Wednesday, May 28, 2014

My Writing Process

I talk to myself.  Sometimes out loud.  In public places.

It’s been going on for a long time.  I remember the first time I was made aware of it: I was 18.  I was standing in a friend’s house, in conversation with her and our mothers, when I realized everyone had stopped speaking and they were staring at me.  My mom looked horrified; the others amused.

“What?” I asked.

“You were talking to yourself,” my friend, Kathy, said.

“Uh … no I wasn’t,” I replied truthfully.  “I’m just listening.”

“Oh, yes you were,” my mom said.  “You were staring at the floor, your lips were moving, and words were coming out.  But you weren’t talking to us.”

I could feel my own eyes grow round.  I scrolled back in my mind to what had recently passed there.  I could not recall a single thing the others had just said … but a perfectly realized image of another person, a figment of my imagination, who had been regaling me with her story … popped up.

I had been talking to her.  That’s how vivid, how real, she had become, that I could turn off the actual conversation going on around me and slip into her world. 

I was mortified.  And yes, a little scared.  It was one thing to be the family daydreamer, the “absent-minded professor,” as I was known.  Perpetual preoccupation was an annoying, but endearing, habit. 

Talking aloud to make-believe people was another thing altogether. 

For me, writing has been a socially acceptable and necessary release of the pent up energies of the characters and stories which inhabit my imagination.  I don’t know why they are so insistent, but it has always been so.  Transferring their voices, their faces, and their lives, from my mind to the page is what we call “the creative process,” and I’ll confess:  it’s very hard and I don’t always enjoy it.  But for me, the alternative is odd behavior and (if you talk to my family) rotten moods, so I really have no choice.

For the past few months the blog tour known as “My Writing Process” has been alighting at author websites throughout the internet.  It involves answering four questions about writing, then passing the baton to several other writers who post one week later.  Author Katie Quirk invited me to get on board today, and it’s been fun not only to think about “process” (usually I just … do it) but also to discover many, many authors I had never come across before.

Katie is the author of A Girl Called Problem, a middle-grade novel set in Tanzania. She is currently working on a memoir about life with a newborn baby in India.  Originally from Washington state, Katie has taught English and writing for over ten years to students as diverse as Spanish-speaking third graders in the California farm belt, Berkeley community-college students, international high-school students in India, and Swahili-speaking journalism students in Tanzania. She currently lives in Maine with her husband and two kids.
So here goes!  I encourage you to visit Katie’s site and learn about her work, as well as check in with the authors I’m linking to below.
What are you working on now?  All my books to date fall into the “young adult” genre, but the manuscript on my laptop right now will most likely be considered “new adult.”  Meaning my audience will include readers 16 and older … but mostly older.  It is set on a college campus and involves a criminal accusation.  The working title is “Rage.”
I always like to try something new, narratively speaking, with each book, and this latest is a departure for me not only because the audience and subject matter is quite mature, but because I’m writing in third-person limited for the first time (my other books are all narrated in first person.)  I’m also alternating between a male and a female point-of-view, so … a lot going on.
How does your work differ from others of its genre?  I write realistic fiction and I embrace challenging topics.  Death, eating disorders, racism and next up, crime, if I had to list the order.  Peppered with plenty of humor.  I remember seeing “August: Osage County” on Broadway years ago and realizing how absolutely necessary it is, when dramatizing, to leaven brutal truth with humor.
Interestingly, my main characters all play sports, although “sports” was never my intended theme.  Soccer dominates, as does tennis.  It’s come as quite a surprise to me, because while I love sports and play sports, I was quite a music and literary geek in school.
Why do you write what you do?  I never intended to write realistic, young adult fiction:  it simply happened.  Now, I’m incredibly grateful to have found a creative outlet in this genre.
Young people lead with their hearts when they read, and I love getting on board that emotional roller coaster with them.  I love creating characters they love and hate, story lines they tear through, books they reread.  The books that changed my life were all books I read as an adolescent.  When I open my email and some young reader from a middle school thousands of miles from my home in Maine tells me he LOVED one of my books … that’s incredible.  It’s such a gift, such a privilege.
How does your writing process work?  The simple answer is:  I work best in the morning, after a cup of coffee and a walk with the dog.  I work best with regular hours spent at the computer, day after day, until a predictable rhythm is set.  The phone, Facebook, emails, the doorbell … that all knocks me off course, and I need to be disciplined and tune out distractions.
The more complicated answer:  I might have an “idea” for a story (for example, in my first book, Brett McCarthy:  Work in Progress, I knew I wanted to write about friends growing apart) but I cannot get started until I know my characters, and that involves writing many, many, many pages which no one will, or ever should, read.  Sometimes it is discouraging to get to the end of a day of writing and realize that absolutely none of what I produced will end up in a final draft … but I have to trust in the process and know that eventually the real story will emerge on the page.
I pick up a lot of hitchhikers along the way and also throw a lot of people off the bus.  Writing for me (and this is not my original metaphor, I borrowed it) is driving on a foggy night:  I can see only a few feet ahead of me, but I trust that if I keep moving forward I will eventually make it to my destination.  That said:  sometimes unexpected folks wave you down along the way, and you have to be open to letting them in.  Mr. Beady, in Brett, was just such a hitchhiker … a completely unexpected character … and he soon became one of my favorites.
Only this week I threw two passengers off the bus.  This was in my work-in-progress, which originally had four narrators.  Interestingly, the ejected passengers were both older adults.  They were slowing things down and distracting me with their particular problems and complaints which were not moving the story forward so … off they went.  I’m better able now to listen to the two college students who are left.
I write slowly, in a linear way.  I also know the end.  Some writers say they write to discover the end, but I write to figure out how to get there.  Maybe that’s why I take in hitchhikers:  I’m hoping they can give me directions.  Sometimes, when I’m stuck, or really having no fun at all and the writing feels like drudgery, I will treat myself to writing a scene out of sequence, some scene or chapter I’m really looking forward to, and that helps propel me out of the doldrums.  It’s also a bonus, to catch up to that scene and feel like, “Wow, that work’s already done!”
Next up:  Please meet Anna Eleanor Jordan (Anna Boll) and Sashi Kaufman, who will post on Thursday, June 5th.  Both Anna and Sashi were on the teaching faculty with me at the New England Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators conference this May.

Anna Eleanor Jordan (Anna Boll) is an author, illustrator and educator.  She runs a school and library booking business for authors and illustrators called Creative Bookings and writes freelance curriculum for authors, illustrators and publishers.  Her poetry appears in Highlights High Five, Babybug, and Ladybug magazines.  Her illustrations appear in the picture book Fufu and Fresh Strawberries (The Telling Room.) She has an MFA and Picture Book Certificate from Vermont College of Fine Arts and an MSEd from the University of Southern Maine.

Sashi Kaufman is a middle school English and science teacher in Portland, Maine.  Her first novel, The Other Way Around, was published by Carolrhoda Lab in 2014. 

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Everyday Diversity

Twitter lit up yesterday with some hashtag called #WeNeedDiverseBooks.  Or maybe I simply noticed it yesterday … I don’t spend a lot of time on Twitter, and lately I’ve been immersed in putting together a workshop for writers interested in adding cultural diversity to their children’s books.  Which might explain why this caught my attention.

The half of me which could pass as “diverse” felt her skin crawl as I scrolled through all the posts. 

I applaud the intention, really I do, of those who want to raise awareness about the appalling lack of “characters of color” in mainstream publishing today.  Let’s just put it out there:  of 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, just 93 were about black people.  The numbers get worse when you look at Latinos, Asians, Native Americans … and when those sorts of characters do appear, they are often as representative figures from historical legacies about the civil rights movement or slavery or the Trail of Tears.  Or kids books about Cinco de Mayo.  Or World War II Japanese relocation sagas.

The only thing possibly worse than the numbers are the cardboard-cut-out depictions of non-white characters as downtrodden victims, as “other,” as “different-but-still-cool.” 

In our admirable quest to write “diverse” books, we need to be wary of creating the Separate But Equal Minority Genre.  We need to be careful that we don’t inadvertently intensify notions of “otherness.”  That we don’t create black/Hispanic/Asian/Arab characters who are "shining examples" of diversity.  That we do, as Walter Dean Myer’s urges us to do, in his essay published in the New York Times this past March, depict characters who are “an integral and valued part of the mosaic” of our shared American culture.

I recently stumbled upon the phrase, “everyday diversity.”  It was used by a children’s librarian in Hennepin County, Minnesota, who has put together lists of children’s books which she believes are diverse as a matter-of-course.  Books in which the protagonists might be non-white … but their non-whiteness is not the subject of the book.  The books are about making friends, getting into college, losing a tooth, visiting Grandma … and the characters doing all these things just happen to be named Abdullah or Jose.

Everyday diversity doesn’t ignore culture and race.  It relegates culture and race to adjectives, to parts of the complex background which define and enrich character, which adds depth to our characters without siloing them as “the black” or “the Native American” or “the Muslim.”

One of my favorite authors, the young adult novelist, Francisco Stork, does this brilliantly.  Stork’s characters are of Mexican descent, but that cultural detail is imbedded in his stories.  It’s one of many moving parts in complex depictions of well-wrought characters who defy stereotypes.  Read Marcelo in the Real World to see what I mean.

The writer Julia Alvarez puts it this way: “Stories are about the big circle, the gathering of the different tribes of the human family. Getting down into ethnic/racial bunkers of literature totally negates what stories are about.” 

In those two sentences, Alvarez embodies the goal … and the challenge … of writing any fiction, but especially for writing for young people today. 

Here's the hashtag I prefer:  #EverydayDiversity