I went on a mini-book tour last month, visiting middle school classrooms to talk about my new book, being an author, and writing as a hobby and career. Sure, I am there to promote my books, but more importantly, at least to me as an author of middle grade fiction, I get to hear their stories. I find that strange, wonderful, awkward, exciting time of life I call tweenagehood endlessly fascinating and inevitably complicated. Middle graders hover uncertainly between childhood and becoming a young adult, and it ain’t easy!
I think back to my own years as a tweenager, I have such clear memories of sixth and seventh grades, and I believe I became me during those years. I decided I was good at English and bad at math. That I wasn’t pretty, but I could be smart. I decided I would be funny, and that I would develop a signature that was totally illegible and therefore exotic and mysterious. Adult. I decided I was not a patient person. All those choices, that self-defining that went on in middle school, charted my course in high school, college, and beyond. I avoided taking challenging math and science classes, felt sure I would fail. In social situations I told jokes, tried to make people laugh so they might not notice my plainness. My signature to this day is a wreck of scrawled humps…not exotic, just illegible. I have been saying, “Sorry, I am just not patient” to everyone for too many years. I can be patient if I choose it, but it easier to excuse my behavior by making my impatience an undeniable fact, like my blue eyes. I have been thinking like that since middle school, so it’s hard to let it go.
On my book tour, I heard kids doing the same thing, making rules about what they could do and what they would certainly fail at if they tried. It struck me as sad and familiar. I challenged them to examine the self-defining they are doing, to consider self-judgment and where it leads. We had intense conversations, and I was stunned with the level on introspection and emotion in these kids. They are becoming their future selves.
In my writing, I try to capture that experience. My own thirteen year old self whispers in my ear, and I strive to channel her emotions. All the kids I met on my book tour, especially the brave ones who opened up and told their own stories, have helped me understand what it is to be a tween in today’s world. It is certainly different than it was for me back in the 80’s, yet the essential experience, the emotion and tumult and self judgment, is unchanged.
This summer I am challenging myself to be who I don’t think I am, if that makes any sense. It’s not really fair to run around asking classrooms of kids to try it when I rarely break my own molds. I never felt like a “real” author, and honestly I still don’t, but I act as thought I am, and it seems to work, so…if I pretend to be a supermodel, will the Ford Agency magically call? Probably not, I know this little “experiment” has its limits, but I am curious about trying to do what I asked the kids to do: redrawing some part of that picture of myself I consider to be etched in unchangeable Sharpie. The one I colored in middle school. I am going to pretend I am patient. I will act like a real patient person, and try to think of that as a trait I possess. I am not going to sigh dramatically and tap my foot when my daughter takes two extra minutes to get ready, or get that bad, pitchy whine I get when I have asked MORE THAN ONCE for everyone to get their dirty clothes into the laundry room. My kids are allowed to “check” me on this, so it might be a really long summer!
Fresh Fiction is going to sponsor a blog contest about this topic, and the winner will get a copy of my new book, THE CREPE MAKERS’ BOND. The question is, what have you decided you are? Smart? Average? Dumb? Quirky? Deep? Beautiful? Plain? Outgoing? Shy? You get the idea. Is the characteristic self-created or real? When did you assign yourself this feature? Ask your friends and family if they agree that you have this characteristic–their answers might surprise you. If it’s a negative personality or behavior trait, do you think you can “pretend” your way into changing it just as I am going to try to pretend away my impatience? I don’t know the answer, but wish me luck! I wish all of you luck too, and a happy summer!
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