Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Feminism for the Way We Are Today

My only regret about Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World, edited by Kelly Jensen, is that it’s coming out just shy of my daughter’s road trip to Washington. She and a pack of college friends set off this weekend for the Women’s March, and I wish they had a copy to read aloud to each other on the multi-hour drive. This excellent collection of essays, interviews, and illustrations by a whole host of creative people, would no doubt make them laugh, make them cry, but most importantly: get some awesome conversations started.

It’s not a book my own mother would ever have given to me, and I think it’s important to explore why, especially at this juncture in our nation’s story, when a man who jokes about sexual assault, supports defunding Planned Parenthood, mocks the disabled, and goes after Civil Right’s heroes on Twitter is about to ascend our highest office. When so many women voted for such a man. And when so many young women … who don’t think twice about their myriad opportunities to play sports or their right to vote (even for Donald Trump) or head companies (like Hewlett Packard) or run for President, thanks to the outspoken, fearless women who fought for those rights …   are reluctant to think of themselves as feminists.

I think I can understand why. I grew up in a home where feminism, while not quite a dirty word, was a suspect term.

I won’t elaborate on the reasons … it involves a story which is not mine to tell … but my mother had a whole lot invested in embracing traditional, 50-s era values. Ironing while watching the soaps, cookie baking, child-rearing, preparing mouth-watering dinners for her tired man when he came home from work at the end of the day, scrubbing her house until it gleamed … these were her priorities. Frankly: she did it all well and took great satisfaction in that work and her goals. Both my parents were devoted to each other and to creating a family.

But while she was juggling babies and cloth diapers and all that cleaning, the 60’s and 70’s raged. I remember watching John F. Kennedy’s funeral cortege on the black and white television, the coffin draped with an American flag. (I was very young and reportedly asked, “Why did they bury him in a watermelon?”) I remember the evening news death counts of U.S. troops in Vietnam. I remember thinking the “big kids” who went to our local high school and had long hair and beards drove too fast. Cities were burning, both in protest and by landlords eager to collect the insurance on dilapidated buildings, college students were getting shot at Kent State, black kids were linking arms and getting their heads bashed in by cops bearing batons.

To my (very young) parents, it must have felt like a fraught time to raise a child, and my mom circled her little family wagon with an insistent vision more akin to The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet than what was happening on the evening news. It was a vision that required constant vigilance, and did not allow for radically different ways of being or seeing. Anything that shook things up was threatening, and the so-called “feminists?” The Gloria Steinems and Betty Friedans of the world? They were man-hating, loud-mouthed bra burners. They threatened a status quo to which my parents aspired.

But there’s more to it. I think my mom’s aversion to feminism had much to do with a sense that their club didn’t need … or want … members like her. She was a Spanish girl from the city who didn’t go to college. She never left the house without her makeup. She prided herself on her cooking. She’s Catholic. And if she had a sneaking suspicion that the leaders of the feminist movement were white girls who attended elite Seven Sisters colleges and went on to marry Ivy League lawyers while making cracks about women who stayed home to bake cookies and “stand by” their men … well. She would have been right.  So to this day, my assertive, smart mother who never hesitated to speak her mind, who sent her daughters to college, who balanced the family checkbook and managed the finances, and who, after she raised her kids, worked in an office and became the assistant to the President of a Fortune 500 Company, would never, ever, call herself a feminist.

If only she’d had this book. The opening pages of Here We Are breaks open the whole notion of what a feminist is:

Feminists come in every shape, size, form, and background. What unites feminists is the belief that every person – regardless of gender, class, education, race, sexuality, or ability – deserves equality. This is a movement about embracing differences and encouraging change that benefits all facets of society. This is a movement about listening as much as it is about speaking up.

Who could argue with that?

What I love about Here We Are is that is shows that feminism’s tent is HUGE. (Yes: let’s take back that word.) It has room for mothers and room for women who choose to not raise children. It has room for couples who marry and couples who don’t and people who prefer to remain un-coupled. It has room for girls who speak their truth and don’t aspire to be “sweet” (Courtney Summers, author of All the Rage, has a terrific essay here about writing so-called unlikeable characters.) It has room for a curriculum which includes artists and writers and musicians of all genders and ethnicities (Nova Ren Suma has a heart-breaking essay in this collection about Reading Worthy Women.) Here We Are shows us a feminism which is expansive and inclusive and as a result, liberating. For everyone.

It also demonstrates how feminism has evolved. The beginning of Here We Are defines the various “waves” of feminism, all of which were necessary for their time. And while I’m reluctant to call the depiction of the movement here a kinder, gentler version of 60s-era feminism, it does reflect a natural growth which was always about basic values of fairness and equality. It’s a movement that has made great strides but doesn’t rest. It’s a movement which is finally mature enough to legitimize all women’s work and all women’s choices, paid or unpaid, professional or home-based. And it includes men. As it turns out, the most important feminist in my life has been my husband, who bought me my first copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves, and who, when I met him at age 23, was the caregiver for his disabled mother.

Near the end of the book, the editor poses the question: Why do people dislike feminism? The answer:

For people who have power in society, being questioned about that power or being forced to examine their biases or prejudices incites fear. … Feminism begs all people to think about the social, political, cultural, and economic power we have based on our sex, education, gender and a whole host of other statuses we may or may not choose to have.

My daughter graduates from college in two weeks. Right after that she moves to the city and begins her first job along a career path she is incredibly excited about. In addition to linens and furniture and all the “stuff” she’ll need to set up an apartment, she’s bringing the new mixer she got for Christmas because, like her grandmother, she loves to bake.  She’ll also be bringing this book.


Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World is published by Algonquin Young Readers. It was originally planned for release on 2/28 but you can preorder it on Amazon and receive it by late January.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

"Getting" #Wrecked at School: Bias

Here’s my drumbeat line when I talk writing to students: Plot follows character.

They ask me where I get my ideas and I say, “Plot follows character.”

I finish reading, they ask what happens next, and I tell them, “Plot follows character.”

And when we pick apart the story I urge them to look at the details about the characters. I assure them they are no accident; writers spend a lot of time deciding what to tell you about a character. Because when you know those details, you’ll absolutely know what that character will do. And when you develop those details in your writing, you don’t need to worry about the plot. It simply happens. Those characters jump off the page and starting running in their own direction.

So it was super interesting the other day when I was presenting Wrecked to a high school group and we were talking about the character, Jenny, who is the young woman who accuses a fellow student of rape. I read them part of an early chapter and urged them, “Tell me what you know about Jenny so far. What details jump out at you?”

“Well, we believe her,” one boy said.  “Why?” I pressed. “Because she’s a good student,” he said, and everyone nodded. “She’s shy and she doesn’t go to parties. She’s the type of girl who would tell the truth.”

Now, this was fascinating to me. Because yes, those details were all there intentionally … but dang, as I was writing the book (and asking myself the usual what-does-my-character-want questions) I had seen those details about Jenny’s long hours in the lab, her massive backpack stuffed with books, her indirect shy manner of speaking, her seeming lack of social life, as an indicator that this was an inexperienced possibly lonely girl. Tossed into the maelstrom of a wildly social freshmen dorm, she was vulnerable to the allure of “popular girl” attention. When the chance to borrow a hot dress, down some vodka-laced Gatorade and waltz off with the rest of the hall to a party hosted by older students presents itself, Jenny can’t resist. She’s not out looking to hookup: she simply wants friends. She wants to fit in.

It hadn’t occurred to me that those details indicated her truthfulness. But for whatever reason … and I’m not judging here … to this young man, honesty and truth-telling comes in a “Good Student” package. The kids with the good grades are less likely to lie. The kids who don’t break the rules or get in trouble always tell the truth.

I couldn’t help myself.

“So … if Jenny was a girl who had had a string of boyfriends, struggled with her schoolwork, and wore micro-minis and ripped mesh hose to school, we’d be less likely to believe her when she says she was sexually assaulted?”

“To what extent do we make assumptions based on how someone presents? What they wear? How accurate are those assumptions?”


And that’s when the conversation got interesting.

"Getting" #Wrecked at School: Bias

Here’s my drumbeat line when I talk writing to students: Plot follows character.

They ask me where I get my ideas and I say, “Plot follows character.”

I finish reading, they ask what happens next, and I tell them, “Plot follows character.”

And when we pick apart the story I urge them to look at the details about the characters. I assure them they are no accident; writers spend a lot of time deciding what to tell you about a character. Because when you know those details, you’ll absolutely know what that character will do. And when you develop those details in your writing, you don’t need to worry about the plot. It simply happens. Those characters jump off the page and starting running in their own direction.

So it was super interesting the other day when I was presenting Wrecked to a high school group and we were talking about the character, Jenny, who is the young woman who accuses a fellow student of rape. I read them part of an early chapter and urged them, “Tell me what you know about Jenny so far. What details jump out at you?”

“Well, we believe her,” one boy said.  “Why?” I pressed. “Because she’s a good student,” he said, and everyone nodded. “She’s shy and she doesn’t go to parties. She’s the type of girl who would tell the truth.”

Now, this was fascinating to me. Because yes, those details were all there intentionally … but dang, as I was writing the book (and asking myself the usual what-does-my-character-want questions) I had seen those details about Jenny’s long hours in the lab, her massive backpack stuffed with books, her indirect shy manner of speaking, her seeming lack of social life, as an indicator that this was an inexperienced possibly lonely girl. Tossed into the maelstrom of a wildly social freshmen dorm, she was vulnerable to the allure of “popular girl” attention. When the chance to borrow a hot dress, down some vodka-laced Gatorade and waltz off with the rest of the hall to a party hosted by older students presents itself, Jenny can’t resist. She’s not out looking to hookup: she simply wants friends. She wants to fit in.

It hadn’t occurred to me that those details indicated her truthfulness. But for whatever reason … and I’m not judging here … to this young man, honesty and truth-telling comes in a “Good Student” package. The kids with the good grades are less likely to lie. The kids who don’t break the rules or get in trouble always tell the truth.

I couldn’t help myself.

“So … if Jenny was a girl who had had a string of boyfriends, struggled with her schoolwork, and wore micro-minis and ripped mesh hose to school, we’d be less likely to believe her when she says she was sexually assaulted?”

“To what extent do we make assumptions based on how someone presents? What they wear? How accurate are those assumptions?”


And that’s when the conversation got interesting.

Monday, October 24, 2016

"Getting" #Wrecked at School

My new novel, Wrecked, has been out in world for a couple of weeks now, and I’ve been visiting schools and book stores for signings, readings, discussions, that sort of thing. It’s been a busy but fairly low-key, New England-based “tour.” It’s also my fourth book, and I’m used to speaking in public/signing/reading, so while I was excited to finally share Wrecked, I was fairly nonchalant about the whole thing.

Nevertheless, I was unprepared for the emotional impact of presenting Wrecked to young readers.

I wasn’t prepared for the tears. The stricken expressions and extra beat of silence preceding the requisite claps at readings. I should have expected it. Kids lead with their hearts, so they were never going to read Wrecked with a pencil in hand, underlining salient passages that gave them hints about the characters’ motivations, or how the plot might develop. And the early, online responses should have warned me, because it’s been so emotional: the young bloggers don’t analyze and review the book as much as they emote over the characters. Like they’re real people, and this has really happened.

It’s a storyteller’s greatest wish, to connect with another person and transport him or her temporarily into a different world. But when you take that story on the road and witness the emotion … hell, share the emotion (when those college students in the front row started crying, so did I) … you realize you’re in a new place, a different “stage of development” with your baby, and it brings a whole new set of responsibilities.

Anyway, the tears and stricken expressions was the college visit. Then, there was the high school visit, and wow, we were off to the races. I presented Wrecked to groups of juniors and seniors, roughly half of whom had “consent training” by a group of professionals shortly before my visit.

Where do I even begin to describe this experience? First of all, can I just say I love teenagers and every time I visit a school I’m reminded why I write YA fiction. Second: don’t worry about the state of the world. Spend some time with young people and you’ll feel confident that they are very capable of fixing all the things we’ve messed up. Eventually.

Because these kids were courageous. They were serious. They were honest, engaged and intense. And they were a case study in the difference education about sexual assault and consent can make. After my presentations, I spoke to the teacher and librarian who had attended. We marveled at how easily the students who had had the training understood the difference between “no means no” and affirmative consent, how they recognized and called out slut-shaming, how they “got” the different standard of proof between a criminal trial and a college hearing. The kids without training were just as earnest and honest but way, way less sophisticated and informed. And, ironically: the untrained kids were the seniors. Which means younger, less experienced kids were more savvy than their older peers simply as a result of workshopping these issues.

So here’s the thing: I’m no counselor and I’m no expert on sexual assault. I’m a novelist, and I’ve written a book which is, first and foremost, a story. One of my editors for Wrecked warned me, early in this process, “I’m allergic to bibliotherapy,” and so am I. Our primary goal for Wrecked was to create authentic characters and weave together a compelling story. It’s not meant to be a counseling tool.

But if a story can transport us to a new place, and inspire us, and create empathy then I’m all for it. And here’s what I saw happen with Wrecked: it cracked open important conversations. Edgy, values-laden, honest conversations between girls and boys. And that’s how we’re going to make real change: from the bottom up, one awkward conversation at a time.


All this week I’m going to blog about Getting #Wrecked at School, because it’s going to take me that long to process all that happened and all I learned. Chime in, I’d love to hear what you think, what you know, and what you might suggest as I continue to take this book on the road and share it with young people.

Friday, September 30, 2016

The #1 Most Difficult Question

Here’s the #1 Most Difficult Question I’m asked by teens: Where do you get the ideas for your books?

Maine writer Stephen King has a pretty straightforward answer to that question: “Everywhere.” Now, while that might seem a bit sweeping and not particularly helpful to young, would-be writers (and given the plots to Carrie, Cujo and Christine probably doesn’t warm the hearts of our state tourism officials) it’s spot on. Because here’s the thing: stories come at us from a lot of different directions. My honest response when asked the #1 Question?  “Life, pretty much.”

The trick is focus. Sorting through all the noise of “life” and “everywhere” and following a couple of interesting threads. King picks one or two then asks himself, “What if?” and he’s off to the races with a bestselling novel. For me it’s a little more arduous, especially if the thread feels scary or fraught. Maybe not as scary as killer cars and rabid St. Bernards, but for me, writing realistic young adult fiction? Definitely fraught. And for my latest novel, Wrecked, a story about a sexual assault on a college campus, the Where-did-you-get-THAT-idea? question feels personal. There’s a hint of prurient curiosity behind it. As if what they really want to know is: Did this happen to you? Why would you choose to write about something so awful?

 Is this story true?

For the record: I’m not a victim, and Wrecked is fiction. As for the “Why?” Well …

I could have been that girl. I was almost that girl. The evening started at a frat party where I was dancing with friends and drinking the Mystery Punch (it was delicious.) Next thing you know I’m downtown with a guy I sort of knew (where were my friends?) having more drinks, followed by the long walk back to his dorm room where, as I sat on his bed, I marveled at how the room wasn’t spinning clockwise but rather end to end. Somehow he’d discerned I was a literature buff, so to further woo me he began reading aloud from … no joke … Moby Dick.

That was when I realized this was not at all where I wanted to be, nor with whom, and declared my desire to return to my own room. Pronto. And here’s where I got lucky: I was able to voice that desire and he wasn’t a predator. He walked me back; we said good night. The next morning, I was shocked by how easily, thoughtlessly, I had drifted into that young man’s room. Never before had I considered myself a person without agency or volition. How had I ended up in that situation? The experience branded me with a fresh empathy for any young woman who had started her evening like I had, but encountered a very different guy.

Another thread: years later, I went to see the play “Doubt” on Broadway. It’s set in a Catholic school, and involves a nun’s accusation of sexual misconduct against a priest. I went with friends and was fascinated by their reactions: each came to vastly different conclusions about what “happened.” Some absolutely assigned blame to the priest; others felt the nun misjudged him. Each defended her position passionately, despite the fact that we never saw what took place between the priest and the child. We drew our conclusions from the other side of a closed door.

It occurred to me that one’s truth varies with point-of-view, and that our opinions are informed by biases we might not realize we have. That fascination with how a story changes depending on the narrator has haunted me ever since, and combined with the more recent  threads of having kids in college at a time when so much national debate swirls around issues of sexual assault on campus, new definitions of consent, new federal guidelines, etc., well … Wrecked pretty much insisted on being written.

So here’s how I answer the #1 Most Difficult Question: We get our ideas from the myriad threads we collect. We twist them into a stout rope, then go fishing. We toss that rope overboard, let it sink deep into our imaginations, then haul. It comes up dripping and draped, with seaweed, garbage, shells. Some of it’s trash, some of it’s treasure. But if you keep pulling you eventually get to the end of your rope. 

And there’s the story.


Thursday, August 25, 2016

Harriet's Legacy

The newly renovated Stowe House
I've been fascinated by a real estate battle in our town. It seems Bowdoin College is suing a woman in California over the sale of her house.  At issue: a building at 28 College Street, Brunswick, Maine, owned by Arline Pennell Lay. Bowdoin says they made a deal with Ms. Lay ten years ago to buy the property for 125-percent of fair market value. Ms. Lay says the house is worth much more, and has a buyer who will pay her much more. That’s because – according to Lay --- Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin in that house.

We take our history, and our place in it, very seriously in Brunswick. We like to think the Civil War began and ended here: sparked by Uncle Tom’s Cabin and effectively concluded when the 20th Maine, led by our very own Joshua Chamberlain, fixed bayonets at Gettysburg and successfully defended Little Round Top. A statue of Chamberlain (which looks less like the general and more like a cross between Senator Angus King and a popular third grade teacher here in town) stands poised just outside the gates of Bowdoin. Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow are both Bowdoin alums.


So claims of who wrote what when, and where, is no small thing in these parts. Still, this argument over where Stowe penned Uncle Tom’s Cabin  -- and how it affects a property’s value -- is pure silliness.  Ask any mother who writes.

At a time when there were no washing machines, dishwashers, or personal computers, Harriet Beecher Stowe had seven children and completed more than 30 books. She wrote with ink and a steel nib; she lit with lamp oil. I had two children, babysitting help, and a MacBook, and when my children were young I could barely complete a grocery list, let alone a novel. Sleep and logical, sequential thought were both casualties of those early parenting years.

I can tell you that Stowe probably wrote wherever she could: the family’s house on Federal, her husband’s office in Appleton Hall, maybe even, occasionally, that house at 28 College (although in Stowe’s day the building was located on Park Row.)  I’ll bet she’d have locked herself in the privy out back with ink and paper if she thought it might buy her 15 minutes of alone time.

We Writer-Mothers claw, carve, eke out and wrest time and inspiration from the daily storm of errands, diapers, and meals prepared, eaten and cleared. Children comforted, entertained, bathed. Stowe wrote to her sister-in-law, “Nothing but deadly determination enables me ever to write.” God, yes. We must be determined. And deadly.  Not in the violent sense, but in terms of taking the work seriously. This pursuit is not a hobby (despite what my accountant says) or a passing phase. It’s a passion and a calling and it requires, demands, rests upon, time and space, both literal and figurative. 

 Bowdoin has recently completed a marvelous renovation of 63 Federal Street, the house where the Stowe’s lived from 1850-52. A room on the first floor of the house has been designated “Harriet’s Writing Room,” and the college has done a fine job of weaving together the history of the house, the family and the larger community.

But let’s be honest: this lovely space, which rivals the platonic ideal of a Pottery Barn catalogue home-office, is not the only room where Uncle Tom’s Cabin might have been written. I actually take issue with any attempt to pinpoint the “place.” Because as those of us who write, and who mother, know, that’s just not how it happens.

“Writing” doesn’t always involve a well-appointed office and clear desk in a room of one’s own. We make space when and where we can and these spaces are rarely neat or convenient. JK Rowling scribbled the plot for Harry Potter in a tea shop, on a napkin, with a child in a stroller. Toni Morrison composed novels while her children played at her feet. Louise Erdrich would strew toys in a line on the floor, buying precious writing minutes as her baby crawled to each one. Laurie Halse Anderson brought a laptop to her kids’ games, tapping out Speak while perched on the bleachers.

So the question for me is not where Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin … but how?

I’m confident Arline Pennell Lay’s attempt to pick Bowdoin’s deep pockets will be sorted out by lawyers who specialize in contracts. Meanwhile, I’m in awe of Harriet’s achievement. And grateful that in my history-rich town, her determination and her spirit continue to inspire. You can’t put a price on that.



Tuesday, July 5, 2016

21 Childrens Books

Today is the last day of Ramadan 2016 so I thought I'd wrap up #RamadanReads with this terrific list from Colours of Us, a site devoted to multicultural children's books. I've already blogged about several of the books on this list, but many others were new to me, so enjoy!

Eid-al-Fitr is tomorrow, July 6th. Best wishes to all my Muslim friends and their families as you celebrate!