Eighteen and Life

Perhaps no one has ever captured the angst of being 18 better than when Alice Cooper sang, “I’m Eighteen and I don’t know what I want.” Not even Taylor Swift, who explored being “15” and being “22,” has had the audacity to take on Alice and “18.” A wise decision, Taylor.

As reflected by my many years teaching seniors and by my choice of main characters for my novels, I’m clearly a big fan of the age. Eighteen is a time fraught with conflicts and change and the drama they inspire. It’s an age when the typical teenager believes she knows a whole hell of a lot more than she actually does. However, only experience can teach her otherwise or, in some cases, actually validate her belief and demonstrate the often wrongheaded thinking of much-older adults. In either case, these experiences make for great storytelling.

At eighteen, a person is still more the product of her parents’, teachers’, and often church’s thinking than she is of her own. But as she goes off to college or moves away from home, she can start unpacking and sorting through all that these others have crammed into her suitcase and determining what to keep and what to discard. At eighteen, especially if she moves far away, she has the rare opportunity to free herself from whatever reputation she has acquired and re-invent herself in a place where few, if anybody, knows her name. At eighteen, life still holds more potential than disappointment. At eighteen, life is lived more urgently and love is felt more deeply than it will ever be again. There are still first experiences waiting to be had and last nights of beautiful agony to endure. The pains of life and love are greater, but their joys far sweeter. The flesh is electric. The brain is fertile, And the heart is open.

I know that many, if not most, would disagree with me, but if I could be one age forever, it would be eighteen. For my money, there’s no better age to be alive, but I’ll just have to settle for writing about it.

I Want My MTV!

The video-centric MTV that debuted in 1981 when I was still a teenager was a far cry from today’s MTV, which is dominated by reality shows and original sitcoms, dramas, documentaries, and movies. As a result, the majority of my generation has long ago turned its back on MTV programming, a choice which, I believe, is a huge mistake, especially for parents, grandparents, educators, and anyone who works closely with young people.

Teenagers are notoriously leery of adults, including their own parents. It is extraordinarily difficult for adults to gain the trust of teens and to convince them to share their thoughts, feelings, attitudes, interests, and dreams. We may not like it, for we forever want to see ourselves as young and hip, but there is a natural generation gap that exists between teenagers and adults. Once we cross that chasm from the former to the latter, there is no going back, but that does not mean that we must lose touch completely with those still on the other side. There are ways available to glimpse into the teenage mind and world of today without acting like a fool experiencing a mid-life crisis, without alienating the teens in your life through badgering, and without creeping on their social networking sites or searching their rooms. For me, one of the most effective means of gaining this valuable insight has been through watching MTV. Albeit, sometimes the viewing is painful (“The Jersey Shore” and “My Super Sweet 16” to name a couple of the most insipid); oftentimes, the programs are quite entertaining, intelligently-done, and insightful. Over the years, I’ve enjoyed and have learned much about the teenage mindset from watching such programs as “Teen Wolf,” “Wait Til Next Year,” “Skins,” and “True Life.”

It is so easy, as adults, to forget the experience of being so young yet also being expected to assume adult responsibilities and behaviors. It truly is a tough age. We forget that we were once as hypersensitive, intense, overly-dramatic, love-struck, frightened, rebellious, stubborn, “dazed and confused” as them. In fact, many of us still are. We often become unfairly judgmental of and insensitive to the ways of today’s teenagers, forgetting that we weren’t that much different.

As a writer, MTV is an invaluable source for me in terms of viewing teenagers’ fashions, language, behaviors, interests, problems etc. As a teacher, by watching MTV and occasionally alluding to shows I’ve seen there, I’m able to build a footbridge between my middle-aged world and theirs. As a parent, it provides valuable insight into the stresses and pressures faced by my kids. As a human being, it keeps me in some kind of touch with a huge segment of the population and reminds me that life is meant to be lived passionately and energetically and with a sense of wonder and of the better days that lie ahead.


“Say What You Need To Say”

swear words
“Nothing [is] good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” – Hamlet, William Shakespeare.

By the inclusion of the occasional “bad” word in my novels, I have willfully hamstrung my potential sales in the education market. Schools are very sensitive to parental/community overreaction to their children coming across curse words in school-assigned texts; therefore, they are reluctant to purchase books that make use of them. This is true even when the words are accurately reflective of reality. Not long ago, a local school district came under fire for teaching Walter Dean Meyer’s novel FALLEN ANGELS, a modern classic set “in country” during the Vietnam War, because the mostly-teenaged soldiers occasionally use the “F-word.” I somehow doubt those “grunts” said “Darn!” or “Fudge!” or “Poop!” very often. And when they said “Shoot,” it was in an entirely different context.

Father Flanagan, the priest who founded the Boys Town orphanage, is famous for saying, “There are no bad boys. There is only bad environment, bad training, bad example, bad thinking.” I’m not sure that I totally agree with Fr. Flanagan. It seems to me that some people are simply born evil, but the relationship between nature vs. nurture in personality development has nothing to do with this article. Instead, I’m going to share how I have long used Flanagan’s motto to make the similarly-contentious point that there is no such thing as a bad WORD; only words used in inappropriate environments and due to inappropriate training/example/thinking.

To begin with, I’ve never been a Grammar Nazi who corrects every double negative, incorrect use of “who” or “whom,” or the confusion between “can” and “may” or “I” and “me.” In fact, I find such people pedantic and annoying. Sure, I have a few pet peeves, but for the most part, I try not to nag. I especially believe that there is far more room for loose grammar and blue language in the spoken word than in the written one. But in either case, words are intended to facilitate communication, and as long as a speaker’s words are understood, I believe she is communicating appropriately.

“But what about curse words?” Some would ask. I believe that even curse words are appropriate in the correct environment and context. For example, despite a fairly-extensive vocabulary, I swear like a sailor when I’m with my buddies, but I don’t believe I have ever used a swear word in my mother’s company or in front of children. Another example of the contextual appropriateness of curse words occurs in movies that have been edited for television. In these the curse words have often been dubbed so that a word like “shit” becomes a garbled “shoot.” The replacement word typically doesn’t fit the situation or the character and completely ruins the scene by rendering it laughable. Even the “F-bomb” is acceptable in the proper environment. I’m thinking of that Maroon 5 song “Payphone.” In the unedited version, in utter disgust, Adam Levine sings, “One more fucking love song, I’ll be sick,” and it has punch. On the radio-friendly version, he sings, “One more stupid love song, I’ll be sick,” and it just lacks something. As an extreme example, dirty talk between the sheets would become clinical, un-sexy, and pathetic without the use of so-called curse words (I’ll let you imagine a few lines for yourself.).

The most extreme use of words that are generally deemed inappropriate for public consumption occurs when utilizing those terms that are charged with venomous disrespect for a person’s race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation. I would argue, however, that even these – more so for the writer than the speaker – can be used appropriately. The best example, of course, being Mark Twain’s HUCKLEBERRY FINN. I’ve tried to read censored versions in which the n-word (I can’t even type it; I find it so distasteful.) has been changed to “slave.” The conversion ruins the story and lessens Twain’s intended satire regarding the wrongheadedness of racism. And although I do not like the “C-word,” I watched a character in HBO’s THE LEFTOVERS use it in reference to a female rival, and it stung in a way that the “B-word” never could. As a child, I was sometimes chided for using the word “hate.” Adults would say, “Hate is a strong word.” I always thought, “Yeah, that’s why I use it.”

In my classroom, I often compare the words at a writer’s or speaker’s disposal to a handyman’s tools. Although it would be inappropriate and less effective to hammer a nail with a wrench, we wouldn’t label the wrench itself as a “bad” tool. It would simply be being used in an improper context. So don’t let the Grammar Nazis and the language prudes get to you. In the words of John Mayer, “Say What You Need to Say.”


Football’s Proper Place?

Youth Football
Whenever I post a blog article or a Facebook status update pertaining to the dangers of concussions in football, I receive a few “blow back” responses. These rebuttals typically accuse me and my novel GOODNESS FALLS of contributing to the softening of America’s male children. The argument is that contact sports, such as football, are necessary for the toughening up of our kids because the adult world is a difficult place where only the strong survive, and if we continue to coddle our children, they will grow up soft and ill-equipped to prosper in that world. I certainly understand their point; however, I feel it is a position no longer tenable in the modern, technology-based society where brain almost always trumps brawn. What is especially pernicious is the possibility that this argument for the need to “toughen up” our kids is little more than a thin justification to preserve a sport that provides so many of us with not only entertainment but also with such a sense of self-worth – through our identification with our favorite schools and professional teams – that we cant imagine a life without it. “O – H . . .” “Roll Tide!” And, “Go Big Blue!”

Were we still living in an age when proficiency in hand-to-hand combat was not only necessary for survival but a measurement for assigning social status, I might agree; however, we are not living in such barbaric times. Even those who did possess the physical attributes and martial skills conducive to those periods were primarily pawns for those in power. They were tools used either for military gains or for entertainment. Today’s football players and MMA fighters, for example, are not much different than the gladiators of ancient Rome. Like trained circus animals, they prostitute their talents in bloodsports to the aristocracy who, in turn, put them on display for the common people as a means for them to vent anger and frustration that may otherwise be directed at those powerful few. True, for a brief time, some of these gladiator/athletes are well remunerated for their performances. An even smaller number rise to a level of celebrity that lavishes all sorts of excess upon them. However, for the majority, their time in the spotlight is brief. Either they die in or as a result of their time spent in the arena, or they limp back into crowd and are quickly forgotten.

I sometimes question our motives for pressing our kids into participation in such violent games. Even more, I hate to think that our youth and high school football programs are little more than a way to feed the egos of over-involved parents or a way for some of them to relive their pasts; or that they are little more than an important piece of the profit puzzle for the athletic equipment industry; or that youth and high school football programs are little more than feeder programs for successive levels of football in which the stakes – both economically and in terms of injury – grow increasingly higher; or even that they are a little more than a means to teach “toughness” (whatever that is) to our children. But, sometimes, I wonder if these motives are not exactly the case. What I do not “wonder” about is the potential for catastrophic injury still posed by participation in the sport.

I’m willing to bet that if someone conducted a study to identify the number of highly-successful individuals who played football at some point in their youth that number would be substantial. I am, however, just as certain that an equal – if not far greater – number did not play football, yet they somehow had the necessary toughness to excel in a variety of fields. Therefore, the argument that football or other bloodsports are vital in the training of our young men falls apart. Admittedly, it may be useful for some, but it is far from the only method to produce the sort of individual who possesses the necessary qualities for adult achievement. I might even argue that much of the macho skill set learned through participation in football is actually counter-productive to success in the much more subtle and nuanced worlds of business, finance, law, politics, education, and medicine for example. What’s important is that we keep the place of football in its proper perspective. Contrary to much popular belief, it is not an institution fundamental to our survival as a society. However, if properly managed, it can continue to play a positive role in the education of some children.

As I’ve consistently stated, I’m not advocating for the abolition of youth football. All I’m saying is that there are additional measures that can still be taken to safeguard our kids, including baseline testing of cognitive functioning prior to participation; the limiting of full contact drills, the better monitoring of head strikes; and the better instruction of coaches regarding the recognition and treatment of head injuries just to name a few.

Let the blow back begin. I’m happy to face it.


I’ve long shared with my composition students the notion that pieces of writing are a lot like relationships in that the middle is easy; it’s skillfully getting into and out of them that’s difficult. As a novelist, if you fail to hook your reader early, odds are you never will, and if you leave them disappointed at the end, they will most likely not be interested in your next project.

Some writers are particularly good at beginnings but not so much at endings. For example, I enjoy Stephen King immensely, and there is no disputing his talents and popularity. However, there have been several of his novels that have left me very disappointed at the end. On the other hand, there are some writers whose novels slowly build momentum to exciting conclusions if you are able to slog through the tedious opening chapters. In this category, I think of many classic nineteenth and early twentieth century authors like Henry James, Dickens, Edith Wharton, and even Jane Austen.

One of the most consistent compliments I’ve received from readers of GOODNESS FALLS is that they liked the ending. Their positive response has somewhat surprised me, being that the ending of the novel isn’t particularly happy nor does it neatly wrap up the plot. To the contrary it raises more questions than it provides answers, and it requires the reader to imagine for themselves what happens next.

The happy conclusion I draw from all of this is that the majority of readers enjoy unpredictable endings that leave them pondering the story long after they’ve read the last page and that they feel somewhat cheated when the story ends in a fashion they could have imagined themselves.

What Book Would You Choose?

Mountains Beyond Mountains
I attended my son’s college freshmen orientation day last week, and I was a little bit surprised to learn that John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars” would be the common text for all incoming freshmen. It’s not that I don’t think “The Fault in Our Stars” is a well-written and entertaining read; I gave it a favorable review and recommended it myself in an earlier blog post. It’s just that I didn’t find it particularly engaging intellectually – which is not to say that every novel has to be so. Many of our favorite reads are potboilers that sweep us speedily along the surface of the text until we find ourselves surprised when we turn the final page to discover it’s over. In fact, some have described my latest novel, GOODNESS FALLS, in a very similar manner. Many have told me they preferred GOODNESS FALLS to SO SHELLY for just that reason. And that is totally cool!

My point here, however, is that a common text assigned to an entire incoming class of college freshmen should be something with greater heft and potential for “stretching” these young and pliant minds. The chosen text should be something more challenging to the students’ cognitive abilities. It should be something that forces the students to question long held notions of what is right, true, and good. It should be something that ennobles the students by their mere experience of reading it. It should be something that forces students out of their particular geographic and social comfort zones, the very ones from which many are soon-to-be removed. It should be something with a sense of social awareness and responsibility that inspires students to escape the egocentric understanding of the world with which many of my generation’s parents have cursed their children and to embrace a more altruistic worldview.

If I were the king of the world and could choose the single text for all incoming freshmen at every university in it, my choice would be Tracy Kidder’s “Mountains Beyond Mountains.” It’s the nonfiction narrative of Paul Farmer, a Harvard-trained physician and anthropologist, and his attempt to combat tuberculosis in poverty-stricken Haiti and a similarly endemic indifference to the Haitian suffering amongst too many Westerners. The title is a Haitian proverb that teaches that life’s problems never come to an end and that one should always look to the next challenge, for it is in the striving that a meaningful life is found, especially in attempting to leave the world a better place than we found it. Its Amazon page accurately says, “This magnificent book shows how radical change can be fostered in situations that seem insurmountable, and it also shows how a meaningful life can be created . . .” Kidder champions Farmer’s driving notion that “the only real nation is humanity.”

As I said, I enjoyed “The Fault in Our Stars.” I did find it a bit cloying and emotionally manipulative, but I also turned pages until there were no more to turn, which I feel is the ultimate determiner of a worthwhile read. As a mandatory common text for incoming university freshmen, however, I feel it falls far short of the purpose of such an assigned reading and plays more to pop culture than high culture. For anyone looking for an outstanding read for their young adult student or for themselves, I highly recommend “Mountains Beyond Mountains.” “The Fault in Our Stars” is the sort of book that may temporarily change one’s mood. “Mountains Beyond Mountains” is the sort of book that may permanently change one’s life – and the world.

W.I.P. until I R.I.P.

A Work in Progress
Authors often refer to their current project as their w.i.p. or work in progess. If you’re a writer, you have at least one. I write books a lot like I read them. I usually have at least two books going at one time; it’s the same with my novels. I almost always have one or two at differing points of completion. This system would make a lot of readers/writers crazy. It’s just what works for me. As a writer, I’m often asked about writer’s block. I think this system is one reason why I can always answer that I’ve never experienced it. If the words and ideas just aren’t flowing with one w.i.p., I can turn to another one.

Today I finished what has to be at least the fifth re-write of my current w.i.p., and tonight I’m starting what I hope will be the last. Each time, the process moves much quicker, the story gets a little tighter, the language more descriptive, and the characters more drawn out. I’d compare it to staining woodwork; it’s just a matter of putting on layers until you get the shade exactly right. For those who know better, trust me, I’ve never stained anything in my life except the front of my shirts, but you get the idea.

The other day, I was thinking about that abbreviation, w.i.p., and I thought how much the phrase “a work in progress” actually applies to me and people in general. Whenever my kids fall a bit short of our parental expectations or their own potentialities, I remind my wife that it’s okay because they are still works in progress. I also know that I am constantly “re-writing” who I am. I know that the version currently writing this blog entry won’t be around for long, as I’m still trying to deepen my stain. I always tell my students that when I see them in the future, I hope I don’t recognize them because they will have grown so much from the year I spent with them when they were seventeen or eighteen-years old. I don’t think there are many things sadder than stasis.

In his poem Ulysses, Tennyson, in the voice of Ulysses himself, says “How dull it is to pause, to make an end / To rust unburnished.” I totally agree with Tennyson. Therefore, the title of this article and one of my many philosophies on life. I hope to be a W.I.P. until I R.I.P.

Ain’t Too Proud to Beg

As I’ve noted in an earlier blog, one of the most challenging aspects of choosing to publish independently – as I did with GOODNESS FALLS rather than going through a major publisher – is gaining exposure for your book beyond family, friends, region, and one’s already-established audience of readers. Without question, the most effective means for building buzz is through the word-of-mouth recommendations as made by those who have read and enjoyed the book. Many of you have done this already and have been a valuable means of expanding my audience. Quite a few have gone a step further and tweeted or given GOODNESS FALLS a recommendation through Facebook. In both cases, I can’t thank you enough! There is one more strategy that those of you who have read the novel could do me a huge solid by participating, and that is by rating the novel and writing a review on GOODNESS FALLS’ Amazon page. It’s just a fact that testimonials and reviews from readers are very important to book buyers. Therefore, if anyone is so inclined, I will be forever grateful if you could visit my Amazon page to rate and write a short review of GOODNESS FALLS. I’ve provided the link below.

Little to Fault in John Green’s Latest

The Fault in Our Stars 2
I’ve been an on-again/off-again fan of John Green’s novels for years. I very much enjoyed LOOKING FOR ALASKA, but I was less than enthusiastic about either PAPER TOWNS or WILL GRAYSON, WILL GRAYSON. I am, however, an unequivocal fan of Green’s latest sensation, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS. It represents much of what is good about Young Adult literature when it’s done right.

What I love most about John Green’s writing, as evident in THE FAULT IN OUR STARS and all of his novels, is that he respects his young adult readers and stretches their capabilities as readers, thinkers, and human beings. What I mean is that he doesn’t dumb anything down; instead, he regularly employs a challenging vocabulary and explores difficult and profound concepts. I like that he doesn’t limit himself to banal pop culture allusions; instead, he regularly alludes to literary, philosophical, and other erudite sources. I like that he doesn’t shield his readers from painful realities; instead, he faces life’s shit storms head on and ensures them that they possess the strength to endure them. I like that he doesn’t people his stories with simpleminded stereotypes of teenagers; instead, he creates unique and fully-realized characters. I like that he understands that most teens live in two worlds: the one from which their parents and all adults are excluded and the one that they judiciously allow those adults access to – and this bifurcation of worlds is natural and okay.

I don’t have any major criticisms of THE FAULT IN OUR STARS just a few observations that might be worth considering. Firstly, playing the cancer/death card is a little easy and manipulative with a YA audience (Trust me, I know. I’ve done it myself.). It reminds me of so many retreat days and guest speakers who blow through a high school and for one day wrench raw emotions and highly personal experiences from kids – mostly for the generation of cheap pathos. Secondly, my most consistent complaint regarding Green’s work is that his characters are too precocious, witty, and well-read to seem real. I just don’t recognize them as being like any of the 16 – 18 year old teens I’ve ever encountered in nearly thirty years of teaching. But, even with that said, I can accept it because that is what fiction does. It embellishes pretty much everything so that the fictional world is just a little bit more dramatic, beautiful, intense, romantic, etc. than the actual one. It is fiction after all. If readers wanted absolute reality, they need only to open their eyes; there’s no need for fiction. While I’m speaking of characters, I did not find the Peter Van Houten character compelling nor his behavior believable, especially his surprise appearance in America at the novel’s end. Finally, I thought the ending dragged on, and I found the penning of mutual obituaries to be especially cheesy and maudlin.

In the end, THE FAULT IN THE STARS is a fast-paced and engaging read, well worth your investment of time and, for many, tears.

John Green and Me

The Fault in Our Stars
My completely one-sided relationship with John Green and his novels goes back nearly five years. Shortly after signing with Random House for the rights to SO SHELLY, my editor assigned me to read Green’s award-winning, debut novel “Looking for Alaska.” I assumed she saw similarities in our subject matter and writing styles and, perhaps, even wanted me to mimic Green. I remember reading “Looking for Alaska” and thinking, “It’s good but no better than SO SHELLY.” I now shudder at my audacity in the light of Green’s success with “The Fault in Our Stars.” Later, when SO SHELLY appeared in Random House’s spring catalog for 2011, I noticed the descriptive text read, “For fans of ‘Looking for Alaska.'” One reviewer of SO SHELLY actually wrote “Shelly reminds me of John Green’s female characters all mixed in one – over-dramatic, over-loving, and never falling for the right guy. And always with a mission in mind. The clues she leaves also remind me of Paper Towns (a novel I highly suggest if you loved this one). I couldn’t help but love her and her undying love for Gordon, the unattainable male that actually does love Shelly in a way that really cannot be described. . . . Lovers of John Green will fall in love with this novel.” Little did I know then what a compliment that would become in retrospect.

I do see the similarities in our work, if, sadly, not in our degree of success, but remember that “The Fault in Our Stars” is Green’s fifth novel. I’m only working on number three. For all of his many and obvious talents as a writer, Green may be even more so a marketing genius who was way ahead of most authors in understanding the need to build his career himself, brand himself, build platforms, and utilize all facets of the Internet to build relationships with his audience. For example, Green and his brother Hank produce a popular video channel on YouTube (http://tinyurl.com/mrgz78g), and he earned an abundance of attention for “The Fault in Our Stars” by taking on the herculean task of signing all 150,000 copies of the novel’s first print run. Although my teaching career prevents me from devoting anywhere near as much time to promotion as Green does, I am learning from his endeavors. As for our similarities as writers, I see that we both write contemporary YA; we’re both dudes in a genre dominated by female writers; we both routinely explore the themes of love and death (which I have always maintained are the only two things worth writing about and that all other themes are somehow derivative of); neither of us is shy about including coarse language and portraying sexual situations in a blunt and honest manner; neither of us are particularly devoted to happy endings; we both regularly allude to classic works of literature; and we both tend to show off our vocabularies.

Since my first exposure to the work of John Green, I have followed his career with great interest (and now, if I’m being honest, envy), and I have read a couple more of his novels: “Paper Towns” and “Will Grayson, Will Grayson.” The latter he co-authored with David Levithan. Both books failed my 100-page test; whereby, I give a novel one hundred pages to hook me. If it hasn’t by that juncture, I stop reading and shelve the book. This is not to say that the problem necessarily lies with the author. Sometimes, I am not in the appropriate head space, or the story is simply so outside of my life experiences that I cannot relate to it. Many of these novels I return to later and find engaging on a second read.

I recently finished (It clearly passed the 100-page test!) “The Fault in Our Stars.” I have not yet, however, finished wrapping my brain around it. I need to ruminate a while before making any formal comments or criticisms. Knowing how difficult the craft of fiction is, I typically hesitate to write formal reviews, but I do plan to share some of my thoughts in my next blog post. So, please, check back soon.