Me and the FacePlace – A divorce?

 

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It was two years ago at my 25th high school reunion. A woman who was never exactly a friend came up to me and said, “Oh my God, Billy, I see you on Facebook and you’re doing so well in life! That’s amazing, because, back then, well… ” She then paused and rolled her eyes in a way that connoted, ‘you were a big-time mess.’

I got a big laugh out of that, because it seemed like the kind of thing you don’t say to someone at a 25th high school reunion, true or not. And truthfully I don’t live outside my own experience, so I don’t know if it was warranted. I was, let’s say, “dramatic” in high school. Lots of crises, rampant highs and lows, and always this annoying need to share my feelings with the world. Call it a tragic flaw, or maybe call it the reason I am a successful writer. I don’t know.

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Serenity NOW!

I started to watch “Happyish” on Netflix. The script was very good. But what became evident to me by episode 3 was the worldview… so ugly. The world sucks. People are awful.

HAPPYISHI had to stop watching, because I don’t want to feel hopeless, and right now things in our society feel a little, well, wretched.

It’s not hard for me to go there. I have negativity in me, too, even though I try to accentuate the positive. But this new world order of 24 hour news coverage and social media seems to push us toward snark and cynicism, not to mention simple, garden-variety hatred. Shit. Go to Twitter. People are often quite dreadful. Social media has given awful people a gassed-up vehicle for their terribleness.

And it feels like Hollywood has jumped on board. We all can name 5 popular shows about awful people. It’s really hard right now to find stuff to watch that isn’t gleeful about its sour worldview. Difficult People is very funny, and you can kind of see its tongue firmly in cheek, but man. Try watching an episode or two of that and then see how optimistic you feel about our society.

I’m writing this after a week of more terrorist attacks worldwide than I can count. A couple weeks after a devastating show of police brutality against two black males, followed by a heartbreaking massacre of police officers in Dallas. And now Baton Rouge.

Believe me, I’m lost in it. I can tell that many of us feel lost in it, unable to breathe.

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Text of My Stonewall Book Award Speech

People have been asking for the text of my Stonewall Book Award speech at the American Library Association Conference in Orlando, Florida, earlier today.

Here you go!

Thank you so much. Thank you to those on the Stonewall Award committee. I was blown away to learn about this honor, especially in a year with so many stellar young adult books that depict diverse aspects of the LGBTQ experience. I am honored simply to have my work considered on the same level as some of these incredible novels.

Thank you to my family at Scholastic, whom I happen to love, dearly. Cheryl Klein, my editor, will forever be the person in my life who saved me. Seriously. Before my second novel, Openly Straight, found a home, I thought it was quite possible I’d never be published again. This possibility terrified me, because I had so much more to say. Cheryl gave me a chance, despite not-so-stellar sales numbers for my first book, Out of the Pocket. And I will forever be grateful for that opportunity, and also for her brilliance as an editor.

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The Porcupine of Truth e-book on sale!

So let’s say… you’re one of those people who LOVED Openly Straight, but for some odd reason you haven’t picked up The Porcupine of Truth yet.Stonewall award winnerFirst off, why? What the heck? What could you possess you to do such a silly thing?

But most importantly, today you can remedy that.

In honor of Gay Pride Month, The Porcupine of Truth is on sale for $2.99. Go buy it!

 

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The Scoliosis Couch and Microwaved Peeps

I wrote a sentence this morning that made me smile:

“We draped ourselves across the Scoliosis couch and devoured microwaved Peeps.”

It made me smile because it reminded me of something I have been thinking about recently, and I thought it would make a good online writing lesson.

The subject: specificity.

I want to take you through the formation of the above sentence. I’ve been seeing a lot of sentences these last three months as the writer-in-residence for the Mesa Library, and that has really helped me to solidify my own craft.

In this case, I’m writing a scene between two teenage friends. They are a little “alt,” perhaps. They share a certain irreverent sense of humor. I want to place that scene in a setting, and in my mind, I go through the possibilities. I’ve placed them in a coffee shop before. Also a living room. They are eating and talking, so it’s probably an inside location, especially since it is December in Colorado.

A basic first-draft sentence might be, “We sat on the couch and talked.”

Fine. That’s a start. But we’ve read that sentence before, haven’t we? On a scale of 1 to 10, how interesting is that as a scene starter? Maybe a 1 or 2?

So how do I fix it? Two things.

One is to give them an activity.

Two is to make the setting stand out.

Brilliant author Randall Kenan was one of my teachers in college back in the 1990s. His first exercise I still remember, more than 20 years later. In it, he asked us to go to the grocery store and write down as many brand names as we could find. Then, when we brought those to class, he gave us the assignment: write a story in which the only nouns you can use are the brand names you found.

That was a really fun assignment. I remember writing about a Sheik, a Swiss Miss, and her Tastykakes. After we had fun reading some of the stories aloud in class, Kenan gave us the lesson: there are so many nouns out there. Unchain yourselves! Use them!

What a great lesson. And so important! Good writing, I am more and more certain, is about great nouns. Verbs are fine, and there’s nothing wrong with finding the perfect, rarely used active verb. But it’s nouns that carry the weight of the story.

And it’s nouns that we turn to when we need to find interesting actions and make our settings stand out.

scoliosis couch

 

When I thought of the Scoliosis couch, I pictured an elbow-shaped couch that is too short for a person above, say, 5-foot-10 to lie down on without having to twist their body. I pictured it in a furnished basement where a teen has created a hang-out space. Clearly he and his friend have a lot of shared experience, humor and language, because they’ve christened it the Scoliosis couch. Perfect. A good image, an interesting place for a scene where I haven’t been before. And the specific sensual data–the curved couch–makes the setting feel real.

So now we have, “We sat on the Scoliosis couch and talked.”

Better. A specific place that we can unpack that will tell us a bit about our characters. And people do talk. The problem is that we don’t want our characters to sit there and just talk. I may, once in a novel during an important conversation, allow characters to “just talk.” But typically I want the conversation to occur over action. What can people do while talking? Play video games? Sure, but that’s not that that interesting. In my books, I’ve had characters talk while playing checkers using sugar packets in a diner, while playing laser tag, and while having an apple war in an apple orchard.

Do you see what I’m trying to say here? Give the reader something memorable. My teacher Ron Carlson used to say, “Put something in your book.” I took that as was a clever way of saying, “fill the pages with interesting actions, words, inventory.”

Eating is an easy one, and yes, my characters eat. But if I can help it, I’d like to have them eat interesting things. Especially if what they eat will evoke character.

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So I thought of microwaved Peeps, as one does. I came up with this concept about a decade ago, and my husband can vouch that he has seen me microwave many a Peep in my day. Not anymore, by the way. I am eating healthier these days. In fact, you can take it a step further and have characters talk while watching a Peeps joust. That’s where you stand thee Peeps up and put toothpicks in them so it’s like they’re holding swords out at each other. The first to burst loses.

So yes. Now we have a vivid first sentence. We can see the couch. Our interest as readers is perked up by the odd food choice. And we know something about these characters that would otherwise need to be told–that they are, well, quirky. As my characters often are.

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Tears of the Clowns

Yesterday I visited a terrific middle school in Washington State. This is the first year they have an “Equality Club,” thusly named because the principal mandated that the name not include any of the letters associated with LGB or T.

I walked into a library where 20 smiling kids sat around, slumped on couches, braiding each other’s hair. They looked so happy! It made me feel so good about the progress that is being made for young people who identify as LGBTQ.

The first comments confirmed this belief. One boy who identifies as gay mentioned someone saying a gay slur, and since it led off, I assumed that was a notable experience at this middle school. And part of me thought: thank God. They aren’t being physically bullied every day.

Then a girl talked about relatives who are over-correcting because she came out as a lesbian. They say too many positive things about her sexuality. I smiled, because that’s what Openly Straight is about in many ways. And I get how frustrating that can be, when a label overtakes a person. And yet, a part of me thought: thank God. Her family accepts her.

And we talked. The questions came in, and we laughed a lot. These were some sharp kids, and they had come out as pan, and bi, and gay, and lesbian, and there were kids of various genders mentioned, and it was all basically okay.

And then I brought up the challenges I faced when I was in school. Back in the 1400s, when  I was their age, there weren’t a whole lot of LGBT role models to look up to. The kids listened intently, perhaps trying to imagine what that would be like. Somebody brought up  the issue of suicide, so I did my usual talk about how glad I am today that I didn’t take that road, because I did suffer depression as a teenager, deep depression. And there were many times I didn’t think I’d make it through. But I did, and look at all the things that have happened in my life! None of those things would have happened had I ended my life. Sometimes you just need to have faith that it’s important to see what happens next. I believe that with every fabric of my being, and say it to every young person who will listen.

The conversation changed after that. One person mentioned that the person they are dating attempted suicide last week because their father is so homophobic they can’t figure out how to tell him. Another talked about cutting, and a third said, “I’ve done that, too.” One mentioned an eating disorder.

I always do what I can in those situations, which is admittedly not much. I empathize and listen, basically, because I strongly believe that kids need to say these things and be heard. Disease loves the darkness. When we share our pain with others, the light diminishes that pain.

When I left with the librarian who brought me in to speak, we commiserated. These are just such wonderful kids. And they’re so, so lucky to have friends, and a safe space, and adults who are paying attention to them. And yet. There’s still so much pain. It’s so hard to be different in this world, and meanness is everywhere, and we both just want to fix it, but we can’t fix it. Kids just have to go through the minefield, and it’s excruciating to watch sometimes.

And then, this morning, I came across this. Republican State Legislator Gordon Klingenschmitt, who has a program called “Pray in Jesus Name,” explains that gays will come into your home and demand to have sex there.

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This is funny stuff, right? I’ve been a gay man for quite a few years, and it has never occurred to me to demand to have sex in a strangers home. I’m so caught up sometimes in the fact that there are people who would do us harm, that it’s hard enough to hold hands in public with my husband. I mean, who thinks something like that?

Well, as it turns out, some people do. And what it made me think this morning is that we adults who are out and (semi) well adjusted can laugh about this. But you know who isn’t laughing? LGBT kids who are just coming out. Do you know how damaging it is to be told by a lawmaker voted in by citizens that, as Klingenschmitt says, “We’ve got to stand up against Satan, who is inside of them.”

In The Porcupine of Truth, Aisha says that the worst thing you can do to a person is tell them that God doesn’t love them. I believe that’s true. I also believe that when a person tells you who and what God is, and what God believes, you should run, fast.

I guess what I want to say is this. I have Republican friends. I happen to believe that it’s okay to believe differently than me, on just about any topic. I may not get it, but you can be more fiscally conservative than me, more socially conservative, you name it. But what I really struggle with is stuff that hurts kids. And if you’re a Republican, and you’re voting by party line, the sad truth is you may well be pressing the lever for someone like this.

Is this what you believe? Because in my experience, I’ve met some people who do think that LGBT people are possessed. But mostly what I’ve met are people who are, in one way or another, more conservative than I am. Which is a far stretch from believing in demonic possession. And you better believe that a person with power saying like this impacts young people.

Is this what you stand for? In most cases, I think not. I think most people do not wish to say things that disenfranchise entire groups of people, especially those most vulnerable, like LGBTQ youth.

These are the smiling kids you see, so much more well adjusted than we were, three decades ago. And I’m here to tell you. For so many of them, there are still tears inside.

Please pay attention to whom you vote for. And this goes for Democrats, too, as there are wingnut Dems, too. Just not as many of ’em.

It’s a life or death situation out there.

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The Weirdest Writer’s Block Ever…

I’m aware that it’s been more than a month since I posted, and I left readers on a bit of a cliffhanger with my last post. I’m sorry for anyone who was worried about me after reading that. I’m okay now.

What I just went through was one of the most … disruptive events of my life, if not the most. I wish I could find a better word. Jarring? I was just moseying along with my life, happy as ever, got a pain in my stomach one day, and … boom. A couple days later I was in surgery, and that didn’t go so smoothly, and then there was an infection at an incision site, and then there was anemia. It was a lot to deal with and it really threw me off my game to the point that I didn’t want to be out in public with people. I felt too awkward and messed up.

The last week or two, I seem to be coming back and I am so very grateful to be getting my health back. It’s like, when you have your health, you don’t think about it. And then when you don’t, it’s all you think about. That’s not a great system, is it? It would be better if we thought about the health we have when we have it, and not focus so much on it when we don’t. Maybe this is a me and not a we thing?

Anyway, the one thing that hasn’t happened since I got sick is my own writing. Heck, I barely wrote a blog post, and I struggled to even post much on Facebook. I can hardly explain it still, but I felt entirely unable to communicate with writing, which is, of course, what I do.

Instead, I threw myself into my teaching at The Piper Center, and my private editing gig, and new work at the Mesa Library, where I am Writer-in-Residence the next couple months. I’ve been helping tons of people, which feels wonderful, but I’ve been utterly unable to help myself.

I always tell my student who talk about writer’s block to give yourself permission to write poorly, and to take off your editor hat and let your inner critic leave the room. This is all sound advice, but it hasn’t yet gotten me to the point that I’ve written a new word on my newest novel-in-progress since February. I’m sure something interesting is going on there. There must be something existential about coming into contact with your mortality and how it impacts creative work, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.

No matter. Today I am in a coffee shop, and once I press publish on this, I am opening my manuscript and writing for AT LEAST an hour. I don’t care if it’s crap. I simply have to get back to it, as a writer writes, always. Just not this writer, recently.

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