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Archive for the ‘love’ Category

I’ve talked publicly about my hate mail, but today I want to talk about something that continues to give me joy, and renders hate mail irrelevant. Fan mail is great. It’s lovely to get letters from folks who connected with the book and wrestled with the issues it tackles.

The letters that get to me, though, aren’t necessarily fan mail. They’re usually longer than my other letters and emails, because these stories require more words. These are from people who didn’t just sympathize with Wavy and Kellen. These are from people who say, “This was me.”

People who know what it’s like to be in a relationship that everybody else looks down on. What it’s like to be in love with someone who is way too young or way too old for you, according to our society’s standards. What it’s like to lie about that relationship for years or sometimes your whole life. What it’s like to lose that relationship. What it’s like to finally make it legitimate.

People who’ve had to listen while others lectured them. Who’ve been told they must be confused, because they were too young to consent or even understand their feelings. Who’ve been told they need counseling. People who’ve been forcibly labeled a victim, and even as adults been refused even the most basic dignity of being believed.

If you’re out there, feeling those things, you’re not the only one.

When I met him, I was ten and he was nineteen, starts one of the letters I’ve received. I knew immediately that he was The One, even though it took us more than fifteen years to be together.

From another letter: We were twelve years apart and we never got to be together, because everyone said I was too young.

And another: On my eighteenth birthday, I went to his house and said, “I’ve been in love with you since I was thirteen years old.” He said, “I know. I’ve been waiting for you.” We got married three years later–it took us that long to bring my parents around. In February, we celebrated his fortieth birthday and our fifth anniversary.

Not all of them go the way you think they will: She was twenty-five and I was fourteen. She moved away because she was ashamed. She thought it was wrong to feel that way about me. Two years ago, I found her and wrote a letter. She had been married and divorced twice. She said she never got over me. If I wasn’t in prison, we would be together now.

Some of them just about break my heart. I felt like a horrible old pervert when I fell in love with her. Like in Lolita. She was only thirteen and I was over thirty. We were fast friends all through her high school years, and I always played the avuncular neighbor. She got married in my backyard. I’m her son’s godfather. When she was thirty-two she was diagnosed with cancer. After her health declined, she moved back home, next door to me. One day I brought by food and flowers from my backyard. Her parents went to the store and left us alone together. She confessed that she had always been in love with me, but her mother had shamed her out of saying so on the eve of her wedding a decade before. You can probably imagine what my answer was. Two weeks later, I lost the only woman I’ve ever loved to cancer. There is still a hole in my heart from everything that was destroyed by doubt and fear. I’m seventy-three now, still a bachelor. She would be fifty-five, and no one would give us so much as a sideways glance if we were married.

These are just a few of the stories people have shared with me (and agreed to have shared), and the reason they shared them with me is simple. My book has let them know that they’re not alone. They’re not the only one who has experienced this kind of relationship. Some of my readers have carried that shame or heartbreak or even joy in secret for years.

This is one more reminder that stories matter, especially stories that we see ourselves in. It’s a reminder, too, that writing is risk. When I wrote All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, I didn’t know what people would think. I knew that some people would hate the book and me by extension, but I also know the story was true for me. I told it as honestly as I could, and I knew that alongside the haters, there would also be readers for whom the story was true. I knew I wasn’t the only one.

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It’s one of the best Valentine’s Day gifts I’ve ever received: a box of advance reader copies of my new book.
bookfort

Naturally, having received the love from my publisher, I want to spread the love on to my readers. So this blog post kicks off a series of giveaways that I’ll be doing over the next six months as I wait for the book to be released.

To see all the ways you can enter to win the first ARC and a trinket–your choice of a necklace or a keychain–visit the full giveaway site.

But the first step starts here. If you follow my blog, you can enter by commenting on this post and telling me what your favorite love story is. Do you love tragic and doomed like Romeo and Juliet? Do you love tragic but then requited like Maurice? Are you a Pride and Prejudice reader or a fan of Gone with the Wind? Wuthering Heights or Like Water for Chocolate?

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things is ultimately a love story, because for me, those are often the stories that shape our lives. Who we love, how we love, what we’ll do to be with the one we love. So tell me about yours and you might win a copy.

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In America, we tend to celebrate birthdays as a triumph over the sneaky, dark forces of mortality. One more year! I survived another year! As the saying goes, “Getting older is better than the alternative.”

When people die and stop getting older, often we keep celebrating their birthdays. Each year ceases to be a tick mark of longevity and becomes a tally of absence. So many years without a loved one. So many years since a celebrity departed. If you’re famous enough and dead long enough, eventually maybe we’ll turn your birthday into a national holiday. Later we’ll rearrange it to suit our schedule.

As you get older, the collection of ghost birthdays in your life grows larger and larger until you risk bumping into one at every turn. In October, I’ll observe my pop’s birthday for the first time without him, and my grandmother’s birthday after more than a decade without her. In November, my granddad’s birthday, two decades gone now, a thing unfathomable to me when that first ghost birthday came.

Rilya Wilson

The birthday girl

Today, the 29th of September, I observe the ghost birthday of Rilya Wilson. Today is her 18th birthday, the 14th since she went missing. I never met her, but I have spent a lot of time thinking about her, since I first read about her disappearance from a Florida foster home. At the time, I was working at a domestic violence shelter in Tampa, and my day-to-day interactions with victims of abuse gave me little hope that Rilya was alive. I’d seen how a flash of anger could break a child’s arm, or black her eye, or permanently damage his spine. I could imagine the ease with which an adult could purposefully or negligently kill a child. A kick, a punch, a “punishment” that went to far.

In some ways, it is this ghost birthday that clings to me more fiercely than any other. My grandparents are safely buried after long lives. My pop is still a fresh grief, but I keep part of him in a little jar on my kitchen window sill. Rilya is lost, her life cut short, and I want to be sure someone thinks about her on her birthday. Thanks for reading this and helping me do that.

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It didn’t take long for the initial reports out of Miami to turn into a roar of “Zombie Apocalypse!” People didn’t even wait to hear the details. Give us a man eating another man’s face and we will run with it, even if it requires us to make a joke out of what looks like a tragedy in the cold light of day. Why?

Because we need stories. As zombies love brains, as meat loves salt, people love narrative. We thrive on narrative, because it holds back chaos. It introduces order and meaning and structure. Narrative is at the heart of religion, for example. Humans invented religion to explain things they didn’t understand. Not sure what lightning is? Make a story about a god who uses it to punish people. Voila! Order out of chaos. Not sure what happens after we die? Frightened by the uncertainty? A good story explains away the uncertainty. Don’t worry, you’ll come to a river, where you’ll have to pay a boatmen to ferry you across. If you’ve been good, you’ll go to a beautiful meadow. If you’ve been bad, you’ll go to terrible place of torment.

Without narrative, we have to stare down the chaos of life. Instead of zombie apocalypse and its offer of freedom and survival of the cleverest, we end up with some unfortunate man with a patchy history of bad and desperate behavior who took a drug and did terrible thing, and it means nothing. That’s one of the scariest phrases in the English language–it means nothing. That’s why as crazy as it sounds, we like the idea of “zombie apocalypse” better than we like the sound of “random act of gruesome violence.”

Fear of meaninglessness is why people start charities. To honor a loved one who died of cancer. To protect people from the fate of a loved one killed in a drunk driving accident or a kidnapping or some other horrible, random act. The stunned and wounded people the dead leave behind want death to mean something. They don’t want it to be brutish and random and meaningless.

And so narrative becomes the savior. Random horrible death becomes a story. The cancer victim becomes a valiant hero whose death will encourage others to walk for a cure! (Until bad PR causes problems with that narrative.) The guy with his face eaten off, he’s the start of the long-awaited zombie apocalypse!

This is why I laugh at people who bemoan the encroachments of reality television. As though it were reality.  Other people complain that reality television is scripted. The outrage! You mean the producers are manipulating the show to produce more drama? They’re–dare I say it–crafting a narrative? Kim & Kris weren’t really in love? They were just acting?

Our love of narrative is the reason we will never tire of telling stories. Books aren’t dead. Cinema isn’t dying. Yes, it’s probably going to change, but not so much we won’t be able to recognize it. Sleep for a thousand years and return to civilization and there will still be stories you recognize. In fact, they’re likely to be the same stories told a thousand years ago, even if we use new technologies to tell them. Stories will never end, because we need them to understand our own chaotic lives.

You mean it’s not real?!?! NOOOOOOOO!!!!!

To my mind, one of the more interesting things about “reality tv” is that it’s all about the self-narrative. The characters create themselves as the show goes on. Like deeply imbedded improvisation. I know that as a culture we like to dismiss reality tv stars as narcissists, but imagine what it would be like to have a TV crew filming your life. Think of the ways that your life could be manipulated to tell a cohesive narrative arc. Think of how you would want to create and reveal your own character. For extra credit, consider what kinds of freedom to do and say what you want might be born out that scripted narrative. Show your work.

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I’m in the midst of working on a revision of Thirteen for an agent, which has left me with a few blanks that need filling in. This is a scene I wrote over the weekend to try to fill one of those gaps.

***

I closed the door in Renee’s face, but she opened it back up. We glared at each until she said, “You’re a coward, Wavy Quinn.”

In sixth grade I was too old to fall for that trick. I was still too old. I flipped her off and reached for the door knob, but Renee held her ground.

“You say you’re done with Kellen, but then you’re not even brave enough to go on a date with anyone else. And you can pretend that you’re not ready or whatever, but the truth is, you’re not brave enough.” She said it all in a low voice, so I knew Joshua was still in the front room, waiting for me to go on a date I was sure I’d never agreed to.

“Pot calling kettle,” I said.

“That is such bullshit. Show me one time I was a coward about love.”

She thought she was bulletproof. She thought recklessness was the same thing as bravery. I stepped past her into the hall and walked toward the kitchen. Renee came after me.

In the front room, we passed Joshua, who looked confused. Not a Kellen kind of confused, where he was always worried he’d misunderstood or done or said something wrong. A pretty college boy kind of confused, where he thought someone else had made a mistake.

I stopped in front of the fridge and Renee was under such a head of steam that she bumped into my back when I did.

“You can’t just walk away from this. You can’t spend your whole life pining for someone who doesn’t even want you.”

I ignored that. It wasn’t anything I could bear to think about.

The napkin with Darrin’s phone number was right where Renee had put it. At the party, she took it from him with a smile and said, “Yeah, I’d love to go out.” Two weeks later it was still stuck to the fridge. She hadn’t called him. He wasn’t her type. He was a custodian and he wasn’t pretty. Not like Joshua. The other reason he wasn’t her type: he was too nice. Not enough drama. Not enough heartbreak.

I jerked the napkin off the fridge, sending the magnet flying. When I pinned the napkin to Renee’s chest with my forefinger, she made a surprised little O with her mouth.

“Coward,” I said.

She smirked.

“Fine. You go out with Joshua and I’ll call Darrin. Deal?”

“Deal.”

“And you have to try, Wavy. You can’t just sit there like stone until he gives up. You have to try like it’s a real date or it doesn’t count.” Renee knew me.

I passed Joshua on the way back to my room to get my purse.

“Is there a problem?” he said.

I didn’t bother to answer. He was the problem. I’d be done with him soon enough. I came back with my purse and stood in front of him. He was going to have take me as I was, in the clothes I wore to work and with my hair a little greasy.

“Ready,” I said.

We walked out past Renee, who gave me a suspicious look. She could suspect whatever she wanted, as long as she kept her half of the deal.

 

***

While Joshua drove, I looked at him out of the corner of my eye. Renee said he was “gorgeous.” She talked about him like he was a statue. David standing naked in a museum in Italy. I thought he was boring. Like a mannequin in a store. Better to look at a blank wall than to look at him. I also didn’t understand why he didn’t shave. Everything else about him was neat — hair, hands, clothes–and then the whiskers.

He took me to a nice restaurant, I guess because that’s what people do on dates. I’d taken Kellen to a restaurant before, but it was how I knew we were here on the strength of Joshua’s ego. I never would have agreed to go out to eat with someone who was basically a stranger. Never.

But there I was, sitting across from him, with a menu open, watching him talk. That was how it felt, too. A silent movie, his mouth opening and closing, his teeth neat and white, but no sound coming out. I could only focus on some of the things he said. The rest of me was too busy cataloging the ways in which he wasn’t Kellen.

“So, what are you thinking of having?” Joshua said.

“I’m not that hungry.”

He laughed. “Girls always say that.”

I could imagine Renee saying that. On dates, she ordered salads and then came home starving and ate a whole pizza by herself.

At least I liked the restaurant. Aunt Brenda had taken me there before. They had good teriyaki chicken with ginger and pineapple, and they put your leftovers in nice to-go containers. Not crappy Styrofoam boxes. They made it pretty when you took it away.

After I closed my menu the waiter came. I gave him my big smile, to make him pay attention, so that he would look at my menu when I tapped it. You really don’t have to talk much in everyday life. If you’re careful, if you learn the tricks to make people watch. That way you can save your words for important things. Sometimes just “yes” or “no.” Or “ranch” when the waiter wants to know what dressing I want on my salad. Which I didn’t want. I shook my head.

“No dressing?” the waiter said.

Then Joshua ordered and the waiter left us alone.

“So, Wavy,” Joshua said. His teeth really were perfect. He probably had braces when he was younger. “I think your name is so cool. Kind of hippy, but not like Moon Unit or something like that.”

It was a good thing I didn’t talk much, because what was I supposed to say to that? I’m glad you like my name. The man I love gave it to me. That probably wasn’t good date conversation. That was just me being impossible. Aunt Brenda said that about me. So did Renee some days. You’re impossible! I agreed. Most days I was impossible. Like a unicorn.

 

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Writing about The City of Lost Children and little girls’ notions of romance has made me think about a star-crossed love affair from my own childhood.

I thought I was over the loss, but I wasn’t.  When what you had was a secret and what you lost equally secret, you don’t ever get to grieve.

To avoid grieving, I’d half-convinced myself I never felt the things I felt.  When I finally acknowledged it, I was like Doubting Thomas, touching the wound in my own side for proof.  I thought it would be unbearably painful, but it wasn’t.  It turned out to be a relief and full of joy.

My Secret Twin

My Secret Twin

I thought I would never be able to do justice to the story.  I thought I would not be able to reveal the Truth and have it believed.   The man I loved is long dead and defenseless, and I feared it would open him to ridicule or blame or condemnation.  As a writer, you can doubt your skills, but don’t doubt the power of your story to convey Truth to your readers.  Stories carry themselves.  The handful of people I’ve told the story to now…they understand in a way I didn’t really hope for.

I thought all secrets were bad.  They’re not.  Some are beautiful.  Some are so beautiful you want to share them with people.  Others are so beautiful you want to keep them secret.

If kept long enough, I assumed all secrets went one of two ways: dissolved like a baby tooth in cola or burst like a swollen appendix, leaking poison into your body.  Many of them do, but others turn to scars, badges of honor on your skin.  Others yet turn into fantastical things, like an absorbed twin encased within you.  Strange, yes.  Disturbing, yes.  Still, somehow wonderful: a fellow traveler you’ve carried in your flesh.

Of this secret, I have wondered if it were a little bundle of hair and teeth, sealed up inside me, my fetus in fetu.  Or perhaps it’s more that I’m a chimera.  The only thing left of that younger me is her blood running in my veins.

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