Monday, January 4, 2010

Mary: Channeling my Inner Boy

Keith grabbed Todd’s camera away from Curtis. “Lizzie? You’ve got a picture of Lizzie in here?” he asked.

“Oh my god, bonehead. Lizzie Olsen?” Curtis said.

“When’d you take that picture anyway?” Evan’s eyes opened wide.

“Are you two going out?” Keith said.

“I’m mean she’s got it going under her shirt…” Evan began.

Boys making crude comments and gestures about girls? Did I really write that? And later, scenes with fighting, vandalizing school property, and more nastiness towards girls?

When I was working on my novel, JUMPING THE NARROWS, I’d write scenes like these and wonder, where did that come from? Do those boys really live inside me? Who are they? What do these scenes say about me? Am I crude, nasty, and violent?

Back off, a voice spoke to me. This isn’t about you.

That was the hard part. To move aside and let my characters and my story be.

In first drafts, I fought it all the way. The switch between withholding and letting go was a tough one to flip. I had to push myself into that unknown and uncharted territory where memory and imagination collide. I had to face the ugliness in my characters and in myself. I had to trust that I could eventually create some kind of meaning from this story.

But I had specific memories of real boys to help my find my way. Here’s one example. In JUMPING The NARROWS, 13-year-old Todd, the protagonist, hooks his foot under his friend Curtis’s chair in school, pushing him to the floor because Curtis wrote swearwords and drew swastikas all over Todd’s homework paper, homework that Todd would later have to turn in. For Todd, this was another in a series of incidents that would fire up his rage against Curtis.

As a 9th grade Spanish teacher, I once had a fabulous lesson plan going on, everyone was into it, but soon all eyes darted to the back of the room. A student had violently pushed over the desk of another student, landing him flat on the floor. I went into hyper-alert. Was the boy okay? I rushed over to see. Things like this can erupt quickly in a classroom and not end well. Luckily, the boy was all right.

The assistant principal came and hauled the two boys off to investigate the incident. My job was to keep peace in the classroom and get back to conversational Spanish. But what was going on between those two kids? I couldn’t let it go. I never got that incident out of my mind. Years later, I revisited it in JUMPING THE NARROWS.

Some parts of the boy material were harder to write than others. Writing the crude comments and actions towards girls made me squirm. I disapproved of what my characters were doing and inwardly reacted with fear and fury just as my 13-year-old self once had. In no way did I want my words to support of encourage such behavior. And yet, this is what happens with a lot of middle school and high school boys and girls—and as much as I don’t like it or approve of it, it was authentic and necessary to my story.

People have asked if I enjoyed writing the “bad boy” scenes in this novel. My “enjoyment” came from being true to my story, but I resisted the tough scenes all the way. Writing JUMPING THE NARROWS was a rollercoaster ride with all the exhilaration, hesitation, and nausea that I remember from riding the rollercoaster at Nantasket Beach in Hull, MA during my teenage years.

But I know boys. I grew up with three older brothers; I have a son and many nephews; I’ve taught lots of boys. Tons of boys—awkward boys who tested me, shocked me, and charmed me in all their glory.

Initially, the digging was hard. But once I started, my fictional boys were in control. They wouldn’t let me hold back.

Boys live within me with all their put-downs, confusion, self-conscious kindness, vulnerability, fiercely-guarded fears, loyalty, unexpected tenderness, raging hormones, inappropriate behavior—in short, their humanity. Just like girls.

My job as author of JUMPING THE NARROWS was to push my adult/mother/teacher self out of their way and to permit both my sweet and nasty inner boys to live on the page and tell their story.


  1. I've written several (okay, lots of) stories about second grade through fifth grade boys. I taught elementary school for 17 years and was always given the "challenging" kids. I think (and my principals) I related to them. There is always something behind "challenging kids," usually it's a need to be validated. You've inspired me to get those stories out of my files and do something with them. Thanks, Mary.

  2. It sounds like you've tapped into a possible split personality. The title alone "Jumping the Narrows" sounds intriguing. I think the best resource for writing is to dive into what you know, then it comes from the heart.

  3. It is always challenging to write "what you are not." You don't have to apologize or explain to me. It is also fascinating to explore the motivations of characters who choose evil/pain/aggression.

    What I find scary, and I bet you do, too: when you find a character like this, there is common emotion. Once you tap into it, you know and can write just what drives these boys to act as they do. You understand that emotion, and thus, the tough actions and reactions become plausible.

    Recently, I read Joyce Carol Oates' Zombie. You can't get more evil/twisted/crude than this character. As I read, I kept waiting for some sort of authorial intrusion--some morality. Some character to say, "The author finds this character repulsive." But she was really IN his head. And she trusted the reader to understand the vile nature of this character. For me, the experience was uncomfortable, at best.

    These books always make me think. They are a challenge. To get into the heads of people we are not is magic.

    Good luck with this!!!!

    xo Sarah

  4. I'm currently writing a novel with a 13-year-old girl as the mc. Sure, I'm female, but I'm still amazed at how easily I can do whiny and self-centered, and how much fun it is! It's a great feeling when your writing is true to character, and true to real life.

  5. Hi Heidi! I just wanted to say, thanks for following my blog and I can't wait until Sea. Hopefully I'll be able to read it for the 2010 Debs Challenge. Best wishes,
    Sasha :)

  6. I love this post, especially the line: "Back off, a voice spoke to me. This isn't about you." I have to tell myself this every time I try to write a tough scene.

  7. This statement "What do these scenes say about me? Am I crude, nasty, and violent?" was profound for me. I wrote a book that showed a lot of intimate knowledge with the dark side of the world. It was hard for me to share it with people at first, especially when early readers balked at some of the material. And I felt JUDGED. Like I was a bad person for even thinking some of those things, let alone writing them.

    And then, like Varian, I love what you shared about it not being about me ~ it's about my characters. It's THEIR story.

    I'm forever amazed at the people that live inside my head. I think this is where thoughts of past lives come from ~ people are just writers, and they don't know it, lol!

    Great blog, thanks Mary!

  8. Thank you, everyone, for all your comments. Please let those untamed characters escape from inside your head. Readers are waiting.

  9. Mary, I cannot wait to read your book. Sounds exhilarating!