I had a few questions for the two-dozen young writers who had been selected as 2013 finalists by the National YoungArts Foundation, a Miami-based organization that celebrates the rising artists among us.
I wanted, for example, to know what the young writers' hair would say if their hair could talk, and they had no trouble with that; hair meanders, moans, declares, desires, advocates and warns against; it tangles in and through itself; it gets lost, codifies, harangues; it modifies color.
I wanted, too, to hear from these wry, inventive teens, these clever, poem-grogged souls, about the books that had changed their idea of story, on the one hand, and of language, on the other. They had written of sharpened Ticonderogas and the last black vertebra of a crouching eclipse and the cry of dying horses and a brother who might have been carried on my shoulders till the horizon bent for us. They had told of a grandfather who folded his life up into boxes, and of how the Russian word for "boredom" sounds the same as "loneliness." I had accused them, in my mind, of having interesting reading lists. I had imagined the sprawl of their libraries and entertained the sneaking suspicion that many of us who write for teens may not be writing big enough.
I had been invited to join these teens as a master writing teacher in early January, during the week-long YoungArts celebration. I think of teaching as a read-and-response, a sun-and-shadow dance. I do not think of myself as a master, in other words, but those days with those young writers were a master's privilege.
What books have changed your way of seeing story, of appreciating language? That was my question, and in choral fashion the responses emerged. A clip, a snippet, some jive talk. A twist of the tongue, a revelation. The implied kindness of a careful explanation. A library collage we all could learn from.
The list of books celebrated by these fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen year olds began with Lorrie Moore's Self-Help, because of how it led one red-haired reader "into the weird and taught me to accept it. To not be afraid to have ugly stories and ugly characters. To strive for authenticity above everything else. I think this is possibly what [Moore] meant by self-help."
It carried forward with The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexandre Dumas) because "it taught me how to structure plot without adhering to the dumb "Plot Mountain" Freytag's triangle business, that it was okay to have a character that went through unpredictable ups and downs in the same way that real people do." It included Let us Now Praise Famous Men (James Agee and Walker Evans), a book that "completely shattered how I had seen essays before--run-of-the-mill, formal, formatted. The first page, one of the strangest and most beautiful descriptions I've read, hooked me in and kept me until the end of the book and still keeps me whenever I'm asked to write nonfiction."
More than once A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (Dave Eggers) appeared on the list; its language "doesn't care (about genre conventions, about what nonfiction is supposed to be) but carries so much emotionally." Yukio Mishima's The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea was there, too, because of how this gorgeous, snake-haired reader's "understanding of an image in prose was shattered, reborn."
For most every title a reason. For most every book a snatch of best-loved lines. There were the poets Matthew Dickman, John Rybicki, Pablo Neruda, and Lucie Brock-Broido. There were the novels, short-fiction collections, and works of nonfiction: The Robber Bride (Margaret Atwood), The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald), Horns (Joe Hill), A Tale of Two Cities (Charles Dickens), The Interpreter of Maladies (Jhumpa Lahiri), Catch-22 (Joseph Heller), Brokeback Mountain (Annie Proulx), The Bell Jar (Sylvia Plath), Bats Out of Hell (Barry Hannah), If on a winter's night a traveler (Italo Calvino), The Bluest Eye and Beloved (Toni Morrison), The Lacuna and The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver), Cat's Cradle (Kurt Vonnegut), Music of the Swamp (Lewis Nordan), You Remind Me of Me (Dan Chaon), The Art of Racing in the Rain (Garth Stein), The Picture of Dorian Gray (Oscar Wilde), Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Jonathan Safran Foer), East of Eden (John Steinbeck), Infinite Jest and Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (David Foster Wallace), The Trick (Fielding Dawson), Ender's Game (Orson Scott Card), Finding Beauty in a Broken World (Terry Tempest Williams), Don Quixote (Miguel De Cervantes), Kafka on the Shore and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (Haruki Murakami), Only Revolutions (Mark Danielewski). Even Jurassic Park (Michael Crichton) was named, for how it showed one writer that "you can make anything seem possible in any setting, and you shouldn't shy away from your own imagination."
You notice, in this list, the obvious. You were about to warn me, before I even got started, about the absence of books originally published for young adults (YA)--the very "category" of respondents to my small survey. (It is duly noted that books like Music of the Swamp, The Bell Jar, and The Picture of Dorian Gray have evolved, through the years, into teen staples). Indeed, just a handful of contemporary "teen" books made it onto the list--Linger and The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater for how they showed that "lyricism and the mainstream fiction I grew up reading were not mutually exclusive," and (this title thrice appearing) The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.
"It was the first book I read where I remembered the language more than the story," one young writer explained about Zusak's searing classic. "Many children's books aren't necessarily beautifully written as well, and this was the first time I remember reading a book and understanding that something could be entertaining without sacrificing the loveliness of the language."
On a wind-blown day in an urban Miami Beach garden we talked about these books best loved, these books most influential. We talked about the contemporary books written specifically for younger readers. "There seem to be just three kinds of young adult books," one sighed. "The gossip books, the I'm starving/I hate myself/everything is terrible book, and the dystopian books in which the teens save the world. This is not representative of our reality."
"YA authors seem to think that teens see themselves as central, as the story's only important protagonists," another told me. "But we're not actually the center of the universe. We're part of something. We want to be part of something. We want to connect to other people, other generations, other eras."
"YA novels seem to presume that teens can change the world," another said that. "But we can't save the world by ourselves."
Another: "YA novels don't seem to want to teach us. I'd rather learn about the world and how it works from someone like Barbara Kingsolver, who has wisdom about a lot of things."
Another: "Why are there so many knock-off books? How many versions of one story are we supposed to read, and are we not supposed to notice how similar these stories are?"
Another: "We are more than the categories that we are written into. If we're gay, for example, our lives are much broader than that, our stories are far more complex."
Another: "Why is YA so often about plot, so very rarely about language? Why can't there be more books like The Book Thief, which is about war and literature, about dying and sacrifices, about love? It's a book about the big things, and that's what we want to read."
(Right about now is when I mentioned Patricia McCormick's oeuvre. Oh, they nodded. Yes. She writes big, too.)
You get the gist, I'm sure, and because my little essay has run long, I will end it here: Give the young readers and writers of now room to speak for themselves. Let their praise and exhortations inspire. In the brightening hollow of a writing dawn, remember: We don't have to write small, we don't have to write same, we don't have to sacrifice the loveliness of language. We can write big; we must. The teens are watching. They wait.