I decided I wanted to be a writer when I was five years old. I was an avid reader, and I’d just discovered Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series. I took the books to be purely autobiographical, and I dreamed of recording my own life story. Writing books that people might love as much as I loved Wilder’s (and, later, Beverly Cleary’s and Judy Blume’s) seemed like the most fun and interesting job that one could have.
Lucky for me, my parents encouraged it. My mom took me to the statewide Young Authors Conference every year throughout grade school, and in high school, my dad let me use his office on weekends so I could photocopy my zines. When I got close to college age, he urged me to major in English or creative writing—perhaps because he’d never pursued his own dream of becoming a poet. But when time came to fill out college applications, I decided to major in social work and/or women’s studies—not because they were more practical majors than creative writing (I probably don’t need to point that out with women’s studies) but because, in my mind, they were more important.
My parents are both nurses. My mom works in the neonatal intensive care unit, saving the lives of babies on a daily basis, and my dad co-founded one of the Chicago area’s largest service providers for people living with HIV/AIDS. Throughout my childhood they took me to anti-war rallies and AIDS fundraising walks, and when I was a junior, my mom let me skip school on International Women’s Day to go downtown with her and listen to feminist activists speak at a rally. I started volunteering for a local domestic violence agency around that time, and I got it in my head that direct action was the only way to make a difference. Senior year, I wrote this in my journal: “I need to go to grad school because I want to write a book—not just poetry or a novel, but something serious, about emotional/psychological abuse.”
In preparation for the kind of job I thought might actually create real change in the world, I enrolled in college as a sociology major, with a focus on gender studies. There was sufficient leeway in the curriculum that I was able to take a couple of creative writing classes on the side. They were all taught by the same guy—the school’s sole writing instructor, a Beat-poetry-obsessed bore; nevertheless, they quickly overshadowed the rest of my course load. I stayed up late to scrawl away at poems and stories, ignoring my pile of sociology reading.
When I wasn’t writing, I was miserable. I tried to distract myself from my depression by partying a lot—you may have guessed that this didn’t work very well. Finally, during a hungover moment of clarity toward the end of my freshman year, I realized that I was in the wrong program, and I dropped out of school. I figured I didn’t need college to be a writer—and, truly, many people don’t. But after three years on my own produced lots of anecdotes about wild evenings spent at nightclubs but not a lot of actual writing, it became apparent that I, for one, needed the outside discipline of classes and due dates to get any work done. I enrolled at an art school with a good writing program and got my bachelor’s degree, then my master’s, in creative writing.
I think part of my initial resistance to going to school for writing was that it just didn’t seem like a serious enough job to require any kind of training or an official degree. While I took what I was doing very seriously—I juggled multiple jobs while in grad school and wrote a full novel instead of the 200 pages required for my thesis, all to achieve my dream of becoming a published author—there was a huge part of me that still believed that my parents; my brother, who worked on political campaigns and eventually became a union lawyer; and my friends who coordinated volunteers at homeless organizations, advocated for autistic children, or counseled rape survivors, were doing much more important and meaningful work than I was. I regularly told people that I’d “indulged myself” by going to art school and majoring in writing. I was obsessed with Bikini Kill at the time, and when I listened to their song “Thurston Hearts the Who,” the part where the singer, Kathleen Hanna, goes, “Bikini Kill are activists, not musicians” always made me cringe. Even though she’s quoting a critic there, I felt like the accusation was an honorable one. It meant that they were both. Meanwhile, I’d stopped writing feminist zines in order to concentrate on apolitical fiction.
Six years later, in 2010, at the age of 30 and with two published novels under my belt, I went to New York for Book Expo America, one of the publishing industry’s biggest conventions. It’s where the upcoming titles that everyone is most excited about are premiered and shared, and important people make speeches during breakfast. The headliners that year were Jon Stewart, who had one of his Daily Show books coming out, and Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, who’d recently published some children’s books and, like two days before BEA, had been outed in a cash-for-access political scandal. That’s who everyone was there to see, and I was definitely psyched for Jon Stewart, but his isn’t the speech I remember. The duchess spoke at the “Children’s Book Breakfast,” which I attended because I write YA books. Before she went up, a writer named Mitali Perkins took the mic. The premise of Mitali’s talk was that the purpose of good storytelling is to provide a mirror on the reader or viewer’s experience, a window into an unfamiliar experience, or, in the best cases, both. Her novel, Bamboo People, is a great example of a story that provided me with a window into a world I knew next to nothing about. It’s narrated by two teenage boys, a refugee and a child solider on opposite sides of the Burmese/Karenni conflict.
As she spoke, I remembered the time my father told me that he’d been arrested while picketing a grocery store during a grape boycott as a teenager in the ’60s, but I hadn’t really understood what the life of a migrant worker was like until I read Grapes of Wrath. And even though my father told me about the people he served at his AIDS organization, my perspective was expanded well beyond his stories by Rent and Kids and even the episode of Degrassi High where the bully, Dwayne, tests positive for HIV. The Wire was (and remains) my favorite TV show, because it examined the illegal drug trade in Baltimore from so many angles, giving me more insight than any news program, lecture, or statistic ever had.
In college, I worked in an office that got very few clients in the summer, so my co-workers and I just chatted, sharing stories about our lives. One girl had grown up only 15 miles from me, but the only things I knew about her neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side I had learned from news reports about gang activity and shootings. I told her I wanted to get a sense of what it was really like to grow up there, and she responded by handing me a book: The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah, a novel about a young woman named Winter’s coming of age in a housing project. Even though Winter’s project was in Brooklyn, my friend said it was as good an account of what her own life had been like as any she could tell herself. It was a mirror onto her life, and it became a window into it for me, a white girl who’d grown up middle-class and never questioned whether I’d go to college. This “made-up” story helped me understand and empathize with an experience that was in so many ways different from my own.
With all of this swirling around in my head as Mitali spoke, I’m surprised I didn’t fall out of my chair. The simple truth of the importance of storytelling hit me like a landslide. As with every significant epiphany, the moment I realized it, I couldn’t believe I had never seen it before. So many significant shifts in my thinking and my feeling had come from works of art! Perhaps none so profound as what happened to me in junior high, when I discovered Nirvana.
I first heard their music the summer before seventh grade. I had spent the previous few years trying to fit in with the “popular” crowd and failing miserably. Then I heard Kurt Cobain sing, “Wouldn’t you believe it, it’s just my luck—no recess! You’re in high school again.” I could tell that he’d hated school as much as I did, that he knew what it was not to fit in. Over the next couple of years, I watched Nirvana become the biggest band in the world. I religiously read and watched every interview with him that I could find, because I needed to hear the story over and over about how he was a scrawny kid who felt ostracized growing up, and how he’d survived by funneling his pain into making art. So I decided to try that, too.
The stories I’d written in grade school suddenly seemed silly. At some point, I’d realized my life would never be as interesting as Laura Ingalls Wilder, so I’d taken to escaping into fantasies about cows living on Mars. But my feelings were as real and raw as the ones I heard in Nirvana songs, so why couldn’t write about those? If Kurt’s real stories were important, I reasoned, then so were mine.
It’s funny to think that this junior-high epiphany is still guiding my work. My two YA novels deal with the kinds of dark things I went through in high school, and, as you can see, I’m still writing about them now. My second novel, about a girl who deals with depression, self-injury, and drug addiction, hasn’t sold a lot of copies, but I’ve gotten letters from readers who saw themselves in her struggles and said her story motivated them to seek help. I also got letters from people who said they’d never experienced anything like that, but they were glad to read about it, because now if they encountered someone like her, they would be empathetic instead of judgmental. I wasn’t an activist or a social worker. I wasn’t Kurt Cobain. But I’d helped a few people see themselves, or other people, better.
Aside from personal interactions, nothing moves me the way art does. It can make me laugh, cry, or rage. It can soothe me or make me feel empowered. Sometimes it does all of those things at once. I recently saw the documentary The Punk Singer, about Kathleen Hanna from Bikini Kill. In it, Kathleen talks about a friend and roommate she had when she was quite young, who was attacked one day in their home by an intruder while Kathleen was off somewhere preparing clothes for a fashion show. Kathleen’s response was to silkscreen her roommate’s description of the attack onto the outfits she’d been working on. She knew that her voice was loudest when it was being expressed through art. That voice inspired me, and countless others who will continue the cycle. That seems meaningful to me. That seems important. ♦