The Homicide of the Arts

When I was a kid, I attended a small school that literally sat in the middle of cow pasture. It was a nice school, even having solar power which was very innovative for the time. We had music, band, drama and jewelry making — some the basic outlets thought sufficient for young people’s budding artistic sides.

June of this year, my young adult medical thriller, Deadly Design, was released by G.P. Putnam & Sons. I’ve always loved writing, and I remember receiving some encouragement from one of my teachers, but creative writing wasn’t taught or really encouraged. That’s why I thought I’d offer myself as a speaker in some of the schools in my area.

Deadly Design is a novel dealing with real science, both science that’s actually possible now and technologies that are in the works and will be possible in the very near future. Talking about the wonders of DNA and technology, coupled with the ability to talk about creative writing seems like a combination that could really inspire students.

Now I know that right now, especially in my home state, schools are strapped for money, and as a true believer in giving back, I offered to speak to students free of any fee. While some teachers are open to having authors come and speak with students, one district reacted in a way that was somewhat surprising to me. Basically I was told that any form of assembly in the school would take away from the time students have to prepare for standardized testing.

Hmm.

I will say that this did not come from a high up school official, but from a staff member who believed attempting to speak at the school would be pointless due to the time factor and the schools policy against assembles — large or small. Students need to have every possible moment dedicated to achieving high scores on their standardized tests.

Time to vent.

Okay, I’m not Stephen King or Neil Gaiman. I’m a local author, lucky enough to land a book deal with one of the big publishers. But as a kid from Kansas, I can tell you that having a local author come to one of my classes and tell me that someone who grew up looking out the window at cows could actually achieve such a thing, would have been amazing. Maybe even life changing.

Right now there may be a student who could be the next the King or Gaiman or Hemingway. Maybe all that student needs is a spark of inspiration. Maybe there’s a student who could be the next Stephen Hawking, just waiting to be dazzled by the mysteries and wonders of science, but alas, those students need to study for their tests.

To some extent, education has always been about conformity, but never to the extent that is it today. Just yesterday one of my students told me that she was denied access to certain courses in high school because she was told she should go in to a career working with her hands and not her mind.

Over 50 million children attend public schools in the United States. We hear about art and music programs being cut. Already, creative writing classes are basically nonexistent. We live in a society where children are exposed to a whole host of issues that would cause anxiety in the strongest of individuals, and yet instead of helping them deal with those issues through creative outlets, we add stress to their lives by forcing them to conform, to think inside the box.

In other posts, I’ve talked about my concern about the current suicide rates among children and teens. Suicide is the third leading cause of death amongst teens. We know that artistic outlets have helped children around the world in dealing with issues of anxiety, depression, even post traumatic stress disorder, and yet when kids are trying to figure out who they are, what their place in this complex world is, we put astronomic pressure on them to be “standard”. To pass tests that have bearing on the school’s budget, but not on the students’ lives. All while stripping them of the various ways that exploring the arts can offer in leading them to self-discovery.

I’m just one author, one voice in the cosmos, but there are seven billion voices in our cosmos, 300 million of them just in the U.S. I want to hear what those voices have to say. What they have to sing. I want to see what those individuals can create through dance and sculpt and painting. I want to feel the emotions those voices can inspire.

Standardizing testing may well be the homicide of our artistic future.

Surviving Limbo

Anyone who writes knows all about waiting. Whether it’s waiting for beta readers to give you their opinions or waiting for a response to a query letter, writers spend a lot of time waiting…and waiting…and waiting.

It’s almost enough to make a person go mad — as in main character in a Poe story kind of mad!

If purgatory is a real place, any writer ending up there will spend eternity logging into their email to no avail.

So how do we keep from chewing our fingernails off and pulling our hair out or chopping up a body and storing it under the floorboards? How do we keep from going mad? Well, it’s not easy, but the answer is obvious — we do what we do when facing any challenge. We write.

My agent and I are currently waiting to hear back from my editor on a project, and I asked my agent if she would mind if I sent her another project. To be honest, I was afraid that since we’d so recently finished rewrites on one novel, she’d want a take a break from my writing. Instead, she was delighted (of course, she hadn’t read it yet so time will tell if she stays delighted). But agents represent books and writers write books so it just stands to reason that working writers make for happier agents.

The point is that we have to keep working. (Even if she doesn’t like the new project, at least I’ll know so I can move on to the next story brewing in my mind).

Now, I’ll admit, waiting has gotten to my psych on occasion (that whole hearing the heart beating like a clock swaddled in cotton comes to mind, but don’t worry; there are no elderly gentlement with cataracts sleeping in my home).

Last week after another day of waiting, I felt a strange kinship to the protagonist in the tragic story of The Little Match Girl, only instead of envisioning a table of food set before a warm fire, I was envisioning my new book on the shelf at Barnes and Noble.

All right, I wasn’t  freezing or starving to death, but sometimes mental starvation can be almost as bad.

Waiting is not fun. But it is necessary, and it is inevitable. But there is something wonderful, something magical and almost god-like we can do to not only force the current of time to quicken, but to actually enjoy the minutes as they flow by.

We can create. We can write the next story and then like an expectant mother resting before the contractions start, we can wait. And wait. And wait.

Not My House

I just came home from the inservice meeting for the college where I teach. To be honest, I didn’t come straight home. I had My Chemical Romance blaring on the iPod, and I found myself taking wrong turns to finish one song and then another.

When I turned down my street and looked at the green house sitting on the corner, I found myself thinking that I didn’t want it to be my house. I didn’t want the flowers on the porch to be my flowers. I didn’t want the front door to be the door where my key fit.

Now, don’t be mistaken. I have a lovely home and a lovely family. My husband in the perfect blend of fun and serious. My recently published novel sits on the coffee table and I’m waiting for a response on a new project. I’m getting ready to start another semester teaching classes that love. Life is good. But…

I didn’t want it to be my house.

As a writer, I can’t help but look into lit windows, into dark windows, and wonder who lives inside. What type of lives do they live? Are they struggling? Are there secrets within the walls that twists and burn or is every room bright and filled with the aromas of hearty meals and sun-scented dryer sheets?

I have lived in a house filled with laughter and silly singing. Where every Thursday night was spaghetti night and we’d move the furniture in the living room and play dodge ball.

We’ve laughed in the green house on the corner and occasionally, we’ve cried. We’ve talked about dreams — from my youngest wanting her daddy to be president so we could have our own bowling alley to the eldest wanting to be a news anchor and now wanting to be a college professor.

But in-between those two children are the dreams of the middle child. These are aspirations held hostage, and it’s these dreams that make me want to drive away to a different house. A house where no one knows what gastroparesis is.

I love writing. I love creating stories and getting emails and comments from readers who enjoyed the brief escape from reality that my novel provided. My dream of being published came true, and I would pay with that dream — that ransom — if it would unbind my son’s dreams.

For a mom, there is no greater wish than for her children to be healthy and happy. And when the cabinets start filling with pill bottles and when the squares on the calendar are covered with times for doctor appointments, she finds herself pressing to fulfill her dreams not so much for herself, but because doing so might make trips to far away doctors or pharmacies easier. Because fulfilling her dreams (dreams that were so long fought for) might act as inspiration to keep other, frailer dreams alive.

I didn’t want it to be my house, because I don’t want my child to be sick. But there is no parallel universe (that we know of) where things can be altered to our liking. All we can do is press on. We can pull into the garage, put the key in the door, and we can hope.

And we can write. Thank God, we can write.

A Writer’s Dreams Come True in Pieces

As writers, we have dreams.

When Deadly Design, my young adult thriller, came out on June 2nd of this year, it was a giant dream come true. Seeing my book on the shelf was (and still is) amazing. Having a complete stranger purchase the book and want me to sign it, is also completely amazing, but…

Okay, here’s where I try not to sound like a brat. Here, I’ll go ahead and say it for you.

“How dare you minimize the wonderful experience of being a published author!” “Do you know how much this would mean to many struggling writers?”  “Do you know how grateful you should be to have gotten a book deal, especially one with a major publisher?”

First off, I don’t mean to minimize the experience at all and I DO know what it means to a writer to be validated, to have someone say that their work is worth reading.

It means everything.

But here’s the flip side of that —

As writers (as humans) we have dreams, goals, aspirations. And they usually come in a sort of surreal completeness. We form a picture of what our lives will be like after we achieve our goal, down to what we’ll wear, how late we’ll sleep each morning, maybe even what we’ll have for lunch once this major life achievement is accomplished. But dreams don’t usually come in package deals.

Sometimes they come in pieces.

Before going to my first book signing in Tampa, Florida, my husband asked me why I didn’t seem ‘happier’. Besides being nervous that no one would show up, there was just something missing. My life hadn’t magically changed because I had a book out. There was no quitting my day job. My son’s health problems didn’t magically go away. Our aging dog still had a nasty cough and my house was still a wreck because I’d just finished my grading for spring semester.

Before being published, I can’t tell you how many times I fantasized about getting that magical letter or phone call from the agent who just happened to love the pages I sent. Followed, of course, by him or her saying that they’d already discussed the book with a publisher who is so excited about it. Here comes the nice advance, (few rewrites are needed because, well, this is a fantasy). Book stores can’t keep the book on the shelf and so on and so on and so on.

Of course, this isn’t how it goes, but I don’t think any writer can keep writing without those fantasies. To work so hard, for so long, to give up sleep and sometimes sanity for our craft, we have to dream big or we’ll quit.

But we also need to remember that dreams are often puzzle pieces. Encouragement from a beta reader is a piece. A rejection letter with a positive, personalized comment is a piece. A request for pages is a piece. Signing with an agent is a piece and so on and so on.

Writers are a special breed and we have to be content with each piece we get and we have to have faith that once all the pieces come together, it will make a beautiful picture.

Dear Teens, Here’s Logan.

Well, it’s the middle of July and that means the store shelves are loaded with back-to-school items. I always cringe when I see these because it means the end of summer is fast approaching. That means school.

Now for some people, school is great. It’s a chance to see friends, learn new exciting things, maybe get a break from home and family, but for others, the end of summer is like having their probation revoked —  it’s time to go back to prison.

I confess, I always loved learning; I still do, but I always hated school. As I’ve established in earlier posts, I didn’t fit in. Luckily for me, I went to a small school. People thought I was strange, different, but no one bullied me. No one called me names or criticized me because my life was about ballet and not about baling hay.

Times have changed a lot. I’m not that old, but since 1950, the rate of suicide amongst teens has gone up 600%. Is there just one factor causing this? Nope. There are a lot of causes, too many to fit in a textbook let alone a blog, but bullying is one of those factors and the beginning of school is the beginning of hunting season for bullies. In todays world, bullies have a new weapon: the Internet.

I wish I had a solution to this problem. Anti-bullying T-shirts and school assemblies are a start, but like my daughter, Sophie, said, “The anti-bullying shirts are red so your blood won’t stain your shirt after the bully hits you.” Oh, the wisdom of a six year old!

Logan Fairbanks, many of you have probably heard of him from his youtube videos, isn’t a teen. He’s only eleven, but he did something very brave to stand up to those who are using the Internet as a way to bully. Logan decided to face the mean comments head on, by reading them to viewers.

I can’t imagine how difficult it was for him to read the ugly, mean comments, but by doing so, he took the power away from those how seem to find pleasure in hurting others. There’s no easy solution to the enormous problem of bullying, but I wanted to introduce you to Logan because of his bravery and because of his willingness to let others know that they’re not alone.

Logan is not alone.

You’re not alone. You matter.

Are there teens or young people you think should be celebrated here? Do you have a story you’d like to tell about your own experiences? Let me know. We’re in this together.

Dear Teens, Here’s a Girl Who Took on a Shark!

Dear Teens,

I’m sad to say that I heard it again today — that annoying phrase that starts with “Today’s generation” and ends with something about how nothing matters to them but their “cell phones”. Urgh!!!!!!  But don’t despair. People often believe ridiculous things — and there are plenty of ways to show these misguided people that they’re wrong. Teens do care about more than their cell phones — a lot more.

Introducing Rachel Parent. The first time I saw Rachel, she was going up against Kevin O’Leary. For those of you who don’t know who Kevin “Mr. Wonderful” O’Leary is, you can see him on the television show Shark Tank, where he regularly goes for the jugular when it comes to making money off of other people’s ideas.

Rachel challenged O’Leary to a debate over the labeling of genetically modified foods after O’Leary said that people who don’t approve of GMOs should stop eating. You see, Rachel is passionate in her belief that people should know what they’re eating. Her passion grew after she did a school project when she was twelve. The research she conducted led to many concerns and Rachel became an activist and eventually helped Canada adopt a law that all GMO food should be labeled.

Hmmmm…So teens only care about their cell phones? I don’t think so. Want to see a twelve year old go up against a shark? Go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=bvDOYYaZyj4

Stay tuned for more awesome teens!

And remember — YOU MATTER!

To Read those Reviews, or Not to Read!

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with another writer who just had her third book released. She told me that she never reads reviews of her books, and I had to wonder if this approach is a good one.

Sure, great reviews are awesome! We all need our egos stroked once in a while and a good review on Goodreads or some other website is like that much needed pat on the back. But what about the bad reviews?

Do bad reviews serve any purpose? If the good ones build our self confidence, do the negative ones tear our fragile egos down?

First off, whether or not to read reviews is something each writer must decide on their own, and, if they chose to read them, they need to be able to sort the helpful ones from the ones that aren’t helpful.

What do I mean by helpful?

We write to be read. Many of us write for certain audiences. If that audience feels a certain way about our stories or our character development (or lack there of), we might want to hear what they’re saying — after all, they’re the ones buying our books.

In psychology, they say that recurring dreams usually mean something — that our unconscious self is trying to get us to deal with some issue. Well, in reviews, recurring issues might be something we, as writers, need to deal with.

Of course, it doesn’t feel good to admit that maybe we could do something better, but isn’t that always the point — to get better at our craft. If I’m a singer, and I’m singing off key, I want to know! I want to fix it! But if we place our hands over our ears every time someone starts to say something negative, we’ll never improve.

The most difficult part is knowing which critiques are helpful and which ones aren’t.

I recently read Neil Gaiman’s  book The Ocean at the End of the Lane. I LOVED it! I went on Goodreads and out of curiosity looked at what other readers had to say about the book. I couldn’t believe that anyone wouldn’t like it, but of course, there are people who don’t like chocolate, strawberry shortcake, or walking along the beach.

People have different likes and dislikes, and as a writer, we have to know that there will always be people who don’t get us or our characters or our stories. That’s just how it is.

You can’t please everyone, and there are, sad to say, haters out there who just enjoy hating and might need to see a proctologist to have something removed from a certain part of their bodies.

But if there are recurring issues being brought up in reviews, we might want to take these critiques seriously and see if or how we should apply them to our future work. But we can’t know if there are recurring issues if we don’t read the reviews.

That being said, you don’t need to read a hundred reviews to get the gist of what your readers think. After all, that would take hours and hours, and that time needs to be spent writing!

Dear Teens, Here’s Alex!

So in my last post, I said I was going to introduce you to teens who are doing amazing things (because, yeah, teens can do amazing things and they do them everyday!) Today I’m going to tell you about a senior in high school named Alex Deans.

When he was twelve years old he saw a blind woman trying to navigate her way across a busy street. He decided to put his love of science to use. It took several years and a lot of collaboration, but Alex, inspired by bats, created a device that uses sound waves to help blind people navigate without a cane.

The people who have tested the device say it improves their confidence in navigating through the world.

Alex was twelve when he got the idea, and thank goodness no one told him that he was too young to be brilliant!

Alex had an idea. He had a dream.

What’s your’s?

The second leading cause of death for teenagers is suicide. Close to 5,000 teens take their own lives each year. That’s at least 5,000 dreams that never came true.

Make sure you have a dream. (Make sure you have a lot of them!) And don’t give up. You don’t have to be great at science. You just have to be you!

Be you!   You Matter!!!!!!!!!!

Dear Teens, You Rock!

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, and again and again and again — teens get a bad rap into today’s society. We constantly hear about spoiled, lazy, entitled teens but no one ever talks about the fact that many teens today help to economically support their families. That many teens to go school, then are expected to keep a job and then get criticized for not keeping their grades up when there’s no time to do homework between family responsibilities, classes and work, not to mention trying to fit a little bit of being social in there.

I’m tired of the negativity so starting today, I’m going to post about some amazing teens and the amazing things they do.

The first teen I’m celebrating is one we’re all familiar with: Malala Yousafzai.  Yes, she’s the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize. She’s articulate, intelligent, inspiring and a hundred other amazing things, and she’s seventeen!

On Jon Stewart last week, she talked about her younger brothers and how their relationship is pretty much like any seventeen year old girl with two little brothers. She talked about taking exams for school, and she talked about speaking up when something isn’t right.

For Malala, the issue is education and making certain that every child has the opportunity to learn.

Before this, Jon Stewart was talking about the tragic murder of nine people in a church in South Carolina and about his certainty that, sadly, nothing is going to change in our nation to address the issues of race and violence. Then, he spoke with Malala, and there was hope. If a teenage girl can stand up against the Taliban and against a world of beings who believe that only the privileged deserve to learn about the wonders of the world and the universe, then what can we do — each of us. We all have a voice, and across the globe, Malala is helping inspire people to use theirs.

What will you use your voice for?

You don’t have to try to solve world problems; you just have to remember that you have a voice and that you matter.

YOU MATTER!

Losing my Book Signing Virginity ;)

His hair was white with a hint of silver. He approached slowly, having risen from his chair in the small, intimate room where we had discussed literature, shared words. Outside, the rain had stopped but the sky was still gray and large drops of water fell from the trees creating a slow, comforting rhythm.

Yes, he was older and, having taught English for thirty years, he was experienced. I’ll confess, I was nervous. My hand trembled as I grasped the pen. This was it. I was about to sign my first book. He was calm. Of course he was. It wasn’t his first time. He’d been here before, dozens of times. He probably had bookshelves lined with signed copies, but for me, he’ll always be my first.

This is how I lost my book signing virginity in Tampa, Florida at a charming bookstore, called Inkwood. I have to confess that the night before was plagued with book-signing nightmares: I forgot a pen, there were no books, and the audience was a crowded room (that part was good) of hyper and slightly deranged children (children of the corn variety!)

I’m not sure what I expected. Truth be told, I wasn’t sure anyone would show up, not with the rain, the road construction and the debut author. But some did brave the weather and the orange barrels, and we had a very rousing discussion about genetics, ethics, and of course, books.

At my second signing, the crowd (I use the word generously) was about the same, but there was a young man who stood out to me. He seemed shy, reserved, his long black hair hanging in his face, and I couldn’t help but think how he and the main character of Deadly Design, would be friends if Kyle was real. I thought to myself that this young man had a story and I wished I could sit down with him in the Starbucks and talk. While I didn’t get that chance, I’m glad Kyle went home with him, not because it means I sold a book, but because even if Kyle isn’t real and even if we didn’t get the chance to talk, he and I and Kyle will have conversations on the page and that’s what it’s all about.

At my third signing, I was met by lovers of YA and young aspiring writers, both groups asking lots of questions about the book and about the writing process. I was humbled when many already had questions prepared because they’d read the book and were curious about so many things. I signed books, stumbling over what to write because I wanted those who attended, those who had read or wanted to read my book to know how much they matter. I wanted to send home a reassuring voice, a cheerleader, to those who want to write but who struggle with the fears all writers have.

Did I sell a ton of books? No. Did I meet some people I will never forget — absolutely.

From the wonderful store owners and managers, to the graceful older men and women, to the young man with a story of his own behind his long black bangs, to the warm YA bloggers and those wanting to write. Thanks for crossing my path.

Touching people in person is a luxury writers seldom get. So here’s to touching on the page.