Word Drops

When I think about my formative years, I think about crippling shyness, bad hair, worse poetry. What I couldn’t say out loud – which was a lot – I wrote and wrote and wrote. And I remember, too, making the conscious decision as a senior in high school that it was my writing that would define me. I claimed it when, in what seemed like the boldest of moves in my 18-year-old brain, I wrote and delivered a speech at our baccalaureate. And a big part of the reason why I owned my voice was because of my creative writing teacher, Ms. Calder.

She was a free spirit who wore fluid, printed tops and glass beads, who shared slide photographs of her trips to Egypt and Greece on the classroom’s overhead projector. She oversaw the regular publication of a collection of student writing, Word Drops in Literary Puddles, but mostly, she entrusted the bulk of the work to her most eager and interested students. And in my eleventh and twelfth grade years, that was me and one of my best friends.

Everyone in her writing classes had their work featured and it was our job to select from their submissions, to solicit a cover illustration and to design and layout each publication. There was a considerable amount of drama when someone turned in the lyrics to a Barenaked Ladies song, claiming it as their own, and when the just-right accompanying piece of clip art could not be found for my latest poem about heartbreak. Weren’t they all about heartbreak?

But Ms. Calder didn’t judge us as I fear I’d judge my melodramatic teenage self. She was patient, encouraging and had a wry, appreciative wit that I sometimes think was wasted on high school students. She regularly pressed us to submit our writing to a regional publication for student writers and celebrated with the class every time someone’s poem or short piece was selected for publication. When I graduated, she bought me a beautiful pen and a photo album. I still have the photo album but I’ve lost the note she’d tucked inside. I wish I could remember what it said.

Ms. Calder passed in 2013. I just learned that this morning, before I sat down to write this, to remember her and the ways she trusted me – taught me to trust myself.

She treated everyone like a writer before any of us were worth reading. It was a gift.

And so was she.

What Teenagers Write About is Weird

Do you remember the first thing you ever wrote? When I was in the fifth grade, heavily influenced by multiple readings of The Secret Garden and The Little Princess and my own deep desire for Kirsten, I wrote a short story for class about a Victorian-esque pauper girl who coveted a doll in a window at Christmastime. Naturally, that porcelain beauty was bound to sustain her more than bread or soup or central heat, so a kindly young mother who had lost her own daughter to illness made everyone's dreams come true by adopting the child and buying her the damn doll. Appealing narrative for an 11-year-old with no disposable income, right?

I think of this story now and then, and remember that my fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Cole, told my parents I was writing at a college-level. I thought that was a bit of a joke until I taught college, and then I suspected for a hot minute it was an insult, but still. She was an incredibly supportive teacher and the first in a long line of teachers who indulged my love of writing fiction.

In the seventh grade, I wrote what I realize now was basically erotic friend fiction - though with far fewer butts and a whole lot more dystopian wasteland. This was the first long-form piece I ever wrote, beginning with a natural disaster that conveniently swept all of the adults out of the picture and allowed me to populate a post-parent fantasy land with my peers. We foraged for food, crafted weapons, built shelters Island of the Blue Dolphins-style, and even relocated from Ohio to the beach, where I was able to introduce new characters from my class who had been presumed dead. Why? Because it took me months to write this thing and I was crushing on somebody else by then and needed a reason to write them into the story.

Teenagers, man.

The best/worst part is honestly that I shared this, chapter by painstaking chapter, with my English teacher. She was so nice about it that I wonder now if she even read it, or if she just felt sorry for the girl who repeatedly had her name slandered on the chalkboard by some of the same boys she was writing about. If I could go back in time, I'd make them eat those pages. Or just kick them repeatedly in the shins.

But it was easier at thirteen to retreat into a world whose boundaries I could write and rewrite, whose conflicts were of my own devising and whose resolutions happily followed a linear narrative. There is still an element of joy in controlling a world when I'm writing - or at the very least, trusting that when I'm not in control I'll reach a suitable ending.

And at least the most embarrassing things I've ever written and will ever write are behind me.

I hope.

Campfire Fairy Tales

Memory is a powerful thing, and strange, too, triggered by seemingly inconsequential sounds, smells, feelings. The smell of a campfire in summer drags me, no longer kicking and screaming, into memories of family tent-camping trips. I hated camping as a kid. My parents always chose the primitive sites for the privacy and I don't know, the mud, I guess? I would ride my bicycle up the hill at our most frequented camping ground to use the proper bathroom and marvel at the dry grass, the unfiltered sunlight, the showers.

But there were good times despite my need to pee in a tiled environment. My brother and I would hunt for fossils in various creek beds, stifling our disappointment when the dinosaur teeth we found turned out to be horn coral by digging up blue-grey clay, or capturing crawdads. Some years we went to Red River Gorge and went caving, negotiating tight crawl spaces in our shorts and sneakers, straddling shadowy crevices and feeling the gooseflesh rise on our bare legs, not sure if the culprit was a fear of falling or the subterranean chill. We ate our weight in BBQ chips and s'mores, biked everywhere, conjured ridiculous stories in the dark. One particular trip we slept all together in a tent that was so small I now feel my parents ought to be sainted, and my father told us a ghost story with some kind of beastie, reaching out at an opportune moment and clawing at the side of the tent with his fingernails. We shrieked and laughed and slept, eventually.

Even now when I shake the sand out of my daughters' shoes after they've been digging at school, the grit sticks to my fingers and clings to the hairs on my arms, drawing out memories of lakeside picnics and water so murky you never knew what you were getting into. Now I know: it was goose poop and mud.

But ignorance was bliss, and that meant bare feet and cannonballs and not washing my hands as often as I should have done before indulging in the aforementioned chips. Because really, isn't childhood about impulse? Going and doing and being as on as possible, as often as possible? What do you think?

Better yet, what do you remember?

Top 5 Influential Childhood Reads

Every writer was a reader first. Have I said that before? Probably. But beyond the logistics of that necessarily needing to be the case, I imagine there are for all of us books we read in our youth that made us love stories, books that through the act of reading unlocked the desire to storytell within us. I’ve often wondered, especially after a rigorous six years of studying literature, what makes some writers pursue genre fiction and others more realistic avenues. I know I have, at least, read and loved books of all kinds, both as a young person and as an adult. But even the more literary short stories I wrote in graduate workshop always had a dreamy element, odd angles and awkward edges that made it harder to get by, to be taken seriously, to make the necessary social and academic connections with my more literal-minded peers.

In thinking about the books that moved me as a child, I wonder, what was it about these that made me the writer that I am, stubbornly, today?

What was it about Meg and Charles Wallace and their world(s) in A Wrinkle in Time that so appealed to me? A Wrinkle in Time is probably the first example of real science fiction that I read as a child. From the lasting image of Mrs. Who explaining traveling by tesseract to the mistaken jaunt to the world whose gravity nearly crushed the group to the haunting sameness of the world where her father was imprisoned, there was realized for me so much potential for strangeness and horror, but with a real heart beating between the turning of pages. I wanted more.

I recently tried to re-read Anne of Green Gables with the intent of getting to my later favorite in the series, Anne of the Island, and I was shocked to learn how little actually happens on the page. I remember Anne as adventurous and bold, dreaming with her and feeling as near to her scrapes as she was. But really, the reader is so much more like Marilla, merely hearing about these wild things that Anne has undertaken off the page. She comes home from a day at school or an afternoon in the fairy grove with Diana and tells Marilla, and be default, the reader, all about it. There’s very little actual doing to be read, and I wonder now if Anne isn’t in part to blame for how close I like to be to my narrators. I want to write each touch and taste of the world and invite the reader to taste and touch, too. Anne remains vibrant as ever despite the narrative choices, which is surely a testament to what a strong and likeable character she is.

The Island of the Blue Dolphins is the first of two orphan stories on this list, and really only one of many I devoured as a child. The quiet strength and resourcefulness of the main character was always a wonder to me as a child, and I loved all of the details about how she navigated her solitude, what she did, ate, made, and built, and how. I haven’t re-read this book as an adult, but I don’t remember her feeling sad or sorry for herself, but rather reckoning with what has happened to her through action – moving forward, rather than dwelling on the past. She was competent and serene and strong, and I wanted to think that I could be just like her, if I had to be.

The main character from The Secret Garden was, conversely, not serene. She had edges and angers that I liked, and a willfulness to take whatever she could from the hand she’d been dealt that greatly appealed to me. Also, there was just something so romantic about an English country house and the idea that a young woman alone could discover and conquer its secrets. I liked that she and the boys challenged and changed each other, and that they could each, in their own way, find happiness.

I also feel like it’s a hallmark of readers of my generation to still look for doors in hedges. Even my husband does it.

My love for The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Magician’s Nephew are nearly equal, and I think it’s because they both stretch beyond the boundaries of Narnia as know them in the rest of the books of the series. The memorable fountains as doorways to other worlds in The Magician's Nephew is such a treat that it’s one of my favorite things lifted into Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, and reaching the very edge of the horizon in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and being irrevocably changed by the experience was powerful and wonderful. We weren’t church-going when I was a child and the nearest I came to salvation was someone passing me a coloring sheet outside of a grocery store with a little prayer on it that I could say and “be saved,” so the religious overtures in Lewis’ works were always lost on me. What Lucy and Edmund and Eustace, and Digory and Polly and the others, experience was purely magical and human, and I reveled in it.

What about you? What were the childhood classics that shaped you?

Leave Room for Wonder

I stared out my bedroom window as a kid and watched a running woman pursued at night down my rural street by a car with its brights on. I memorized her appearance – athletic build, white tank, grey shorts, fair hair in a ponytail – lying in bed repeating the details to myself long after I couldn’t see her or the car anymore. I figured, based on what I’d witnessed binge-watching Unsolved Mysteries before binge-watching was a thing, that the police would come to my house the next day to question me about this mysterious occurrence.

In retrospect, twenty plus years on, this woman was probably training for a marathon. The car was going very slowly, and she was jogging – maintaining her pace. But I was 10 or 11 at the time and had an extremely overactive imagination fed by conspiracy theories on television and reading too much. I had previously been convinced that the deadened indentations left in our yard by barrels were crop circles, and would in years to come hear indistinct music coming from our woods and assume there was a fairy circle I hadn’t discovered yet. There was magic in the world. There was mystery. And eventually, I would find myself at the center of it.

That day hasn’t come yet, but I’m still dreaming of it. It is the nature of the human mind to seek patterns, to organize and make sense of what we see and hear and touch, and when that’s coupled with a love of the fantastic and the supernatural, I think there’s always going to be a little room for wonder. When I was struggling with anxiety a few months ago, I recall a moment listening to Lore – a podcast I’ve admitted my love for before and not one I would necessarily call inspiring – where the magic of the unexplained came as such a relief to me. No matter how certain or how certainly terrible things seem, I want to always believe in the unbelievable.  There’s plenty of beauty in the known and the comfortable, and I treasure the worn-smooth edges of my life. But I never want to say no to the unknown.

Can you blame me?

For my Mother, on Mother's Day

I remember visiting you when you worked at the Brass Elephant on Sanibel Island, when we lived in Ft. Myers, Florida. I was five or six years old, and the cool, dark atmosphere with gilded interiors was like something out of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Had I seen that yet? Probably not. But within a few years, the two would be joined in my mind as mystical and glamorous places which required a supervising adult. My brother and I sat in a booth and I ran my hands over the plush seat. I felt so special, like I was being let in on a secret. This was a place for grown ups. For royalty. For soft voices and good smells. I thought that you were beautiful and it was fitting that you got to go every day to a beautiful place.

But you were strong, too, and you taught me to be strong. There was a girl in the first grade (or the second grade, maybe) when I was in kindergarten, and she lived nearby and picked on me on the bus ride to and from school each day. While I cannot even imagine now how I would handle a similar situation with one of my own daughters - though I suppose I had better prepare myself - you and dad both told me to stand up for myself. This was before positive parenting was a thing and a time when nerds were celebrated for being gutsy, so.

We did something special in school for the 1988 Olympics - I remember the crafts and activities outside, and coloring rings to take home with me. It was a good day but this girl, I don't think she had good days. I don't recall now even what she did to me and maybe it was the same old stuff, but when we both got off of the bus, I thought about what you'd said and how unfair she was being, how mean, and I punched her right in the nose and she ran home crying.

To her mom.

You came to the door of our apartment when her mom came over to yell about what I had done. You told her that you wouldn't be punishing me for standing up for myself, and that her daughter had it coming. I remember feeling excited and anxious and a little guilty all at the same time. She's still the only person I've ever struck in anger that's not my brother, who I really ought to apologize to for whacking with so many television remotes and platform sneakers.

But you and dad liked to tell that story for years afterward, how much younger and smaller than the girl I was, but how I'd just finally had it with being pushed around. You were only 25 or 26 at the time, which is wild to me, and yet you were fierce, always, when it came to your children. When you two told the story I felt you had as much of a role as I did, how I wanted to be sure that it wasn't just me standing up for me, but you standing up for me, too.

That's what I remember, the love and guts of it.

I love you, mom. Happy Mother's Day.

Kristy's Great Idea

As a reader, I have always felt the need to be able to sink into a character, to identify with their moods, their actions, their motivations. As a young reader, this kinship was more superficial: did I look like the character? Were they interested in the same things as me? How much were they like me, and how much were they like I wanted to be? There are few book series that enabled this tendency more than The Baby-Sitters Club. Reading about capable, creative, independent teens a few years shy of entering those golden years for myself not only contributed to my skewed perspective of adolescence - Saved by the Bell is also to blame - but also provided my weird little soul several comfortable archetypes to try on.

DawnI wanted to be Dawn. She was cool, easy going, and could wear an embellished denim jacket with effortless style. Her hair was hippie-long and blonde, two things mine would never be. She cared about the planet and people listened.

But she didn't eat chocolate, and I just wasn't down for that. So I couldn't, wouldn't be Dawn.

Mary Anne was closer to home. She was bookish, reserved, wore a lot of sensible skirts and saddle shoes. She had brown hair - bonus - and her dad was super strict and picked out all of her clothes. My mother may have dressed me through eighth grade, maybe. Not telling.Mary Anne

But Mary Ann had Logan, and for a girl who didn't get kissed until just before her eighteenth birthday, I felt that Mary Anne's ability to acquire and keep a boyfriend was essential to her character. And fraternizing with boys? Not my strong suit. Mary Anne just wasn't me.

In retrospect, I was really a Mallory. Anxious, eager to prove herself, with literary aspirations enough for the whole BSC. Glasses, braces, wild hair. Her family was a mess and her best friend her life line. I just never wanted to be Mallory. She didn't feature prominently in any of the Super Specials, which were my favorite because they were thick and featured the girls' handwriting fonts. She was a junior member - and thus junior in my esteem.

MalloryAt the time, none of the baby sitters felt like a perfect fit, which I judged as a personal deficiency, rather than an issue with an ensemble cast of fictional, suburban tweens. I had the same problem with The Nancy Drew Mysteries, The Unicorn Club, Animorphs, with any middle grade fodder offering me more than one female character to latch onto. I wanted to see me in what I was reading, or at least someone near enough that I could use their behavior as a model in the rocky waters of middle school.

Is the impulse to find a representative in books still there? Sure. It's complicated now by the fact that as I get older, the heroines I admire, and the heroines I feel compelled to write, are younger than I am. They're grappling with the challenges of youth, new love, and self-discovery, while I am a woman in her mid-30s, married, with two young children and a relatively sound understanding of my heart and mind. Books about women in my situation bore the hell out of me, but I'm quite happy with my life.

Perhaps what's possible now that I've grown up off the page is the ability to let go more easily of who I am because I know exactly who that is. I have the space to let a character be, without needing them to be me.

To Boldly Grow Up

The cutest, right? nnaj on DeviantArt has a lovely sense of humor. I'm sure I'm not the only nerd writing about Star Trek today, but reading these memories from other fans of the franchise on its 50th birthday got my warp plasma flowing.

I didn't grow up with TOS, but rather, TNG. Thanks to my dad, I was lucky to be the kid who watched Reading Rainbow and wondered what Geordi La Forge was doing there, rather than the other way around. I remember Riker without a beard, though whether it's from initial viewings at 5 years old or later reruns, I can't tell you. I definitely recall with terror and wonder first contact with the Borg, whose soulless assimilation has informed my understanding of true villainy to this day.

I was of the tender generation who never found Wesley Crusher to be obnoxious, but instead a character who created a space for somebody like me on the bridge of the Enterprise.

As I grew up, other series attracted my interest, most notably Voyager and Enterprise, the latter of which I will not tolerate any bitching about unless you've actually seen it in its entirety. As a writer, I found their plot lines and character dynamics the most compelling, and resistance to my love of this series is futile. Voyager I watched on Netflix well after it aired, and it gave me the female captain I hadn't known I'd always wanted - and a bit of a grudge against my dad for not introducing me to Janeway when I had been a teenager much in need of a boss lady bending the Prime Directive under duress.

One of the most powerful sentiments I read regarding the franchise was this:

"The show delivered good news: there might be a future that included peace, hope, and bold adventure, and it came in bright colors, featured space travel, and was fun!"

This has always been the thing that I have loved best about Star Trek, that human beings could overcome all of the nonsense, violence, and bigotry to be better, to be a force for peace and friendship in the galaxy. I appreciated seeing the trope of invading alien species uniting us against them turned on its head, with humanity's first contact with the Vulcans instead revealing all that we could be and aspire to, rather than disparage and fear. I grew up with a series that embodied what a society fully entrenched in this kind of noble stability could look like, and to this day it is the utopia that appeals to me the most. It's what I hope for when I see people doing good for the sake of doing good, making sacrifices for others without recognition or compensation, when our ugliest impulses as human beings are forgotten in moments of compassion, creativity, and selflessness.

We have the opportunity now to be bolder than ever, 50 years later.

On Magic Lamps: You're Doing It Wrong

There are a few things I take very seriously that are very silly. One of them is wishes. When I was a child I used to become visibly irritated by that joke that people always make when genies or other divine and magnificent dream-makers are mentioned, that if given only three wishes their first wish would be for more wishes. Didn't they understand a single thing about the way these mythical figures operated? Didn't they know that they were defeating the entire purpose of being granted only three wishes, and not being in the least little bit clever? It was the principle of the thing that bothered me, that one person felt they should have unlimited access to whatever they could possibly want, forever. In my opinion they just didn't know what it was to want something so bodily that you wouldn't be able to keep yourself from making a desperate request at the first chance.

And also that in fairy tales your ass was just going to get burned for being greedy, and you really ought to know better.

Even now when it comes to things like blowing out the candles on a birthday cake or breaking the wishbone or plucking a rogue eyelash from a cheek and blowing a breath of hope across a finger or thumb, I feel that the language I use to articulate my heart's desire is very important. I can't leave anything to chance. As a student when I took every opportunity to ask to just graduate already, I had to be sure to specify that I graduate on time, with good grades I'd earned, and without having to jump through the hoops of fire I was sure my African American Studies professor kept in his desk. Of late when I wish for things like babies and book deals, I hope explicitly for a healthy body that can produce both, all seven pounds and one-hundred-seventy thousand words.

It's a manic sort of thing, I know. But I'm just covering all my bases.

Saturday's Child: Raising Arizona, Hope, and Me

First of all, let me tell you that my love of Raising Hope has only a very little to do with the fact that it stars the not-whiny gal from The Goonies all grown up. When I was a kid my parents loved Raising Arizona, and I remember just finding it awkward and embarrassing in its near depiction of my own awkward, embarrassing family. Which isn't to say my mom and dad wanted for kids enough to go around thieving them, but still. These folks were poor and inarticulate and taken advantage of. They weren't so much real people as caricatures, and when paired with their socioeconomic equals on Married With Children, I was made more than a little bit uncomfortable.

Hope's family is poor and rowdy and none too bright but they love the shit out of each other, and for me that is the strongest narrative thread in the series. My love of queering the traditional family delights, too, in the role reversal of Jimmy's parents. His father is the one who needs to be hugged, who cries, who shelters him, and his mother plays at sympathies she sometimes simply doesn't have. For all of the outlandishness somehow tidily resolved by the end of an episode, these crazy folks are real and I love them.

Just like my folks are real and crazy and I love them.