Wednesday, August 27, 2014

In Which the Inner Critic Tells Me I Need to Stop Being So Silly

I'm in a writing rut, I think.

Not an act-of-writing rut. That's the same as it has been for years now: I write when I have to, when the words come to me (and sometimes when I just want them to come). This is different. It's more of a subject, or possibly style, rut.

This epiphany came to me while I was reading a book by an author who shall remain nameless. The main character in his book--a first-person narrator--read, to me, as the same kind of character this author had written several times before. On the one hand, this is somewhat comforting: recognizing his voice, his characters. On the other, it alarmed me that such a hard-working dude could fall into a rut.

As for myself, every poem I've written in the past year or so feels very angsty, schlocky, sophomoric to me. Sometimes I wonder if I'm 20 years old again, funneling my naïveté and absurd assuredness into my pen and then onto the page. This is, perhaps, a function of my inner critic, who swears to me that nothing I write will ever be good enough.

How, then, to shut out that voice? It's useful when it comes time to edit, sure, but when you're writing? Punch that bastard in the face, lest he/she should prevent you from even opening your notebook. And tell him/her I said hi!


Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Rural Is the Worst Word I Know

As faithful readers will recall, I've just come home to Michigan after ten years spent in a small town in North Carolina, and I have very little to show for my time there save for a few linguistic tics. 

When I was teaching English as a Second Language to 14 Spanish-speaking students, I found myself sounding more and more Midwestern as the semester progressed. After the fact, I realized that I was pushing back against their Barthelonas, Balenthias, and joos with my dropped Ts, hard As, and nasal vocalizations. But after the Spaniards and South Americans vacated my classroom, I slid back into the speech patterns that had been building in my mouth since the moment I arrived in North Carolina in 2004 as a college freshman.

I picked up the strangest things there: "y'all" ("all y'all" in moments of frustration), "bless your heart" (which means the opposite), and "I ain't got but ten cent" (a vicious combinations of pieces of the local vernacular). When I thought about it, I realized the word accent sounded Southern in my head: ayk-sent instead of ack-sent. 

At that point, I began to worry. What if I was losing my Detroit self, giving over my well-worn Michigan tongue to small-town colloquialisms and pronunciations?

The ultimate test for me turned out to be one I hadn't considered until I was firmly ensconced back in my parents' house. If I could pronounce the word rural, which has always--and I mean always--given me trouble without thinking too much into it, I was doomed. If I couldn't, I was safe and would recover from my own personal Great English Vowel Shift.

I tried it out in my bedroom late on a Saturday night, when I should have been asleep but was up writing instead. Much to my relief, rural came out clearly only once, and only because I concentrated very hard on the word.

This no doubt sounds silly to you, my dear readers, and I'm willing to admit that my inability to pronounce a relatively common word is strange at best, lazy at worst. But I've noticed that my mouth can't move around it the way a Southerner's tongue can--spilling the word out smoothly, like barbecue sauce over pork. So my Midwestern (verbal) self is still safe, which is important to me in a weird way. I don't ever want to lose this part of myself, because it feels like home, and home is the one thing that keeps me grounded.


Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Adventures in Rejection: And Then I Lost My Job

Picture it: 29 April, overcast skies, nearing the end of the academic year. My boss asks me for a meeting. He's never very forthcoming with information, so I don't know what the meeting is about, but I text a friend and say, "I have a feeling I'm going to come out frustrated at best, jobless at worst." My friend thinks I am joking when I say this, but I encounter the same situation every year.

Since the beginning of my time working at this job, my contract has never been guaranteed for renewal. Each April, I have to alert my parents to the possibility that they might need to come to North Carolina and help me move out. They're used to it by now, and they have been super-supportive throughout every contract scare. This time, though, it's no false alarm.

My boss and the head of our business office sit me down and inform me, as gently as possible, that they will not be rehiring me for the coming school year. While I'm not shocked, I can't hold back the tears, and now I'm crying in front of two senior administrators. If ever there was a "fuck my life" moment, this is it. 

You may have noticed something by this point in the post: it's not a traditional "Adventures in Rejection" entry. But stick with me, because it is about rejection, after a fashion.

Within twelve hours of receiving the news, I started packing. Before a week had passed, I signed up for new health insurance (sidebar: is surprisingly easy to use, and I'm very grateful for the healthcare marketplace). Within ten days, I had filled out a change of address form, set a moving date, and informed relevant colleagues and business contacts of my departure. Sure, my apartment was a mess while I sorted and organized everything. Of course I had moments of despair. But overall, the experience has been educational.

See, rejection--no matter the kind--teaches you a few things, both about the world and about yourself. Would I have chosen to lose my job? Absolutely not. But I would never choose to have an anxiety disorder, either, yet having one has opened my eyes in unexpected ways in spite of the fact that part of my brain has rejected me. And I hate getting dumped, but every break up has helped me grow because I examine the rejection for clues to my personality and what I can do to improve myself.

I don't recommend getting laid off (as if anyone ever has a choice in the matter). It's a horrible experience. But in the event that you do find yourself jobless, believe me: it's better to take it one step at a time and look for the silver lining, difficult though that may be to do. Rejection isn't permanent.


Wednesday, August 6, 2014

What YA Reading?

So. Word on the street is that adults who read young adult (YA) books should be ashamed of themselves.

I know that this is old news by now, but I wrote the bulk of my summer blog posts months ahead of time to accommodate my ever-evolving situation, which is why I'm just now getting around to addressing the recent furor over this assertion. My friend Rachel Heston-Davis did a bang-up job of responding to Ruth Graham's article, as have many others. But of course I feel the need to add my voice to the dissenting crowd, because that's how I roll.

A stack of (mostly) YA books).

A friend and former professor of mine shared an article about the lack of discussion surrounding male YA readers (and, to an extent, authors). It's a quick yet illuminating read about true YA demographics. My friend, however, noted that she "Couldn't help wishing, though, that the male YA writer quoted in the article hadn't said he might not read YA if he didn't write it" because she was "Not sure that helped sell the concept." Below you'll find my response to her, as well as some comments I made when I first read Graham's screed (note: I've edited this since I spoke with my friend for clarity as well as the sake of redacting personal information).


Things I Said When I Had a Strong Gut Reaction to Ruth Graham Slamming My People
1) Tuck Everlasting is not YA. It's a children's novel. Neither is The Westing Game. It's a middle-grade novel. Freaking look into it.
2) As a matter of fact, the quality of YA fiction HAS improved greatly over the last 20 years.
3) Go read Inexcusable and tell me again that there's no such thing as moral ambiguity in YA fiction.
4) How is it not a good thing when adults take teenagers seriously and are able to connect with them through shared reading experiences?

The Luxe, the first book in one of my all-time favorite YA series.

Things I Said When I Read The "Dudes" Article
To an extent, I understand people who say they wouldn't read the genre if they weren't writing in it, since part of the process of writing a certain genre involves knowing it (current trends, past masters, et cetera) and NOT reading it would open them up to read other things/work on other projects, but at the same time, I come from the school of "read everything. Read it now," since I think you can find influences everywhere. Which is to say that I understand your frustration with someone making that declaration.

Even before I switched from fiction to writing for young people (WFYP) in grad school, I would occasionally read something from that group (mostly revisiting YA titles, and occasionally middle grade stuff, that I'd enjoyed when I was in that age range), but I will readily admit that I read more YA/middle grade stuff now than I did before, both because I want to know what's going on in that world and because I had some great professors whose work I'll read whenever I can get my hands on it.

With two of my WFYP homies (Elizabeth and Jamie) after our graduation.

One of the things that bothers me more about these conversations--and honestly not just because I dislike John Green--is the fact that the same big-ticket authors keep coming up as examples of what adult YA readers are (or should be, or should not be) reading, particularly Green, Rainbow Rowell, and Suzanne Collins, much though I may love The Hunger Games. Maybe I'm more sensitive to it because I personally know or am acquainted with some YA authors who deserve to be read, or am familiar with works by authors who are sort of on the margins.

I'm thinking here of Jack Gantos (who has had an interesting life and wrote an incredible novel, Desire Lines, which deals with homophobia and bullying), Sara Farizan (who is helping add some diversity to the genre, being both Persian-American and part of the LGBTQ community), Chris Lynch (he maybe kicked my ass a little--okay, a lot--in grad school, but why more people don't read and take to heart Inexcusable [which I will take any opportunity to plug] is beyond me), and even someone like Cherie Bennett (her Sunset Island series is akin to the Sweet Valley High books, which some people dismiss but I firmly believe have a place in the literary world, since they're fun and have a wide appeal).

Gantos' phenomenal work.

I will say that I appreciate people highlighting the fact that dudes read--and write!--YA and middle-grade books, not just ladies. There was a weird disparity between our faculty and our student body during my time at Lesley; out of eight profs across two years, four were male, but I only knew one guy who was a student (Scott Weems, who, interestingly enough, actually had his PhD in cognitive neuroscience before he came to Lesley for his MFA in WFYP and then went on to publish a non-fiction book about humor and why we laugh, going back to his neuroscience roots), although there have been a few other men whose time didn't overlap with mine. They're underrepresented in YA almost as much as women are in literary fiction, people like Green, Scott Westerfeld, and David Levithan aside.

 Dr. Weems, a seriously nice guy.

It also bugs me that YA authors are simultaneously held to the same and different standards than other authors. You can't sit there and tell me that YA is crap because it's not "literary" enough (which is patently bullshit) and also say that it shouldn't appeal to adults (or else that adults shouldn't find it appealing). That's like saying that a high schooler can't appreciate Steinbeck or Faulkner or that most vaunted of titles, To Kill a Mockingbird. Why SHOULDN'T adults appreciate YA? Not to get all Whitney Houston here, but the children are our future. Let's go ahead and take them--and what they read--at least a little bit seriously. Besides which, does rallying against the adults reading YA also mean that no adult should be writing it? Because every YA author I know, and most of the authors I can think of, is at least in the mid-20s age range, if not older. I'll return to the example of Chris Lynch, who is in his 50s and is a grandfather. Should this disqualify him from penning another YA novel?

 My favorite YA person named Christopher, with the possible exception of Crutcher.

This is all very frustrating to me on a general level. Rachel [mentioned above] in particular has been very vocal, both on Facebook and her blog, and she and I are forever sharing articles back and forth, or else one of us is commenting on whatever the other posts. I actually have an anecdote from my last semester of school that kind of sums up how I feel about all of this: our entire cohort (about 32 of us) had a meeting one morning to discuss student and faculty graduation speakers. Everyone had the opportunity to offer up names, and the other WFYP ladies asked me to recommend Tony Abbott as the faculty representative. Before I got a chance to do so, however, one of the Writing for Stage and Screen students piped up and said, "I want to nominate [one of the WSS profs], because I feel like the WSS people are really disregarded in the program." There were two problems with this declaration. 1) The WSS people were the rock stars of the program. 2) NO ONE (and I mean freaking no one) took WFYP seriously at all except for those of us who were pouring our heart and soul into it.

And that battle rages on today. YA is dismissed by certain critics because it's not "worthy" of adult attention. It's kind of a tunnel vision effect, I guess: you only appreciate what you think belongs on your path. But that's the way you miss out on some pretty awesome stuff.

So now that I've written a manifesto, I'm gong to go take a nap, and maybe read some YA.


Images of The Luxe and Desire Lines via Barnes & Noble.
Image of Dr. Weems via his website.
Image of Chris Lynch via Lesley University.
Images of stacked books and badass ladies via my own Instagram feed.