Sometimes, my ability to see myself accurately is akin to standing too close to a Seurat. You know, the guy who painted works like this:
Yep, there am I, standing with my nose nearly pressed against that lady’s pretty pink skirt. Only, instead of seeing a pretty pink skirt on a woman who holds an umbrella in one hand and a little girl in the other, I only see a smudge of pretty pinkness. I am too close to the work.
The irony is I like to think I know myself pretty well, yet it’s times like today that I realize I know myself about as well as I know how to calculate the cosine of a perpendicular hyperbola. Or the mating call of the roofus-sided towhee.
Yet it’s one thing when you can’t see someone or something else clearly; you just take a few steps back. When it is ourselves we can’t see clearly, we’re screwed. As the art and the viewer of the art, we can’t get enough distance from ourselves to see anything that’s more clear than a blur of dots. So, as it turns out, sometimes I need a museum guide to explain myself to me.
This morning, that museum guide appeared, thank goodness, in the guise of a literary agent.
After reading a few chapters of my manuscript, Lovely Agent arranged an 8:30 a.m. phone call (before which I locked my children in the garage, threatening scary punishments if they made a peep or got in a spitting fight or started screaming, “Nipple!” in unison.)
During this phone call, Lovely Agent proceeded to make a few hefty recommendations about my novel, specifically how to make it appealing to a single audience. As soon as she started talking, I realized they weren’t careless suggestions, but BRILLIANT recommendations, recommendations that would not simply stick a new set of Mr. Potato Head features into my existing spud. No, they were recommendations that would simply make my novel better. For all readers.
Yet, I hawed and hemmed, explaining that I still wasn’t sure it was YA, until finally, she startled me with her lovely laughter. “Sarah!” she said. “My God, why are you fighting it? Why not be a YA writer, at least for now, when you so clearly have a YA book? Why not embrace it?!?”
In the silence that followed, I felt my cheeks blush. “I do love teenagers,” I admitted, my voice small. But then I heard my words get louder, more brave. “You know I used to teach high school English? I mean, it’s weird. I miss the teenagers. I really do love teenagers.”
“Yes, and so why don’t you want to write YA?”
At that moment, I realized this was an intervention of sorts. One where I had to accept that although I grew up ten minutes from Berkeley, CA, mecca of liberal thought, even though I did know several YA writers and thought them to be fantastic people, even though some of my very best friends were YA novels, I had to accept the fact that I, Sarah Callender, was a flaming, bigoted YAist. And yes, this was an intervention. At 8:30 on a July morning while my kids were locked in the garage with one Capri Sun and one bag of Teddy Grahams each, screaming, “Nipple!”
I took a deep breath and really went for it. “And . . . oh, gosh. You know what? My next novel, the one I’ve started writing in my head, that one also has a teenage narrator. This time, a boy. Who loves taking Polaroids. To document his mother’s decline into early-onset Alzheimer’s.”
“Yes, Sarah,” Lovely Agent said in that knowing-but-sympathetic voice. “You can keep denying it, or you can accept the truth.”
I’ve never, to my knowledge, been an addict, at least not in any way that requires one of those whole-family reality TV interventions. But if you happen to be some sort of an addict, let me state for the record, interventions are surprisingly awesome. There’s finally truth! There’s relief in the admission! There’s peace that finally, an honest conversation has taken place!
Lovely Agent and I went on to discuss how YA books win Newberry Awards. That YA books have the power to hook young readers and turn them into life-long readers. That YA novels aren’t just about teen pregnancies and meth addiction and vampires. Rather, YA can be timeless literature that never goes out of style.
After we hung up, I sat staring at the notes I had taken during our conversation, barely thinking. And perhaps that’s how one always feels after she is the target of an intervention: stunned. But also oddly peaceful. As I went down to the garage to unlock the children from the garage I remembered Mrs. Christopherson, librarian at Sleepy Hollow Elementary, ca. 1979. Mrs. Christophersen, who faithfully set aside special books she knew I would love, who, whenever I popped in the library at recess and gave her that raised eyebrow look, would beckon me over. “Here,” she would say, pulling a book from what appeared to me a top secret drawer that no other kids knew existed. “This book just came in. I hid it because I knew you had to read it first.”
She knew I had to read it first? Holy shoot ! How freaking cool was Mrs. Christopherson?
With that image, (and with my hand still on the doorknob to the garage) I got all weepy with the realization, finally,that I want to have books that school librarians keep hidden in their top secret drawers, for just the perfect kid.
Many of you wrote in (thank you!) to share your favorite novels from your childhood, everything from Charlotte’s Web to the Narnia Chronicles to The Hunger Games to Roald Dahl, and of course the Twilight series. Those too, are my favorites. Except for the Twilight series. The Twilight series is like baseball trophies for tee-ballers, but worse . . . but I digress. Anything by Judy Blume, Beverly Clearly’s Fifteen, even a book called A Summer to Die about two sisters, a pretty one and a not-pretty one, and the pretty one starts getting all these crazy nosebleeds and eventually dies . . . there is nothing like those favorite books you read as a kid. Sometimes over and over and over.
So tonight at dinner (in between Sweetie knocking over the bottle of Riesling and Buddy doing show and tell with his just-lost, bloody tooth) I relayed my morning conversation to Husbandio, telling him how Lovely Agent, this woman who hardly knows me, showed me what I couldn’t see about myself.
“What,” I said. “Why are you laughing?”
Husbandio gave a gentle shrug. “It’s kind of like how you couldn’t understand why Buddy was such a crybaby. You’d get so frustrated with him. But then, when I pointed out that you have been known to cry, you know, on occasion . . . on many occasions, and that maybe Buddy was just like you.”
And mi Husbandio was right about that too. So right that as soon as the words were out of his mouth, I burst into tears. After all, I spent a whole lot of years feeling irritated that I had such a crybaby for a son, a SON of all things, when really, his teary tendencies were traceable directly back to my DNA.
Yet I was just too close to Buddy to see it. Just as I am always too close to myself to see me clearly. I guess we’re all, at times, just too darn close to the Seurat.
Thank goodness for museum guides who moonlight as interventionists who dabble in literary agenting. Really, thank goodness.