Using the Sh** of Life as Fertilizer

My First HalloweenI’ve been struggling with this blog. I’ve been struggling with the way that I present myself to the outside world. (I am a person who struggles.) I blog about tough things on here. I often blog about personal things. And I have some reason to believe that doing so hasn’t served me, personally, well.

I have family members who seem upset with me. (Perhaps for “airing dirty laundry”?) I have friends who are kind, but I have come to realize handle me with kid gloves. I have met people at writing events who seemed very hesitant to talk to me. And I believe that I have been passed over for at least one writing job because of this online presence. And looking into the future: I am working on a book about paradoxes in physics for kids. I don’t think writing about child abuse makes a good “platform” for this sort of book.

And yet, I have this unshakable faith in a God who creates his children as he wants them in order to walk the paths that he has laid before their feet. My childhood was filled with pain. My adulthood has been filled with first a decade-long quest to escape that pain, and since then, years of trying to figure out WHAT IT MEANS and what to do with it. And I am a writer. I can’t help but believe that God gave me challenges, and then safety, and the ability to write about those challenges in order that I might do something positive in the world to help the lives of future (or current) children.

But what, is the question? What can I do? The conversation about diversity in children’s books is huge right now. VCFA has instituted new diversity initiatives including scholarships for writers of diverse heritage and is engaging in conversation on many levels. This year’s kidlitcon will be focused on “Blogging Diversity.” Different groups like Quill Shift literary agency and the Brooklyn Blossoms Club have popped up with unique and amazing ideas to actually help the problem. Independent Presses like Cinco Puntos and Lee & Low are putting quality diverse books into the marketplace. And I have to give another nod to my writing-hero Lyn Miller-Lachmann, through whom I’ve heard about most of these things, and who is actively engaged, seemingly constantly, in generating meaningful dialogue on this issue and many others. I’ve been reading post after post, tweet after tweet, quietly having conversations with other writers and bloggers, and yet I still have absolutely no clue how I might contribute something real to help solve the problem of the lack of diversity in children’s literature or any other of the problems I talk about on here.

I want to use my life experiences to do something positive and meaningful, but I don’t know what. Why do I have so many fewer answers at 30 than I had at 20?

But I did read something useful this morning in Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl writes about his own and other’s psychological experiences in the Nazi death camps. He noticed that some people, when faced with the overwhelming horror of camp life and the uncertainty of any end to it, basically checked out and lived in a fantasy life of past memories.

Such people forgot that often it is just such an exceptionally difficult external situation which gives man the opportunity to grow spiritually beyond himself. Instead of taking the camp’s difficulties as a test of their inner strength, they did not take their life seriously and despised it as something of no consequence. They preferred to close their eyes and live in the past. Life for such people became meaningless.

Naturally only a few people were capable of reaching great spiritual heights. But a few were given the chance to attain human greatness even through their apparent worldly failure and death, an accomplishment which in ordinary circumstances they would never have achieved.

That is quite a revelation. And I think it also applies to those of us who have lived through extraordinary trauma and pain. I have mentioned before that many kids who are tested like this don’t make it. They too check out, or they end their lives. And that is truly awful. But extreme pain is also a real test, and an opportunity, that most of the emo hipsters of the world will never get. (Or like the fictitious Philosopher of Pain, Shan Yu.)

If you have been hurt past the point of normal human endurance. If you have experienced things that most people around you can’t even imagine. If your experiences have ever caused you to hate God just a little, then you have a choice. You can check out, or you can use your pain to discover just who you really are and how strong you can really be. You can grow beyond yourself. And you can use your life to create something that brings light and understanding into the world.

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Where are the People of Color in Children’s Books? by Walter Dean Myers

We’ve lost several of my heroes in the past year. Pete Seeger, Maya Angelou . . . and now Walter Dean Myers. These people spent their whole lives working to improve the lives of others through their words. I hope one day I can look back at my own life and say the same. I want to thank them for their words and wish them peace and rest on the next stage of their journeys. And I hope for us that new folks rise up to take their places.

Walter Dean Myers wrote the piece below about his experience of reading and not seeinghimself reflected back in the pages of the stories he had access to. It was featured in the New York Times a few months ago. Go in peace, friend.

Reading came early to me, but I didn’t think of the words as anything special. I don’t think my stepmom thought of what she was doing as more than spending time with me in our small Harlem apartment. From my comfortable perch on her lap I watched as she moved her finger slowly across the page. She probably read at about the third grade level, but that was good enough for the True Romance magazines she read. I didn’t understand what the stories were about, what “bosom” meant or how someone’s heart could be “broken.” To me it was just the comfort of leaning against Mama and imagining the characters and what they were doing.

Later, when my sisters brought home comic books, I got Mama to read them to me, too. The magazines and comics pushed me along the road of the imaginative process. When I got my first books — “The Little Engine That Could,” “Bible Stories for Every Day,” and “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” — I used them on the same journeys. In the landscape of my mind I labored as hard as I could to get up the hill. I stood on the plain next to David as he fought Goliath, and tasted the porridge with Goldilocks.

As a teenager I romped the forests with Robin Hood, and trembled to the sound of gunfire with Henry in “The Red Badge of Courage.” Later, when Mama’s problems began to overwhelm her, I wrestled with the demons of dealing with one’s mother with Stephen Dedalus in “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” But by then I was beginning the quest for my own identity. To an extent I found who I was in the books I read. I was a person who felt the drama of great pain and greater joys, whose emotions could soar within the five-act structure of a Shakespearean play, or find quiet comfort in the poems of Gabriela Mistral. Every book was a landscape upon which I was free to wander.

In the dark times, when my uncle was murdered, when my family became dysfunctional with alcohol and grief, or when I realized that our economics would not allow me to go to college, I began to despair. I read voraciously, spending days in Central Park reading when I should have been going to school.

But there was something missing. I needed more than the characters in the Bible to identify with, or even the characters in Arthur Miller’s plays or my beloved Balzac. As I discovered who I was, a black teenager in a white-dominated world, I saw that these characters, these lives, were not mine. I didn’t want to become the “black” representative, or some shining example of diversity. What I wanted, needed really, was to become an integral and valued part of the mosaic that I saw around me.

Books did not become my enemies. They were more like friends with whom I no longer felt comfortable. I stopped reading. I stopped going to school. On my 17th birthday, I joined the Army. In retrospect I see that I had lost the potential person I would become — an odd idea that I could not have articulated at the time, but that seems so clear today.

My post-Army days became dreadful, a drunken stumble through life, with me holding on just enough to survive. Fueled by the shortest and most meaningful conversation I had ever had in a school hallway, with the one English teacher in my high school, Stuyvesant, who knew I was going to drop out, I began to write short columns for a local tabloid, and racy stories for men’s magazines. Seeing my name in print helped. A little.

Then I read a story by James Baldwin: “Sonny’s Blues.” I didn’t love the story, but I was lifted by it, for it took place in Harlem, and it was a story concerned with black people like those I knew. By humanizing the people who were like me, Baldwin’s story also humanized me. The story gave me a permission that I didn’t know I needed, the permission to write about my own landscape, my own map.

During my only meeting with Baldwin, at City College, I blurted out to him what his story had done for me. “I know exactly what you mean,” he said. “I had to leave Harlem and the United States to search for who I was. Isn’t that a shame?”

When I left Baldwin that day I felt elated that I had met a writer I had so admired, and that we had had a shared experience. But later I realized how much more meaningful it would have been to have known Baldwin’s story at 15, or at 14. Perhaps even younger, before I had started my subconscious quest for identity.

TODAY I am a writer, but I also see myself as something of a landscape artist. I paint pictures of scenes for inner-city youth that are familiar, and I people the scenes with brothers and aunts and friends they all have met. Thousands of young people have come to me saying that they love my books for some reason or the other, but I strongly suspect that what they have found in my pages is the same thing I found in “Sonny’s Blues.” They have been struck by the recognition of themselves in the story, a validation of their existence as human beings, an acknowledgment of their value by someone who understands who they are. It is the shock of recognition at its highest level.

I’ve reached an age at which I find myself not only examining and weighing my life’s work, but thinking about how I will pass the baton so that those things I find important will continue. In 1969, when I first entered the world of writing children’s literature, the field was nearly empty. Children of color were not represented, nor were children from the lower economic classes. Today, when about 40 percent of public school students nationwide are black and Latino, the disparity of representation is even more egregious. In the middle of the night I ask myself if anyone really cares.

When I was doing research for my book “Monster,” I approached a white lawyer doing pro bono work in the courts defending poor clients. I said that it must be difficult to get witnesses to court to testify on behalf of an inner-city client, and he replied that getting witnesses was not as difficult as it sometimes appeared on television. “The trouble,” he said, “is to humanize my clients in the eyes of a jury. To make them think of this defendant as a human being and not just one of ‘them.’ ”

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I realized that this was exactly what I wanted to do when I wrote about poor inner-city children — to make them human in the eyes of readers and, especially, in their own eyes. I need to make them feel as if they are part of America’s dream, that all the rhetoric is meant for them, and that they are wanted in this country.

Years ago, I worked in the personnel office for a transformer firm. We needed to hire a chemist, and two candidates stood out, in my mind, for the position. One was a young white man with a degree from St. John’s University and the other an equally qualified black man from Grambling College (now Grambling State University) in Louisiana. I proposed to the department head that we send them both to the lab and let the chief chemist make the final decision. He looked at me as if I had said something so remarkable that he was having a hard time understanding me. “You’re kidding me,” he said. “That black guy’s no chemist.”

I pointed out the degrees on the résumé that suggested otherwise, and the tension between us soared. When I confronted my superior and demanded to know what about the candidate from Grambling made him not a chemist, he grumbled something under his breath, and reluctantly sent both candidates for an interview with the chief chemist.

Simple racism, I thought. On reflection, though, I understood that I was wrong. It was racism, but not simple racism. My white co-worker had simply never encountered a black chemist before. Or a black engineer. Or a black doctor. I realized that we hired people not so much on their résumés, but rather on our preconceived notions of what the successful candidate should be like. And where was my boss going to get the notion that a chemist should be black?

Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books? Where are the future white personnel managers going to get their ideas of people of color? Where are the future white loan officers and future white politicians going to get their knowledge of people of color? Where are black children going to get a sense of who they are and what they can be?

And what are the books that are being published about blacks? Joe Morton, the actor who starred in “The Brother From Another Planet,” has said that all but a few motion pictures being made about blacks are about blacks as victims. In them, we are always struggling to overcome either slavery or racism. Book publishing is little better. Black history is usually depicted as folklore about slavery, and then a fast-forward to the civil rights movement. Then I’m told that black children, and boys in particular, don’t read. Small wonder.

There is work to be done.

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Kids (not) Talking Trauma

This morning I was reading The Sunone of my favorite magazines. This month’s issue features an interview about love with Barbara Fredrickson, the director of the “Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology” Lab at Chapel Hill. I was struck by one interview question and her answer in particular:

[interviewer]: Some Children never experience good emotional bonding with their parents and caregivers. What special challenges do they face later in life in regards to experiencing love?

Fredrickson: I think it’s possible to learn to seek out love at any point in life. In my own life I made a major turnaround as an adult when I discovered how to relate more with people instead of remaining isolated. People can wake up at any time to what they need as human beings regardless of where they started. Positive emotions are our birthright, and we all have access to them. It could be that the families we grew up in didn’t help us to feel them, but the people who raised you can’t take away your capacity to resonate with others. They mag have reduced your skills, but the capacity is still there.

Then this evening, I participated in an “Evening of Exploration” surrounding the theme of “disorientation” at The Academy for the Love of Learning, an organization here in Santa Fe. After all, I have an awful lot of change and disorientation going on in my life right now. This is the second time I’ve been up to the academy, and I’ve found it to be a remarkably rewarding experience both times. From their website: “The mission of the Academy for the Love of Learning is to awaken, enliven, nurture and sustain the natural love of learning in people of all ages.”

What I find most interesting, though, is their pedagogical approach. It starts with an experience (experiential learning). Then you reflect on the experience. Then you try to make meaning from it. You look at critical models. Then you apply what you’ve learned.

OK, so where could I possibly be going with all of this? Well, the leaders of the workshop took us through this process. They had us remember a disorienting event in detail and write about it. Then they had us reflect on it with a stranger. Then we inquired into the different stages of our experience with this event. And then they gave us some critical reading materials to take home.

This was a richly rewarding process. It helped me understand something I’ve been struggling with for weeks. And through the group reflection on the stages of dealing with disorienting events, I realized that even massive trauma is not inherently a bad thing. Some people described divorces or life-threatening illness. They described their initial shock and then anger. But nearly everyone in the long-term in dealing with these events eventually came to acceptance, growth, understanding, strength . . . good stuff.

Death, mistreatment at the hands of a loved one, illness, pain, uncertainty . . . these are what make a life. Not all that make a life, of course, but folks in the room generally agreed that these are the experiences that ultimately tend to cause the most growth and forward movement. But all these benefits of pain, the greater awareness, the growth . . . it struck me that they only come when the event is reflected upon in a meaningful way, such as the academy’s approach.

I think most people have a kind of built-in reflection process when they talk to their parents, their families, their friends about the hard things in their lives. But it struck me that talking about trauma, especially childhood trauma, is not the same. We have a cult of normal and everyone is trying to fit into it. Serious childhood trauma does not fit into that cult. We all know people who can’t stop talking about trauma. Most of us feel a little queazy around these people and, even if unintentionally, we kind of avoid them because we hope we don’t sound as crazy and spazzish as they do. And we almost feel like their psychological not-OK-ness might be contagious.

But seriously, is there any right way outside of a therapists’ office to talk about your childhood if it was dominated by trauma? And the problem is way worse if you are a kid because chances are your parents aren’t going to put you in therapy for a problem that they are probably part of the cause of.

What I’m driving at is, yes, everyone has the capacity to love, to seek out synchronicity, to  recognize what is missing in their lives and seek it out. And yet, we live in a society that is probably even harsher and more stigmatizing towards those with mental illnesses and those who have survived serious childhood trauma than it is even towards women and minorities. I think kids living through trauma (and adults who have) are uniquely denied the tools (of reflection and inquiry) with which to contextualize these events and grow from them.

And I think that’s maybe why books about painful situations are so important for these kids. Because they provide a point of access for reflection into their own life experiences.

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Graduating and Moving On

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In the past month, I have been to three graduations. One was my own from St. John’s College where I earned my MA in the Liberal Arts. The other two were my students’. I have also been to one of my oldest and dearest friend’s wedding. And I have been to countless celebrations for each of these momentous occasions.

Graduating from St. John’s was a bookend for me. I started my higher education career at St. John’s in 2001 as an undergraduate in their “Great Books” program when I was 18. I left after two years to go study Physics and Writing elsewhere, but it felt like I had completed something important in my life to come back and complete the St. John’s Master’s program. I feel like a stage in my life has finally come to an end.

And that’s what I want to talk about today. The in-between space when one stage of life has ended and the next is just thinking of beginning. Because that’s where I am right now. I have been teaching and tutoring for nearly 15 years. I have been a student my entire life. And I have finally decided to, at least for the foreseeable future, leave both of these ways of being behind. I have decided to write full time now. And almost the second I made that decision, I discovered two very important things: 1) I will have no trouble getting enough paid writing work to survive on. I already have more work (non-glamorous) freelance writing for the educational market than I can handle. So that’s kind of neat. 2) My fiction, which I have been writing for more than the ten years folks often say is what you need to put in before you’re good enough to publish, is not, quite simply put, good enough. It has some merit. I will keep working at it, but I will not be making a living as a novelist any time soon. At all. Which is a bummer.

But something deeper is going on over here than a career change, and that’s where this blog comes in. The wedding I went to was really lovely. My friend was a beautiful bride. And she seemed so grown up. Anyway, I was watching her up there, and I realized that I really respect this particular friend, and I always have. The entire ten years I’ve known her, she has always been good. Quietly good, not flashy. She’s just a good person. When my mom died, she bought my plane ticket home, never said a word about it. And other people at her wedding had similar stories to tell. And besides being good, she’s always been just really full of life and utterly herself. And I watched her up there, and I was so proud of her. And then I thought: hey, I want to be like that. I want to be a person I respect.

So THAT got me thinking about just how I do move through the world, and how I want to be. And that got me thinking about this blog. I started this blog because I think a lot of kids go through a lot of really hard stuff, and I wanted to raise awareness about that hard stuff so that people who have some influence in children’s lives are more aware of what they’re struggling with and can maybe do a little something to help. And I still believe in doing that. And I do it because I feel like it’s something that I can do. It’s something that I feel called to do. But I want to change a little bit how I do it.

I’ve been fairly free talking about my personal life and history on here because it’s simplest. My life is the life that I know. My childhood is the one I lived through. And sometimes, I think that talking about my personal experience creates a vital connection with others that’s useful. But I really didn’t start this site as a sort of therapy or a reaching out to others in that way. And writing about my own life has had some unintended consequences because people who I never counted on finding this site have and have read it.

My extended family, for one, have found this blog and have on occasion read it. And I think some of them have taken some of the things I’ve said as some sort of indictment of them, perhaps? For what? For not saving me as a kid? I’m not really sure. But I never meant anything that I’ve said to be taken that way. I’m not writing these things to blame them or anyone else. Even the people who really did hurt me as a kid. Those people are all long dead and gone, and I don’t see a point in holding a grudge.

And then, friends. They like me. They know I’m a writer, they’ve gotten on this site, and read it. And that’s fine. They continue to read it, I assume, because they like to know about my life. But that feels strange for me, honestly. These are people I talk about Heidegger with, who I laugh in the coffee shop with. I have one friend who obviously thinks I’m very strong and brave now. Another, who, when I apologized one night for being less than polite to, said to me, “that’s OK. I read your blog. My gift to you is that I’ll never take anything personally.”

And that is really sweet and all. And I love all of these people very much. But frankly, I don’t actually define my life based on my traumatic childhood. I don’t really see myself as a “survivor.” I don’t think I’m particularly strong. And I certainly don’t want others to think I need to be judged on a curve because of what I’ve lived through.

The take home? Yeah, stuff sucked growing up. Majorly. I was hurt in most of the big category hurt-ways. I struggled with depression and a lot of “mental health issues” as a result. And I have, on occasion, been a fairly crazy grown up while I struggled to figure all of that out (the state of Vermont–you know who you are–I love you, and I’m wicked sorry). And I’m pretty sure I feel called to raise awareness about these types of things because of what I went through. But I’ve decided to stop talking about my personal past at length on here, because that is not what I want the people in my life to focus on. And I’ve gone through my site and taken down some of my more personal posts. I’m sorry if that disappoints some of you who really have gotten something useful out of reading them. This just isn’t how I want to move through the world anymore.

And those of you writers and teachers who do read my blog: please chime in here if you can think of any way I can make this site more truly relevant and helpful for actually writing for and helping hurting kids. Wishing you all well, Me.

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An Open Letter to Writers: (Don’t Do What I Do!)

I realized something today that I have known for a very long time, really, but not entirely consciously. I am prolific if any writer is. Ignoring my inability to finish a project and send it out into the world. Someone once gave me the book The Midnight Disease which is about hypergraphia–a “disorder” in which the sufferer cannot stop writing. And she was probably right to give it to me.

But when I write to communicate with others (as opposed to journaling or the writing I do in the margins of my books)–whether it’s essay writing or personal letters or novels or, say, blog posts–I have two very distinct modes of writing. And I’ve finally realized that they have very distinct affects on their audiences. And boy do I wish I had clarified this for myself years ago. But there we are. We learn what we learn when we’re ready to learn it. And so I’m passing it along in case it’s relevant or helpful to any of you all.

I had my first profound writing success when I was a junior in high school. I wrote an essay for a contest on the topic of “Kindness.” The essay was about a small but powerfully meaningful act of kindness that a boy showed me in second grade and how that act of kindness impacted my life. I wish I still had a copy. I would post it. I had won writing contests before that. I was considered a good writer as soon as I could write, but that essay was published in the local paper and the response to it was breathtaking. I started getting letters from all over town . . . people writing to thank me for sharing that story. I even got a letter from a Minister who had read my essay to his congregation. I never knew before that moment that my words had any power to move people in that way.

I think I keep this journal because I sometimes get that same feeling . . . Like I am sharing something that is meaningful and touches people. Maybe uplifts or changes them in a way that is not bad. Even though I talk so much about hard things. But I don’t always get that feeling. Sometimes I really don’t like what I write. Sometimes I get the feeling that other people don’t like what I write. Even if there’s nothing wrong with it, it feels off somehow. I have had this same experience with essays. My writing is always “good”, my papers are always well-reasoned and organized. But sometimes they really anger my teachers. And sometimes they invite more dialogue. I write letters to people and sometimes they get angry with me and don’t want to have anything to do with me anymore, and sometimes they draw the other person closer and we share a real connection.

So here’s what I have sussed out as the difference: sometimes I am open and vulnerable in my writing, and sometimes I am just “right”–however that is defined for the particular type of writing I am doing. If it’s a paper, then my claim is intelligent and well-reasoned. If it’s a letter, then whatever the topic in question is, I have presented my views in a way that it would be hard to rationally argue with. If it’s a novel draft, then my writing is technically sound and impressive. But right does not equal good. And even less does it equal productive.

Being “right” is a defense mechanism for me. It allows me to feel valid despite an underlying suspicion that I can be a kind of nasty person on occasion. And I showcase “rightness” in my writing when I need that validation. When I am in an argument with someone, or I am exploring a topic that scares me or that I don’t feel entirely secure with, or when it’s just something like writing fiction that feels so important to me that I don’t honestly believe I could really do a good job with it.

But feeling open is what allows me to connect with others. And in order to be open, I have to be vulnerable. I have to be willing to talk in an honest and authentic way about the moments in my life that have meant something and about my own, sometimes overwhelming, sense of frailty and failure. But when I can get to that place, and probably when any of us can, the writing that comes out has the power to connect with others, make them feel seen, change their hearts. I think this is what real communication is about. Have any of you struggled with this?

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My Writing Process

My Process, but Neater.

My VCFA friend Rachel Lieberman invited me to participate in the Writing Process Blog Tour that is making the rounds in the blogosphere. So if any of you were wondering what my process looks like, here goes:

1) What are you working on? I am working on the same darn novel I have been working on for about five years now. It is a retelling of the Child’s Ballad “The Two Sisters” about a sister who drowns her younger sister out of jealousy over a boy. But I am telling it from the murderess’s point of view. And somehow in the process, it has also become a new version of the first novel I started but never finished about a welsh child who becomes the queen of the fey. Also, somehow, it has become about the pre-cursors to the French Revolution.

2) How does your work differ from others of its genre? Well, I’m pretty sure I haven’t read any other novels for teens in which Jean-Jacques Rousseau gets a bit part. But also, I have an abiding fascination with science and philosophy and the history of ideas so those interests and questions and key idea-makers invariably find their way into what I write.

Additionally, I think I write about womanhood/the feminine in a different way from most writers. Menstruation, masturbation, rape, and child abuse all can be found in the project I’m working on right now. But my MC ends up as a pirate who robs the rich to save the poor Irish Catholics (so not really a victim). And I tend to include a lot of violence and tough issues, but they aren’t “issues” in what I write. They are part of life. And I feel like that’s different from a lot of literature for teens.

3) Why do I write what I do? I often walk around with this unbearable pressure in my chest because I feel like no one sees me or understands me. And for some reason, that makes me feel less real. I think I write to try to make sense of the world and because deep down I hope that someone someday will read my words and they will make sense to them and I’ll feel like I’m not alone in the world feeling lonely and confused and scared. I also write because I want to create narratives that will help kids who have struggled or are struggling understand their world and feel less alone in it.

4) How does your writing process work? Well, I get an idea and I get super excited and then I do nothing for 1-3months but write the first draft of that idea. Then I spend the next two years thinking that it’s complete and utter drivel and I sort of work on it (and every single day) but I never get anywhere and everything I write on it IS pretentious drivel. Then I put it aside and try to start something else. But that never works. So I pull it out again. And then I look at it and completely re-envision the project several times which re-invigorates me. So then I’m working again and regularly and it’s good. But as I approach the finishing line, I slow down and slow down until putting one more word down feels like an insurmountable obstacle. And that’s because my fear of letting other people see what I write and taking the chance that they will think I am a crazy, awful wackadoodle is even greater than my desire to connect with readers who might see the world similarly. Sigh.

So that’s what I’m working on and how I work. If you want to check out some other awesome folks processes, hop on over to my friend’s Rebecca Parish and Hilary Fields next monday. Both of these ladies are in my writing group here in Santa Fe, and they are both fabulous writers. Rebecca writes dark YA horror/fantasy set within native-american mythology. And Hilary’s recent novel Bliss is hilarious and about pastries and adult-toys. Hard to go wrong.

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About the Term “Triggering”

I just read an article in The New Republic about the increasing attachment of the label “triggering” to media online and in college classrooms as a way to effectively censor certain content. The article also mentioned the recent Wellesley College debate about the statue “Sleepwalker” which many students at the all-women school (which I graduated from) feel to be triggering and wonder why it, of all art installations, has to be outside on campus interacting with all of the students.

I appreciate that the New Republican wrote a thoughtful article about something that I do agree has become problematic. I think that dialogue is important. But I don’t think the problem is that people are trying to become more sensitive to issues surrounding trauma. I think the problem, as with issues surrounding race, sexism, religion, abortion–basically any polarizing issue–is that there is a lack of honest dialogue.

When I lived in Boston (and lily-white Vermont) issues of race were dealt with by a culturally enforced, and inauthentic, color-blindness. PC terminology and rabid cultural sensitivity don’t actually make issues go away, folks. But we get so afraid of “messing up” and “being bad” around certain issues that we effectively squelch dialogue in an attempt to be the “good guy.” And that is problematic. I personally think that is the problem with the uprise of “trigger” warnings.

Becoming aware that certain materials can trigger folks who have PTSD is a good thing. Censoring content across the board because of its possibly triggering affects is not. Again, political correctness as a stand-in for actually thinking through and talking about race I believe is ultimately harmful, as well.

But the attitude that seemed to be expressed in the New Republic article that we should stop worrying about it, has some serious problems. The assertion that triggers are so diverse that we can’t censor everything or know what to censor is also misleading. The fact is, there are not that many categories of things, really, that cause PTSD. Rape, domestic violence, and war are the big ones.

Now I, personally, am triggered by cockroaches. So, yes, that’s random. But I’m also triggered by images of rape, incest, and child sexual abuse. And those, I do feel, are things that it would be worth being a little sensitive about. But, as I’ve said before, I don’t think that our response to being sensitive should be to ban content or censor it. Because the honest truth is that rape survivors don’t need to live in a world that will never remind them of the rape. They need to live in a world that will help them heal and think through how the event has changed their lives.

Folks who are still being traumatized, especially children, really shouldn’t be forced to read books like Speak before they are ready to deal with it. That’s why I maintain that not all kids should be forced to read books like To Kill a Mockingbird. But once they are safe, I think we should be providing even more narratives about potentially triggering materials and increasing exposure to them, not providing fewer and making it easier for them to be avoided.

My basic point is that increased cultural awareness is a good thing. But simplistic measures like labeling certain materials as “triggering” are the wrong approaches because they actually decrease real dialogue in society at large instead of increasing it. And they don’t do survivors a favor either. People shouldn’t be forced to deal with trauma before they are psychologically capable of doing so, but in order to heal and move on with life, we do eventually need to be confronted with these ideas and works of art in order to re-contextualize our lives and move forward. So that’s what I have to say about all that.

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