Sunday, August 6, 2017

This Is My Why

Where did you get the idea for this book? is a common question authors get. Usually, authors relate an anecdote of some sort. Or share an epiphany. Or confess to having read something in the news that sparked the basis for their story. (Florida authors seem particularly adept at this.)  

I do fumble about for adequate answers to share with people who ask, but the question I  wish they'd ask instead is Why did you write this book?

The why is so much more important.

It's actually everything.

Why did I spend years of my life thinking about, researching, plotting this story? Why did I obsess over word choice, balance, message, accessibility, theme, resolution, heart? Why did I put myself in this world, endure this character's agonies? Why? Why? Why?

For Wild Bird, the answer comes down to reflection. Reflection on how seemingly insignificant choices can set us off in a slightly wrong direction, which, over time, can land us in a place we never intended (or wanted) to go.

Reflections on the importance of friendships in shaping our direction.

Reflections on the questions we should ask ourselves when we're young. The ones that will help keep us moving toward where we dream of being. The ones that matter most.

When we're young and under the guidance of parents and teachers, we're given rules. Do not lie. Do not steal. Do not cheat. Think about the 10 Commandments -- it's simply a list of things you should not do. The rules we're given when we're young become our de facto moral compass.

But then adolescence happens and peer pressure (or curiosity or defiance or...) can lure us away from the things we've been taught not to do. Having friends, being accepted...it is a powerful force, one against which rules alone cannot compete. Our moral compass finds a new true north - peer acceptance.

It has helped me, I think, to see adolescence again through the eyes of a classroom teacher. I've seen my own youthful mistakes repeated by my students. I recognize the pressures and emotions and remember the agony of being that age. 

I taught high school for 15 years, and for many of those years I also worked two nights a week at the continuation high school, helping at-risk kids get through school. These were teens whose choices had betrayed them. And beyond getting their GED, most had no clear direction. They were young souls already lost. 

In education, we focus on helping our students complete the steps necessary to move forward toward careers. It's our job. But if I were back in the classroom now, I would pause that and ask my students to answer one life-defining question:

Who do you want to be?

Not what career are you after, or what position do you want to hold, but what kind of person do you want to be? What characteristics do you want to embody?

Because everything else in their lives will spring from a thoughtful defining of that.

So the why behind Wild Bird comes from reflections on the power inherent in defining our who. If we're able to define our who when we're young - if we're able to make our decisions by that guide - attaining happiness and fulfillment has a much better chance than if we let the pressures around us push and pull us in directions we never intended to go.

Wild Bird is the story of a girl who, at fourteen, is already defensive, bitter, angry, and lost. Her parents don't understand what went wrong. How did this happen?

It happened by degrees. The compass shifted. And, unfortunately, Wren's not alone. Nobody wants to end up where she did but a lot of teens do. And I don't claim to have all the answers - not by any stretch - but maybe changing the question can help teens consciously choose their direction. Maybe it can give them the strength and conviction to stay on the path they want for themselves. 

This is my hope for Wild Bird.

This is my why.
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(Wild Bird will be out on September 5th. If you'd like to read a short excerpt, there's one here.)

4 comments:

Jessica said...

Wow. This post is really thought-provoking. Your message about challenging teens to ask the right question is powerful. If only everyone could focus on their why - and more importantly, their who.

Shaina said...

Right on point, as always! I love reading your thoughts.

Lilly Brent said...

As always Wendelin, your words are so thoughtful and beautifully expressed. Your students were so lucky to have you as a teacher, just as we readers are immensely lucky to be able to read your books.

Wendelin Van Draanen said...

Thank you, Jessica, Shaina, & Lilly for the lovely comments! <3 <3