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I Know What I Know

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March 2016

Querying: Tween Sheol

I’ll never forget my first middle school dance. Sure, the details have blurred with time, an ink drawing someone spilled iced tea all over, but the structure is there – the blueprint of my shame, the foundation of my inadequacy – these feelings resurface like artifacts of a lost civilization.

That night, it was warm. At least, I think it was. I remember being hot, but maybe it was just hot in the gym. I think it was early in the fall. Perhaps it was a grotesque reflection of the glitzy homecoming dance enjoyed across town by the high schoolers, a moment in time caught in a carnival mirror. Of course we’d all heard about dances, read about them, but we’d never been to one.

I had a pretty friend. Erin. You know that friend. The one who’s thinner than you, so much cuter. And you can’t even be mad because she’s so nice and really a damn good friend. She’s always there to lend you a top you kinda sorta fit into. Yes, that night, Erin loaned me a white, dark blue, and lime green tank top (yup, it was like 1996). We got ready at her house, carefully curling our hair, applying our first ever coat of eyeliner, and smearing ourselves with body glitter.

When we walked through the doors of the gymnasium, a retinue of Bath and Body Works scents faithfully attending us, all was hope, all was possibility. The tunes were groovy (nothing beats a gaggle of middle schoolers dancing to “Cotton-Eyed Joe” in a circle) and maybe tonight would be the night — the night that a boy would notice me.

After the choo-choo train song, some Backstreet Boys, and “November Rain” and several country ballads, the dance was almost over. And I had yet to dance with a boy, to lock my slick fingers behind his sweaty neck and sway back and forth, each of us looking opposite directions in a two-step of ultimate awkwardness. Then the lights came on. I went home, the bass still tingling my eardrums, and within me was the absolute hollowness of space, a void with pinpricks of stars.

This whole tween Sheol scenario is what it’s like to query agents or publishers. You get your cover letter and your sample chapters all dressed up and in the end, nobody wants you. You’re the nerd left sitting on the bleachers, sweating off your body glitter with tattered streamers draped at your feet.

So if this is the case, what are we supposed to learn from literary rejection? Well, middle school sucked for everyone. And we know J.K. Rowling, the homecoming queen of writers, got rejected plenty of times. In fact, a lot of writers did. Those that succeeded did so because they were persistent. Nobody’s going to dance with you if you stay home and watch Austin Powers for like the 15th time.

At later dances, I gave up on the boys and just concentrated on having fun with my friends. So don’t let rejections suck the fun out of writing, erase the reason we do it in the first place. Get in a circle and shake your ass to “Cotton-Eyed Joe.” You go, girl/boyfriend! Remember, A LOT OF PEOPLE DON’T EVEN GET TO THIS PART OF THE PROCESS! They don’t finish the novel, or if they do, they never show it to anyone except a few friends who give them glowing but ultimately useless reviews.

I had a very cute date for junior prom, and you know what? I skipped senior prom to go see Incubus (yes, I know I’m old). It was amazing. So maybe you walk a different path and self-publish, or you turn that novel into a podcast or a screenplay and try a different route.

I work with middle-grade kids now, so I see their individual dramas play out everyday (side note, things you don’t want to hear in a middle school hallway “Yeah, dude, I got KFC in my locker!” and it’s 8th period). If I could go back in time, I’d give my younger self the same pep talk I give my students: be who you are, have grit, and be courageous. Speak up and let your voice be heard, and don’t live in constant fear of what others think.

And when the going gets tough, the tough watch Austin Powers, and start all over again.

 

 

A Must Read!

Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of LeningradSymphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Again from the black dust, from the place
of death and ashes, will arise the garden as before.
So it will be. I firmly believe in miracles.
You gave me that belief, my Leningrad.”

Anderson says, “History is not simply the great tumults and tragedies but the accumulation of tiny moments and gestures.” His book about this great composer and the unbelievable tragedy of the Siege of Leningrad attempts to paint a picture of this time in history in much the same way — providing us with the great tumults and tragedies and as well as the tiny moments and gestures of everyday people suffering through these bitter days. It gives you the grandiosity of a war that claimed millions without drowning out the individual voices of the people of Leningrad, specifically Shostakovich.

The descriptions of the music were beautiful and made me want to listen. It’s so hard to describe something in words that can only be heard, but Anderson does an excellent job making the reader feel like they understand what Shostakovich’s music sounded like even if you’ve never heard it before.

My brother found this book for me in the YA section of the book store, and I think it was meant for YA readers. I think that’s fantastic. So much of history gets diluted and we try to protect teens from the ugly truth. We all know the old saying about those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it. Our young people need to hear this story. Anderson does a great job making the reading accessible by defining content-specific vocabulary as he uses it in a way that doesn’t sound clunky but leaves the reader understanding what the words mean. It’s a great book for learning new words!

It also really turned me on to Russian poets from the time period. Mixing in the poetry of the poets who lived through the siege was brilliant.

Nonfiction always brings up questions of “truth” and I think Anderson handles it well when he describes his methods in the author’s afterword. It seems like an incredibly well-researched book. I highly recommend!

View all my reviews

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