The Courage of the Gift from ByLine Magazine & Rosedog.com
Roughing It. Article for Writers as seen in Writer’s Guidelines and News
The Child Hero from the Chinook and Medium: Journal of Washington Library Media Association
Kissing Amphibians from ByLine Magazine & Rosedog.com
The New Face of Homelessness by the author of The Double Life of Zoe Flynn
by Janet Lee Carey
The Courage of the Gift
Published first in ByLine Magazine, June 2002 issue #256.
Pulitzer Prize winning author Katherine Anne Porter once said, “One of the marks of a gift is to have the courage of it.” This quote has stayed with me over the years as I’ve worked on stories and novels, some published and some which still go out like small ships across a vast publication sea, seeking safe harbor.
What does it mean to have the courage of the gift? Is it the mental and emotional courage it takes to execute the art ? (I’m not talking firing squads here). Or the courage to offer our work to the public eye? (insert firing squad image here.) Katherine Anne Porter’s quote is worth mining on many levels because writers act with courage every day.
Courage to carve out writing time
We all have demanding schedules — working full time or part time, raising families, volunteering in our communities, taking care of elderly parents … The list could go on for pages but we all know it boils down to being busy. Given our full schedules, finding time to write is “next door to impossible” as my mother would say. Still we grab moments here and there to jot down ideas and carve out time to work on our short stories and novels.
We write, swimming against the tide of constant responsibilities, and the tide is unceasing. In fact as I sit and write this article, the stack of mail in my kitchen is rising in snowy peaks threatening avalanche, the dirty clothes pile procreates in the laundry room, and outside at this very moment renegade weeds are fomenting a silent revolution in my rose garden.
In her book A Circle of Quiet, Madeleine L’Engle discloses that she used to suffer spasms of guilt for not being a good New England housewife, and admits that her children used to cheer when she took time away from her writing to scrub the kitchen floor.
You, no doubt, have some stories of your own to tell because saying yes to writing means saying no to something else, not just sometimes, but always. Considering our busy schedules, it takes courage, even downright stubbornness, to put writing near the top of the list and keep it there.
Courage to let the gift out of the cage
A first draft is rough; that’s why it’s called a rough draft. It takes courage to let the gift out of the cage to prowl or fly, soar or plummet. The seminal idea draws us to the page, and though the way is never sure, we take on the challenge and explore.
Early drafts are often clumsy, but there is a raw beauty in them. And many of us find that to demand order and “the good breeding of cultured prose” too soon is to cage the very thing that breathes life into the tale. So we ride the wild words and hope the writing works. The challenge, always a demanding one, is to trust the innate direction of the story and let the creature go wandering.
Courage to ask what the story wants
A certain amount of audience awareness is a good thing. We should study the works of fellow authors and keep abreast of literary trends, but worry over marketing and future sales only dilutes the dream. At the moment of story creation, we have to let all thoughts of audience go and ask “What does the story want?” rather than “Who will want the story?”
Every published author begins her draft as we must begin ours, with concentrated focus on the art. Once we sit down at our writing desks, we place the story first and leave all else behind. Everything we know about the writing craft, all of our humanity is now drawn to attention in service of the story.
Courage to be joyful in solitary discovery
One of the most difficult things writers face is the long wait between a discovered joy and a shared joy. Think how a comedian would feel if he were asked to tell a joke, then wait three years to hear the audience laugh. It’s frustrating not to be able to share our discoveries in the heat of the moment when they mean the most to us, but this is our lot.
Writing isn’t about instant gratification. When we look at the time it takes to write a novel, add on the months or years of mailing it out until we find a publisher, then tack on another year or two for revisions, printing and distribution, we are looking at a minimum of three to four years. With first books, the wait can be seven to ten years. So we have to learn to wait for reader connection.
Is the wait worth it? Each of us has to answer the question for herself. Six years have passed since I wrote the first draft of my novel about a boy who has a near-death experience. Now that Wenny Has Wings has hit the shelves, I’ve had a number of people tell me “I laughed and cried all through the story.” Was the wait worth it? I think you know my answer.
Courage to ask for critique
Ancient Chinese artists deliberately included a flaw in every painting in humble recognition that art is temporal and the artist, human. It takes courage to face the fact that we are flawed and that our stories are flawed. But once we admit this, we’re free to lay perfectionism aside and pursue our craft with vigor. One of our biggest challenges it to find a group of fellow writers who support our stories. Their critique challenges us to make needed cuts, revise until our hands are tired and eyeballs ache, then push on and work even harder.
The practice of revising from other people’s critique comes in handy when the story sells and the editor sends a long letter detailing all the changes he recommends.
Sometimes doing one more revision feels like signing up for unnecessary surgery. Still, critique in hand, we sit down once again at our writing desks, take a breath, and begin. Is that courageous? You bet.
Courage to face rejection
As writers we have to learn to stand beside a story even when it’s rejected.This can be a hard lesson, but it’s one we all have to face. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was rejected by 121 houses. Most writers would have given up, but Robert M. Pirsig persisted in his dream and landed a contract with the 122nd publisher.
After its publication in 1974, the book went on to sell more than three million copies in paperback alone. Pirsig had hit it big! Feeling any better about your rejection slip pile yet? How about this. Well published author, William Saroyan, was once an unknown with a thirty inch pile of rejection slips. Saroyan received close to seven thousand rejections before his first acceptance.
I don’t think it’s an understatement to say that continuing to market our work after constant rejection takes courage and tenacity. The challenge is to stay open to the possibilities, to keep sending our writing out again and again until it finds a home.
Courage to publicly share our work
Will I come and give a reading of my new book? I’d love to! Will I also give a talk and open it up to questions from the audience? Of course! I’d be delighted!
Many of us dream of that moment when the phone rings and we’re asked to give a reading from our newly published book, but how many of us dream about the moment after when we hang up the phone and slip into a state of cold, primordial fear?
Studies have shown that for most of us, the number one fear is having to speak before a group. And since we writers are for the most part introverts, fear of public exposure can be almost crippling.
I know a number of writers, myself included, who have a recurring dream of standing naked on a stage before a hostile audience. It’s a fairly easy dream to analyze because to read from your own work is a form of nakedness. Fiction or nonfiction. Reality or fantasy. Every word on the page reveals something about the writer. And the hostile audience is simply the writer’s fear of rejection.
The amazing thing is that though we tremble before giving a reading, though the sweat pours down our backs and our lips feel like cardboard, we still walk up to the podium, face the audience and begin.
Courage to answer the story call
Mariners talk about the mysterious call of the sea. A call they must follow fair weather or fowl. The call for writers is akin to this. We have an inescapable love of language. We feel mysterious stirrings that call us to our writing desks. We set forth with a sense of direction and purpose.
Sometimes the writing is true and the words work. Other times our words fail and the piece runs aground. Still we come back again and again to answer the call. We do this before a piece is sold. We do this after placing one more rejection slip in the pile. We do this because this is our work, our way of life. And every aspect of it is courageous. Top
by Janet Lee Carey
“Imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poets pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.”
To write a story is to journey into unknown lands. To pen shapes, create scenes from an
airy nothing. Some writers prepare for this journey by outlining, jotting down a bit of dialogue, or living with their characters awhile. But at some point, each writer must stand alone at the edge of unwritten territory, and begin.
The blank paper stretches out before you as dry and daunting as a desert. You can’t see any inviting shade or water holes ahead because you haven’t created them yet. Facing this endless white horizon can make the best of writers drop their pens and run, but now is not the time to turn back. Now is the time to move. The secret is to step out and the story will appear before you as you walk through it.
Use the following guideposts to help you on your trek.
Six Guideposts Through Rough Draft Territory
1) Pursue The Vision.
The first draft is like a vision quest. As you move through your novel, seeking the magnetic north of the story, believe in what you are seeing and your readers will believe it too.
Many writers lose sight of their stories in the rough draft because they write with a critical eye. The critical eye is like a magnifying glass that enlarges all your writing mistakes. This magnifying glass is a good tool for the second, third and fourth drafts, but its very magnification destroys the larger vision – try looking through a magnifying glass on your next walk in the park and you’ll see what I mean.
Revision requires a different kind of sight, that’s why it’s called re-vision. So if you find that you’ve been seeking your story with the critic’s eye. Stop. Lay your magnifying glass down. Approach your story with wonder and let your eyes be full of the vision as you walk forward.
2) Let It Be Messy
Life is messy, so are rough drafts. So get out of the way and allow yourself to play on paper. This will give your characters elbow room and your story a chance to grow.
3) Open The Door And Barge Right Into The Scene.
There are times when I approach my novel with apprehension. I’m afraid to feel all the emotions a scene requires. This happened to me recently when my protagonist had to face her father. I knew I had to stand inside her body, feel what she was feeling as she faced the man before her. Everything in me wanted to run, but I gathered my courage and plunged into the story anyway. I wrote the confrontation scene with my eyes open and my senses sharpened.
When emotions intensify, you may feel tempted to turn and flee, but stay put. Stick with your character through love scenes, fight scenes, joy and confusion. Don’t abandon your character. And don’t leave until the scene is over.
4) Use Author Tags
Then Dr. Macabe picked up the (whatever the name of the monitor is) and attached it to Chester’s chest. Yes, you can use parentheses to tag author notes and questions right in the rough draft. Tags will help you to avoid research loop. A writer I know left her novel to pursue a medical question and got lost in a research loop that kept her away from her rough draft for three months. Once she gave herself permission to use tags, she was back into her draft. She is now happily writing, tagging her medical questions to research in her next draft.
You can tag character questions, time lines, facts for future research etc. Promise yourself you will answer the questions in the second draft, then move past the tags in pursuit of your story.
5) Write Your Way Out
In the beginning of your book, the rough draft appeared empty as a desert, but about two-thirds of the way through the first draft, you will likely come to place where your story looks more like an overgrown jungle. Unanswered questions dangle thick as prehistoric vines across your path. And you realize that you’re lost.
If you try thinking your way out of a complex plot, you may think yourself into a muddle. Sometimes it’s better to let your fingers feel their way through the tangle and write your way out.
6) Write With Honesty
It takes a novel to map out some unanswered questions.
Be courageously uncertain. Andre Gide wrote, “One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.”
As you move through your draft, battling the fatigue long hours of writing brings, remember the heroes of the past. They sailed uncharted oceans, explored and mapped out unknown territory. These oceans had no peopled ports, the land no well-walked trails. Still they went discovering the landscape as they traveled it.
Our tools may be different, our travels less visible, but we all know when we set out to write a story, we step into the unknown.
Fellow traveler, walk well. Top
The Child Hero was previously published in the Chinook and in Medium Journal of the Washington Library Media Association
The Child Hero
As a child I loved books like A Wrinkle in Time, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, Island of the Blue Dolphins , and My Side of the Mountain. These represent different forms of fiction but they all have one thing in common; all are stories about ordinary children doing heroic deeds.
My hunger for tales featuring heroic children never ceased: I still read them, and endeavor to write them. Why do I write these types of tales? I have always felt the need to know a hero, one who moves beyond their comfort zone, faces fears, and takes life on. I believe I am not alone in this. Many children need to know a hero: not a grown-up hero who is accomplished, intelligent and strong, but an ordinary child hero who discovers courage by overcoming a difficult situation. Children feel this need because they are facing a great journey, and they know it.
School-age children are in the process of packing for the arduous road to adulthood. Into their knapsacks go the tools they will need for survival. All manner of helpful tools are provided in school: language tools, math tools, science tools and more. School introduces children to these tools and provides a place for them to practice their skills. But all the tools in the world can’t help a child move into a successful adulthood if the child lacks courage.
a sense of purpose.
a belief that what I do matters.
a willingness to sacrifice.
the strength to fail and still keep going.
Can Courage be taught?
I believe courage can be taught in two ways, through example and through stories.
Realistic picture books that place young protagonists in challenging situations can show small children how to step out and overcome their fears.
Fiction such as My Side of the Mountain, Hatchet and Island of the Blue Dolphins teach children that a child can find the strength and ingenuity it takes to survive.
Novels like The Fall of the Red Star by Peggy King Anderson and Helen Szablya, teach children that they can make a significant difference even in a time of war.
My novels Molly’s Fire, and Wenny Has Wings both affirm a child’s to see beyond the ordinary, and thus offer hope in hopeless situations.
Fantasy books that show animals or Hobbits battling evil also teach courage. In these stories talking animals and Hobbits are child heroes in disguise. They are childlike in their powerlessness and in their hopeful natures. Children recognize these vulnerable characters as one of them.
Fairy tales such as Jack and the Beanstalk, teach children that a bit of wit can sometimes be the best weapon against a scary giant.
Creating the Child Hero
Whatever the genre, there are two simple rules authors must to follow when creating a child hero.
The first rule for creating a child hero is – provide a plot that tests the child’s mettle. Put central characters in challenging situations, then show them relying on their own inner resources to do the difficult task before them.
The second rule is – remove the adult. The protagonist must be left on her own at some time in the tale to face the story problem. For example, in Beauty and the Beast, Beauty must live alone in the magic castle with the beast. In Hatchet, Brian is the sole survivor of a plane crash and must survive alone the woods. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Peter has to kill the witch without the help of a grown-up.
The Hero’s Journey
Joseph Campbell’s books on the universality of the hero myth, outline the three basic steps of the hero’s journey.
Step 1) The call to adventure.
Step 2) The hero faces obstacles on the quest.
Step 3) The hero overcomes the obstacles and returns with a discovery.
These three steps of the hero’s adventure are seen in stories for all ages and across all genres. The hero’s journey can be told again and again. Give us new characters and new situations and we will happily read (or watch a movie) about another hero’s journey.
The Reader’s Journey
As young readers travel beside the hero in the story, they witness the character’s mistakes, feel their fears, and still see them acting courageously.
By closely identifying with the child hero, young readers are given a place to practice their courage. They come to understand that courage is not a state of fearlessness, but a decision to face one’s fears.
Whether you recommend fiction or non-fiction, fairy tales, picture books, or novels, to your students, you can help young readers to learn courage by offering stories of ordinary children who:
- face and overcome their fears.
- fail and try again.
- choose to go forward even when the path is difficult.
- change themselves and change the world around them.
The Golden Key
When you give a child a book, you pass on a golden key that unlocks the door to the story world. Thank you for passing on the key. Top
Article from ByLine and Rosedog.com
Novelist and writing teacher Janet Lee Carey believes fairy tales are rarely wrong when it comes to addressing the world of the creative mind. She suggests you “pucker up” to the warty frog if you want to keep the creative juices flowing.
Have you ever had your fiction come to a sudden grinding halt? Have you tried everything short of dancing naked under the moon to get your story going again? If so, you may relate to the tale below and find some sound creative advice hidden in the age-old tale of the Frog Prince. But first, a writer’s lament…
The Tale of Woe Begins
I’d left my novel in good condition when I went on vacation, and I looked forward to returning to the story as soon as I got back, but we arrived home after a week in California only to face the flu. First my husband went down with a fever, then I was laid flat, next my boys caught the horrid bug. I spent the next week nursing my sons back to health, retrieving missed school assignments and helping them through homework and headaches (one seemed to produce the other).
Monday came at last, the boys were back in school and I was ready to get back to my novel. I went upstairs and sat before my computer, my head a bit stuffy, but my body relaxed. With great expectations I flicked on the computer and heard the welcome bell-like sound that always means entry into the story world.
Opening the file and speeding through the hundred or so pages to the place I’d left off, I stared at the screen reading the words tapped on the keys two weeks before. Expectant, I held my hands to the keys. Nothing. I sped back a few scenes, reread up to the stopping point to refresh my memory and held my fingers to the keys. Hearing a single struggling sentence in the back of my mind, I typed it. Pretty bad, but then, I was just getting started.
Poised for oncoming prose, I thought about what needed to happen next in the story. All I had to do was finish this scene which required all of one paragraph and a few transition sentences, then move on to the next. So what was the big deal? I sat perfectly still, breathed deeply and concentrated on the scene before me.
Hearing a few more cumbersome sentences in the back of my mind, I wrote them down. Terrible. I deleted them and tried again. Approaching the text with caution, I wrote a few more lines, switched syntax and delved for more action words to get the bloody thing moving. Awful, and I’d been here an hour already! Had my storyteller died from neglect after only a two week hiatus? Before I left for California, the tale was flowing. I’d managed to capture a third person voice so close to the humor and child-like mind of the character that many scenes seemed to roll effortlessly onto the screen. Now I couldn’t even get my character out the door. It was as if she’d gained two hundred pounds in the interim. I made myself a strong cup of tea and tried again. Boring. Trivial. Strained. Tortuous. Okay, I managed to get my protagonist from the motel to the Mini Mart where she was about to receive some good news, but it was like hauling lead. After two more hours of struggle, I gave up.
Determined not to lose the story, I went to work the next morning. Flicking on the computer, I tried to relax. Surely my storyteller would begin to speak to me again. All I had to do was focus on the tale and sit patiently before the screen. Soon the prince-like voice would pour words through me, and the novel would continue to unfold. I waited. Tapped out a few words. Waited some more. Egads! Instead of the princely voice, the words were working their way to the page with all the grace and musicality of a croaking frog. I gritted my teeth and dutifully wrote each sentence down.
I am now in my second week of taking dictation from the frog. I’d throw in the towel, but I know better. I’ve been here before and I’m fairly sure the only way back to the prince is through the frog. Fairy tales are rarely wrong when it comes to addressing the world of the creative mind. Considering the fact that my story-voice sounds like a croaking frog right now, I’ve gone straight to the source for some needed advice. Here’s what the Frog Prince has to say about this creative problem.
Not only does the princess have to tolerate the presence of the warty frog at dinner time and on her silken pillow, the princess has to pucker up.
The Golden Ball
The first insight the story has to offer the struggling writer is the image of the golden ball. The princess loves the ball so much that when it falls into the well, she says, “Alas, if I could only get my ball again, I would give all my fine clothes and jewels, and every thing that I have in the world.” This is exactly the way I feel about my story. I’m desperate to get it back, but the story has sunk to the bottom of the unknowing dark and seems irretrievable.
The princess sits by the well and cries. I can relate. She needs help and so do I, but here is where the story gives me a nasty bit of news. If I want help, I have to make certain promises to a frog.
Enter Nasty Frog
The frog leaps out of the water and promises to retrieve the ball, but at a price. Here are the frog’s demands. He says you must “love me and let me live with you, and eat from your little golden plate, and sleep upon your little bed.” The princess has a choice here. She can let the golden ball go, or take orders from this amphibious upstart. I have a choice too. I can let the story go, or get uncomfortably close to the green pimply thing that seems to have the story in his mouth right now. I take a breath. Well, okay. I promise you can cozy up to me, eat from my plate and sleep in my bed, just as long as you rescue my beautiful story.
“You’re on,” croaks the frog.
The Final Demand
There’s always a catch, and here’s the turning point of the tale. Not only does the princess have to tolerate the presence of the warty frog at dinner time and on her silken pillow, the princess has to pucker up.
Hearing this bit of data, she protests, and with good reason. A kiss is an act of love. There’s no way she can possibly love this vile little creature whose breath stinks of swamp water. And, hey, if I’m going to continue to heed this fairy tale as a metaphor for creative stall-out, I too must protest. Does this mean I have to pucker up to my intolerable prose? My stinking syntax and sagging scenes? You’d have to lobotomize me first! As soon as I get my story-voice back, I’m planning to delete every single bloody word I’ve written in the past two weeks!
“…rejecting the frog and turning away from the story-voice is the worst thing I could do…. I follow the frog’s demands, pucker up, and keep moving forward …”
The frog does not take no for an answer. He will simply keep asking until the princess complies. She puckers up, and so do I. I’m willing to accept that for whatever reason, the frog has control of the story right now. The writer in me won’t let me do otherwise. Why? Because rejecting the frog and turning away from the story-voice is the worst thing I could do.
I know some authors who resorted to “starving the frog” in a desperate attempt to restore a more lyrical voice. The trouble was, after abandoning their novels for a few weeks or months, they never could seem to get back to them. Short forays into other writing projects can stir the creative juices, but I know better than to leave my rough draft alone for too long. Besides, I’ve learned from past novels that the frog has some good insights, sometimes even brilliant ideas disguised in his warty prose (ideas the prince may have been too proper to mention). Knowing I can polish the pages later, I follow the frog’s demands, pucker up, and keep moving forward through my draft.
A Few Artistic Warts
Most of us have trouble sticking to our writing when it’s not going well. This isn’t usually due to a lack of creativity, but an unwillingness to hang in there with the ugly stuff, the unpolished prose, the awkward scene with stumbling dialogue; but hanging in there is key. Accepting good and bad material from the subconscious mind keeps the story flowing. In The Right to Write, Julia Cameron says: “We can either demand that we write well or we can settle more comfortably into writing down what seems to want to come through us—good, bad, or indifferent.” In other words, we can help ourselves past creative stall-out when we learn to accept the creative process, warts and all.
When the princess kisses the frog, he turns into a prince (it’s important to remember she has no idea this will happen when she kisses him). After allowing the frog to be my creative consultant for a couple of weeks, my prince has returned, though I notice he’s acquired a few warts since he’s been away. Anyway, my novel is flowing again and I owe it all to a small green amphibian who refused to let me lose my story. Thus ends my tale of woe.
Here’s wishing you never lose your golden story down the deep well, but if you do, grab hold of your chapstick. I think you know what to do.
WHAT TO DO WHEN YOUR FROG IS CROAKING
Write a little every day.
Print out your draft. Settle down in a cozy chair and read your work aloud. This is often the best way to reclaim your story-voice.
Work on other pieces for brief periods of time. (Emphasis on brief).
Get outside and take a walk. Research shows that something as simple as a 10-minute walk can elevate a person’s mood. A brisk walk will also get you breathing deeper, sending much-needed oxygen to your brain.
Explore creative ideas in your journal. A little free association often primes the creative pump.
Read or write poetry.
Choose to snooze. Ray Bradbury encourages writers to tap into the creative half-dream state by writing as soon as they awaken. Think of your story as you drift off, and you may wake up to the gentle whispering sounds of your story-voice. Note—this technique works whether it’s a full night’s sleep or a 20-minute nap. Top
Children’s Author Writes about Near-death Experience
A Conversation with Janet Lee Carey, author of WENNY HAS WINGS
I’m sure you’ve heard the expression “write what you know.” Have you ever had a near-death experience?
I never had a near-death experience though a good friend of mine had a NDE in a near-drowning accident when she was a child. Of course I did a great deal of research on the subject as I was writing the book. I think “write what you know” is more about being emotionally connected with the story and the characters than about duplicating every single act depicted in a work of fiction. I don’t recall anyone asking Agatha Christie if she’d committed murder.
Many children’s books these days are tackling rather heavy subjects. Why do you think this is so?
Stories are a way of making sense of the unknown. They put a framework around things that frighten us. I think children hunger for stories the way they hunger for bread. A good story satisfies an essential human need. Many of the fictional tales children see on TV are what I call “Fast Food Fiction.” They only tease the appetite, and tend to increase the hunger for a real satisfying tale. So the deeper stories that explore some of the more complex questions of life are usually left to books.
I think a strong children’s story that deals with the darker subjects must include a healthy dose of light and hope. Children’s stories with gratuitous violence, or those that explore the dark side just for the thrill of it, aren’t worth the trouble. They too are a kind of “Fast Food Fiction.” They may give a sudden thrill, but ultimately they don’t satisfy the real story appetite. The trick is to face the story problem head on and still give the reader a sense of hope.
That covers dealing with some of the more heavy topics, but why write about death in a children’s book?
Sometime during my grade school years, I awoke in the wee hours of the night with the sudden realization “someday I’m going to die.” It turns out this is a common experience among school age children, but that doesn’t defuse the terror of the moment for the particular child.
Many children never share that dark moment of realization with another. I certainly didn’t. I couldn’t summon up the courage to talk to my mom or dad about death. It’s a fearful subject for a child to bring up and hard to speak the words aloud. This is where story can play a part.
A story provides an intimate place to explore the things we fear most. Within the pages of a book, fears can be named and faced with love and humanity. A story also provides a place for the child to explore the issue of death through another character. This offers the reader a nice emotional buffer zone. In the case of WENNY HAS WINGS, the story is happening to Will North, not to the reader.
Why did you choose to write WENNY HAS WINGS ?
I didn’t exactly choose the story. It was more like the story chose me. I’m a mother, and the greatest fear a parent can face is the death of a child. A number of years ago, my son needed to have a number of surgeries. We got used to packing up every few months to spend a week at Children’s Hospital. Each time my husband and I kissed our son and watched the doctors wheel him through the surgery doors, I’d feel that old fear rising up.
During those years of hospitalizations, I heard about a family whose children were hit by a car. One lived. One did not. I knew then I had to write about my unspoken fear of losing a child. I also knew that it was completely impossible. I didn’t want to write about a fatal accident or the story of a young child’s death. It was too sad. But this story kept tugging on me, demanding to be written. For nearly a year I refused to write such a heavy story. I needed something real and joyful to balance out the weight of the subject matter. So I put the brakes on and refused to type a word.
Obviously you changed your mind. What got you past this writing block?
Something clicked when I read Dr. Melvin Morse’s Closer to the Light: Learning from the Near-Death Experiences of Children (New York: Villard Books, 1990). At that moment, I knew I’d found a way to bring joy into the book. Will’s near-death experience is key to the story. After the accident, Will flies through a tunnel into a bright light. He feels joyful and happy and free while he’s there. And he sees his sister Wenny flying ahead of him, so he knows through his own experience that she is happy and is in a good place. His NDE moves the resolution beyond an “inherited faith” – a belief in the afterlife because his parents or the pastor tells him it’s so. To an “experiential faith.” Will knows Wenny is all right because of his own experience.
I also added a lot of humor to the tale (or should I say Will did?) with Will’s friend Gallagher, who’s nuts about Godzilla; Will’s dog Bullwinkle; and his pet tarantula Igor. The boys also have a séance and go on a daring adventure down “The Tunnel of Death.” But it’s Will’s perspective from his positive near-death experience that moves the story beyond a tale of grief, infusing it with light and hope. J.R.R. Tolkien has a name for this light beyond dark. He calls it the “Eucatastrophe,” the joy behind the shadow. Without truly facing our fears, there’s no way to find a satisfying happily ever after.
If I did my job well, I took a subject that everyone fears, their own death and the death of a loved one. I wrote a story that faced it head on and still managed to give the reader a sense of hope. Of course only the reader can be the judge of that. You’ll have to read the book to see.
Wenny Has Wings © 2002 Janet Lee Carey.
Atheneum Books for Young Readers Top
The New Face of Homelessness
Janet Lee Carey, author of The Double Life of Zoe Flynn
At a crowded rest stop in Washington a homeless family huddles in their car. Rain drum rolls on the car tops and sidewalks. Travelers run for cover and line up for free coffee. The family in the 1980s rusty junker sit tight. Their car tips to the left. The metal tire rim rests on the wet pavement. Mom and Dad in the front seat. Two kids curl up in the back amidst piles of clothes, blankets, food wrappers, towels. One brown-eyed girl peeks out through the wet window. The crayon sign beside her reads. Out of money. Need help to fix flat. Looking for work in Oregon.
This is the new face of homelessness. It’s not the old panhandler on the corner. It’s out of work families. To give you some idea of recent changes in the homeless population, try on this statistic. The average age of a homeless person today is nine years old. Families with children are among the fastest growing homeless populations in the U.S. In 2003 the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that families made up 40% of the homeless population, and the statistics are on the rise.
Families living on the economic edge are now falling into the precipice.
Why don’t they just get a job? Here’s another interesting fact. Many homeless people are employed. The average minimum wage worker would have to work 89 hours a week to earn enough to pay for a two bedroom apartment for his family, and still have enough for food, clothing, and transportation. Single parent families can’t make their paychecks stretch that far. Mom and Dad working minimum wage jobs can’t even work the full 89 hours between them. Add child care expenses and you’re back to square one.
Each month many parents are faced with a kind of “Sophie’s Choice” between hunger, and housing. Unexpected medical expenses? Car insurance? Don’t even go there. The paycheck is already swallowed up by last months unpaid bills. Teetering between homelessness and hunger, parents will opt for homelessness before they’ll stand by and watch their kids go hungry.
Tyletha Samuels from Picture the Homeless, NY New York says the loss of federal programs is her top concern. Federal aid programs are being cut with nothing to replace them. Samuels, once homeless herself, got the help she needed to get back on her feet. She now works tirelessly seeking shelter for the homeless in NY. But the programs that helped her are no longer available. She wants to know, “What’s out there for homeless families in shelters without employment?”
Homelessness is just a “big city” problem, right? Think again. Low income families are slipping through the cracks at an alarming rate in rural America as well. Wes Phinney, deputy director of York County Shelter in Maine says lack of federal funding across the US forces us all to become more active in our own communities. He asks three basic questions, “Are you aware of housing costs in your community? Are there any places for low income people to live? What is your community doing in the way of general assistance?” What’s needed is a triple A approach. Awareness. Advocacy. Action. “There’s a lot communities can do to help families keep their homes,” says Phinney. Family to family help at the grassroots level can make a huge difference. The best supports are food banks, clothing banks, and commodity banks. Working together one family at a time, we can turn the statistics around.
In Washington State, organizations like Hoplink believe you’re never too young to start. Along with shelters, food banks, child care centers and literacy programs, Hopelink brings the message of the poor to the schools. This year the Hoops for Hope campaign is sending out free Poverty Awareness Kits. Schools reading The Double Life of Zoe Flynn learn about homelessness from an eleven-year-old girl’s point of view. Zoe’s story inspires students to raise money for Hoops for Hope. Kids are empowered to take action for the poor in their community. And every little bit helps.
Families living in their cars. Kids huddle in the backseat waiting for someone to rescue them. Take a good look. Across America the new face of homelessness is that of a nine-year-old child. For most of us, this is an unacceptable statistic. It’s time for Awareness. Time for Advocacy. Time to take Action.
Become a triple A Family
Awareness: Find out more at www.nationalhomeless.org
Advocacy: Speak out for the poor in your community.
Action: Volunteer at a food bank, clothing bank or commodities bank. Have a
garage sale to benefit the homeless in your community.
Janet Lee Carey is a freelance writer living in Washington State. Her latest book, The Double Life of Zoe Flynn tells the story of a homeless family living in their Chevy van. Find out more at www.JanetLeeCarey.com