The First Draft
On August 1, I handed in the first draft of my second novel, and wow was I feeling good about it. I thought, sure, I’ll get some edits back and I can make the manuscript better here and there. But we’re talking brush strokes! Subtleties! In October I got the news that…yeah, I might need a really big brush. So that was disappointing. It reminded me of my freshman year in college when my literature professor handed my first paper back to me and said, “I can’t even grade this. It’s not a paper.” And then I learned how to write a paper. And now here I am writing and editing for a living, so I guess all’s well that ends well.
Soon after that disappointment, I attended the Anderson’s Bookshop YA Festival in Lisle, Illinois, and that restored my faith on a few levels. Number one, I heard from other authors that second novels are hard (I knew this, but shouldn’t I be different?), and that editors often recoil in horror at first drafts (I knew this, but shouldn’t I be different?). Number two, I got to hear Becky Anderson Wilkins of Anderson’s Bookshop talk about how meaningful the work of reading, writing, selling, and teaching books is. She called all of us—readers, authors, booksellers, and educators—“merchants of empathy.” I loved that phrase, and it was what I needed to hear at that moment. Just that day I had visited a nearby high school and talked to the students there about empathy. Then I had the whole group of one hundred-plus kids play a game that I called “Who’s the Monster.” This involved having several student volunteers role-play characters from a few familiar fairy tales. I asked the kids in character why they did what they did. Then we all got to vote on "who's the monster." The girl who played Hansel and Gretel’s father, when asked why she’d led her children into the woods, answered, “Because I thought they’d be better off. If they went somewhere else they might find food, but if they stayed with me I knew they’d starve.” Now that was an answer I was not expecting.
I open up the New York Times on my iPad every morning, and increasingly my eyes flutter around looking for something that I actually want to read. In recent weeks the headlines that have unsettled me most of all have been about men abusing power. A revelation that hit me particularly hard was about the host of an NPR show that I’ve listened to nearly every weekday for years. He was not only sexually abusive of female colleagues, interns, and guests—he also systematically demeaned and drove off his black female cohosts. I was never a big fan of this host (I wasn’t at all surprised to find out he’s toxically narcissistic), but he was on my beloved WNYC, and so I listened to him. This man has no doubt affected my opinions and thoughts about important issues. This man—and other powerful men like him—has determined what opinions I hear and how much validity they're given. He also set a tone that I apparently tolerated: He routinely interrupted his black female cohosts on-air, in effect making them seem less worthy of airtime.
Now, as I said to a friend, I feel like I’ve been made a nonconsensual partner in his crimes. And not just his. So much of what I take in has been shaped by abusers that I feel generally complicit. Beyond that, I'm left to grapple with the fact that my brain has been formed by male gate-keepers of the art, literature, music, and politics I've absorbed. There's nothing inherently wrong with being a male artist or a male gate-keeper. But it's horrifying to realize that women haven't been allowed the same access to my brain that men have. It's not that I didn't know this before, but the last weeks have brought this home to me so painfully that each day I can wake up feeling like I'm in the most nightmarish Twilight Zone episode ever. Or maybe The Matrix—and I took the red pill and now I can't unsee it.
At times like this, we can all start to feel like there’s no refuge anywhere. The news is upsetting, and we can’t trust the men who are delivering us the news. And the arts we take in to restore our faith in the beauty that humanity is capable of—or even simply to distract us from our troubles—are now some of the worst reminders of how awful humanity can be. What to do?
A friend sent me an article about how writers need to protect their inner lives, and I’d recommend it to anyone, not just writers. It’s really about how we protect and nurture a place within ourselves where our own sense of truth and beauty holds sway. It’s about not comparing ourselves to others’ demonstrations of success. It’s about not worrying. That last part is pretty hopeless for me—I’m a worrier by nature. But what I can try to do is to think more. Reading the paper is worrying. Listening to WNYC these days is worrying. Comparing myself to others is definitely worrying. Reading books is thinking. Doing my work is thinking. Taking long walks while totally unplugged is conducive to thinking. I walked all the way around Prospect Park, and I found that it wasn’t until three quarters through that my brain had fully switched from worrying gear to thinking gear. I’m going to work on shifting gears faster.
Two events coming up: I’ll be at Teen Bookfest by the Bay in Corpus Christi, TX, on Saturday, February 17. And I would love for NYC-area friends to come out to hear me read a short story at the KGB Fantastic Fiction Reading Series on Wednesday, February 21. I think it will be fun.
I’m going to end the year with a single, blatantly selfish recommendation. Blatantly. Selfish. It’s the gift-giving season, and if you’re thinking about what to get for anyone—ANYONE—on your list, I have the perfect thing. You must know an adult reader of atmospheric, immersive fiction. You must know a teenager. You must know someone who loves Stranger Things. You must know someone who was gripped by The Handmaid’s Tale. Do you know at least one of all of the above? Jackpot. Your holiday shopping is done. If you order your copies directly from Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn, I will sign your copy for them, and they will ship it off to you. I'll be sure to slide in a bookmark (which I drew myself).
Thank you for sticking with me this year. I wish you and yours a peaceful end of 2017 and a 2018 of more thinking and less worry.