Tag Archives: On My Honor

No Happy Endings

Sunrise

photo credit: RoganJosh / Morguefile.com

It’s a complaint heard often: why can’t stories for kids ever have happy endings these days? And heads nod solemnly, agreeing it’s a shame, the darkness our kids are subjected to.

In a world where dystopian novels such as The Hunger Games garner the largest readership and turn into the most popular films, the question has a certain validity, despite its overstatement.  (An equally valid question would be, what’s happening in our world that prompts young readers to turn toward such darkness?) The truth is, though, that there are lots of happily-ever-after stories offered to our young readers. Or at least there are lots of books with resolved, hopeful endings. And the younger the reader is, the more likely the story’s ending is to be traditionally “happy.”

As a society we agree that our youngest members should be protected from what we adults know to be, at least potentially, a harsh, a dangerous, a disillusioning world. The disagreement comes over deciding the right time to begin to lift that protectively happy scrim. At eight? At twelve? At sixteen?

I’m not a specialist in child development. In fact the truth is that I write out of my gut, not out of that kind of specialized psychological knowledge. My gut tells me, though, that the ten- or eleven-year-old who reads On My Honor is old enough to deal with the imagined death of an imagined friend. Even if he finds it shocking because he has never encountered death in a story before.

My gut tells me that I don’t have to bring the dead boy back to life at the end of the story to make everything all right. It also tells me that the feelings my young readers carry away from the story will do them no harm. Those feelings will, in fact, enlarge young psyches, making room for more compassion, a deeper understanding.

I’m not talking about bibliotherapy, either. Reading the right book may help a child through a traumatic experience, but that’s not what stories are for. Feeling our way through fictional events helps every one of us explore the fundamental questions of being human, and that exploration happens best in the quiet of our lives, not in the midst of our own trauma.

We adults don’t demand that stories written for us have “happy” endings. Why? Because we know that sometimes happy endings are a lie. And we know that truth—at least in fiction—is more important than good feelings, even if truth brings tears.

I’m not talking about sad stories as bibliotherapy, either, though a book can be an effective aid sometimes. I’m talking about sad stories as one—not the only but one—representation of human experience. An experience we must learn to parse at any age, because sadness is part of all our lives. The advantage of a sad story over the sadness we live is that we can stand back from a story, feel it without being crushed, and thus have a chance to sort it for meaning.

My personal guide in creating stories never changes whether the story I am writing is for three-year-olds, adolescents or adults. I ask that whatever my characters—and consequently my readers—may feel along the way, pain or joy, my story always follows a thread, however gossamer, of hope.

That isn’t a literary standard. The sun rarely rises at the conclusion of Shakespeare’s tragedies.  Rather it is a moral one. My own very personal morality. Life can be painful, yes, but it is precious. Life without hope is without value.

Each day I rise to embrace life, to rejoice in it, to hold it dear, whatever difficulties may come. I vow never to offer my readers less.

And hope is, I believe, much larger and more important than a happy ending.

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.

The Deepest Gift

praiseMy working life is represented by 96 books sitting on my shelf, each one bearing my name. An accomplishment I do not hold lightly. These books have been written and published over the course of 40 years, and that bears mentioning, too. I have worked long and steadily.

I have made a living for 25 years doing work that I love. Note the discrepancy between publishing for 40 and making a living by that publishing for 25. It took me 15 years before I ever once, combining income from writing, teaching, lecturing, and speaking in schools, earned enough money to survive on my own. And keeping that living going after it finally reached that level has required a lot of cobbling, a lot of taking on varied writing projects (thus the 96 books), a lot of teaching, a lot of climbing onto airplanes, a lot of repeating myself in front of a sea of wiggly kids. But I did it. And I’m so grateful I could that there is hardly room left over for pride in the accomplishment of it.

Looking back I see intense hard work. Good work. Always good. And every bit as clearly I see serendipity. Winning a Newbery Honor Award in 1987 for On My Honor was a major example of serendipity. Winning any award requires serendipity. While it can be presumed that a book that garners an important award is pretty good, there will always be a dozen more books—perhaps 100—of equal value that year, books that didn’t happen to catch the award-givers’ eyes. So serendipity lay in the calling out of my book from the pack and it certainly lay in the timing of the call. The award announcement came just as I cast aside the safety net of a 28-year marriage.

With the award, I woke to find myself the flavor of the month. Doors were opened where I hadn’t even known there were doors. And I walked through them . . . walked and walked.

I never forgot serendipity, though, or assumed any special deserving. A fellow author traveling the speaking circuit once said to me, “If you begin to think these invitations/awards are important, just ask your hosts who they invited/awarded last year and watch them struggle to remember!”

All this is real and true, and all of it is history. The advantage of being, by anyone’s measure, an old woman is that so much falls away. So much of the need for attention. So much of the desire for my work to be seen as better than. . . . So much of the feeling that 96 books—or one book—matters very much.

Early in my career I came to understand something important: the number of books published, the number of awards garnered matters very little. What matters is the day-by-day process of sitting down to write, of honing my skill, of mining my truth.

If I didn’t always recognize that reality in those first moments of being on display, it came home emphatically in the years that followed. No correlation exists between the amount of time, the amount of love, I invest in a book and its success out there in the world. Books I have created in a couple of hours on a playful afternoon support me, year after year. Books I have labored over with passion and deep feeling, books that represent my highest effort and best work, can turn into smoke.

I have come to know that rewarding myself in the moment of doing by simply paying attention, enjoying, letting the words flow through me is the key to a good writing life, to a good life.

How grateful I am to be an old woman who rises every day to work, to good work.

That, I can promise you, my friends, matters.

 

 

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