All week a thought has rambled around my brain: this is not a dress rehearsal.
It’s dancing with another thought: If not now, when?
Author Lyn Fairchild Hawks takes the stage at Bacon today, reflecting on her journey as a writer and human. She’s thinking about yearning, discernment, right action – and her new book!
Bacon on the Bookshelf and its juicy name offers savory picks for the voracious reader. But this space also occupies the higher realms, beyond shelf and plate. This space is meditative. Reflective. Spiritual and full of yearning. It’s my perfect Sunday service lately.
Jen and I know something about yearning: we were teens together. At 14 we shared the truth of our secret crushes on senior boys who rarely looked our way, but we still kept faith we’d get a Homecoming ask. We worried whether tall girls would ever be cool. One time we got lost on Spring Break driving over some Myrtle Beach highway, and trust me, in a time without cell phones and without any decent experience decoding maps, these two 16 year-olds were praying to every god available we’d find our way back to that beach house. (We did.)
Those were the days when Gen X’rs could drive to the beach and cram a house full of high school kids with a college kid as house mom. Parents used to trust a lot to the gods. (I wish I could have trusted God a bit more while I was raising and teaching teens. I’d have added years back to my life.)
The songs of our era were yearning ones, too. Whether it was Whitney’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” or George Michael crooning “Last Christmas”–or maybe Blondie swearing “One Way or Another,” or Sting sending out a “Message in a Bottle,” we eighties teens, raised on ‘70s easy listening, R & B, and Motown in the station wagon rides, we knew something about wanting what you could not have.
As a young adult author, I must know my characters’ deepest longings, which means I must stay in touch with my own. At midlife, I think I understand more than ever that liminal, not-knowing world where teens live. It’s not just the aging process. It’s losing friends and family. It’s getting comfortable with the Unknowns of Publishing, trusting Luck and Timing to be in my favor. So it’s not hard to write books full of youth who question everything, want everything, and imagine worlds that are better than the one before us.
Teens in my books tend to invent their own spiritual solar systems. You’ve got Wendy in my debut historical YA novel, How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought, whose obsessive fandom for Michael Jackson takes a wild turn.
On June 25, 2009, she has an epiphany: he’s actually a saint come to save her. And that mystical, inexplicable experience leads to the classic American road trip where two girls must figure out who they are away from home, the places they both yearn to leave behind.
Long before he died, Wendy was already on the road to wanting someone or something to be her higher power. As she said of Michael on an average day in her life when she is bullied:
How low can they go? Praise Michael Jackson for filling my ears, King of my Walkman, granting me sanity—ooh! I push through the idiocy, the illiteracy—beating and bopping, giving thanks to guitar, praise to bass, blessing these drums—ow! Yee-ha! Brassy and rhythmic, I dodge these zombies, 8 steps per verse, blocking tongues like razors. Though sweat pools in my pits, though looks slice and dice, it’s alright, that’s right! Do you fools have an anthem?
Or there’s Minerva, in my second YA novel, @nervesofsteel, releasing March 28.
Her abiding respect for journalists like Marie Colvin and Christiane Amanpour sets the course for her investigations. Minerva is 13, a precocious ninth grader on her school paper, and wanting to change the world. It’s 2013, and Twitter is an even wilder space than it is now where all her peers are up to no good in unsupervised public view. Minerva needs heroines in her bullied world, badly:
I wait till I hear the door slam to grab my phone and google Marie Colvin. As I read, my heart kicks up a notch. A war correspondent with Middle East expertise. She also covered battles in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, and Chechnya. Her fierce refusal to abandon 1,500 women and children holed up in a compound in East Timor, besieged by Indonesian-backed forces, ensured their survival. She escaped Gaddafi’s oppressive harassment during a legendary interview, fled an angry mob in Cairo, and lost an eye to a Sri Lankan grenade. She wore an eye patch and drank like a fish. “My job,” she once said, “is to bear witness.”
On February 22, 2012, she died in the line of duty, killed by an IED while covering the battle of Homs in the Syrian uprising.
How could I not have known of her existence? I fall on my bed, hugging my knees till I can’t feel the blood anymore. Omigods and goddesses: I want to be her.
Up to this very moment, Amanpour was my number-one, my forever soulmate. A hybrid like me, being both Brit and Persian. A front-lines journalist during the Iran-Iraq War, the fall of communism in eastern Europe, and the Siege of Sarajevo. I still and will forever adore her.
But Colvin? She could be a superhero. If she’s ascended to the spiritual heights in the ether, she might be on the Mount Olympus of journalists.
What she did, I want to do. Journalism for justice. It starts now.
Minerva implores gods, goddesses, and demigoddesses at the height of her troubles, when she faces consequences for going TMZ rather than an NYT as a journalist. She talks to the spirit of her mother, too, who died when she was ten, believing that Mom is advising her from beyond.
Both young women yearn for a world where females feel safer, stronger, and paid dollar for dollar what dudes are. And they’re willing to be weird and wise in ways that they decide.
Being raised Catholic means I’m comfortable with rituals and especially ones that raise the eyebrows of other faiths. My time with rites and saints, penance and ashes, and Kyrie Eleison? They thread through every book. Salvation comes from showing up and doing the work on the kneeler, in the confessional, and at the communion rail. Faith or works, works or faith? Both, say teens in my books.
If you’re a survivor of sexual assault, you have to keep faith that someone will someday listen to your truth. And you have to do the daily work to thrive.
If you’re a journalist, you have to do the daily gumshoe investigations in dull and dangerous spaces, maybe for years. And faith? Journalist Marie Colvin, who reported from the front lines, said it best:
“The real difficulty is having enough faith in humanity to believe that enough people, be they government, military, or the man on the street, will care.”
This month I’m celebrating the 10-year anniversary of How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought, and next month, Minerva meets the world in @nervesofsteel. If you like your characters with a side of yearning, they’re your girls.
Nostalgia is a kind of church. You’ll find ‘80s songs in most of my books, you’ll see vinyl or typewriters on my book covers, and you’ll hear Gen X mentioned more than once. Most days, that’s me in the corner, losing my religion to the gods of the page, the obsession of my workaholic ways, and the obsession of my characters. Creating scenes where I say sorry to the boy I avoided so he wouldn’t ask me to prom. Say thank you to the teen who told me many years later that tall girls are cool. I’m writing myself into somewhere spiritual, exploring the meaning of my past, so I can get a taste of peace, at a communion rail of my own making.
Thanks, Jen, for staying with me on the dance floor back in 1985. And for making sure with every Bacon post, we don’t let the elevator bring us down.
Goodreads Giveaway this week – Wendy’s 10-Year Anniversary!
Meditations on whether young adult fiction is literary, here