I talked in paragraphs at fourteen months, and I haven’t shut up since. Most people don’t realize, because I usually keep my words inside my head, ready to be tapped. As I created my first novel, I wrote with confidence, trusting my collection of sounds, phrases, suffixes, sentences — until Chapter 37, when I found myself locked in battle with one word.
I chose the title Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable from my high school and its motto. Over the strong objections of my parents, I transferred from a college prep academy to the local public school. Mom and Dad were appalled when I insisted on trading a stellar academic curriculum, a gorgeous campus with state of the art science labs and tennis courts, for a school that struggled to afford textbooks. To this day, I’m grateful to my parents for trusting me at fourteen — sitting before them in ratty jeans, dark blonde hair slightly tangled, fumbling to explain that my horizon needed to stretch.
Hollywood High opened my world — over 40 native languages uniting to form an extremely diverse community. I volunteered to tutor in math and English, and suddenly being a hyper-nerd was viewed by my peers as valuable. Who knew.
But one aspect of Hollywood High haunted me: the violence targeting gay students.
I wrote about high school in reaction to the bullying I witnessed. As I created the fictional story, factual images flooded back full throttle. I remembered the pack of athletes chanting “F – -”, surrounding a boy, shouting until he cried. I could picture the group of popular teens snickering as two guys walked by in heels. I could see the girl who casually took my arm and told me, smiling sweetly, that she heard a gay student had been beaten to death by football players. Actually she didn’t say “gay student”; she used the same word the pack of athletes chanted.
Decades later, several drafts into writing Hollywood High, Chapter 37 was putting up a fight. I had launched a key character on a homophobic rant, and I decided he needed to speak the same word that the athletes and the gossip-girl had used. No problem — except my hands wouldn’t cooperate. I sat poised, fingers hovering over the keys, unable to type. But like I said, no problem, because I had zillions of words floating around my head. I swapped out the offensive word and tried another, and another. But at that specific moment in the story, at that point in the character’s development, no other word made sense. Again, no problem…except I couldn’t do it.
I gave myself a firm talk: snap out of it — nobody said writing was easy — homophobia is brutal and my language has to match the severity. I hit the “F” key. I steeled myself, and hit the “A”…and I couldn’t complete the word. Every time I tried to type the “G”, I was transported to tenth grade. I felt the same queasy dread, cold-sweat panic, deer-in-headlights paralysis. Caught in a time warp, I could hear that word shouted, see the boy fighting for composure, feel my own composure break when he lost.
I wish I could go back, because now I’d know what to do. I’d shoulder my way through the crowd, and stand with that boy. I’d establish a gay-straight alliance, and send the athletes, popular kids and gossip-girl invitations to join. I’d approach the school’s outstanding drama department, and offer to sponsor a play to educate people, try to plant the seeds of empathy. If they couldn’t find a play, I’d write one. I’d coordinate with other organizations at school to stand against bullying, and I’d reach out to other schools as well. I’d ask my friends on the school newspaper if they’d write a piece. I’d bring as many people together as I could. And as I filled my head with wishes, I felt my writing process unlock. My character needed to say that hateful word (actually twice), but I didn’t need to replay the worst of high school. Now, each time my character tried to speak, I’d bring in another character to interrupt him. I needed the “F” and the “A”, but I didn’t need the “G”.
This time, I stopped that word in its tracks.