Wednesday, 4 December 2013

A Writer Gives Thanks...Finally

Last week Thanksgiving Day was celebrated in the USA.

I felt a bit sheepish about all the wonderful "Happy Thanksgiving" wishes I received from my lovely American friends here in the UK, and even more so about the kind greetings from family and friends in the USA.

You see, although I'm an American, I'm a total fraud. I didn't make a pumpkin pie, or a turkey dinner or cranberry sauce.

To be honest, I haven't even been feeling all that thankful lately.

The worst of it is that I thought Thanksgiving Day had been the week before, and if it hadn't been for facebook and Twitter, the day would have passed me by as just another dark and dismal November Thursday in southern England..

It's the same thing on the 4th of July. When people mention it to me I wonder, "Why are they getting so worked up about the 4th of July--how can they know it's my sister's birthday?" Then I remember what they really mean by the 4th of July, and I hang my head in shame.

But this is what sometimes happens when you live "abroad" (or "overseas" as we Yanks say). Unless you make a huge effort, your national identity eventually unravels, and only by  making a huge effort do you become completely immersed in the culture of the country you've moved to. 

I'm pretty lazy. This means that I've let most American customs disappear from my life (except for eating too much, and talking non-stop) but haven't picked up enough Limey tendencies (OK, I've clung to the "calling- Brits-Limeys" habit) to pass as a native. 

Even after 30 years there are phrases I don't understand (When is 'teatime' anyway? Is a 'rum do' good or bad?) There are cultural traits I don't get either. Why do people use Sellotape when they can buy Scotch Tape? Misplaced national pride? ("Yes, this product is inferior--so useless that it will take all week to wrap my Christmas presents--but it's part of the old Dunkirk Spirit")

And of course, there are the larger issues.The royal family stuff. The school uniform obsession. The constant apologies. And, from the opposite point of view, I can no longer fathom (not that I ever could) America's love affair with guns or its abhorrence of universal health care or why men who have hair would ever wear a baseball cap.

But as a writer for young people it's the smaller things that can be more of a challenge.

It's important to get "world building" right, in whatever genre you're working. Because I don't write fantasy novels, but books that are set in the here and now, this can be a problem.  

I feel that America is the place I still, after all these years, after so many changes, feel. But it's not the America of "now" but of "then", and then was a long time ago! And, because I grew up in a very rural community, my early years were spent in a place that wasn't typically American, even at that time.

On the other side of the equasion, I've spent 12 years teaching in UK schools. My now-adult children, who were born and raised here, are British. I've lived here so long, but still...I don't think I really understand the mind of a British child or teen (or adult, for that matter.) 

So, what to do? 

Well, I sometimes set stories in odd or remote places, that don't reflect mainstream culture, whether American or British. If the story is set in a school, it's going to be out-of-the-way, freakish in some way. I write settings that are cut off from the rest of the world, even though they are (I hope) recognisable as real places that could actually exist and the stories set there are contemporary and (usually) realistic.

I write--like many children's writers--about characters who don't feel quite at home in their surroundings. Or whose homes or communities are unstable or insecure.

Maybe, then, being a stranger in a sometimes perplexing land is a good thing for a writer. Being taken aback, surprised, wrong-footed--these can be inspiring things. They are also part of the experience of being young--aren't children and teens constantly changing? Don't they struggle to make sense of the shifting world in which they've been planted? Aren't they perpetual strangers--to their families, their friends, themselves.

Aren't they sometimes vilified and feared?

OK, so nobody's scared of me, dammit.  Bad analogy.

In the end, it's probably not where you are from, what your background is like or even what cultural baggage you carry with you.

It's probably about how honest you can be. How truthfully you let your experiences--past and present, real and imagined, good and bad--filter into the new worlds (and characters) you are trying to create.

So, for those experiences--the many people, the many places, near and far--I am truly thankful...

...a week late

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