Friday, March 7, 2014

Addressing Grief in Young Adult Novels

I attended a panel at the AWP conference in Seattle about addressing grief in books for children and young adults. Every one of the the panelists spoke about John Green's book, The Fault in Our Stars. This is not a post about that book.

This post is about The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson.   This book was also mentioned in the panel about grief, though I was disappointed at the one tiny incident they focused on that had nothing really to do with the entire book that was her grieving. In the panel it was brought up that Lennie cut all these roses from her Grandmother's beloved rose bushes and then later, using the same garden clippers, cut up her own beloved copy of Wuthering Heights. First of all, anyone who has read the book would know that these two things come nowhere near touching the very weird way that Lennie actually acted out on her grief, which was making out with her dead sister's boyfriend. (um.. SPOILER ALERT! ? Maybe? Sorry).

I absolutely loved the way that Lennie is devastated so badly that she is then consumed by this intense need to make out with anything and everything--including the spoon at the breakfast table. It was a refreshing, funny, and complicated way at looking at grief which is why I think it was so successfully done. All the characters in the book were grieving (except for that one guy, but everyone else pretty much was) and the great thing about it is that they all grieved in their own unique way. I think that's a very important concept to keep in mind. I got this feeling with the panels that people want specific guidelines and instructions for how to use or implement certain plot devices (like grief or death or loss), but there is never one answer. One character will react in a totally different way than another character will even if they experience the exact same sort of loss (except it could never really be the exact same, but you get the idea, right?).

The sad thing to keep in mind, too, is that grieving is a process that takes years. When my dad died two years ago, everyone wanted to offer their condolences. They wanted to help me along in my process of accepting my loss and moving on and yada yada. The irony of loss is that while we may go through many of the same sorts of grieving "steps" like anger, denial, depression, etc, it may take years before we are in a place where the real sadness of the loss sinks in. When my dad died I was so angry with him. I had accepted his death before he ever died and I wasn't sad over it. But I was angry. Every now and then I see a photo taken in his kitchen or something reminds me of his house or his hair or his smile or how he sat in that ugly chair with the dirty pillow to drink his coffee. And in those moments I feel a little bit of regret, a little bit of longing. I wish I had drunk a cup of coffee with him--I wonder if that would have made our relationship any better somehow. Like maybe we would have both been more comfortable with each other if we both had a cup of coffee in our hands. I don't think that we ever fully recover from our losses (at least not the major ones--like that pink teddy bear I had when I was 6; oh how I loved that little teddy bear) but maybe our losses become a part of who we are. The memories that we could have had and the memories that are real come back to us at the thought of a semi truck or chemo therapy or a 60's era Dodge truck.

During the panel at AWP, a girl asked a question at the end about how a writer can really write about grief when they haven't experienced it. By grief, I can only assume she meant some BIG grief/loss such as losing a close family member or having your parents divorce or something that seems like a BIG DEAL. But the truth is we experience loss all the time, and, though we may not really recognize it, we go through the  grieving process all the time. We lose pieces of ourselves every day. A lot of people miss high school like crazy. Graduation is the mark of a new beginning, but it's also the mark of a loss. Friends move away. We move away. We get gym passes and then we cancel them even though we had a really awesome trainer friend and our muscles got so tough. We have pets and sometimes they get run over because we live on a highway.

Sometimes our loss may not be something that others think we should grieve over…but, here's something to show that we ALL (even the brainiest and most "protected" or "sheltered" of us) experience grief of some sort:

Grief doesn't have to be big. And, if our characters are experiencing grief that might seem bigger than anything we've really gone through (like losing a sister or a parent or a child), it doesn't mean we are disqualified from writing their story. We all know what it's like to feel loss. And, like Carol always said, it's a great thing when we borrow emotions and use them in places where we might need to use a little more imagination. Maybe I've never been to the moon, but I can imagine it and draw from other experiences and emotions to write about what would happen if one of my characters were to go to the moon. What makes for strong writing when it comes to grief is detail. It's about the little things--memories, twitches, ticks. It's about coffee, and root beer mixed with orange juice, little debbie snacks, pencil sharpeners, cigarettes, lug nuts, and the water spigot on the top of the million-year-old refrigerator.

How do you mourn?

Write on!

Monday, March 3, 2014

AWP Conference in Seattle

Imagine burnt hot-dogs mixed in with extreme b.o., car exhaust, and sewage sprinkled with wafts of chocolate and sugar, and you have the busy streets of Seattle. In this big, beautiful city everything seems to be so normal while being so strangely wild at the same time. Trees painted blue and strung with white christmas lights, people of every age and color and type tromping up and down the wide sidewalks past used bookstores and vegan restaurants and fancy, expensive places like Anthropologie. No one really seems to belong there together and that's exactly what makes them belong there--together.

Seattle is an experience. Expensive parking. One-way streets. Extra-long busses. And that city smell (see description above). What I loved about it was the people. All speeding up and slowing down, waiting at stop lights and cross walks, sitting on benches, running down the sidewalk--all in a sort of flow that only exists in large cities where people must move, breathe, and exist simultaneously in the same place.

The actual writing conference itself was no different (except the smells were a bit less potent) than the outside, city world. A wide variety of people--writers, poets, teachers, agents, editors--walking and running, and idly waiting on the escalators to get to the next panel or reading or lecture. All of them old or young weighted down by the free canvas bag with a 300 page schedule and various pamphlets and other items (candy bars, bottled water, wadded-up tissues, jackets, notebooks, menus from restaurants down the street) that only spacious bags tend to accumulate.

Many of the classes were crowded. Some of them because the rooms were simply too small, and the topics too interesting to pass up. People filled the chairs and sat on the floor, leaned against the walls, stood in the doorways--all the things you can think of to break fire-safety codes. The people were eager to learn, to ask questions, to meet other writers (but mostly to find out who was an agent or an editor). They were also exhausted and struggling to stay awake, antsy to leave and get something to eat. Some of them came and left as they pleased, not caring if anyone found their abrupt exit offensive.

AWP is the first writing conference I've attended that was so BIG. The classrooms spread throughout all three to six levels of three different buildings. Every person seemed so different, too.

I'll end right now by saying that I very much enjoyed the conference…though I think I enjoyed Seattle and hanging out with my mom more than anything.

Have you been to a conference lately? Or a new city? And what did you think?

Write on!