My Writing Philosophy, AKA Meg Cabot is My Hero

Have you read the Princess Diaries books? If not, please go read them. I’ll wait.

Okay, so you’re set now? Great. Then you get why I’ve always loved them so much. I mean, it’s pretty easy to understand. For one thing, they’re funny. Like, actually laugh-out-loud funny, filled with weird side characters and hilarious situations and a voice-y narrator who instantly feels like she’s your real best friend. And just as importantly, they’re romantic. Michael Moscovitz is near the top of my list of Ideal YA Book Boyfriends (and I’ve read a lot of YA, you guys). The most recent PD book, Royal Wedding, was just as funny and romantic and goofy and sweet as every other book in the series. Meg Cabot is the queen of the YA (and adult!) romcom.

But, if I can keep fangirling over Meg Cabot for a little while longer, she also gave me something even more important than wonderful books: a writing philosophy.

So here’s the thing. I have a lot of friends who are extremely educated. They have multiple degrees and letters after their names. They have big, important jobs where they make actual money and save actual lives. They talk about doing things at work that I can’t even imagine. It’s all enough to sometimes make me feel a little bit inadequate, with my little bachelor’s degree and my job that basically involves sitting at a computer and listening to a weird Youtube mix called STUDY MUSIC BRAIN POWER because it helps me zone out and write fighting scenes, or kissing scenes, or fighting and kissing scenes.

Because that’s what I write! Kissing books! Okay, so I’ve only written the one, but the likelihood that I’ll ever write a book that doesn’t prominently feature a climactic first kiss is pretty slim. That’s what I like, but I’ve spent a long time feeling like it’s not enough. I was lucky to study creative writing with professors who were surprisingly open to genre fiction (that’s not always the case!), but creative writing programs are almost exclusively focused on literary fiction. That means, basically, that you’re gonna end up with a room full of 21 year olds writing about divorce and aging. When I was in school, I just sort of assumed I’d write stories like Lorrie Moore or Charles Baxter or George Saunders. That was partly because I love their stories–there’s no one funnier than Lorrie Moore, or more emotional than Charles Baxter, or better at making me sob while laughing than George Saunders. But it was also because I thought that’s what I was supposed to write. After all, I was “studying” the Best American Short Stories compilation, not paperbacks from the romance section of Barnes and Noble.

Although I love literary fiction as much as the next girl, commercial fiction has always taken up the biggest piece of my heart. Commercial YA, specifically. I’ve mentioned this on the blog before, but I actually read one of the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants books hidden behind in a textbook. Contemporary YA, the kind that’s funny and involves a whole lot of kissing, is my jam. It’s just what I like!

But even though I like it, there was a part of me that felt like it wasn’t enough. I’m certainly not saving lives with it, like my friends do at their jobs. And writing isn’t exactly a great career to pick if you’re set on making reliable bank. And then there’s the whole thing about how I like to write funny things that involve kissing, not the next Great American Novel. Like, Jonathan Franzen would actually hate everything I’ve ever written (as well as everything about me, if I’m being honest).

That’s where Meg Cabot comes in (seriously, thanks for hanging in there for so long). In one of the later Princess Diaries books, when Mia is writing a romance novel and Michael, her boyfriend, is busy inventing this high-tech robotic arm that’s going to be used by doctors during surgery, Mia starts feeling kind of useless. She’s got this genius boyfriend who’s literally saving lives, and she doesn’t feel like her kissing books are as important. Michael tells her something that really stuck with me: While his fancy robot arm is saving someone’s life, that person’s family members are sitting in the waiting room. And those people are sad and scared and freaked out, and they need something to comfort them. Maybe Mia’s books don’t save lives in the literal robot arm sense, but to those people who need something to read to distract themselves from what’s happening and to comfort themselves when they’re scared, those books can be life-saving in a different way.

It’s something that I’ve come back to over and over again in a year that’s been emotional enough that I simply haven’t wanted to read anything “serious” or “depressing.” I’ve been reading a lot of kissing books, a lot of funny books, a lot of straight up romance novels. And you know what? The Nora Roberts Bride Quartet may not have literally saved my life, but it sure did make it better. When I was younger, I used to think that using art as a means of escaping from your life was somehow weak or sad. (I was dumb.) The thing is, life is hard sometimes. Sometimes it’s really hard. And maybe you deal with it by dancing with your friends to some dope Outkast jams at a wedding (ahem, me last week), or maybe you deal with it by helping other people, or maybe you deal with it by picking up a book that has a guaranteed happy ending. That escapism and comfort is important, and meaningful, and honestly, sometimes essential.

So maybe I’m not operating on anybody, or counseling anybody, or saving any animals’ lives. But I do believe that what I’m doing is making a difference, even if it’s in a less obvious way. I probably would have realized this on my own eventually, but hearing Meg Cabot say it through the words of Michael Moscovitz helped a lot. I remember those words every single time I sit down to write, and I keep them in mind throughout every kiss, every friendship, and every happy ending.

Stuff I’m Reading: A Little Life

a little life

I think everyone goes through reading phases, and this year has been a year of reading light for me. I’ve been dealing with a lot of emotions, and I just don’t want to read anything too heavy, or anything that deals with death, mortality, aging, etc. At the beginning of the year, I truly thought I could read all of Toni Morrison’s books, but it’s September and mama’s clearly not going to get that done. Instead, I’ve been reading a lot of romance novels.

But when I finished my book, I wanted to read something that was as far away from contemporary YA as possible. So I picked up A Little Life, which Alex promised would make me cry. Every review I saw of it on Goodreads said it was amazing, but people also spoke of it like it was a horror movie…like, “Be careful, don’t read it alone, it’s going to make you sob.” I was apprehensive, but I have a long history of reading upsetting things, so I was ready.

Well. Let me tell you guys, I wasn’t prepared for what was going to happen with A Little Life. It was, by far, the most viscerally horrifying book I’ve ever read, but it’s also one of the best. The writing is beautiful, and I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that made its characters feel so real. It seems like such a dumb cliche to say, “I feel like I know the characters,” but I really do feel like I know Jude, Willem, Malcolm, J.B., Harold, and Andy. Over the course of 700+ pages, they became real. The book’s about deep male friendship, which isn’t something that’s often explored honestly in fiction.

If you’ve been seeing a lot of great reviews for A Little Life and you’re thinking of picking it up, maybe do so. But maybe don’t! As much as I loved this book, I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone. It deals, very explicitly, with hard-to-read-about topics like childhood abuse, self-harm, and suicide. At time, I truly thought I would have to stop reading it. Before this, the most upsetting book I loved was Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State, but A Little Life is about 500% more brutal than that. It’s dark, and it doesn’t really let up. I’m not sure if there’s a lesson in it, or a moral, or even really a lot of hope, other than that we, as readers, get the privilege of reading about and understanding these people’s lives, of seeing the times they’re happy even when dealing with excruciating pain.

I’m going to go back to reading something a little lighter now, but A Little Life reminded me of the value we get when we challenge ourselves to read something upsetting or difficult. It made a deep impression on me and I’m going to be thinking about it for a long time.

But if you’re not up for reading something quite so bleak (because it is bleak, and unrelenting), I have some recommendations for books I’ve read this year that are upsetting but ultimately way, way happier. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie deals with some deep issues but is basically a happy ending sort of book (and it’s also very funny!). 32 Candles, which I recommend to everyone all the damn time, starts out with an abusive childhood and goes to some dark places, but is essentially a hopeful romance for John Hughes fans. And if you just want to go really light, read the latest Princess Diaries book, Royal Wedding. A++, would definitely read again.

PS: If you just want to know more about A Little Life, you can check out this interview with author Hanya Yanagihara on Late Night with Seth Meyers!

The Things That Will Happen When People Find Out You’re Writing a Book

Most people will not care. This is because they’re human beings with lives of their own that don’t revolve around you (weird). This is fine. This is, actually, vastly preferable to some of the other things that will happen, so be cool with it. Just talk about something else. Talk about anything else.

People will ask you what kind of book it is. You’ll say YA and they’ll stare blankly at you, and then you’ll remember that not everyone is involved in publishing and most normal people don’t care about genre distinctions and you’ll say, “Young adult. For teenagers. Teenage girls, mostly,” and they’ll make a noise of understanding while looking like they don’t understand, not even a little, not even at all.

People will tell you that J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter on napkins. Nod politely.

“But it’s not about vampires, right?” they’ll say. Has any book been about vampires for the last five years? You don’t think so.

“I want a signed copy!” they’ll say, and that’s very nice, but your book is ebook only and you don’t even want to try to explain that so you just say sure.

People will ask “What’s it about?” and you’ll freeze. You spent months on this, almost a year, and you suddenly can’t remember even a single plot point. You should practice this, in front of a mirror or something. “It’s funny! But it’s also about anxiety. And homecoming. Oh, and The X-Files, and…” you’ll trail off, and they’ll look at you like, “This inarticulate person wrote an entire book?”

“Maybe you’ll be like J.K. Rowling!” Maybe. Maybe you’ll win the lottery. Maybe the world will end tomorrow. Maybe a lot of things will happen.

Some people will be so impressed, it will shock you. There’s no telling who these people will be, but they’ll make you feel like maybe somebody will actually read your book. This is the nicest and also vaguely disconcerting.

People will say, “You should put that in a book!” You never should. It is never something that should be in a book, whatever it is, trust me.

People will say, “That sounds like a fun hobby!” You will die a thousand deaths right there on the spot. Hobbies don’t make money you’ll say in your head but not out loud. Don’t ever say it out loud. Maybe someday you’ll say it out loud.

“What you need to do is write something like J.K. Rowling.” Something that affects our culture immeasurably, influences an entire generation of people, and makes a million dollars? You hadn’t thought of this before.

Here are some things.

Here’s what’s been on my mind lately:

Gilmore Guys, the podcast. Alex has been on my case to listen to this for months. “I don’t know why you aren’t listening to it. You’re going to love it,” he told me, multiple times. I steadfastly refused! And then I listened to it this weekend and immediately fell in deep, hard love with it. If you love Gilmore Girls, you’ll love it. If you don’t love Gilmore Girls, you’re probably not reading this blog anyway. When they sing along to the theme song, I just sit there, by myself, smiling like a maniac.

My Misfit. H. got me this instead of a Fitbit, and while I am not usually one for brand loyalty (I will not bow to ~the man~, even when that man is selling fitness trackers), I really love it. Multiple people have asked me about my watch, but it’s not a watch! It’s a Misfit! And now those people have to listen to my 10 minute schpiel about how much I love it and watch a demonstration of the app!

-Romance novels. Before this year, I never really understood the value of reading “light” books as a form of escape. I’ve always been able to read the most upsetting, most disturbing books with no problem whatsoever. But for some reason, right now, I can’t even tolerate reading anything that stresses me out. So many things in my own life are wildly out of control; I need to read something with a happy ending I can count on. Enter: romance novels. There were so many times in the past couple of months that the only thought on my mind at the end of the day has been, “I need to read about people falling in love.” It’s been really fun to start learning about a genre I don’t know too much about, and in case you haven’t noticed, I deeply enjoy immersing myself in the types of books and movies that are often directed at women and maligned because of it (see: romantic comedies, YA, T. Swift). Sometimes I feel like defending typically female entertainment pursuits is my life’s work, and I’m completely here for it.

-Other books. Okay, so it’s not all romance novels, all the time. I’m also reading Kissing in America, a really lovely, emotional book by Margo Rabb, whom I had the pleasure of meeting at a bookstore event in Dayton a few weeks ago. Kissing in America is amazing and is also full of apt descriptions of anxiety/grief/etc. I’m also finally finishing up Bad Feminist–I got a bit stuck in the middle on the essays about books I haven’t read, but now I’m reading about movies/race and really enjoying it. Roxane Gay’s essays on The Help and Fifty Shades of Grey were particularly great.

-Going to book events. Did you know that I’m actually trying to leave my house lately? It’s true! I’ve been going to YA book events when I get the chance, and it’s been great. Stuff like this scares me and sometimes makes me feel like a big phony, but I’ve been really trying to a) be a better “literary citizen” (groan), b) meet other writers, and c) have more confidence in myself and my writing. On all counts, it’s hard. I really, really love meeting other writers (in general, people in the YA community are ridiculously nice and interesting), but it’s difficult to get over myself. I always assume no one will want to meet me, that they see me as a fraud or a weirdo or a small child pretending to be almost 30. What a gross attitude, me! It gets easier the more I do it, but it’s still hard. And lately, I’m just all about trying.

Thoughts: Wedding Edition

I guess livejournal-y blog posts are just what I do here now. Here are a few things that happened recently.

-H. and I were both in a wedding last Saturday. It was great. My favorite part of any wedding is the rehearsal, because I love that “everybody comes together as a team” feeling. It’s not one I get often, mostly because I’m terrible at being on a team. It’s not that I want to be terrible at it, but I often avoid working with other people on things because I’m afraid I’ll be the one to mess it up and ruin everything (this may be my low self-confidence talking). It all reminds me of how much I loved that last rehearsal before a band concert, or lining up to go on the field at halftime. All the is my hat straight?, get in line, here hold this, oh no it’s time stuff is always my favorite. The we’re all in this together of it all. Lining up behind those big double doors as the wedding music starts, the last moment before it all happens and everything changes. Hugging Cat and her dad right before I walked down the aisle, standing with my own dad and muttering, “Oh God, I hope I don’t fall,” clutching onto H’s arm before walking down the aisle Saturday to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. It’s all good. It’s all my favorite.

-It was also my birthday on Saturday, making this probably the weirdest birthday I’ve ever had (except for when my birthday was the day after senior prom and my date got the bowling alley to announce it at midnight). I let myself relax for once and I had a few drinks and I danced a lot, and you guys, I am not a good dancer. I’m not a sober dancer because hi, anxiety, and I don’t enjoy doing things I’m terrible at in front of people. But honestly, I’m just so tired. I work 60-70 hours a week, I don’t sleep enough, and my nerves are so tight it feels like they’re going to snap. I told myself to forget about work for a few hours. I let myself get to “Good Charlotte is my jam” levels that night, which is a feeling-label I came up with after I went to bachelorette party at Put-In-Bay and, during a cover band performance of Good Charlotte’s The Anthem (a song I have no particular feelings about), I turned to Jayne and very seriously yelled, “THIS IS MY JAM!” On Saturday, every song felt like my jam. I don’t think I’ve ever been as happy as I was when those first few seconds of “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” started playing. I heard “Gangnam Style” and thought, Yes. Kesha played and I felt like I could fly.

-No songs will get people in their late 20s more excited than “Yeah” by Usher and “Hey Ya.”

-My husband’s signature song is “My Humps.” Yes, the Black Eyed Peas song. He requested it at the wedding and then rapped/sang the whole thing for us. Apologies to you if you’ve never heard your husband singing about his “lovely lady lumps” and threatening to “get you love drunk off my humps.”

-Weddings! They’re great. I know a lot of people aren’t into them anymore, but I still think they’re special. I still think there’s a value in making a promise in front of people. And I still cry, always, no matter what.