Today I stumbled upon a treasure trove: the “One Thing Leads to Another” interview series at YALSA. Already the series has talked with some of my favorite Young Adult authors. Reading about their journeys — through life, through writing, through publishing — just fills me up with awe, kinship, and inspiration.
The big shift for me was fiction-writing, because it was the first time that I was writing for myself – writing what I wanted to write and not getting paid for it, at least not immediately. That was a very scary thing. And it took an entirely new type of discipline. I had to learn to write even when I wasn’t on deadline.
The most difficult experience I had as a teen hit when I was 17 or 18 — I was suicidal. My family was great, school wasn’t difficult, I was working and managing my time well. But I looked at the adults around me and thought that I didn’t see a single one that I wanted to be when I grew up. I did, however, see a lot of people I didn’t want to be. So I just decided, logically, not to grow up. I know, I know.
I can’t tell you how much it moves me now when teens tell me they see me as a role model, or that they didn’t realize that adulthood could look like this, or that they didn’t know women could act like me.
Humans tend to make hierarchies out of things. Masculine is better than feminine. See how girls are praised for pursuing traditionally “masculine” things and how boys are shamed for pursuing traditionally “feminine” things. The point of feminism should be that girls can choose how they want to be and not be trapped into a few limiting roles. Feminism loses power if we shame “girliness” or “girlie girls.” If you want to wear pink ribbons or love fashion or want to be a mom more than anything or devour romances (vampire or otherwise), feminism should say, go for it! Just as much as it should encourage the girls who go out for lacrosse or follow car racing or dig technology.
Sometimes we’ll be in the store and we’ll see a kid looking at a little stack of books — maybe we’ve recommended those books to them. They might’ve chosen a book with a kid on the cover who has a different race than their own. And the parent kind of unconsciously steers the kid away from the book. They’ll say, “Oh you’re interested in that book? Do you really think you’re going to read that one? What about this one?” And the child hasn’t been aware of anything different about the book, but the adult is.
• • •
So, funny story.
The other day, Andy and I were waiting to be seated at a popular brunch place. We stood outside the restaurant, enjoying the fresh air and chatting with the other six people in our party. All of us were coupled off, but I happened to be standing at one end of the group, engaged in conversation with my friend and her husband.
Out of absolutely nowhere, this skinny young man walks up to us, grinning. My friend and her husband happen to live in the neighborhood, and just the way the new guy looks at them, without introducing himself, makes me think that he knows them. He turns to me and holds out his hand. “Hi, I’m Adam,” he says.
I return his handshake. “I’m Kristan.”
There’s an awkward pause. I wait for my friend to explain their connection. She doesn’t. Instead, she and her husband have started talking with another couple in our group. I turn back to the new guy, confused.
He’s young and gangly, with a sort of cheerful, nervous energy radiating all around him. He’s dressed like a typical student, in a loose shirt and gym shorts. And there’s a thin translucent bandage running across his eyebrow onto his forehead, but I don’t ask him about it. I don’t really get the chance. He peppers me with questions first.
“Are you waiting to eat here?” (Obviously.) “Do you know these guys?” (Yes, we all went to college together.) “Where did you go to school?” (Carnegie Mellon.) “When did you graduate?”
So on and so forth.
After several awkward minutes, I realize that my friends don’t know this guy at all. He just walked right up to our group and inserted himself! Is he planning to eat with us? Does he think the wait will be shorter? Is he just lonely? WHAT IS EVEN HAPPENING RIGHT NOW?
As all these uncertainties are running through my mind, I’m also politely trying to keep up with our dialogue. At some point, he asks me what I do. (Writer.) “Oh, what do you write about?” (Right now, a fictional story about teenage girls in China.) “Do you really think an American audience will be interested in that?”
Somehow I maintained my composure and simply said, “Yes of course. Why wouldn’t they?”
He didn’t have an answer.
At that point, my friend took pity. Whether on me or on Adam, I’m not sure. Either way, she stepped in to ask me about my engagement ring, and soon Adam skedaddled as suddenly and inexplicably as he had arrived.
• • •
The funny part of this story is that (according to everyone else in our group) this guy was trying to hit on me — while I stood 3 ft. away from my fiancé? — and I was completely oblivious.
The sad part is that this guy was probably one of those kids mentioned in the NPR quote above. He clearly didn’t read diverse books. He didn’t develop a curiosity about otherness. He isn’t aware of how endlessly fascinating our world is, and how valuable it is to learn about foreign people and places. Which means he can’t fully appreciate how rich his own community is.
Several weeks ago, Andy and I had the pleasure of seeing Sara Bareilles in concert. I confess, I’m not always one for live performances, because I dislike sharing the experience with a crowded mass of drunken boors and flash-happy tweens. Fortunately, Sara’s fans were a calm, courteous lot, and so I was able to enjoy her tremendous vocal talent, along with her clever, heartfelt lyrics.
To be honest, she didn’t “work the crowd” the same way I’ve seen Ed Sheeran or the Spice Girls do. But Sara engaged us by being a storyteller. She shared the inspiration behind her songs. She revealed personal triumphs, struggles, and future aspirations. She took us back to her roots with a special a capella performance. She even gave us a sneak peek of her work-in-progress.
Moved by her artistry, I shed a few tears during the concert, and at the end of the night, I walked away with a feeling of warmth and genuineness. From Sara, and from her music. I was reminded that you don’t have to be flashy to shine. Find your passion and share it with the world. Focus on what you’re good at. Connect with others, heart to heart. That is so much more than enough.
Just for fun, here’s a brief clip of Sara singing one of my favorites, “Gravity”:
We don’t learn a lot through success by itself. That sounds strange, but it’s true. I throw a basketball at a hoop and – swish — first time in? I don’t know what the hell I did. But I get one shot in and nine missed, I start to see how I can do that better. And suddenly, I start making more baskets. We make sense of our efforts through failure.
Failure is a word/concept that I think many of us are afraid of — but what if we just thought of it as a code word for rough drafts and imperfection? What if failure became a temporary stop on the road to success, instead of a final destination?
The other day, I had to get something engraved. (A trophy for Andy’s fantasy football league. Yes, they are that dorky about it.) I ran around town looking for a shop that would do this little one-off job, and finally found a really nice guy who was happy to take care of it right away. While he set up the machine, we made small talk. When he learned that I was a halfie, he started spitting out Chinese phrases he had picked up during his time working with Asian doctors in a laboratory. Ni hao ma. Ji cao fan. Xie xie.
His pronunciation wasn’t great, but he didn’t care. He wanted to connect with me, and he wanted to be corrected. He wanted to learn and improve.
Meanwhile, when I go to Chinese restaurants, I’m embarrassed that I can’t order in my mother’s native tongue. When I meet Spanish-speakers, I always downplay my fluency, because I know I’m rusty and don’t want to look stupid.
But I didn’t think this guy was stupid at all. I thought he was brave. I admired his hunger for knowledge and experience. His wide-open spirit. His willingness to embrace imperfection and to fail without fear.
"The only man who never makes mistakes is the man who never does anything." ~ Teddy Roosevelt
Filter your failure. Then move forward.
The other day I hand-wrote a letter to my friend Angie — something I haven’t done in far too long — because I was craving that mental-motor connection, and because when I write to her, it’s very free-form. Whatever I’m thinking and feeling gets laid out on the page. It does not get evaluated. It does not get analyzed. It does not get polished.
“Where is the place for rough drafts in life anymore?” I asked my friend. The irony of course being that my letter to her was one such place.
With Instagram and Facebook showing constant highlight reels of people’s lives — and as a writer struggling to make her way through a competitive and fast-evolving publishing landscape — it often feels like every word I write and every photo I take has to be perfect.
Especially here. Sometimes I forget that this is just a blog. This can be a space for rough drafts. People come here looking for genuineness, not perfection.
It’s been a busy, stressful summer, and I’m not sure that autumn is going to be too different. But I want to feel differently about it. I want to feel energized by the activity, instead of drained. I want to be inspired instead of deflated. I want to be productive instead of overwhelmed.
Most importantly, I want to give myself permission to be imperfect. To revel in my rough drafts. Because rough drafts are practice. And practice may not make perfect, but it does make better.
Beautiful and confident Sophie Lin, goody-goody aspiring writer Claudia Bradford, and boy-crazy scientist MJ Alexander are ready to tackle work, love, and life after college -- or so they think.
As their relationships go sour, their careers sputter, and a few too many ethical dilemmas arise, the girls turn to the one thing they can always count on: each other. But even that will be put to the test...
Welcome to New House 5. It’s not just the top floor of a brand new dorm. For 56 freshmen, it’s home. A place where friends are made and doors are always open. A place where hearts are broken and tears are shed.
Watch as these students try to overcome their flaws and fears to create a bond so special that nothing can pull them apart. Not even themselves.