On today’s episode of Children’s Writer Having Happy Fun Times: I’ve been tremendously enjoying my super-intermittent Twitter conversation with FRESH OFF THE BOAT star Hudson Yang, whose desire to play Vincent Wu in the imaginary movie version of GEEKS, GIRLS, AND SECRET IDENTITIES put a nearly unhinged note of cheer into my day. I offered to send him a signed copy of the book, to which he responded with an enthusiastic yes, and how great is it that he’s excited to have a signed copy of my book? Young fella’s a Hollywood star, after all, and I imagine he has opportunities to meet all kinds of starry-eye-inducing people – his Twitter avatar’s a picture of himself with NBA Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen, for crying out loud. He’s still happy about getting a signed book from an obscure dude like me, though. Remarkable. I want to serve up major, major props to Hudson, who seriously made my day, and Hudson’s dad, who I’ve discovered I have more than one mutual friend with, and who’s clearly putting a foot way up in the hindquarters of that whole “raising a family” thing. #fotb
I say stuff like this pretty often, but that’s because it bears repeating, so here it is again: I have not always been successful in being a social creature. I’ve spent long periods of time (notably during my adolescence and young adulthood) in which it seemed like I didn’t have a single friend in the world; feelings of isolation and loneliness have brought me to my knees many, many times. So the fact that the children’s literature community swung its doors wide open when I knocked is still an astonishing thing to me, something that almost defies belief. I’ve gotten to know people in this business who floor me with their creative brilliance, intellectual depth, generosity of spirit, and fully-lived ideals. I have the great good fortune of being able to mentally point to people throughout this industry and think “That person! That amazing person RIGHT THERE! Look at what she does with her life! Look at how he gives to people! They take my breath away! I get to call him my colleague! I get to call her my friend!”
It feels bloody miraculous to me, and I doubt it will ever stop feeling miraculous, you know what I’m saying?
Last night I blurted out a series of tweets on this topic – a typically shrewd move, Tweeting on a late Saturday night – but I felt like, oh, I don’t know, expounding a bit, so here we are. Here I am, at any rate. It’s uncertain how much of a WE is happening here, but anyway.
I am so envious of Laura Ruby right now.
“But why?” you might say. “Upon what base was fixt the envy wherein, Mike?” My first answer would be “Please don’t use poetry as the basis of a question, it’ll reveal my ignorance about poetry.” My second answer would be BECAUSE I JUST READ BONE GAP, DUH.
Have you read Bone Gap yet? It just hit the shelves, with what seems to me like something less than the global fireworks display of acclaim and excitement it deserves. Holy flying spaghetti monster, it’s good. It’s one of those books that makes me think AW GEE WHIZ, I WILL NEVER WRITE A BOOK THIS GOOD AND THAT’S IT, GAME OVER. Thick, soupy, ocean-size envy is what I’m wading through right now, and I’m glad.
I might not have been glad about this 10 years ago, and in truth, I might not be glad about this with every author’s work even now, because I was not and am not something more (or less) than human. I didn’t use to accept envy as a normal, understandably human experience – I used to think it was bad, bad, bad, ba-a-a-a-ad and damn, now I have that stupid song from the horrible movie version of the Lorax in my head, GAH.
Point being, I used to think envy was a negative experience, but I no longer do. I think it’s still hard, complicated, even painful, but I don’t equate those qualities with negative or bad anymore. I have separated my experience of envy from my capacity for judgment, huzzah! Please join me in humbly celebrating the majestically enlightened state of myself!
Er, anyway, this still fairly recent benign view of envy has been very helpful while reading Bone Gap, because it truly is one of those books that make me fervently wish I had written it, or could write something like it. It is astonishing. The quality of the prose is delectable and lush; the characters are shot through with beauty and complexity; and the way the story spills over from one world to the next and back again is dizzying in its mystery and dexterity. Best of all, reading Bone Gap proved to be an emotional experience of such power that I was knocked absolutely ass over teakettle. I felt, as they say, all the feels.
Because I’m a writer, and every bit as human as the next writer, my thoughts in the moment were akin to “oh well, I could never write a book like this. Laura Ruby’s magical cabinet of writing skills has the goods, and mine has an open bag of stale potato chips and a three year old can of off-brand cream soda. She’s awesome and I suck.”
I know, it’s quite the silly-ass line of thinking, albeit a forgivably human one. I’m not Laura Ruby, and Laura Ruby’s not me. We’re different people and different writers, and trying to make an apples-to-apples comparison between my books and hers is an exercise in absurdity. Why, it’d be like arguing about which is better, Star Wars or Star Trek! (We’ll talk about that later, when I have 48 consecutive free hours to set aside – I have many thoughts.)
But, BUT, I am now this stunningly evolved specimen of humanity who experiences a genuinely unhealthy or destructive reaction to envy no more than 78% of the time, which has allowed me to understand my envy of Laura Ruby’s new book for what it truly is: admiration; respect; wonder.
I would not feel so envious of Laura if I didn’t at least partly comprehend the spectacular degree of difficulty she confronted in writing this book. I would not feel this much envy if I didn’t understand how much discipline, skill, focus, and sheer force of will it takes to create art of this magnitude. I would not be managing this much envy if it wasn’t clear to me that some of us are farther along on the path to creative greatness than others, and that while I feel pretty good about the way my skills are developing, Laura is on an altogether different playing field. I think it’s fair to say that when it comes to Laura Ruby and the magnificence of her accomplishment in writing Bone Gap, I feel envy because I know I’m seeing someone do the calamitously hard work of giving concrete shape to her creativity at something like peak capacity.
It helps that I already had so much respect for the way Laura conducts herself in the public arena. She’s obviously intelligent as hell, and stands up and uses her voice in ways I admire and feel inspired by. I have many heroes in the world of children’s publishing, and she’s one of them.
it’s good to feel this okay with envy, you know? I’m not saying I enjoy it. It’s not exactly fun. But it’s not a negative thing, because it stems from something good. From something great, in fact. Experiencing the greatness of a book like Bone Gap and being able to support someone I admire in exchange for coping with some envy? I’ll make that trade every time.
I’m writing at the public library – okay, at this very moment I’m actually posting on Facebook at the public library – and there’s a student and his tutor two tables over, discussing what sounds like a paper he’s written. They’re working hard, it’s clearly an interaction with meaning and value, and it’s good to see young people actively engaged in scholarship.
That said, these two people, who I have no reason to think ill of, and whose pursuit of scholarly betterment is worthy of support, are VERY LOUD, and that’s one of my beefs with the current dialogue around the future of libraries. There’s so much talk about libraries evolving to become more visibly dynamic centers of group collaboration, focused on lively, unfettered conversation and a 180 degree change from the old, hidebound perception of libraries as places to speak in whispers or risk being shushed. That’s all well and good – I understand the value of those things – but I worry that the value of quiet contemplation and internal focus is being publicly dismantled, one smartboard or piece of modular furniture at a time.
The library’s the only public place I rely on to consistently provide a haven from the world’s relentless barrage of external noise; I don’t have that at home, and I rarely find it at places like coffeeshops. Some of us place enormous value on the quiet we find at the public library; some of us badly need it. I hope that emphasis on quiet doesn’t get completely obliterated in the process of redefining the role of libraries in our society.
I think luck plays a role in the publication process – a limited role, but a real one. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve invested massive amounts of time, money, thought, and energy into developing my craft and learning about the industry, and I know we can’t take advantage of opportunities that come along if we don’t make ourselves ready for them. I’ve done that. Doing the work is far and away the most important thing; the importance of luck doesn’t come close to equaling the importance of hard work, IMHO. I do think luck plays a role in terms of timing, however, and in that regard I’ve experienced my fair share. For example, I got acquainted with Arthur A. Levine on Facebook, met him in person at LA10SCBWI, struck up a genuine friendship with him right away, and gladly accepted his offer to publish GEEKS, GIRLS, AND SECRET IDENTITIES, all in the course of a whirligig eight-month period.
It was a heady time, and I felt like the stars were grinning cheerfully down at me for every moment of it. Arthur’s accomplishments as an editor and publisher are the stuff of industry legend, of course, but I was immediately struck by the impression that he’s also a warm, generous, vulnerable human being, and one of those rare people with whom I experience a nearly instant bond of fellowship. Time has borne out that initial impression; Arthur has proven to be the most trustworthy and steadfast of friends, one whose presence in my life I cherish to the point of thinking of him more like a brother than a friend.
My affection for Arthur shouldn’t obscure my appreciation of his professional brilliance, because again, industry legend, monumental legacy, continuing record of published brilliance – pick whichever career accolade floats your rowboat. There’s no doubt that his editorial acumen made my book worlds better than it would have otherwise been, and it’s more obvious to me than ever why he’s in the midst of a career for the ages. Arthur’s ability to help his authors define and give life to a story’s emotional center borders on the supernatural. and it’s one reason why I’ll always look back on my first book with an abundance of satisfaction and pride.
I couldn’t have asked for a better author/editor experience than I had with my debut, and the stars are apparently still yukking it up in my honor, because there will be an encore. I feel grateful, thrilled, and yes, exceedingly lucky to announce that I’ve accepted an offer of publication from Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic, for my second middle-grade novel, Unidentified Suburban Object. Cue celebratory hooting, Muppetesque arm-flailing, grossly excessive doughnut consumption, etc.
Hooray, Arthur’s blogging again! And expressing valuable points about the importance of diverse books to ALL readers.
I so enjoyed reading Pico Ayer’s “Critic’s Take” column in The New York Times’ Book Review, titled PLEASE LOOK AFTER THIS BEAR.
In it, Mr. Ayer expresses the response to a beloved book that is remarkably congruent with my publishing philosophy. I’ve always said that what I want to publish are books that readers don’t just like, but that are deeply meaningful to them; books that they love so much that they would say, when asked “Oh that was my FAVORITE book as a child” and they would keep those books throughout their lives. In talking about PADDINGTON BEAR, Mr. Ayer says, “On the single shelf for books I have in my two-room apartment in Japan, Paddington sits next to Derek Walcott, V.S. Naipaul, and Graham Greene.” Exactly!
I too loved PADDINGTON BEAR, laughing appreciatively at what Mr. Ayer describes as Paddington’s attempts to “master…
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I, er, haven’t actually read the Marie Kondo book about how decluttering your home leads to magic carpets, pet dragons, and the ability to transmogrify lima beans into doughnuts, but my half-assed, not even semi-informed attempt at following its approach is definitely a good thing, even if it’s causing 35% more damage to my already messed-up rotator cuff. Today I finally dug deep and got rid of a pair of hiking shoes I’ve had sitting in my closet for over a decade without ever having worn them, not even once.
They’re perfectly good, high-quality hiking shoes that I probably spent $100 on back in the day, but I somehow didn’t like them – something about the way the laces tied. I later bought a pair of hiking shoes that I like much better, and even wear once every 36 months or so, but I hung on to the other pair. Every so often I’d look at them and think GAH THIS IS STUPID, JUST GET RID OF THEM, but then I’d think about how sorry I’d be if I ever needed a spare pair of hiking shoes, or if I were to go hiking with someone who’d forgotten to bring their own shoes and needed to borrow a pair, and I’d throw them back in the closet where they’d been hunkered down for 2, 5, 10 years.
The problem with that line of reasoning is that I’m just not the kind of person who’s likely to ever be in a situation where pulling an emergency pair of hiking shoes out of the closet at the last second. Self-understanding has come slowly to me, however, and on more than one occasion I’ve wished to be that kind of person – carelessly fit, radiating physicality, possessing an inner glow born of a deep love for life in the outdoors. I’m not, though. I’m the most indoorsy person that’s ever walked the face of this planet. I can barely justify owning ONE pair of hiking shoes – nearly all of my favorite activities involve sitting in a chair somewhere inside.
I donated the shoes to Goodwill, and I think that’s a good thing. Someone who’d probably struggle to pay the current retail price for hiking shoes of that quality will get a really good deal on my old, unused pair, and it underscored my own level of comfort and good fortune in being able to just give away a brand-new pair of shoes. In a way it felt like admitting defeat, I have to say, as if I was giving up on a long-held (if completely unrealistic) fantasy-based concept of the person I could be if I was, you know, a completely different person from who I actually am. Decluttering. It’s not as complicated as writing a book, but it IS complicated.