An issue that has been on my mind for years. My essay in the Eckleburg Review.
An issue that has been on my mind for years. My essay in the Eckleburg Review.
In the following blog post, Kristen Lamb expresses something I’ve thought about for awhile, but about which I don’t have the experience or authority to speak. She certainly doesn’t pull any punches. Thought it might interest other writers.
Because I am something of a media moron, I just found out that Tim Winton’s short novel Breath has been made into a movie directed by Simon Baker and was released on June 1.
In an interview for FilmInk Magazine, Baker says he worked to maintain the lyricism of the novel.
I want to see this film, to see how it translates from the written word. Apparently, Winton is quite well known in Australia. I think he deserves a larger American audience—like rock-star status.
If you want a painless—in fact, glorious—writing lesson from a master, read this book. Tightly-controlled, beautifully rendered—both in emotion and atmosphere—Breath has it all. I reviewed the novel back in 2012 on my School Library Lady blog. Here is the review in its entirety. As I wrote it for a school blog, I mentioned that some of the story’s action is for a mature audience—so FYI, I was thinking of 13-14 year olds. There is nothing in the novel that would give an adult pause.
Breath by Tim Winton
Which risks are worth it? How do you challenge yourself in a way that makes you grow as an individual? That can make you feel alive and so adrenaline-fueled that every day you’re ready and waiting for a new adventure? How do you keep from stepping over that invisible line where you are challenging death itself?
Bruce, nicknamed Pikelet as a teen, is a paramedic as an adult. As the novel opens, he has arrived on the scene of what appears to be a teen suicide, a hanging. But he knows better.
When they meet Sando, friends Pikelet and Looney don’t know that he is a big wave surfer, well-known in some places and sometimes appearing in surf magazines. They are Australian boys who have recently discovered the sport. They’d always enjoyed the water and holding their breath at the bottom of the river. But the ocean is something different. They love it and will do whatever it takes to have the chance to ride waves. They take up odd jobs in order to buy equipment. Looney’s father is neglectful and abusive, so he can go out anytime without much trouble. But Pikelet must lie to his older, concerned folks in order to get away and challenge the waves since his father fears the ocean for reasons he keeps secret.
Sando decides to mentor the boys in surfing bigger and more dangerous waves. They are flattered by his attention, and learn that they have to ignore the snide comments Sando’s wife, Eva, makes about them and their relationship to Sando. She understands that they are there, at least in part, to feed his ego.
Eva has a limp. Yet why she limps and why she is so angry is a secret—and uncovering it is dangerous for Pikelet. As she opens herself up to him, he finds himself trapped by her adult yearnings. While he intuits how inappropriate she is in taking him into her confidence, Pikelet is also smitten with her.
Loonie is aptly named. He will try anything and for him, death-defying challenges are a way to show that he is better than Pikelet, more of a man. But Pikelet has a better sense of self-preservation. He loves a challenge, but knows when his chances of survival aren’t so good.
This slender book is so beautifully written, such a wonder. I was hungrily reading it, hoping to recommend it to all teens. As I got to the final pages, and read about Eva and her way of recreating danger and the adrenaline-stoked high of the fear that accompanies it, I knew that Breath is for mature teens only. Yet it deals so well with the questions of an ordinary life, of facing challenges, and even of maintaining breath, I couldn’t help but hope that others will have the chance to enjoy it.
Note—inserting a little update here: LARB has a nice interview with Winton about his writing process and influences: http://blog.lareviewofbooks.org/interviews/youthful-instinct-stay-fight-interview-tim-winton/
As all the work and celebration of the teen issue of the Inlandia: A Literary Journey Journal concludes, I want to reflect one more time on the value of creative work—of the value both of managing to create when doing so seems a burden, and of being an advocate for others’ work as a teacher, mentor, or perhaps simply as a part of the cheering squad.
Inlandia’s June “Literature on the Lawn” event in Riverside featured some of our teen authors, who read their work. I enjoyed speaking with their cheering squads— parents, family and friends—as well as with the teens themselves. Listening to the authors present their work added another layer of enjoyment in experiencing their writing.
Earlier in the process, I was less sanguine. I had worried that the work of our IE writers was being judged by teen editors. Carissa Myung’s poetry is very mature, quite professional—hardly the stuff of Instagram posts that has made it into teen collections. Audrey Vazzana’s creative narrative looks at the the ravages of Alzheimer’s from both the point of view of a great granddaughter as well as from Alzheimer’s Disease itself, describing its progression in destroying personality. Joseph Salvinski’s story takes place across the Atlantic more than two centuries ago. Kiyani Carter’s narrator is wonderfully quirky and isolated. Aubrey Medina Gaines’ work combines horror with the lonesomeness of a child grieving a parent. Would the teen editors enjoy the individualism and the depth of each piece? Happily they did, proving to me it was the right choice to have them make the selections and, other than myself, to leave adults out of it.
As the evening was an opportunity to celebrate emerging writers, I felt it was serendipitous that I had read, on the same day, two encouraging media posts. The first, from the Academy of American Poets: according to new findings by the National Endowment for the Arts, in the past five years the number of poetry readers in the United States has almost doubled to a total of 28 million adults. I have seen a similar increase in teens wanting to read poetry in my school library.
The second, which speaks both to writing and to being a mentor, I saw in a blog post by editor and writing guru Jane Friedman. She stated that in the most recent Glimmer Train bulletin, Jon Chopan discusses how one of his greatest struggles as a writer and human being is to find purpose in what he does, and to help students find purpose. He writes:
“Despite the notion that we are voiceless, it seems to me that the challenge of a good creative writing instructor is to teach students that they do indeed have a voice and that their voice, that all our voices in concert, have meaning. … We should be struggling with our students as writers, and students of writing, to leave behind something worth protecting, worth defending, something that contributes to the growth of this culture.”
Finally, in what felt like more than a coincidence, I read an essay in Philip Levine’s My Lost Poets that serves as a reminder of why writers need supporters. “In a portion of an essay [poet Larry Levis] tries to define the essential qualities of his most influential teacher, and in so doing he gives us a road map to his own notion of a person’s spiritual and social uses. ‘What still strikes me as amazing, and right, and sane, was his capacity to share all that energy, that fire, with those around him: students and poets and friends. The only discernible principle I gathered from this kind generosity seems to be this: to try to conserve one’s energy for some later use, to try to teach as if one is not quite there and has more important things to do, is a way to lose that energy completely, a way quite simply of betraying oneself.’ What Levis seems too kind to say is that it’s also a way of betraying one’s friends, one’s fellow poets, and one’s students.”
Further on Levine continues the thought, again quoting Levis’ discussion of his mentor: “‘Because we mattered so much to him, we began to matter to ourselves. And to matter in this way, to feel that what one did and how one wrote actually might make a difference, was a crucial gift … given to each of us.’”
Congratulations to the teens whose work was selected. Congratulations to all writers that keep at it and make a difference. And if you are someone who supports writers, to whom good literary citizenship is a daily practice, and who is giving a crucial gift to society by reminding writers that they matter—well, congratulations to you, too.
So happy to get a copy of the spring/summer issue of Tiferet in the mail today. My essay “ Living the Three R’s—Rejection, Reconciliation, Renewal” is included. When I wrote it, I was reading the philosopher William James (brother of the novelist Henry James). It’s a reflection on my spiritual journey away from my religious upbringing. It’s also a consideration of whether people who have conflicting views of religion can get along.
Happy for the opportunity!
Still in the crazy space, but on the upside, there was this fun article about the teen issue of Inlandia Literary Journeys Journal in the Press Enterprise. I was interviewed, as were Cati Porter (executive director of Inlandia Institute) and three of our eight teen editors. Plus, there’s a nifty photo in the rose garden of the institute’s office.
I’m living through silting layers of bad news recently. I worked on an essay about sources in nature that help me to make sense of my interior world and thought I’d post it here—but my essay on how to make sense of the world through writing didn’t make any sense. So—not very helpful writing hints. I’ll try again. Meanwhile, I did write this piece that was in some So Cal newspapers this Sunday. And it does have some useful information on the things a writer needs to do as well as some handy links. I hope you find it useful!
The first book I fell in love with was written long before the word feminism was in common use. Louisa May Alcott was the daughter of high-minded parents and her novel, Little Women, was highly autobiographical. Her abolitionist, transcendentalist father—whose fictional counterpart is away serving as a chaplain in the Civil War—was on the right side of history. But his idealism wasn’t paying the bills, and Alcott spent a good deal of her young adulthood working the crummy sorts of jobs (seamstress, domestic help) available to girls. Critics will tell you that Little Women is about sacrificing appearance for principles and about Christian ethics; yet it is also a protofeminist book about desire for a life outside the duty of family. I suppose if I had waited until I was older, a more seriously feminist-focused book would have better shaped me. Had I been born later, that feminism would have begun with the inclusivity of the third wave. But I was twelve, it was 1971, and I needed immediate guidance.
Less than a year before, my family had moved to one of the most conservative enclaves in the country, Orange County, California. It was a likely landing pad for my conventional parents. People in our little city were mostly white and affluent. In short, it was the kind of place where a hundred-year-old book could seem entirely fresh to a tween girl, more progressive than anything in her real life.
In the old (and I realize now, more diverse) neighborhood, my mother had had good friends. Their kids were all growing up, and with everyone in school all day, the moms got together to drink coffee and smoke cigarettes. There was nothing like this in the new neighborhood. Moms generally didn’t work, but they weren’t at home either. There wasn’t a welcome wagon or invitations to coffee. My mom spent the school hours with our much-loved little dog. When I came home from school one day, she was hysterical, pacing the street and calling “Spooky! Spooky!” telling me between sobs that he would never find his way home in an unfamiliar area. But he did make it back that evening. It was then that I realized that he was her only daily connection to the living while the rest of us were out meeting new friends.
Perhaps it was this aloneness that drove my mother to get her first job after nearly twenty years of marriage, even though she didn’t possess a driver’s license and had to bum rides from my older sisters. She became a secretary at what was then Chapman College, in the office that oversaw the World Campus Afloat, which offered students a seminar at sea, an opportunity to travel to various parts of the world while taking classes on a ship. As a private college, Chapman’s pay rate for the clerical staff was notoriously lousy, and I think many women who hadn’t worked outside the home for years were hired because those with up-to-date resumes could find better offers. But the campus was only ten minutes from home—a boon to someone who daily hitched a ride. More importantly, it got my mom out of the house and into a viable community.
Though bright, my mother–the daughter of strict Irish Catholicism mixed with alcoholism–had grown up outside of Pittsburgh in government-subsidized housing. She never had the opportunity to attend college, and she now enjoyed the milieu, the mix of students, educators, and not-quite hippy intellectuals, whose free thinking amused her without threatening her own established order. Her boss was a language professor, and she was fascinated by the way that, when she’d find him writing at his desk and ask him a question, he would answer in Spanish or French before he caught himself. “He thinks in other languages,” she told me.
And yet, that my mother got her first job shortly after we moved to the OC seeded in me the idea that we couldn’t really afford to live in our community, that we were imposters and didn’t belong. The affluence of school peers added evidence to this hypothesis.
Though my mother had found community, this was not her feminist moment nor a lesson for me about the expansion of women’s options. Rightly so, she railed against her overarching circumstances—her job was added to her duties while none of them were taken away. She was often furious; she screamed easily, with frequency. These days, she would call me a liar for saying so, but I learned my longshoreman’s language from my parents in my teen years. Because of my mother’s rage against the dual expectations of her, I learned a few survival skills, like how to do my own laundry.
Oddly, it was doing my laundry and keeping track of my own clothes that led me to find Little Women.
Southern California is known to be warm; nevertheless, it rains in the winter—or at least it did in the 1970s—and is certainly cold enough for sweaters and jeans, for waterproof jackets. On my own, I’ve never been very good at selecting clothes. To this day, my nieces think I should not be allowed to shop by myself because the result is always disastrous. But as a tween, I not only had no flair for fashion, I had no cognizance of the weather. Like my mother, I was always sprinting out of the house in the morning minutes after I should have left. I hurried to school every day and heated by the jog, didn’t immediately notice that I wasn’t dressed appropriately with my thin cotton and butterfly sleeves. But by the time that the nutrition break between second and third periods came, it was clear that it was too cold for me to stand outside and gossip with my friends. I took shelter in the only building open for purposeless students, the library, which was more like a big classroom full of books. Admitting how often I needed to do this brings my intelligence into question. Suffice it to say, it was more than once.
Since I was in the library with nothing to do, I would have a look at the books. I can’t remember why Little Women came to my attention. Perhaps it was on display. I think about the only YA novel out at that time was Catcher in the Rye. Even the YA-landscape-altering The Chocolate Wars was a few years from publication. No matter. In that community, if such a book had been on display, the library clerk probably would have been fired.
I want to say I loved Little Women from page one. It was, after all, a book I secreted and read into the night. But I didn’t love all the little women. Proper Meg and superficial Amy? No. I did feel sorry for Beth, but only because she died. It was Jo, and only Jo, that I loved.
As the novel opens, it seems that Jo wants to be a man, but it becomes clear that she just wants the opportunities that a man has. She’s often told to tone down her inner tomboy, and she agrees to try. The self-sacrificing and overtly sentimentalized Christian ethic that is immediately on display probably put off many modern teens. But I continued reading because, whatever Jo agrees to, impinging on her creative spirit is always off limits. She is allowed to read alone, undisturbed, in the attic, and no one thinks she’s weird. Even her cranky Aunt March, for whom she works as a companion, has a library full of good books which are at Jo’s disposal. In fact all the best houses in the novel are full of books, and Jo manages to get access. Better yet, her family actually supports her creative writing, even agreeing to act in her dramas. I wanted to be Jo partly because she is so creative and self-reliant, but also because her family is her first appreciative audience.
So here was a girl only a few years older than I who is allowed to read widely (which is another way of saying she is allowed to think for herself), who is given the opportunity and the encouragement to create, and whose family has nothing but reasonable discourse. No one in the March family is screaming or railing against their constraints. A tween’s dream family.
While tragedy arrives with the death of Beth, a common criticism of the novel is that its Pollyanna-infused worldview makes for a lack of conflict. All the characters continually review their behavior, reach for higher ground, and are capable of forgiveness. But for my twelve-year-old self, the most poignant conflict scene I had ever read comes when the youngest sister, Amy, is mad at Jo and burns all of her writing. The destruction of her creative output seemed an effort to destroy Jo’s essence, her authority over herself. That Jo ignores Amy the following day, leaving her to break through the thin pond ice while attempting to skate, struck me as karmic justice.
I have been such a slow learner all my life. It would be wonderful to say that I’d had a seventh-grade epiphany as I contrasted the March family with my own, the confines and the much-envied liberties of Jo’s life against the strictures of mine. In fact, it would have been great to have had any epiphany at some point. But I never have. I spent years doing cringeworthy things against my own best interest. Staying off and on—as he would have me—with a psychologically abusive boyfriend; judging badly men and their motives, seeing those twenty years my senior as father figures, incapable of conceiving that they thought of me as an appropriate sexual partner. And, perhaps ironically, certainly most importantly, landing in the same mistaken ‘liberation’ that had so angered my mother, of working around the clock with no time for self-determination. Books have taught me much, but only slowly, cumulatively. I picture them stacked with spines out and imagine them finally containing the swirling whirlwind of my imagination, which forms a new text.
And it’s that forming of a new text that circles back to Jo and her desire to write. Through Little Women, I understood that though high ideals didn’t pay the bills, there was no worthy life without them. I understood that beauty could be put off and on like a hat, even sold when necessary, as Jo managed to secure twenty-five dollars during a family financial crisis by selling her hair to a wigmaker. I understood that a man could be handsome, adoring, even wealthy and still be a bad personality match. The most significant thing I learned was something I couldn’t have verbalized then. If women are to live in equality to men, then the autonomy from which social and political rights derive begins when women are afforded the time and space to imaginatively create. This is the single feminist ideal I’ve returned to through all my many missteps. I was in college before I read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and an adult before I sampled more contemporary fare. Until then, Little Women sustained me.
I can’t help putting in one last word for the Ontario Teen Book Fest. It’s full of great positive energy for readers and writers, and that’s one reason I’ve always enjoyed it, have reserved the school van to chauffeur teens in my book club, and when I was a representative for the region in the California School Library Association, organized OTBF field trips for members. However, another reason I like it is because it embraces the darker side of life as a teen–and thus, the literature about that dark side–while reminding anyone who is immersed in the darkness that good books engage the topics they are struggling with and offer solace.
This year, both the keynote addresses and the breakout sessions tackled issues of harassment, drug abuse, suicide and more.
The first keynote speaker, Josephine Angelini, spoke about the #timesup movement in terms of understanding that words–all words–matter. Her own experience with harassment as a young woman made her stop keeping a journal. Audience members had a chance to pause and consider the many things that girls will try in order to stop being harassed. At one point, Angelini shaved her head to stop strange men from catcalling at her on the street. As she points out, it didn’t work.
Jeff Garvin, also one of the featured speakers, presented on identity,
particularly on the aspects of it that individuals can’t choose. Identity is a construct that impacts the way you experience your life. Garvin discussed how his environment and his peers pushed him to construct a negative identity for himself. As a preteen, he thought of himself as a misfit with uncool clothes when other boys made fun of his brands. He was humiliated and beat up in high school. In response, he identified as a victim and decided to attend a new arts high school. However, only a year later, he decided to return to his home school. As an adult, he learned that the guy who beat him had been beaten by his own dad as a teen.
In coming to understand that everyone has a backstory, Garvin also came to understand that by judging people based on their school clubs or activities, and writing off popular or good looking peers, he’d missed opportunities to make connections.
Garvin went on to draw a line from today’s political environment, when the country is crying out for change, to the need for teens to have an alternative version of themselves. He noted research on challenging beliefs, which shows just how difficult it is for people to change their core beliefs, even in the face of facts which contradict them. In other words, people don’t change their minds about subjects that challenge their identities. He inspired the audience to be open minded and push the envelope of identity.
Ellen Hopkins, the book fest’s main keynote speaker, discussed her background as a freelance journalist, a career that gave her many opportunities for adventure including swimming with orcas and parachuting with military air squads. However, she stopped working in nonfiction and came to write YA novels when her daughter became a meth addict. Hopkins’ ex-husband was an addict, and her daughter became one during a court-ordered visitation when she was sixteen years old. Hopkins says that she discusses her private life because she wants people to know that her novels are based on facts, and that life can change more quickly than one could ever imagine. She implores teens to consider their choices very carefully.
Although the authors for the breakout session “IRL: Navigating Darkness” have written about some of life’s worst moments and tragedies, they reminded the audience that all discussion of darkness–including YA novels–must be balanced with light and with hope. The particular difficulty for teens in hanging on to hope is that they have a large responsibility load, but minimum freedoms. Family problems, depression, and anxiety can seem uncontrollable, nevermind the problems of the larger world. However, the authors reminded us that teens do have the power to make change, as we see now with students pushing against the NRA and Congress for gun control legislation.
Though it is a cliche to say that things gets better, it is also true, and that’s important to remember. Some of the panelists could think back to teachers who exemplify Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall (Part II)” with their ‘dark sarcasm.’ But they also remembered those adults, including teachers, who ventured in and helped pull them out of the sadness. They gave a nod to what Mr. Rogers told us long ago: Look for the helpers.
Much of what I heard at the book fest was a call for a dual activism: Fight for yourself and your identity. Then take the fight outside and help others.
That’s a hopeful message in the darkness, and that’s the message of good YA books.