Friday, November 14, 2014

On rules and empathy...

It was 1987. My daddy’s big ugly car—either the giant gray Oldsmobile or the smurf blue Buick, I don’t remember which—clunkity clunked out of the parking lot at Monaview Elementary school. The radio played some modern song we now refer to as a classic. Maybe it was Whitesnake's Here I Go Again. Maybe it was the Bangles’ Walk Like An Egyptian. I don’t recall.

But I do remember the conversation I had with my daddy that day. Vividly.

My chubby neck was red-hot under frizzy permed hair when he picked me up from school. I’d witnessed one of the class troublemakers cheating on a test, and I was mad about it. The injustice! After all, I worked hard and did my homework, even when it involved tears over math problems. I earned my A-honor-roll status. And this kid—this immoral little jerk—had taken a shortcut to glory, the irrefutable evidence hidden in his lap. 

I hadn’t told the teacher, because the test was at the end of the day. I didn’t have time before dismissal. Oh, but I was going to! I was gonna rat that sucker out the very next day, faster than you could say cheater-pumpkin-eater.

Daddy let me rant and rave for a few minutes, his infamous smirk pulling the corners of his mustache. 

“He’s always in trouble. For fighting or being rude to the teacher. Now he’s cheating, too!” I sighed in that dramatic way that only a 7-year-old drama queen could. Finally, daddy said something.

“Why do you think he was cheating?”

Huh? I stared at him like he’d morphed into Optimus Prime. I hadn’t considered that, nor did I care. It was cheating. Rules were rules, after all. Made and enforced for good reasons. Like fairness! Fairness was important, right?

“I don’t know, but I’m telling on him.” I crossed my pudgy freckled arms, a little miffed that daddy wasn’t the requisite level of pissed off along with me. He’d helped me with that god-awful math homework. In a way, he was just as invested in my grade as I was. 

“Why didn’t you cheat?” he asked me.

Okay, maybe he looked more like Megatron than Optimus. What the ever-loving hell was he talking about? I didn’t cheat on tests!

“Because it’s wrong!” I practically shouted. 

“Mmmhmmm,” he nodded. “And why else?”

Did I need another reason? I just sat there, slack-jawed, the wind from the window blowing through my missing baby teeth.

“Because you didn’t need to,” he filled in the blank for me. I agreed. Well, duh. I did my homework. And studied. And did everything I was supposed to do. Unlike some people. Pfffft.

“But what if I hadn’t helped you with your math?” he asked.

I shrugged. “Mama would’ve helped me.”

“But what if she hadn’t helped you, either?”

Why were we speaking in hypotheticals when there was a much more serious issue at hand? I did not get it.

“I don’t know!” I yelled. “I guess I would’ve failed.”

“Did his parents help him understand his math?” 

Like I would know anything about that kid. I was a little affronted. Clearly I didn’t associate with his type. I shrugged, getting angrier by the minute.

“Maybe his parents didn’t help him. And maybe they also didn’t teach him that cheating is wrong,” he said.

“But all parents teach their kids that, right? That’s what parents do.”

“Not all parents. Not everyone has it as good as you do. I don’t think you should tattle on him, Boog*. It’ll just make you his enemy. Don’t assume the worst about him, either. You don’t know his struggles. It’s the teacher’s job to catch him cheating, not yours. Just do what you’re supposed to do and don’t worry about anyone else.”

I fumed. I wanted to say something really witty back, something to counter the wild idea that I should ignore this breach of order.

When he suggested we swing by Dairy Queen for a celebratory test-is-over milkshake, I forgot my fury over cheaty-cheaterson. (Seven-year-olds are fickle, and I was a chubby kid with a deep love for frozen dairy, after all.) I walked away from the conversation thinking the lesson was don’t tattle.

At some point during my teen years, I realized the lesson was actually practice empathy.

That conversation came back to me a few years ago as I was Christmas shopping in Savannah. I saw a lady stuff a bunch of baby clothes in the bottom of her stroller. To shoplift them. 

It annoyed me. Here I was, picking up stocking stuffers in Target after a 12-hour third-shift at the hospital, where I’d worked hard to earn money that would pay for my things. And this lady was gonna get hers for free. But then I glanced down at the baby in the stroller. 

He was beautiful. Smooth skin, long lashes, tiny button nose. He slept soundly, wrapped in a faded blanket. Completely helpless and at the mercy of the person taking care of him. The stroller had a wonky wheel and ripped fabric on the side. 

It might have been my lack of sleep or general hormonal state of mind (I was pregnant with my youngest at the time), but I almost burst into tears. I walked away and said a prayer for her to have what she needed for her baby. After all, I had plenty. My family had plenty. I was buying stocking stuffers at 8am, for heaven’s sakes.

When I see someone breaking the rules, I try to make up a valiant reason for them to be breaking the rules. You know, practice empathy. It helps with my homicidal tendencies. The operative word is try. It’s a hard thing to put into action. Bitterness surges, and it’s difficult to bite back the initial instinct that I’ve been wronged somehow. That I’ve been a victim of injustice. Unfairness.

On a good day, I’m able to grasp the reality that it isn’t about me at all.

Maybe that crazy driver who cut me off and sped away has a dying family member at the hospital, and is trying to get there to say his goodbyes. Maybe that lady shoplifting baby clothes in the bottom of her tattered stroller can’t even buy Christmas presents, let alone clothe her child. Maybe sometimes, people who break the rules are just trying to survive.

My daddy’s kind, annoyingly optimistic voice from all those years ago still speaks to me. 

You don’t know their struggles.

I said all of that to say this… 

No matter your political allegiances, we are each capable of empathy. We all have brains and can recognize the fact that fairness is a unicorn—some illusory idea that’s impossible to distribute across the board. A minor injustice to you is sometimes a matter of life and death to somebody else.

This morning as I scrolled social media feeds, I noticed an echoing trend: outrage that our president plans to issue executive orders to stop the deportation of illegal immigrants (many of those unaccompanied minors). Of course, if he could issue executive orders to cure cancer, some people would find something wrong with that, too. Because people like to bitch instead of think.

My question for the folks who view illegal immigrants as problematic economic objects (rather than people with feelings and families and struggles) is this: When rules become barriers to survival, at what point would YOU stop following them? 

Put yourself in the shoes of an illegal immigrant. Walk a little while. Educate yourself on what they endure in search of a brighter future. Practice empathy. Imagine their struggles and what you would do if you were presented with them. 

And if your way of thinking limits that kind of imagination, I invite you to watch Rebecca Cammissa’s brilliant (and heartbreaking) documentary, Which Way Home.

Or check out Pedro Ultreras’s illuminating documentary, La Bestia, about the ramshackle train Central Americans risk life and limb to board as they run from crushing poverty and rampant crime. They traverse conditions and dangers we, as Americans, cannot even fathom. 

If you like to read, check out The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child by Francisco Jimenez, Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario, or Across the Wire by Luis Alberta Urrea. All of these are true stories.

Illegal by Bettina Restrepo and La Linea by Ann Jaramillo are works of fiction, but both tell gripping stories based on research and interviews conducted by the authors. They’re both quick reads. (My 9-year-old read La Linea in a weekend. It’s a young adult book.)

My attitudes and beliefs on immigration shifted incredibly when I started researching and reading the stories of these desperate, resilient people.

Research your ancestry. Unless you’re 100% Native American, your family members were once immigrants, too. Can you prove they came here legally? All of them? Every single one? And what if they’d been denied the promise of a better life? You wouldn't even be here.

I’m certain I wouldn’t be here, since my family heritage is mixed European and Native American. And don’t even get me started on the injustices our government has inflicted upon Native Americans. That’s some pretty ugly irony on immigration, and a rant all by itself.

There’s a reason people have been flocking to this country for centuries. Though certainly flawed, America is a beacon of hope for so many. I’m biased, but I believe this is the greatest country on the planet. And here’s a clue: that greatness is not because we’re a bunch of A-honor-roll, inflexible rule sticklers. It’s because we’re a melting pot of diversity with a myriad of strengths.

One universal strength is that we are evolved, empathetic human beings who can commiserate with one another. We can lend a helping hand to the less fortunate and be thankful for the things we take for granted. 

I don’t have an answer or solution for the economic effects of illegal immigration. But since human rights don’t increase our lawmakers’ paychecks, they don’t want to be bothered with a humane solution. That is absolutely appalling. Especially considering some of those same lawmakers want to preach the moral gospel from their lofty pedestals in campaign ads.

I was fortunate to be born here. So why do I deserve that privilege more than someone born elsewhere? In short, I don’t. And neither do you.

Pictures in the news show children who’ve been shoveled into illegal immigrant holding centers, waiting—fate undetermined. And I cannot, in good conscience, jump up and down and scream to send them back to the hell they demonstrated unimaginable courage to escape. 

You can’t clutch your Bible (or whatever moral compass you use) with one hand, and push people away with the other. It’s not a good look. 

My daddy taught me better than that.

*Boog is short for Booger, and that was what my daddy always called me. I don’t know why. I think he gets a kick out of embarrassing me. He still calls me that when he leaves me voicemail messages.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Why I wrote my #PitchWars novel

When people ask me why I entered my YA magical realism manuscript, FALSE START, into Pitch Wars, the explanation is a no-brainer. Pitch Wars is a well-known writing contest for novelists. It's hosted by Brenda Drake, an incredible author who dedicates countless hours of her time every year to advancing the careers of rising authors. She's a prime example of why I adore the writing community. I knew entering Pitch Wars meant getting a shot at working with a mentor who could help me fine-tune my manuscript, before sending it out into the agent world. I was both shocked and thrilled when I was picked from a pool of more than 1200 entries. 

Check out Brenda's website.

When people ask me why I submitted to Kes Trester, specifically, that's easy to explain, too. I cyber-stalked her extensively prior to the Pitch Wars submission window, and knew I'd love to be mentored by someone with a working knowledge of bringing words to life. After all, she's worked in Hollywood for years doing just that. She's an award-winning producer, and has critiqued many feature film scripts. Since she's a YA author as well, I knew she'd be an expert on tone, voice, and honing a high-concept idea. (Added bonus: she's funny, smart, and has fantastic hair. I had to know what kind of shampoo she uses. I won't give away her secrets, but let's just say that good genetics trump products.) I had confirmation I'd made the right decision when her vision for my story paralleled my own, but with revisions that made it sing. It feels like fate, because I don't know that I would've had the same connection with any other mentor. Kes gets me. 

But when fellow mentee C.M. Franklin had the genius idea to organize a mentee blog hop, explaining why we wrote our Pitch Wars novels, I panicked a little bit. How could I explain my journey to writing FALSE START? 

Writing is a very personal thing for me. It's therapy...cheaper than shrinks or defense attorneys, as I recently joked to friends. Characters and stories who've not yet found the page swirl in my head at all times. Most everything I write is drawn from personal experience, or things I see and hear that speak to me. 

I first got the idea for my setting in FALSE START last December. My best friend flew in and surprised me for my birthday. That weekend, we visited Old Town Spring. It's a cutesy little tourist town a little north of Houston. We had a blast perusing the boutiques and visiting the old-timey restaurants, funnel cake stands, and railroad running through town. It felt whimsical, like something from one of the many magical realism novels I'd been devouring for years. I thought to myself, This place has everything but a year-round carnival.

That was the moment the wheels started turning. I knew I wanted to write a story with a place like Old Town Spring, but it would have to have a year-round carnival. Because who doesn't love to eat funnel cakes and then get on spinning rides, amiright?

As we made our way back to the car that day, we passed a shop that gave me another puzzle piece for my story: Crazy Mama's, a pheromone perfume bar. 

I'd never heard of pheromone perfumes, but it reminded me of things I'd seen on trips to Cherokee, NC when I was growing up. As a nurse, and as someone with Cherokee heritage, I've always been fascinated with herbal remedies. Standing there in front of Crazy Mama's, reading descriptions for perfumes with mystical properties,  I knew my fictional town would have to have a character who made potions derived from nature. 

I jotted notes in my phone and emailed them to myself that day. I'm a plotter, so I had to wait for the muse to speak to me before I could start outlining. As time went by, I jotted more notes. It would be set in Texas. It had to have football. (I'm a Friday Night Lights fangirl.) Maybe it would be set near Enchanted Rock (which is a real place west of Austin, with tons of mystical history). Maybe it would have coyotes, because coyotes terrify me. And then...oooh! Maybe I'd name it Coyote Park! I had lots of setting details, but no story to tell. Not yet.

In early spring, a dear friend of mine went through a rough time. After years of dating all the wrong guys, she had finally found the man of her dreams and fell in love, but her family wouldn't accept him because of the color of his skin. A group of us encouraged her, offered our love and support, and insisted that her family would come around. Some of them did. Some didn't. It was (and still is) a heart-wrenching thing to watch. It boggles my mind that, in the year 2014, we are still dealing with these kinds of prejudices as a society. Some people refuse to evolve from ignorant ways of thinking. And the sad truth is that you can't change those people. But you can speak truth and kindness loud enough to drown out the negativity. And that's exactly what my friend chose to do. Her experience helped inspire my main character's story.

Since magical realism contains only blips of questionable magic, I'll let the reader decide what's false within the boundaries of Coyote Park. But you know what I think? I think real magic exists in being true to yourself, in spite of all the naysayers. That's why I wrote FALSE START.

Be sure to check out the other mentees' posts!

Tracie Martin: WILD IS THE WIND