Monday, January 13, 2014


A few months ago, I listened to a piece from TEDRadio on NPR that had me driving down the road with my jaw hung in awe. This amazing teenager spoke of her ever-unfolding experience as a young woman in this world with such bold honesty and uncanny wisdom that I nearly drove off the road. If you have not checked out, go do it right now.

Tavi Gevinson is a high school senior who refers to herself as "a senior citizen who goes to high school." She is more perceptive and witty and earnest than most of the chronological senior citizens I know, and she hasn't even graduated high school yet. But in all her prodigious wisdom, Tavi is so thoroughly a teenage girl. The difference between her and so many others is that she accepts that, takes complete ownership of it, and glories in the uncharted territory she is blasting through.

The greatest gift she offers her generation is a voice. She started a fashion blog in middle school and now has a website that is peopled by a number of bright young female contributors like her who face the challenges and triumphs and everyday flotsom of adolescence with grace and honesty. They share that space with any girl who dares to consider who she is and who she hopes to be. She can ask questions and search for the answers. She can give herself permission to take part in a discussion. After all, as Tavi explains, life is not a game that comes with a playbook and a set of rules, no matter how hard the "in-crowd" would like to claim it. Life is a discussion, and people are complex. No one is merely "one thing" or even two. We are full of contradictions and complexities and we should embrace them. Tavi not only "gets" that, she gives all teenage girls a place to embrace it.

One of my favorite points in her TED Talk comes at the end when she advises her audience to be Stevie Nicks. Stevie Nicks is "unapologetically present on stage and unapologetic about her flaws and about reconciling all her contradictory feelings, and she makes you listen to them and think about them."

If you have a teenaged daughter, introduce her to, and if you write for teenage girls, stop by and visit this insightful, unabashedly real website and meet that girl you are speaking to.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

The Wisdom of Fiction

As an avid reader and writer of historical fiction, I have often ruminated on my own place in time and what would have become of me if I had been born in another era. I may never write "important literature," but many books have made me stop and think what I might have been had the circumstances of my birth been different. I have considered issues of health and science and technology and whether I would have even survived to adulthood in the 19th century or even the early 20th century. In most cases, I probably would have died before I reached my first birthday. The bigger question, assuming I would have survived, is what kind of person would I have become?

I have been moved to righteous indignation by classic books like The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Scarlet Letter, and more recent selections like Shine, Inside Out and Back Again, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. I can't help but wonder where my moral compass would have pointed if I had grown up in the Antebellum South or in WWII Germany. Would I have accepted bigoted codes of ethics as morally right or hidden behind the general attitude of the time because it was easier than expressing an opposing opinion?

Having come up through the 1960's and the explosion of free speech and equality-for-all rallies, I must have soaked up the social vibrations that that would have bounced my grandparents right out of their comfort zone. Yes, I had a loving grandmother who regularly used a slew of racial and religious epithets to describe the Jewish, African American, and Hispanic people around her, completely convinced that they were just ordinary adjectives and acceptable classifications.  My mother adopted some of that, but she was more subtle. My mother was also a staunch Republican—chairman of the local GOP—but a firm women's libber who started her own business. It was an interesting set of messages to ingest, so I don't really know what part of me stems from her influence and what was just innate.

Books have so much power, especially in our formative years (adolescence in particular), to both elicit a response and to shape it.  It was easy for me to stand in 1979 and see the injustice of Hester Prynne's sentence, but how would I have felt about it in the 1630's or even when Hawthorne published it in 1840? Would I have defended her?  Would I have protected The Witch of Blackbird Pond's Hannah in 1687 or would I have joined the hunt? Would I have stood up for Tom Robinson in the 1930s? I would like to think I had the gumption to choose the right path no matter where or when I lived.

I have always felt blessed to live in a more "enlightened" era where the lessons of history seem so obvious and clear in the books that I have read. I have looked around and thought that I don't have those sorts of huge choices to make, so maybe I'm not as evolved as I would like to think.

Then again, I have seen the fall of Apartheid in South Africa and protested in my own small way against those who supported it. I have been sickened by the sort of hatred that drags a black man to his death behind a pick-up truck or lashes a young gay man to a post, beaten to within an inch of his life and left to die. I have seen the kind of fanatical judgement that drives jet planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and takes thousands of lives. I have heard the story of a 17-year-old Afghan girl who risked her life just to be educated. I have seen what fear and hatred can do to the marginalized of our generation.  We choose our response, big or small, and every tiny spec of dignity matters.

I choose to read the books I read, too, and I react to them of my own accord, from something that lives deep in my bones. Not every book has to ask some huge moral question, but each can show us a little about who we are or who we would like to be. There must be a reason I cry when Tom's life is lost because of bigotry, when Dimmesdale dies and Hester suffers on, when Hannah is hunted like an animal because of fear and superstition.

Would I have understood what it meant to be human even back then? I hope so. Maybe the rebellious literature of the age would have found me. Maybe I would have searched for it and loved it and learned from it. And maybe, just maybe, I would have written some of it.