Category Archives: musings
“May Not Be Suitable for Children” should be my pen name, plastered across every short story, poem, and novel I write. There arises a dilemma in writing young adult fiction for teens, even for older teens, in that you must purposefully censor the content, language, and context of the story. At the same time, you want to commit to a certain degree of realism in your portrayal of teenagers—they cuss, take drugs, and make poor decisions. But at one point can the pursuit of depicting something “real” cross the line into commercializing the controversial? While editing my novel The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County, these questions have plagued me.
Young Adult Lit in general has begun catering to younger teens, from ages 12 to 15, and with that comes a certain sacrifice of material. Violence becomes cleaner, romance becomes chaste, and the 14-year-old who might be a bundle of angry hormones speaks proper as a British butler. On the other hand, there exist plenty of YA novels that explore the dark and gritty. Thirteen Reasons Why explores the suicide of the protagonist’s sister. The Perks of Being a Wallflower highlight sexual abuse within the family and contain scenes about drug exploration. Probably one of the books that takes on the most criticism for dark material is Crank, which details a girl’s descent into meth addiction.
The controversy has already been much discussed in blogs and articles, asking whether YA is TOO DARK? Here are some opinions on that, but here too is my opinion.
As edits began on my novel The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County, I began to have these exact conversations with my editor and publisher. After we reviewed some of the scenes in question, I agreed—some of these existed purely for shock value, the I can’t believe they might do that moments. Some were clearly inappropriate, though others existed for very particular reasons.
I’ll give an example: one character in the novel struggles with abuse in her relationship. In the first draft, I merely hinted at this dynamic and in subsequent drafts I wanted to bring the conversation of partner abuse to the forefront. So I employed the Toni Morrison school of realism and left nothing to the imagination, which created a powerful though perhaps horrendous scene. Was the scene necessary to show the horrors of abuse or could have I implied my opinion in some other way? In the end, I removed that particular scene because I believed that the character could convey her unsettling experience more easily herself. I could explain why domestic abuse was a terrible thing without actually showing domestic abuse, therefore in some way glamorizing that sort of violence.
Other controversies arose, as well, such as certain sex scenes and the presence of drugs and especially the level of cursing that some characters undertook. This caused the book to lower the f-word count nearly 100 f-words, which you probably might not notice reading the book. I based this novel and some of the action and the idiosyncrasies of the book on my friends, and my friends in high school swore like sailors. Of course we were always talking about sex and crimes and what we going to do once we broke out of our hometown. That’s part of growing up.
The most important question to ask is, why are you writing? Is the scene, though controversial, serving a specific purpose? I want to write something entertaining but also something educational. You learn not just about science or the South or even about the inner workings of teenagers, but a little something about what it means to be human.
Lastly, another big question: who are you writing for? It took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that I’m writing young adult literature, but the stigma of writing for teenagers has begun to dissolve. I always wanted to write “literary fiction,” something serious, though you can write serious fiction for teenagers. After all, I was reading Melville and Fitzgerald and Dostovskey and Eggers as a teenager, and even now I’m barely removed from “teenager status.” Over the past few years, YA Lit has trended toward younger readers (12-15), but I wanted to write something for the almost New Adult. And I don’t mean the genre “New Adult,” which has been swamped solely by romantic fiction. I want to for those in-between, people like me. Maybe we’re not ready to read academic treatises yet and still crave the adventure of a teen lit book, though we also want something substantial in our fiction. We wanted to learn something about being human, want to better ourselves through the process of reading.
So, maybe The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County isn’t “suitable for children,” but I hope it’s suitable for you.
Last night, I returned with four other guys from a three-day trek along the Appalachian Trail through the Great Smokey Mountains. We imagined a fine stroll in the woods, a few days breathing good air and overlooking mountain vistas, but we ended up with cramped calves, blistered feet, and weathered shoulders. While it did not bring the calm or enlightenment that some people claimed, the mountain trip taught me a lot about expectations, companionship, and the nature of nature.
Below is a direct transcription of the little journal I kept throughout our hikes, including crazed ideas, admissions, and swear words. The entire journey proved harder than any of us thought, but we made it out alive and mostly intact.
June 9, 2013
Spirit Quest. Walkabout. Seeking.
Whatever cultural term might be used to describe a spiritual journey in the wilderness, this is not it. Rather, this will be a walk to death, the ascension to the hangman’s noose. Like many other confused, existential, directionless Caucasian males in their teenage prime, we chose to amble up into the Smokey Mountain National Park, hike a few miles of the Appalachian Trail.
The sky has decided to piss all over us, and I admit I’m not ecstatic to begin walking through muck and cold rain and liquefied misery.
After a wrong turn, we found ourselves lost along the highway. Using our smart phone devices, we found a new way to the entrance to the park. After picking up a map and looking through the visitors center, we are preparing for the hike.
Having entered the trailhead at 2 pm, we have not yet reached our destination. I sit along, awaiting the slower leg of our group to catch up. I need their water. I am unsure how much further it could be, but I hope I am close. The hike has been far more strenuous than I believed, heaving a fifty pound pack uphill. The incline never ceases, and even when I think I have reached the summit, the trail continues up. The last 1/3 has been tame, but exhausting. The first three miles went up a creek, the water rushing past our soaked shoes as we scraped our legs on rocks and climbed hand and foot. We did not prepare for, certainly did not anticipate, the sheer pain of going on and on, trapped in a steaming hallucination of green.
We spotted a single snake, but our worst enemy is the streams. Some have simple brides or even fallen trees to cross, but many we fall into, slipping on the rocks or moss. At the beginning of our journey, just past the first friendly mile, I took off my shoes to clear the stream, clinging to branches as I skirted along the clumsy rocks. My sleeping bag splashed into the stream, soaked through, and for a mile, I carried the bag draped over my shoulders.
I hear my comrades approaching and admit the time to sit has been restful. Like with every new horizon, I pray the campsite lies just beyond.
Steeper. The camp is nowhere in sight, and I feel my body and mind slipping away. My shoulders bulbous and raw and red.
This trail mocks me. Every tree masquerades as a peaceful meadow, but is only another sharp turn up this damned mountain. The Devil hovers behind every boulder, beckoning with bread, with rest, but there is nothing.
It is dark and grow darker. A storm brews in the distance, and not for the first time today am I considering whether I will die here.
I am taking more frequent breaks as I begin to lose hope. I sit on a log observing the first sign I’ve encountered in hours. Ricky encountered me on the trail, on his way to locate Stephen who had disappeared long ago. The sign says there is only a half mile left to the campsite, and I remember believing we had only 1.5 miles left after the 3 mile marker, but we crossed that at 5pm.
My feet are blistered, numb. Even to curl a toe takes great exertion. But Ricky’s presence made me feel better.
It just started raining.
Inane thoughts, rambling.
As I neared the site, I stepped wrong, rolling my angle. I could feel my muscles stretch unnaturally, snapping loudly. “Arrrgh. Fuck.” I collapsed, thinking the worst: that my ankle was broken, that I was trapped.
Three weeks before in La Habana, Cuba I had sprained my ankle and been unable to walk properly for a day– it still affects me now. If I suffered the same fate on the trail, we would be stranded. Alone, I called out the names of my friends. No one could hear me.
Clutching my foot, I assessed the damage. This did not feel as before, and I suspected I could walk given time. Putting weight on the foot, I hobbled across the trail until I felt comfortable walking upright. Then I hefted my pack onto my shoulders and plod on. Each step sent a jolt through my leg, but by now, that sort of pain felt irrelevant.
Funny to think, but while making the final stretch, I thought of how I could transform this experience into a lesson, the sort of clear, cut-and-dry morality imposed in a standard college essay or fable. Nothing came to mind except that I had overestimated myself– we all had.
We were weak, broken by strain, and lost. Five inept white bys, wondering the dark, dangerous forest.
I reached the camp where Tim and Ricky were, and I set up a tent with ease. While waiting on food, I spilled a bag of granola in my tent, and I cursed myself for bringing rats and other vermin to me.
Ricky showed up with Stephen, both exhausted, and we ate soup. Stephen, like all of us, had at once lost hope on the trail, sitting down on the side, refusing to move. In that way, we are relying on each other to keep going, and I hope we can continue to do this tomorrow.
We learned that the estimation of the trail (4.5 miles) had been wrong and instead we had hiked 6.7 miles. That was why my mind suffered delusions after mile 3, because I thought I was nearly finished. But the I had not even been half-way. Not even half-way up what we learned was the second-highest mountain in the entire park.
We talked for a long time, eating a type of soup that warmed itself when you shook the can. It began to rain in earnest, and we retreated to our tents.
June 10, 2013
Woke up to my tent filled with water, my shoes and much of my clothes soaked. I could not sleep in my wet sleeping bag and so made do with two towels covering me.
The others still sleep.
Not all is misery here. I trekked up a hill to the mountain’s peak, though a good view is impossible through the thick of green leaves. But finally I am feeling a bit of accomplishment at climbing this damned mount.
Waiting for clothes to dry. Packing up.
Our first leg of our journey proved easier than yesterday, a few brief inclines but mostly flat trail. The descents are no easier, and we move slowly to avoid tumbling down. I packed my bag better with the mostly dry sleeping bag packed inside. We rest now on a bunch of logs. We overlook the mountains draped in white gauzy mist.
We have stopped to cook lunch. My shoulder burn again under the strain of a heavier pack. The trail has been tame, and most of yesterday’s rain has evaporated. No more sliding, spilling, and falling.
The mountain we climbed yesterday was one of the highest in the range, more than 5,000 feet. Hopefully, we will not continue to underestimate this wicked place.
For lunch, we’re eating from a giant canister of beans and rice. I admit I’m quite hungry, and we will not eat again until nearing nightfall. The sun is very warm in this spot, the wind refreshing.
We arrived in the campsite an hour ago. I have set up my tent. Others are currently setting p theirs. Very hot at the moment, but the bulk of the day’s strain is behind us. The final miles was perilous and muddy, and we hiked through more creeks.
Woke up from a nap. Cooking chicken, rice, and beans with pita chips.
The others have decided against spending a day to explore the area. There is not much to explore we have not already, and we will want to come home soon. The adventure might end prematurely, but it has been an adventure.
We started a fire and sat around it, some of us smoking cheap cigars we bought at the Cherokee Indian Reservation. We’re going to sleep now, as tomorrow might be the longest leg of our journey yet.
June 11, 2013
Woke up late at 10am with a stiff back and throbbing head. We encountered an old man hiking who simply grunted in our direction. Now we have learned that he hiked a mere 0.3 miles from a highway to our campsite; we had the opportunity to simply hike out, then hitch-hike, but instead we are already headed in the opposite direction. I do not particularly like this loyalty to the direction we’re headed because we’re unsure how far we must travel.
We left at 12pm and made decent time to the sign we’d encountered before. 1 mile uphill was more difficult than yesterday’s 4 miles down. We have stopped for lunch now– rice and beans again.
Making lunch now that Kevin and Stephen have caught up. Cooper Creek Trail is at 1.5, then there will be more space before we reach Mingus Creek Trail. Hopefully not too far. Though we feel nearly finished, we have a long way to go.
We have decided to eat at Waffle House once back in civilizations, and the thought of a sizzling burger will hopefully keep me moving forward.
Walked another 3.6 miles since lunch. The first 1.5 to Cooper Creek felt easy, so when we reached the crossroads, we kept hiking without stopping. The next 2.1 miles almost killed me.
Half a mile in, we started uphill, back up that damned mountain we climbed the first day. This was a place called Deep Low Gap, a huge elevation change between two high mountains. We spent the morning going down one, and I just spent three and a half hours hiking up the other.
I slowed, dehydrated, exhausted, and eventually I fell behind Tim and Ricky who took the lead. Our pack spread thin, stretched across miles of mountainous terrain. I took many breaks, fearing I could not make it.
700 feet before this intersection, I stopped, plopping down. I saw nothing, my mind turning to mush, but I came to two realizations in that moment of desperation:
1.) I could not go on.
2.) It didn’t matter.
Even though I thought there was no way I could go on, it didn’t matter. I had to go on. I needed to stop, but I could not. This mountain cared nothing for what I thought I could or could not do– it never considered my limitations. The thought of it growing dark again, being trapped here, haunted me. I stood up and kept on, not because of any resolve or new-found strength, but because there were no other choices. Soon, I spotted Ricky and Tim at the intersection, and I collapsed next to them.
Here, there was nothing to learn, but what pain could teach me, and somehow, despite the fact I knew deeply I could not make it, I had made it. And there were still 3 more miles to walk, heaving that pack.
We worry about Kevin and Stephen who have not reached our stopping point yet. They have fallen behind. Ricky and Tim have walked back down the path, sans their packs, to locate them.
We reached the end, after plodding through creeks, and I rolled my ankle again. We waited for ten minutes and continued. Seeing the parking lot brought great relief. Everything did– sinks and toilet seats and the promise of air conditioning. I dresses in fresh clothes I had kept in the van. We washed our muddy legs in the restroom.
We took the Blue Ridge Parkway, which gave us views of those mountains of wicked beauty, all the view we never got climbing them.
Strange to think we camped at the second-highest campsite, seeing these mountains tower over us now. In a way, we feel like conquerors. Weakened by war, but victorious.
Saw an elk on the side of the road. A much more interesting animal than ever we saw trudging through the trail. Up there, there were deer, snakes, and bugs– mostly bugs.
We’re sitting now at a Waffle House, that wonderful bastion of civilization, that beacon in the distance we each crawled towards. We may not return home until very early tomorrow morning, but that seems a little irrelevant now, as the smell of hash browns floats under our nostrils. Mostly, we’re broken, though mostly, we’re exhausted, though mostly we’re satisfied. Never mind– mostly, we’re just hungry.
You are King of the Sea, I said
and I King of the Sky.
Don’t you see me, see my wings?
See how I soar? See how I fly?
See how I launch myself from pedestals,
flapping wings of wax, of ambition and manmade edifice.
See how I can fly?
And he I imagine is an underwater king
though he spends most of the time
gliding across the tide on a battered surfboard.
I imagine him peaceful, innocent, yet fierce
like a sea turtle clutching a trident.
He sits aloft coral reefs, sprints across the backs of Great Whites
and can communicate with sea horses like Aquaman.
It was Sunday, the waves unsure, the sky cold and clear
Later, I could see the stars, and I pretended I could name each one
as if I had named them myself.
He explained, in his childish manner, about the rap industry and then
his theory of art
For a quiet boy from Long Island, a placid surfer dude who wanted to become a doctor,
you do not expect for him to care so deeply for art.
But on that Sunday, we reeled him into our nightly chaos
into our vices, into our storytelling.
And he explained, how art should asymptotically close to nature.
That Art should be a reflection of reality, of one’s perception.
Then we pretended to be great artists too, boldly shaping faces
sketching dinosaurs in top hats in the margins of our biology notes.
I drew an illustration of he and I
He the King of the Sea
Me the King of the Sky
See how I fly? I asked
And you’re in the waves, exploring the deep
as if in dreams, in sleep, you’ve been talking
searching for something to say, whether it be just a word or a sentence
See how I fall? I asked. See how I fall?
I don’t see nothing at all, you said, nothing at all.
And I said, keep searching, just keep seeking.
He is all show-and-tell, asking you to straighten up and drop your bags at your feet. Your first thought is that he might beat you up and steal your bags when he offers to “relieve your stress,” then you wonder whether or not he means to give sexual favors here on the street corner in broad daylight. Surely he knows he should take you behind the Starbuck’s, into the parking lot, if he intends to kill you or do anything else to you. Instead, he offers his chiropractic services—cheaper than a real one, with the same results, he promises.
You know that this is dangerous, that he could snap your neck, and he laughs off your worries. Natural for you to be frightened of a burly black man sitting on the street corner. You’re not sure whether he is homeless, but he smells that way, and you’re not sure whether he knows what he is doing as he takes your hand between his palms. You imagine action movies during which a James-Bond-look-alike twists a henchman’s neck. That simple: dead.
In a few seconds, you could be laying like that, and this man who has you in a stranglehold could walk away with your laptop computer. Maybe you should tell him that your computer isn’t worth it, to target someone with a Macbook Air or at least something that reliably can log onto a wi-fi network. Every law of childhood tells you to walk away, but fear of appearing racist and presumptuous keep you planted.
Don’t talk to strangers, your mother told you. But don’t judge a book by its cover. You’re slowly realizing the lack of real-world application of these outdated adages. You should be crossing the street, walking fast but not running in case it caused offense. You can feel his beard brushing against your neck as he heaves you into the air—crack. Not dead yet.
In Nuremburg, a one-armed Turkish man plays accordion for money. In South-East Asia, some street-dwellers offer dubious massages. But the Charlestonian who sits on a park bench all day with a pack upon his lap—he is not some petty hobo. He has skills, chiropractic know-how, despite having no official training or degree. You wonder for a brief moment whether it is unfair that licensed practitioners get paid so much while this man may or may not live underneath a porch.
Then you remember that this man is preparing to crack your neck, your back, your arms. He could incapacitate you. But each time, he offers relief. That crick in your neck feels better than ever. You feel limber as Play-dough. Maybe he wasn’t lying, you think, as you pick up your bag and stretch, feeling refreshed.
You pay him with half a Panini, and he asks you to tell your friends, though he doesn’t have a business card or anything. Rather, he sits outside of Fed-Ex, across the street from the art museum, offering his services to whatever subconsciously-racist, gullible kid walks by. He is a legend, an enigma, a stranger with a past likely as colorful as Charleston’s.
Four weeks later, the “Happy Birthday” Mylar balloon survives, defying gravity as it levitates beside his bed. When he wakes, he usually startles, peering into the darkness and waiting for IT to attack in his clownish terror. But the boy does not lay in his bed, but instead hunches over the desk writing on index cards, his arms, the walls, and his mind– any sort of memorization trick he can think of.
Periodically, he reaches for his laptop, opens up Facebook, wastes fifteen minutes reading a bland twitter feed. When he looks up to see the books and papers and notebooks stacked around him like a fortress, he closes the laptop and returns to work.
The boy is me, naturally, too lazy to use first person because after studying this much, can you even be sure that you inhabit your own body anymore? You’re a robot, a clone, that strange alien double agent sent into a high school to infect the student body as well as the teacher, but there are a few resistant students who team up and fight against you. Either that, or everyone’s losing their minds.
Studying might not be the right word, though. More like boarding up a house in Florida before hurricane season or gathering your army for war. Washington, I have crossed the Delaware. I have faced the enemy, and he is no Fuhrer or vaguely-racist-depiction of Communism, but final exams.
As much as I would like to say that these exams are why I haven’t blogged in so long, I can’t say that. After all, the Mylar balloon has been there the whole time, egging me. Write, write write, and no doubt, I have been writing. Perhaps a little more than a week from now, when the waiting and preparing ends, I can write more. Also, I will be putting up videos of poetry performances in the next few days, so look out for those.
Sunday. Rain besieges the Holy City. I wake to thoughts of stray cats of Calhoun shivering under porches of abandoned houses, and I think of the homeless people curled up against the porches, peering through the lattice work, envious of the felines’ comfort.
When I wake, my heavy and hallucinatory dreams melt. Machine-gun fire rattles from above, rebel clouds releasing fleets of kamikaze rain that streak across the sky. Waking to such clamor, I fell back to sleep, wrapping my cocoon of blankets tighter around me. You’re supposed to write today, some voice inside says, and you’re supposed to get things done. How about breakfast?
I venture out finally into the morning dressed in an unseasonable outfit, the sky only dripping. But thirty minutes pass, the the heavens smile with crooked teeth, drooling on the buildings and the pedestrians. My body is a rag to be squeezed out, to be ringed into a bucket and thrown away. Returning in such a state, I strip off my clothes and climb under the blankets. You’re supposed to write today, some little voice says, but I drown it out. A few more minutes, I think, pushing my laptop away. I will work very soon, but let me sleep while this celestial war rages on.
My good fortune found me sitting down with famous Southern writer and political analyst Henry Cotton III, author of 7 Habits of a Highly Successful Secessionist. He is renowned for works such as A Southern Guide to California: Into the Eighth Circle of Hell, The Five People You Will Meet in Georgia, Chicken Soup for the Confederate Soul, Eat, Pray, Secede, and Three Mason Jars of Moonshine: One’s Man’s Mission to Promote American Values in a Liberal Land.
His newest work follows the efforts of anti-Obama protestors calling for the secession of 20 U.S. states. It focuses on how by seceding from the Union and creating a new Constitution based on allowing the minority vote to choose the presidency, these states will display what real democracy looks like.
Derek: Mr. Cotton III, what do you think spurred the recent secession movement?
Cotton: Well, Derek, Texas was basically its own country anyways. So, allowing it to break off and swim somewhere out in the Pacific Ocean seems like the best way to settle our differences. As for the rest of the states, it is our divine right to reject our government when we disagree with it. What do you think the Revolutionary War was about?
Derek: Or the Civil War?
Cotton: No, the War of Northern Aggression was not about rejecting government. We were attacked. Our values were attacked. We protected them.
Derek: I see. What are the chief complaints of the states involved? Why would they want to leave the United States.
Cotton: Well, recent research has brought to light that democracy has not been carried out in this land. For example, when a majority of electoral votes goes to somebody I don’t like, there must be a real glitch in the system, especially if that happens twice. For decades, real Americans have suffered attacks on our freedoms and rights. Just the other day, I went down to the Piggly Wiggly, and what did I see? Two men holding hands, infringing on my rights to be a heterosexual.
Derek: How unfortunate, sir. Well, what other reasons might you have?
Cotton: I know you think I’m just some ignorant hick, but I think that we have every right to secede if we want to.
Derek: No doubt. It’s actually in the Constitution. ““Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” one portion read, “that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and institute new Government.”
Cotton: That’s right. People say we’re unpatriotic, that we don’t know what we’re talking about, but if we disagree with the federal government, we actually have every right to secede.
Derek: If enough states leave the Union, will they form their own country, do you think, or will they continue on, each state as a separate, sovereign entity?
Cotton: I imagine a new nation with rise, one that our Founding Fathers imagined, one where we can carry guns to church without harassment. And anybody don’t like it, they can move up North to Yankee-land. We have survived long enough in enemy territory, ever since the Usurpation of Lincoln in the 1800’s.
Derek: Well, I thank you for your time, and I hope everyone buys his new book 7 Habits of a Highly Successful Secessionist. It’s a thrilling read about how you too can secede from the union!
I read a poem today in which two boys played in the backyard, a deceptively simple poem. The more I pondered the two stanzas, the more concretely I realized how little the poem was about—childhood innocence, friendship, etc. Should poetry be so hushed, so calm, so unobtrusive?
Having grown used to brass, dramatic poetry, this caught me unawares. Why be so calm and cool and collected? Two boys running and throwing balls and pushing toy trucks around in the grass, all things I’ve rarely seen. Because childhood is rarely as innocent as we assume.
Why not write about two boys playing video games (we often played videogames), about how they shout at each other as each wins? Write about throwing the controllers at each others’ faces, knocking out teeth, bloodying their noses. Childhood is rarely flowers and sunshine and playtime before supper. It’s a constant war.
Children, in fact, are sufficient evidence that we as the human race descended from savages. They are cruel, selfish, and conniving.
And no one is as guilty as a child is. When a child steals, they spend the next few hours fretting over their sin, their black crime. When they lie, they burst with the need to say the truth. Adults do not share this tendency: we do not feel guilty about much past infidelity or murder.
I closed the book of poetry and put it away, thinking about times I might have played in the grass. Surely not as many times as I argued with friends over Pokémon cards or whether or not a certain Mario Kart race victory was considered fair. Do poems need to shout, to demand change, to radicalize, or can they fall light as clouds on your brain, invoking nothing serious, only the fabled innocence of children.