YA by Any Other Name…

I just finished Shirley Jackson’s novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I won’t do a proper book review here since you can read my thoughts on Goodreads (sidebar). I will say, however, that it’s striking to me that she’s writing for adults but using a teenager as her main character (and in first person, no less).

Today, publishers would put Castle in the YA category. But it isn’t.

Bear with me as I nerd out for a moment. Jackson wrote in the forties and fifties when there was no special reading category for teenagers. In her day, there were children’s books and books for adults. The age of the main character in a novel did not put the book in a special lane for “young adults”. This meant that any non-kid lit could, and often did, deal with serious themes, regardless of whether its protagonist was 12 or 35.

[Nowadays, publishers would call The Catcher in the Rye, Huckleberry Finn, and other classics with young protagonists YA fiction. They aren’t. These novels incorporate adult themes, some of which are easier to absorb because the characters living them out are young. In the end, though, they’re heavy books meant for grownups.]

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Why does it matter?

Okay, it doesn’t unless you’re a novelist like me who’s going the traditional publishing route. In my last novel, my main characters open the story as adult women, but at some point they go back in time. They sound like teenagers and process information like teenagers, but the novel itself is for adults. This can be a bit of a sticky wicket because of the YA category.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle reminded me that today’s publishing categories didn’t always exist. And, in many ways, they don’t matter unless a book is being marketed to the wrong group.

In that case, it matters a lot.

Still, I have to believe the best writing advice is to write what you love regardless of the name the industry gives it. Then, hopefully, the right readers will find it.

As Ordinary as Fiction

I don’t normally write about my kids. I used to, but they’re teenagers now, and I’m trying to respect their privacy. Even so, my writing habits are punctuated by mothering episodes, and it’s hard to think about my creative life without also thinking about my parenting life.

My sisters read my novel recently. They said, “It feels like YA in some parts because of the teenage voices.” I thought that was funny. I didn’t set out to write about teenagers. It just happened because that’s my world right now.

So often, our creative lives are our ordinary lives and vice versa. We conceive ideas from of the soil of our liturgies. Novels are birthed after a million laundry-folding moments.

This is as it should be–life informing art, art taking its place among myriad other realities. I hope I always have people or things to take care of, duties that demand I escape the world of fiction and join the one in front of me.

It can only make my life and art better.

Keeping On

Still over here hacking away at a new novel. I’m officially around 20% of the way finished. This one’s easier to write than the one before it. Still, I find I have to negotiate with my brain every, single day in order to make my word count.

This is with the wind at my back, friends.

I don’t know why I find it so hard to beat back Resistance, even when I’m in a predictable writing habit. I wish it weren’t so.

All work, even creative work, requires grit and determination, though. (And writing feels like work, sometimes, let me tell you).

So, here’s to keeping on keeping on. Whatever you have going in your life right now, may you find the wherewithal to continue with it until it’s time to move to the next thing.

On Staying in the Purple

I’ve started writing a new novel. I’m 11,000 words in to what I expect will be an 80,000-ish word project. Since I’m pumping out the chapters, I find myself with depleted verbal reserves (most often of which I access to lecture my teenagers). So I though I’d just share this today. Seems about right.

Staying in the purple ain’t easy, folks. But the alternative is moving to crazy town.

In the End

On Saturday night, I got a voicemail from a writing contest coordinator. I’d entered a big thing and, it turns out, my novel made it to the semi-finals.

I cried.

The writing life is one in which a person can go a long time without any kind of outside validation. It’s hard to tell whether your writing is “good enough,” hard to find an agent, hard to break into traditional publishing.

Hard to keep going, sometimes.

So the news about the contest came at a good time. It made me feel I’m on to something, that my story resonates and is well-written. Four days later, however, I got my first ‘no’ from a major publisher. They asked if I had any other novels to show them (which, I guess, is a kind of compliment since it means they liked my writing). Still, a rejection.

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It made me feel like I might have been kidding myself, that my story is confusing or weird, that it’s poorly written.

I didn’t cry, but I felt like someone had punched me in the gut.

But then two creatives whose careers I’ve followed died this week. They were young. One was a multi-published author with a big following. I felt sick and unsettled.

In my grief and shock, I decided, once again, that I’m not going to allow my life to be consumed with things that don’t matter in the end. I’m not going to be ruled by the ups and downs of the writing/publishing life.

I refuse. (Of course, I’ve refused before, so I’ll need to be reminded when the next big thing happens).

I’m here to say: I have an agent who’s great, a novel that is winning awards and is on submission to big houses, and I have a growing platform. These are the things I would have salivated over last year. Now that they’re my reality, though, I’m no happier than I was. I still worry about the next thing. What if a publisher doesn’t understand what I’m trying to do? What if I get published and no one buys my book? What if they buy my book and hate it? Or worse, don’t care at all?

My life could be over tomorrow. Or today. I refuse to spend it hand wringing about things I cannot control.

In the end, there are more important things than whether I’m published or not. And being published will not end up making me happy.

Bringing Sexy Back (or Possibly Something Much Better)

Our semester is dying. We are not finished with the teacher/student things of this world, but we can feel our minds letting go, anyway.

In times like these, I find myself 1). staring out the window at the ivy we planted to cover our chainlink fence, and 2). looking for shows on Netflix. I’m okay with staring at the ivy. I’m not proud of the Netflix shopping. I realize I may be the last person in the U.S. to feel shame of any kind–especially shame over Netflix, but here we are.

Anyway, I found an Australian show awkwardly titled Bringing Sexy Back. It’s like Biggest Loser only with one or two contestants whose main goal it is to become “healthier” (which everyone knows really means to get thin and look hot). I have binge watched this show for the last two nights, and I hate myself for it.

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It’s supposed to be heartwarming and fun, but it’s actually profoundly depressing. To begin with, the hosts make people who hate their bodies stand in spandex on a stage before a live audience. The contestants are forced to see how fat they are in numbers and percentages, and most of them cry. Then, to address the problem, a trainer makes them work out so hard broken capillaries crop up under their eyes. Since no one can sustain that level of exercise for the rest of her life, this seems like a cruel and non-permanent solution to being fat. Plus, it’s humiliating.

The rest of the show is pretty predictable. When they’ve lost enough weight to be considered okay, the thinner-than-before contestants get their hair and makeup done and wear fashionable clothes (that, honestly, still look ill-fitting half the time). Their loved ones watch them process down a catwalk, and it’s their turn to sob. They gasp and praise, and it feels like our contestants have finally won the right to be accepted.

In the end, though, even after chair squats and chicken cutlets, the contestants stand on the stage, uneven, wobbly human beings with wrinkles and the occasional jacked-up tooth. The “shocking” transformations they’ve undergone are–am I allowed to say it?–sort-of meh. So many burpees for meh.

It makes me sad. Because, also? After the show, these people are going to battle loose skin, swallow endless, well-chewed bites of salad, work out until their knees are shot, and, eventually, get old and die. That’s their future–and mine. And while I’m not saying people shouldn’t care about their health and take charge of it, I am saying our bodies don’t stay the way we want them to.

They get old and fat or too thin or wracked with cancer. We can’t put our hope there.

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Give me conversion stories or aha moments or just about anything that deals with the inner person, the soul that endures. Turns out, I’d take those over watching someone hate-lose 50 lbs and wear bronzer on TV.

This is my life at 41. Even when I’m bored, I want to think about things that will last.

To South Africa with Love

Friends who live in South Africa stayed in our home recently. The last one left last night, and they will head back across the ocean in a short while. It was a sweet, if crowded, time of relearning about the world and discovering, once again, how similar people are no matter where they live. We were reminded that true friends are like canned goods. They keep.

Having others in my home is stretching, though. Even if they don’t mean to, our guests (and we’ve had many) hold a mirror in front of me. They cause me to notice my routines, my “must-haves” and quirks, in new ways. The fact that we have to have music playing during every meal? That’s not normal, turns out. Our multiple-pots-of-coffee mornings where even the teenagers imbibe like addicts? Different. The way I fold underwear. The fact that I fold underwear.

It can be a little uncomfortable to see myself and my habits through someone else’s eyes. This is not necessarily because I’m doing things wrong, but because I thought I knew myself well. Turns out, I’m often on autopilot. I fail to notice things. I can be a little (lot?) blind, sometimes…

Like a good spring cleaning, letting others into my personal space can bring on a life audit. It’s easier to discern which things I want to keep and which I could possibly let go when I’ve lived up close with someone who does things differently. It produces growth, which, yes, can be painful. But the alternative is stagnation and status quo. I’m not interested in those.

So I’m thankful for the last ten days for several reasons, among them the chance to see myself and my loved-ones more clearly.

Thanks, South Africa. Until next time.

Diving into the Darkness

As a creative, I look for windows into the human psyche wherever I can find them. I listen to conversations in the booth behind me at my local coffee shop (I know. Bad). I watch interesting documentaries on Netflix, pay attention to the lyrics in folk songs, read essays and poems, and watch indie films.

Almost more than anything else, I listen to podcasts.

Podcasts have an advantage over other forms of media because I can consume them while I’m running or washing dishes. I’ve written before about how well-chosen episodes stay with me for days, even weeks, after I’ve listened to them. They send my mind down new paths and bring fresh insight into old problems. All of this helps me craft better stories.

Recently, though, I’ve had to call it quits on one of my favorite genres–true crime.

The problem is I get into the habit of binge listening to one horrific incident after another. I’m riveted by them, but my spirit sinks with each gory detail. I notice I don’t feel like going for my afternoon run or talking to my kids when I’m on a listening jag. Worse, I dream about crime and often waking up groggy and disoriented. Finally, I start obsessing about how God sees all the wickedness people commit against one other, and how he could stop it but often doesn’t. At least not in this life.

I’m left lethargic and on edge.

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So, yesterday, I went to my playlist and deleted my crime shows. I sort-of hated to do it because, as I’ve (also) mentioned before, I’m waiting to hear back about the status of my novel, and listening keeps my mind off things, at least for 30 minutes at a time. No amount of distraction is worth the emotional darkness, though. I’m simply going to have to find another way to survive, and, hopefully, to stay productive and present.

How about you? What do you do to pass the time when you’re in a season of waiting? How much darkness is too much?

On Choosing the Blue Cord

My family and I just got back from a short vacation in the mountains where we celebrated my in-laws’ fiftieth wedding anniversary. Fifty years is longer than I’ve been alive. It’s more than twice as long as my husband and I have been married. My in-laws make marriage look easy, though I know from 19 years’ experience it’s anything but.

I’m lucky. I have a deep friendship with my husband. We met in college and became inseparable in fairly short order, partly because we shared a major and partly because we just “clicked.” According to statistics, we have an advantage in seeing our marriage through to the end. After all, we married without a ton of debt. Our parents have stayed married to their spouses. We share household and childrearing responsibilities. We bend and flex for each other’s careers. Most importantly, we share a common religious faith.

Still, it’s hard to stay married, sometimes. Even for us.

As I stood on the back porch of our mountain cabin, I noticed two saplings tied together by a blue cord. They pressed against it in opposite directions, clearly wanting to grow apart, but someone had made sure they couldn’t. The blue cord holds them together no matter how hard the wind blows or how their own intertwined roots might cramp them.

Me, too, little trees. Me, too.

We choose our own cords, I thought. My in-laws chose theirs, and fifty years later, we are all better for their dogged determination not to untie themselves when things (inevitably) got hard.

I hope my children will say the same about my husband and me someday.

Surviving the Social Life

Am I allowed to say something that’s already been said a million times?

Okay. The internet is mean. Social media, at least. Twitter specifically. I’ve only dipped my toe in the social whirlpool in the last couple of months. Even then, I only did it because you know what “they” say: you have to be searchable to survive.

I can’t even call it a love/hate relationship cuz there’s no love.

Most of my interactions have been pleasant enough, up to this point, because I’ve worked hard to keep them that way. But today I felt the Twitter wind in my face when I least expected it. I’m not cut out for this kind of anonymous conflict (and, to be clear, I didn’t court it with thoughtless or mean words. I asked a follow-up question on someone’s post). I’m not a troll, but I was treated like one. The whole exchange left me confused and sad.

It’s one thing to develop a thick skin because I’m sending my manuscript out to publishers who might not understand it or (worse) ignore it. That kind of toughness makes professional sense, though it’s not easy to cultivate. It’s another thing to try and change my personality.

Today left me wondering if social media toughness is something I need or want to develop. And let’s say I can’t. Then what? Do I avoid the whole scene altogether? Is that publishing suicide?

What I know is this: writing is extremely important to me. But so is emotional wellness. I want to be published. But I also want to feel safe.

I continue to wonder if both things are possible.