Tag Archives: Writing

Tears And College Applications

“I shouldn’t cry.”

(Why not?)

“I’m sorry.”

(You’re not doing anything wrong.)

“You can leave the room if you want.”

(Why in the world would I want to do that?)

For several years, I’ve coached high school seniors on writing their college application essays. Every student is different, and my job is to help them bring out their unique voices. The tools of my trade are simple: Laptop, pen, paper. But one tool is deceptively complex: I always provide, prominently displayed, a large box of tissues.

Many students cry, and tears are often an important part of their writing process. Their tears make sense. They’re stepping forward, trying out a new level of autonomy, facing a strange world. It’s scary, filled with potential, brimming with emotion. Most are surprised to find themselves crying, and they’re mortified. They apologize (“I’m sorry”). They’re embarrassed (“I shouldn’t cry.”) They assume I’m uncomfortable and offer me an escape hatch (“You can leave the room if you want.”). But I assure them that if there are tears, there’s also heart. And if there’s heart, there’s a wonderful, moving essay waiting to be tapped.

Crying takes different forms for different people. Sometimes my students become choked up, or their eyes fill with tears — a fleeting moment, and then composure. Sometimes they need to take a break, racked with sobs. Sometimes they write as they cry. Most important, I always encourage them not to fight the tears. Instead, I guide them to follow their own tears to their deepest internal source, and then bring that source back to the surface, into the words that will shape their essays. If they’re fighting their own tears, they’re fighting their own selves.

Not all students cry; their source grows from a different part of their emotional core. But for those who cry, the source of their tears invariably leads to an essay of authenticity and character. Their tears are valuable, an unerring guide. Their essays sing, chant, speak, whisper, shout.

The process of writing is often an experience of tremendous personal growth. In our initial meeting, students usually arrive stressed and overwhelmed; in our final meeting, they’re completely surprised by the empowerment they own. They grow before my eyes, simultaneously fawn-like and mature. I’m so honored to be a part of each journey.

It moves me to tears.

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For Writers

I’ve found the perfect career.

Since I began my second career as a novelist, I’ve felt a magnetic pull, drawing me into the process of writing. Words to sentences to paragraphs, I built a blog and completed two novels. I discovered the vulnerability, fear, validation, triumph of publishing. The positive reviews were exhilarating, but even the negative reviews felt oddly affirming, a necessary part of the experience. I figured my credentials were in order, and I was officially an author.

But apparently, I’m officially retired.

Since I began writing, countless folks have opened conversations, variations on the same theme:

“I want to be a writer.”

Amy: “I love writing.”

“Yeah, it’s the perfect career.”

Amy: unable to contain her smile, discovering a kindred spirit.

“I mean, I have a real job, but some day I want to retire and write.”

Amy: radiant smile growing dimmer.

“Being a writer is perfect. You sit in a comfortable chair.”

Sometimes, the tone is matter-of-fact. More often, the words are laced with underlying condescension, as though my taking my writing seriously is a joke. Setting aside my annoyance, it’s a fascinating cultural commentary. With so many professing to be “avid readers,” I wonder how these folks think books are made — apparently by people parked on soft cushions, doing nothing.

When I hear these comments, I try to understand their perspective. A good book reads with a rhythm and flow that sweeps the reader into a current. If reading feels effortless, then I suppose it’s a logical conclusion that writing is effortless as well.

But it’s not.

It’s hard to argue the point without sounding bitter or whiny. In fact, I feel neither. Mainly, I feel curious about the gap between the common perception of writing, and the actual experience. I know how much thought I put into my work. I know I lie awake at night, puzzling over one word. I know how many hours go into each manuscript. Any good work is the result of hard-core effort. Yes, I love writing and yes, I feel grateful for the opportunity to write. I’m happy in my work but yes, it is actual work. Maybe it’s in the job description, and I missed the fine print: being an ongoing joke is a part of a writer’s career trajectory.

So I’m signing off, returning to my perfect career. I’m holding my laptop, seated in my favorite chair, diving into a process I can’t defend. An invisible window opens within, and a force deeper than consciousness begins to stir. I wait, trusting the tendrils that I can feel as they reach toward the surface. I concentrate as thoughts clarify themselves, begin to take form. The shape evolves into a structure with a pulse, an extension of my own heartbeat. I wander through a vast field of language, choosing sounds, dissonance, cadence.

After six minutes or six hours, I stretch and take a short break. Then I sit back down and do it again, and again, and again.

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Fifty Shades Of Banned

Let’s celebrate a few books which have been deemed unfit for human consumption. The Catcher In The Rye (J.D. Salinger). The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck). To Kill A Mockingbird (Harper Lee), Catch-22 (Joseph Heller). The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins). Harry Potter — the entire series (J.K. Rowling). The Perks Of Being A Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky).

Each of these works has been labeled A Threat. The issues that offend people include sex, drugs, religion, values. A club will always exist whose members decide that if a book contains material that makes them uncomfortable, then the solution lies in a two-pronged attack. First, condemn the book as evil. Second, make it go away.

The Fifty Shades trilogy (E.L. James) has also been banned, and I thought the first book was excellent. When I tell people I’ve read these novels, they often express surprise that I’d admit it (which I find amusing). But they’re more surprised by my reaction. I think E.L. James is extremely talented at describing sex and sexual situations. Any good writing is difficult and as an author, I respect her talent tremendously. My problem lies in the second and third books in the series. James describes a psychotherapist who glaringly lacks boundaries and ethics. The doctor “bids” on his patient’s girlfriend at a fundraiser and literally buys her for a dance. He regularly attends social events hosted by the patient’s family. He accepts a referral from his patient, and then discusses one patient with another.

As a therapist who practiced for over 25 years before becoming an author, I dealt with the stigma on a regular basis. I’m angered by a book which feeds the stereotype, and worsens the problem. However, I would never suggest banning the trilogy. If I don’t like the books, I can choose not to read them, or not to recommend them. Even though I strongly believe that E.L. James promotes a damaging stereotype, I would stand with her, just as I would stand with other banned authors whose values I fully support.

Likewise, I loved the entire Harry Potter series, but I’m appalled by J.K. Rowling’s apparent need to indulge in transphobic rants. I’m saddened, outraged, and struggling to reconcile the values of acceptance depicted in her novels with her intolerance. I can choose to never again purchase one of her novels, but I’d never support banning her books.

As a novelist, I know that “Author” and “Universal Popularity” do not belong in the same sentence. My books are extremely supportive of the LGBTQ+ community, which I’m aware brings some people to view them as Should-Be-Banned. If my novels were ever placed on a “Banned List,” I’d be deeply angered and saddened. I’d also be honored to be affiliated with the writers in this eclectic group.

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No Big Deal

Preparing to publish my first novel (Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable), I searched for the correct genre.

Although sex and sexuality play key roles in the story, there are no descriptions of steamy foreplay, not one pounding orgasm. A few lose their virginity, but the act occurs off camera, conspicuously minus the DirtyDancing-esque scene where “Baby” loses IT to her dance instructor in a miraculous first experience: no awkwardness, no nervousness, no pain, smoothly choreographed from tender start to climactic finish.  So forget Romance and Erotica genres.

As for Paranormal — no character turns out to be a vampire, werewolf or zombie.  The protagonists, antagonists, stars and supporting players are unmistakably human. No Family-Genus-Species variety, whatsoever.

While the book takes place in the 1973-’74 school year (ancient history from the perspective of today’s adolescents), it does not qualify as Historical Fiction. And although Caroline (the protagonist) experiences Hollywood High as an alien world, the book does not merit Dystopia.

I wrote Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable in reaction to the violence I witnessed, targeting the gay students. I created the story in support of the LGBTQ+ community, and as a voice against bullying. The novel unfolds through the eyes of Caroline, a 15-year-old girl, a straight LGBTQ+ ally. Her friendship group is bound by personal connections, rather than an are-you-gay-or-straight litmus test. Her inner circle includes boys and girls, from differing religious and socio-economic backgrounds, racially and sexually diverse.

Like many adults, I remember my high school years with high-voltage clarity: how the asphalt in Hollywood High’s quad became sticky in the heat – how we were incapable of stringing together a sentence without cursing – how the hallway walls reverberated with high volume as we herded from one class to another – how we forced ourselves to appear absolutely certain, although we felt absolutely confused all the time.  I remember the first time I saw blood in a gang fight, and the casually vicious hatred directed at the gay students. I also remember the gifted educators, role models for both education and decency, tireless in their dedication – and the students I met who showed an adolescent version of those same gifts.

The other day, a college freshman told me he liked my book, but was puzzled by the Gay and Lesbian genre. He hadn’t thought of the story as focusing on LGBTQ+ issues. He’s quite right, in that Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable is a story about decency and friendship. It’s about the dangers of unchecked bigotry. No huge division exists between the gay and straight characters. Both are presented as equally important and entirely normal — or in the words of my young friend, “no big deal.”

My novel is listed on Amazon as Literary Fiction, Coming of Age, Gay and Lesbian, Young Adult.  When my readers finish my novel, their most common questions (aside from Did-That-Really-Happen?) address genre. How can the category be Gay and Lesbian when there are so many straight characters? Why is the main character straight, but the plot has so many gay and lesbian issues?  Is my “target group” of readers gay or straight?

I hope that some day, if Gay and Lesbian remains a genre, the category will exist due to human interest, not due to the marginalization of a group. People are much too nuanced for simplified categories, and marginalizing is always a terrible mistake, damaging and hurtful on every level, for all of us.

Perhaps some books are meant for a clear “genre.” But some won’t easily fit into a category, and it seems my book is one of those.  What’s my genre? All of the above…and I have no idea. Or maybe, in this case, it’s “no big deal.”

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