“Everywhere I go, I’m asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a bestseller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.” – Flannery O’Connor
Those who have been long-time readers of the blog know how I came absolutely unglued reading The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, by Irish novelist John Boyne, for the Cybils Awards in 2006. I thought it was an utter waste of trees, and my friend Leila actually, in sheer desperation, put it down to read about TENNIS, which has to inform readers how bad it was. (Sorry, sports fans, but tennis is ruddy dull to watch, much less read about.) (Leila later voted the book as her most put-downable.) And then, there was the MOVIE.
For me, the whole book – and its celebrants – was almost worse than the existence of Holocaust deniers. Nope, nope, we’re not going to deny it happened. We’re just going to cuten it up! Perk it up! Every genocide needs ruffles! With its simplistic, condescending, patronizing storyline, the novel affirmed that children are so INNOCENT and lisping, pink and cute — so stupid and unobservant — that they’d miss, you know, great atrocity, the smell of death and the fact that their wee bestie was incarcerated and being starved and tortured, prior to being murdered. Also, Boyne wouldn’t mention the lice and the and the bruises and the disappearances going round on his side of the fence. The characters were meant to be nine and twelve, but the baby language of “Out With” instead of Auschwitz and the Fuhrer being called “The Fury” utterly sickened me – what nine-year-old German child would not know the name of his country’s leader in the 1940′s???? In an abusive home, much less an oppressive political regime, children are indoctrinated before they can speak.
Y’know what??? LET’S. NOT. GET. ME. STARTED.
In short, the book showed an appalling lack of respect for its subject matter, for the survivors and the victims of one of modern history’s most egregious and cold-blooded atrocities, and just whistles off, looking at the ceiling, whilst I foam at the mouth because it is truly, madly, deeply inappropriate. OKAY. I get it. John Boyne doesn’t care. But, I swear to you, it’s books and movies like that which give rise to STUPID S$*%*% LIKE THIS:
REALLY, ZARA CLOTHING STORE???? Did you sleep through World History? In a company that does business INTERNATIONALLY, was there NO ONE who was at all bothered by a yellow star? No one who thought twice? No one whose job it was to check out stuff like this? I don’t buy that. Maliciously meant or (probably) not — people who don’t do business thoughtfully soon don’t do business.
See, this is a truth:
Truth: human nature is for human beings to have a short attention span.
Truth: we need books that TELL THE TRUE, as Jane Yolen puts it, to remind us of what is real.
Truth: CRAP LIKE THIS is what happens when we lose track of the truth. We grind salt in one another’s wounds. We forget that anyone ever hurt. We walk through life with blinders. We can justify all sorts of things.
Today, I sent Debbie’s inspirational photograph to my writing group, and added the following words:
RESIST THE TRENDS. Resist the frigid breath of the publishing industry, breathing down your neck, trying to get you to focus on The Market and What Editors Want. WHO CARES. Write the best story you know how. Write you heart out, all over the page. Look into the convex lens of your imaginary audience and tell the true – the REAL true that makes you dig down and get personal and a little afraid and maybe weep a little. Write what you’re finding a glimmer of, but fear maybe others won’t understand. Write what scares you, what hurts you, what disgusts you, what seduces you.
…and THEN worry about the stupid industry.
As is often the case, the quotation shared started a dialogue with a friend. Her response (appropriately anonymized):
The problem is I did write the story that came to me, and now I’m worrying about the market, because my story won’t sell.
Not to be a naysayer and a downer, but I listened to Justin Chanda, and his speech was inspirational, BUT…
They (and by they, I mean editors and agents and publishers) say to not worry about the market and write your own story, and then in the next breath, they say, “We’re not taking ______, ________, _________, because those trends are over.” Fill in the blanks with your story idea(s).
They want the next big thing, but they also want the current hot trend. He’s right that we cannot predict the trends or write to them, but on the other hand, the trends exist and if you happen to have something that doesn’t match what they’re looking for–even if it’s well written–the answer will still be tough luck, Charlie.
I sat through that conference depressed and disheartened, despite Justin’s smiling face. Many of the agents there were closed to submissions, including conference goers. (I kept wondering, “Then why are you here?”) And all of them were pretty down on YA–especially speculative fiction. The ones who were taking submissions wanted realistic, please, something like John Green, only not a cancer book (aka trend over).
I walked away with the decision that I’m just going to write for me and not worry about publication or querying. No pressure. No what if. No fear if it’s good enough. No second-guessing the critiques I’ll receive and wondering what everyone won’t like, what I need to fix, etc. Just me and my own joy in making up a story.
…Right now, I just want to finish [my] manuscript and enjoy the ride.
Trying to experience the journey and not worry about the end…
I tried to choose my words carefully – because I know it’s easy for me to say “Oh, don’t give up! Don’t let the market rule you!” when I’ve already been published, and my friend hasn’t yet, but I believe so strongly that she will be that “yet” is the only word I can use. I replied:
And that is what I mean about not worrying about the trend.
I don’t at all belittle what was said at conference, what you heard, or what you found inspirational –
What I have a problem with is PERPETUATING. If we keep writing books that are what people want? We’re keeping the world – this dominant culture, youth worshiping, lucre-loving, hypocritically class conscious, culturally clueless, mean (girl/guy) enabling, tech obsessed – this disappointing, shallow world exactly the way it is.
Okay, so astronauts get to grow up and change the world. People expect that of the hard sciences – they’re researching, they’re making discoveries – right? People don’t expect that from art. We’re just… making pretty pictures. Scribbling words. It’s not like we’re curing cancer. We don’t change the world… or, so you’d think.
ART IS POWERFUL. The act of creation — the experience of seeing yourself reflected in a creation — we can’t possibly ignore that thrill. Art – and our place in it – has the potential to be transformative. We cannot possibly content ourselves with just regurgitating something made up by talking heads in publishing firms whose ego and paycheque is tied to perpetuating the status quo. Another-John-Green-But-Not-Cancer realistic fiction novel – my square backside; we can do better than that. We CAN do better than that. OUR stories are real – for a given value of “real” in fiction – not contrived and cobbled to meet some trend. YES, marketing and money rule supreme in the industry, but the industry doesn’t move without us. I truly believe that the best stories — and a disturbing number of outright craptacular ones and generic “meh” ones — will continue to be told.
You’re right: it’s not important to be THE best in the industry, especially because that is totally subjective. Being your best is what’s going to make creating your stories satisfying – it’s what’s going to make your words fly, and your story arc and your big-picture metaphors sing like the tapped edge of a crystal goblet – that tiny chime that says ‘real.’
Here’s to being the genuine article.
The conversation on literature and breaking into the market isn’t over, of course – this was just a piece of it. There’s a lot of hope, and a lot of despair in publishing; a lot of unrealized dreams and normalizing the status quo, but it’s still my hope that things will change. Here’s to that day.
They’ve helpfully created a page of terms for SF writers. Because spatial anomalies, tachyon emitters, isophasic signatures and quantum singularities… well, they only worked with Star Trek. SF Writers Unite to end technobabble!
The other day, I heard myself say something about a “palaver,” as in, “so we had a palaver about the whole thing,” which, when I used it, meant an annoying, big-fat-hairy-deal conversation. The Scots usage that I echoed means “a big fuss”or “a bother,” and the West African/Portuguese original usage, from whence the word originates (Portuguese palavra or ‘word,’ from Latin parabola or ‘comparison’) in the mid-18th century meant “trader talk,” or the linga franca used by tribal folk and traders. (Is this another example of what Adrienne calls my “weirdly specific knowledge”? Why, yes, I think it is…) Isn’t it interesting that my meaning of the word was halfway between two other meanings? I’m always intrigued by the “separated by a common language” aspect of the English language. I read a lot of books – and see a lot of what I perceive to be as misuses of that language, or, at least, odd uses.
But, perhaps, none so odd as the misused and egregious banged up homophone.
♦ The suffix, sapient = wise, so homo sapiens are those of the wisdom, or the Latin words for “wise men” – and refers to human beings.
♦ The suffix, geneous (not genous, sorry) = type or kind, thus homogenous, in chemistry, refers to the same type.
♦ The suffix -nym easily gives us its meaning of “name” thus homonyms are words in biology which are namesakes, and in linguistics/English are words which have the same sound, but have different spellings and meanings. See also homophone, (or homographs or heteronyms, which sound different, but are spelled the same, i.e., lead the metal, lead, as in leading the way.)
English, my people. My language is known to be hard to learn, but it sort of galls me when MY PEOPLE don’t know it. How did we all miss the whole idea that “homo” is merely a prefix, and not a bad word? Oh, wait? You’re still operating under that juvenile and egregious means of calling people homos, and meaning, offensively, that you’re accusing them of being gay? Really!??
class=Indent>… may I ask you to GROW UP!?
By now, myriad people the world over have heard of the Provo, Utah based ESL center who fired a blogger because he had the nerve to blog about homophones… and the school feared that people would associate their school with a GLBTQ people, or a “homophonic agenda.” OH, I cringe. I dramatically slap my forehead. I am tempted to dramatically slap their foreheads. But, people are comfortable in their ignorance; even knowing that the word has nothing to do with gay or lesbian people, the Utah language school’s belief is that even writing “homo” is wrong. Homo=gay, because REASONS. Elementary school, immature, confused REASONS.
And so, my fantasy letter begins:
Dear Book and Word World,
I write, because I CARE. I care about how words are used, by people who actually publish things. I care, because… we only have one English language (if you ignore the British Commonwealth) and we need to actually use it properly. To wit:
Cavalry, Calvary and Calgary? Are three vastly different things… The first is a herd on horses, the second is a Hill, and the third is a city in Canada. Listen carefully, pronounce properly, and spell specifically. Please and THANK YOU.
Your and You’re are a tiny bit over the pet-peeve line, much like there and their and they’re — but these can almost be seen as typos, and we ALL do this one sometimes… even people with multiple English degrees. A friend and I laughed just last week over discrete and discreet — it happens. But…
Reign, rein, and rain? Why am I running across this one so frequently? Three separate things, darlings, and the words are in such uncommon usage that this should be one that we catch. Only the first has to do with kings and princes.
I’m pretty sure I’ve fussed before about Peak and Peek and Pique. Only one has elevation – and the one with the q – that you rarely use – is annoyance. The other you know, right?
And if you don’t know the difference between taught and taut, I suggest a return to school. No, really. Even night classes could help.
Lightening? Lightning? Which one relates to weather?
It’s not that I’m trying to call anyone stupid, not at all. But sloppy, hasty, and lacking beta readers? Insisting that words mean what you think they do, instead of looking them up, and understanding that words have meanings that came along before you? Oh, yes, I’m calling you out on that, book people. Loudly. (Additionally, Tech Boy would like you to know that though Adverse and Averse sound alike, they’re not interchangeable.)
Writers, Bloggers and Copy Editors, Unite! Subvert the homophonic agenda. Or, whatever it is.
There’s kind of a cliché about tween girls – between the ages of eleven and thirteen, that they somehow go horse-mad. I was not a horse girl. Not even a little bit. While everyone else was going nuts in middle school after the Saddle Club books, National Velvet, Black Beauty and others, I was yawning and buffing my nails. Which is ironic, since from sixteen to twenty-two, I worked at a summer camp, owned and wore out a pair of cowboy boots, shoveled poo, pitched hay, picked hooves, saddled and curried and swatted away horseflies. I actually sometimes worked with horses, and every summer was one of the hapless staff at my summer camp, chosen to ride the horses during Staff Week, after they’d happily been saddle-free all winter long. Yeah. It was a real joy, as they held their breath while their cinches were tightened, slapped us with their filthy tails, stepped on our feet, kicked, bucked, bit, and tried to rub us off against fences.
So, me: I wasn’t a horse-mad tween, ever. At least, I didn’t think so. But, a conversation this weekend with Tech Boy reminded me differently:
Tech Boy, (Driving by a field of Shetland ponies,): Hey, look. Short horses. What were the people on the Shetland isles thinking, breeding pit ponies? They don’t even have mines in the Shetland Isles.
Me: Well, no, but Shetland ponies were work horses on the island anyway, and they probably traded them inland to be used for breeding ponies who could go into mines and stuff. People bred them smaller. I think they were like those Justins.
Tech Boy: Those what now?
Me: The Justins. The ponies.
Tech Boy: Justin… ponies?
Me: You know… Justin. That guy. Who bred the horses to get a really strong workhorse.
Tech Boy: …
Me: You know. Justin Morgan Had a Horse.
Tech Boy: You do know I have zero idea what you’re talking about, right?
Me: Oh, it was this book I read! On horse breeding! When I was … little. Okay, yeah, that sounds weird.
My copy looked like this.
Nah, it’s not weird at all that as a seven-year old I was obsessed with a book on 19th century horse breeding, which was written in 1945. Not. Weird. At. All. I guess by the time middle school came along, I was, as they say, OVER IT.
The funny thing is, just even thinking about that one book makes me remember others. Anyone else recall BRIGHTY OF THE GRAND CANYON… a mule book, which probably started my whole fascination with the Tennessee Walking Mule (what, you didn’t know I had one?), or, MY FRIEND FLICKA, which I also read more than once? Amusing to note – FLICKA was written in 1941 and BRIGHTY in 1957. Clearly, as an elementary school student advanced reader, I had vintage taste. (Or else, our school library had really old books. Take your pick on that one.)
I just wanted you to know I will NOT be reading the book, THE MOCKINGBIRD NEXT DOOR, by Marja Mills. This is no sacrifice, as you told us all in 2011 that you had not given that woman access to your life except as a neighbor, and that any writing she did was unauthorized snooping.
How lowering it must be, to realize that a woman has befriended someone in your circle of family and friends, merely to validate her stalking, predatory and downright creepy need to delve into your life and peer into your past. I resent this so fiercely on your behalf — it is your right to be as reclusive and introverted as a blind mole, should the mood take you. What is WRONG with this society? Why can we not leave people alone??? Why must we assume everyone wants to be Facebooked, Tweeting, instant-instagrammed and dissected, splayed and pinned on a vivisectionist’s board? How gauche and galling of Penguin to go on, marketing the book as a cozy peep into your private world, a guided tour of YOU by a dear and trusted friend, when it is in nowise any such thing?
What an offensive, egregious thing our curiosity has become! It seems our society believes that a celebrated individual who withdraws from interviews and cameras is somehow slyly managing a public relations stunt, and feeding an enormous ego, instead of perhaps truly not wishing to have their every move tracked and reported. The voracious maw of celebrity news is always nibbling, chewing, ravaging, always greedily clawing for more.
So, Ms. Lee, I am resolved: I will not read the book. I will not acknowledge it, nor comment upon when others bring it up. I will, instead, reread your beautifully poised classic novel, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, and marvel again over the spare, evocative sentences that painted such a vivid picture of innocence and angst in a sleepy Southern town, of fear of the unknown twisted into bigoted, posturing rage, of childhood innocence, racial prejudice, and the shining spark of human goodness that withstood the engrained stench of an old evil.
With well-deserved and heartfelt thanks for your exquisite body of work,
Your deeply respectful admirer, whose affection compels her never to mail this.
WHY must I have Existential Crises at 10:45 on Sunday nights? We even had a long weekend this weekend, I had plenty of time to come unglued about the glacial speed at which my current revision is going — but no. When we needed to be safely asleep and storing up hours of rest against a busy week, I start fidgeting and sighing, and poor Tech Boy says, “So… should I just leave the light on?”
“No… it’s fine, we can go to bed. It’s just that…” Aaaand, we’re off.
My Tech Boy is no stranger to my cray-cray, but rather than rolling his eyes or tuning me out in favor of his book – which, not gonna lie, I might do to me – he actually listens to the words behind the hysteria. He listens until I wind down, and then says a few knowledgeable things which spark something. Somehow, within minutes, I am back on track after spewing invective and doubt all over the room. I grab my bedside pad of paper and pencil, and start scribbling notes. I nod. We discuss. And, finally, much later, I sleep, at last able to actually relax.
Much to my dismay, yes. There’s a moment like this EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.
But, then, this is par for the course:
“There is always, of course, that terrible three weeks, or a month, which you have to get through when you are trying to get started on a book. There is no agony like it. You sit in a room, biting pencils, looking at a typewriter, walking about, or casting yourself down on a sofa, feeling like you want to cry your head off. Then you go out and interrupt someone who is busy – Max usually, because he is so good-natured – and you say:
“‘It’s awful, Max, do you know, I have quite forgotten how to write – I simply can’t do it any more! I shall never write another book.’”
“‘Oh yes you will,’” Max would say consolingly. He used to say it with some anxiety at first: now his eyes stray back again to his work while he talks soothingly.
“‘But I know I won’t. I can’t think of an idea. I had an idea, but now it seems no good.’”
“‘You’ll just have to get through this phase. You’ve had all this before. You said it last year. You said it the year before.’”
“‘It’s different this time,’” I say, with positive assurance.
“But it wasn’t different, of course, it was just the same. You forget every time what you felt before when it comes again: such misery and despair, such inability to do anything that seems the least creative. And yet it seems that this particular phase of misery has got to be lived through. It is rather like putting the ferrets in to bring out what you want at the end of the rabbit burrow. Until there has been a lot of subterranean disturbance, until you have spent long hours of utter boredom, you can never feel normal. You can’t think of what you want to write, and if you pick up a book you find you are not reading it properly. If you try to do a crossword your mind isn’t on the clues; you are possessed by a feeling of paralyzed hopelessness.
“Then, for some unknown reason, an inner ‘starter’ gets you off at the post. You begin to function, you know then that ‘it’ is coming, the mist is clearing up. You know suddenly, with absolute certitude, just what A wants to say to B. You can walk out of the house, down the road, talking to yourself violently, repeating the conversation that Maud, say, is going to have with Aylwin, and exactly where they will be, just where the other man will be watching through the trees, and how the little dead pheasant on the ground makes Maud think of something she had forgotten, and so on and so on. And you come home bursting with pleasure; you haven’t done anything at all yet, but you are – triumphantly – there.”
An Autobiography: Agatha Christie, pp. 571-572)
To think that the woman who crafted Marple and Poirot writhed on the point of her pen makes me smile. That she nagged her husband with her crazy makes me laugh. Some of us have to make several false starts to begin our writing; others of us struggle with slump-y middles, and still others of us are in agonies at the end. All of us are, at some point, an absolute joy to live with. I can never say enough good things about my Tech Boy – when I am pulling out hair and clinging to the side of cliffs, he just starts talking me down.
In a career spanning over 45 years, Walter Dean Myers wrote more than 100 books for children of all ages. His impressive body of work includes two Newbery Honor Books, three National Book Award Finalists, and six Coretta Scott King Award/Honor-winning books. He was the winner of the first-ever Michael L. Printz Award, the first recipient of the Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement, and a recipient of the Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement in writing for young adults. In 2010, Walter was the United States nominee for the Hans Christian Andersen Award, and in 2012 he was appointed the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, serving a two-year tenure in the position. Also in 2012, Walter was recognized as an inaugural NYC Literary Honoree, an honor given by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, for his substantial lifetime accomplishments and contribution to children’s literature.
“We are deeply saddened by the passing of erudite and beloved author Walter Dean Myers. Walter’s many award-winning books do not shy away from the sometimes gritty truth of growing up. He wrote books for the reader he once was, books he wanted to read when he was a teen. He wrote with heart and he spoke to teens in a language they understood. For these reasons, and more, his work will live on for a long, long time,” said Susan Katz, President and Publisher of HarperCollins Children’s Books.
Walter Dean Myers was born Walter Milton Myers on August 12, 1937, in Martinsburg, West Virginia. Walter’s birth mother, Mary Myers, died after the birth of his younger sister, Imogene. His father, George, sent Walter to live with his first wife, Florence Dean, and her husband, Herbert Dean, in Harlem, along with Florence and George’s two daughters. Walter would eventually adopt the middle name “Dean” to honor Florence and Herbert.
In Walter’s memoir, Bad Boy, he wrote, “Harlem is the first place called ‘home’ that I can remember.” This sentiment is reflected in Walter’s writing, whether via a love letter to the neighborhood in the picture book Harlem; a story of a boy’s trial for a crime committed in Harlem, in the novel Monster; or the tale of two friends struggling to see a future beyond the community they know in the novel Darius & Twig. Walter spent much of his childhood playing basketball on the courts of Harlem and checking books out of the George Bruce Branch of the New York Public Library. Florence Dean taught Walter to read in their kitchen, and when he began attending Public School 125, he could read at a second-grade level. Though Walter struggled through school with a speech impediment and poor grades, and he had trouble with discipline throughout his school career, he remained an avid reader. His love of reading soon progressed to a love of writing.
Walter wrote well in high school and one teacher, who recognized his talent but also knew he was going to drop out, told him to keep on writing, no matter what—“It’s what you do,” she said. Walter did drop out of Stuyvesant High School, though they now claim him as a graduate (which Walter always found funny). At the age of seventeen, he enlisted in the Army. Years later, after his safe return home and while working a construction job, Walter would remember this teacher’s advice. He started writing again…and he didn’t stop.
Walter’s body of work includes picture books, novels for teens, poetry, and non-fiction alike. In 1968, Walter’s first published book, Where Does the Day Go?, illustrated by Leo Carty, won an award from the Council on Interracial Books for Children. Walter and his son Christopher, an artist, collaborated on a number of picture books for young readers, including We Are America: A Tribute from the Heart and Harlem, which received a Caldecott Honor Award, as well as the teen novel and National Book Award Finalist Autobiography of My Dead Brother, which Christopher illustrated. Walter’s novel Scorpions won a Newbery Honor Medal and the Margaret A. Edwards Award, while gritty teen novels Lockdown and Monster were both National Book Award Finalists. Monster appeared on the New York Times bestseller list, won the first Michael L. Printz Award, and received a Coretta Scott King Honor Award. His stunning Coretta Scott King Award-winning novel, Fallen Angels (1988), about the Vietnam War, was named one of the top ten American Library Association Best Books for Young Adults of all time. Twenty years later, Myers wrote a riveting contemporary companion novel, Sunrise Over Fallujah, which was named a New York Times Notable Book in 2008.
In Invasion (2010), Myers once again explored the effects and horrors of war through young protagonists, this time set in World War II. His upcoming books include Juba!, (HarperCollins, April 2015) a novel for teens based on the life of a young African American dancer, and On a Clear Day (Crown/Random House Books for Young Readers, September 2014). A graphic novel adaptation of Monster (HarperCollins) is also forthcoming.
Walter often wrote books about the most difficult time in his own life—his teenage years—for the reader he once was; these were the books that he wished were available when he was that age. Throughout his life, Walter worked to make sure young adults had the tools necessary to become hungry readers, thirsty learners, and, therefore, successful adults. He frequently met with incarcerated teens in juvenile detention centers and received countless letters thanking him for his inspirational words. Walter also worked with and mentored teenage fan and writer Ross Workman, and they published the novel Kick together. As the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature from 2012-2013, Walter traveled around the United States promoting the slogan “Reading is not optional.” He strove to spread the message that a brighter future depends on reading proficiency and widespread literacy, not only during his two-year tenure as National Ambassador, but beyond. More than anything, Walter pushed for his stories to teach children and teenagers never to give up on life.
“Walter Dean Myers was a compassionate, wonderful, and brilliant man. He wrote about children who needed a voice and their stories told. His work will live on for generations to come. It was an honor to work with him for so many years,” said Miriam Altshuler, Walter’s literary agent.
Walter lived in Jersey City, New Jersey, with his wife Constance. He is survived by Constance, as well as his two sons, Christopher and Michael Dean. He was predeceased by his daughter, Karen.
Probably my favorite Walter Dean Myers conversation was the one he had with his son on Story Corps; that, and hundreds of interviews and articles give us just a small picture of a great man – who never stop talking about diversity in literature, and who was one of the grand old men of young adult and children’s lit. He has left some big shoes to fill.