I’ve always had a hard time making friends. It’s never been easy for me. I’m awkward and tongue tied and I can be kind of boring. Most of the friends I’ve made in my life, it’s because I sought them out. It’s because I found them interesting and made an effort to get to know them better. This is true of very nearly every friend I have. In fact, I can only think of two people where that’s not true.
Mark was one of those people. He was someone who sought me out. He insinuated himself into my life. There’s nothing stranger for someone who’s struggled to make friends to suddenly find himself at the business end of attention. To this day, I don’t know if I would have sought him out, but I’ll be forever grateful that he took the initiative.
In 1987, as a senior in high school, I was cast as Snoopy in a community theatre production of YOU’RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN. This was a big deal. For a high school drama student, a community theatre show was the brass ring. It was the next step up. You were, to quote Steve Martin, somebody.
That was where I met Mark Wilson Scarborough. Mark was 11 years my senior, a well-known reporter for the local newspaper, and one of the smartest guys I’d ever met. As Snoopy, I shared much of my stage time with Mark, who played Charlie Brown. That alone should have been a natural segue to friendship.
But our friendship continued offstage. We spent many late nights in his apartment, him talking about the women he loved, me dreaming about becoming an actor. (Neither of us, it should be said, had much luck in these varied regards.) He was an historian, an old soul in a young body, a clever writer, and kind to a fault.
Mark came into my life at a critical time. My “rebellious” years as a teen hit late, and Mark was there to give what guidance he could. He stood by me in the toughest of times. He helped me keep my head screwed on when there was a very real chance it could come off altogether.
Mark was the first non-family member I came out to. He was instantly supportive and offered encouraging words, knowing what I was about to embark on in letting others I loved know.
Even when our career paths took us in different directions, we always stayed in touch. When I got married to my wonderful husband in 2010, I asked Mark to be my best man (which I’d done for him when he’d gotten married years earlier). Just weeks before the wedding, he called to ask when the big day was. “It’s 10/10/10!” I yelled at him. “It’s impossible to forget. We picked that date so YOU would remember it!” (Did I mention he could be forgetful?) But he was there that special day and I couldn’t have imagined it without him.
The last ten years ago had not been kind to Mark. But no matter the problems—with his career or his love life—he soldiered on, tired smile and all.
Mark passed away unexpectedly on Monday. When my father called to tell me on Tuesday morning (my birthday, no less), I could hear he was choked up. I immediately assumed something had happened to my brother or sister. Hearing Mark’s name totally blindsided me.
I won’t whitewash history. Mark was an acquired taste. He could be forceful and stubborn and opinionated and for everyone who adored him and admired these qualities, someone else sneered at the mere mention of his name. His honesty could blister but his generosity was second to none.
It’s been a pretty tough week. Tomorrow, my husband and I are headed to Wisconsin for the funeral. They’re planning a “celebration of Mark’s life.” I really want to do that. I really want to celebrate this wonderful man who made such a difference in who I am, what I believe, and what I want to do with my life. It will be hard. But I owe him a celebration.
Some very lovely things are being said about Mark online. It’s a nice balance of fond remembrances and acknowledgment that he could be…a handful. (I think he’d like that.)
Of course, what I’ll always remember about Mark is that HE sought ME out. He was the first person I can remember who wanted to be my friend. No one else can claim that. And I’m really lucky to say that honor belongs to him.
And I DIDN’T HAVE TO WRITE A STORY BECAUSE I AM THE WEINER!!! HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!
PS–Please send good thoughts to Andrew Smith, who was forced to evacuate with his family this past weekend when a wildfire in California got a little too close to his backyard. He reports all are fine, his house is okay, but things feel a bit wonky at the moment.
That’s how my husband’s professor effused about him to my in-laws just before commencement yesterday. She was referring to the fact that she’d observed him working with medically fragile and non-verbal children while student teaching for his master’s in special education this past year. And she couldn’t help but note that he has a way of getting through to them.
I guess you could call it a gift. That certainly implies that it’s not learned but more natural. But I like to think it goes beyond that. I, too, have seen my husband work with children. He’s been a teacher for over fourteen years and, even outside the classroom, he relates to children like no one else I’ve seen.
Children gravitate to him. In some invisible realm we can’t measure or detect with science, they instinctively know that he understands them. Maybe it’s empathy. I can see how you’d call it that.
The closest I’ve come to locking onto what it is—my husband’s gift—is to label it as compassion. And even that description seems inadequate. What he does—something that seems to require no effort on his part, and yet often requires Herculean diligence in most of us—is more than just pausing to consider someone else’s perspective. He connects on a level so deep as to be indistinguishable from the person he’s connecting with.
I’m not deifying him. My husband has his bad days. He’s had those kids in his classroom that many would label unreachable. But I’ve seen him walk back into situations that seemed hopeless, determined to try and try and try because he can’t not try to find that connection. Like a laptop constantly in search of a wi-fi signal. But his battery doesn’t die. If anything, the need to find that signal makes him stronger.
Whether or not he knows it, my husband has taught me a lot. About love. About strength of conviction. And about compassion. He stands today as the person I most want to be like. I can’t shake the feeling that if I could tap into whatever it is that fuels his compassion and access even a fraction of what’s there, I would be a better person. I know this.
Yesterday was the end of three long years of work to earn his master’s. In the fall, he’ll start work in the Minneapolis school district, doing a job that fulfills and exhausts at the same time. I know he’s up to the task. There’s just no way I could be prouder of him.
The Bet started two years ago as a wager between myself, Catherine Ryan Hyde, Kimberly Pauley, and Andrew Smith. It was based on a story I read about Stephen King wagering on sports with his son where the loser had to write a short story from a title supplied by the winner. This sounded fun. So I put out the call on Twitter to see if other authors were interested and three brave souls stepped forward. We settled on betting on the Kentucky Derby.
No money changes hands. Only story titles. The losers spend the next month crafting stories around a title not of their own choosing while the winner gets to…I don’t know….gloat? (Some, like Catherine, think that the winner is a loser because they don’t have to write a story. The amount I agree with her is inversely proportional to how many deadlines I’m on at the time of the Derby.)
The horses selected this year are:
Catherine: It’s My Lucky Day
Kimberly: Fear the Kitten
We write the stories and then make them available for free. Links to previous short stories can be found here and here.
Check back after the Derby on May 3 for a list of the titles we’re inflicting on each other. Then give us a month for a new batch of stories. As always, it promises to be a hoot.
PS–All my writing friends have new books out (or about to be out). You should give them a gander:
Today, I changed my Twitter avatar to a heart with an equals sign. It’s a symbol of solidarity in the fight for marriage equality in this country. If you’ve been living under a rock, today is when the Supreme Court heard arguments about California’s divisive Prop 8. Tomorrow they’ll hear arguments about the harmful DOMA. We really are at a crossroads in history. It sounds like hyperbole but I firmly believe it.
Across Twitter and Facebook, many people—gay, straight, transgender alike—changed their avatars. I’ll admit, it was a lot of fun to see my Twitter feed fill up with so much red. When Patrick Stewart put his support behind marriage equality, I thought, “Oh, man…. Captain Picard’s got my back!”
So I was more than a little thrown when I started seeing tweets that said, “I support equality but why should I change my avatar? How will that help?”
I’ll tell you: it’s about speaking out. More importantly, it’s about empathy.
If you want to know how a simple gesture like changing your avatar for a cause you truly believe in can help, ask someone like Tyler Oakley. Ask Dan Savage. Ask Rachel Maddow. Ask any number of people who live out and proud about being inundated with e-mails and letters, saying what an inspiration they are. Saying how that person gave them hope when their parents threw them out of the house for being gay. Saying how they came to terms with their own sexuality once they saw that it WAS possible to be out and happy (something many closeted individuals don’t believe).
LGBT rights have been in the news a lot lately and, in all the hullaballoo, it’s easy to think: “See? There’s lots of attention. Everyone is getting the message.” But they’re not. If they were, we wouldn’t need the Trevor Project.
It’s been said over and over that one of the best things about LGBT literature, especially for young adults, is that it gives hope. Some kid living in a rural, unaccepting area, afraid for their life, might choose NOT to kill themselves because they read a book that said, “Hey, you’re OK being you.” My goal in life is to give as much hope as I can. So I’ll write a book in the hopes that someone will connect with how lost the characters feel and then they’ll feel less alone. Or I’ll change my avatar to say that my thoughts are with what’s happening in Washington. Because maybe someone who’s lost will go through their Twitter stream, see all that red, and think, “I’m not alone.”
Changing your avatar is like donning your Packers jersey on the day of the big game. It’s not going to change the outcome of the game but it certainly engenders a spirit of community and belonging. I’m curious if the people questioning the avatar change also look down their nose at wearing purple on Spirit Day. Or wearing pink ribbons in October. Do these help anything? I guess that depends on your definition of help. But if you say “no,” you have a very limited definition.
Statistics show that it’s harder for the conservative elements of this country to condemn us if they know us. If they have a personal connection. (Witness Senator Portman.) As much as I’d like to say that every closeted person MUST come out, I know that, for some people, it’s just not safe. And I want everyone to be safe. But I also believe that if you CAN come out safely, you should. We need to be heard. Especially for those people who aren’t safe enough to speak. It can save lives. I promise you.
Patrick Stewart didn’t change his avatar. But he spoke out. And he didn’t question anyone who did the same. It would be easy for Mr. Stewart—a white, straight male—to stand from a place of privilege and stay silent. But even if he’s never been the target of persecution (and, who knows, maybe he was), he can at least empathize with those who are.
You support marriage equality and don’t want to change your avatar? Fine. That’s your right. I appreciate your support and ask nothing more from you.
But you’ve got a lot of gall if you derisively question the possible impact or try to call out those people who are taking a stance, even with a simple gesture.
A comment I’ve seen a few times in regards to THE VENGEKEEP PROPHECIES is that many people are glad it works as a standalone book but they also hope there are more adventures on the way for Jaxter and company. And I’ve mentioned before that, yes, VENGEKEEP is the first of a trilogy and I’ve offered hints about the second book but nothing else.
Now, finally, I’m pleased to reveal the cover of Book Two:
It’s okay. You can click it. It’ll embiggen.
There’s no official synopsis yet but here’s what I’ve come up with by way of teaser:
All is not well in the Five Provinces: the High Laird is making irrational–and unpopular–decrees, the peace-loving Sarosans have gone into hiding, charged with a crime they didn’t commit, and the most elite thieves in the land, the Shadowhands, are vanishing. Unwillingly thrown into the chaos, Jaxter and his thieving family’s investigation into the matter uncovers a conspiracy that could mean the end of magic forever.
The stunning cover art is, again, by the amazing Brett Helquist. The release is a way’s off–October 22, 2013, to be precise–but, as any author will tell you, the existence of a cover makes it thatmuch more real.
There are many—many—brilliant books out there on how to write. Books that give you a thorough understanding of plot and pacing. Instructions on how to craft memorable characters. And if a book isn’t your speed, I can point you to the blogs of several great writers who regularly post on the subject. These very generous souls are more than happy to share the ins and outs of how they write and offer tips that could help beginning writers down the right path.
I can’t do that. I don’t enjoy it. Not even a little bit.
I don’t like to wax philosophical about my process. I don’t like to get into long conversations about craft. Sometimes I do it. Sometimes it’s part of my job. I grit my teeth, take a deep breath, and do it. But it’s hard.
My writing process is just that. Mine. They say that writing is a solitary endeavor. It is. And, in my eyes, it’s also intensely intimate. Talking craft, talking process… I might as well just drop my drawers and run around stark naked. I eschew elitists who think that authors need to peek out saucily from behind a veil of mysteriousness. And I worry that expressing my dislike for these discussions paints me as such. On the contrary, it’s good that some writers are able—and willing—to be this open. Personally, I just don’t like doing it.
It makes me feel vulnerable.
I admit: I’m an introvert. Many writers are. And I tend to be far more chatty online than I am in real life (that may be true of all of us). But even behind the patina of social media and its digital bravado, I find it hard to put myself in the position of exposing something that is such a strong part of me. I’m cautious to whom I give my heart. And my process and my heart are stitched together in ways I still don’t fully understand.
At the same time, I always read blog posts from authors who are willing to bare all, as the case may be. I admire their eloquence and their insight. Mostly, I admire their bravery. Make no mistake: it takes courage to be published. To put your work out there to be judged. To endure slings and arrows (and sometimes endure unyielding praise, depending on your threshold of tolerance for that sort of thing). But talking openly about your process or craft is a special kind of brave. It’s one I haven’t mastered. And I don’t know that I want to, if I’m being totally honest.
I understand that a lot of good can come from this sort of candor. I know I always feel tidal waves of relief to learn an author I respect and admire is riddled with as much self-doubt as I am. I feel less alone in the universe when an author bravely admits how insecure they are.* The good thing about authors willing to talk openly about their views on craft and the things they’ve learned about their process is that it will more than likely reach at least one struggling writer who needs that nugget of encouragement or direction.
And as admirable as it would be to claim glory as an inspiration to writers everywhere… I can’t do it.
More than anything, this post probably makes me out to be an insecure, sociophobic curmudgeon who locks himself away in his writing cave and cringes at the thought of daylight or human interaction. I’m not objective enough to say how far from the truth that is. I hope anyone who knows me in person might offer a more enlightening opinion.
If asked, I’ll offer what advice I can. I just have difficulty doing it en masse. Not because I don’t want to help but because, on some levels, what I’ve learned has become married to instinct and is difficult to translate into information that would be of use to anyone who isn’t me. But know that if you ask me for advice and I can give it, you now have part of me.
Please be careful with it.
*I do think this can go a bit too far in the other direction, though. There’s saying, “Sometimes I feel like the worst writer in the universe” and then there’s saying that…repeatedly…on Twitter…several dozen times a day. I know it’s cheaper, but Twitter shouldn’t be an acceptable substitute for therapy.
So, a locale chocolatier held a short story contest recently. Actually, it was more of a flash fiction contest, but who am I to quibble with semantics?* ANYWAY, the catch of the contest was that the story could be no longer than 57 words (long story as to why). The prizes were decent enough that I decided to give it a go.
I did not win.
I was not even a finalist.
But I liked my entry. So I thought I’d share it with you.
We have a problem, you and me. Actually, it’s more your problem. You see, I know you took the last chocolate chip cookie. And I know you hate to share. Before you sink your teeth in, I think there’s something you should know.
I’ve hidden the milk.
It’s your move.
*=I quibble with semantics all the time. It’s kinda my thing.
Recently, the wonderful C. Alexander London (Shipoopi to his friends) tagged me on Twitter to do something called “The Next Big Thing.” He had been tagged by the idea’s originator, Kate Milford. Basically, I take a moment to talk about what my next project is but I start by tagging three other authors in the hopes that they’ll pick up the mantle and discuss THEIR next project. So let’s start with that:
Jeramey’s debut novel, THE CLOAK SOCIETY, is exactly the kind of book I would have been all over when I was that age. Largely because there was a very real chance I would have joined an organization of elite super villains when I was twelve if I’d had the chance. In the book, Alex Knight is training to be a full-fledged member of the Cloak Society so he can be just like his legendary super villain parents. But the opportunity to prove himself goes wonky when he ends up saving the life of a Ranger of Justice, the valiant do-gooders. And to make matters worse… he becomes friends with the girl he saves. Dun-dun-duuuuuun! Super fun book from a super cool guy.
Next, I’m tagging Geoff Rodkey. I snagged an ARC of his book THE CHRONICLES OF EGG: DEADWEATHER AND SUNRISE at ALA Midwinter earlier this year. It had a pretty cover and made promises about pirates. Now, I’ve never been a HUGE fan of pirates but I immediately became a HUGE fan of this book and Rodkey himself. DEADWEATHER AND SUNRISE is an amazing balance of humor and action that finds Egg, the titular main character, hiding in an archipelago of pirate-inhabited islands to avoid the assassins who inexplicably have it in for him. One of my favorite books of the year!
And finally, I tag Kelly Barnhill. Full disclosure: I know Kelly IRL and she’s wonderful. Honest. She first came on my radar with her debut book, THE MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF JACK but I’m here to talk about her recent release IRON HEARTED VIOLET. This is a book that truly turns the idea of princesses and storytelling on its head.
Violet is not your typical princess. For starters, she’s not what some would call beautiful. But she loves a good story and it’s this love that sets the book in motion as Violet discovers how powerful a tales can be when she goes in search of a forbidden story. I can’t say enough good things about this book. Just read it. I promise you won’t regret it.
OK, so this is the bit where I talk about MY next project.
Title: Well, it’s not 100% confirmed but the tentative title is THE SHADOWHAND COVENANT. It’s a sequel to THE VENGEKEEP PROPHECIES. I don’t have a cover to show. Yet…
Oy. Honestly, I’m not sure what I can reveal about the next project. Where I think of VENGEKEEP as a quest book, I think of SHADOWHAND as a mystery. A number of ancient artifacts have been stolen from the High Laird’s vaults and the most likely culprits—the elite thieves known as the Shadowhands—are vanishing one by one. What happened to the artifacts? Who is responsible for the Shadowhands’ disappearance? And why is a group of nomads being blamed for the thefts? Naturally, our boy Jaxter finds himself embroiled in the mystery…and not necessarily by choice.
What genre is the book?
Middle Grade Fantasy
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie?
No clue. Honestly, I’ve never given this much thought. Child actors grow so quickly that anyone I would pick now would be too old by the time a movie got made (if ever). Not a fun answer, I know. I’m a killjoy.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
It will be published by HarperCollins in Fall 2013.
How long did it take you to write the first draft?
About 10 months.
To what other books would you compare it?
I don’t know that I would compare it to other books but I’ve been told that fans of Harry Potter would probably enjoy it. (Not my words.)
What else about the book might pique a reader’s interest?
If you’ve read VENGEKEEP, there’s a revelation about someone in Jaxter’s life that is rather shocking and is something he has trouble coming to terms with.
I can’t imagine going through school without a librarian. It’s unfathomable. Similarly, I can’t imagine a school not offering a band program or a choir. But every so often, I see in the news that a school has put these arts programs on the chopping blocks as a way to balance the budget. It hurts my heart every time I hear that someone thinks these programs are expendable.
In theory, you can’t teach every subject imaginable. So a small part of me accepted that some schools—thankfully not all—merely chose to focus on strengthening other programs and allow other schools to offer strong band/choir/arts programs. Distasteful, but I could accept that.
But a school without a librarian? Will we be getting rid of the teachers next? Because every librarian I had growing up was a teacher, whether in name or not. How is it even possible to have a school without this invaluable resource? Yet I keep hearing more and more about how librarians (and libraries) are being cut from the budgets of elementary, middle, and high schools.
No. This is wrong.
My life was changed by school librarians. I know this. I can barely remember the names of half the kids I went to school with but I can tell you about every school librarian I had, from elementary to high school:
Grant Elementary School, Kellner, WI
Miss Gronski—You always remember your first. And Miss Gronski was mine. She managed the Grant library while I was in kindergarten and first grade. I swear she had ESP and knew exactly what to give me. From her, I got the book about the seven Chinese brothers, identical in every way except for their unique abilities. I remember feeling bad as the first brother held the ocean in his mouth while a boy ran about collecting seashells and how guilty he must have felt when he had to release the ocean and the boy drowned. Miss Gronski put that book in my hand. How she knew it would stick with me after all these years, I’ll never know. She left Grant to work in the children’s section of the public library in Wisconsin Rapids. So I still got to see her from time to time and she still remembered me.
Mrs. Pfeiffer—She was like my co-conspirator. Every week in class, we’d watch Cover to Cover (I believe that was the name of the show) on PBS where a man would draw a scene from a book as a narrator read the corresponding excerpt. Then I’d race to the library, looking for that book. Veronica Ganz, Scruffy…. Mrs. Pfeiffer always had the book and always knew I’d come looking for it. And she taught me how to use the Apple IIe so I could play things like Oregon Trail and Lemonade Stand. (She also taught me the Gershwin song, “Summertime,” as it was a piece of music in the Lemonade Stand game.)
West Junior High, Wisconsin Rapids, WI
Miss Bell—A bit older in junior high, Miss Bell was the first librarian I realized was also a person. (I know. Quite the revelation, right?) When we did a unit on the civil war in history, she came to class with her guitar and taught us songs from the era. A librarian who knew stuff about things other than books! She was also the one who introduced me to weird books, like Daniel PInkwater (The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death, FTW!). She might very well be to blame for my attraction to unusual books that I harbor to this very day.
Lincoln High School, Wisconsin Rapids, WI
Miss Cicely—Now, Miss Cicely was a bit different than the other librarians. I didn’t have quite the…relationship I had with the others. But it was high school and I was doing things like growing and stuff. But I remember her. She was strict (“Two to a table” was her mantra when it came to people using the library to study and it was always enforced) but sharp as a tack. If you started describing what you were looking for, she knew exactly what it was before you were finished. Honestly, I don’t think she knew me from Adam. But she made an impression on me.
Cut out the librarians? You’d be cutting out a very important part of my life.