Month: April 2012 Page 1 of 2

The next

As a girl when I told people I wanted to be a writer, they would often say something like, Oh, you’ll be the next Austen or Shakespeare! In college when I started working on my first novel (about two Chinese American sisters and their mother) people said, Oh, you’ll be the next Amy Tan! Now when I mention that I’m focusing on Young Adult literature, people say, Oh, you’ll be the next Stephenie Meyer or Suzanne Collins!

I get it. They mean well. They’re enthusiastic, and they’re working with what they know. They are saying they believe in me, that I can be as big/great/successful as these other authors. And I appreciate that, I really really do.

But here’s the thing: I don’t want be the next anybody.

I want to be original.

I just want to be me.

I’m becoming that dog lady

Hey, remember that time I thought a wolf was attacking me and Riley, but it turned out just to be a stray Husky, and then I helped her reunite with her owner?

Yeah, that’s sort of happening again.

Only this time it’s an American bulldog mix (vet’s guess) and I still have no idea who the owner is. I’ve posted on Craigslist, put up flyers, checked for a microchip, and reported him to the SPCA. No results so far, but please keep your fingers crossed, because Bubba (as I’ve dubbed him) is a really sweet guy and totally deserves a happy ending.

bubba crop

The pesky problem of reader assumptions

My 7th grade science teacher liked to say, “Never ASSUME. It only makes an ASS out of U and ME.” I’ve always found that maxim easy to agree with, but difficult to live by. Despite good intentions, I often make assumptions — out of convenience, and perhaps a bit of arrogance too. It’s a habit that I fight, but have yet to fully and truly break.

I’m often reminded of that when I’m reading. Just yesterday I read “Miss Lora” by Junot Diaz, and I found myself wondering if Diaz’s brother had had cancer. When Wikipedia confirmed that he had, I began to assume that other parts of the story were true as well. (Namely, that as a teenager Diaz had an affair with an older woman in his neighborhood.)

The thing is, I should know better. I’m a writer myself, and I’ve had to deal with people’s assumptions about my own stories on more than on occasion.

Now, in fairness, sometimes we writers bring that problem upon ourselves. In TWENTY-SOMEWHERE, the 3 main characters are based on me and two of my best friends. This does not mean that everything that happens to the 20SW girls happened to us; in fact, very little of it did. (No flirtations with a supervisor. No boyfriend sneaking onto my computer to check my word count. No hot Venezuelan — unfortunately.) But because the girls’ personalities are so close to me and my friends’, people assume that the rest is close to our reality too. Even people who have known us well and for years.

I’m lucky that those two friends don’t mind my borrowing from our personalities and creating some confusion about our lives. But as I saw with Andy’s book and the controversy it caused, not everyone is okay with that kind of muddy ground.

So what can be done?

Well, I think the only step writers can take to prevent reader assumptions is to write about things completely foreign to their own lives. But is that a fair request/requirement? What about the rule to “write what you know”? The instant that writers start borrowing from our own experiences in order to enrich our stories — whether setting, characters, plot or even language — we invite speculation.

(Did Suzanne Collins have mommy issues? Is Twilight meant to promote conservative Mormon views? Has Nicholas Sparks lost everyone in his life to tragic illness?)

No matter how many denials or disclaimers you provide, readers are going to assume things. Some of it will be true, some of it won’t. (Some of it will be flattering, some of it won’t.) There is very little we can do about it — so I guess literature has that in common with, well, most things in life.

I, for one, would not want writers to feel restrained from putting parts of themselves or their lives into their stories. Many of my favorite songs, books, and plays are inspired by real life to some degree. (Steel Magnolias, “Teenage Dream,” The Joy Luck Club.)

It’s on me, then, not to leap to conclusions or judgment. Easier said than done, but I try. Because the last thing I want is to make an ass out of anyone.

What it takes

Courtesy of my friend Adam, who saw this at his gym and said it reminded him of my blog.

The controversial story behind my boyfriend’s book

New House 5: How A Dorm Becomes A HomeA couple weeks ago when I posted the new cover image for my Facebook page, several of you asked about Andy’s book, saying you had no idea he was a writer. Well, that’s because he isn’t one, according to him.

“Yeah, I wrote a book, but I’m not a writer.”

Paradox? Allow me to explain.

“Yeah, I wrote a book…”

I met Andy as a freshman in college. He was a sophomore, and the Resident Assistant for my floor. (Don’t worry, we didn’t date until a couple years later.) Andy was a great RA — in fact, he inspired me to become one myself. And lucky me, I got to take over the exact same floor that I had lived on and that he had been in charge of. A floor called NEW HOUSE 5.

Yes, that’s the name of his book, and it’s about my freshman year floor.

Now, this is where it gets messy. Because the “characters” in the story are based on real people. (Yes, I’m in it.) But that doesn’t mean that everything in the book is true. (Having lived through it myself, I can assure you it’s not.) Problem is, the lines between fiction and reality can be blurry, and there was enough truth to upset people. Andy lost some things as a result.

First, he lost friendships. There are a couple people who haven’t spoken to him since the book came out, and several more whose opinions of him and relationships with him were changed forever. I think that was the hardest part for Andy. He’d wanted to do something special — to honor the great experiences that he’d had as our RA, and to paint an accurate picture of college life for other students, RAs, and parents to enjoy — but not everyone appreciated how he went about it, or the secrets he divulged.

Second, he lost his job. Andy was supposed to be the Community Advisor for New House (an RA for the RAs — i.e., my boss) but when the book came out, Student Life panicked and fired him. They had gotten some complaints, I think, and were probably worried about confidentiality, lawsuits, and the like.

(This, of course, AFTER the school had put out multiple press releases celebrating his accomplishment.)

The tizzy didn’t end there. Most students were oblivious to the book, and remain so to this day, but that didn’t appease the administrators. Supposedly all the deans were required to read the book and vote on whether or not to expel Andy from the university. Outside of that debate, NEW HOUSE 5 became taboo. One secretary even confessed to Andy that she loved his book, but she’d had to read it in secret, hiding it inside a different cover so she wouldn’t get in trouble.

Now, all of this happened within the span of a few days, and the Dean of Student Affairs was traveling during that time. As soon as she returned and learned of his firing, she apologized to Andy and reinstated him as CA at a different dorm. I suspect that she realized what the years have proven to be true: that the book would not ruin anyone’s life, and that almost no one would recognize the characters in the book unless they already knew the real people.

(Furthermore, Andy had discussed the book with the floor ahead of time and had support to publish it. He also took some steps to protect people by changing names, mixing identifying traits/actions, and creating new characters. I think any legal battle would have been murky, although I’m glad it didn’t come to that.)

Hard to believe that was 7 years ago. Whatever splash the book made has long died down, but occasionally we still feel a ripple or two. Like at our friends’ wedding this past weekend, when the best man referenced the book in his speech. Can you say awkward?

(Funny, but awkward.)

The book’s contract expired in January, and rather than renew with the publisher (who was offering less attractive terms than before) Andy decided to make use of the new tools that have cropped up. With my help and Stephanie’s awesome design skills, NEW HOUSE 5 now has a great new cover and is available in digital form — as well as print — from all the usual places (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.).

“…but I’m not a writer.

Andy’s goal was never fame or fortune. He didn’t want an agent. His book was not meant to be a work of literary genius, or the first in a long career.

Don’t get me wrong, he’s a very creative and talented guy. (Especially on guitar. And Draw Something.) But business and baseball are what he loves, not books.

Andy is more than content to leave the publishing scene to me. To which I say, “Thanks! I think…”

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