We all knew that guy in high school.
The one with the upstanding pedigree from the great family. The one who everyone expected to run for public office or take over a major company. The one who did well in classes but also used a significant amount of charisma on his way to the top of academic standings. The one who earned the A and greased enough smiles out of people that it became an A+.
He was the guy who was at the right party every weekend. He was the slightly more respectable version of his best friend, who was the louder and more intimidating character of the two. The best friend was the one who would openly mock anyone not pretty or athletic enough to be part of their crowd.
The friend was the one who often seemed more threatening. More open about his disdain for others. That guy you knew, on the other hand, he was quieter in his disdain. Kept it couched, hidden in layers of smug laughter and jokes that would only happen behind people’s backs.
He was the guy who got black-out drunk at plenty of parties, just like everyone else in his circle of friends did. The guy who had plenty of girls interested in him.
He had enough respectable girlfriends and friends who were girls that you never thought he’d let his power, his high school success, lead him into forcing himself onto a girl at a party and holding his hand over her mouth. You didn’t think he’d do that—at least not right away.
But then you heard the rumors circling school the day after that big party. You couldn’t take them as cardinal truth—they were just rumors, after all—but enough of the details matched up that a fairly clear picture could be painted. The guy had a little too much to drink. His friend, the one who never had a problem mocking others or forcing his body into places it wasn’t wanted, was somehow involved. They disappeared into a room. A girl left the party crying, telling her friends the guy forced himself on her.
You watched the guy more closely in class that day. You saw the way he aggressively pushed to get what he wanted from his friend group, from teachers. He was a person used to having his way. A person used to being told he was right. Strong. Better than everyone else.
It was easy, then, to see how the power could become too much. How it could have taken over. You believed the rumors, unequivocally. But it didn’t matter. The girl never said anything, because who would have believed her? People would have interrogated her, not him. Her motives, her drinking habits, her promiscuity. She would have been slut-shamed and treated like an outcast for the rest of her high school career. No, it wasn’t worth it. Of course she doesn’t say anything. You didn’t blame her.
We all knew that guy in high school.
Today, you see him on TV. He is surrounded by a circle of other men who were also that guy in their own high schools. That circle will continue to put him and other men just like him in power over and over again. That circle that will forever excuse what happened that night at that party. It must be excused. If it is not, then every man in that circle is at risk. All of them are at risk to be seen for who they are when the lights are off and the doors are closed and the only witness is their best friend.
You realize that the majority of your country’s leaders are that guy you knew in high school.
Suddenly, you are more afraid than you have ever been.
I just hit forty-five thousand words on a manuscript I started less than a month ago. I was so excited I treated myself to half a pound of homemade applesauce and then immediately started writing about how good writing feels today. Here is why: because writing is STRANGE.
Just ninety days ago, I was moaning in front of my computer, wondering if I’d ever have a good idea again. I was throwing index cards full of plot ideas into the trash like good ideas would somehow emerge if I kept destroying all the bad ones. I was seriously considering ending my career as a writer and taking up something in cake decorating instead. Which is not a good idea at all because I actually hate decorating cakes. (I was probably watching too much Food Network. If there is such a thing.)
Then, one day, something switched. It actually felt like someone flipped a switch somewhere inside me. It happened while I was staying in a hotel with my husband, who was on a business trip. I was riding an exercise bike, and I had an idea for a book, as you do. I got off the bike, went upstairs, and sat in the bathtub with a notebook, as you do. I wrote page after page, stopping to wipe off the ones that were smearing as I splashed them with water—again, as you do.
I grabbed my laptop and started typing. And since then, I have been writing more words per week than I probably wrote the entire month before I climbed on that exercise bike.
Like I said before, writing is STRANGE.
I’m trying to ride this wave of creative glory as long as possible. But like any decent wave, I know it won’t last forever. It will hit the shore eventually, as I will with it. Thus will commence weeks or months of self-doubt and growling at keyboards and probably plenty of rejections of this very same manuscript I so desperately love right now. I suppose that’s all likely the metaphorical equivalent of paddling back out and waiting for the next wave. (I’ve never surfed, by the way. All I have to go on here is lots of observation I did while camping out of the back of a van in California, so hopefully this isn’t the worse metaphor ever written in recorded history.)
There are people who claim to have solved all the secrets of creative writing. Write every day. Write this exact number of words for this exact number of hours every day. Have a black cat circle your chair three times before turning on the computer every fifth Sunday. But we all know that no matter how many rules you follow, no matter how many writing practices you adopt—and we all have various practices that help us with our writing productivity, there is no doubt of that—muses come when they come and go when they go.
I’m going to ride this wave for as long as I can. And when I hit that metaphorical beach again and have to begin the task of paddling back out across difficult water, I want to remember how good this particular wave was. I want to remember how incredibly powerful and content I feel right now. How limitless the world can feel sometimes.
Welcome to the second installment of Harry Potter and the Future of America, where we ask ourselves this all-important question about scenarios taking place in American society:
If this were a Harry Potter book, what would happen next?
(The “we” is royal, by the way. I’m literally the only person in this room right now.)
Shall we get started?
SCENARIO: A Supreme Court nominee is accused of sexual assault, and a whooooole bunch of people who want him on the Supreme Court immediately decide the accusation must be a lie. Or at least not that big a deal.
PLEASE EXPLAIN: Donald Trump nominated a guy named Brett Kavanaugh to a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court. (That’s right: “lifetime” basically means for as long as he wants it or can physically keep his buttocks in the chair.) Dr. Christine Blasey Ford came forward to say that he sexually assaulted her when they were in high school. A lot of people are insinuating or outright saying that she is a liar, claiming that her accusation is just a political move to discredit Kavanaugh.
WHAT WOULD HAPPEN NEXT IF THIS WERE HARRY POTTER? Remember when Harry saw Voldemort return and the Ministry of Magic didn’t want to believe him, so they spent an entire book trying to discredit him and destroy his reputation? They let the Daily Prophet malign him, basically called him unhinged, and did everything possible not to fully investigate or carefully consider his allegation that He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named had returned.
Well, we all know how that worked out for the Ministry. Harry was telling the truth, Voldemort was back, and they wasted so much energy fighting Harry instead of Voldemort that they didn’t even notice he was back in power until he was like five seconds away from destroying all of them in a battle so epic it required an extra movie. And honestly, would it have been that hard to investigate Harry's claims? If he turned out to be wrong, all they would have lost was a little effort and time. (And since half the Ministry appears to do nothing but sit around transmogrifying things all day, seems like they could have taken that hit.)
The lesson here is clear: when someone makes a serious allegation that will potentially do nothing but damage their own safety, security, and reputation, listen to them. Investigate fully. Take that allegation seriously. You have nothing to lose by doing so...and everything to gain.
Unfortunately, Harry's plight reminds us loudly and clearly that people in power don’t like to be told truths that are inconvenient for them. (Pun not intended.) Voldemort’s return was inconvenient for the Ministry. This accusation is inconvenient for all those who want Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court. And so, if our Harry Potter palm reading is at all accurate, here’s what will happen next: those who want Kavanaugh will continue to malign his accuser and do a bare-bones investigation as best. Or they’ll brush off any potential wrongdoing as just “teenage boys being teenage boys.” (P.S., if you think sexual assault is normal teenage behavior, please do not raise children. In fact, please don’t go anywhere near any children. Ever.)
Worst case scenario? Someone who committed sexual assault and then spent twenty years hiding it will end up writing America’s most influential laws. That's not quite as bad as "Voldemort is back," but it sure isn't good.
So if you have a senator who isn’t calling for a complete investigation of these charges, you may want to call them and say the following: “Investigate these allegations. Don’t be like the Ministry of Magic.”
If your Senator doesn’t immediately know what you are talking about, they are obviously not fit to be in public office. Obviously.
We’ve clearly hit a tipping point in our country. Truth is constantly in question. Morality is debated the same way we debate Star Wars vs. Star Trek. (What, everybody doesn’t have that debate?) Fact is called opinion, and opinion is called fact. It’s a topsy-turvey world, that’s for sure.
It’s getting a little harder to see the forest of America through the trees. So I’ve decided that from now, every time we encounter a tense or difficult scenario in this country, I’m going to ask one question:
If this were a Harry Potter book, what would happen next?
Let’s try this thought experiment and see what happens.
SCENARIO: Host of second most-watched cable news show in America suggests that diversity isn't good for people.
PLEASE EXPLAIN: Tucker Carlson, the same dude who used to wear snappy bow ties and debate tax laws with Rachel Maddow, pontificated in front of an audience of almost three million people that maybe diversity is a bad thing. No, not in 1965. This happened just a few weeks ago, in the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Eighteen.
WHAT WOULD HAPPEN NEXT IF THIS WERE HARRY POTTER? Actually, this WAS Harry Potter. Remember Purebloods and Mudbloods? Voldemort tried to erase all Mudbloods from existence because he claimed they were too different from Purebloods and all that diversity of human blood and thought was ruining the wizarding world.
And we all know what happened next. Hermione Effing Granger came rolling along with all her Mudblood brilliance and helped blow them away into no existence at all. Diversity for the win, Death Eaters. They should have been so lucky to have Hermione on their team. Hopefully they all figured that out in Azkaban.
So I guess this makes Tucker Carlson Lucius Malfoy? Which also means that eventually the power he thought he wanted will become too much for him to control, and he’ll lose everything in a rather anticlimactic moment that only about half of his audience will remember.
And we’ll all kind of shrug as he disappears from our consciousness. Maybe some member of his family will appear in an Epilogue looking vaguely apologetic.
SCENARIO: President Trump says that 3,000 people who died in the aftermath of a hurricane didn’t really die because they were denied the resources and supports needed to stay alive. The whole thing is a lie, a conspiracy against him!
PLEASE EXPLAIN: It happened via tweet, as so much of our government communication does these days, despite the fact that the death toll after Hurricane Maria was calculated by a completely independent and unbiased group of people. Even Rick Scott was all "Dude, no, 3,000 people died."
WHAT WOULD HAPPEN NEXT IF THIS WERE HARRY POTTER? This is a Dolores Umbridge move. Her entire job was basically to claim that Hogwarts students were making up horrible things about the Ministry of Magic just to make them look bad. She’d call them all liars for saying that people died after Hurricane Maria and then make them all carve “I WILL NOT SAY 3,000 PEOPLE DIED” into their skin over and over for hours on end.
BUT OBVIOUSLY she would not break them. They would figure out a way to keep spreading the truth that actually, yes, people did die, and now their memories were being disrespected. Sure, some people would still believe Umbridge. Why? That's a mystery as old as Argus Finch. But Dumbledore’s Army would eventually get away from the blood-seeking quills and make sure the public saw that real truth does exist in this world, and real truth can be proven.
Anyone know where we can get a Room of Requirements? We should probably speed things up on creating that DA. Maybe it already exists over on Twitter. I’ll check.
This tweet is my life, everyone.
I cannot tell you how many 10k manuscripts live in the graveyard that is the Documents file of my computer. There they sit, abandoned, crying out for attention. Will I ever get a second act? Whatever happened after that third major plot point? But is the MC’s brother’s cousin actually the villain after all?
Poor abandoned manuscripts. It was a bit of a rough writing year for me. I did a lot of editing projects and worked on some things with other writers, but my own work just kept falling flat. Every time I started something and got excited about it, that excitement died somewhere around the 8-10k mark and the poor book ended up in the graveyard of lost and loosely plotted souls on my computer.
This went on for about seven months. And any writer will tell you that seven months of feeling unproductive and creatively stifled makes you second-guess a lot of things. Like whether you’re cut out to write this long-term. Whether you’re good enough. Whether you’ll ever produce anything worthy of being read again.
Clearly I’ve had A Lot of Feelings for a while.
I took some time at the end of this summer and stopped trying to write anything new for a few weeks. I kept working on editing projects, but I actively stopped trying to create anything. I was worried my brain, and maybe my heart, needed a break. Some space from feeling like all I was going to do every time I sat down at the computer was create another new character who would be lost to my Google drive before they even became three-dimensional.
I struggled some more as I threw myself back into writing this fall, but recently things have been coming together again. I just hit 20K on a manuscript that I actively am really enjoying. I’m in that delightful stage of writing a new novel where I relish waking up every morning to write my next scene. What brought on this sudden bought of renewed creativity? I’m not sure. Maybe it was the time off. Maybe my muse and I were finally in the same room at the same time again. Maybe maybe maybe.
I wish writing felt more linear sometimes. I wish I could follow the trains and lines of my creative process with a better idea of where it’s going. But I can’t, and in a publishing world that’s as much of a roller coaster as the creative process, I know better than to hope for a linear existence in writing. It would be nice. But it’s not likely to happen anytime soon.
I teach college writing to freshman, and we talk a lot about embracing moments of struggle in the writing process. Working with them, not against them. Trusting that growth and improvement will come if you put in the work, even if it doesn’t come at the same rate as it does for the person sitting next to you.
So as I’m staring down the graveyard of manuscripts in my documents folder today, I’m trying to remember that each of these books were meant to die in the ashes of that folder. They have been part of my journey to improvement. They are not lost weeks and months of writing, as they sometimes seem to be. They are part of everything I will ever write in the future, every word I will produce on this computer, even if they never got their own second act.
To all the manuscripts I’ve loved before: thank you. Forget everything I said when I was swearing about how your secondary characters were flat and your plot had no focus.
You’re wonderful, even though you’re terrible.
My friend's son, H, stayed with us last week. He’s obsessed with all things Marvel, and his mother gave us permission to watch some of Thor: Ragnarok with him. You know, special treat, stay up late, see Thor shake his hair out of his ponytail a lot and lose his hammer.
At one point H looked up at us and asked, “But is Loki a good guy or a bad guy?”
I was tempted to whip out some fanfiction and go through all the tomes of creative work that have tried to answer that question. But the poor kid is still in pre-school, so I kept things a bit simpler. “Sometimes he makes good choices, and sometimes he makes bad choices,” I told him. I waited for the follow-up, but H became engrossed with an action scene. The conversation died there.
Then John McCain passed away yesterday, and the question of what makes someone a "good guy" or a "bad guy" is on my mind again.
John McCain has always been, from my perspective, a heroic figure fraught with complication. He was a war hero who was far, far braver than I could ever have imagined being. He put forward bills and government policies that I often admired and supported. In a political era where so many people seem unable to put the good of the country above their own power, he was frequently willing to do so. And, possibly most importantly, he was almost always able to work with those of other parties and other beliefs.
But there were also times when he seemed to make choices that were more in his own interest than the interest of the country. There were moments when he made choices that certainly hurt people, all in the name of supporting his own career or keeping his party in power.
Here I could start waxing poetic about how there are no good guys or bad guys and it’s all a matter of perspective, but I don’t believe that for a second. That type of thinking has always brought dangerous consequences to humanity. There is objective, moral truth in the world. Some choices Loki makes are objectively good, and some choices are objectively bad. Some choices John McCain made were good, and some were bad. Some choices I make each day are good, and some are bad. None of us are all one or the other, and none of our choices are exempt from being held to objective, moral standards.
Today I am very sad that John McCain is gone. I do believe he acted out of good intentions far more often than he acted out of bad or selfish intentions. When we look at the history of his record, that record reflects that he was a “good guy” more often than he was not. And I like to think that’s the measure we’re all judged on at the end. None of us will leave this world with perfect records. But what will our balance sheets look like? Which column will stack up higher? Loki will get to work on his balance sheet throughout the course of Marvel’s existence. (Unless Avengers: Infinity War never gets a sequel.) The rest of us only have a finite amount of time to work with. None of us will ever make all the right choices, and none of our heroes will either. But John McCain’s record shows, I think, that he was worthy of many of the capes people have placed on his memory.
RIP, John McCain. Thank you for working across party lines. Thank you for fighting for this country in ways most of us can ever imagine doing. Thank you for reminding us that we all must grow out of the phase where we see “good guys” and “bad guys” so that we are able to see people for their individual choice and moments--for their actions taken and not taken. Thank you for all of the incredibly difficult actions you took on behalf of others during your life.
I hope John McCain, like Thor and Loki, gets his own sequel someday, somewhere. In fact, I hope all of us do.
Here come a few more book suggestions from the @rileyandjohannareadstuff Instagram account. We've covered poetry, some nonfiction, and a few serious 80s throwback covers. My big rec right now is actually a movie--the Netflix movie of Jenny Han's book TO ALL THE BOYS I'VE LOVED BEFORE, which just came out this past weekend. Lana Condor is amazing in it, and if you are also a rom-com lover you cannot possibly be disappointed by this film. You're welcome in advance.
I definitely have the right friends in my life because no fewer than four of them shared the Cards Against Humanity call for contributing writers on their social media feeds this week. That’s right: if you’re witty enough, Cards Against Humanity wants YOU to create funny-and-potentially-inappropriate cards for their collection. They’ll even pay you to do it.
Obviously I was tempted to apply. Who wouldn’t want to get paid forty dollars an hour to make jokes about Greek yoghurt? Sounds like The Life.
There’s just one problem: I’m not actually all that funny.
This has become abundantly clear as I’ve been working on edits for my latest novel. The last three or so rounds of revision notes have all come back with the same notes over and over again in the comments—all from different people, I might add. Make this funnier! Add humor here! This line needs to be funny!
Gee, I keep thinking. I thought it was.
I’m fairly certain my husband is the only person on the planet who consistently appreciates my sense of humor and laughs at most of my jokes. It should be noted here that his sense of humor is just as bizarre and misunderstood as mine, and sometimes he tries to tally how many of his students actually understand the jokes he makes while he’s teaching. I do the same thing…and neither of our numbers are ever all that high. Basically, we spend a whole lot of time laughing at each other’s jokes to make up for the fact that other people aren’t.
Normally I’m not bothered by the fact that my sense of humor is about five steps away from everyone else’s. Editing this manuscript is the first time where I’ve actively worried that my inability to make jokes others find amusing may hurt my writing career. I can’t write angsty novels about people in deep dark pain for my entire life, after all. I’m not George R.R. Martin.
It’s not that I don’t hit an occasionally good punchline in real life or in my writing. It’s just that funny doesn’t really come naturally to me, and the things I do find amusing tend to hinge more on the sarcastic or punny. Sometimes this works. It’s just not working in my current manuscript, apparently.
(Sidenote: any other 80s children remember when Paula Danziger used to write entire novels in puns? I blame her entirely for my humor problems. Apparently if you binge-read too many puns in your tween years it permanently affects your sense of humor.)
So! I’m on an active quest to become as funny as I think I am. I’m planning an intensive study regarding which of my jokes do get laughs and which do not during the upcoming school year. (I’d apologize in advance to all my students, but the bad jokes were going to happen either way, so this really won’t change anything.) I’m going to pause my recent Dr. Who obsession for a moment—because I don’t think British humor is going to help me curb my sarcasm—and cue up more Melissa McCarthy on Netflix. And I’m going to apply for the CAH job. Not because I think I’ll get it, but because more practice can’t possibly hurt at this point.
And, naturally, I’ll keep writing blog posts that I think are hilarious. If my history is any indication, you won’t think they’re nearly as funny as I do. But you’re still reading this one at 583 words in, so maybe there is some hope after all.
I give you: a few book suggestions from the @rileyandjohannareadstuff Instagram account. I cannot recommend ALL'S FAIRE IN MIDDLE SCHOOL by Victoria Jamieson and FAR FROM THE TREE by Robin Benway enough. Both books kept me up until one in the morning. I suspect THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR will do the same, so maybe I'll try to start reading that one at a more normal hour.
If you follow this blog, you've probably noticed by now that my friend Riley and I love to talk about all things books. We had a great time re-reading some of the Baby-Sitters' Club books from our childhood, and we decided we wanted to keep doing some type of online book chat together. So we've taken our weekly book chats to Instagram. Follow @rileyandjohannareadstuff to see what we’re reading, what we recommend, and how many times we can squeeze pictures of Winnie (Riley's pug) and Ra (my very sedate cat) into our book photos. I'll also be cross-posting some of our Instagram posts and conversations here.