Posts Tagged: in my own words

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A little over two years ago, I started this blog with a post about how to write an unpublishable novel. Don’t worry, you don’t have to read it. I’ll summarize. Basically what I said was this: publishers, at that point in time, were still very caught up in post-Hunger Games/Twilight/Harry Potter hysteria. YA had proved lucrative in multiple mediums - books, movies, TV, merchandizing - and everybody wanted a piece. But the books that were getting published tended to be “high concept,” i.e. involving some wacky premise that usually contained elements of the supernatural or dystopian, and sometimes both. For those of us who like writing about regular kids, there were an extremely limited number of publishing slots for so-called “realistic fiction.” This meant my chance of getting published in an already impossibly competitive industry was about the same as a snowball’s chance in hell.

I wrote about John Green in that post, but I won’t write about him here, because I don’t need to - you know who he is already. John Green has been successful for awhile, but he has become a celebrity in the last couple of years, especially after the publication of The Fault in Our Stars, which stayed on the NYT bestseller list for ages and expanded Green’s already passionate fandom even before they fast-tracked the inevitably popular movie adaptation. John Green is just one example of many talented people who write YA novels about regular kids doing regular things, or sometimes special kids doing special things. I’m looking at you, David Levithan, and you, Marcus Zuzak, and you, M.T. Anderson, and you, Rainbow Rowell and E.R. Frank and Daisy Whitney and Judy Blundell and Sara Zarr and Jennifer Donnelly and Stephen Chbosky and Laurie Halse Anderson and Sarah Dessen and Patricia McCormick and Elizabeth Wein and many, many more. I’ve read and been inspired by these writers for years now, because I’ve been kind of obsessed with YA for years. I fully believe it is the most exciting genre out there in terms of innovation and intelligence. I don’t care about stupid people who try to denigrate it in the press as being “just for kids” or silly or lightweight. It matters.

I began writing my own YA novel more than 7 years ago. It has been so long that I don’t remember how it started. I think I used a writing prompt of some kind. My first complete draft took about two years and an enormous amount of help from my cohort and professors in my MFA program. Then I revised and revised and revised. I got an agent. I revised under my agent for at least a year. Then we sent it out. Nothing. We revised it some more. Sent it out. Nothing. A nibble here or there, a bunch of “almosts,” a lot of “I like this but I don’t know how I’d sell it.” We waited. And waited. And waited.

I’ve been told that sometimes you have to give up hope before you can get what you want. I never believed that to be true until now. I think I had, in many ways, given up hope that my novel would ever see publication. I’d already begun writing novel #2 and was thinking about putting my other novel in a drawer.

And then, about a month ago, I got an offer.

What changed? It wasn’t my book - I mean, not really. My book did change, obviously, in that it went through approximately 70,000 revisions, and now it’s going to go through some more. I would like to think it got better. But ultimately what changed is the industry. Somehow they finally figured it out. People will read realistic fiction. Teenagers will read realistic fiction. In fact, teenagers like to read stories that they can relate to, that reflect certain truths about their lives. They especially appreciate when those stories reflect the diversity of the world they live in, because they are the most diverse and eclectic and accepting generation ever. The audience is ready for it, and publishing has caught up.

My book is due to come out in 2016, which is a long way away, but I can wait. I hope you can wait too. In the meantime, I will be working to make it the best it can possibly be, and also possibly writing novel number two. If these last 7 years have taught me anything, it is that it’s always better to be ahead of the game than behind it.

Also, sometimes it feels really good to be right.

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I am going to be an actual published fiction writer!!! More on how this happened later and what it means, but for now I am just going to leave this here.

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liseusester and mck-scribe tagged me and I have been thinking a lot about books lately, so here goes.

Rules: In a text post, list ten books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take but a few minutes, and don’t think too hard — they don’t have to be the “right” or “great” works, just the ones that have touched you. Tag [ten] friends, including me, so I’ll see your list. Make sure you let your friends know you’ve tagged them.

1. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. I wrote a good chunk of my BA English Honors thesis about this book but I couldn’t for the life of me tell you what I said - what I can say is that this book resonated for me so very much, just the economy of it, the beautiful lyrical spareness of it. So many little stories told so perfectly.

2. East of Eden by John Steinbeck. Officially the book that made me fall in love with Steinbeck, although I love all Steinbeck, even the books I don’t especially like (looking at you, Grapes of Wrath). This book is so epic and meandering and soapy and absorbing, one of few super-long books I’ve read that I felt earned its length. Also it’s so essentially Californian, as is so much of Steinbeck’s work. And biblical! The rivalry of brothers! I love it so much.

3. Speak by Laure Halse Anderson. The book that made me want to write YA, before writing YA was cool! Speak is so raw and real, and years later when I went on to become a therapist for victims of sexual violence, I found I appreciated even more how real it is and how unflinching and brave.

4. The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. My parents read this book to me when I was a little kid, this and all 25 of the other Oz books, and I’m sure to the adult me they wouldn’t all seem so magical but as a child they were endlessly entertaining. As an adult I can appreciate Baum as a satirist and a creator of elaborate allegories, but ultimately these are just incredible children’s books. They helped make me a reader.

5. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. When I was in 6th or 7th grade, I think, my mom and I took turns reading this book aloud before bedtime. It probably took us a year to get through the whole thing, but it was a wonderful way to experience it. Bronte’s language becomes less dense when read aloud, and with my mom’s guidance I was able to understand it better than I ever could have on my own at that age. (We also did this with The Secret Garden, which should be on here as well.)

6. The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. I think the first Dashiell Hammett I read was Red Harvest for a film noir class I took my senior year of high school, but this book is his masterpiece, so tight and smart and brutal. My obsession with mysteries continues apace, but I am still most drawn in by the hardboiled originals like Hammett and Chandler. I can’t articulate it exactly, but I love the way they use metaphor the best. These are mysteries as poetry written in blood.

7. The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. I’ve been thinking about this book recently because of watching the silly BBC series The Musketeers, and it still sticks with me as one of the best “classic” books I’ve ever read. It’s great adventure storytelling, and it’s timeless. There’s a reason it’s been adapted a million times.

8. Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare. I know, I know. I don’t think this is necessarily the best Shakespeare play, but it stuck with me, maybe because I read it when I was about their ages, maybe because the language in it is so beautiful even if everything else about it is ridiculous. That story, too, of forbidden love, is so elemental. 

9. Alanna by Tamora Pierce. I love this whole series, or at least the four that are about Alanna directly (I know she wrote a million more about Tortall, etc). These books are just so feminist and exciting and great, and I wish there were more books like this out there now for young girls. This book made me believe I could be the star of my own magical adventure story.

10. Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. Just - I was a 13-year-old Jewish girl when I read it, and it made the Holocaust real to me in a way that nothing had before or has since.

I tag overnighter, soemily, shananaomi, yayponies and anyone else who wants to do this (I love reading other people’s answers to stuff like this).

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There is a lot about Philly that can be encapsulated in the metaphor of fireworks. They’re illegal here, but fuck if you would know that come 4th of July or New Years or…possibly any summer night when the Phillies win. People set them off everywhere, because this is a DIY city that’s also a little bit lawless. You make your own fucking light.

I’m from DC, which is a city with a limited amount of spotlight and way too many people trying to stand in it. Stay in the shadows and no one cares about you. DC is a city with lots of poverty that no one knows about. Philly is poor too - an estimated 1/4 of the population lives in poverty - but it’s impossible to ignore. Poverty threads through even the nicest of neighborhoods. Philly is low on resources and always falling apart in one way or another, but people here are often generous and kind. They’re creative in how they approach their cities’ problems, setting up urban gardens and painting murals on even the most desolate and dreary of streets. They raise money through one million tiny community events held on street corners, block parties, in churches. Sometimes the fragmentation of Philly’s social justice network is frustrating, but it’s also heartening. A lot of people love this city and want to help it survive and thrive, even if they don’t always agree on how to do it.

Philly is a mess. Parts of it are dirty, abandoned, decrepit. Other parts are beautiful. Class inequality is evident here in the way it is everywhere, but Philly still has a working class. People can still afford to own houses even when they’re not millionaires, and as a result, people stick around. They build communities and have families and settle in. This is a city that thrives on people knowing each other and connecting, but not just for the purpose of advancing in some ridiculous game of thrones. I found my house by talking to people. I bought my car because I talked to people. I found restaurants and stores and coffee shops and parks because people told me about them. I have never felt more connected than I do in Philly, and I’ve only been here a little over two years. I love that.

Philly is no bullshit. Pretentious people get laughed out of the room. It’s an in joke kind of a place that loves making outsiders feel dumb because they don’t know its secrets, but it’s not exclusive. If Philly had a motto, I think it would probably be something like: “Don’t be an asshole.” Be different, be strange, be queer, be yourself: just don’t be a dick.

I did not love Philly when I moved here. I saw it as a stopgap, maybe a way to get from here to there. I don’t see it that way anymore. I just finished school and got my first job and now I’m thinking about buying a house, about settling in. I feel comfortable here. Philly is the worn-in sweatpants of cities. It won’t win any glamour contests, but it can make you feel instantly at home.

I could go on awhile about the many things I love about this city - its old houses, its food, its diversity - but I want to get back to the fireworks. I walked around the neighborhood tonight and watched probably ten different people set them off, arching and sparkling over the low, flat rooftops. This is everybody’s party, and you’re all invited. That’s Philly, to me. Respect the struggle, celebrate everything. Make shit explode.

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I was 11 years old when Philadelphia came out. I saw it in the theater. I’m not sure how that happened, to be honest. It is not a movie pitched toward 11 year-olds, even precocious ones like me who read everything I could my hands on, whose parents were liberal and gave me books like Our Bodies Ourselves and encouraged me to educate myself. In the early 90s, AIDS was still basically a death sentence. People were doing more about it then they did in the 80s, and there were drugs that could prolong, if not save your life, but there was still way more we didn’t know about the disease than things we did. I remember sex ed classes where they told us how you contracted HIV, drilled it into us over and over, blood sex needles, condoms condoms condoms. Kids were still confused on the playground, though, and rumors abounded about how kissing could give you HIV, shaking hands, using the same bathroom. I had nightmares after seeing Philadelphia, just about the way Tom Hanks looked, the way his body turned against him. I couldn’t imagine anything more horrible than a disease that attacks the very mechanism our body has to protect us from disease, that destroys you from the inside out.

The Normal Heart, Ryan Murphy’s adaptation of Larry Kramer’s polemic play for HBO, is a powerful movie. I’m not sure if it’s as good a movie as Philadelphia is, but it is especially powerful because it is airing now, at a time when the tide has shifted so significantly on issues related to gay rights. The America presented in that movie is not the America we live in today. That is not to say, of course, that we live in a country free of prejudice, or that AIDS is less terrifying now just because we have better drugs. If anything it is more terrifying because people are not terrified enough, because AIDS has become old news. That attitude scares the shit out of me, and it should scare the shit out of you.

As a young teenager I picked up a copy of Charles Kaiser’s The Gay Metropolis and read it on the bus on the way to summer camp. I remember being so struck by the idea that there was a time in New York when everyone in the gay community knew people who had died. I tried to wrap my mind around that notion, that you could live so surrounded by death, so constantly reminded of your own mortality. It was heavy stuff for a 13-year-old, and not unlike how I felt reading The Diary of Anne Frank that same year. AIDS had everyone trapped in an attic waiting for the Gestapo for awhile. It still holds us hostage.

Over the last five weeks I have gone back and forth to my hometown of DC three times to visit with my 92-year-old grandmother, who came down suddenly with an infection, went into sepsis and had several strokes, all very quickly. She is infection-free now but she has almost none of her previous cognitive abilities, and it is likely she will contract another infection. She doesn’t really recognize me when I see her now. Every time I see her there is this bizarre moment where I can’t believe it, can’t believe she is like this. It is easily one of the hardest things I have ever had to deal with in my life.

I am not comparing my grandmother’s situation with the millions who have died of AIDS. She has had a long, incredible life. So many who died of AIDS were (are) so young. But that sensation of losing someone before they are gone - that seems to me to be a common experience for anyone who has watched someone close to them die. Six weeks ago she was walking around, talking, being her normal self, and now she is totally dependent on others, lost. What to do with this feeling, this anger, this sadness?

I’m sure I am not saying anything someone hasn’t already said. I guess my point is this: grieving is an experience we all share. It is amazing to me how long it took for so many Americans - including our government - to grieve for the entire generation of men we lost to AIDS. How could we ever have thought AIDS was anything but everybody’s problem?

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Sometime over the last month, I gave up on my second novel.

It hurt.

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Last night I didn’t go out for New Years. I had sort of plans, but I was exhausted, a feeling that’s often been my default for the last year, a feeling I still have even after being on break for two weeks. If 2013 was anything, it was my year to feel tapped out, frustrated, done.

It’s easy to minimize our own accomplishments in a year that brought so many of us to our knees. It’s easy to feel inadequate, or depressed, or even afraid of the year to come. Over the last couple of weeks, when I was finally given some time to slow down and process after the mad rush this year has been, I felt all of these things, sometimes all at once.

But when I look back at 2013 it’s not a dead loss. It’s the year I was given the opportunity to work with juvenile drug offenders and victims of sexual violence, fighters and survivors, people possessing incredible strength and resiliency in the face of extreme obstacles, trauma, deprivation. It is incredibly inspiring to work with people who are that resilient, and to come to understand my place in someone’s struggle: my abilities, my limitations. There were times it felt hopeless and I felt helpless, but I am grateful for that. I am grateful to be able to do this work, even when it feels like I’m failing. I am grateful to be able to try.

I am grateful I was able to write about my own experience with mental illness, and for the conversations that post started, and for what I learned about others close to me from sharing one of my best kept secrets. 

I’m glad I decided to return to writing my unconventional mystery novel after having to put my first unpublishable novel effectively in a drawer for the time being. It is beginning to come together in a way that makes me believe it will be finished one day, even if it never happens fast enough because that is the nature of writing and this business and this life.

I’m glad I had the opportunity to meet so many new people, wonderful people, and to deepen relationships with friends and family and the city I live in. I’m glad to be here, even when it’s hard. We are who we are when it’s hard.

I feel strange saying Happy New Year after a year like 2013, a year that was so unhappy and so hard for so many people. It doesn’t feel right, or like enough. I will say I hope this year brings you happiness, and laughter, and excitement, and love, and that when it’s sad there are people to catch you when you fall. Because if there was anything that I was most grateful for in 2013, it was that.

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I am mentally ill.

I blame October.

Should I start with my diagnosis? That’s what every insurance company in America would prefer: please give us the set of numbers we use to identify your pain and suffering. We will decide if it is valid enough to pay for your treatment, even though we have never met you and have no idea what you feel.

But I digress. Let me start with a story.

When I was 13 years old and in the 8th grade, October happened and I hit a brick wall. I will never know, exactly, what created this wall - Chemistry? Experience? Accumulated years of being the quiet good girl? Internalized anger? Genetics? The current general belief system in the psychology community is that mental illness exists somewhere between biology and what happens to us and around us. Basically: stuff inside us meets stuff outside of us and stuff happens.

In my case, the stuff was a sudden and major depression. Up until that point I had never seen a therapist, had never had behavior problems or mood issues. But within a week or so I was not sleeping or eating, and I was so sad I told my parents I wanted to die.

My parents did not want to hospitalize me. I was so desperate and so scared, though, that I asked to be hospitalized. I wanted someone to figure out what was going on inside of me and fix it, and my parents cared too much about me to do more than worry and love me. Having people who love you is an incredible asset when you are depressed, but it is not enough.

I was hospitalized for close to two weeks, which is not something we do anymore, by the way. Suicidal thoughts? Suicidal attempts? Overdoses? 72 hours. In and out in 3 days. Again, this is managed care. This is the mental health landscape we live in: we want to get you out rather than get you better.

I did get better. I was put on medication - an SSRI, a class of drugs they have since determined you should not give to teenagers, but they didn’t know that then - and saw a psychiatrist and went to groups and talked to people and realized I was not the only person on earth who felt this way. I met girls who had anorexia or addiction issues, a girl who slit her wrists to get herself out of juvie, girls who had been abused and assaulted. Part of me felt my mental breakdown was maybe not as serious as these girls with trauma histories. But part of me also figured out: I think I can make myself better.

I did make myself better. Other people helped, a lot. I went to intensive outpatient treatment for 3 weeks. I changed schools. Eventually I made new friends and I was okay. For awhile. And then, when I was in 10th grade, October hit. It hit me hard. I got hospitalized again. They kept me for less time, but still for more than 72 hours. Intensive outpatient. More medication, etcetera etcetera. The cycle repeats.

Come October of 11th grade, I fell apart again. I got a sinus infection that lasted several months. Too many AP classes. The pressure of college prep and my looming future. Trying to juggle academic stress and being the stage manager for the fall play. It’s October. The bottom dropped out.

But this time I didn’t get hospitalized. I went to therapy more often, and I dropped classes, and I gave up the fall play. I disappointed people. I disappointed myself. I came out okay at the end of it.

I won’t bore you with the details, but there were many other Octobers in the next 10 years that were not kind to me. In college, I dropped two classes and took a year off after a particularly disastrous October. I worked for nine months and transfered schools. Several years post-college I made the decision to apply to graduate school in October while feeling trapped in my hometown and a terrible relationship. It happened again. It happened again. It happened again.

You may have noticed it is currently October. I am a social work student working toward the end of my second Masters degree. I am in full-time placement at an agency that works with people with trauma histories. I have a job. I am taking classes. It’s intense.

I could chalk this October’s horrors up to the curse. Two weeks ago we discovered our cat was ill and had to put him down. I’ve had a sinus infection for 3 weeks. A number of my friends are struggling to get by, including my closest ones. It has been a sad time in my hometown (D.C.) and a sad time in this country and sometimes I think I don’t know when it will ever be less sad, when the cycle will stop.

But this October I am not depressed. I’m sad. I’m angry. I’m frustrated. I’m tired. Not depressed. Maybe it’s because I’m mildly medicated, or that I just understand this better now. I know the warning signs. I know how to say no, I can’t do that. I have too much on my plate. I am not a superhero. I am depressive. This is who I am, it’s part of me, it doesn’t have a cure. It has a treatment, one that is constantly changing and shifting depending on my life and my illness and me.

I know it’s not an October curse because it doesn’t just happen in October. It would be nice if depression was that considerate, if it confined itself to a single month, but it doesn’t. Some Octobers may suck. Some may not. Sometimes I will feel depressed or vulnerable to depression in months where nothing is outwardly wrong. That is the nature of the beast, if you will. It’s how it works.

I could spend a lot of time bemoaning this, but I spent far too much of my life thinking my depression was a thing that was wrong with me, and I’m done with that now. I don’t see my depressive tendencies as weakness anymore. I see them as motivating, as part of what made me want to be a social worker, as a lot of what made me a writer. Many of the biggest shifts I’ve made in my life have been because of my depressions, and those changes have been vitally important and almost always good. My depression is the thing that keeps me in check and in touch with myself, that makes me go, Oh, that doesn’t feel good. It helps me understand others who have experienced what I’ve experienced. Depression is not my weakness. It’s my superpower.

I know many people don’t feel this way. I also know many people don’t know this about me. And that’s why I wanted to write about it - because I think it’s important people know it is not something I keep secret because I’m ashamed. I’m not. I just wish we didn’t live in a world that teaches us we should be.

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Spoiler: It’s not because I’m a masochist.

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