Reacting to Reacting Out Loud

Last fall, I took a class called “Teaching Writing in Secondary Schools.” While that may not sound exciting to some, it’s obviously quite crucial for someone who’s going to be an English teacher.

This semester, I’m the TA for that very same class, and in both of those semesters, one of the first activities is to make a list of our writing territories.

Translation? We compiled our own lists of topics we’d like to write about, genres we’d like to try, and audiences we’d like to write for. As I was looking through my old notes from the first time I was a part of the class, I saw that for genres I’d like to try, I wrote “poetry.”

This semester, I also wrote “poetry” on that genre list.

On Sunday, not only did I have a completed poem waiting on my Evernote, but I read that poem out loud and tried to control my shaking hands. I did what I set out to do, and, goodness, it was simultaneously the most thrilling and nerve-wracking thing I’ve ever done.

“But Rachel,” you’ve started asking, “You’re going to be a teacher — you must be a good writer. How could you be scared of sharing your writing like that? And you know you’re going to have to share your other writing with your students, right?”

Whether or not I’m a good writer is a question I find myself frequently agonizing over, but it wasn’t a matter of whether or not I thought the poem was good (side note — poetry is hard; I struggle more with poetry than any other kind of writing) — it was a matter of the content and the delivery.

My poem (which might make its way to Reacting Out Loud’s YouTube channel if the audio came through; open mic night without a mic was certainly an exercise in projecting, but it made the night infinitely more intimate, I think, as I found myself really listening to the many talented poets that read and shared their work) was about fatness. And mermaids and the goddess Aphrodite, but primarily about fatness.

This was what made the night so nerve-wracking.

I rarely call myself fat because the term scares me. I have heard the word thrown around like a curse, like something to be whispered because obviously this person isn’t aware that they’re bigger than you, and like something to be screamed as an insult. I had never heard the word used positively and without judgment until this year.

The content, here, the very word “fat,” is something I agonized over. I have always used the word “overweight” to describe myself, and I found myself using the word “plump” in my poem, but the word that was repeated most in the poem was “fat.” I called myself fat and described what it feels like to be fat, but not that fat and not that skinny, while standing on a stage, on a little platform where people could see exactly how big I was.

There, the delivery becomes terrifying. I could not hide behind my words because I was my words. This was me on the page (um, app, really, since I didn’t print out my poem) and I was asking people to accept that.

And they did.

One of the key components of Reacting Out Loud is, simply, reacting out loud. Vocalizing when you hear lines you like, snapping and showing the poet that you appreciate their craft and appreciate what they’re doing.

I was petrified that Two Cats Cafe would be deadly silent as I read, but instead, I was so supported that even as my hands were shaking so violently that I was afraid I’d drop my phone, I knew that I had to keep going because people were listening to me and cared about what I was saying. They were snapping and hollering and I had to continue onwards.

When I stepped off stage, the applause was thunderous, and I almost collapsed in on myself in relief. I had made my way back to my table and yet still people were clapping. People came up to me afterwards and said that they loved my poem; I received hugs and handshakes, and I was still shaking, but I was the good kind of shaky.

I had entered a world that I had previously only admired from afar, and I felt welcomed. I felt as if I was one step closer to becoming a goddess.

#MWW16: Diversity, Paper Hats, and Wonderful People, Oh My!

In my last blog post, I described how terrifying the cursor over a blank page is, and now I’m facing that same dilemma. That same dilemma even though I have so much to say about MWW and so much love in my heart for the entire conference (from the insightful panels to photo booth fun with the loves of my life, AKA my fellow agent assistants).

Where to start?

At the conference, I worked as the agent assistant for the incomparable Molly Jaffa, and let me just tell you all how much I admire her — I wish I could say I asked super insightful questions during downtime between her pitches, but I felt so tongue-tied (awkward and anxious person that I am) because she’s so good at what she does and that was simultaneously inspiring and intimidating.

Even though I didn’t ask as many questions as I so desperately wanted to but failed to think of, I learned so much just from sitting at her table, and here are just a few of these things that I learned both from Molly and the conference as a whole:

— Middle grade novels focus more on literal monsters, whereas YA tends to be more like “I am the monster because of my feelings” and about the emotional arc of the characters. Sitting in on pitches was so enlightening, especially as someone who’s always been on the verge of starting a YA novel, because everyone wants to write YA. It’s popular now, and that’s great, but don’t write it just because it sells. Middle grade is just as important and might actually be a better fit for the plot and characters you have.

— The majority of YA is in first person because YA is about immediacy, about as few differences as possible between the reader and the character. Don’t be afraid of third person YA, just know that this is why you see so much first person YA. (Also — maybe try your hand at second person in your writing as a disguised form of first person. I learned so much on this subject from Tom Williams‘ panel on second person POV; if you want my notes, I’m more than happy to give them to you!)

— If you weren’t already aware, I’m going to shout this from the rooftops — we need diverse representation in our literature. Molly is a huge proponent of this — one of the first things she said at the agent panel on the Friday I met her was a description of a book she’d signed about a girl who’s out as a lesbian but not out as a witch in Salem. How cool is that? And how important will that be for teenagers who haven’t come out of the closet? Be a proponent of diversity and equality in what you read, write, and share with the world. This is what Natalie C. Parker (whose books I can’t wait to start reading!) said was a reason she was so drawn to Molly as an agent above others, and it bears repeating.

— On that same note — sensitivity readers. Find them. If you’re going to write diversely, don’t do it because it’s a trend, because it’s not (at his buttonhole table, Jim McCarthy explained this is one of the things he’s tired of seeing in his inbox). Try to attain authenticity instead of appropriation.

— Literature, YA especially, works as windows and mirrors. Windows to see others, mirrors to see ourselves. I can’t tell you how much I’d loved hearing Molly ask a writer for a full manuscript about a girl with Down Syndrome, and I can’t tell you how difficult it was not to cry during Julie Murphy’s Keynote when she talked about seeing the movie Spy starring Melissa McCarthy. “Sometimes you don’t realize how hungry you are for your own reflection until you finally see it,” Julie said — and if you’re thinking that all I learned about was diversity at this conference, it wasn’t, but I think using this space to talk so much about diversity is crucial. I could talk about how much fun I had goofing around with the other agent assistants, because I had the best time in the world, but the pictures speak for that; to achieve diversity, we have to actively speak about it and champion it.

— On a final note — paper hats are great at putting people at ease, and Molly makes great ones.UIWww76-2

Get your paper hats ready for next year, everyone — I’m sure it’s going to be equally (if not more) amazing, and I can’t wait to see familiar faces and new faces alike there!

Let’s Go on a Writing Date

The cursor looming over a blank document is terrifying, and finding time to open the document in the first place can be just as impossible as actually writing.

Except I’ve recently asked myself this — is it actually so difficult to find that time to write or am I making excuses? What about the time I spend watching YouTube videos or re-watching episodes of Miraculous Ladybug that I’ve seen hundreds of times? Why am I not using that time to write?

One of the YouTube videos I watched when I could have been writing is this one by Fran Meneses, an illustrator and YouTuber also known as Frannerd:
I recommend just watching the video to understand fully what she’s saying about drawing dates, but when I watched the video, I came away with an idea — writing dates.

The premise is simple — find an acquaintance, a friend, a classmate, whoever, and go to a museum/park/etc. with the intention of writing and actually write. Use a painting as a prompt, describe what the kids playing Frisbee look like and what they might be thinking, or just write your thoughts. The point is to free write, and if you can multitask, talk with your friend at the same time. Bounce story ideas off each other, share what you’re reading — be actively involved in your own small literary community if only for thirty minutes while you sit on that museum bench or park bench.

And if you’re not a writer? Maybe try a reading date. Bring a book you love, and have your friend bring a book they love, and trade. Sit and read for thirty minutes, an hour, think about why they love that book and appreciate its craft for what it is.

Not only will you learn more about the other person, but you’ll have beaten that excuse of “Oh, I just don’t have time for reading and writing.” Make time for what you love and for your craft in the same way you make time for the people in your lives.

(Fran also has some recommendations for going out in this way and what to remember in this blog post.)

On Fanfiction and Reader Engagement

In a world where fangirl culture is now being labelled as crazy, admitting to reading — or writing — fanfiction is akin to placing a target on your back, but I have a confession:

I regularly read fanfiction.

Fire away, but keep reading, hear me out.

I could attempt to hedge my statement by protesting that I only read it before bed, when I know a book would keep me awake, but I don’t think my statement should need any hedging — do you know why?

Because fanfiction shows enthusiasm for reading, because fanfiction is writing for an authentic audience that wants to engage with what they’re reading, and that’s incredible.

(Authentic audiences are one of the keys to crafting good writing assignments, I’ve learned, and the teacher in me couldn’t not mention them.)

It was the teacher in me that asked Jane Friedman how to get students interested in publishing when they’re still learning their craft. I had expected some sort of answer about teaching students how the publishing industry works early on, but the answer I received was infinitely better and was something with which I was already familiar.

She suggested Wattpad, explaining that writing in small chapters for established characters and universes not only allows for practicing writers to get on-site feedback, but also provides inspiration and motivation and helps to combat writer’s block and the anxiety coupled with that kind of block.

Friedman’s words are golden, essentially, and are key to remember whenever we even think of looking down on fanfiction. People can be cruel and look down on poorly written fanfiction, but all writers start at differing skill levels, and all of these writers love what they’re writing about — don’t squash that love.

Think about the last book you really loved. What did you do after you read it?

I’m the type of reader to re-read the chapters and passages that I loved, sighing with content and hoping I’ll eventually write a book that causes the same reaction for someone, but words are finite, and there is only so much re-reading that can be done, which is where fanfiction can come in.

When I’m rereading Percy Jackson for the hundredth time (fear not, dear blog readers; I will never stop mentioning my love for PJO), I eventually have to put the book down, but I can easily pick up my phone and pop over to AO3 and read anything from a canon-compliant fanfic from Annabeth’s POV to a Percabeth soulmate AU where Percy is in a band (something I recently read, and let me tell you, it was wonderful).

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And when I press “kudos” on that story, I’m letting that writer know that I think they did a good job, thereby supporting their craft and their enthusiasm.

And that’s not even the best part — I’m working to better my own writing, because what’s the number one tip people give when asked how to become a better writer?

Read and read widely.

(Even fanfiction.)