Monday, September 30, 2013

On art, fun, and pretensions

Steve Brezenoff is my latest source of blog inspiration, with this post that is, on the surface, about Dizzy Gillespie, but covers rather more territory than that. Brezenoff talks about the difference between the art we actually like and the art we say we like (which may be the art we think we should like, the art we wish we liked, the art we want others to think of us as liking ...). I think it's good to push ourselves out of our comfort zones and search for the quality in what other people admire. But I also agree that we can't force enthusiasm for what just doesn't light us up. And eventually we stop pretending to like what we "should" and admit where our true affinities lie. Eventually we realize that we're not impressing anyone, and we don't care anymore whether we are or not. Life's too short to waste on pretensions.

Of Gillespie, Brezenoff writes, "Dizzy's compositions are inherently good natured and fun. Dizzy also played in the highest register of the instrument to a point that often seems a little absurd, setting off tiny musical fireworks. I love that."

Reminding me that it's good to ask myself not only, "Is this art?" but also, "Am I having any fun?"

Friday, September 27, 2013

Yeah, I'm still talking about taking breaks

Today was my turn at YA Outside the Lines, where I posted about taking breaks. A sample: "It finally hit me that there is ALWAYS something else to do. I will never run out of things to do. I will never get to the bottom of every list." Also included: a weirdly cute cat picture!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Denouements: pacing the ending

I have always loved denouements, the sort of settling-down-and-wrapping-up phase that often (though not always) follows the climax of a story. I need that time, that space, to process what has just happened. I want to stay with the characters a little longer. A denouement is like that moment of silence following the end of a symphony when the echoes of the last note are still dying down, and the audience is not yet ready to break the spell with applause.

Janni Simner does a magnificent job of discussing the value of denouements. A sample: "No one wants a book to drag on too long, but it’s just as dangerous for a book to end too soon ..."

Monday, September 23, 2013

The benefits of stepping back

One of the benefits of vacation is something that goes beyond just getting refreshed and rested and ready to plunge back into the fray. It's the ability to step all the way out of the fray, far enough to ask: Do I really want to be doing all that?

In the midst of a busy life, it's easy to get caught up in the lists and chores and commitments. Everything seems important.

But when I step back, I can see my life from a distance, on a whole different scale. I stop taking every task as a given, and question which of these things I want to continue doing.

I have no sudden changes in direction to announce. But I'm thinking.

Friday, September 13, 2013


As I do a couple of times a year, I'll be unplugging from the internet for a week. Although I'll miss my online friends, it's always nourishing to take these breaks, to engage solely with the three-dimensional world.

I wish you good news, good books, and good health. And because I always like to leave you with a pretty picture:

Cassidy Arch, Capitol Reef, UT

See you in about a week!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Cue the confetti

Last week I posted about bullying, because the aftermath of being bullied is a big part of my new book: the way that abusive treatment affects people's minds and relationships long afterward.

But my main character is not just a victim; she's a survivor. She has friends, and a possible love interest. She likes hiking, and she and her best friend try to hike up a few mountains.

Not at all coincidentally, I like to hike myself. And I did borrow a few incidents from my real-life hikes for the book--for example, a certain rattlesnake (who probably had no idea s/he would end up in a book someday); a rainstorm; and a summit so windy I couldn't stand up.

Anyway, I'll stop talking about this book now, because as of today you can read it for yourself, if you're so inclined. It is now officially Out In the World!  And thank you for celebrating with me. :-)


Barnes & Noble

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

New books (other people's!)

While I'm excited and grateful about my third book releasing on Thursday, I like to make note of some other new books that I'm looking forward to. I could go on and on, but here are just a couple:

My editor, Leila Sales, happens to be a writer also. Her first two books, Mostly Good Girls and Past Perfect, were contemporary realistic YA (which you know I love). And they were funny, too! Her new book releases next week. The synopsis: "Making friends has never been Elise Dembowski’s strong suit. All throughout her life, she’s been the butt of every joke and the outsider in every conversation. When a final attempt at popularity fails, Elise nearly gives up. Then she stumbles upon a warehouse party ... Told in a refreshingly genuine and laugh-out-loud funny voice, This Song Will Save Your Life is an exuberant novel about identity, friendship, and the power of music to bring people together."

Jody Casella is one of my co-bloggers over at YA Outside the Lines. Her debut YA, Thin Space, comes out today! The synopsis: "Ever since the car accident that killed his twin brother, Marshall Windsor has been consumed with guilt and crippled by secrets of that fateful night. He has only one chance to make amends, to right his wrongs and set things right. He must find a Thin Space—a mythical point where the barrier between this world and the next is thin enough for a person to step through to the other side."

Congratulations to them and to all writers with books coming out, and happy reading to all!

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The rules of our worlds

When we visit other cultures, we bump up against unwritten rules, as well as the written rules that people don't actually obey. We tend not to notice these things about our own culture, because we have absorbed them so well, until someone who's unfamiliar with them asks. (Or until we're watching an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, which points out and questions many of our unwritten social rules.)

I imagine this makes writing historical books a challenge, because finding an edict or a code of law or an etiquette book from the period still doesn't tell us what people were actually doing. There are rules that everyone routinely violates; there are rules that certain members of society can violate freely but that others cannot; and there are rules to which people give lip service while doing the opposite.

If I were building my own fictional world, I would think about this aspect of it. Do the characters live in a world where rules are willingly followed, or where they're followed but only reluctantly and just because they're strictly enforced, or where the rules are just for show? What exceptions do they have? What are the unwritten rules? In their society, who sets the rules? Who breaks the rules, and why?

Friday, September 6, 2013


There's a special quality in solitude, an openness to the world around me and a channel to my own thoughts that isn't quite as open when I'm around other people. When I'm with others, I am partly engaged in listening to them, and partly engaged in deciding how to respond to them. Even if we're not talking, a part of my attention is reserved for the other people.

I need a certain amount of time alone. As an introvert, it's when I refill the well, but it's not just that. Tuning into this frequency is an essential part of reconnecting with the world. There are sights, sounds, and scents I just don't pick up on when I'm engaged in relating to other people. There are ideas that only bubble up to the forefront of my mind when I'm undistracted by any other presence.

I do love being around other people. But when I'm alone, I remember who I am, on a totally different level.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Bullying: The problem that never seems to go away, part 3

Next week I have a book coming out that deals with the aftermath of, and healing from, bullying. This week I'm running a three-parter on the topic of bullying. This is Part 3 of 3. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

In my experience, bullying peaked in the sixth to eighth grades, declining in high school (but never disappearing—there are bullies even in the adult world).

After high school, I did not dwell on the topic of bullying anymore, although it affected every relationship I had. My default assumption of not being liked was firmly entrenched. It colored the way I saw the world, the way I treated others, the way I expected to be treated. In her book Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, Rachel Simmons spoke to women whose mistreatment by their peers in girlhood stayed with them for decades, influencing relationships of all kinds. This rang very true to me.

It’s why, when I finally decided to write a book in which bullying was a major topic, I chose to come at it from that perspective. There has been a backlash against bullying in recent years; it is no longer seen as a necessary and natural part of childhood, something that just has to be accepted and endured. More and more people have been speaking up. There are books that discuss bullying from an inside, immediate perspective: how it affects people at the time, how it begins and how it ends.

But I wanted to address the aftermath, the lingering psychological damage. I wish it hadn’t taken me years to confront this part of myself, and I hope that maybe some people who read my book will receive relief sooner: to have the comfort of knowing they’re not alone, to challenge negative default assumptions, and to know they do not have to be victims forever.

I chose to write fiction, and I did not borrow literally from my life. The names, the characters, and the actions described in the book do not represent the facts of my own (or anyone else’s) real life. But the emotions and thought patterns are as authentic as I could make them, having lived them. The book is not only about bullying. It’s also about friendship, and romance, and hiking—all subjects dear to me. But underneath everything runs the challenge of a girl struggling to break free from victimhood, to be complete and happy, at home with herself and others.

Until It Hurts to Stop comes out September 12.
I also recommend Rachel Simmons's book if you're looking for nonfiction on the topic that focuses on bullying among girls.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Bullying: The problem that never seems to go away, part 2

Next week I have a book coming out that deals with the aftermath of, and healing from, bullying. This week I'll be running a three-parter on the topic of bullying. This is Part 2 of 3. You can read Part 1 here.

It took a long time for me to see the toll that peer abuse and bullying took on me. On her blog, Between Fact and Fiction (Feb. 8, 2012), Natalie Whipple wrote that after being bullied, her default assumption is that people won’t like her, “[o]r worse, they’ll be openly mean ...” It amazed her when a friend of hers said, “I generally assume people like me until proven otherwise.”

I shared Natalie’s default assumption. But I only become aware gradually, over a period of years, that not being liked was my default assumption, and that it did not necessarily reflect reality. Before I began to question that assumption, I would think that any whispers or giggles in my vicinity were about me, and that in any new social situation, people would not want to get to know me. I finally learned to question that assumption and act against it, but my natural first impulse was, and sometimes still is, to expect rejection. It’s that ingrained.

This assumption formed partly because my abuse in two states by three groups of kids seemed to prove my unworthiness, to prove that I deserved mistreatment. But now I have a different interpretation.

Now I think that after I had been through the mill once, in middle school, my default role of victim and outcast was in place. Bullies sensed that and acted upon it; I did not fight it because I had learned to expect it; and the cycle became self-perpetuating. In saying that, I’m not saying that I brought it on myself. The fact that a person is an easy target does not make targeting that person acceptable. This is one reason it drives me bananas when people describe bullying in these terms: “She was bullied because she was short/tall/fat/skinny/wore glasses/had scars/had a funny name/had a different religion ...” People are not bullied because of who they are, but because their bullies will not leave them alone. Bullies act out of their own intolerance, insecurity, fear, ignorance, cruelty, or whatever.

That’s so important that I want to say it again:

People are responsible for their own actions.

So I now think of my second and third situations as a continuation of a pattern, the playing out of roles that had been set earlier. The first situation, the one that began the cycle, was a sort of serial-bullying scenario. The class ganged up against one person, then another. I was the first victim, and I believe I was the target for the longest, and I had more than one turn. But eventually there followed a series of victims—even, very briefly, the original ringleader herself. Her turn under fire gave me no satisfaction. Mostly I just felt that I could never relax, that there was no such thing as “safe.” It was a poisonous environment for all of us.

Where were the adults in all this? you may ask. This was the era when bullying was seen as a natural part of childhood, even a rite of passage. “Just ignore them” was the standard advice I got. That did no good, although I did learn to keep a stony face no matter what people said to me, and I learned not to cry in public. A couple of teachers joined the bullying, making snide or cutting remarks. Some adults tried to intervene, although they didn’t see most of what went on, and they were fighting an unofficial code of silence. My father drove me to school one year when bullying on the bus became unbearable. He should not have had to do that. But it gave me some relief; it was a concrete step that interrupted the abuse.

I know now that there must have been kids who participated only reluctantly, those who were understandably afraid to buck peer pressure. There were many who were silent witnesses rather than active participants. There was even a girl in junior high who stood up and fought back. I now think that a lot of kids who witnessed bullying, or participated in it, were actually troubled and scared by it. Scared not the least because they knew it could happen to them, too.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Bullying: the problem that never seems to go away

Next week I have a book coming out that deals with the aftermath of, and healing from, bullying. This week I'll be running a three-parter on the topic of bullying. Here is Part 1.

A few years ago, when the anthology Dear Bully put out a call for submissions, I didn’t participate. It wasn’t that I didn’t have a story to tell: I did. I just I wasn’t ready to tell it then.

At least by then, I had accepted the idea that this was something that could be talked about, written about—even if not by me, not at that time. At least I sensed that it was something I would write about sooner or later. That in itself was progress, because very early on, the whole subject was wrapped in so much shame that I only hoped nobody would ever know.

For a while, I thought I was the only person it had happened to. Of course I’d seen kids mistreating other kids. I knew about individual bullies who might go after one person one day, a different person the next. But the systematic abuse of one kid by an entire classroom—and later, by other large groups—was, I thought, unique to me. And there had to be something wrong with me—especially since this happened in two different states and at the hands of three different groups of kids.

The worst of it ended with eighth grade, but my life became a quest to make sure not only that it never happened again, but that anyone who met me later would never know it had happened in the first place. Of course, since I didn’t know what had caused it, my quest to prevent it was crazy-making. I became very good at listening to people, at watching them for danger signs. One part of my writing that has always been praised is my ear for dialogue. I’m convinced that my ear for dialogue developed as a direct result of my obsessive attention to everything anyone ever said within my hearing. My mental repetition of their words and tone. My dissection of their statements for any sign of sarcasm, ridicule, or threat.

The first crack in my wall of secrecy came in the summer between tenth and eleventh grades. I had gotten into the writing program of a summer camp for the arts. Although the classes were rewarding, nothing I wrote there and nothing I learned about writing was as valuable as the social experience. For the first time, I found a welcoming community of kids my own age. For the first time, I felt I belonged in a group. (Although I had friends at my high school, some of my former tormentors also went to school there, and I never completely relaxed.)

One day during that summer, when the writing students were reading our work out loud to one another, I was shocked to hear a girl read her account of being bullied by her classmates. I no longer remember the details of her story; what struck me was that she was willing to talk about this in front of everybody. In doing so, she did not accept her bullies’ version of her; she was claiming the story. She did not have to keep her mouth shut about it because she had done nothing wrong.

I spoke to her after class, thanked her, told her a little of my own experience. To this day, I am grateful to her because she was the first person to show me another way of looking at the situation, and a way to express it. Not that I was ready to take that path then, even though she’d shown me the trailhead. It would take an unbelievable number of years before I could fully accept, and act upon, that knowledge.

Sunday, September 1, 2013


This weekend, I:

Had a dream about a good friend of mine who died last year.
Ordered a wedding gift for a relative.
Discovered that the travel club to which I belonged for about 20 years, and through which I went to France, Italy, and Iceland, has gone out of business.
Found that a nearby walking trail, which had become overgrown, has been cleared and is passable again.
Faced notices for upcoming milestone college and high-school reunions.
Reflected that a mere five years ago, the dominant social network was Myspace.
Saw a neighbor's new business.
Made mental note of a new wasp's nest along my walking route.
Turned the calendar page from August to September.

Some things get better and some get worse, but they don't stay the same.