Category Archives: On My Honor

Horrible

“your book on my honor is horrible.”                                                                                                                                                                    Savannah

On My Honor

The e-mail sent to my website made me smile.

No, I’m not a masochist reveling in abuse.  Rather I’m a lover of honesty, even when someone honestly dislikes one of my books.

Most of the letters I receive from young readers pass through teachers’ hands before they reach me, and they are clearly written primarily to please the teacher.  “I loved Runt because you used so many similes and metaphors.”  or “When I read On My Honor I learned never to lie.”

I’ve always wanted to respond by saying, “Oh come on now.  Really?”

I try to write in the simplest possible way, consciously employing a style that avoids calling attention to language.  And that’s not just because young people are my audience.  I believe the best writing for any audience is always the simplest.  I don’t object to teachers using my books to point out similes and metaphors, of course.  I hope, though, they will always honor the story, the feelings it engenders and the truth imbedded in those feelings, first.  And if my readers truly respond primarily to my similes and metaphors, I have failed.

But it would surprise many earnest teachers to know that I have never written and never will write a piece of fiction meant to imprint a lesson on my readers.  Rather I write with the hope of moving my readers and through moving them perhaps even changing them, which is a different—and far more dangerous—mission.

To return to Savannah, though, whatever her teacher was hoping she would learn from my 1987 Newbery Honor novel, On My Honor, she was clearly having none of it.  And I admire Savannah for her fierce independence.  Not every book is for every reader.  I could name some pieces of great literature that I am “supposed to” love that fail to speak to me.  Or perhaps it would be more fair to say that I fail to hear them.  And so I empathize with Savannah’s one-word review.

I wrote to tell her so, but, as happens too often, teachers give students access to my website’s e-mail address without checking to see whether their school’s e-mail security system will let my responses through.  My e-mails bounced back, and Savannah and several other students’ in her class who expressed a more positive opinion of my book will go unanswered.

Since I can’t reach Savannah, I decided to send my response into the ether of the Internet.  And here it is:

“Thank you, Savannah!  I’m grateful for your honesty.  My story is meant to touch your heart, but it isn’t necessarily meant to be loved.  I would, in fact, rather have you hate it than be disinterested.  If you hate it, that means it has still reached you.

“So thank you for writing, and thank you for having the courage to speak your truth.  I hope you will go on to find another book by another author, because I know there are books out there that will touch you in a more positive way.  There are even books that you will love.”

And to Savannah’s teacher: “Please check your school’s e-mail security system.  Find out what you can do that will allow responses to come through when you have encouraged your students to e-mail.

“And please, help Savannah find another book!”

Tied Up with a Bow

boy“A writer only begins a book.
A reader finishes it.”
−Samuel Johnson

I hear the question regarding On My Honor more than with any of my other books: “But what happens next?”

I have, in fact, been asked that so many times about On My Honor that I’ve begun recommending an assignment: You tell me what happens next. Write Chapter 13. (The book has twelve chapters.)

For those who might not know the story, a quick plot summary . . . Joel asks his father for permission to go on an outing with his friend Tony, an outing Joel doesn’t want to be part of but doesn’t have the courage to refuse. Joel’s father, not understanding what is at stake, disappoints Joel by giving permission, and the two boys go. They end up swimming in a forbidden river where Tony, the more daring of the two, drowns. Joel, frightened and guilty and furious with his father for not protecting him from this terrible situation, returns home and, at first, doesn’t tell anyone what has happened. When he finally tells the truth, he also accuses his father, expecting some terrible punishment that will bring the world down around him and somehow make things “right.” What he gets is his father’s unwavering presence, a reconciliation that gives the story its only possible resolution.

Many teachers have passed my assignment for a Chapter 13 on to their classes, and sometimes they send their students’ new endings to me. I read them with a sense of discovery. So this is what happens! Because I don’t have a clue myself. I have never spent five minutes pursuing the question, no matter how often others pose it. The story, for me, ends with Joel in his father’s arms, with Joel and his father finding a way to be together in the face of the tragedy neither of them can repair. That is the resolution my heart longs for and what happens beyond that seems incidental. What happens beyond that moment is life, not story.

I knew, of course, that much in the story remained “unfinished,” but that was exactly the way I wanted it to be. If I had answered all the questions I have heard from young readers over the years, On My Honor would have become a different story. And in a curious way it would have belonged less to my readers and more to me. By not answering those questions, I leave it to them to carry Joel away with them. If all had been resolved, tied up neatly with a bow, they would have found it much easier to put Joel down and forget him.

Readers come away from On My Honor wanting, sometimes quite desperately, to know what will happen next. They want to attend Tony’s funeral. They want to return to school with Joel in the fall to see how the boys’ friends will receive him. They want to follow him into his life to see how he will manage without Tony. All of that could form the basis for another story, of course. It just doesn’t happen to be a story that calls to me.

One piece of On My Honor, however, remains unresolved in a way that I didn’t intend. If I could write the novel again, I would have Tony’s body discovered. In the first draft, I did have a chapter in which the body was brought back, but Joel’s reaction to seeing his friend was so strong that I dropped the chapter. I thought it might steal power from the final scene between father and son. The problem with having done that is that some young readers finish the book still expecting Tony to be discovered, alive and well. They probably have never read a story before in which a main character dies, especially someone their own age, and so they are distracted by hope and miss the story’s true resolution.

If I had realized that might happen, I would have answered that question more firmly. I could easily have had the body discovered off stage so that the death would have been certain without creating a distractingly too-strong moment.

But the rest? I am convinced it is the unanswered questions that give On My Honor its resonance.

I believe it is the unanswered questions that give most stories their resonance.

And that’s why I rarely tie up my stories with a bow.

A Bride Married to Amazement

11_28mary-oliver

Photo credit: Rachel Giese

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it is over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

                                                          (Mary Oliver, 1935 – )

I belong to a Unitarian Universalist Church, and I often joke that Mary Oliver is Saint Mary Oliver for us, her poems are so often used as readings in our services. (One of the principles of Unitarian Universalism is that scripture is not closed. We find our inspiration in the contemporary sacred as well as the ancient.)

I also find this particular passage an excellent mantra for those of us who write for the young. “A bride married to amazement … the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.”

All the years I have been engaged in writing for the juvenile market there has been an on-and-off discussion about the single, most basic requirement that makes our work distinct. Hope. We are, we often remind one another, compelled to bring hope to the page.

In the earlier days of that discussion, hope meant simply a happy ending, everything coming out all right in the end. Or at least that’s what it seemed to mean to me. But as literary standards in our field have grown more fluid, not every story ties itself up in a neat bow. And not every problem presented has to prove fixable.

On My HonorMany teachers have found a way to help their students cope with their frustration over the unresolved ending of my 1986 novel, On My Honor, often used in fifth and sixth-grade classrooms. They write their own Chapter 13. (The book has twelve chapters, and this practice is one I’ve encouraged.) My readers can decide for themselves what to do with the unresolved death, the body that hasn’t even been found. Some hold a funeral and help Joel, the main character, to move on. Some bring Tony, the boy who has drowned, back to life. He’s simply teasing, hiding in the bushes, not drowned. Some, interestingly enough, use their new ending to punish Joel, blaming him for his friend’s lies and risk-taking.

But even if the readers aren’t prepared for the unthinkable to happen, for a boy their own age to actually die in a story, at the end of my Chapter 12 I leave them with Joel’s father, solid and reliable. I leave them with a real world and real pain, but one in which love is real, too. Not every parent would be capable of bringing such grace to the tragedy Joel had endured, but this is my story, and Joel’s father’s grace is the gift I had to offer in my writing.

We live, all of us these days, in an uncertain world. One in which war, racism, climate chaos, inequity, violence, political stalemate, and disease confront us with the rising of every sun. These are realities to be faced into if we are to survive, realities for our children to face into, too.

Surely our stories must explore that uncertain foundation beneath all our feet.

But we also live surrounded by beauty, amazed by it if our senses are alive. We live capable of love, forgiveness, compassion, hope. Amazing love, forgiveness, compassion, hope.

The stories we tell our young people must be honest and true. If they aren’t, why are we telling them?

But if they aren’t filled with our own amazement then what is the point?

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SOME Return on the Investment

money treeLast week, I proposed that being published is not necessarily the be-all and end-all of every effort at writing, that most people engage in the other arts without expectation of being paid for whatever they create. And why shouldn’t writing be the same? I also pointed out that a drive to publish may, in fact, divert especially developing writers from their best efforts.

A reader responded this way:

This is a tough one for me, I have to say. Writing and kidlit are my passion. Yes, I would want to be involved with it even if I didn’t want to be published. For me, though, it is my only true option as far as something I can pursue as a vocation … so getting published (though a long shot, especially as a financial resource) is something I don’t just want, it’s something I need. Sure, I love to write … but all the years AND money I’ve spent in the effort to get published simply pushes me further into debt… . I need SOME return on the investment, so, although I do believe it’s the journey that matters, sometimes the goal has to be achieved. … This writing life is definitely not an easy one in this way.

I’m with her, with all of you who would say something similar. And I’m very aware that the argument I make comes too easily from one who is publishing, has been publishing, for many years. But I haven’t forgotten. This writing life is definitely not an easy one. And the difficulty of it is compounded when you are spending much of your time and resources on writing and have not yet published and need to publish to survive financially.

On My HonorMy writing career has been good to me in that way, though it took a long time to develop. I spent the first fifteen years writing full-time before I ever once earned enough to live on in even a modest way. The balance was finally changed only by the serendipity of having On My Honor win a Newbery Honor Award. And I do mean serendipity. There is so much luck involved in any award. There must have been scores of other books out there in 1987 that were equally deserving, but they, for whatever reason, didn’t catch the eye of the committee. I have always watched for the new opportunity, have supplemented my income with part-time teaching and lecturing, and have worked hard and consistently, but still I know that much of my financial success, such as it is, is due to happenstance as much as to my efforts. Not an encouraging message, I’m afraid, but an honest one.

Killing Miss KittyAnd a further admission, with the exception of On My Honor, my books that bring in the most income are often not my best work. They are ones that happen to capture some market niche or to be combined with the right popular artist or to be picked up by mass retailers, all simply luck. Truth be told, sometimes the books I’ve been most passionate about—Killing Miss Kitty and Other Sins being the most glaring example—don’t do particularly well in the market. Killing Miss Kitty and Other Sins, in fact, was a colossal failure. When it was emerging it got a lot of buzz, an unusual number of books went out even before the publication date, and when folks got a look at the challenging contents, those books returned to the publisher in a flood.

So … am I saying if you’re hoping to make a career out of writing, to make it your work, it’s time to give up? Not at all. But I am serving warning. I suppose “Don’t give up the day job” is as succinct a way to put it as any.

Yet I will return to the point of my last week’s blog. Despite the vagaries of an unpredictable market, despite the fact that commercial and even cynical sometimes comes out on top, the shortest road to success for most of us remains the road to our own hearts. When we write what we uniquely care about, we offer the world something no one else can give.

And then, whether our work sells well or poorly or not at all, we will have fed our own souls.  And that matters!

P.S. Another reader responded to this topic and sent me this link to a blog which many of you might be interested in.  Here it is:

Marion, I understand this one all too well and just wrote about it for Tara Lazar’s PiBoIdMo Writing Challenge. I’m sending the link because some of your readers might not know about her blog and will find true support here. — Karen Henry Clark

The Healing Power of Story

1-28groszIt was Isak Dinesen who said, “All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.” And I have found that truth to be one of the most basic of my existence . . . and my career.

I don’t mean to suggest that I have borne more sorrows than others. Every life holds sorrows, and I have had the good fortune of having a way to process and grow through mine that feeds me on many levels. The stories I spin teach me, encourage me, comfort me.

Stephen Grosz, author of The Examined Life, discussing the ways stories can help us to make sense of our lives, says if “we cannot find a way of telling our story, our story tells us—we dream these stories, we develop symptoms, or we find ourselves acting in ways we don’t understand.”

And fortunately, we don’t have to understand ourselves, through and through, before we sit down to write for our work to serve as an effective catalyst. Inevitably, our deepest truths will present themselves in the topics we are drawn to and in the resolutions our stories discover. I have always found that one of the best ways of knowing what I believe, what I am feeling, what I desire is to read my own stories.

If I’m reaching deeply to find my stories, not merely assembling them from the bits and scraps that make up my external world to try to impress some imagined audience, it isn’t possible for them to lie.

The constant work of my own stories has been to process and resolve a sense of abandonment. It took me many years to understand where that hidden fear came from, and even then understanding its origins requires some guessing. But drawing on the emotional power of that ancient fear has fueled stories from On My Honor to Little Dog, Lost. In fact, it has fueled so many stories that I have sometimes wondered, if I were finally to heal myself so deeply as to banish the fear entirely, whether I would have any stories left to tell.

I suspect the truth is, though, that healing doesn’t work that way. While I may feel less vulnerable in my daily life than I once did—at least in part because of finding resolution to that sense of abandonment through my stories—that childhood vulnerability will always excite my imagination.

It’s like my favorite color, a rich auburn. I knew that color drew me powerfully long before the day I happened to be unpacking a box of childhood toys and came across Tim, my beloved teddy bear. Guess what color he is. Of course, a rich auburn! That color was imprinted on my adult heart even though I hadn’t seen Tim—or thought about him—for many years. And discovering the well-worn bear in a box didn’t make my love of auburn go away. The only difference knowing makes is that I sometimes smile at myself when an autumn landscape of rusts and golds or a mop of flaming hair makes me catch my breath.

Tim

Tim

My dear old Tim continues to live inside me and to deliver comfort even though I’ve outgrown the stuffed toy.

And so I continue to mine the deep ache the theme of abandonment delivers for me and to nudge myself to move beyond it. There are, after all, other feelings to be experienced, other unresolved issues—even from my own history—to be mined.

Other healing to be accomplished.

What a blessing it is to live a career that both reaches outward to touch and heal others and inward to satisfy and heal myself.