This is an article I wrote several years ago, based on interviews with three brilliant, inspiring writers. It is worth revisiting.
“It is impossible to become a writer without reading,” says Paul Hendrickson, writing professor at the University of Pennsylvania and award-winning author of numerous books including Hemingway’s Boat.
There is a relationship between quality of reading and quality of writing. And a distinction between reading for pleasure and reading like a writer. The difference involves attitude, approach and appreciation. Michael Schmidt, poet, professor and author of The Novel: A Biography recommends reading, “with eyes wide open, full of anticipation.”
With this in mind, here are seven ways to read like a writer:
“You can’t be a writer unless you have a hunger for print,” says Nick Lezard, Guardian literary critic and author of Bitter Experience Has Taught Me. “I was the kid who sat at the table and read the side of the cereal packet.” In Nick’s case, the lust for literature paved the way for a career as a book reviewer. But regardless of the genre or field to which you aspire, all writers are readers first. And “it doesn’t matter whether the medium is the side of the cereal packet or a screen,” Nick says.
Cereal-packet readers tend to wolf words like they do breakfast. This is a trait writers should train themselves out of – at least sometimes. Paul defines reading like a writer as slow reading: dawdling on the page, delving, soaking in the style and rhythm. Don’t read everything this way, though. “I don’t read the newspaper ‘like a writer’,” he notes. “I don’t have time. Nobody does.”
Time is of the essence for the reading writer, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore everything apart from the classics. There are, to borrow Orwell’s term, good bad books. Nick mentions Ian Fleming as an example of compelling though less-than-literary fiction. Paul gives a nod to Raymond Chandler, saying writers can learn from his “hardboiled, imagistic lines.”
That said, don’t make the mistake of reading widely but not too well. “Reading crap is no good for the eye or ear,” says Michael. “Read only the best, and read it attentively. See how it relates to the world it depicts, or grows out of.”
Nick, who has read his share of bad books as a reviewer, concurs: “If you just read books like 50 Shades of Grey or Dan Brown, you’re going to wind up spewing out a string of miserable clichés.”
You get the most out of good writing by reading it with real attention. Michael advises writers to pay heed to metaphor, characters’ voices, how the author develops those voices and how they change. He recommends Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children as a rewarding subject of attentive reading: “There is a strong sense of development, nothing static there. I can think of no better pattern book for a would-be writer.”
Reading like a writer means going out of your comfort zone. When Nick was in his teens he tackled James Joyce’s Ulysses. “It was a struggle,” he recalls. “It took me a year or two. But that’s how you [learn] – you find stuff that’s above your level.”
Reading above your level is valuable, in part, because it challenges your imagination. Paul talks about savoring the terse beauty of poetry and imagining “everything that’s between the spaces of the words, the spaces of the lines.” By observing the work of your own imagination you gain insight into how writers evoke images and emotions.
You don’t have to read every book (or cereal box) like a writer. But the more you immerse yourself in words and cultivate these seven skills, the better your writing will be. “If you are writing a potboiler, imagine how wonderful it will be if the work you produce is actually a proper novel,” says Michael. “Read the best, and read the best in your elected genre.”
As mentioned in a previous post, I have written for online indie zine Pennyblackmusic for the better part of a couple of decades. One of my recent projects was a series of interviews about my fellow writers, which concluded with one of my fellow writers interviewing me. As my editor, John Clarkson, put it:
“For the last two years in her ‘A Life in Music’ column Cila Warncke has talked to several of our writers and photographers about how music has affected and influenced them. We were interested in finding out in ‘A Life in Music’ what ignited a bunch of obsessives’ passion for music, and discovered that much of our team had lead lives that were just as fascinating as many of the bands. Now that column is coming to an end, and in the last in the series we have turned the tables on Cila and Nick Dent-Robinson has spoken to her about her ‘Life in Music’.”
This may well be the first time I’ve been interviewed in print so thought I’d share.
Cila Warncke: A Life in Music by Nick Dent-Robinson
Cila Warncke is one of the earliest contributors to Penny Black Music magazine, having started writing for them more than two decades ago. Penny Black founder and editor John Clarkson recalls that Cila’s first interview for the magazine was with Cinerama about their “Disco Volante” album. She was the magazine’s first female writer and, as John Clarkson says, he is proud that Cila paved the way for many more excellent female music writers in Penny Black Music over the coming years – as rock music writing was notorious for being too much of a “boys’ club”.
As a professional journalist, Cila says she was attracted by the scope for originality and independence (and lack of male chauvinism) at PBM – and she has produced a fascinating range of articles over her time there. Although she left Penny Black Music in the early 2000s and worked on the glossy London-based music magazine, ‘Q” she was welcomed back in 2012 and has been a regular contributor since then. She has written about the impact of the pandemic on those working behind the scenes in the world of live music, about the eventual demise of ‘Q’ magazine and she wrote a very thoughtful piece about Marilyn Manson. Plus she has produced excellent articles on so many other diverse topics.
Cila also originated the ‘A Life In Music’ series where she probed fellow contributors to PBM about their musical tastes, background and aspirations. – All done with great tact, sensitivity and diplomacy plus insight – key hallmarks of Cila’s style. That series is now drawing towards its conclusion – but not before we turn the tables and seize the opportunity to ask Cila about her own ‘Life In Music”’
Born in 1980 and raised in a small town in Oregon over on the West side of the USA, in her late teens Cila moved to the East Coast to study English at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia – an esteemed Ivy League institution. Subsequently she moved to London to undertake further studies at King’s College before becoming a journalist. She thrived in the UK, enjoying all the many cultural opportunities available just after the turn of the millennium as well as the proximity to Europe. She and her fellow-American husband Chris Hall, a production audio technician in the world of live music, have travelled widely and have now made their permanent base in Valencia, Spain. Cila was at her home in Valencia when I started to ask about her ‘Life in Music’.
What are some of her earliest musical memories?
“Well, my parents weren’t musicians and because my mother was an Evangelical Christian, anything that wasn’t a hymn or soft God-rock was not too popular. It was a cool, rebellious thing to listen to anything other than that. My sister and I would listen to local radio, though and so I got some of the sound of late 80s/early 90s rock and pop culture through that. But my brother – who is around 6 years older than I – loved The Smiths, The Cure and some of the other British post-punk/new wave bands. I enjoyed that sound and I recall some of the record sleeves up on my brother’s wall – brilliant images which made a lasting impression.
The first (non-Christian!) record I remember buying when I was 13 or 14 was Sting’s “Fields of Gold…Best of: 1984-94” and my sister (who was 8 years older and much cooler, always) bought me Green Day’s ‘Dookie’ – which I still think is a great record!”
Following on from my previous post on the importance of affirmative sex education, here are 10 books English Language Arts teachers can reach for to open conversations about love, relationships, gender and sexuality.
These works were chosen because they treat sex with the openness, thoughtfulness, honesty and sensitivity it merits.
Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
This brief, moving book touches an many aspects of life: education, self-discovery, solitude, family relationships, etc. but Rilke’s comments about love and sex shine. Don’t be satisfied with conventional definitions of what a relationship ‘should’ look like, he advises. Instead, seek to develop yourself as an individual so you can truly respect and cherish the individuality of another person. It is humane, wise, timely wisdom framed in sublime prose.
This YA novel centers on Frank Li, the teenage son of Korean immigrants, who finds himself trying to navigate the challenges of new love while wrestling with contradictory cultural expectations. Fast, good-humored and, well, frank, it highlights the importance of being honest with oneself and others — in life and in love.
With a nod to Demi Lovato, this novel explores how issues of class and privilege complicate the already complicated issues of love and sexual identity. Are Lara and Jasmine really falling in love, or are they just cool for the summer? And what happens if Lara chases the hunky Chase…? A touch frothy, but heartfelt and affirmative of love, wherever one finds it.
This Bildungsroman set in a well-to-do Pacific Northwest community hit home with me (though the community I grew up in wasn’t quite so well-to-do). In addition to being a welcome, thoughtful discussion of class, poverty and family tension, it has a romantic twist that is sure to get students talking.
Smith’s beloved coming-of-age tale set in early 20th century Brooklyn is refreshingly forthright about sex. It handles both positive and negative aspects of love and sexuality (including an attempted sexual assault) with a calm directness that can set the tone for open, non-judgmental classroom conversations.
Baldwin is perhaps my favorite writer on sex; certainly, the rare (American) author who understands and treats sex as the physical act of love. This short novel is appropriate for older teenagers, say 16-18, and explores the tragic consequences of prioritising social conventions over human relationships. To paraphrase Baldwin, the protagonist’s problem isn’t his homosexuality, it’s that his capacity for love has been crippled by his anxiety about what people might think.
Contemporary writers are creating a robust canon of books about gender identity and nonconformity. I love this graphic memoir for its matter-of-fact tone and authenticity. It highlights that gender identity is fluid and finding one’s path isn’t necessarily a linear journey — nor does it need to be.
Get it here
Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return by Marjane Satrapi
Lest you get the wrong impression about the back-to-back graphic memoir recommendations, let me quote one of my students when asked if he liked graphic texts: ‘No!’
He and I share the view that other people’s pictures get in the way of the (superior) moving pictures in our heads.
That notwithstanding, Persepolis 2 is an evocative, eye-level portrait of Satrapi’s struggles with language, culture, love and sexuality after she moved from Iran to Germany. This is a particularly strong choice for children who have immigrated or come from a cultural/familial context that distinguishes them from their classmates.
For younger readers, this is a charming, uplifting novel about a trans girl coming into her own. Details like Zenobia stressing out about which restroom to use add verisimilitude and the plot touches on vital issues like deadnaming, cyberbullying and the importance of community without ever feeling preachy.
When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities by Chen Chen
Sometimes, I read a book and think, wow, that was brilliant.
Sometimes, I read a book and think, wow, that was brilliant and I really want to be friends with the author.
When I Grow Up… is in the latter category. His poems about growing up as the child of immigrants, cultural tension, sexual identity, homophobia and the search for love are surpassingly deft, raw, funny, tragic, playful and defiant. They also communicate (don’t ask me how) a deep, fundamental good-personness. In a perfect parallel universe, Chen and I would go for drinks.
Last year, for the first time, I taught about gender and sexuality in literature. My kneejerk reaction was, I can’t talk about sex to teenagers. Arrggh!
On reflection, this reaction had everything to do with my hangups (to use a good old-fashioned word) and nothing to do with my students’ needs.
This is a common problem in sex education, with the current brouhaha in the United Kingdom serving as an example.
British prime minister Rishi Sunak has, according to the Guardian, “asked the Department for Education to “ensure schools are not teaching inappropriate or contested content” in the subject of relationships, sex and health education… Sunak confirmed the review… after a Tory MP, Miriam Cates, said children were being exposed to sex education classes that were “age-inappropriate, extreme, sexualising and inaccurate”.”
Numerous Tory MPs are on board, one of their complaints being that young people are being taught about oral sex — a classic case of adult prudishness being prioritized over teen well-being.
Chambers et al. (2004) is quoted by Leung et al., 2019 saying Britain’s “value-led approach [to sex education] merely reflects the interests and principles of stakeholders, while overlooking the actual needs and wellbeing of youths.”
Sex ed in the internet age
Does anyone with two brain cells to rub together think not discussing oral sex, or any other sexual act, proclivity or topic, is going to prevent kids from knowing what it is, discussing it, watching it and even doing it?
Children are handed internet-connected screen devices almost as soon as their chubby baby fingers can hold them, in many cases.
Statista data show that 58% of British children own a smartphone by age 8; by age 12, that jumps to 93%. You can bet the farm they aren’t just using it to watch Sesame Street.
Sexuality isn’t a switch that flips at puberty. Sexual behaviors and curiosity are apparent in early childhood.
This might make grown-ups uncomfortable, but our discomfort isn’t useful. Parents and teachers have a duty to help kids navigate this vital part of life.
If we don’t step up, the internet will.
Student needs versus teacher discomfort
In an op-ed, 25-year-old journalist and editor Sasha Mistlan writes (re: Andrew Tate and the importance of proactive sex education): “My friends and I didn’t get any proper education about sex, consent or relationships until we were 13, by which time we had learned it all from internet porn and lads’ mags.”
How can educators ignore this need?
I am a literature teacher; the biology of the birds and bees are beyond my remit. But it isn’t the birds and bees that students need to know about.
They need models of relationships and ways of relating that affirm sexuality as an important (but not overwhelming), natural part of adult life, and of sex as a source of joy and connection. They need love stories with happy endings. They need, also, stories that are unhappy or ambiguous; stories that show mistakes and heartbreaks as a navigable part of human sexual experience, not reasons to drink poison.
However awkward I may feel, students need a safe space for curiosity and discussion. Because lord only knows, they are talking about sex outside the classroom.
Sex positive education
Does the phrase ‘sex positive education’ make you a little uncomfortable?
It does me.
But what does the alternative imply? Sex negative education doesn’t prevent young people from having sex.
Data from the worryingly puritanical United States show that even students who promise to abstain from premarital sex… don’t.
Research published by the American Academy of Pediatrics peer-reviewed journal Pediatricsfound: “Five years after the pledge [to abstain from sex], 82% of pledgers denied having ever pledged. Pledgers and matched nonpledgers did not differ in premarital sex, sexually transmitted diseases, and anal and oral sex variables. Pledgers… did not differ in lifetime sexual partners and age of first sex. Fewer pledgers than matched nonpledgers used birth control and condoms.”
Scaring teenagers away from sex has never worked; ignoring sex in the hope teenagers won’t notice it is ludicrous.
The best, bravest, least-comfortable option is to say: hey, sex is a huge part of life, however whenever wherever and with whomever you do it (or don’t), and it can be one of the most joyous parts of life, or one of the most damaging. Let’s talk about how to make it joyful, empowering, pleasurable, safe and beautiful.
As a literature teacher, I can do my part by teaching texts that articulate the delights and challenges of sexuality and sexual identity, and working with my colleagues in health, science and psychology to create a safe, affirmative atmosphere for conversations about love, sex and gender.
This requires making careful choices about what my students read. Many of the canonical ‘love stories’ of European literature are anything but — think Wuthering Heights or Romeo and Juliet where ‘love’ and violence are inextricably mixed.
The search for affirmative literature requires looking beyond the cano and seeking stories that reflect a variety of experiences, cultures, orientations and gender identities.
Next week, I’ll share a list of powerful literature that treats sex with the openness, thoughtfulness, honesty and sensitivity it merits.
Suggest your favorite teen-appropriate, sex-affirmative story, poem or film in the comments or Tweet @CilaWarncke
My students and I are about to start a unit studying people and movement. Every new course and group is a fresh challenge in curriculum development: identifying and sourcing appropriate texts, deciding on writing exercises, linking new material to previous learning.
People and movement is a tough remit for its sheer breadth. From the wanderings that brought homo sapiens from its ancestral home in Africa to the current heartbreak and chaos that reign at ultra-militarized human-made borders, there is much to absorb, understand, reflect on and debate.
And of course, movement is more than just physical displacement. People and movement must consider emotional and spiritual journeys, economic trajectories, the currents that flow between lovers or haters, the passage from ignorance to enlightenment. Movement is life: heart blood nerve impulse digestive contraction sperm meets egg infant traverses birth canal. We only stop moving when we’re dead.
Looking back at my reading list of the past few months, almost every book could be profitably analyzed through the lens of movement. The following 10 books — a mix of fiction, memoir, verse and biography — give particular insight into human dynamics, visible and invisible. Without further ado, the people and movement reading list.
Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class edited by Michelle Tea
As culture gets less equal, movement between social classes becomes as fetishized as it is remote. An antidote to the reams written about the poor — Without A Net, edited by Michelle Tea — is by the poor, or the formerly poor. Though one of the key features of the essays in this book is the disabuse of the notion that someone can transcend deprivation simply by making a bit of money. Lack (of cash, of security, of stability, of self-confidence) is a persistent challenge and the writers in this anthology challenge the notion that there is a quick fix for what Richard Sennett memorably termed ‘the hidden injuries of class’.
Brief yet lacerating, Kincaid’s dissection of colonialism ancient and modern demands an analysis of the privilege of movement. People of certain countries, cultures and backgrounds can move freely, either as conquerors or (almost as problematically) consumers of less-privileged places. The use of the second-person pushes the reader to question their identification and position in the hierarchy of movement.
The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story edited by Nikole Hannah-Jones
This anthology includes the longform pieces written as part of the New York Times 1619 Project, plus new essays. It examines the way catastrophic, criminal displacements of people underlie and shape United States’ culture. Kidnapping, transporting and enslaving Africans plus genocidal clearances of Native peoples created a nation that has yet to come to terms with the implications and outcomes of its past.
Elusive: How Peter Higgs Solved the Mystery of Mass by Frank Close
Some people look outwards to understand the world, but the movement towards greater understanding often requires turning in. In the case of Peter Higgs and scores of scientists across decades, the journey was ever-deeper into the realm of subatomic particles, resulting in the eventual discovery of the Higgs boson — a particle whose movement is fundamental to the shape of our universe.
Lowborn: Growing Up, Getting Away and Returning to Britain’s Poorest Towns by Kerry Hudson
Another intense exploration of the potential and limitations of moving between social classes. Hudson was the English equivalent of poor white trash, a circumstance which meant she spent her childhood moving from one precarious, uncomfortable, humiliating physical and social environment to another. Revisiting old haunts as a successful adult, she is confronted by how little some things have moved on.
This novel in verse is aimed at middle-grade readers but it made me weep. Told in the first-person by a Vietnamese boy who was adopted, after the war, by a couple from the United States, it gets to broken heart of violent displacement and alienation from home and culture. It also (ambitiously, deftly) addresses the emotional and physical trauma of returning veterans.
Nobel Prize-winning novelist Gurnah is always writing about movement; his characters roam, seek, sometimes return, are rarely satisfied. This richly textured story follows a seemingly successful immigrant who cannot outrun the pain of a mysterious childhood separation or the complexities of a family where movement failed to heal deep fissures.
From scuttling frantically through the subterranean corridors of a posh Paris hotel to tramping the dusty byways of the Home Counties in search of a place to sleep and a spare meal, Orwell’s foray into poverty is marked by movement. Though distinct from his working-class counterparts by education, the young writer genuinely struggled, which — although he couldn’t help but see himself as in the world but not of it — still stands as an honest and compassionate account of poverty.
This novel was recommended by Nobel Prize-winning author Wole Soyinka, who praised its intensity and clarity. The story of lives split and twisted by tribal violence on Cyprus, it explores the penalties of flight, what it means to be rooted, and the long arc of coming to terms with the things that cannot be eluded.
For a final Nobel Prize name drop, this slightly surreal and unsentimental story of Nils the goose boy who accidentally gets turned into a tiny elf. Lagerlof won the literature prize in 1909, the crowning achievement of a career that included poetry, adult fiction and this classic children’s story. Bold and vivid, the tale of Nils illustrates the critical role movement can play in self-discovery and insight. At home, Nils was cruel, spoiled and selfish; after traversing the skies with a flock of migrant geese, he comes to understand kindness and survival in a new way.
Samuel Beckett’s words (from the novella Worstward Ho) are an arch rallying cry for MFA types.
They have never set well with me. Blame a lifetime of planting the flag of my self-worth in the quicksand of perfectionism. Blame Puritan-Prussian heritage (my DNA is halfway to being a ladder). Blame having heard the message too late.
Blame apportioned, a problem remains. Perfectionism is permissible (if inadvisable) for an individual; it is unacceptable in teaching.
Not many days ago, I logged onto Zoom and began my presentation on Culturally Responsive Teaching for the Le Sallay Academy Blended Learning Conference. That it was my first time logging onto Zoom in a while should have given me pause.
Deep breath, off to a start.
We can’t hear you well, the moderator piped.
Jamming on my oversize headphones, I tried to smile and continued.
A pop-up obscured my presentation, something about recording, blah blah. Impatient to be rid of it, I clicked the X in the top right corner and found myself staring at a static screen.
My panicked brain registered, logged out.
My immediate impulse: crawl under the table and call it a day.
Instead, I scrabbled through the emails, found the link, logged back in, found myself flipping through tabs trying to restore my presentation, rictus grin on my face, tried to make light: As we can see, there is always the possibility of technical issues.
Broadly speaking, I’d rather be right than happy. Being right makes me happy.
Perhaps one of the reasons I came to teaching only after a substantial career in journalism was that my younger self needed to control the outcome. I can massage a piece of writing to perfection.
Standing in a classroom, or delivering a presentation, opens up all kinds of variables, exciting new ways to screw up.
There is a deep part of me that will always be appalled by this; counterbalancing, a part that knows learning is more important than knowledge — and that the only honest way to communicate this to students is to model it.
It isn’t enough to say, you can learn from mistakes; teachers need to demonstrate it.
Psychologist Carol Dweck coined the now-familiar terms growth mindset and fixed mindset. Writing for the Harvard Review, she notes: “Individuals who believe their talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others) have a growth mindset…. they worry less about looking smart and put more energy into learning.”
They worry less about looking smart.
This is where the teacher tug-o’-war starts: the educator desire to want to model excellence and expertise versus the student need to see curiosity and willingness to screw up.
Because we do, oh we do.
You can’t learn what you already know, I tell my classes. Existing expertise may gratify the ego, but it doesn’t grow the intellect.
Adjuring students to take intellectual risks and accept failures as part of the learning process is a cop-out though. Everyone who has spent time around young mammals knows they are fiercely imitative. To have any chance of inspiring imitation, teachers need to show, not tell; act, not instruct.
This is borne out by research: MacDonnell Mesler et al. (2021) found that teachers with growth mindsets had a “positive and statistically significant association with the development of their students’ growth mindsets.”
How does a teacher demonstrate a growth mindset? Only by admitting to imperfect knowledge, making mistakes and learning from them, getting out of their comfort zone and engaging with difficulties.
Students are quick to sniff out inauthentic attitudes. As much as I’d love to be able to convince them it’s not just fine but important to screw up occasionally, that message will ring false if unaccompanied by the grace and humility to make and acknowledge errors. To overcome my reluctance, I challenge myself to do the following.
Make space for student expertise
A friend who knows me very well once remarked, half in jest, that I’d make a good cult leader. He knows how much I love to be right and persuade others of my rightness. Hence, it is a serious discipline to shut myself down (multiple times a day) and make space for student expertise. They know things I don’t, lots and lots of things.
Instead of always telling them what I know (ah, Sinai!) I make a practice of asking what they know. This throws up surprises (another thing perfectionists hate) and sends us on tangents. It is crucial; students need agency, need to know that what they know is valuable and integral to what they are learning.
Adopt a ‘learn with’ not ‘teach to’ approach
Reframing the educational encounter as a mutual learning experience creates opportunities for teachers and students alike. Though it is easy to fall back on the egotistical attitude of I’m the teacher, listen to me, this is precisely how not to inspire a growth mindset. Teaching to implies the teacher is omniscient; depending on the student, this obvious nonsense will discourage, annoy or spur indifference. (Why should I be intellectually adventurous and honest if my teacher isn’t?)
A learn with approach emphasizes that learning is ongoing for everyone, and that no matter how much a person knows about a subject, there is always more to discover.
Screw up and own it
One of the most valuable phrases in a teacher’s repertoire is, I was wrong.
It is also one of the hardest things (for me) to say.
Professional pride, ego, perfectionism all get in the way of admitting mistakes, but it is unutterably important that students have positive models for screwing up and owning it.
Teachers have to be willing to make and acknowledge mistakes to model the next, crucial step: learning from that mistake.
Acknowledging an error opens the door to correcting it; refusing to do so keeps students and teachers locked in false, precarious attitudes of expertise that hinder personal and collaborative learning.
Would I prefer to be a flawless, infinitely knowledgeable teacher? Of course.
Would that make me a better educator? Absolutely not.
Resisting perfectionism and owning errors will always be a struggle, but my students will ultimately benefit, and that’s what matters.
Great books help develop strong readers. And strong readers are capable of learning just about anything.
One of the joys and challenges of my job as a literature teacher is to continuously find exciting, engaging stories that will resonate with teen readers. To that end I read A LOT and am always on the look out for recommendations (if you have any, please jump to the comments and share!)
In 2022, I read more than 120 books. These 10 stood out as great novels for teenagers.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
by Betty Smith
Somehow, I missed this classic coming of age story when I was a kid. Shame. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a startling, unsentimental portrait of growing up poor in Brooklyn in the first years of the 20th century (the book ends with rumors of war). It doesn’t gloss the ugliness of abject poverty, alcoholism, sexual violence and ethnic conflicts yet it neither preachy nor maudlin. The characters are given the dignity of being complex, alive and changeable. Unmissable.
Cool for the Summer
by Dahlia Adler
This contemporary novel about a teenager girl exploring her sexuality is the best of a whole bunch I read on said theme. Middle schoolers desperately need affirmative, healthy messages about sex and sexual identity. The protagonist of Cool for the Summer is awkward, confused, obnoxious and authentic. She drinks, she swears, she screws up. She starts to figure out how to figure it out. When she finally kisses her new girlfriend at the end, there is a satisfying sense of hard-won self-awareness and acceptance.
The Astonishing Color of After
by Emily X.R. Pan
Apparently, this novel about a girl coping with the aftermath of her mother’s suicide is ‘magical realism’, a genre I would cross the road in front of a speeding semitruck to avoid, in most instances. In this instance, the fantastic and surreal are an effective (perhaps essential) means for communicating the displacement of grief. The protagonist’s gradual immersion in her mother’s language (Mandarin) and birthplace (Taiwan) offers hope and challenge, and, for the reader, insight into the complexities of biracial identity.
Long Way Down
by Jason Reynolds
This novel-in-verse won all the awards, and rightly so. It follows the 15-year-old protagonist as he takes a long, slow elevator ride towards destiny. Will he use the gun tucked in the back of his trousers to avenge his brother’s violent death? Or will he break The Rules? The pacing is taut, the use of language superb, and the voices unforgettable.
A Single Shard
by Linda Sue Park
This was officially my first foray into historical fiction about 12th century Korea. Let it be yours. The amount of research packed into every page makes me quiver with admiration for its author. Middle school kids probably won’t notice or care about all the work behind the scenes, though, they’ll be too busy chewing through the crisp, lovely prose about a young orphan’s apprenticeship to a master potter and the tough choices he has to make.
by Mieko Kawakami
I’m not sure if this is properly an adult novel with YA characters, or a YA novel. In any case, it’s fantastic for 8th graders, as it is a tough, unsparing exploration of issues that many kids face: bullying, divorce, parental absence, social awkwardness, sexual frustration and suicidal ideation. Don’t be misled though; it is anything but grim. There is life, and hope, which feels all the more authentic for being complicated.
All the Broken Pieces
by Ann E. Burg
Another novel-in-verse, told in the first person by a Vietnamese boy who was adopted by a couple in the United States after the war. The struggles with traumatic memories, guilt, racism and alienation are predictable. What is not is the heart-rending yet uplifting way he learns to cope, with a little help from his parents, a disabled baseball coach and a room full of veterans.
Frankly in Love
by David Yoon
This is just your typical hyper-ambitious YA novel that deals with racism, immigration, generational conflict, sex, friendship, LGBTQ+ identity and academic pressures. Just kidding. There is nothing typical about this fast, funny but also totally serious novel about a boy leading a double life: calculus-conquering son of Korean immigrants by day and kinda clueless, hopped-on-hormones American teenager who just wants to have fun.
by Libba Bray
To paraphrase Hunter Thompson, when the going gets weird, the weird go bovine. I stumbled across this while looking for postmodernist teen fiction and boy, is it that. A fast-and-loose riff on Don Quixote, it is packed with drugs, sex, bad decisions, talking garden gnomes, fatal neurological conditions, magical jazz artists and… really, just read it. Preferably in one sitting. It’s louche, loud and OTT: perfect for older teens.
The Story that Cannot be Told
by J. Kasper Kramer
Inspired by Romanian history and folklore, this ode to the power of words follows a girl growing up in the insane reality of the late days of Ceaușescu’s dictatorship. Peril is always close to hand, often due to her innocent mistakes, but stories have a way of helping make sense of things. And of changing the endings of real-life situations. This is a perfect book for kids who like historical fiction, folktales and fantasy.
Recommend a great book for middle schoolers in the comments, or Tweet @CilaWarncke
The night before our wedding my fiance and I sat bed with glasses of wine and I read aloud Joan Didion’s essay ‘Marrying Absurd’. I am always rapt by her diamond-cutter prose. Chris was not. He stared at me in the silence after the final sentences, wide eyes asking: What are you trying to say?
“Another round of pink champagne, this time not on the house, and the bride began to cry. ‘It was just as nice,’ she sobbed, ‘as I hoped and dreamed it would be.'”
His wide, wary eyes signaled perfect comprehension. He knew I was using Didion to ask the question I couldn’t. Are we doing the right thing?
On our first date we went to a Mexican restaurant with orange walls, purple tables, and a crowd of drunk Santas in running shoes. We both ordered vegan mole, looked at each other and said, “You too?” Two margaritas on the rocks, salt for me. My body was strange. No crackle-and-static of attraction but expansive euphoria, as if every electron in my blood had leapt an orbital, opening me from the inside out. I’d never seen such eyes: a coruscating handful of sapphire chips.
I lived in Spain at the time; he lived in Memphis. For the next few months we found ways to meet in London, Manchester, Brussels, and Rome. We hoarded time together, constructed intimacy from daubs of conversation and torrents of text. At the end of the year, inevitable as a rock rolling down a cliff, I moved to Memphis. One night we sat in bed, where we conduct most of our powwows. He was adding me to his car insurance. When it came to the Relationship blank he looked up: “Fiancee?”
Sure, I said, why not.
A couple of weeks later, for my birthday, we rented a cabin in Arkansas. It was too cold to sit on the porch swing and watch the stars blaze so we sat on padded vinyl dining room chairs to eat rice and beans washed down with red wine.
“Are we really going to get married?” I asked.
“Do you want to?”
Why marry? We don’t want children and I won’t take his name. Our bank accounts and tax returns will stay separate. We don’t believe in God, monogamy, or the sanctity of marriage.
Yet by our second date I wanted to marry him. Not just be with him. Not just be his girlfriend/partner/significant other. I wanted to be his wife, with all the weight that word carries; wanted him to be my husband. Not because those words are a talisman against conflict or even heartbreak – everyone knows they aren’t – but because marriage (however devalued, degraded, or deflated) is our culture’s apotheosis of commitment. Like the Supreme Court, it is fluid and fallible, but still the last word.
Wanting to be married, though, and marrying are as different as climbing the ladder to the high dive and jumping off.
Chris and I were in down town Las Vegas just after Christmas. We drove past wedding chapels that caught Didion’s gimlet eye fifty years ago, parked in a cavernous underground lot, surfaced at Best Buy and wove through steel drummers, midget Elvis impersonators, and bikini-clad girls dancing away the cold on Fremont East. “We could get married in Vegas,” we teased, testing each other. Instead, we found a Mexican bar and drank jalapeno margaritas. Not wanting to marry in Vegas had something to do with the vision of Joan dancing in my head. But she wasn’t writing about Las Vegas eo ipso. It was journalistic shorthand for dangerous impulsiveness, failure of decorum, fractured social mores.
Didion’s specific grievance with Las Vegas was that its wedding chapels were “merchandising ‘niceness,’ the facsimile of proper ritual, to children who do not know how else to find it… how to do it ‘right’.” Inverted commas notwithstanding, she suggests that parents, at least some parents, know how to do it right.
Believing that must help. Children of happy homes can borrow courage. Skin puckering in the chill, toes hooked on the beef-tongue surface of the diving board, they can at least look down on faces that made the leap and emerged smiling.
Those of us with no family account of goodness or goodwill stand alone. Poised on the proverbial edge, we can only count the mistakes, comic and awful. My mother hooked up with my (still married) father while pregnant with another man’s child. Chris’s mom married and divorced three times, one on either side of his dad. In fact, his parents’ marriage was annulled by Papal pronouncement which makes Chris, technically, a bastard. The second time around, his dad went for a straightforward decree from the State of Arkansas. My dad’s second divorce was in Alaska; the first who knows where.
Then there’s our previous marriages. Mine ended with a gentle parting from a friend who happened to be my husband. His came with the sting of surprise: an email with legal papers and a note to say his stuff was in storage.
Nine divorces altogether. Worn notes of anger, betrayal, and disappointment bundled and stashed like junk bonds. We’d be fools to not wonder if we’re being foolish.
Every card Didion played as a damning signifier of what it meant “to be married in Las Vegas, Clark County, Nevada” in 1967 – well – Memphis, Shelby County, Tennessee will see and raise in 2017. Like Vegas, Memphis “demands no premarital blood test nor waiting period before or after the issuance of a marriage license.” Unless the celebrant is 17 or under, in which case Shelby County imposes a three day wait. In other regards this Delta city is as careless in love as any neon-spangled desert oasis.
Want to cut down on the ten minutes it takes to apply in person? Fill in the online form then collect the license at the county clerk’s office.
Previous marriage, or a few? No problem. Choose a number between one and thirty-one on the drop-down menu. It will ask for the date of your divorce(s) but don’t worry if you don’t remember. Neither clerk nor judge will request any proof of dissolution.
Once you receive a license you have 30 days to marry.
Chris and I took forty-eight hours.
“Dressing rooms, Flowers, Rings, Announcements, Witnessess Available, and Ample Parking,” Didion writes. “All of these services, like most others in Las Vegas… are offered twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, presumably on the premise that marriage, like craps, is a game to be played when the table seems hot.”
We married at 12:30 on Thursday the 9th in Room 226 of Shelby County Courthouse. Before us went a group that fit Didion’s description of “actual wedding parties… The bride in a veil and white satin pumps.” What would she make of my well-worn silk dress, fishnet stockings and vintage heels? Chris’s charcoal Merino sweater and Doc Martin Chelsea boots?
The judge twinkled and swished in his black satin robe. Potted plants with thick stems and dark, glossy leaves lined the window, tinting the bright, thin February light semitropical green. Beyond, a wind-scrubbed blue sky. I held Chris’s hand, bracing myself for a spasm of doubt that never came. My spine stretched like a tether drawn tight between my buoyant heart and the anchor of his touch. Tears softened the blaze of his cobalt eyes.
My name echoed like foreignly in my ear as I repeated the vows, but my tongue didn’t fumble.
“Will you love, honor and cherish… till death do you part?”
Walking to the car I found a way to hold my handbag so the wind didn’t froth my skirt. There were still forty-five minutes on the meter. “We should do something,” my husband said. So we went to our favorite taco spot for Prosecco and black-eyed pea hummus with corn chips.
‘Marrying Absurd’ appears in Didion’s classic essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Its eponymous centerpiece opens with this report: “The center was not holding…. Adolescents drifted from city to torn city, sloughing off both the past and the future as snakes shed their skins, children who were never taught and would never now learn the games that had held society together.”
Chris was born in Arkadelphia and lived in Salt Lake City as a baby. He was raised in Little Rock, branched out to Baltimore, bought and sold houses in Moline, Charlotte and Memphis, all while travelling 200-plus days a year. I lived at dozens of addresses in four countries by the time I was thirty. We live out of suitcases and send mail “care/of”. Movement is a choice, a manifestation of our mistrust in the games that are supposed to hold society together. Marriage is not, appearances notwithstanding, a contradictory choice. We’ve studied and sifted the claims of religion, society, and status quo. We spent long, separate years learning who we are, what we want, and what we are prepared to do. So we can take from ritual as much as has meaning to us, and leave the rest without regret.
Marrying is absurd. So are all acts of courage. For those of us whose accumulated experience of marriage veers from farce to disaster, to marry is to stake a claim to our own lives. Marriage is precious to us because we know how easy it is to fail, to fall apart. For us, to marry is a refusal to be defined by the past. It is a pledge to believe the best of one another. To say we’ll try again, no matter. To love again, love better.
This short story appears in the Erotic Review, where you’ll have to go to read the saucy bits.
Abe remembered as he pulled into the rest area. Too late. Sixteen years of habit die slow. He rested his right palm on the frayed Navajo-style passenger seat-cover, feeling the faint prickle of Geordie’s short, coarse hair trapped in the rough weave. It felt like the spiky-soft tips of grass sprouting on the grave beneath the ash tree.
Killing the engine, Abe shut his eyes. Geordie always smelled like swamp water. For the first weeks Abe was convinced the pup snuck into things: drains, garbage cans, trash heaps. But patient stalking revealed no miscreance. The goofy mutt was just an eventual 97 pounds of slobbering, soft-hearted, small-bladdered stinker. Picked a winner, Hazel would tease.
He was though: loyal, tireless, curious, protective, the folds of his part-boxer, part-hound face arranged in a permanent tragicomic mask that could make Abe smile on the worst days. Of course, Hazel was the one who cared for Geordie weeks at a stretch. He wished he’d been there more.
Dusk was bleeding the day of its heat but remnants splashed Abe’s legs as he crossed to the cafe-slash-convenience store. He went to pee, more out of habit than necessity, then bought a bottle of Dr Pepper and a pack of beef jerky, not admitting to himself that would probably be dinner.
Gnawing a stick of dried meat, he paused short of his truck. Someone had pulled in at a 40 degree angle, the vintage blue Corolla’s bumper almost nuzzling his door. Faded Mississippi plates, long deep scratches above the rear wheel, a palm-sized patch of bare metal on the hatchback, no driver, a jumble of boxes and plastic crates stacked to the ceiling. Someone in a hurry all right. Abe could think of a few reasons why that might be, none of which he wanted to get involved with.
Hazel had laughed at his proclivity for rescuing things: Geordie, abandoned cats (usually pregnant), injured birds, hitch-hikers, drifters. But he was tired. He could climb in the passenger side and go.
This originally appeared on Medium. It’s a subject close to my heart.
There are two kinds of people who give advice to writers: those who want better writing, and those who want payment.
Teachers, from the unsung heroes singing the ABCs with snotty toddlers to college professors hacking through forests of sophomoric prose, are mostly the former.
Once you venture beyond formal education, though, the search for guidance can lead straight into the slough of despond where some self-proclaimed guru will offer you the keys to the kingdom, on an installment plan. There are also wonderful writing teachers who ought to be paid for their time and expertise.
These five questions will help you to avoid hyenas and find legitimate guides —
1. Do non-writers read their books?
This is important because, if you’re going to take writing advice from someone, it might as well be an actual writer. Not someone who has set him/herself up as an expert on the basis of figuring out MailChimp.
When a writer who is read and loved by millions, like Ray Bradbury, E.B. White or Stephen King dispenses writing advice, I’m happy to pay.
2. Do they tell you how much they earn?
The above mentioned writers never, to my knowledge, sent emails to their readers bragging about their income. If a so-called writing guru leads by telling you how much they earn, it’s a con.
Writers can and do earn great salaries as writers. But if a person’s primary income stream is other writers s/he is a huckster, not a writer.
3. Do they promise you a secret formula?
Writers are wishful thinkers, in the best possible way. We wish to understand, report, illuminate, entertain, and above all connect. This fundamental optimism keeps us at the keyboard. It also makes us susceptible to slicks who claim to have discovered a secret to striking rich as a writer.
This prospect is pure mirage — and enticing as an oasis.
If someone really had the secret to endless, effortless cash from freelance writing clients s/he would simply enjoy the income. If the technique were valid and replicable, teaching it would create competition.
4. Do they try to up-sell you?
A writer who earns a comfortable primary income from writing shouldn’t be hustling. I’ve encountered sales pitches ranging from $199 for an online journalism course to $10,000 for one year of “mentoring”.
The give away, whether at the low or high end of the price scale, is the guru’s insistence that this is great value. Two online courses for the price of one! Access to a “community” (as if there aren’t a gazillion free writers forums and Facebook groups)! Cheaper than college! Cheaper than a weekend in Vegas! Only 20 percent of your annual income!
The people most likely to be tempted by dubious expertise are those worst-placed to pay these rates, which makes fake gurus opportunistic dickwads.
5. Do they tell you it’s all in your head?
Without fail, every single fake writing guru will preach some version of “failure is a mindset”.
PayScale data show only 10 percent of all writers earn more than $83,000 per year, meaning even fewer earn above the much-hyped six figure mark.
Failing to earn scads of money as a writer is not a mindset — it’s a reality.
The only people who tell you it’s all in your head are the ones who are ass-covering for the inevitable moment when you realize that over-priced bottle of secret sauce isn’t going to make you a millionaire.
Where to find the real thing
Don’t despair of getting sound, disinterested writing guidance— and don’t pay through the nose for it.
Sites like Funds for Writers and Freedom with Writing are a great way to learn about contests, publishers and grants.If you want advice on the craft of writing, hit the library or bookshop.
My favorite books on writing include:
Zen and the Art of Writing — Ray Bradbury
Bird by Bird — Anne Lamott
Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind — Natalie Goldberg
On Writing Well — William Zinsser
Steering the Craft — Ursula K. LeGuin
For honest first person advice, join a writing group or workshop, or take a class. Some of the best, wisest writers I know work in community colleges or extension programs, for little reward and less recognition, because they want other people to experience the life-altering power of writing.
Seek the positive
Writing should be a source of joy, even if it’s a job.
A writer worth listening to embraces both its struggles and its delights.
“Writing is survival,” Bradbury wrote. “Any art, any good work, of course, is that. …We must take arms each and every day, perhaps knowing that the battle cannot be entirely won, but fight we must, if only a gentle bout. The smallest effort to win means, at the end of each day, a sort of victory.”