Sometimes doing exactly what you want to do is hard. I write fanciful novels about a magical detective. I love them. They’re silly and meaningful and ridiculous and fun. Also, sometimes, they’re hard. Writing a book, it turns out, is a lot of writing. When the pressure of deadlines and the slog of getting sh* done starts to make what I love feel like a JOB (gasp)… I’ve found that I have three options:
- Fortify and do your damn job.
- Abandon your dreams and drink heavily.
- F* it. Have fun.
A colleague of mine arranged for the author Jacquelyn Mitchard to visit our students last year. Mitchard spoke about her debut The Deep End of The Ocean being selected as Oprah’s first ever Book Club book. She talked about her process and was generally a very intelligent and engaging guest. My favorite moment was her reply to the classic, “What do you do when you get writer’s block?” question. Her response.
I don’t believe in writer’s block.
A plumber doesn’t get plumber’s block.
The President doesn’t get president’s block.
It’s a job. You just do it.
I think that philosophy is awesome. If you’re the kind of artist who waits for inspiration to strike, you will get writer’s block A LOT. You will get it pretty much constantly. Sometimes you just have to do the damn work. Mitchard’s stance on that pairs nicely with a Pablo Picasso quote I like to toss at my writing students from time to time, too:
Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.
So I do the work. I write, and most of the time, I am really grateful that I have the luxury of doing what I love. While all that is true—there still come times when I begin to resent it. I shouldn’t, I know. It’s the work I WANT to be doing. I CHOSE this, but that doesn’t magically make it less hard.
I remind myself that it’s option 1—do the work, or option 2—don’t. Go get a desk job and figure out how to be a grown up. Every once in while, though, I allow myself option 3.
Option 3 generally emerges in a sort of late-night “Hold my beer. Now watch this…” kind of foolish writing haze. The plot has been planned out neatly. My editors have approved my outlines. I have the work laid out in front of me… and the click of the keys gradually slows down. And then it stops. And I want to set my laptop on fire just to see colors again.
And then, suddenly… BAM. That other part of my brain kicks in—the part that decided I was going to write about a magical detective in the first place, instead of growing up and learning how to use Excel—and that part decides it’s had enough. “F* it,” my brain says. “Zombies. What if there were zombies in this scene? Wouldn’t that be so much cooler than dialogue? No, wait. UNICORNS! Yes! Let’s freakin’ DO this!”And then, suddenly, the keys are clicking again.
The zombies and unicorns don’t always make it to the final draft. Sometimes that part of my brain is an idiot, lets be honest—but every once in a while it does help me find the thing that was missing from the page—the thing that made me start writing in the first place: fun. Those passages are frequently my very favorite parts of my books, and they are definitely my favorite part of writing.
So my advice: do the damn work. Don’t give up on the dream. But remember: it’s okay to have fun, too.
There are a lot of things that I can’t believe are still things in the 21st century. The KKK. Homophobia. Tab cola. Lately I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the gender gap, another inexplicable thing that’s still a thing. You know the one—it’s that thing where 50% of the population are so poorly represented that they qualify as a minority. I’ve been thinking about the gender gap in the sciences in particular.
The fact is, women may have long since won the rights to vote, to have careers, and to wear stylish yet functional bedazzled pants, but men still hold 70% of all careers in science and engineering. White men alone hold the majority of these positions, but men of every demographic outnumber women of the same category. All women of color combined barely add up to a tenth of the total professional scientific population.
In my novels, I write about a young woman living a century ago with a background in science. While writing, I constantly need to remind myself that it wasn’t the norm. It comes far too naturally to me to envision scientifically-minded women. I’ve learned plenty about Ada Lovelace and Florence Nightingale and Irene Curie, but more than that, my own grandmother, Mary Campbell, practically wrote the book on Medical Mycology. In fact… she DID write the book, and if you studied medical mycology at university, chances are it was on your required reading list. Incidentally, if you studied Medical Mycology at university, you are probably also doing more important things with your life than writing novels that feature a magical detective. Good for you.
My family is full of female professors, nurses, veterinarians, computer analysts, and research scientists; when I was growing up, I couldn’t throw a stone without hitting a smart woman. I know. I tried. My sisters tattled and I got grounded for it. It continues to shock me, therefore, that the image of a woman as an intelligent professional is a concept that needs normalizing.
The trouble is ingrained in our culture. Women are encouraged to be supporters while men are pushed to be competitive. If that’s not blatant enough, loads of brilliant successful women have been actively cheated out of their notoriety by male colleagues.
“Who cares?” one might argue. “Those men probably stole credit from other men, too, that’s just the cutthroat nature of the field.” But when there are so few women in the field to begin with, each overlooked achievement represents a greater loss.
The problem with the erasure of women is that as a result, countless women just don’t get to see a future for themselves in the sciences in the same ways men do, and that matters. With good role models, possibilities blossom, and limitations drop away. Without any, invisible walls grow and self-doubt takes hold.
A few years back, my sister followed in the footsteps of Medical Mycology Mary and co-authored a book called THE ULTIMATE GIRLS’ GUIDE TO SCIENCE.
Her role models mattered to her, and in turn she has became that role model through books and camps that she helps run for kids. Her latest project is the culmination of years of research that is both practical and awesome and involves fire… and also happens to be literally rocket science. Her Kickstarter for the ROCKET MASS HEATER GUIDE has just a few days left if you want to support an awesome woman in science RIGHT NOW, by the way, although she has already doubled her goal because the concept is just so damn cool!
Women are a part of the scientific community. They just are. Awesome though their accomplishments might be, the fact that they exist should be the most boring thing in the world. Sadly, it’s STILL an anomaly in the 21st century for a woman to be seen as a scientist. I don’t want writers of historical fiction a hundred years from now to look back at 2016 and find themselves astonished at how unusual it was for women in our time to be recognized for their contributions.
So, let’s share a little recognition right now—who are your favorite female faces in the field of science and engineering?
Okay. So, we watched STAR WARS: The Force Awakens before bed.
Yes, the Chewbacca and BB-8 plushies are adorable, but focus! This post isn’t about that!
Last night, my ten-year-old sat bolt upright from a dead sleep. “I KNOW WHAT HE WANTS!” He yelled, eyes wide, panting.
“What?!” I said. “Who?”
“I know,” he repeated more quietly, but with fervor, “what he wants.”
“Are you still asleep?” I asked. “What WHO wants?”
His eyes, still wild but already closing under heavy lids, finally found me in the chair across from his bed. “Luke Skywalker.”
He was asleep again before I thought to follow up with the next obvious question. It ate away at me for several long minutes as he began breathing evenly again. I could not imagine that any prophet had ever had more conviction in his voice than my son had just demonstrated in his Star Wars fueled dream-revelation. I needed to know. What DID Luke Skywalker want? I seriously considered waking him up.
I was about to leave when he woke again with a cough. I hurried over to his bed.
“You awake?” I said. “I have a very important question.”
“Hm?” His eyes were mostly open.
“What,” I said earnestly “does Luke Skywalker want?”
“Oh,” he mumbled. “Um… Peace.”
* * *
Okay, so I understand that perhaps I was stupid tired, and I had just watched Force Awakens not an hour before, but THAT FELT LIKE SOME PROFOUND SH**.
(This post is modified slightly from a speech I had the privilege of delivering to my fellow book-pushers in the Pacific Northwest.)
My name is William Ritter. I write books, I teach high school, I raise kids, and I worry.
Mostly I worry.
As a FATHER, I worry that my own kids—kids who love reading and discovery—will be dulled by school instead of inspired by it. I worry that they will start to see reading as work and discovery as a chore. It’s hard for me to watch them go into a place where I can’t hover around them like a helicopter. I can’t remind them to be good or shield them from pain. I want to slip little cheesy inspirational notes into their backpacks. Make good choices! You can do it! Be kind! Be yourself!
As a TEACHER, I worry about my students. I worry every time I ask “What stories did grown-ups read to you when you were little?” because every year one or two students simply cannot answer because their parents never read to them. Their parents never read. The only reading material in their house is the back of a cereal box. These are the kids who struggle most—not only in reading, but in math, science, and social studies.
As a WRITER, I worry that what I do doesn’t matter. I worry that my YA novels are frivolous “genre fiction.” When I first signed with Algonquin Young Readers, I realized the list of books they would be publishing alongside mine were meaningful stories about war and persecution, about racism and homophobia, about overcoming loss and confronting mortality. My novel, on the other hand, was a fanciful tale about a magical detective. I worried that I was fluff in a world that needs substance.
But what I do matters. What we do matters. Books matter.
Truth time. By third grade, literacy scores have a direct correlation with high school graduation rates. Readers see more success than non-readers. Raising readers matters. If teachers do nothing more than promote a passion for reading, they achieve infinitely more good than drill-and-kill literacy lessons and high stakes tests. Students who read for pleasure see even greater success—and as it happens, readers like reading books that they LIKE. Who knew? What’s more, studies have repeatedly shown that reading fiction—yes frivolous genre fiction even more than serious non-fiction—increases empathy. In a world so full of greed and fear and hate, we need empathy. We need readers.
So I try my hardest to help books reach kids. I push books.
I’ve had the pleasure of hearing from a student in my care that our class novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, was the first book he had ever read.
“What?” I said. “No, you read a novel last year with Mrs. Walloch.”
“No,” he said. “The class read a novel. I never read a single chapter.”
“Well,” I said. “Congratulations. How do you feel about reading a novel?”
He looked thoughtful for a moment. “I want to read another one.”
There it was. I felt the instant self-satisfied pride that I imagine is usually reserved for really talented drug-dealers.
It was awesome.
I taught an ESL class the next year. There were some great kids in that group, including a tricky pair of boys who had not only never read a book, but who took real pride in being non-readers. I went on and on about how that was like a toddler taking pride in never learning how to walk—I told them they’re limiting themselves! None of it got through. So instead of lecturing, I pushed a book across the desk at S.S.R. time. Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time-Indian. I pretended not to notice when the student reached the naughty bit in the first chapter and shared it with his friend. I knew I had him when I caught him reading during break. He finished that book and then told his friend that he HAD to read it next, because “it’s actually GOOD.” That book was later stolen from my room. The thief copped to taking it because it was “the first book that got me, ya know?” I let him keep it. He needed that book more than I did.
That’s how you get ‘em. The first one’s free, kid. Come back for more when ya start jonesing. Soon you’ll be forking over money to a stranger in a dark alley for Ray Bradbury, the Bronte sisters, maybe a heavy dose of William Shakespeare. I have become an unabashed pusher.
I pushed If You Could Be Mine on a self-conscious, self-critical, self-described “loner” from a conservative family. She read it twice in one night. She was changed. That summer she corresponded with the author, Sara Farizan, and gained the confidence to come out for the first time to her parents. She took over as president of the school’s GSA and as a peer mentor. She has become outspoken, bold, and brighter.
I did more good for all of those students by pushing books across their desks than I did in all of my lesson-planning and teaching. Pushing books matters.
I can’t tuck cheesy little inspirational notes into every single backpack, so I tuck them into the books I write, instead. Make good choices! You can do it! Be kind! Be yourself! It helps me worry a little bit less. It helps me remember that what I do matters, too.
When you suggest a good book, post about one on a blog, push one across a desk, or read one to your kids—it matters. Push books. My students need those books. My sons need those books. The world needs those readers.
To all my fellow book-pushers out there, what you do matters. With each push you make a difference, you make a brighter world, you make a reader. Keep pushing.
“What will you do with your life?” I asked my sophomores. “You’re the hero of the story. You can be anyone. Do anything. Who will you be?”
K—‘s turn. “A trophy wife,” she said. Proudly. Defiantly.
I might have cried. I worried about K—.
I worried about what all those beauty pageants had done. I worried when I learned what he had done. I worried when they made her relive it all in the trial. I worried.
Years passed. I worried more. With each year, I found new students to worry about. I worried about so many girls growing up aspiring to be worthy little objects. I taught lessons. I graded essays. I worried more and more.
“What will the moral of your story be?” I asked my senior class last week. “What will future generations learn from the tale of you?”
K—‘s turn. Chin up. “Be your own trophy wife,” she said. Proudly. Defiantly.
I might have cried. I worried less.
An open letter to a sharp young reader who would like my characters to just kiss, already.
Thank you very much for writing to me. It makes me very happy that you liked Jackaby and that you care about how he and Miss Rook interact. You are not alone in your desire for a “ship” between them.
There’s nothing wrong with “shipping” characters if you see chemistry—that’s awesome. It shows emotional investment and speculation—but platonic relationships benefit from strong chemistry, too.
Speaking of chemistry, biochemist Tim Hunt recently insulted one of the most intelligent communities on the planet by suggesting female scientists have no place in a man’s laboratory. To be fair to Mr. Hunt, he didn’t denounce women altogether, he just called them crybabies and told them to go build their own treehouse if they wanted to split atoms and cure cancer. Simply put, “the trouble with girls” according to Tim Hunt, is that men and women fall in love, and that gets in the way of important work (link).
Hunt can’t imagine a world in which men and women might value and respect each other without romantic entanglements. Why should he? Authors and publishers can’t seem to imagine it either. Hollywood certainly can’t imagine it. Storytellers paid to do nothing BUT imagine absurd realities can’t be bothered to imagine such a thing, so why should Hunt be held to a higher standard?
The fact is we’re more comfortable imagining superheroes fighting aliens above the streets of New York or genetically mutated reptiles practicing eastern martial arts beneath them than we are prepared to imagine their sole female companion might NOT become a love interest.
Assemble a funny group of men or women and you’ve got a “buddy comedy,” but mix the genders and it invariably becomes a “romantic comedy.” Rom-Coms are great, but there’s something wrong with the pernicious theme that romance is the ONLY way men and women can interact.
To be clear, I’m not against love. Romance is exciting and sweet and—well—romantic, but there are already plenty of lovers in YA. What I’m against is raising another generation incapable of imagining male/female relationships that are NOT romantic. When we read about flirtation, passion, and heartbreak, we are learning valuable lessons about how to love, but there are other relationships—relationships with mentors, allies, colleagues, friends—which can teach us to respect the other people in our lives, too.
Stories matter. How many great women never rise to their full potential because they are perpetually taught that their role is to marry a hero, not to become one? How many great men subconsciously believe that the only women who matter are the ones destined to love them? Is it any wonder so many men grow up to act either dismissive or aggressive toward women?
I realize that these are gargantuan sociocultural issues, and I also realize that you are 11 years old and trying to enjoy your Summer vacation, so I’ll tone it down a bit as I wrap this up.
Basically, _______, what I’m trying to say is you’re sharp and you’re capable. You can handle big words like “sociocultural,” and you can handle it if my characters don’t kiss. Someday you’ll be able to handle flying jets or running for president or working in a lab. When that time comes, don’t let some sexist old fart tell you that girls are too much trouble.
Kiss. Don’t kiss. Find relationships of value and cherish them—all of them—for what they are.