Thursday, November 10, 2011

Telling the truth

When I teach writing, I talk a lot about honesty. Our stories, true or fictional, need to reflect the core of our humanity, the deeper essence of what it means to live in this world, to love, to celebrate, to mourn, to grieve, to fear, to rejoice. If a story isn’t honest, if it doesn’t dig into the marrow of how we see the world, it’s not worth telling. And in publishing terms, it’s also probably not worth making it into print.

My agent, the generous but tough Jen Rofe, is never easy on her authors, especially when we’re close but not quite there to telling a story that is going to move us to a different writing space. Growth in this profession does not come easily and it takes tough mentors to keep us on track. Jennifer likes to ask, “Why should someone pay you thousands of dollars for this book? Why this character in this story in this situation? Why?”

So I have to force myself to heed my own writing advice: Tell the true story. Don’t fake it, not even the tiniest bit. The setting, the character, the dialogue, the conflicts— they all need an authenticity that holds up to reader scrutiny. This does not mean, by the way, that every reader will find your story true to his/her own vision. That’s the other hard part, the part where we as writers need to keep the faith of what we know to be the story that we must tell. Readers come to literature with different life experiences, different ideas of what it means to be human. Some will say, ‘Oh no, a guy would never do that to someone he loves.’ As writer and master of my fictional universe, I have to stand by my own observations and experiences, by what I know is authentic for a character. Sometimes readers will get angry at you – yes, it’s happened to me: I’ve been lambasted by a few adult readers for letting Ethan in the Dreaming Anastasia series smoke cigarettes even though this habit makes sense for him. The criticism makes little sense to me: we are not creating stories of the perfect universe. We are telling what is.

I’ve been thinking hard about all of this the past few days because I’m reading Ellen Hopkins’ Tricks, which deals with some excruciatingly rough topics including child abuse, drug abuse, and child prostitution. Ellen – who I am lucky to call a friend – is a fierce advocate of teens who live lives that many people cannot imagine. She is an even fiercer writer when it comes to not only telling the truth, but telling it in a way that forces the reader to LOOK and not look away until the story is done.

Tricks is a stunningly powerful novel, one I would recommend only for older teens. It is gritty and graphic – often highly graphic in terms of sex and drug use. It is not a book for everyone, and honestly (since we’re talking about honesty today) not one I would feel comfortable using in a high school classroom. Such intensity is too much for some students – and adults for that matter. A student who has not yet experienced love or loss, much less sex or drug use, might not be best served through the images of violent and forced sex here as their first visions of the sexual experience. Nor is it a teacher's place to foist this on them in a classroom setting.

That said, this is still an important book. Having taught a number of years in public high schools, I never fail to be surprised by how many people deny the lives that many teens lead or who espouse the idea that writers need to censor their material so as not to influence teen behavior. Don’t write about sex (or smoking or drug use) this argument goes; you’ll give them ideas. While I am convinced that not everyone is ready for every topic at the same age or time, let me say as firmly as I can: teens are going to think about sex because they’re teens. That they can now – at an age where impulse control is often iffy – film their youthful indiscretions and post them on line is another story entirely.

I have taught students whose parents were found to be photographing them for child pornography. I have taught students whose parents ran meth labs. I have taught criminals and drug addicts and alcoholics. I have taught students who were struggling with parents with chronic illness and depression. I have taught students whose parents abused them. I have taught students who have been kicked out their homes, who have had abusive boyfriends, whose parents have been divorced multiple times, whose step-dads (or biological dads) have had sex with them. I have taught students whose parents were in prison – for drugs, for theft, for manslaughter. One dad came home and was the most supportive, loving parent one could ask for. I have taught students whose parents sold drugs or embezzled or were addicted to pain killers or who committed suicide. I have a former student who was later convicted of child molestation. I have had students whose parents were caught in highly public love affairs that destroyed marriages and lives and churches. Currently, I have a former student who has disappeared without a trace.

Now let me add that the school where I most recently taught is in a middle to upper middle class suburb, sitting next to a highly affluent suburb, north of Houston. I am not in the inner city, although I have taught there. And let me also add that many, if not most of those students mentioned above were/are amazing human beings who often rose above circumstances in ways that should humble the average person. Some did not. Some made their problems known. Some hid them very well. Most were funny, smart, courageous. They liked to learn. They made me laugh and hopefully I made them laugh too. (usually I did. I tried at first to be serious, but I’m just not, so I gave it up.)

Today as I struggle with telling the truth about a character named Amy in a novel I’m trying to get right, I am in awe of Ellen Hopkins, who refuses to back down, refuses to avert her eyes.

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