I’m sure that as a child you were taught, as I was, not to say anything unless you have something nice to say. I learned that lesson over in graduate school, when my favorite professor announced to the class: “You can not critique this text until you point out its strengths.” Phil knew there was a growing tendency among overeager grad students to slice and dice–hack a text to pieces without taking the time to consider what contribution it made to the field. I’ve also participated in writing labs where writers sit in a circle and take turns dissecting your work; sometimes the comments are helpful, mostly they are not. The last group I was in was for women playwrights, and the most frequent comment I heard from two female directors was, “There’s no dramatic action.” The lab was supposed to last a year, but 6 months in, after our first festival, I decided to resign. First I asked if we could restructure the workshop, since other writers told me there’s a system whereby the playwright gets to say: “I’m looking for feedback ONLY on character development.” And then members of the lab respond according to what the playwright’s looking for instead of just giving their random impressions. The woman running the workshop was outraged by the suggestion that we change the format, advised me to “toughen up,” and cited her many years of experience and numerous awards won. So I left. Not just the lab, but the theatre world altogether. I’m sure some folks thought I was just arrogant, but I don’t believe my work’s perfect and beyond critique. I know it’s flawed, but it’s also MINE. I believe in organic writing…remember that commercial for orange juice, the kind that’s not from concentrate? The commercial stresses that the juice is “natural,” with no pesticides or preservatives. “Just as Nature intended,” etc. Unfucked-around-with, is the term I like to use when I talk about organic writing. I like to look at something I’ve written and know it wasn’t tampered with–even if input from others might have made it more appealing to a wider audience. So when I read someone else’s work, I try to keep in mind that every author has the right to say, “I wrote it that way ’cause I wanted to. Period.” They don’t owe me, or anyone else, a long defense of their literary choices. I may *wonder* about their choices, and wish they had chosen different options, but in the end I respect every author’s right to produce the book they had in mind.
I’m often asked how I feel about the work of Jacqueline Woodson, and sometimes I deflect by admitting that I haven’t kept up with all her books; she’s prolific, and after reading three or four titles about five years ago, I stopped reading YA lit altogether and moved on to reading and writing plays. Now that I’m a black Brooklyn kidlit author myself, that question persists: “Don’t you just LOVE Jacqueline Woodson’s books?!” Librarians and educators gush on and on, and I sit there with nothing to say, which makes me look like I’m holding back because I have nothing good TO say. And that’s not true. I read two of her more recent books this weekend: Miracle’s Boys and The House You Pass on the Way. I won’t write a report for each, but I will start with what I like: Woodson’s a really good writer, and her characters (both male and female) have a fragility to them that we don’t often see in kidlit. If I needed an antidote to Tyrell, the three brothers in Miracle’s Boys are just what the doctor ordered; still grieving the death of their parents, these boys fight, sulk, weep, and nearly self-destruct, but ultimately hold onto the love and history that binds them together. The family in The House You Pass… is also grieving over the more distant death of two beloved parents. Stag’s father moves his own interracial family into his deceased parents’ home, and they all live with the proud and painful legacy of two black entertainers who died in the war for civil rights. Stag, friendless and introverted, suspects she is gay but isn’t able to talk about her sexuality until her cousin Trout comes to visit from Baltimore. Trout is known to be gay in her family, and her adoptive mother sends her to the country to “become a lady” (aka, straight). This book is full of delicate, detailed descriptions of the countryside, and Stag clearly loves both the land and her somewhat isolated family. She finds a kindred spirit in Trout, though their bond is surprisingly instant and requires little if any negotiation (I wasn’t like that with my teenaged cousins!). My only real critique of either of these books is that they’re too short! And I recall feeling the same way when I finished Hush and If You Come Softly several years ago…”Where’s the rest of the story?” Now, Woodson might intentionally be giving us just a glimpse into these characters’ lives. And I *hate* to recycle this phrase, but I do find myself asking, “Where’s the dramatic action?” It seems to take place *before* the novels begin, and so the characters reminisce, but don’t participate in these traumatic events–not in REAL time. In DREAM time, the trauma is still real, still live, still painful. But a short novel about reminiscing is very quiet. I’ve started asking for recommendations (Susan over at Color Online is a HUGE fan!) and think I’ll try either Feathers or the Tupac book next–or Susan’s choice: I Hadn’t Meant to Tell You This.