It all started…well, with me NOT in tears. I was sitting in this hotel room, which isn’t so bad, despite some really questionable décor choices involving pineapples. I’m here in Albany for a Conference to Make Me Better at Helping Kids Read Good, and overall it’s been a decent few days. Hundreds of teachers and school administrators together in a room are actually kind of a hoot. That’s what happens when you let us all sleep in longer than 5 a.m. AND we get to eat while sitting down for two days in a row.
But tonight has been surprisingly rough. My colleague who flew in with me already left, so I decided to lock myself in my room with overpriced room service, about twelve hours of unit plan reviewing and assessment writing, and a determination TO FIGURE OUT THE ENDING OF THIS BOOK THAT JUST KEEPS ENDING DIFFERENTLY AND MY POOR EDITOR.
And I just started to feel all very WHAT ON EARTH IS THE POINT. Because I’ve just spent two days in a room with educators who are amazing and awesome and who I know on MANY levels are doing this whole Teaching Kids to Read Good thing better than I am, and I often tend to wonder how I am perceived by these other Educators of Amazingness. Also because I am basically paralyzed by finalizing the ending of my newest book and I’m not sure why. I have seriously re-written it so many times, and my editor right now likes it, but I just cannot call it finished—and today I realized I am probably paralyzed because a few reviews of my first book that were unfavorable towards the ending.
Anyhoo, it was about then when I realized I AM THINKING A LOT LATELY ABOUT WHAT PEOPLE THINK OF ME AND HOW I COMPARE MYSELF TO OTHERS. This was disappointing for two reason: one, I read a book this summer that told me to stop doing that and I was trying really really hard. And two, I hate when I do that.
Anyhoo again, then I did what any sane person in this situation might do: I started watching John and Hank Green videos ad nauseum (spell check says I have that wrong, but it’s got no better suggestions). This was helpful at first, because John and Hank Green videos, I only recently discovered (yes, yes, multiple years behind here…I’m also still trying to learn how to squeeze all my thoughts into 140 characters), have this weird way of saying exactly what I need to hear. So when John (following his own Twitter rule, I am allowed to call him by his first name) almost immediately dropped this quote from Franny and Zooey about how “I’m sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody” I knew I had picked the right activity for the evening.
Until THIS video happened.
I just put it on again and teared right back up. Watch that video. Right now.
I was watching, and listening, and I got to the part about Lord of the Flies. Right about then I also got an email message that my book has a new review. So I started reading the review while watching the video, because all those studies claiming multitasking isn’t really good for us can’t POSSIBLY be right.
Here’s what I then heard John Green say:
“There are always nerdfighters…who will listen to you if you will also listen back.” (If you don’t get the nerdfighters reference, a few John and Hank Green videos will cure you of that right quick. And you want to be cured.)
At the same time, I read this review. Bear in mind that my first book has not sold well. And because I’m published through what is kindly referred to as a “boutique” publisher, not many people know about it. So I’m always a little surprised when, well, anyone at all has read it.
The review said:
“When I finished this book, I was in tears. If I could meet the author, I would wanna hug her and thank her for writing this book. The more I’d read the more I wanted to read. And in the end, I found it to be a literary masterpiece.”
I realize and recognize that not everyone in the world will have that reaction to my book. In fact, just last month someone basically said they regretted the moment they ever laid eyes on it. But the fact that even one person ever in the world thinks that....
Well, I’ll come back to that in a second, but first you have to know what I then heard come out of John Green’s mouth:
“I call up the great Robert Frost quote: the only way out is through. You will get through. I will get through.”
And then I was REALLY, REALLY crying. Surrounded by strange pineapples in a city about 2,000 miles away from my home. And when I really wasn’t quite sure why, I decided if I started writing that eventually I might figure it out.
Here is what I think I know: it is a ridiculous exercise to base all your self-worth on what others say and think of you, obviously. And Salinger, as he so often did, captured perfectly that the human fear of invalidation or lack of validation is at best bizarre and at worst paralyzing. And Twitter proves that this really is a human condition.
So all we can do, I think, is what John Green pushes us to think about in this video: find the people who appreciate us for whatever it is that we are and want to be, so that we can validate each other in a space where that validation is real, and healthy, and worthwhile. I will never be sorry that the validation of that review makes me cry. That kind of validation is why I wrote it in the first place—because the truths in that book are truths for me, and I wanted to share them with people who have similar truths. But obsessing over whether or not an entire populace of people will like the ending of my next book? That’s when the human need for validation becomes so dangerous.
As Cyril Connelly put it, “Better to write for yourself and have no audience than to write for your audience and have no self.”
And I didn't get into education to be the best at it. Meeting other awesome teachers is amazing because they make me more awesome. The comparisons only drive the community apart rather than bring us together. It’s a sucky thing that in this day and age of teacher evaluation and pay-for-performance that so often the first thought on a teacher’s mind IS whether or not they are better than their peers. This is a collaborative practice, and it needs to stay a collaborative practice against all odds. And my inner human desires to be competitive and WIN AT EVERYTHING (especially Scrabble) that I thought I had squelched years ago must go back to being squelched because I clearly am not squelching them well.
John Green created that video for a teenage audience. I jokingly made the title of my author-world website “writing books for the young adult in all of us” because I, like so many YA authors, know that that gap from young adult to adult is a pretty short one, and we’re all crossing back and forth all the time.
The same twelve-year-old me who used to sit in class and wonder if what she just said sounded stupid to everyone else was at that conference today. And that same thirteen-year-old me who just had to win the spelling competition because I wasn’t good at basketball comes back every time I see my book’s sales rank on Amazon. And that fourteen-year-old me who swooned in happiness when my teacher said I was a good writer was reading that review today.
John Green’s right, and so was Frost: “The only way out is through.” I think you have to find your way out of a place where you simply let many others determine your happiness so that you can get to the place where you let THE RIGHT people determine your happiness. At that point, I think you’re actually determining your own happiness. And if you forget to do that for a while, it’s okay—apparently someone will eventually get on YouTube or a book blogging site and remind you.
Or something like that. I’m still crying at little, and I can’t find my red pen. But I think that’s close.