16 December 2012

Newtown is Our Town

There is a scene in the play Warhorse where horses charge for the first time into the carnage that will become known as World War I. In that moment, the absolute change in the world is made clear. Where once a cavalry might have charged into a flurry of bullets fired from single-action riffles, the horses portrayed in the play encounter a new terror--the machine gun. Most do not make it through. They are mowed down in the unbelievable firepower released by those guns, and for the next scene their bodies lay inert and broken on the stage, while the other actors pretend that they are not there. It's a chilling scene, because it mirrors just how clueless the people back home were about the differences of this new war. How little they understood the ways that the world had changed.

Later in the play, a German officer gets hold of the main character--a horse called Joey--and saves him. Where another officer would have that horse charge senselessly into another barrage of machine gun fire, this officer knows the utter futility of that action. The utter waste of sending a horse into that sort of carnage. He seems the only one who realizes the futility of sending horses into modern warfare.

It's the moment when the history of war is confronted with the future--the moment when the deadly nature of technology is made startlingly visible.

I feel like we are at that sort of moment right now.

I'm having a hard time dealing with the tragedy in Newtown. It was hard enough to hear that it happened as I followed the news via Twitter on Friday, but it was devastating to hear that the children were all first graders--all 6 or 7 years old--the exact same age as my oldest. I look at him, so blissfully innocent of every danger, of the suffering of those people just a few states north of us. I think of him with his little friends, excited to go to school. Excited to be in a classroom with a young and energetic teacher. Excited to start each new day.

I look at him and I try not to imagine him huddled in a corner with his classmates--the little boys who defeated a dad playing Darth Vader at a recent birthday party. The little kids who were so sweet and gentle when he came to school with his arm in a splint, who ushered him around so that no one could jostle his injury. I think of all the little names drawn in crooked scrawls on that cast. I try not to imagine his small, lithe body torn apart by bullets meant for a battlefield. I try not to think about what I would do, how I would make it through that, and I fail every single time.

I know that I don't really know. That none of us save those twenty (twenty!) families in Newton. Those 12 families in Colorado. Those families of the 88 people who died in the last year in mass shootings. And the countless families of the countless people who have died from gunshots this year and every year before. I pray that I never do know.

And then I read responses of pro-gun advocates whose immediate response is to say that there should be more guns. That this is just a mental health issue. That guns don't kill people; people kill people.

True- People are at fault. But people can't put 3 to 11 bullets in each of the tiny bodies of 20 six year olds in less than 10 minutes with any old gun. Semi-automatic assault weapons do that.

And for what?

Why are these weapons necessary for the average citizen? And perhaps you will argue that they are not necessary, but they are a right. To that, my friend, I say bullshit. A driver's license isn't a right, but that sort of fire power is? That makes absolutely no sense.

Here's the thing--I'm not advocating a total gun ban. I don't think that such a thing is possible, nor do I think it could ever happen. America is a nation of guns. But--and this is a big but--there is not a legitimate reason for most ordinary citizens to have free access to the kind of weapon that was designed completely and solely for mass body counts.

Let's be clear here--when you are talking about semi-automatic weapons--about Glocks and Bushmasters and other guns capable of firing a large quantity of bullets without reloading, you are talking about an assault weapon. You are talking about the kind of firepower designed for battle. These are not the matches used by arsonists nor are they the knives used by the recent attacker in China. These are machines designed for the sole purpose of taking as many lives as possible in the shortest time possible. These are weapons designed not only to fire quickly, but for the shots to wreak devastation upon the bodies that they hit.

Which brings me back to the beginning. We are told that gun ownership is a right. Fine. It's in the Constitution. Fine. But our forefathers could not have predicted the sort of weapons we have today any more than those soldiers who rode horses into the first charges of WWI could have predicted the carnage the machine gun was capable of. To think about these sorts of assault weapons in the same way as we think about a simple revolver or the type of weapon necessary for hunting or other sport is ridiculous. To interpret the 2nd amendment without distinguishing between a single-shot, muzzle-loading rifle as our forefathers would have used and the type of gun that killed those children is irresponsible. It's like charging into battle on a horse when you're facing a tank.

Which, of course, happened.

Honestly, I don't understand why any law-abiding citizen needs that sort of firepower. You don't need that to shoot a deer. You don't need it to protect yourself from a home invasion (a simple revolver would do that well enough). You don't need it for target practice. You need it because you crave the thrill of holding something so powerful. You need it because there is something about holding an instrument capable of firing 5 bullets a second into the body of another human that appeals to you. And frankly, that makes me worried about you.

I know we can't prevent all violence. I know that someone with serious mental health problems who wants to kill will kill one way or another. But to say that's a reason for us to not consider ways to better limit and regulate the sorts of weapons that can do the sort of damage these types of weapons do is ridiculous. 

The twenty innocent children who died in such a horrific way Friday deserved more than that. They are worth more than the thrill of firing a high-powered gun. Their lives were and are worth more than some mis-placed fear that the government will take away all the guns from good law-abiding citizens.

I look at my own six-year old and can't help but wonder how I would cope. I look at my sweet boy and know how lucky I am to have him safe. This time.

22 March 2012

7-7-7 meme

Julia Broadbooks tagged me for a meme and I thought it was kind of fun:

1. Go to page 77 of your current MS 
2. Go to line 7
3. Copy down the next 7 lines – sentences or paragraphs – and post them as they’re written. No cheating.
4. Tag 7 authors
5. Let them know

Here's mine:
But everyone that day noticed the birds.
As the mothers drove their children to school and the shopkeepers rolled up the gates on Main Street, they saw them. Even the most jaded and unobservant among them could not help but marvel at the way that the large oak in the town square shimmered with feathers brighter than the tender buds of leaves.
The tree came alive, shifting and swirling in the windless day as each of the tiny bodies fought for dominance on the branches above. As people paused to take in the strange and wondrous sight, the day slowed until it stopped. 

06 July 2011

Children Are Not Adults

In early June, Megan Cox Gurdon wrote what has become a much debated article for the Wall Street Journal about whether YA literature has become too dark. (You can read the original article here.) In the days and weeks that have followed, Twitter and the rest of the interwebs have exploded with discussions about the issue.

I haven't been sure what it is that I wanted to add, if anything, to the debate, but today, NPR had a feature about Ms. Cox Gurdon and her arguments, and for the first time I had a chance to hear the author of the article speak more about why she made the arguments.  (You can listen to the interview here.) It made me, finally, want to respond.

During the interview, Ms. Cox Gurdon said one thing that caught my interest more than anything else. Considering her general condescension toward the genre and its authors, it should say something that this is what caught my attention. She said, "Children are not adults." Her point was that children do not have the ability yet to distinguish good from bad, moral from immoral, art from trash, and that it is the job of adults (parents) to help them make those distinctions.

I agree...to a point. I think that it should be the responsibility of parents to help their children make these decisions. How parents are supposed to help them if their resources include articles like the ones that Ms. Cox Gurdon wrote--articles with no substantive evidence to back up some of the claims that she made. Articles that rely more on anecdotal evidence and fear-mongering than on actual investigative reporting. Well, that's a different matter, I suppose.

My point is simply this: It is true that children, that teenagers are not adults, but it is also true that literature is not propaganda.

Many on both sides of the issue--those for and against what Ms. Cox Gurdon argued-- seem to miss this important fact.

Now I'm not saying that literature isn't powerful and that reading can't be a transformative act. Literature is immensely powerful. Every time we pick up a book and read, we change. We become someone we weren't before, someone who has now experienced things that he or she had not before. I've spent so many years of my life studying, teaching, and (now) writing literature, because I do believe in its power.

But here's the thing: Literature cannot be prescriptive.

In part, this is because literary language has a slipperiness to it that is nearly impossible to pin down. An author might have certain intentions about what a book is trying to say or trying to convey, but any literature teacher (or student) worth their salt can tell you that when you're interpreting a piece of literature, authorial intentions are a moot point all together. After all, how many racists were vindicated by Twain's use of a certain unmentionable word in Huck Finn when Twain's own intention in using the word was something else entirely?

More importantly, perhaps, literature cannot be prescriptive because reading is an intensely private and personal activity. Without the reader, no book and no experience of reading can be complete.  The reader finishes what the author began in authoring the book, and because each reader brings to the book his or her own sets of experiences and assumptions, no book will strike any two readers the same way.
A book--whether we're talking YA or Romance or anything else--may save a reader or it may maim them, that much is true. But it may also do nothing at all. A book can change your life in any number of ways, but it does not do that simply by existing. To change a life, a book requires the reader's active involvement.

This is the real problem that I see with Ms. Cox Gurdon's argument and the arguments of so many of her opponents--they give the book itself a power that it just simply does not have.

For a book to injure a child in some way, the child has to finish reading it. And a child who cannot relate to some of these so-called "dark" subjects may not select those books or finish those books. But the opposite is true--for a reader to be saved by a book, it's the reader who is already actively searching for an answer. It's the reader who finds their own power within the pages of the book.

I think that what is most frustrating about Ms. Cox Gurdon's argument is that she claims that these "dark" books have the power to harm the teenagers who read them, as though teenagers are not savvy enough to see these stories as literature and not as propaganda. At the same time she accuses these books of ripping away the innocence of our children, she does no better by ripping away their agency as readers.

If YA does save--and I'm inclined to think that it might--it does not do so by preaching or instructing. If YA saves anyone, it does so by allowing teenage readers the power experience of interacting with beautiful, moving, and often challenging texts. YA saves by treating young adults not as the children that they might be, but as the adults they will eventually become.

27 June 2011

Finding My Tribe

See, here's the thing--I've been struggling with the idea of being a writer. I think that deep, deep down, part of me still wants to be a professor. (Probably the bossy part of me that likes assigning homework and making up exams.) Ever since last September, when I started making a real, conscious effort to write a novel, I've been very reluctant to call myself a writer.  I just didn't feel like a writer. I felt like an unemployed professor.

Since September, I've been trying to figure out at what point I could say I was a writer, rather than just a frustrated SAHM who still wanted the Ivory Tower. It didn't feel like one when I sent off my first dues payment to RWA or even when I finished my first "practice" novel. I'm not even sure that it was when I got decent feedback on that novel in a contest. It wasn't when I was obsessively focused on finishing the real novel--the one that I was thinking about the whole time I wrote the practice novel. Maybe I felt a little like a writer when I was querying or emailing fulls and partials, but mostly I just felt like a fraud. I was sure that at some point someone was going to realize I hadn't been writing fiction or wanting this badly enough for me or my work to be taken seriously.

I  felt like since that other thing failed so miserably when it should have worked, I didn't see how this impossible thing could possibly work. I thought that I was supposed to be a professor. For the last eight years or so, my entire identity was wrapped around that dream, that single goal. I think that was part of the reason why it's been so hard to wrap myself around this new dream.

This past Saturday, my local RWA chapter, Southern Magic, had a panel of YA authors that featured Jennifer Echols, Rachel Hawkins, Rosemary Clement-Moore, R.A. Nelson, and Chandra Sparks.  They talked about their books, their lives as writers, and some of those quintessential moments that aspiring writers dream of. As they talked, I realized a couple of things. First-- there are a ridiculous number of insanely talented and very recognizably successful authors who live within a fairly short distance from where I now live. Apparently there's something in the water or air down here.

Second, and probably more significantly, as they talked I realized something that even getting an agent didn't make me realize--these    really are my people.

Don't get me wrong--I was a pretty decent academic. I've got the CV to prove it, even if I don't have the job. But I always felt like being around academics was really, really hard. They're just so smart! All. The. Time.  I am not smart all the time--at least not in that way. Being that kind of smart all the time requires an amount of brain power and focus that I'm not sure I have. No, I'm pretty positive I don't have it.

As I listened to the panel talk this past weekend, I realized that these were the kind of people I want to be friends with--and not in a creepy stalker way. These are the people I  want as colleagues, and these are the people I want to be respected as a colleague by.  When Rachel Hawkins talk about killing all the random smiling in her manuscripts, I knew exactly what she meant. I just got done doing the exact same thing. And when Jennifer Echols talked about being able to announce the first time she sold at one of the Southern Magic meetings, I understood what she was talking about. I had just been able to announce my new agent just moments before. They speak language that I understand--a language of books and literature that has nothing to do with being able to reference obscure German or French philosophers. A language that has everything to do with the difficulty of craft and the beauty of language.

More than any number of words written, or queries sent, or even offers of representation made, the writers I've come to know in the past few months are the reasons why I've started to feel more and more like a writer. And if I ever do become a published author, their books will have been the reason why.

04 April 2011

A Virtue I Don't Possess

So here's the thing-- I have the patience of a gnat. 

No, really. I'm so bad that I tend to read the ends of books because I don't want to wait to see what happens. Sacrilege, I know.

I've never been much for waiting.  In HS I got tired of waiting to get to college, so I started taking courses at Akron U during my senior year. I graduated from Kent in only 3 1/2 years. And then I went straight to grad school and got through that fairly quickly, too.  Actually, I would have been done sooner, but the market tanked so I hung out for a while and pretended not to be done until J finished.

But the publishing industry is absolute torture for someone like me.  I'm all about the instant gratification of knowing.  I don't even care if it's bad news, as long as I know.

Right now I'm querying to agents, and let me tell you that as exciting as it is to still have 6 partials out there, the wait is k.i.l.l.i.n.g. me. 

So I'm trying to figure out what to write next. Mostly, though, I just think about what to do if all 6 of those partials turn out to be a bust.

Also I discovered Twitter, which is like crack for someone who likes to know things instantly. Thank goodness I don't have a smart phone.

So how do you keep waiting from killing you?

01 April 2011

Upon Penalty of Death

I'd like to preface this post with a warning.  You really, really shouldn't tell me any of the following:
  • Everything happens for a reason.
  • It's all part of God/Yahweh/Ganesh/whomever's plan.
  • You do have a job-- you're a mom.
  • Everything happens for a reason. (seriously- I hate that one.)

So it's been a while, eh? And while you've all been up to whatever it is you've been up to, I've been having a little bit of an identity crisis.

But I think I've worked my way through it finally. (insert applause here)

So the whole being a professor thing didn't turn out. And I'm not really cut out to be a housewife, no matter what the lady at the bank seems to think. So I've decided to go with something really realistic.  That's right.  I'm a writer!

Or at least that's what I'm telling myself until we run out of money and I'm forced to get a full-time job.

But seriously, I wrote a book.  Okay, I wrote two books, but we're not going to count the first one since it was really just practice.  The second one, though, we're totally going to count.

It's out in the world right now looking for an agent.  I'm patiently (okay, not really patiently) waiting for it to send an email home to its mama and tell me it found a fabulous job.

(Did I mention I tend to go for careers that have little-to-no chance of taking off??)

But, hey, seven (out of you don't even want to know how many) people so far actually requested to see pages. 

So stick around and we'll see what happens next.

27 March 2011


Squeak: (out of the blue when we were driving home from preschool) God gave us things.

Me: Oh? Like what?

Squeak: Bushes.

Me: Bushes?

Squeak: And bridges.