21 October 2017

What Women Mean When We Say #MeToo

Some men on my Facebook timeline have complained that #metoo is unfair to men because it implies that they're all catcalling losers, but they themselves have never catcalled a lady once. Unfair!

But here's the thing, pals. It's not just catcalling.

It's when nine out of ten cab drivers ask you if you're single, and you have them drop you a block from your house because you don't want them to know where you live.

It's when you're leaning over a coworker's desk to look at a document and another coworker walks by and says you're begging for a spanking.

It's when a man on the train demands that you smile at him, yells at you when you try to ignore him, and everyone else is silent.

It's when a man you just met physically blocks the door and won't let you leave until you give him your number. It's when the other teachers in your department make sexual comments about your 8th grade students, and when you call them on it they say the girls are asking for it by dressing that way.

It's when your coworkers complain that your boss must be on her period because she's given you a tough deadline.

It's when a man literally grabs you by the pussy and insists that he's allowed to/it's funny because he's gay.

It's when your eye doctor smashes his erection against you during your eye exam and you don't speak out because you're too young to know what an erection even is.

It's when your boss loves to make boob jokes and everyone defends him because "he's harmless."

It's when your much older manager tells you to quit your job so you can date him, and when you try to laugh it off he reminds you that he could fire you if you'd rather.

It's when a man on public transportation leers at you and opens his legs to reveal his gross old dick flopping out of his shorts.

It's when a man won't leave you alone until you utter the magic words "boyfriend" or "husband."

It's when a man you thought was your friend sticks his stupid penis in your face while you're trying to watch a movie and then yells at you and calls you a tease when you refuse to give him a blow job.

It's when one of your students threatens to rape a girl in your class and the vice principal doesn't want to call his parents because "he was only joking."

It's when a man gets mad at you for crossing the street and screams, "I'm not going to rape you, you fat bitch!"

It's when a man warns you about other men, or makes threats about his teenaged daughter and boys, because he "knows how men are" or "used to be a teenaged boy" and knows how they are too.

It's when this same man gets mad at you for making generalizations about men.

It's the million times you have to smile, or laugh, or ignore something in order to de-escalate a situation where you don't feel safe. It's the ways you learn to pacify men, to soothe their egos and avoid their anger. It's the way those strategies become second nature. It's the way you walk through the world every day. It's the way you learn to watch your words and your body language and your outfit and your back so no one can accuse you of leading him on or sending the wrong message or asking for it. It's the way you know that no amount of vigilance is enough to keep you safe.

So yeah, dudes. We're not just talking about catcalling.

01 July 2017

Covered in Bees!

When I was six years old, I stepped on a nest of yellow jackets. We had stopped on the side of the road to pee off the side of the car, par for the course on family roadtrips, and then my dad, little sister, and I wandered a little ways into the woods where we found an abandoned train track and decided to explore it. I was first. I remember the before and the after: first the woods, hazy and green, dappled light filtered through leaves, and then the pain.

We were somewhere along the Blue Ridge Parkway in the Appalachian Mountains. Beautiful and remote. I stepped on the nest and suddenly I was surrounded by angry wasps. They were ferocious and unrelenting. I remember my dad yelling for me to run, but his voice came through a veil that panic had thrown between me and the rest of the world. On the other side of the veil, my dad yelled "Run! Run!" On my side, the wasps buzzed in my ears and my feet stayed frozen in place.

What a surprise it was to discover that the world can change in a second. That the ground can spin itself into a swarm and surround you faster than you can process it. I'm not sure if I knew before that moment. I'm not sure I know now. Maybe it's something we have to discover again and again. Maybe it's something we're better off forgetting.

Eventually my dad caught up to me and grabbed me under his arm, a frozen girl statue, and carried me out of the woods back to our little blue super beetle. I had been stung 13 or 14 times. My dad had 8 stings and my little sister had 3 or 4. My parents had no idea whether my sister and I might be allergic to stings. Our first aid kit was what we had in the car: I held cold cans of beer from the cooler against my hot skin as my parents frantically tried to find a Ranger's Station.

That's all I remember. I remember the woods, the buzzing, the fear, the freezing, and finally the cold aluminum cans against my baby skin. I have no memory of what happened next. I have no memory of how long the stings hurt.

Anyway, last night I startled a bunch of yellow jackets while I was cutting down burdock growing against the fence. One of them stung me, fast and hard, right on the wrist bone. There was no buzzing, no veil, no moment where time turned to honey, viscous and glowing. There was just this tiny F16 on a mission and a sudden shock of pain. And then there was me, yelling expletives at yellow jackets until it occurred to me to rescue myself. I went inside, washed my whole arm and hand with soap, took an antihistamine, and kept it on ice for the rest of the night.

There is something I appreciate about physical ailments: I like how they bring me back to my body. I like how they put my brain in its place. They remind me that no matter how smart I think I am, I am not in control of the universe, because I live inside a body that is subject to illness and injury. It keeps me humble.

But I don't appreciate this one. You guys, it HURT. It ached like muscles do after you get a shot. Last time I got a TDAP booster, my arm ached for two days. This was worse. I spent half the night googling additional remedies, but came up empty handed. Today, the ache has lessened, but the area around the sting is swollen and itchy and hot. I'm grumpy about it. I just want to complain.

Finally I texted my mom for advice. "This one sting hurts so much! How did I not die when I was little?"

She wrote back, "I gave you Benadryl and Advil right away and put a cold can immediately on the sting sites. Then I cuddled you until you felt better."

Ah, the missing ingredient: cuddles. No wonder I'm so grumpy today.

I think of the little girl who was me, sitting in the back of a hot car, scared, surprised, holding cold beer cans to her 13 stings. Another girl might never have gone back to the woods. Another girl might have developed a lifelong phobia of bees. But the little girl who was me didn't let the possibility of getting hurt again keep her away from the world. She went on exploring. She kept loving the woods. She stayed brave and curious. She stayed open to a world that could hurt her at any moment. 

The world hurts a lot these days. Some days it's the gathering swarm, coming from all sides. Other days it's the stealth bomber, unexpected and sharp. Some days it feels impossible to keep going.

But I am still that girl. I go on loving the world. 

16 March 2017

Ferdinand the Bull and the Power of Stories

In the picture book class I'm teaching, I asked my students to bring in books to share so that we could get a broader range of texts to discuss. One woman brought in The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, illustrated by Robert Lawson. My students are all much older than me (you have to be at least 50 to take the class, and a few of them are in their 80s), but we all had good memories of reading this simple story about a little bull who would rather smell the flowers than fight.
The Story of Ferdinand was published by Viking in September, 1936, to little fanfare. Early in 1937, though, sales began to grow weekly, and by 1938 this little book for children was outselling the enormously popular Gone With the Wind. The book's message of individuality, independence, and peace resonated with people across the globe. 
Not everyone loved it, however. The Spanish dictator Francisco Franco was so threatened by its peaceful message that he banned it in Spain as long as he held power. After his death in 1975, copies of the book were seen as symbols that Spain was finally free.
Adolf Hitler also felt threatened by the little bull. He called the book "degenerate democratic propaganda" and ordered that all copies be destroyed. At the end of WWII, 30,000 copies of the book were printed and freely distributed among German children as a message of peace.
The women in my class are writing all kinds of stories for children. Today I heard stories about mysterious noises, first bus rides, learning the constellations, the National Parks, houses for mouses, baobab trees, new friends, and the food web. I loved them all.
At the end of class, we got into a discussion of current events. Many of the women are retired teachers or librarians, and like me, they are worried, upset, angry, disgusted, depressed, and overwhelmed by recent attacks on education, health care, the environment, the arts, science, immigrants, Muslims, and free speech (and that's just the list of things we talked about), both here in Iowa and on the national level. Some of them told me that they feel helpless and hopeless. Some of them told me they want to fight. Others said they wanted to help, but they didn't know how.
Ladies, I can relate.
I told them that these days I end my college classes by reminding my undergrads to be kind to each other. I told them that the drafts they shared in class today inspired and cheered me. I thanked them for sharing, and told them that this class is the highlight of my week. And then I reminded them that something as simple as a children's picture book about a funny little bull could be powerful enough to threaten dictators. 
Stories matter. Art matters. Your voice matters. 
Keep creating, my friends, and remember to be kind to each other.

04 November 2015

Tips for Teens from Christopher Pike

If you keep breaking the handles on your hairbrushes, you’re probably the girl next door.

If you're the new girl, wait a semester before you join drama club, because you might unknowingly be cast in a murder revenge play.

If you get murdered at a party it will suck, but on the upside you might fall in ghost love with the cute motorcycle ghost from homeroom.

If you find yourself on trial for your BFF's murder, it's probably because she totes hated you & you didn't even realize it, you dummy.

If your BFF is a cranky goddess, you should probably avoid hooking up with her boyf, but if you must, definitely do not eat any hamburgers she cooks, because they WILL be full of ground-up glass. For, like, eternity. Just never eat a hamburger again.

If you have diabetes, NEVER let your evil girlfriend give you your insulin, because she will definitely put an air bubble in your heart.

If your boyfriend wants to bite you, it might be because he’s totes kinky or it might be that he’s still hungry after eating your grandfather.

If you discover that your VCR can tape the news of the future, make as much money as you can because YOLO girl. You’re definitely not a robot in love with your own grandfather. Live it up.

Never go to a sleepover party with the same girls who accidentally set your friend and her little sister on fire, because you never know when they’ll try to repay the favor.

Never pick the hot guy over the computer loser who loves you because the hot guy will probably grow up to be an evil general who starts WWIII.

Never trust a hot girl, because she will either try to cocaine you to death or turn out to be an Evil Ancient Lizard & try to eat you.

Never meditate with your twin because you will for sure turn into Ancient Lizard People & eat all your friends.

Never get two girls pregnant in the same month, because they will both die & then come back to murder you repeatedly with forks.

And never, ever go out into the desert with the super hot brother/sister pair who keep making out with each other, because anyone that hot is definitely part of an ancient dinosaur race who survived the dinosaur holocaust and now gets their kicks from pushing kids and dogs into acid pits and reanimating corpses and eating ice cream and making out with each other. Avoid at all costs. 

When in doubt, wear a nice pair of slacks.

14 August 2014

And The Winner Is...

...Danielle Duerr! Congrats!

You guys, thank you so much for your huge and overwhelming response to this giveaway! I am honored and grateful. Double thanks to everyone who left comments -- I loved hearing from you! 

If you happen to be in or around the Twin Cities, you should come hang out with me next month, when I'll be reading with Julie Schumacher as part of the Second Story series at The Loft Literary Center on Sunday, September 28.

If you've always wondered about The Princesses of Iowa's gorgeous cover, you can get the scoop on Melissa Walker's Cover Stories blog

And if you've never heard me tell the story of how I once caught a squirrel, my sneaky friend Claire tricked me into telling it on her blog Zulkey.com

05 August 2014

Happy Paperback Launch Day, Princesses of Iowa!

Trumpets! Fireworks! A whole mountain made of cookies! The Princesses of Iowa is out in paperback today! YAYYY!
Isn't it pretty?

To celebrate this momentous occasion, I am giving away an ANNOTATED COPY of The Princesses of Iowa to one lucky winner. Or maybe two. Depending on how saucy I'm feeling.

You have until 11:59 pm on Tuesday, August 12, to enter! Entry form is at the bottom of this post.

It's been a long, crazy ride since The Princesses of Iowa first came out in hardcover, and I owe it all to you. Thank you for reading. Thank you for sharing. Thank you for coming out to readings, for bringing me to your libraries and schools and bookstores, for showing up in a million wonderful ways. Thank you for the emails and cards and tweets. Thank you for coming up after readings and asking me to sign your book and apologizing for fangirling and a special thanks to the 8th graders who told me I looked like Emma Stone. :-) Thank you for for supporting independent bookstores! Thank you for writing. Thank you for all of it.


PS. In case you missed it, this is the single greatest gift the internet has ever given me. I adore these girls! 

Contest is over! Thanks for entering.

14 July 2014

How to Have Sex on TV

Breathlessly, and a bit against your own good sense. You shouldn't want this, but you just can't help yourself. If you are about to have sex, it is definitely because you are so overwhelmed with passion that you can't even think straight. It's definitely not because you're horny or bored or trying to get out of doing the dishes or it's Tuesday night and you always have sex on Tuesday night. You are driven by passion! And you never see it coming!

(Unless you are a parent, in which case you can only have sex in the six minutes that your winsome, adorable moppets are all at soccer practice at the same time, which never happens.You will probably be interrupted. In fact, they are home already. Your attempts at sex are hilarious.)

Stumbling backward, because passion. The sex must happen as soon as the passion is ignited. The clock is ticking! There is no time to walk forward into a room! You must stumble backward, keeping your lips smashed against your partner's face at all times. If you stop kissing you will break the passion. If you pause to make sure you don't trip over the laptop cord you will certainly break the passion. Don't look behind you. There's probably a furniture item to fall onto. You'll be fine.

Fully dressed, or mostly dressed, at least keep your bra on for heaven's sake, and if for some reason you need to be actually naked, you must make sure to be underneath some or all the sheets, blankets, and any other fabrics that might be on the bed. If you are vulgar enough to get all the way naked while having sex, you will certainly put your underwear back on at the earliest possible opportunity.

Needless to say, the underwear will always be in an obvious place. You will never have to spend any time crouched over, half-naked or all-naked, picking through items of clothing to find your own underwear. And of course said underwear will be totally alluring. When sex happens, you are never wearing threadbare zebra-print Hanes Her Way high-waisted briefs that you accidentally bought at Target when you ran out of underwear on vacation.

Under no circumstances will you be wearing Spanx.

Sometimes all the passion will mean that you have to rip each other's clothes off -- not all of them, of course, because that would be gross -- but there will be popped buttons and torn nylons because of all the passion, and that's fine of course, no problem, it's not like you specifically chose this outfit because it's your favorite and the one that makes you feel prettiest or sexiest, so you know, no worries if it gets totally shredded. 

Heterosexually. If you're queer you can kind of hint at maybe having some sex someday, or possibly at having had sex in the past, but you probably don't get to have much sex in the present. Sorry about that! 

Gracefully and elegantly. Your sex is always beautifully choreographed. You never need to switch positions because your boob is getting squished or your old knees are getting achy or your arm is going numb. You certainly never mention any of this to your partner. You are too busy being beautiful and passionate to be uncomfortable.

Quietly! There is no chatting during sex. The only noises you will make are breathy and moany and sexy. If you must say words, they will be sexy ones, such as "I have been waiting a long time for this," and not "Hey, can you plug in my iphone first?"

Seriously. You will be so, so serious. Sex is not funny. There will be no giggling, no silliness, no teasing. No fun! Sex is a serious business. You will be consumed by passion and nothing else.

In the dark, or almost dark. Acceptable light sources: streetlights, generic urban light, moonlight, possibly a nice lamp if you must. Never with the overhead lights on, and definitely never with the TV going in the background, unless it is about to reveal a major plot point.

Unaided. You have no use for lube, because passion. You barely need foreplay! You do not own a vibrator. And only bad people watch porn.

Efficiently & conveniently. If someone needs to ask about condoms, the other partner must produce one within seconds, from thin air if need be. There should be no fumbling around with wallets or trying to find pants that have already been kicked under the bed or digging through dresser drawers. Even though no one saw this sex coming, because of all the passion, there is always a condom at the ready. Except it must be a kind of magic trick, because if you have a condom on you it might look like you were planning to have sex, in which case you are probably a bad person.

Simultaneously. Obviously you will both climax at the exact same instant.

If you're the male partner, you should be the one to get up and get dressed first, because you have a high status job to get to. Because you are so high-status and manly, you may get dressed on camera, and seeing you with a tie and no pants will not hurt your status in our minds.

If you're the female partner, you should probably stay in bed watching, naked and a little lonely because you would maybe like more sex but it's not ladylike to say so. You can use your sexy voice and your sexy face with all your totally unsmudged mascara to suggest that you might still be here waiting when your male partner gets home. But you understand that he has Very Important Work to do.

Modestly. If you must get out of bed, you should immediately slip into some item of clothing other than what you were wearing before the sex. Your best option is this freshly laundered and freshly starched man-shirt that just so happens to be on a hanger next to your bed here. What’s that? You’re in your own bedroom and your own closet full of your own clothes is mere steps away? Shhhhhh, put on this man-shirt.

If no man-shirt is available, the next best thing is the entire top sheet from the bed, which will fit you like a goddess's toga and drape just so. It won't be tucked or tangled or so long you trip over it, and it definitely won't make you look like a child in a crappy homemade ghost costume.

Cleanly & daintily. Of course no one will sweat, because gross. No one will make any inappropriate noises or gestures of any kind. If you must show exertion, you may glisten. There is never a wet spot. You rarely need to jump in the shower afterward. No one ever needs to wash their hands or brush their teeth. Your sex is totally immaculate, and afterward you are beautiful and dry and satisfied. Every. Single. Time.

18 June 2014

Just Hit the Rabbit

It’s late, and everyone is having fun except me. There are five of us: my housemates Ali, Jamie, and Nancy, our friend Mary, and me. They’re all giggling and trading insults and doing all kinds of obnoxious rumpus as if they haven’t even noticed how thick the fog has gotten, how invisible the road is before us. Meanwhile, I’m hunched over the steering wheel, fingers clenched, eyes straining to see more than a few feet through the darkness ahead of us.

It’s the August before our senior year in college and we’ve spent the whole summer in Grinnell, a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, Iowa, and by this point we’re so restless that tonight we decided to make the hundred mile round trip to Iowa City to see a shitty movie—America’s Sweethearts, totally not worth the trip—but of course the movie wasn’t the point, the point was the novelty of getting out of town and sitting in a real theater and eating buttery popcorn and not spending yet another night at the dingy college pub we’ve basically lived in all summer.

But now it’s late and we’re driving on a dark two lane country road and I can’t see anything and I’m doing my best to keep everyone alive, because at the beginning of the summer I almost killed us all.

Two months earlier, same car, same group of friends. I was driving and they were doing rumpus and we were going to Des Moines for some reason, probably the same reason: that we were bored, that it seemed like a good way to pass a summer afternoon. That time, we were on I-80, going fast—75 or 80, probably—when something ran out in front of me. A rabbit, maybe. Or a fox. It all happened so fast. I swerved to avoid hitting it and lost control of the car and we went swinging wildly, sickeningly, across the lane and off the road, down into the weeds and wildflowers on the side of the highway, and finally came to a stop inches from a telephone pole.

Two inches more, and I would have killed everyone in my house.

We fell out of the car in dazed relief, stumbling through the goldenrod and phlox, milkweed and blackeyed susans, clutching at their stems to reassure ourselves that we were still here.

A state trooper had been behind me and caught the whole thing on his car camera. “Next time?” he told me. “Just hit the rabbit.”

“Just hit the rabbit,” I repeated. I could see myself in his aviator glasses. I looked like a ghost.

He smiled at me. “Just hit the rabbit.”

I understood. Except… I didn’t want to hit the rabbit.

My parents are both very nature-oriented, and they taught me from an early age to look out the windows, to pay attention, to see nature. That’s a red winged blackbird, see the red on its wings? Those are sandhill cranes; they often fly in pairs. Come to the window; there’s a fox in the yard. My mom taught me to scan the treeline at dusk for deer; they like to hang out on the edges of cornfields. My dad taught me to see red tail hawks along the highway and told me that when you see a hawk, it’s a sign that everything is going to be okay.

Now, I see wildlife everywhere, even in the city. There are woodpeckers and cardinals and peregrine falcons and great blue herons and turtles and muskrats and coyotes and opossums and raccoons and rabbits. My friends tease me that spotting wildlife is one of my super powers. Sometimes it feels like a different way of being in the world entirely. Other people don’t see what I see.

A few months ago, I drove to Iowa and saw vultures the whole way. Three hundred miles from Madison to Des Moines, through the road cuts in southern Wisconsin, above the Mississippi River bluffs, over the modest curves of central Iowa. In groups of three and five, fingered wings outspread, circling circling against the bright spring sky. They were there as my friend Cam and I drove to dinner one night. “It’s a big weekend for vultures, huh?” I joked.

“What do you mean?”

I looked at him. “Are you kidding me? We’ve seen probably fifteen vultures in the last ten minutes.”

“I didn’t see any,” he said.

“What? How is that even possible? They’re everywhere.”

He shrugged. “I was looking at the road.”

I look at the road, too. And the treeline, and the telephone poles, and the sky, and the river. Last summer I saw a young buck wading across a stream at twilight and it felt like a gift. And every time I see a red tailed hawk, it feels like a message from the world that things will be okay.

“Just hit the rabbit,” the state trooper told me, and my friends picked it up, half joke, half not-joke. I understood it intellectually: that the lives of your best friends are not worth sacrificing for the life of one wild rabbit. I came from a place where that was never a question. Where I come from, parents are at least as worried about their teens hitting deer as they are about drinking and driving. Country roads are strewn with roadkill: farm cats and coyotes and deer. When people tell stories about hitting deer with their cars, they focus on the damage to their cars, how lucky they were to walk away relatively unscathed. No one ever feels sorry for the deer.

The first time I ever hit anything with my car was freshman year of college. Ali was with me that time, too. She had come home with me for Thanksgiving and we were on a dark country road outside of my small Wisconsin town, and something – an opossum I think – ran in front of my car and then it was under my car and we both felt it hit the undercarriage, bump bump, and it was awful and it made my heart hurt and there was nothing to do but drive on so that’s what I did. Because sometimes you hit things with your car. That’s life, right?

Sometimes when I’m in a bad place, rawer than usual, depressed, sad, I drive past roadkill and think about the moments right before they died: the hard asphalt under their feet, bright headlights rushing at them, the crush of metal against feathers and bone.

When I told Cam this, he was horrified. “You have to stop doing that.”

“I don’t know how,” I said.

Sometimes it seems like we don’t have a choice in this world: that harming the earth is part of the bargain we’ve struck and it’s best not to think about it too much. When you go to the grocery store and you forget your cloth tote bags, you can’t let yourself think about how sea turtles mistake plastic bags for jellyfish and eat them and die. When you’re filling your car up with gas, you can’t get too fixated on the number of otters and seals and seabirds who have died in oil spills. You can’t hold it all in your heart and make it through the day alive.

Sometimes you have to hit the rabbit.

For the rest of that summer, I practiced every time I drove. I would go around a curve in the road and think, “Ok, pretend there’s a rabbit. Keep going straight. Don’t swerve. Don’t jerk the steering wheel.” I imagined that I could be a different kind of person, the kind who asks about damage to the car first and the deer later, the kind who drives straight and true, the kind who keeps her eyes on the road and doesn’t get sentimental about the casualties of the modern world. A pragmatist. A realist. I tried to adopt a little bit of macho swagger. Yeah, I could hit the rabbit if I had to. So what?

And maybe it was even true. Maybe I could. I do have a streak of Midwestern pragmatism in me. Given the choice between the lives of my friends and the life of one wild rabbit, I knew I should sacrifice the rabbit. But I resented the hell out of that choice.

I wanted to find another way of living in the world. One where I didn’t have to choose between humans and animals. I wanted to believe we all have an equal right to be here. I wanted to choose both. I wanted to protect us all.

It’s late August and it’s after midnight and it’s foggy as hell and I am peering through the darkness so hard my eyes are starting to hurt. And then it happens, as I knew it would: a blue flash in the darkness.

I hit the brakes.

My friends stop laughing. “What? What is it?”

“I thought I saw something.”

As if it’s scripted, they all yell together. “JUST HIT THE RABBIT!”

And it’s a joke and it’s not a joke and it’s the state trooper and a summer of practicing for this moment and a lifetime of pragmatic country people and I get it. I know. All my friends are in the car and it’s my job to protect them and I should just hit the goddamn rabbit.

But I don’t.

I slow the car to a crawl and we creep through the darkness and then the fog parts and there it is: a cat. It’s a cat, and it’s sitting in the middle of the country highway, motionless, staring at us.

“I knew I saw something,” I say, vindicated, and my friends say, “A CAT? GODDDDD” and the cat watches us as we inch past it, and my friends wait for me to speed up again but I don’t because I’m still nervous about the cat, the way it sat in the road, the way it watched us, the way its eyes caught our light and bounced it back at us like two small moons.

We creep around the curve and the thick summer fog swirls like something living. The road is full of shadows and the fog twists and rolls and lifts and I stomp on the brakes once more.

“What now?” my friends ask, but I don’t answer because they’re right there, five feet in front of us: an entire herd of deer. They’re perfectly still, silent, each over 100 pounds, standing like dark ghosts in the middle of the highway. An entire herd of deer.

Five feet more, and I would have killed everyone in my house. Not to mention the deer.

That cat saved our lives.

Not hitting the rabbit saved our lives.

So. Sometimes you have to hit the rabbit, it’s true.

But sometimes you just have to see the rabbit. See it soon enough and you don’t have to hit it at all. You see it and you slow down in time and that night you both get home safely.

It’s another way of being in the world.

06 May 2014

Please Stop Complaining About Harry Potter

"The novel is dead," announces a Great Man of Literature.

"Well, the Serious Literary Novel is," he amends. "The 'kidult boywizardsroman' is doing just fine." He mentions this as if it supports his original contention, as if the massive popularity of a series of books written for children is proof of the downfall of global literary culture.


I am so dreadfully bored of hearing Serious Literary Writers complain about Harry Potter (and children's literature in general, but for some reason Harry Potter seems to irk them in particular).

For one thing, it is boring to hear people who only sell some novels complain about people who sell many novels. As Roxane Gay says, James Franco did not get your book deal. J.K. Rowling did not steal your readers. Another writer's success is not your failure.

In fact, Great Man of Literature, another writer's success might actually be your success. To grow a lifelong reader, you need literature for a reader's entire life, which generally looks something like this: picture books to early readers to chapter books to middle grade novels to young adult literature to literary fiction. Baby's First Kafka aside, most of us don't graduate directly from picture books to Great Works of Literary Note. Middle grade and young adult literature -- and yes, that would include Harry Potter -- is the bridge that helps readers travel from The Cat in the Hat to Mrs. Dalloway.

And there is truly great children's literature out there, GMoL. Wait, remind me of your definition of Serious & Worthy Literature?
The capability words have when arranged sequentially to both mimic the free flow of human thought and investigate the physical expressions and interactions of thinking subjects; the way they may be shaped into a believable simulacrum of either the commonsensical world, or any number of invented ones; and the capability of the extended prose form itself, which, unlike any other art form, is able to enact self-analysis, to describe other aesthetic modes and even mimic them.
So basically, Serious Literature uses words to help readers get inside the minds and hearts of fictional characters, to explore the ways those characters interact with each other, to describe settings that seem realistic and familiar or to create new worlds entirely, and occasionally goes all meta and comments on itself as an artform and/or describes other types of art.

Dude. Children's and young adult literature totally does that.

Beyond the astonishing fact that kidlit can indeed use words -- arranged sequentially, even -- to create characters who think and move and talk and feel and interact just like humans, so much so that readers grow to love them and celebrate their successes and suffer their losses (I myself am still in therapy over the devastating deaths of Old Dan & Little Ann, and my eighth graders wanted to sue Harper Lee for letting Tom Robinson die), children's literature can also -- and I know this is going to sound crazy -- use words to invent new worlds, like, oh... pick one at random... a magical world where wizards get to go to boarding school.

(And for the record, children's literature can also enact self-analysis.)

You want "difficult"? (We're not even going to unpack the idea that "difficult" is the same as "worthwhile.") Read Code Name Verity. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing. When You Reach Me, for heaven's sake.

But look, even if you're staunchly opposed to the idea that books written for children could possibly qualify as Serious Literature, even if you cannot let go of the (imaginary) link between popularity and garbage (though ironically you seem to be arguing that the Serious Literary Novel is dead because not enough people read? But if more people read it, it wouldn't be Serious or Literary anymore? And also possibly no one has published a Real Serious Literary Novel since Finnegan's Wake in 1939 and every novel published in the last 75 years has been a "zombie novel" seriously, sir, WTF), even if you insist on mourning the Good Old Days when the Serious Literary Novel was at the center of the cultural consciousness, aka the twenty minutes between the rise of literacy rates due to increasingly widespread public secondary education in the early twentieth century and, you know, the apparent death of the novel in 1939 -- even given all that -- SO WHAT?

So what if people are reading about boy wizards? Or vampires? Or whatever popular thing is the current symbol of the downfall of literary culture? So what?

Readers are readers. Most folks who truly love reading will dive into all kinds of books, as long as they offer vivid, complex, interesting characters and a richly-drawn world and a compelling story. People read for all kinds of reasons -- to lose themselves, to explore other worlds, to amuse themselves on airplanes, to see what the fuss is all about, to fall in love, to study the craft of fiction. What do their reasons matter to you? That they're reading Gone Girl and not Ulysses on the train home says absolutely nothing about their worth or value as readers, thinkers, members of the culture, or humans.

So please stop complaining about Harry Potter.

07 April 2014

I Said a Blog Hop, the Bloggy to the Bloggy to the Blog Blog Hop (& etc)

My good friend (& owner of Zia's brother-from-another-mother twin greyhound Briscoe) Claire Zulkey has passed me the Blog Hop Baton, which means I'm answering the same questions Claire answered last Monday and her friend Annie Logue answered two weeks ago & so forth back into the darkest days of last month or whatever.

Claire pitched it as "a great way to generate content for your blog!" and not "Jesus Backes, you haven't updated since Christmas," which was awfully kind of her. She's a good friend.

What are you working on?
I'm in the early stages of a brand-new YA project, which is very exciting because it's the first true first draft I've had on my desk in years. It's still at the pure potential stage. It's also exciting because last year was not a big writing year for me, so to be back in the groove & actually be making progress on something feels pretty great. Last week I had coffee with my old friend & mentor Mark Baechtel, and he asked, "Are you writing?" and I said, "YES!" and he reached across the table and high-fived me, and I've been smiling about that moment ever since.

How does your work differ from others of its genre?
I'm not totally sure how to answer this, other than to say that no one else has ever lived this life of mine, and so no one but me can write about the world as I know it. One of my goals in this current project is to get as close to capturing communication and dialogue between friends and family as I actually experience it rather than as it seems to happen in popular literature -- that is, I'm trying to write people who sound less like characters and more like people I actually know. It's been a fun challenge.

Why do you write what you do?
I find the teenage experience to be so compelling -- teens have many of the same experiences and emotions as adults, but because they're experiencing it for the first time, they have a much smaller life context or framework through which to view that experience, and less of an emotional certainty that they'll survive whatever they're going through. I love being able to re-visit that immediacy and rawness of going through things for the first time. It makes for fun fiction.

How does your writing process work? 
It keeps changing. These days, I try to write a little bit every day, because I find that by touching base with my story every day -- if only for 15 minutes -- my brain stays focused on questions of character and plot, and in my freetime it dreams about what should happen next. When I go a few days without writing, however, my brain starts asking much more destructive questions -- instead of "what happens next?" it starts asking "what's the point?"

For me, the hardest part of writing is actually sitting down to do it. By writing every day, I keep the path back to the page well-traveled, and it's easier to get there again the next day.

 Next week, authors Christa DesirHeather Demetrios will pick up the baton & tackle the same questions on their own blogs. Bookmark their pages now!

06 December 2013

Christmas Music That Doesn't Suck (Part II)

Hey friends! Thanks for the great music suggestions you gave me in comments & on Twitter. As always, you are the best.

Here's the other Christmas music mix I made last year. This one is more low-tempo, perfect for curling up in front of the fire (or the "fire") with a Tom & Jerry and your favorite two- and four-legged critters.

Note: you may want to avoid this mix if you're having a rough year. It definitely skews a little sad. (On the other hand, you may want to wallow in holiday sadness, in which case just put Tom McRae's Wonderful Christmastime on repeat & weep your way through the next few weeks.)

Holiday Chill (2012 Mix) 

White Christmas | Otis Redding

Christmas Time is Here | Diana Krall

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel | Punch Brothers

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day | The Civil Wars

Beth/Rest (Solo Piano Version) | Bon Iver
* not technically a Christmas song, but it sounds like it should be

The Hounds of Winter | Sting

Baby Come Find Me at Christmas | Rachael Yamagata

Holiday Road | Matt Pond PA
* one of those instances where the cover is far superior to the original (which, let's face it, is kind of terrible)

The Bells of St. Mary's | Sheryl Crow

Colder Weather | Zac Brown Band
* also not technically Christmas, just cold & sad

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas | James Taylor

Wonderful Christmastime | Tom McRae
* from now on, this is the only version of this song I will accept. Sorry, Sir Paul.

Joy is Within Reach | Adrienne Pierce

Hymn for a Winter's Night | Sarah McLachlan

The Heartache Can Wait | Brandi Carlile

Some Children See Him | Lisbeth Scott

Wexford Carol | Moira Smiley

Amazing Grace | Cat Power
* "Amazing Grace... you know the rest" kills me. Every time.

(See Part I for a more cheerful mix!)

02 December 2013

Christmas Music That Doesn't Suck (Part I)

Look, it's not that I hate Christmas music.

It's just that I've worked in retail.

In the fifteen years between 1995 and 2010, I spent eleven working in retail, restaurants, cafes, and other Christmas-music-mandatory jobs. And of course that Christmas-music-mandatory playlist comprises about thirty songs. Thirty songs on constant repeat. Eight hours a day. Five days a week. FOR A MONTH. It's enough to make anyone stabby.

But to make matters worse, those thirty songs include -- among others -- a song that's not only smugly colonialist, but also factually incorrect (why yes, Band Aid, Africa does have rivers! Perhaps you've heard of the NILE), a song that's -- let's face it -- real rapey, and a song SUNG BY CHIPMUNKS.

No adult should have to listen to chipmunks singing against her will.  

On the other hand, I love music. I always have music playing: at work, in the car, while I write, while I read, while I clean the house, always. I believe in and rely on music's ability to evoke a mood, to change the setting, to pick you up, to calm you down. And I believe very strongly in matching the music to the occasion. There are certain bands, albums, and even genres that I only listen to at certain times of year. I have playlists for every season of the year, for St. Patrick's Day, for Mardi Gras, for the early weeks of winter, for Saturday mornings in summer.

I want to love Christmas music. I really do. I want to deck the halls and trim the tree and have a merry little Christmas with a fabulous seasonal playlist. I can't help it if Burl Ives makes me break out in hives.

So. For the last few years, I've been collecting non-standard Christmas songs -- some jazzy, some bluesy, some emo indie folk rocky, some flat out drag-queeny -- and making myself Alt Christmas playlists. Last year I burned some mixes for friends and family, and when I pulled them out over the weekend (No Christmas music until after Thanksgiving! That is the rule!), I was charmed anew, and figured I should share.

Merry Christmas. :-)

Holiday Cheer (2012 Mix)

Merry Christmas, Baby | CeeLo Green (feat. Rod Stewart)

It Really Is (A Wonderful Life) | The Indigo Girls

I Hear the Bells | Mike Doughty

Even Santa Claus Gets the Blues | Marty Stuart

Please Come Home for Christmas | Aaron Neville

Shakana Santa Shake It | Bo Dollis & Wild Magnolias

Santa Lost a Ho | Christmas Jug Band
* file under So Wrong It's Right: "But there ain't no joy / Cause just one toy / Is missing from Santa's shack. / He never had a doll go AWOL / once he got her in the sack."

All I Want for Christmas | Puppini Sisters
* old-fashionedy Andrews Sisters style cover of Mariah's song. ADORABLE.

Christmas Lights | Coldplay

Mary | Heart

Joseph, Who Understood | The New Pornographers

All My Bells Are Ringing | Lenka

Someday at Christmas | Stevie Wonder

Christmas Island | Leon Redbone

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen/We Three Kings | Barenaked Ladies (feat. Sarah McLachlan)

Wish You Well | A Fine Frenzy

Oklahoma Christmas | Blake Shelton & Reba McEntire 
* I make no apologies.

Your Holiday Song | The Indigo Girls

Auld Lang Syne | Andrew Bird

(for a sadder -- er, quieter -- mix, see Part II)

ps. Obviously I'm a sucker for a great cover. If you have any suggestions, please leave them in the comments!

29 May 2013

What I Read and How I Lied

Dear Cute Boys From My Teens and Early Twenties,
Thank you for all the books, movies, and music you introduced me to. I appreciate your hard work to shape me into the perfect girlfriend share your passions with me. Sometimes I even adopted them as my own (see also: CommonX-Men MoviesBob Dylan). A few of the books you made me read suggested have become lifelong favorites. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, for instance — I probably wouldn’t have spent the entire summer after ninth grade reading it if I hadn’t wanted so badly to impress you. I remember lying on a pile of suitcases and sleeping bags in the back of my dad’s 1986 Nissan Stanza wagon, struggling to understand Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality as we drove across the same roads Persig had traveled by motorcycle.
Cute Boy, I haven’t seen you in over a decade, but I still love the book.
Unfortunately, your suggestions weren’t always so successful. You were so earnest when you handed me Jonathan Livingston Seagull, murmuring about how it had really changed your life. When you asked about it later, I held your trembling gaze. “It really spoke to me,” I told you. “It just meant… so much.”
“You really understand me,” you said.
Cute Boy, I lied. JLS didn’t mean anything to me. At 16, I found it both simplistic and strange. The grainy gray photos of actual seagulls distracted from the metaphorical aspect of the story. It’s a story about someone who wants to transcend the bounds of ordinary society! But wait — no, maybe it’s actually about seagulls?
Plus, to be honest? I was starting to notice that you were actually kind of a snob, Cute Boy. Some of my best friends were seagulls. Just because someone doesn’t want to transcend their plane of existence doesn’t mean they’re not fun to pass notes with in study hall. Not to mention, Jonathan Livingston Seagull looks down his beak at all the dull boring seagulls who just think of flying as a way to get food. I have news for you, JLS: seagulls gotta eat. And so do people. Sometimes you have to stop trying to transcend the limitations of your small town life and just take a girl to prom.
Cute Boys, a hint: maybe lower the bar a little when you lend me your books. If you preface it with, “This book totally changed my life and shaped me into the person that I am,” and then I read it and think it’s dumb? Sorry, but I’m going to judge you. I’ll probably still think you’re cute, but not as cute as the boy with great taste in literature.
And also? Know your audience. When you handed me Ishmael with evangelistic zeal and promised me it would, like, totally change my life, I was 21. Honey, I was raised by liberal hippiefolk; I got on the “Humanity Must Love & Respect Mother Earth” train in elementary school. If you’d given me Ishmael in sixth or seventh grade, I bet it WOULD have, like, totally changed my life. But by senior year of college? I was on the “Question Everything! Truth is Subjective! There Are Many Valid Points In The World and Also Many Ways To Poke Holes Through Arguments!” train by then.
Sorry, Cute Boy, you were way too late with this one. But you were also cute, so when you asked what I thought of the book, I stared deeply into your eyes and murmured, “With gorilla gone, will there be hope for man?”
And finally, my dear, adorable boy, let’s talk about your favorite book ever. The one that inspired you to find yourself and leave it all behind, you know? Into the goddamn Wild. Cute Boys (and I hate to tell you this, but there were SEVERAL of you who wanted me to read this book), I pretended to understand your need to prove yourself against an imaginary “untouched” American wilderness.
In fact, I researched it!
I read articles and books about feminine and masculine constructions of landscape and wilderness and masculinity and manhood, and even as I lied to you about how much I loved this book, I tried to sneak in alternate perspectives on the story. Like: this is pretty uniquely a boy’s story. A girl couldn’t just hitchhike across the country without constantly being in danger of being raped. Also, a girl couldn’t just go out into the Alaskan bush for months on end without packing several boxes of tampons, which she’d then have to bury so as not to attract all kinds of wildlife who might be interested in human blood.
And also? Abandoning your family isn’t heroic, it’s MEAN. And tramping out into the middle of nowhere with NO RESEARCH and NO EXIT PLAN isn’t heroic, it’s hubristic and dumb.
I don’t care how cute you are, Cute Boys. These days, if you tell me this is your favorite book? I will probably yell at you about the Myth of the American Adam and lack of coming-of-age ceremonies for boys in our culture and how if you love the wilderness so much you shouldn’t just leave your car in a culvert. And then I will shove some books at YOU: Rebecca Solnit and Annie Dillard and Mary Austin. Barbara Kingsolver and Keri Hulme and Jean Rhys and Stephanie Kallos.
Because here’s the thing, Cute Boys: it’s high time you started reading books in attempt to impress ME.

19 May 2013

Thoughts on Parenting a Writer

(From a talk I gave to parents of young writers at the Illinois Young Authors' Conference this weekend.)

Good morning. I am honored to be here with you, and thrilled to be a part of this wonderful celebration of your children.

I’ve been asked to speak to you today about how to be a parent to a writer. To be honest, I’m not sure I’m the right person for the job. The only parenting I do is for my dog, a retired racing greyhound, and though she’s been talking about writing her memoir for years, she’s pretty lazy, and spends most of her time sleeping. So far, there’s no evidence to suggest she’s written a single word. On the other hand, she is still alive after four years with me, so I guess I have that going for me in the parenting category.

I am a writer though, so while I’m not sure I can dole out too much parenting advice with any real authority, what I can do is share a little about what it means to be a writer, and give you some insight into the writer’s mind, and what the journey and process of writing often looks like, and offer some suggestions on ways you can support the writer in your house.

I’ve also been teaching writing for about fifteen years, and in that time, I’ve worked with a lot of writers, at all stages of their journeys – from elementary and middle school students first discovering the fun of inventing stories, to high school students attempting first novels, to adult writers with manuscripts under contract to be published.

I’ve also met a lot of parents of writers, and unfortunately, not all of them would have come today. So let’s begin with that: you’re here. You’re already doing a great job. Trust me, even if your kid was rolling her eyes at you on the way here this morning, the fact that you showed up counts for a lot, and she won’t forget it.

Now, before we get into what it means to be a writer and what you can do to support the budding writer that lives in your house, let me get something out of the way right off the bat: it is possible to make money as a writer. Not a lot of money, maybe, but at least half of my friends are writers, and none of us is homeless. Most of us even have health insurance.

I mention this because it’s often the first thing I hear from parents – including, at times, my own. As an adult, I understand that it comes a place of love, and maybe a little bit of fear, too. Of course you want what’s best for your children, and part of that includes security, comfort, a roof over their heads, food on the table, adequate health care… and, you know, it would be great if they’re not still living in your basement twenty years from now.

But when I was growing up, the question of writing and money caused me a great deal of anxiety. Claiming the word “writer” for myself took an enormous amount of courage. I spent my teen years scribbling in notebooks, composing stories and poems and essays, capturing the details of my daily life. Writing. I wrote constantly. I never went anywhere without my notebook and a pen. And yet, I never wanted to call myself a writer – that word seemed too big, too real, too distant. I imagined a day in the future, long after college, maybe, when I’d live in a big city and sit in a cafĂ© and write… have my own apartment with a little desk and a lot of books… work as a waitress or a barista or some other romantically artistic job… and then – then! – maybe I could call myself a writer. I had this vague, romantic idea about what it might mean to be a writer. I didn’t know much else, but at the time, that vague idea was scary enough. Did I really have what it might take to be a writer? Could I really grow up to live the writer’s life? No matter that I was already doing it: I was writing all the time.

I was already a writer.

It took me years to figure that out, though, because there was so much mystery and romance bound up in my idea of being a writer. It was mostly Hemingway and Fitzgerald, sitting at cafes in Paris, with a little bit of Kerouac road tripping and maybe a dash of Mary Oliver out looking at the birds. I don’t know, and I didn’t really know then. All I knew was that I wanted it. I wanted to be a writer. 

But every time I shared this dream with an adult, they would inevitably say something like, “Good luck making money!” or “What’s your day job going to be?”

Look, I get it. We Midwesterners are a pragmatic lot. We come from generations of laborers and factory workers and farmers. We know that life can be tough, and we know that it requires hard work. But when the little fledglings of dreams smash into those hard walls of pragmatism, it can be hard to recover their wings. Sometimes, you just want to stay on the ground.  

After I graduated from college with my degrees in English literature and education, I moved to New Mexico, and for the first time in my life, when I told people that I wanted to be a writer, they didn’t ask about a day job. In New Mexico, if you say, “I want to be a writer,” the person you’re talking to will likely answer with, “Cool! I want to open a charter school for transcendental leadership,” or “Cool! I’m building a house on the mesa using recycled beer cans and old tires.” It’s a weird place. But in that permissiveness, I found the freedom and safety to finally, finally claim the word writer for myself. In New Mexico, I lived in a little house in the mountains and wrote the first draft of the book that grew up to become The Princesses of Iowa, my debut young adult novel.

The flip side of all that permissiveness is that no one ever gets anything done. So after four years there, I found myself longing for the Midwestern protestant work ethic and ambition, and moved to Chicago…. where people started asking me about my day job again.   

The problem with the day job question, though, is that – in addition to reinforcing this idea that that you can’t make money as a writer – it equates success with making money. It seems to suggest that you’ll only be a real writer if you make money from writing, and since you probably won’t make money writing, you’ll never be a real writer. It makes the idea of being a writer feel even more impossible and out of reach.

It also seems to draw a very narrow definition of what being a writer means, and what making money as a writer means. Because yes, it is true that it is difficult to make money writing poetry, or even writing novels. That probably won’t change in the future. But some people do make money writing poetry or novels, and lots of other people make money writing TV shows or movies or magazine articles, and many, many more people make quite a bit of money writing copy for corporate websites and blog entries for businesses and running social media campaigns. One of my friends is even a freelance dictionary editor. There are, in fact, tons of ways to make money as a writer. And some of us are teachers, and librarians, and editors, and booksellers. Some of us have totally unrelated day jobs and use those jobs to feed our work, like John Grisham writing about lawyers, or William Carlos Williams writing poems on his prescription pad.  

One of our primary tasks as adults is to seek, constantly, a healthy balance between that which brings us joy and that which keeps us safe, alive, productive members of society, etc. If we’re lucky, we find meaningful work that brings us joy and also pays enough to keep us and our kids clothed and fed. But we all strike our own bargains with life. Some of us work jobs we don’t care for, but which allow us to spend our free time doing what we really love. Some of us choose to live with less in order to spend more time focusing on what really matters to us. We all struggle with this, not just writers.

At the writing school where I teach, we offer some classes and camps for teens, but most of our creative writing classes are for adults. Surprisingly, one of our biggest years was 2009, right after the market crashed. Our classrooms were flooded with newly unemployed people from the financial industry, many former English majors who had decided to take high-paying jobs in “sensible” industries like banking. Soooo when that didn’t work, they came to take writing classes, to become freelance writers, to finally begin their novels, to do what they really loved.

How many jobs can we list as “sensible” or “secure” in the modern economy anyway? The job security that our parents and grandparents had, where you could spend your entire adult life working for a company and they would give you a gold watch when you retired, where loyalty to a company mattered and was rewarded, where you were guaranteed security and a pension – if those jobs exist now, they’re hard to find, and I suspect they’ll be even harder to find in the future. Your children will face a job market that’s ever-changing, constantly evolving, with organizations that have little reason to reward loyalty or offer security. Perhaps the great jobs of the future don’t even exist yet; fifteen years ago, no one could have predicted that “professional blogger” would be a job.

I’m sure that when you think about your creative, interesting, strange, hilarious child, you would rather see her grow up to live her life in a creative, interesting, strange, and hilarious way, and not allow all that amazing creativity go to waste in some high-paying but unfulfilling job. Or, if she must work a high-paying but unfulfilling job, we hope that it’s only part time so she can spend the rest of her energy on her one-woman traveling puppet-show soap opera. As long as she’s happy.

And anyway, your job as a parent isn’t to be the bringer of harsh reality – your kid will get that enough from the rest of the world. Everyone else in the world will happily line up to tell your kid that she’s not good enough, not talented enough, that she’ll never make money, that the economy is terrible and no one’s hiring and she’ll never get her dream job and she’ll have to work at Wal-Mart for the rest of her life and die alone, surrounded by cats. I promise you, there’s no way your kid is going to grow up not realizing that our society requires you to find some way of earning money, no matter how oblivious to this truth she may seem now. She’ll figure it out.

Your job is to be the cheerleader, the encourager, the unflagging belief in her strength and talent and intelligence. When she tells you she wants to be a writer – or a pilot, or a marine biologist, or the person who dresses up like Goofy at Disney World – your job is to say, “Cool! I wonder what steps you might take to get closer to that dream?”

The thing about writing is that – to writers –  it feels just as necessary as those other life essentials. Just like exercise or eating well – when I’m not writing, I feel sluggish and unhappy, and I’m really impossible to be around. Many days I don’t want to write at all, but I force myself to, because I know that I’ll feel better afterward. This, I’m told, is how many people feel about going to the gym. Gloria Steinem said, “Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don't feel I should be doing something else.” I would add that writing is the only thing that makes a day feel like it didn’t go to waste. I could have the most productive day in the world – I ran all my errands, paid all my bills, attacked some household project, called my grandmother, washed the dog – but if I didn’t write, it feels like I somehow let the day slip away. On the other hand, if I get up in the morning and get even a good half hour of work done, I can spend the rest of the day eating ice cream in my pajamas and feel like a success.

Which is why the binary of “be a writer OR make money” doesn’t really make sense, anyway. If someone tells us that they’re training for a marathon, we don’t automatically ask, “What’s your day job?” or “Does that come with dental?” Of course we don’t. We understand that people train for marathons for all kinds of reasons: to get healthier, to prove something to themselves, to get the endorphin high, to push their own limits. And honestly, there are probably lots of people that do it just because it seems like a good idea, or because it makes sense to them, or because a day when they got outside and ran five miles feels better than a day when they didn’t.

Writing is the same. For most of us, writing doesn’t feel like a choice, exactly. It’s something we’re compelled to do, something we do because we know that certain stories will haunt us until we put them on the page, something we do because the best days are the ones that involve at least some time at the laptop or notebook, fiddling with the work in progress or polishing up a draft.

What matters, then, is the process of writing. The product – the story, the novel, the poem, the essay – that’s secondary. Whether or not a draft is “good” or working is almost beside the point. One of the annoying truths of writing is that your first draft is almost certainly going to suck, and you just have to learn to live with that, and trust that it will get better in revision. There’s always, always room for revision.

Writers often get asked for advice on this process, for advice on how to become a better writer, and they always answer the same way: you have to write a lot, and you have to read a lot. There is no shortcut. There is no quick solution. You must write a lot and read a lot and then write more. If you don’t enjoy this process – if you don’t come to understand that indeed, the process is all that matters – then all this writing is going to be miserable for you. In order to be a writer, you have to write. In order to be a better writer, you have to keep writing, and push yourself, and trust in the process of shaky first draft and revision and revision and revision.

So, if your writer shares her work with you, be supportive of her hard work and the journey she’s on. Celebrate the act of writing, acknowledge all the effort that has gone into a story or poem – the effort of putting the words on the paper, and also the work of imagining the story in the first place, and of being bold enough to attempt to translate that story from imagination to page, even while understanding that it will always, always lose something in the translation.  

Ask her questions about her craft and her process. Ask what inspired her, what kinds of questions she was exploring as she thought about writing this.  Ask her what was hardest about this piece and what she’s most proud of. Don’t mention publication unless she mentions it first.
Remember that writing itself is the reward.

And let her go without writing if she wants to. Never nag her about writing, even if she’s cheerful when writing and completely unbearable when she’s not. It’s okay if she starts a hundred stories and doesn’t finish a single one. It’s okay if she wants to quit writing for a while. We all need fallow periods, time to refill our imaginations. And if your writer decides to stop writing and focus on her new dream of becoming a professional tuba player, that’s okay too.

Writing is hard, and writing is scary. We spend our lives developing strategies to deal with our most powerful emotions, our most primal urges. We build walls to contain our own demons, and we establish boundaries for ourselves to protect us from our own deepest longings and fears. We find ways of not getting swept away by our own anger and grief. We learn to bite our tongues, we learn that if we don’t have something nice to say, we probably shouldn’t say anything at all. We learn to be polite. We learn to look on the bright side of things, to put on a brave face, to smile in the face of adversity, to keep a stiff upper lip. We learn that some things aren’t discussed in polite company, that every family has its skeletons in the closet and they’re best left alone in the darkness. We learn to equate silence with safety, for ourselves and for those we love. We learn not to ask questions. We learn restraint.

Part of what makes writing so scary is it asks us to let the demons out of their cages for a few hours, and we fear we may never get them back in. Writing asks us to go into the darkest, scariest parts of our own emotional selves and come back with a few paragraphs of unvarnished truth. Writing demands that we stop biting our tongues, that we look straight into all of life’s ugliness and sorrow and horror and report back on what we see there, in honest and unflinching detail, without sugar coating or silver lining. Writing makes us ask the questions we’ve been trained never to ask, and to share the answers when we find them. Writing wants us to spill the secrets we carry, our own and those we’ve kept for others. Writing pushes us to stand in the ocean of our own grief and anger and fear and despair and insignificance and powerlessness and love and regret, and makes no promises that we won’t get swept away in the process.

As a parent, of course, you want to protect your child from everything in the world that’s scary, or dark, or hard, or sad. I understand. But the power of writing is that it gives children the agency to investigate life’s scariness and darkness from a safe distance, to let their own monsters out of the closet for a few hours and explore the power they have. So let your writer experiment. Let her have secrets. Let her have her own folder on the family computer. Avoid the temptation to read through her notebooks. Writing should be her safe haven, her place to experiment, her place to work through her confusion and feelings and thoughts.

Let her fail. Let her write pages and pages of painful poetry and terrible prose. Let her write bad fan fiction. Don’t freak out when she shows you stories about Bella Swan making out with Draco Malfoy. Never take her writing personally or assume it has anything to do with you, even if she only writes stories about dead mothers and orphans. You have no idea where her stories come from. Her dead mother story might come not from a place of wishing you were dead, but rather from a place of loving and needing you so much that she can’t imagine living without you. Perhaps she’s afraid to lose you, perhaps she’s struggling with the idea of growing up and leaving home and living on her own. Fiction can offer a place to work through these kinds of questions and fears. Don’t take it personally; her stories are not about you.  

Let her find her own voice, even if she has to try on the voices of a hundred others first to do so. Let her find her own truth, even if she has to spin outrageous lies in search of it. Remember that her truth isn’t the same as anyone else’s truth, and that even if you were there with her when it happened, your memories of a moment will likely be vastly different from hers. Let her tell her own truth, even if you’d rather not hear it. Let her write thinly-veiled memoirs disguised as fiction. It’s okay if she massages past events to make a better story, or leaves entire years of her life on the cutting room floor. It’s okay if she writes about characters who have nothing to do with her life, her experience, or her world. That’s what fiction is.

Writing can also be lonely. Creativity often comes from a place of longing, of quiet, of boredom. Our culture has gotten bad at being bored. We’ve forgotten how to be quiet. We’ve forgotten how to be alone. I actually worry about this quite a bit in regards to myself, and my own writing.

Ten years ago — even five years ago — if I was meeting a friend for coffee and she was late, I would sip my latte, look around the cafe, idly listen to other people’s conversations, pull out my journal and write for a few minutes. Today? Left alone for more than 15 seconds, I pull out my phone, text people, check my email, update Twitter: “Meeting @bestfriend at @coffeehouse!”

Often, I don’t even have my journal with me, a fact that would have made my 21-year-old self shudder in horror. She carried her journal everywhere, and wrote in it at every opportunity: on the bus, in the cafe, on a bench after class, alone in a diner. She used her journal as a way to connect with her own thoughts, to check in with herself, to mull over stories she was working on and jot down images, questions, fragments of sentences and verse that came to her in moments of quiet.

Ten years ago, I used to walk between 2.5 and 5 miles a day, every day, without an ipod or cell phone. I paid attention to the streets and the houses and the way the light on the trees changed from day to day, season to season. I wrote poetry in my head, untangled scenes, relived conversations. Wondered. Noticed.

Now, the idea of taking an hour to do nothing but walk makes me jittery. “What a waste of time,” I think, even though I honestly believe otherwise. Well, the artist in me believes an hour-long walk isn’t a waste of time; my internet-addled self spends the ten-minute walk home from work mentally tweeting every. single. thought. Truly, it’s exhausting.

Writing is hard. Being alone with one’s own thoughts is hard. Being quiet is hard. The internet is easy, and validating, and distracting. It doesn’t ask you to confront your deepest fears and most painful memories. It doesn’t force you to be honest with yourself. It doesn’t ask anything of you, really. It’s the all singing, all dancing, constantly updated, constantly moving show of lights and colors and witticisms in 140 characters.

I believe that our subconscious minds are much smarter than our conscious minds. After all, our subconscious minds build our dreams for us, build them by pulling together disparate images and people and moments, by creating a language of strange imagery and metaphor in order to help us gain greater understanding of the things we think about, our concerns and fears and wishes. Isn’t this our job as writers, as well? I believe the best writing comes from our subconscious — it percolates there, beneath the surface, and emerges as inspiration. The trick is that we must step out of our own way in order to access it — must not let the conscious mind interrupt with its nervous chatter — and the only way to do so is to be quiet. To focus. To be alone with our own thoughts.

So let your writer be bored. Let her have long afternoons with absolutely nothing to do. Limit her TV-watching time and her internet-playing time and take away her cell phone. Give her a whole summer of lazy mornings and dreamy afternoons. Make sure she has a library card and a comfy corner where she can curl up with a book. Give her a notebook and five bucks so she can pick out a great pen. Insist she spend time with the family. It’s even better if this time is spent in another state, a cabin in the woods, a cottage on the lake, far from her friends and people her own age. Give her some tedious chores to do. Make her mow the lawn, do the dishes by hand, paint the garage. Make her go on long walks with you and tell her you just want to listen to the sounds of the neighborhood.

Let her be lonely. Let her believe that no one in the world truly understands her. Give her the freedom to fall in love with the wrong person, to lose her heart, to have it smashed and abused and broken. Occasionally be too busy to listen, be distracted by other things, have your nose in a great book, be gone with your own friends. Let her be lonely. It’s okay. Great creativity and innovation comes from loneliness.

Let her make mistakes.

Let her write poetry on her jeans and her shoes and her backpack, even if you just bought them brand new.

Let her sit outside at night under the stars. Give her a flashlight to write by.

Keep her safe but not too safe, comfortable but not too comfortable, happy but not too happy.

Above all else, love and support her. Love her and believe in her. Love her, and let her go. In the end, your love is all that matters, and it will be enough. The rest will come from her.