This post first appeared at Teen Librarian Toolbox, a professional development website for teen librarians. If you are a teen librarian and don't know TLT, skip this post and go straight to their website. It will change the way you work.
As a writer, my very favorite thing is talking to teen readers. I find a lot of energy in hanging out with passionate people, especially when they’re passionate about books. NerdCon: Stories was 2,500 (mostly young) people inspired by stories; it was heaven.
Cons are like camp: you can form a genuine, lasting friendship in a matter of days. NerdCon: Stories felt different, as if we all were friends from the start. We all loved things, intensely, and were free to geek out about contemporary YA books, or tabletop games, or public education, or Sherlock. (I’m cheating here. Those are my passions.) This was our first time in a room together, but already we were a community.
NerdCon weekend coincided with World Mental Health Day and National Coming Out Day, two events that reinforced NerdCon’s mandate: Be You. Panelists shared their “Be You” breakthrough moments, and attendees repeated the sentiment in personal conversations.
We covered many topics—activism, diversity, the myriad ways we tell stories, writing outside your experience, why stories matter—and “Be You” popped up dozens of times. Every panel and serious mainstage event fell into one of two general themes:
We all are the same, and you are one of us.
On the surface, everyone at NerdCon had exactly one thing in common: we believed in the power of stories. But our commonalities were greater than that. We were nerds. We were passionate fans. Every one of us wished we could change something about ourselves. Regardless of color or culture or history or who we loved or how we dressed, everyone had something worth sharing. We received each other’s stories without criticism, because we also acknowledged:
We all are different, and we embrace that.
There were Night Vale nerds, Star Wars nerds, Game of Thrones nerds, Hamilton nerds, math nerds, and nerdfighters. We each embraced some fandoms and couldn’t connect with others. Some of us thought of our bodies as prisons. Some thought our brains were wired suboptimally. We all had histories, but our histories were different. We each were the culmination of life experiences that gave us each a unique perspective. Our life stories intersected but did not completely overlap with any other person on earth. We all were different, and our stories mattered.
To reinforce that, NerdCon held one storytelling circle and two open mic sessions where eager attendees shared their stories. Though the headliners and panels were top notch, my weekend’s highlight was the storytelling circle, where storytellers held the floor for six minutes each. I loved learning what was meaningful to everyone who spoke. Cathy reveled in the realization that bisexuality was a thing. Julia told us about her first kiss (just two days prior). James recounted the perils of urban exploring.
Photo credit: Hussein Salama, NerdCon: Stories attendee
It was a meaningful, bonding experience, and the storytelling went on long after the circle opened.
Meeting new people and swapping stories is among my very favorite things. I love stories. I thrive on them. I would have loved multiple storytelling circles each day, but NerdCon was packed with other great sessions. It was an informative, inspiring, well-rounded Con, though it did feel too short. Activities packed our long days, so I left thinking there were hundreds more people I hadn’t yet met.
That’s what next year is for! I recommend NerdCon: Stories to storytellers, readers, writers, and story-finders. I’ll see you there in 2016.
This is an addendum to this post. (TL;DR: Don't just write what you know; go learn whatever you want to write about.)
For the record, that's still true, but I'm diving a little deeper into the "what you know" part. We all have unique life experiences, and there is value in that. For instance, here's a reasonable representation of all the places I've ever been and want to remember. (And yes, it highlights my inexperience in Spain, South, America, Africa, and Asia. Also, I've only seen France from the middle of Lake Geneva.)
When I wrote about New Zealand, I was hesitant to write about my hometown, Christchurch, because, well, everyone writes about Christchurch. But here's the thing: most people have never been to New Zealand, let alone Christchurch. What's more, my Christchurch is different than the Christchurch a tourist would know.
I used to want to steer my characters away from the places I've lived: NE Ohio, Provo, Utah, Chicago and its suburbs, Seattle. In recent months, I've finally realized that those places are part of my value. Not everyone knows about them.
Likewise, I have taught power yoga, quit a job with a dream but no prospects, toured Australia with a dance troop, lived on the road as a consultant, reigned as Agricola champion* for more than three years**, taught myself an instrument to try out for Ohio State's marching band, and proposed marriage to Microsoft Excel.
And those are just the big things! Throw in all my little life experiences, and you have my unique value as a writer. In fact, it's a gold mine.
*among my quite substantial circle of tabletop friends
**For real! Look:
Writing requires a lot of research. A lot. And some of it's at the library, or interviewing professionals, or reading books. . .but most of it (for me) is online.
And I hope if someone ever looks through my search history they first know that I am a writer and not a nutjob.
Two years ago, for instance, I was determined to write a book about grief and the media. The protagonist of this (adult) novel was a mother of three, dedicated to her family and her nonprofit work, and facing one utterly overwhelming week. I wanted to examine her overwhelming grief and how the media crucified her. In my initial research, I googled this:
which is all well and good, until my next Google searches were:
--How hot does a car need to be for a baby to die in it?
--How cold would a car need to be for a baby to die in it?
--How long would you need to leave a baby in a hot car for it to die?
You see where I'm going here? My children have aged out of hot-car deaths, but it definitely looks like I was planning something.
And this is just one novel! Here are some gems I've googled recently:
"where to go when you're having an affair"
"hidden camera detector app"
"computer with pasta on it"
"hot male actors under 20" (not a unique search, by the way)
"how bodies decay"
I research poisons, murders, causes of death, weird sex terms, and court cases--all sorts of things that normal people just don't.
But then, writers aren't normal people, are we?
NerdCon: Stories was an awesome weekend. Saturday night, Dessa Darling hosted an open mic session. Here is what I said, mostly:
My first book will be in bookstores next June. I write fiction, but this is a true story.
I was what even the weirdest kids called a weird kid. A super smart kid who loved math and tended to obsess over trivial things like grammar. I was a nerd; that isn’t the sort of thing you grow out of. (Sorry, I should have put a spoiler alert on that.)
Socially, I was an anxious, insecure introvert. I never had a best friend and felt infinitely awkward in large groups. I rarely shared my feelings. Outside of academic participation, I was an observer.
And that was just at school. At home, my family was broken and weird. We were an all-girl family: my mother, my aunt who hacked into my computer files, my emotionally-reserved elderly grandmother, and my sister who had a raging case of hypochondria.
Between my sister and my elderly grandmother, conversations revolved around physical woes, other people’s health problems, likely causes of death, and my sister’s obscure disease of the moment. This was before WebMD, so I we checked my symptoms in our secondhand reference books in our dank basement. My sister was always convinced she was ill, and I grew convinced that I would die young. Of something. (Spoiler alert: I didn’t.)
But I was scared. What if I died without ever telling anyone how I felt? Early in middle school I hatched a brilliant plan. I started writing letters to everyone I knew, saying everything I could not say aloud. I told my friends I loved them, and shared everything that mattered to me.
Dear Steve*: I really wanted to kiss you when we were going together but I didn’t know how.
Dear Kara: I am so sorry about that rumor I accidentally started about you.
Dear Robert Kalman: I think we’re soul mates; I’ve had a crush on you for all of seventh grade.
I shoved the letters into a big manila envelope, probably twice the size of this one. I scrawled on the outside, “to be opened in the event of my death.”
I was maybe a little dramatic.
I pinned the envelope to my bulletin board so, you know, they could open it in the event of my death. Every year, the first week of summer, I holed up in my room and updated them, these death letters. By senior year, my letter to Robert Kalman read: I have been in love with you for six years. I wish we would have talked about it.
I took that envelope with me to college, where it lived in my desk drawer. My sophomore year, my world exploded. I found a huge community of nerds who embraced me. It was a revelation that other people saw the world through my nerd lens. I had found my people.
And among them, I found Matt, and I fell in love so real that I forgot Robert Kalman. He wasn’t my first love, and it wasn’t that kind of love, but Matt was the first person who got me, and there’s no better feeling in the world than someone getting you. He understood my need to change the world. We talked for hours, days, about the big things: religion and politics and the state of the earth.
For a time, we were almost inseparable. My heart burst open, and it was bliss. A month after we’d met, I wrote a death letter for him, full of all the love I held in my heart, and the activism I hoped he would carry on after my death, and everything awesome about him.
In person, I could tell him anything, except the fact that that he’d made me feel okay for the first time in my life. Matt was brilliant and kind and funny. He also was in remission for leukemia.
When he came out of remission again, he knew it was over for him. In his last few weeks, he started shutting some people out. In my desperation, I did something I will forever regret. Without opening it, without editing or sugar coating or changing a single word, I mailed him my death letter.
I mailed him my heart. And I never heard from him again.
I crawled into a cave after that. I can’t tell you how long it lasted, only that before I could crawl out of it I first threw out all those death letters. I started calling people, telling them what I most admired in them, and how they had affected my life.
And I try every day to stay that open. Because I know this for sure: as difficult as it is to tell someone you love or admire them or are scared for them, it’s terrifying to have never said it.
Fast forward to 2005, when my grandmother died. We weren't terribly close, but I hadn’t left anything on the table for her, so to speak. She knew I loved her and what I most appreciated about her.
A few weeks after her funeral, a manila envelope arrived from my mom. I expected a recipe or photos or an article from my hometown newspaper (which was the 2005 version of your mom sending a cat video).
Instead, I found a sealed envelope:
Inside was a dated list of notes, all the things she never said to me in life:
1987 I liked your dance revue
6-29-1990 Always remember I loved you deeply
1991 You are a loving and thoughtful granddaughter
And before each of her major surgical procedures, she wrote notes saying she loved me, and good bye.
*I spoke their real names at NerdCon, but it’s hardly fair to post them here.
Photo Credit: @kidzlibrarian, my dear friend and slumber party companion
Last week, I filled out an author form that included the question, "Does your book feature characters from marginalized backgrounds?"
I wasn't sure how to answer. In my first book, a pretty significant character is gay, but I never say he's gay. *I* know he is (because, well, I know him,) but his sexuality wasn't germane to the story, so I didn't include it. The high school in my book is pretty much like yours and mine. There are gay people and asexual people, obese girls and anorexic boys, Asians and black kids and genetic mutts.
But here's the thing: I never talk about them like that. To me, their relationships are infinitely more important than their skin color or weight or sexuality. As with real life, a character's sexuality becomes important when he is interested in another character or about to embark on a sexual relationship.
(It's kind of like Dumbledore being gay, but we never knew because we never saw him in a sexual relationship.)
Generally, I don't introduce character traits that aren't important to the story, but those characters are real to me. Even in my head, everyone is different. I realize now, however (as the book is in edits and releasing in June,) I need to be more blatant about diversity among my characters. Our society marginalizes people because of race, culture, and identity; I don't want to perpetuate that abuse in the books I write.
Photo Credit: pixgood.com
I grew up hearing that my most cherished dreams wouldn't come true. Mine were pipe dreams, or unrealistic, or too big.
I wanted a happy marriage, the opportunity to stay home and raise my children, and I (desperately) wanted to be an author. And here I am, closing in on 40, with three wonderful girls, one generous spouse, and a book releasing next spring.
It took me a long time to get here, and my life doesn't look much like my idealized adult life, but it's pretty awesome.
While it's true that some dreams won't ever come true: your life will be better than those dreams. Whatever does happen, whatever you DO make of your life, it will be better because it is real, and you made it happen.
I blog rarely, because I'm busy writing books. When I do blog, I focus on writing, friendship, family, and books. Because my family's best nicknames are private, I use their birth years for shorthand: