My kids are eleven and thirteen years old, and my current work in progress is a middle-grade novel. Between the kids and the book, I’m up to my eyeballs in middle-school struggles, successes, and changes. It’s no wonder I’ve been thinking about my own tween years lately.
I turned eleven in 1984. When I was in sixth, seventh, and eighth grade, a lot happened. Prince’s Purple Rain was released. For the first time, a woman—Geraldine Ferraro—ran on a major political party’s presidential ticket. Scientists identified HIV as the cause of AIDS. I saw Sixteen Candles at the movie theater. Ghostbusters. Amadeus. The Color Purple. Ronald Reagan was President of the United States. Mikhail Gorbachev became the leader of the Soviet Union. I played a lot of Super Mario Bros. The first .com was registered, and the first version of Windows was released. Pop stars sang together and raised millions to help the starving in Africa. Ordinary people held hands, formed a human chain across the United States, and raised even more money. Planes were hijacked. A volcano erupted. The earth quaked. A nuclear reactor exploded. A space shuttle did, too. The Oprah Winfrey Show debuted. Comet Halley visited our solar system.
These big things that happened weren’t mere backdrops to my existence. They entered my life and shaped, jarred, and diverted it. I remember trying to learn how to sign the chorus of “When Doves Cry” in sign language club, and I remember studying Halley’s Comet in eighth-grade science with Mr. K, my teacher with the Tom-Selleck moustache, and I remember attending the school assembly for the Challenger’s launch and watching the space shuttle take off, then disappear in a shroud of fire. I remember feeling shocked. I remember feeling sad. I remember feeling afraid.
These external events reached my smaller world in all sorts of ways—my parents’ conversations, gossip with friends, MTV, lessons at school, the newspaper, Seventeen, Teen Beat, Sassy—and I could write about any of them, though maybe not directly (because I don’t know that I’d want to), but indirectly, certainly, for each phenomenon became embedded in my life, absorbing my attention, feeding my understanding, and ultimately seeding yet more situations—stories, my stories. Yes, those are the ones I would tell. Every little narrative: a tiny shoot that, however far away and seemingly by itself, nevertheless, deep within the ground, shares a slight tangle of roots with a mother plant.
When studying craft, writers often hear, “Write what you know.” For sure, chance encounters and interactions with parents, siblings, friends, enemies, bosses, teachers, employees, partners, and lovers can fuel many, many narratives. But for some, this advice dampens the impulse to create. I’ve heard my own students complain, “Nothing ever happens to me,” and “My life’s boring”—not that either is true, but both can feel true to them. Others might sense they’ve tapped the familiar or wearied of it. In such cases, taking into account the larger picture—of the past or the present—can provide fresh inspiration. What’s happening “out there”? How are those happenings springing “in here,” perhaps in quiet ways, as subtle as a shadow across the wall or a whiff of perfume, or in ways that aren’t quiet at all?
Whether close to or far away from a profound event, once we learn of it, we carry it in some fashion.
My children will have their own stories to tell, coming of age, as they are, in this era of Covid, environmental catastrophes, social media, partisan vitriol, jeopardized democracies, emboldened autocrats, and humanitarian crises in embattled countries, including now the crisis unfolding in Ukraine. So many “conflicts,” so many “military offensives,” so many wars. That this era is also being defined by book banning and public shaming makes my children’s stories—everybody’s stories—only more urgent and relevant. How do people combat attempts to silence them? They speak. How do we support those who speak? We listen. We read what they write. We speak, too.
There really is no “out there.” Whatever happens in the world, unless we choose to close our hearts to it, must, necessarily, as we bear witness, unfold “in here”—in our feelings and imaginations. What will we do with what we see? What will we say?