apply this adjective to every costume you wear….” And when does it end? Do we get to stop being sexy after we get married? Have kids? Is sexy an obligation or a privilege?

There was a good discussion over at BROOD about the sociological implications of Sexy Halloween (healthy expression of female sexuality? Reclamation of stereotypical gender roles? Power dynamics in a gendered hegemony?)

Myself, I’m planning to go as the grown-up version of this baby:




…but sexy.

20 October 2007

My best friend, my worst enemy.

I was nineteen when I realized my mother was a person. It was an October afternoon, and my friend Tori and I were driving back from Marshalltown to Grinnell. Tori adored my mother, and wanted to know everything about her. As I answered, something shifted in my mind, like the slight click of a camera coming into focus. I looked out the passenger window to a brick red barn standing against a gray sky and a field of golden corn, and realized that my mother was an actual human being, with feelings and thoughts and an inner world of her own.

“You know,” I said, “I probably broke her heart every time I told her I hated her.”
Tori laughed. “I should say so.”
“No,” I said. “I mean it. I never realized it before. I probably shattered her a thousand times in middle school and high school, and I never even knew.”

Maybe it seems stupid or blind on my part, not realizing that my mother was a person, but I suppose it had something to do with the fact that – for a time, at least – she and I were the same person. It takes a while, they say, for babies to realize that their mothers aren’t extensions of their own bodies. Once I did, my mother became something of a deity in my life, all-knowing and all-controlling. In kindergarten, I had two shocking revelations: one, my mother didn’t know everything. She told me one morning that I wouldn’t need a jacket, and it rained on me. It was the first time I had ever seen her be wrong, about anything. Two, the Challenger burst into flames against a clear blue sky, and the pretty teacher we all loved was killed. It was the first time I realized my mother couldn’t make everything better.

In my teen years she was my sometimes confidante, often jailer, my chauffeur, my personal secretary, my caretaker, my chef, my conscious, my fan…. Rarely my friend, only because I was a teenaged girl and she was my mother. She gave me good advice and I ignored it or willfully went against it. She offered her opinions and I sulked and cried and yelled. She worked overtime to give me every opportunity, and I rolled my eyes. I blew her off, disobeyed her, lied to her, fought with her. (And I was the good daughter!) In my angsty teenaged self’s defense, I truly did not understand how the things I said or did could possibly upset her. I thought she was somehow above the slings and arrows of my stupid teenager self. I thought her impervious, impenetrable.

This is not an “oh my poor sainted mother” story. She was not perfect. She was not a saint. She worked hard and she did a very good job, but she had her faults. Like any human relationship, ours was a constant give and take, a struggle of wills, a clashing and melding of hearts. We disappointed and delighted each other, we loved and hated each other. We still do, though with time our relationship has mellowed from the tempest of my teen years into something that looks a lot like a friendship.

What she may not have known – may not know, still – is that ultimately, hers is the only opinion that matters. Her praises can protect me from a world of criticism – and her criticisms, oooh. They hurt. Her criticisms I carry with me for years.

I’ve been lucky enough to find a hundred other mothers in my life, women who have guided and loved and even scolded me. One of them, a woman I absolutely adore, told me once, “I’m as proud of you as I would be of a daughter. Maybe more, because your parents have all kinds of expectations on you, and I just want you to be happy.” Yes. True true true. But while her support bolstered and warmed me, and I loved her for it, the only person whose opinion truly mattered to me was, of course, my all-powerful Mother.

What is it about our mothers? Most women seem to have similar tales about their mothers. We keep each criticism on a chain in our minds, picking through them like rosary beads. Intellectually we know that they are flawed, that their opinions aren’t always correct, that they sometimes speak from anger or crankiness. We know that sometimes they’re wrong. We know that sometimes they’re not perfect. We must know, on some level, that our mothers are just people, just women, like us.

And yet… and yet….

My mother, mysterious, critical, smart, secretive, over-worked, strong, lovely, still makes me crazy, still pisses me off, still breaks my heart with every criticism, no matter how tiny.

This morning I woke up to a text from her: Don’t stop at Culvers! I’m making dinner! And I thought, Oh, my sainted mother.

Still has the power to make everything better.

19 October 2007

Nothing is Simple!

Jennie and I are no longer friends.



Recently, she referred to this book As Simple As Snow by Gregory Galloway as "the book that totally ruined Looking for Alaska" for her. I was intrigued. Ruined Alaska, you say? How is such a thing possible, unless As Simple As Snow was actually the best book ever written. I tried to imagine such a book. Was it written in words of pure gold, written by Jesus himself?

I had to find out for myself. I hunted it down through Chicago Public Library's (sadly inadequate) website, and then I hunted it down again in the stacks of the Bucktown branch, where it was shelved with the adult fiction. I settled down in one of the big comfy chairs on the second floor, overlooking the blinking lights of Milwaukee through rain-spattered windows, and began to read it. I picked it up again on the bus this morning, and again over lunch. I couldn't figure out how I felt about it. I couldn't tell if I liked it or not. Reading it, I was reminded of seeing Ghost World years ago; I didn't know if I liked the movie until weeks later.

"Is it good?" one of my co-workers asked, watching me read.
"I don't know," I said. "I won't know until it's finished. It depends on the payoff."

I finished it just after I got home tonight.

It is similar to Looking for Alaska, I will grant it that.
It has an interesting, spooky -- even haunting -- tone, I will grant it that.
The characters are interesting and often surprising, I will grant it that.
For a book, it has excellent taste in music and art, I will grant it that.

But... it is a PUZZLE! I HATE puzzles! I have no patience for them at all.

I know, as an intelligent and creative and inquisitive person, I should love puzzles, but I don't. I cheat on crosswords, even the easy ones. I abandon Sudoku squares if I can't fill them all in under thirty minutes. I despised WEFFRIDDLES even though I made it through fifty some levels.

At some point, I just want to KNOW.

After reading As Simple As Snow, I spent about a half-hour searching the web for clues about the book. I solved the Houdini code, had a moment of satisfaction, and then realized that I still wanted more answers. Maddening!

I think this would be a wonderful book to read with a bunch of people (especially if they could solve the riddles and clues and just tell me the answers!), but as I'm alone with my head cold, I'm just annoyed. I could be wise about it, could tell myself something about how life doesn't come with easy answers, Molly, and the pleasure is in the journey, not the destination.... I could give the book credit for making me think, for getting under my skin, for making me feel something.... but all I really want to do is find someone to give me the easy answers, now, so I can go to bed. Damn you, Jennie! Pray-now pray-tell speak pray-quickly pray asnwer-be quick look answer-be quick answer-pray now tell!


This is what I know happened, or think happened. I fell in love with a girl, and then she left, and later she tried to come back, or I thought she did, and I went after her. It should have been simple but in the end it could not have been more complicated, and maybe that was the whole point to begin with, but if love is true and still leaves you lonely, what good does it do? I started going over everything again, thinking I might find a way to her, wherever she was, or at least figure out what to do with all the things she left behind.....

Getting Out of the Labyrinth

Books! I love them. I love to read them, love to own them, love to talk about them. I love to lend them to people, to recommend them, to read them with big classes and small groups. I loooooooove to discover new books and new authors. I’m a total book nerd. I’m *especially* nerdy when it comes to YA books and authors.

So… at least once a week, I will offer book suggestions here, with an obvious bias toward YA books. I will not write clever summaries or synopses of books, because you can find much cleverer summaries and synopses on Amazon. I’ll just be talking about why I like them, and why they’re wonderful, and why you should read them.

Starting with my future BFF John Green’s book, Looking for Alaska.



Twice in my life have I finished a book only to turn back to page one and begin reading again, D.C. al Fine. The first time was Looking for Alaska, a book that startled and enchanted me from the very first page.

The protagonist of the novel, Miles “Pudge” Halter is smart, and the friends he makes at his new school are smart. Smart funny, smart quirky, smart sexy, smart weird, but all smart. Too often I think that adults in general, and adults writing for teenagers specifically, underestimate teenage intelligence, or assume that teenagers are the shallow, blind consumers the marketing industry takes them to be. Of course there are shallow teenagers, of course there are completely uninteresting beer-can crushing conformist idiot teenagers. We all went to high school with those guys. But! The best teenagers, the funniest and most entertaining and most interesting (in my clearly biased opinion, at least) are the smart ones and the weird ones. The kids in Looking for Alaska are both.

Miles Halter grapples with the usual teenaged questions (the usual human questions), questions of sex and love, religion, spirituality, death, friendship, and loss, and he does it with the lovely blend of awkwardness and earnestness that is – in my experience, at least – the hallmark of kids who have read a great deal but haven’t lived much at all.

Of course, some people think that it’s HARD CORE PORNOGRAPHY, but don’t take their word for it.

The novel is structured in two parts: before, and after. The first half of the book counts down to the central, tragic moment – one-hundred eight days before, thirty-seven days before – and the second half counts away from it, mirroring our culture’s construction of time. (Our calendar divides time into Befores and Afters, as does our president, who turned the After into a era of his own making, justification for pretty much anything.) Along these lines, one of the central questions of the novel is How are we changed by the moment big enough, tragic enough, that it cleaves time into Before and After? How do we live with ourselves in the era of After?
It all sounds very abstract, I know, but Looking For Alaska manages to pose these questions while telling a funny, smart, sweet, and very human story.


Later, I walked toward the dorm circle beside Alaska. The cicadas hummed their one-note song, just as they had at home in Florida. She turned to me as we made our way through the darkness and said, "When you're walking at night, do you ever get creeped out and even though it's silly and embarrassing you just want to run home?"

It seemed too secret and personal to admit to a virtual stranger, but I told her, "Yeah, totally."

For a moment, she was quiet. Then she grabbed my hand, whispered, "Run run run run run," and took off, pulling me behind her.

18 October 2007

Homesick Road

It was a gray, melancholy morning. On the bus to work, I leaned my head against the glass and watched the streets pass, arced in autumn leaves and reflecting the lights in the wet streets. Across the aisle from me, a teenaged boy idly played with his lighter, sending a flame shooting higher and higher up the back of the seat before him, and a part of me hoped the bus would catch on fire, just for the glow of the orange flames against the wet cement.

Mornings like this always make me nostalgic. (Of course, what doesn’t?) Autumn makes me homesick, even now that I’m back in the Midwest. I get wistful, for Madison, for Grinnell, for Iowa….

Much of the time I say I’m homesick for Iowa, I actually mean the drive between Grinnell and Madison, one that I drove a million times between 1997 and 2003. I miss, with a physical ache that tugs at my chest like a lost lover or friend, the first turn on to 151 near Verona, the highway cut through rock as it sweeps through farmland, the lovely winding hills between Platteville and Dickeyville, the broad expanse of the Mississippi, the quiet towns of Monticello and Anamosa, the curve of Highway 6 around Homestead….

I don't know why this is. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that every time I drove on that road, in either direction, I was on my way home. Perhaps it has to do with the least complicated version of home, and the most ideal: the promise of home, rather than the fact, whether it meant escaping the stresses of Grinnell or escaping the confines of my family, whether it meant running to my mother's cozy, comfortable house or to my dearest friends and our cozy, comfortable life. Perhaps it is because I almost always drove it alone, and in that four hour stretch had plenty of time just to be by myself, listening to my mix tapes and doing math in my head and processing whatever dramas were ongoing in my life at the moment. I planned stories and untangled paper topics and replayed lectures and analyzed every word my crush and I had exchanged at the most recent gardner show or meth house party. I listened to countless hours of National Public Radio and stopped for crappy gas station coffee and oatmeal cream pies. I watched for wildlife, saw deer and wild turkeys and raccoons and red-tailed hawks. I drove past cats slinking through the tall grasses on the sides of the highway, cows moseying along the hillsides, people on horses riding parallel to the cars.

When my grandfather died, I left Grinnell but didn’t get far before I literally had to pull the car over to the side of the road because I was crying too hard to drive. It was a spitty gray day. I put my head down on the steering wheel and wept. When I looked up, there was a red-tailed hawk sitting on a fencepost a few yards from my car. It seemed to me a symbol, a message from the world, if you will, that everything would be okay. (This is a long-held item in my personal mythology, that seeing a red-tailed hawk means that things will be Okay. Later, when I told this story to someone with whom I was terribly in love, he picked it apart and made fun of me for my magical thinking. Um… don’t do that. It doesn’t help anyone to ridicule personal myths.) Anyway, the sight of this red-tailed hawk helped me pull myself together and get back on the road. For the rest of the drive, I saw another red-tailed hawk every few miles, every single time I started to get weepy. They led me home, beads along the necklace of Highway 151.

There were other times I cried, too: driving back through the pouring rain after a disastrous weekend in Madison with my boyfriend, coming to terms with the fact that we weren’t going to make it. Leaving my dad when he was sick; driving to Madison when I knew I would leave the Midwest; pulling out of Grinnell after I’d cleaned out my apartment and given away or sold all my furniture, after Ali and I had spent hours finding just one more thing – one more thing – one last thing – that needed to be done to delay my inevitable departure.

There were times when the drive felt like getting out of jail, and times when it felt like a death sentence (my 21st birthday, Easter Sunday of our junior year, Ali and I were so desperate to postpone our return to Grinnell that we stopped at the Wal-Mart in Alamosa and felt the need to purchase a Disney princesses CD). Times when it was scary: my boyfriend and I driving home in the earliest hours of the morning, through dark, thick fog, on the long stretch of road between Alamosa and Dubuque when there’s nothing but the occasional farmhouse, and talking about the scariest movies we’d ever seen. Times when it was dangerous: an ice storm in December of 2000 which was so brutal we had to pull over every half mile to clear the windshield of ice, until we gave up and turned back. And times when, as Jennie says, it was like driving through a postcard.

Do I miss it because it was pretty? Do I miss the person I was, driving those roads? Do I miss the heady sense of freedom, the exhilaration of escape? Or do I miss the feeling that, regardless of direction, I’m on my way home?

Does it matter?

There are so many kinds of homesickness, so many instances where, indeed, you can’t go home. Grinnell as I knew it only exist in my memories; the exact confluence of buildings and students and professors will never occur again in exactly the same way. My childhood home is still there, but so many of the people I called home, in childhood and in high school, have left, have married, have grown up, have moved on. But anytime I want to, given enough time and, perhaps, some excuse for travel, I can drive that road again, I can follow those twists, the rises and dips, moving in and out of shadow. You can’t step twice into the same river, Heraclitus told us, but that doesn’t mean you can’t long to do just that. And isn’t it sweet to know that sometimes, sometimes, you can?

17 October 2007

Why We Love Little Women

I’m sick. It’s miserable, but humbling – a good reminder that I have far less control in this world than I think I do. I tend to live in my mind, and generally ignore my body unless it’s giving me a hard time. (This, most people will argue, is not the healthiest way to live. Other people, I’ve noticed, are maintenance and prevention oriented caretakers, where I’m a problem oriented caretaker. This is why, whenever I take my truck to the mechanic, he inevitably must replace an entire system.)

I’m also something of a hypochondriac. I definitely spent a fair amount of time yesterday and today trying to talk myself out of the self-diagnosis of throat cancer. Because of this, I’m a little panicky that I don’t currently have health insurance, even though I never went to the doctor when I did.

Lacking health insurance, a doctor, a dog to keep my feet warm, a mother to bring me soup, and a TV to watch Anne of Green Gables on, I turn to the next best thing – a hot bath and Little Women.

I spent yesterday alternating between the couch and the bathtub, losing myself in the life and times of the March sisters – for perhaps the tenth time. Little Women, like Watership Down and the Chronicles of Narnia, is one of those books I first encountered in elementary school and have returned to a million times since. My copy was a gift from my step-mother. I believe it belonged to Sally when she was a girl, and someday it will probably be passed along to my daughters or nieces. It is that kind of book.

Little Women was written in 1867 and published in 1868. One hundred and forty years ago! Louisa May Alcott was born in 1832. I was born in 1980, nearly a hundred and fifty years after she was. It seems rather miraculous that her life, her experiences – for Little Women was semi-autobiographical – should have any bearing on my life, any meaning to me now, a century and a half later.

I was born in 1980, my mother in 1950, my grandmother in 1931 (I think). When my grandmother was a little girl, Louisa May Alcott was long dead, and Little Women was already well-established as an American classic. To find LMA’s contemporary on my own family tree, you’d have to go all the way back to my great-great-great-great grandmother, a woman about whom I know nothing, a woman who exists to me as merely an idea, an understood, someone who obviously existed for her daughter to exist, and her granddaughter, and her great-granddaughter (my great-grandmother), and so on. I can hardly fathom such time, and yet LMA’s life, and the lives of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy still speak to me in 2007.

Louisa May Alcott harbored teenage crushes on Emerson and Thoreau. She lived next door to the Hawthornes, and Margaret Fuller gave her feedback on her writing. Her inner circle consisted of names I’d learn in my American History and American Lit classes in high school and college. She was older than I am now during the Civil War. And yet -- her stories still pull me in, still make me feel better when I’m sick, one hundred forty years later.

Why do we love Little Women? It can be preachy and puritanical, overly-romantic and even maudlin. “Meg learned that a woman’s happiest kingdom is home, her highest honor the art of ruling it not as a queen, but a wise wife and mother.” On the surface, so many of the girls’ experiences mean nothing to us now: the girls play “Pilgrim’s Progress,” Meg frets over Jo’s lack of clean gloves for a ball, Amy gets in trouble for bringing pickled limes to school, Beth gets Scarlet Fever, Amy borrows Mr. Laurence’s charàbanc, whatever that is.

But old-fashioned terms and moral lectures don’t matter when Amy throws Jo’s little book into the fire, or when Mr. March comes home from Washington, or when Mr. Bhaer stands in the rain and confesses his feelings for Jo. You’re there. It’s been over fifteen years since I first read Little Women, and I still haven’t forgiven Amy for burning Jo’s book, and I still don’t completely understand how Jo could reject Teddy.

Louisa May Alcott managed to capture the experience of being a girl, and a sister, in a culture that apparently hasn’t changed that much since the Civil War. We still fight with our sisters. We still mistake better clothes & better homes for better lives. We still go on picnics and pretend trees are horses and make little mailboxes to exchange letters with friends. We still write stories and put on plays and get in trouble and fall in love. We still make vows to be nicer, more understanding, more thoughtful, slower to speak, slower to anger – and we still break them. We still struggle with what society tells us to be versus what we feel in our hearts we could and should be.

Little Women was written in the time of my great-great-great-great-grandmother, but it still speaks to us today. Society has changed so much since the Civil War, and yet the experience of girlhood seems to transcend the changes of technology and time. Ultimately, the lesson of Little Women is that people are much more alike than they are different, and the human heart and its struggles haven't changed in 150 years, in spite of everything else. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in 2157, my great-great-great-great granddaughter turns to Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy when she gets sick. In fact, I'd be surprised if she didn't.

15 October 2007

It's Me, Margaret

Last Wednesday was my night to be workshopped at my writing group. I love my writing group, because they are smart and funny and nice and they’re ALL writers, which means that they’re all completely interested in talking about things like characterization and POV and how setting impacts plot and flat versus round characters and lots of other topics that make people who aren’t English teachers or writers roll their eyes.

I especially love my writing group this week, because they said nice things about my new novel. Not only did they READ it all the way through, but they also liked it AND gave me constructive feedback on it. This is a very big deal, given that I spent the last two years begging my friends to read my first novel and give me feedback, and most of them read it (or SAID they did) and just said, “I liked it! It’s good!” which is very nice but not particularly helpful when I’m so completely entrenched in my novel that I don’t even know what it’s about and could really use someone to say, “Here’s where it falls apart and here’s how you can fix it.” (Very recently I had four angels who did give me fantastic feedback & I love them all: Jennie, Carly, Megan, and my agent Becca. Now if one of them would go back and actually FIX the manuscript for me, I would be eternally grateful.)

Anyway. One thing that a lot of people in my writing group said about my new novel went something like: I liked it because it gave you a sense of the teenage voice without saying “like” every other word! And then others chimed in with: like, yeah! I like, liked that, like, too! (Which reminded me of a pet peeve I had as a teenager, which involved adults – making fun of teenagers -- putting “like” in places that teenagers WOULDN’T, because there was a very specific grammatical structure to where “like” would or would not go in a sentence. )

I thought: is this all we know about teenagers? That they say “like” a lot?

Then I thought: is this all we know about writing for teenagers? That it’s hard to create an authentic teenage voice without saying “like” all the time?

Then I had a moment where I was internally chiding myself for being the kind of person who writes for teenagers, particularly considering the fact that it’s apparently as easy as writing “like” a lot. And then I realized that I spend a LOT of time trying to justify this – writing for teenagers – to other people, but mainly to myself. Maybe it’s because of that moment in sixth grade where my mother and teacher sat me down and announced, “You’re too old to be reading Babysitter Club books! Time to grow up!” (Which – in retrospect – probably had more to do with the reading level of the BSC books than with the subject matter. After all, the BSC girls were mostly in eighth graders, so one could argue that I wouldn’t have been too old for those books until the day after eighth grade ended. But the reading level of those books is probably third or fourth grade, and in no way challenging for a sixth grader reading at a tenth or eleventh grade level. Which of course is one of the central problems I had as a middle school teacher, navigating between challenging reading levels and appropriate subject matter – so many of my students who read at higher levels had to, as I had to, go to adult books to find something remotely challenging. But – as someone whose seventh grade English teacher recommended THE CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR series, which is basically soft core porn about cave people, and CRY TO HEAVEN, which is about little boys being castrated so they can be better singers – I know that the fact that you can read the words doesn’t mean you should.)

As a teenager, I was almost always embarrassed about reading books written for teenagers, because I was always aware that they were “too easy” for me. I never considered the fact that one of the great pleasures of reading lies in finding a narrator with whom you can identify, someone whose story validates your own experience. (I want to go back to Young Molly and tell her that while it’s great that she’s working through Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, she has my blessing to read Tiger Eyes right alongside it.)

Additionally, so many books that are written at a lower reading level or that seem simple are deceptively complex: Hesse’s Siddhartha (10th grade reading level) comes to mind, or Camus’s The Stranger (8th grade reading level), or even Lois Lowry’s The Giver (7th grade reading level). I didn’t understand The Giver the first time I read it, and I was 22. Don’t even get me started on L’Etranger.

Of course there are a lot of crap books for teenagers as well. As a young teen, I somehow acquired what I believe to be one of the worst books ever written for teenage girls, a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure type book called – and I’m not making this up – Boys! Boys! Boys!, in which you could turn to page 23 if you wanted to get an ice cream with Greg, or to 27 if you wanted to go for a ride with Steven, or to 48 if you wanted to try to juggle them both.

Thank god Boys! Boys! Boys! is not and never was the gold standard for YA literature, or I would be embarrassed, and justifiably so, for wanting to contribute to the genre. There were some amazing books for teenagers in my youth, from authors like Madeline L’Engle (still one of my favorites) and Lois Lowry and – of course – Judy Blume, but the genre is a million times better today. Authors like John Green and Markus Zusak and Laurie Halse Anderson have helped to raise the bar for YA Literature far beyond the best intentions of the girls in the BSC. Authors with whom I would be honored to be compared. (Authors who might one day be my BFF. A girl can dream.) Today’s best YA books are challenging and complex and interesting, with engaging and thoughtful teenage narrators who do so much more than say “like” a lot. Like, thank god.

12 October 2007

Yes, you are.

The other day, N. posted a thing on the Chicago Improv Network’s community message board, asking for local doctor recommendations. “Does anyone know or love a doctor?” she asked.



One of the first replies she got was a picture of a wire hanger, with the line “Let me know if you need my shop vac” beneath it. Later, after a post chiding Mr. Hanger for his poor taste, someone defended him with “The only reason a woman would be looking for a doctor is because none of her friends would give her a quickie abortion. [Hanger] is just saying what we're all thinking.”

Okay, thank you, Joint Chiefs of the Committee on Demeaning Women, for seeking out extra opportunities to be offensive and crude. Not only is this kind of thing threatening and mean-spirited, it’s also completely unfunny. Chicago’s improv theaters teach you to “play at the top of your intelligence,” and to seek the humor in realistic, human situations, knowing that the funniest moments are those that tell the truth. The Chicago improv scene tends to frown upon selling the scene out for a joke, going blue because you can’t think of anything else, and going for shock value in the hopes that if you can’t make an audience laugh, at least you can make them incredibly uncomfortable. The hanger bit is everything Chicago improvisers strive NOT to be.

What’s interesting about this incident is the way my women friends reacted to it. As one of the few female improvisers in a field largely dominated by men, N didn’t want to react honestly (enraged, threatened, uncomfortable as hell) at the risk of being dismissed as “another angry feminist” and instead replied with a joke, first heightening the abortion thing and then throwing in a jab about what an idiot Mr. Hanger is. Understandable, given her position. Nevertheless, going for the joke didn’t resolve her feelings of being demeaned and generally creeped out by such nasty, offensive responses to a perfectly innocent question about medical care.

So. I went to my articulate, strong, awesome girl friends and asked for help in replying to these humorless dudes and letting them know that they’re being gross, offensive, and mean. Most of my girls said, Well, the post enrages me, but I don’t know what to say that won’t be dismissed as uninteresting and typical anger from another pissed off feminist.

Okay, I said, but just because you think you’ll be dismissed or ignored, does that mean you shouldn’t say anything in the first place? Should you allow the (potential, imagined – but not uncommon) reactions to your opinions silence you? Merely because you’re so tired of being called (with an eye-roll and a sigh) an angry feminist? (Or my favorite, a “feminazi”? How charming of Rush Limbaugh to popularize a portmanteau that compares women who’d like to be treated as equals to people who systematically oppressed and then murdered a number of minority groups, including – oh, irony – German feminists. Thanks, Rush!)

Eventually I posted something myself, saying essentially what I said above. Another friend posted as well, in her charmingly subtle way, and then posted a real doctor rec as well. Case closed.

Except… the same day, there was an article in the Chicago Sun-Times about the term “Ms,” reaching the conclusion that the term has become mainstream and no longer carries any connotation as a feminist label. To support this claim, they interviewed several women who go by “Ms” but are “by no means a feminist”! I mean, heaven forbid!

"I wouldn't consider myself a feminist," says Ms. Jennifer Hoppenrath, who lives in Wicker Park. "I feel many of the battles feminists were fighting for have been won, at least here in the United States."

Have they, Jennifer? When a woman can’t even post a simple request for a doctor recommendation without some jerk insinuating that the “only reason a woman's asking for a doctor rec is because none of her friends will do a quickie abortion for her”? When the gender wage gap is actually growing? When the glass ceiling is “almost impenetrable”? When women have to worry about their physical safety walking the dog, driving on the highway, or walking into their homes?

Should women know better than to walk a half block alone at night? Probably. Should we have to know better? Absolutely not. No more than the average man should.

But I digress.

My generation of women grew up being told that we could grow up to be anything we want to, “even the President!” Maybe this is true; we’ll see how Ms. Clinton does. Maybe we can do whatever we want, as long as we don’t mind getting paid $0.75 for every dollar men get to do it.

Lately, N. and I have been talking about how hard it is to see the outsider’s perspective when you’ve always been an insider. Hard to see the need for better and more accessible healthcare for children in poverty when your children have been well-cared for. Hard to see the need for higher minimum wage when you’re making six figures. Hard to see how the battles have NOT been won, when you haven’t had to fight them yourself.

After all, it wasn’t until college that Ali and I began questioning the things we’d been told as girls. We never considered the fact that maybe our mothers’ generation of feminists didn’t fix everything… until we encountered, first hand, the things that were still broken. Until we had to decide what to do when dudes made jokes about hangers and shop vacs when we asked for doctor recommendations. Until we had to decide whether or not to speak up, speak out, even if it meant being called “angry feminists.”

Most of the time, we spoke up. But not always. It gets tiring, hearing people dismiss you as a militant man-hater. It probably gets tiring for the people making sexist jokes, too, always being called out on their bullshit. And I understand why you wouldn’t want to go to bat against yet another example of sexist, misogynistic, pathetic attempt at humor. I get why you’d be too tired, too discouraged, too afraid of being labeled or misunderstood.

But I hope you speak up sometimes.


And Jennifer? For the record, if you believe in, support, look fondly on, hope for, and/or work towards equality of the sexes, you are a feminist.

Yes, you are.

02 October 2007

BFF: Living the Dream

Q. How do you respond to the controversy surrounding the language and content of your book?
A. I think it's all a bunch of fucking bullshit.

-- John Green, author of Looking for Alaska


This is probably funnier in context. It made me laugh out loud. Why aren't we all friends with John Green?


September, 2007. My new goal in life is to be friends with John Green. And Sarah Dessen. But especially John Green. I feel that this is a totally reasonable goal.

Step 1: Publish novel.
Step 2: Grow fanbase of YA readers.
Step 3: Attend ALA conference where John Green is speaking.
Step 4a: Speak on panel with John Green.
or
Step 4b: Randomly meet John Green in hallway.
or
Step 4c: Sign copy of my book for John Green because he's such a huge fan.
Step 5: Go out drinking with John Green.
Step 6: Trade witticisms. Make John Green laugh.
Step 7: BFFs.

I believe that this plan is absolutely manageable.


UPDATE:
10/01/07. In an unforseen twist of fate, I meet John Green in Schaumburg, thus skipping the first three steps of The Plan. Even more amazing, I am able to overcome my intense shyness and incredible social awkwardness to talk to John and inform him of The Plan.

(After the reading, John Green is signing books.)

Me: I drove straight here from work, so I don't have a book to sign, but I did want to meet you.
John: No problem! I'm glad you could make it out tonight!
Me: I actually made it a goal of mine to meet you. I had a seven step plan, but I guess I'm jumping over the first three steps.
John: Did it involve flying to Indiana?
Me: Hell no. Um… no offense.
John: What were the first three steps?
Me: Okay… well, step one was publish a young adult novel. In progress.
Librarian: Oh, that's exciting!
Me: Er… yes. Step two, develop a wide base of young adult fans…
John: Right, and then speak at conferences together!
Me: Exactly!
John: That's a great plan!
Me: Thanks! Steps five and six involve getting drunk together and exchanging witticisms.
John: (nodding) Two of my favorite pastimes.
Librarian: You should tell us when your book comes out & you can do a reading here!
Me: Um… we'll see. I had to face one of my greatest fears to get here tonight.
Librarian: What's that?
Me: Getting lost in the suburbs. It's my own personal hell.
John: (laughing) Thanks for facing the fear. Great to meet you.
Me: Thanks!


Thus begins a life-long friendship.