A Room with One Door: What Hannah Baker Needed

 

Like so many other individuals, I’ve been watching the Netflix version of the bestselling YA novel, Thirteen Reasons Why. Everywhere I go, people seem to be discussing it, and on Facebook, I’ve seen a lot of teens starting posts with, “Let’s play Thirteen reasons Why”.

For those of you who haven’t seen this, it’s basically asking their Facebook friends to comment their name. The person whose post they are commenting on, will then comment “no tape” or “tape and here is the reason why”.

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As a psychologist, a parent and a YA author, I have a lot of conflicting feelings about this. Then yesterday, I saw a post listing “Twenty Things I WILL NOT Do for my Child“. Things like, “fight their battles for them”.

This got me thinking about numbers. “Thirteen” Reasons Why.  “Twenty” Things I WILL NOT Do for my Child.  I thought of the “One” door I think so many kids today think they have access to, and that door is suicide.

Adults have to face the fact that schools today aren’t like the schools of ten, twenty, thirty years ago. Times change. We have the internet now. We have Facebook Live and Snapchat. We have a society where girls are publicly and privately sexualized, where girls are legally told that their work is worth less pay than that of males, where minorities and gays are legally persecuted and where schools hang anti-bullying posters in the hallway but then, so often, tell kids to toughen up and be less sensitive when someone bullies them.

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Years ago, I watched a documentary where a beautiful nine year old boy killed himself because he didn’t know how to do his math problems and he feared his teacher was going to humiliate him in front of the class for doing the problems wrong. He took a belt and hung himself.

I’ve seen a lot of comments about the fictional “Hannah Baker” and how she should have been tougher, should have stood up for herself more, should have tried more to stop the various individuals who were bullying her.

But here’s the thing. So many times kids, and adults, find themselves in situations that they can’t stand to deal with any longer. They may tell their parents, tell school officials, but so often nothing is done, nothing changes, and they find themselves in a room with one door.

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They hate the room. They hate how they feel in it. They hate how they are treated in it. They try and try and try to survive in that room, but eventually they just can’t anymore and so they open the door and walk through it.

The thing is, suicide shouldn’t be their only option.

Adults all know that middle school and high school are temporary. Once you’re out of them, they seem so incredibly insignificant, and as time goes on, they become less and less significant. High school is kind of like a root canal. While you’re gong through it, it might seem unbearable, but once it’s done and over with, you rarely if ever think about it.

But like Einstein said, “Time is relative.”

Just remember being little and your parents telling you it’s still two weeks until Christmas. Two weeks felt like forever.

Adults can look back and see those four years of high school as just drops in the bucket of time, but when you’re there, when Facebook posts ping on your phone even when you’re trying to sleep and you know people are constantly judging you, high school can feel like a life sentence. And there’s no parol. There’s no early release for good behavior.

I don’t have the answer, but I know as a society, we need to create a second door and a third and a fourth. We need to LISTEN. We need to help kids fight their battles because they are kids. Yeah, we all want to teach self-reliance, but wars aren’t fought by individuals; they’re fought by armies, and in the stressful world we live in, sometimes kids need an army behind them.

Whether you like the Netflix show or not, the reality is that suicide amongst teens is up 600% from 1950.

Hannah wasn’t guilty of selfishness or lack of creative thinking. She was trapped in a room and only saw one door. It’s up to us as a society, as parents and friends and teachers to create more doors. Or better yet, let’s bust the walls down.

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Waiting = Writing

Every writer knows that waiting is a part of the job. Waiting for beta readers to give feedback, waiting for responses on query letters. Waiting for your agent to say it’s time to submit and then waiting to see if any publishers want to offer you a deal.

It’s excruciating, but there is something to ease the pain and to make the minutes, days, weeks, even months go by faster. Work!

Writers write, so write already!

In an earlier post, I compared the publishing process to having a baby. It is a lot like that, the waiting and the wondering what life will be like once it (the book or the baby) arrives.

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Because we tend to think of our books like offspring, it’s hard to imagine getting pregnant with another baby, before the one you’ve been carrying is born. But writers never carry just one story inside of them at a time.

Right now, I bet there are characters, just waiting to be written, passing the time playing cards in the deep regions of your cerebral cortex. We think waiting is hard for writers, just imagine what it’s like for the characters who get hopeful every time we pick up a pen or sit down at our keyboards. Think how their hearts race when we order that double shot of espresso at Starbucks and take a table in the back corner.

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The thing is, stories want to be told and as writers, it’s our job to tell them. So forget the clock and the calender. Stop checking your email every hour. Eventually, you will hear something, but in the mean time, work. Give life and freedom to your characters. Spring them from your brain and let them live on the page.

For me, there’s nothing better than the moment a story takes hold of you and pushes you, blindfolded, down a steep hill. The exhileration of not knowing what’s going to happen and the certainty that you’ll figure it out is the best!

So yes, waiting is a part of being a writer. But remember that waiting should always equal writing.

 

 

 

“This Generation”

Hi Everyone,

Sorry it’s been a while since I posted. I’ve been busy working on rewrites of a novel that will be going out to publishers soon and it’s this novel and some other things that have inspired this post today.

To start off, last week I saw a post on Facebook about ‘this generation’.

 

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Needless to say, when the term ‘this generation’ is used, it’s probably not going to be a post about how studious, respectful and wonderful today’s youth is. I’m not a teenager anymore, but as someone who once was, and as someone who writes for teens and tweens, this really annoys me!

First off, generations are made out of people and people are individuals. Everyone has their own story, their own triumphs and tragedies. Not everyone born in the sixties or the seventies or the eighties or nineties are the same. Yes, we are all parts of the eras we grew up in, but we didn’t grow up in the same houses or neighborhoods, with the same incomes or religions or talents or handicaps. We’re all different and grouping a whole generation of teens together is just plain wrong.

Secondly, I happen to like this generation of teens. As a teacher, they make me laugh and sometimes they make me cry. I see them struggling in a world that isn’t like the one I grew up in. When I was a kid, bullies weren’t that common and if you had one to deal with, you knew once school was over for the day, you were free of him or her. Today kids are never free — not with cyber bullying.

When I was a kid we had fire and tornado drills. We would never have imagined someone coming into school with the intent of killing as many of us as possible just because they have a desire to kill.

The point I’m trying to make is that teens don’t have it easy and most of them, if they feel entitled, it’s only because they want what’s fair, like a decent education and healthy food to eat. Most are grateful for the good things in their lives and most are much more attuned to what’s happening in our world than we ever give them credit for.

So to all the teens out there, when I first wrote this novel, it contained letters to you. Now, these letters are written by me, but I wrote them trying to imagine what God would want to say to the youth of the world if He or She decided to drop a line every once in a while. (I prefer to believe that God doesn’t have a gender one way or the other because…well…God created the universe and somehow genitals just shouldn’t matter to a being capable of such a feat.)

In the various rewrites of the book, the letters were taken out, but I’d like to give them to you all the same. So starting this week I’ll be posting the letters — the love letters from God.

Now, it may seem presumptuous of me to think that I can speak for God, and I’m not trying to. I’m simply imagining what the Almighty might want to say, or is already saying, but in our crazy, hectic, and sometimes angry, societies, we’re not hearing.

God gets a pretty bad wrap today and to be honest, I’ve struggled with sorting through the bigotry and downright evil that is paraded around our country in the name of religion. These letters aren’t about religion. They’re about spirituality. They’re about you and the fact that you mean something. You are something.

Anyway, I’m not sure what I’m hoping the letters bring you. Peace maybe. Guidance…well, we’ll see. Mostly, I want them to help each one of you know that while you are part of a generation, you are a part of something much bigger than that. You are a part of a gallery of art that is beautiful, rare and utterly magnificent. You matter.

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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.

Getting in the Mood — to write

It’s Saturday morning. The kids are asleep. Dad is working in his garden (hooray for spring) and the dog’s gone out. It’s time to write! And yet….

It has occurred to me that writing is like sex.  Sometimes we’re more ‘turned on’ than other times. Sometimes we’re in the mood, and sometimes…our creative side gets a headache. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was a Viagra for writing! Okay, I know this sounds ridiculous, but we all know that writing takes focus and energy (the mental kind of energy that’s much harder to come by). So just like most people have their turn-ons for sex, maybe we writers have turn-ons for writing.

Let’s see. For me there’s….

Music:  Trying to find a song that would go with the scene I’m working on. Youtube is great for this. Last week I was working on a scene where a character is playing the violin. I found a wonderful video of an artist playing a heart-wrenching Bach piece — perfect.

Ambition: Okay, this is a big word that can mean many things, from just wanting to be able to pay bills to going to that next high school reunion and telling the girl who made head cheerleader and razzed you about not making the squad at all that you have a book deal. Ambition can be wanting your kids to go to college, wanting a bigger house or one with a basement that doesn’t flood when it rains. Or for someone like me with a child who will be battling health issues his whole life, the ability to know he’ll be able to go to good doctors and have a good life. Ambition isn’t a four letter word. There’s nothing wrong with ambition, and reminding ourselves of ‘why’ we want it so badly can be just what we need to get us to work when it’s hard to get in the mood.

Dreams and stories: I think this is the most important one. Writing isn’t easy. I think that horse has been beaten to death and the only people who believe writing is easy are those people who don’t write. We hack away at writer’s block, at the insecurities and rejections because we have a dream and we have stories. In a world of destruction, we dream of being creators, of giving birth to characters and scenarios and tragedies and moments when something magical happens on the page and we cry and we know that someday someone on the other side of the globe might hold our book, read our words, and cry too. That’s the dream. Stories move in us, beseeching us to tell them, to exorcise them from our souls and release them into the world, to set them free.

Right now, the sink is full of dishes. The couch is covered with laundry and very soon, too soon, the dryer will buzz like some sci-fi beast to let me know I have responsibilities! And yes, I do have responsibilities — to my craft, to myself, to my characters and their stories.

There is no viagra for writers, but we can turn ourselves on to writing. It’s not easy, but it’s what we do.

Two Great Writers

Just a quick post today to say how very fortunate I’m feeling. Last November I got the opportunity to see Stephen King in Wichita. This week I traveled to Tulsa to hear Neil Gaiman talk about the craft of writing, and other various impromptu things, at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center.

Living in Kansas, the opportunities to see such well-known authors are rare, and while the theater was mostly filled for Stephen King, I was awed by the massive numbers of people who showed up in Tulsa to hear Mr. Gaiman.

I think what I took away from the evening that I treasure the most is Neil Gaiman’s passion for the arts and how, while we are a society that is increasingly turning to the practical, the arts are what make life worth living.

What would our lives be without music, dance, visual arts, and literature? What is the purpose of life if not to feel the swell in our chests when we witness the beautiful, amazing things that humans are capable of?

The world and history is filled with reminders of the other side of humanity — the destructive side instead of the creative side. Thank God for the artists who create and inspire and feed our souls. Who illuminate the dark halves of ourselves so that there is hope and purpose and a glimpse of something more than just work and bills and all things mundane.

Six hours in a car was well worth it to be reminded that there are individuals out there who are brilliant, talented, humble and above all, creative.

Dear Teens,

Up until now, most of my posts have centered around writing. I am a member of a very important species called “writers” and we need to stick together, to support each other through the moments of doubt, joy, elation, depression, and temporary (hopefully temporary) madness.

But as a young adult writer, I feel the pull, the need, to communicate not only with other writers, but with those most likely to read what I write. So here goes.

Dear teens,

I’m not of your generation. I grew in a world where the word terrorism was never spoken and 9-11 was just another date. And all too often today, I hear people saying that ‘kids today’ have no work ethic, they take everything for granted.

And I wonder what it would be like to grow up in a world where you’re told to be yourself, but then people look down on you because you’re not conforming enough. To be told to get good grades so you’ll get into a good college and by the way, terrorists are plotting to kill people in shopping malls so YOLO!

Life today is a kaleidoscope of paradoxes. Pursue your goals, your dreams, your ambitions, but beware of Ebola and North Korea and student loan debt.

I think my niece put it best when she was two years old and she went around saying, “Life a bitch.”

Sometimes it can be, but sometimes it can be pretty amazing.

The truth is, I don’t know you. I don’t know what struggles you go through every day. I don’t know what crap have you to put up with or how many people care about you and do a good enough job showing it.

But I don’t think you’re a generation of “kids today”. I think, no, I know, that you are as full of possibilities as any human being who has ever lived before you.

I want to listen to you. I want to cheer for you. I want to understand and I want you do know that when I write, I’m writing because a) I have to or I’ll explode! b) it’s my way of reaching out across the miles and the houses and the apartments and fields and the oceans — to tap you on the shoulder and say hey, this is for you. I hope you like it.

Beware the Muse Killer!

I don’t think writers need to be reminded of our frail egos. The validation of a personal response on a rejection letter, getting an honorable mention in a contest, having our writing group say more positive than negative things are like life support to the tiny muse who so often goes Code Blue on our shoulders.

We know writing is hard. We know that rejection is part of the process. We know that if we think we just wrote the most brilliant scene since Katniss handed Peeta the berries, that tomorrow we might read the same scene and think it could fertilize Iowa. The thing is, no matter how many down moments we have, no many how much self-doubt and how many times we have to perform CPR on that poor little muse, we don’t stop writing. We keep believing in ourselves. And thank goodness we do!

When struggling with an earlier draft of Deadly Design, I sought guidance from a bestselling author I’d met at a few conferences. I asked if, for a fee, he’d be willing to edit the book and tell me what exactly it was missing.

Commas, evidently. I was missing commas, but the remark, one of the few, that really got me, was the scribbled note on page eight. “Your character is unlikable. Who cares what happens to him?”

If my ego had been any thinner, I might have looked down at my poor, pale muse and pulled the plug. I’d have let him die with what little dignity I had left. But I stopped myself. I knew my character. I knew my story and my abilities to write and why exactly should I listen to this man who took my check but didn’t even write in my genre?

I didn’t listen. I got another person, a wonderful, helpful person to give me guidance that led to doing what I wanted to do, what we all want to do  — to make the book better. This led to finding my agent, getting a deal, and the rest, as they say, is history.

We writers may have fragile egos, but we know how hard we work. We know our passions and how much we want to create the best work we can. Don’t ever let anyone tell you to pull the plug. Even if your manuscript isn’t quite there yet, that doesn’t mean it’s terminal! You know your abilities. You know your strengths, your weaknesses.

You know how badly you want it. Take the good advice you receive and use it. Ignore what you can’t use and, just like the old cliche says, have faith in yourself. Don’t let anyone kill your dreams or your muse.

Write with Passion!

Today I read the article by Oliver Sacks regarding his diagnosis of terminal cancer. I confess that I have not been a prolific reader of his work, but this article touched me greatly. I won’t begin to try to discuss the article but rather it’s impact.

My grandfather was 99 when he died. My husband’s grandmother was 105. I know a little boy who died at the age of ten, have a close friend who’s twenty-five with four malignant brain tumors, and currently follow the story of a six-year-old girl fighting leukemia. But this post isn’t about death, it’s about life and the fact that no matter how many years we get on this earth, it will never be enough.

When my youngest was a baby, I remember holding her and just breaking down one day. I knew why I was crying. It was because I was going back to work, and she was going to daycare. I was once again going to miss out on spending day after day watching my child grow. I’d worked hard to become a therapist, and I had clients, mostly abused children, waiting for me to come back and help them. I don’t regret my relationships with them or the way they touched my life, but I wanted to be with my baby — with my last baby.

When she was two, I got a phone call during a therapy session.  My toddler had decided to take the dog for a walk and the babysitter found her two blocks away. I realize now that perhaps it was an angel who’d opened the door and ushered her outside, because I gave my notice that day, and took a part time job as a college professor.

I can’t get back the time I lost with my older children, and I don’t regret the hours spent in college or doing my internship or working in the field of psychology, but none of us is getting younger. Each day that passes is gone, and we will never get those days back.

What I took away most for Mr. Sacks’ words is that I want to really live the rest of my life, however many years that may be. That doesn’t mean I can quit my job and travel the world. But it does mean that I can laugh louder. I can keep singing in my car even when a passing driver looks at me like I’m nuts. I can hug tighter, kiss longer, breathe deeper, and I can write.

I can write and if there is one lessen for us all to learn, it’s that whatever we do in life, we must do it with passion.

Live with passion. Consume words and food and music with passion and write with passion!

Savor every word, every character, every conflict and resolution and every tear and smile the words bring to us.

Write with passion!