Sunday, March 11, 2018


A writer friend read a draft of one of my novels. She gave me lots of great feedback. In particular, she pointed to a scene in which the kids visit their friend and are greeted by a stay-at-home mom.

"I know you're writing the world we usually see," my friend said. "But why use stereotypical roles? Why not show a more diverse world? Then it can become the norm."

"Absolutely," I agreed. I felt chastened to be caught in conventional thinking.

So I changed the scene. I had the stay-at-home parent be a dad. I gave the mom an important, high salary job as a lawyer who is fighting for justice.

There was an unintended consequence. The mom never appeared in the book. She was at her law office. The dad got to be in a funny scene baking spinach brownies. This caused a whole new imbalance. What had I done?!?!

Obviously I could have conceived of a story in which the lawyer mom had a crucial role. But my intention had been to write about saving our planet! (Unfortunately, that was too big a job for a kid, so I changed the idea to saving the butterflies.) Did I have to worry about male-female role models too? Isn't this just a kids' book?

No, it isn't. Words have power. We feel validated when we connect with a character or situation we recognize. When we encounter the unfamiliar, we are enlarged.

Writing is a series of choices. The character does this or that, looks like this or that, and says this or that. The multitude of small decisions coalesce to make the book.

Which brings me to the question I'd been pondering even before my friend's suggestion. The world is beset by problems. So many injustices, so many crises, including those poor monarch butterflies. I'm just a writer. What can I do?

Pay attention. Be aware of the problems. Learn about them. Use facts whenever possible. That will lead to better writing.

Upend preconceived notions. Shun the stale and the trite. That's better writing.

Strive for balance. Not just among types of characters, but within them. Treat every character with respect. That's better writing.

Be honest. Kids see through our best attempts to guide them. They know damn well there's spinach in that brownie. Don't gloss over situations. Characters should change and grow. That's better writing.

One of the reasons I love what I do is that I can make a happy ending. I can't cure cancer or end poverty. But I can make bold heroes who happen to be girls. I can make friendships exist where they usually don't. I can make sensitive dads and brothers. I can make wise women give just the right amount of encouragement and advice.

I can write the change I want to see in the world.

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