Regrets… I’ve Had a Few

There’s been a lot of positive feedback on my previous post, and a lot of offers to participate — so I hope to keep bringing you guest posts from writers across the success spectrum about the kind of failure writers experience. I’ll start with my own.

I want to focus on the kind of failure Debbie Reese was talking about when she jumpstarted this — she referred to a game developers conference where developers speak frankly about failures (sometimes with huge losses of investment), and specifically about a game with Native American tropes that missed the mark. She had critiqued it while in progress, and the developer initially reacted to the critique with the defensiveness and defiance, he ultimately saw her point and grew from it.

It’s important to learn from criticism, especially coming from historically marginalized groups. It is also completely natural to be frustrated by it, defensive, defiant, upset, and annoyed. You spend untold hours working on something creative and it only takes a few minutes for someone to shred it. When a book is already published, there’s not even much you can do about the offense it causes, making it that much easier to push back. But it stunts you as an artist not to listen to feedback. Charlie Chaplin said that artists should actively seek out rejection, and abandon the need to be liked. Part of that is listening to criticism and mulling it over, and part of it is learning to critique yourself in a constructive way.

I have three regrets (and I would probably have more if I thought about it).

First, I have some Native American backstory in my first book, Mudville, and feel like those characters are real and vital to the book. Because such legends figure into the fantasy of the midwest, I felt like I was on firm soil. I got mixed reactions from readers, though, and in particularly upset a woman who had helped me with the Dakota language and cultural aspects as I put the book together. I don’t know what I would do differently were I to start over: drop that backstory all together? Make it more essential? As it is, I can see how readers feel it’s tacked on, appropriating a culture in a half-hearted way, without much sensitivity to the terrible treatment Dakota people have had in this region. At best, I see myself like the school bully at a 20-year high school reunion, throwing his arm amiably around old victims and acting like those episodes of bullying were harmless shared capers that we indulged in together. “We’re cool, right?”

Second, I’ve written previously about Binyavanga Wainaina’s essay, “How to Write About Africa,” and how my own book about Africa measures up. I feel like I failed here to know the tropes well enough to avoid them. I patted myself on the back for writing a positive book (and still think those books are necessary), but live with the fact that I fell into the familiar role of white colonist, having the most important African characters be (a) a wild animal, and (b) the sage, magical character. I did a lot right in the book and it’s still my favorite; it is honest about my own experience, but if I had discovered Wainaina’s article before I launched into the book I might have done something even better, something less reliant on cliches.

Third, I think perhaps my biggest regret in any of my books is not making Penny the main character in Winter of the Robots. She’s my favorite character in the book, and both strategically and for the benefit of the girls of the world, I wish I could have said, “this is about a girl who has a knack for programming robots,” and made that the core of the book. If I ever write a sequel, that will be it. As it turned out, even with two girl characters asserting themselves, they take a backseat to the boys when it comes to building and developing the robots and fighting the battles. (OK, one literally drives with the boys in the back seat, but nobody’s going to be fooled by that one scene.)

All of these figure into how I approach books now. More beta readers from other backgrounds is essential, more attention to the way “others” are treated, more challenges to myself to not settle for my instinctive plot lines that are informed by a literary history of white men.

It’s self-serving. I admit to the failures so I can write better books.


How to Fail

I was led (via Twitter) by an educator named Debbie Reese, one of the people on the forefront of “We Need Diverse Books,” to a series of workshops on failure at an annual conference for game developers. As the article says:

[At a gaming conference] there is a strong success bias – you are not going to hear a lot of companies trumpet their failures. Failure, however, can be often be more instructive than success.

The same can be said of writing conferences. The keynotes are writers with “New York Times Bestelling Author” in front of their names, with awards and movie adaptations. We don’t see the worst-sellers speaking, but they have more wisdom — they know how to brace themselves for another disappointment, how to keep writing when you can’t make a living at it, and how to soldier on through a manuscript that might never find a single reader. They’ve weathered the storms and survived and can now tell us, like the wretched old man in that poem, about the albatross of regret.

Failure can mean lots of things in writing. A book that didn’t get published, a book that published and didn’t sell, a book that sold but got lambasted by reviewers, or even a book that did well on all accounts but still makes the writer cringe. There are PR disasters, author events where nobody shows, terrible interviews, and (for my crowd) school visits that make the author want to hit every bar on the way home.

But failures, mistakes, and bad experiences are learning experiences, and here is what I want to do: I want to destigmatize failure. I want writers to talk about their failures frankly, and what they learned from them.

I am going to make this a series, but won’t put an end point on it. One thing I’ve learned from past failures (remember the Mark Twain blog?) is to take these things slow.

But I’m going to put this idea out there now and solicit future interviewees or guest bloggers who can write about failure. It doesn’t even have to be about writing. Leave a comment or send me a message.

I am going to kick things off with my own story in a day or two.


Futuristic Cities

The other day my son had some of those blocks out — you know the ones that have cylinders and triangles and little bridges? He wanted to build a city, and as we stacked them I thought, “that looks like a city from the future,” and then I felt sad, because I used to believe in cities of the future, and now I’m pretty sure we’re all doomed. We’re running of fresh water, running out of breathable air, running out of sea creatures, and running out of rain forest. Our “cities of the future” are small tribes of people trying to eke food and water out of a planet than can no longer sustain human life.

Maybe it won’t be THAT bad, but one thing we’ll never recover is the zeal of the early 20th Century, when we thought we would just keep innovating and progressing and create this uberworld of modernity.

All of this went through my head in a split second.

Three Degrees Below Freezing

When the days are warm and the nights are cold, you find the morning puddles liquid and bubbly below a shield of ice. As a child you would walk flat across that ice and watch the trapped air slide around beneath your feet; you would feel the puddle’s skin sag slightly, not breaking, and you’d reach dry pavement before it gave way. In retrospect, it may have been one of life’s greatest pleasures: testing the ice, on those perfect spring mornings, before age and weight took over, and you began to crush everything with your heavier tread, when you suffered through a day with wet sneakers for trying, when you began to navigate around the puddles, first with a pang of loss, and then never noticing them anymore, at least not until your own child discovered them and did the same.

At times like these when everybody seems to be hurrying, their faces reflected in little black mirrors, and nobody sees the iced-over puddles or one another, I wish we could all be small again and play the ice game. Surely everybody else has also trod on thin ice, and known the immortal feeling of being slight, of being buoyed up by ice, of literally walking on air; and everybody, too, knows that growing up ruins everything; they’ve had cold wet feet and stopped wearing the wrong kinds of shoes and they’ve stopped seeing puddles. If we were all small again, we’d all play the ice game, and then we’d grab up the black bricks of ice-dirt that seem to remain in the gutters well into April, and rediscover the joy of heaving them to the sidewalk. We wouldn’t care about splashback or dirty hands; it’s worth it to see those bricks shatter before us, the back oozing away as the ice scatters into sparkling shards.

What I’ve Been Doing

Kids playing baseballFourteen months ago I started an ambitious writing project — ambitious because it would be set in a foreign country; one where I have not lived or even visited: The Dominican Republic.

It was supposed to be about an aspiring baseball player growing up on the streets of San Pedro de Macorís, “The Cradle of Shortstops.” It is still about him, but it is also about a sensitive American girl named Maya who takes an interest in the same player, years later when he is in the minor leagues and struggling. It is about a baseball blogger named Grace, and a Haitian girl named Bijou, and it’s about bees.

I’ve learned a lot from the writing. I’ve learned a bit of Spanish and a heck of a lot about the D.R. I’ve come to think of it with the same fondness and familiarity as places I’ve lived.

It’s really different from my other books. I was inspired by the likes of Beverly Cleary and Gary Paulsen to write with more emotional frankness, abandoning the masters-program-learned habit of using subtle hints at hidden feelings. I wrote in the third person instead of the first person, and there are two point-of-view characters instead of one. I let the characters and their decisions drive all the plot turns, and it makes for a less eventful book than the last few, with their marauding robots and invasive fungi, but there are still some twists and turns and reveals. And, for what it’s worth, there is not a single white boy in the story.

I don’t know if the rest of the world will love this book, but it’s I’m glad I wrote it and I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done and in any case I’m stuck with it now. I finished it last night.

(Photo from Living Learning on Flickr)

Finders Keepers

I just finished a class (as a student) on picture book writing taught by Stephanie Watson (you should check her out, especially the comics about her daughter). One week we all brought in some favorite picture books, and I brought in Beekle, Knuffle Bunny, and Wild About You. I realized during the class that these three books really tell the same story: stories of finding and keeping. Maybe there was something profound and meaningful in my selections, something that betrays some aspect of my psychology. There is no self-knowledge like accidental self-knowledge. I have been thinking about “finders” and “keepers” ever since.

Last week I was asked to write a story for an anthology. I am eager to participate but didn’t have any stories lying around, so I went into my vast disorganized mess of unfinished and unpublished drafts in hopes of finding something to spruce up. I found an abandoned beginning of a novel that read like a story and seemed to fit the needs of the anthology perfectly. It was from the winter of 13-14, and the only bit I’d typed up from a notebook I’d filled with longhand to break through a writing block. The notebook is basically a novel, or at least a plan for a novel, but I’d lost it and realized the perils of writing longhand.

I had thought of it longingly but thought it was all lost, and didn’t remember typing up any of it. So first I found an excerpt I didn’t remember typing, and today my wife found the notebook, which had been hiding for a year, and it’s all there. I am in the final stages of a project that has taken over a year to finish and here is the next thing, ready to be taken up. Rarely are findings so magically timed.

Meanwhile, in the space of a week we went from parkas to jacketless outings. The snow is gone and the ice has melted. The world is full of sunshine. Everybody I meet seems to be happy. Everything is touched by magic.


Unimaginary Friends

First came Biggy and Buggy, who were ants. Then came Fuzzypants the tiger. Now there is Robot Doggy and Pirate Puppy.

pirate puppy

Pirate Puppy is an invisible dog. And he likes to eat cake and strawberries and today is his birthday.

When we were opening invisible presents Pirate Puppy jumped out of one and he had a pirate hat so I knew he was a pirate puppy.

We don’t know where he lives. His job is fighting off bad guys. His job is fighting off pirates. He’s a pirate too but he is a good guy.

With his menagerie of invisible pals, I wondered how Byron would respond this year’s Caldecott Medal winner, Dan Santat’s The Adventures of Beekle The Unimaginary Friend (aka Beekle). The premise and execution are more visual than a description would do justice, but in a nutshell, Beekle is an imaginary friend waiting, and then searching, for his child.

beekleCute, I thought, but I wondered if Byron would be confused or upset by the use of the word “imaginary.” His invisible friends are real (just ask him) and he gets upset if you use that word.

He sat riveted and delighted through all of Beekle, loving the illustrations and giving it good reviews (“That was funny. Read it again.”), but he did want to discuss it. Why were these friends called imaginary? Why were they visible?

I finally solved this problem by saying Beekle and the other invisible friends were shown as visible in the picture book so it wouldn’t be a bunch of blank pages. Artists can do whatever they want, I said. They can make invisible things visible. They show how things would look if we could see them. And I told him “imaginary” was not always the opposite of “real.”

harveyByron’s invisible friends are more than make-believe companions. They allow him to improvise stories, to express his moral leanings, to negotiate reality with others. I don’t think they’re inspired, essentially, by being lonely. They’re more complicated than that and multifaceted, involving Byron’s sense of self and the world.

I think the whole thing is pretty fascinating and wish I had an invisible friend of my own.