AC Gaughen: The Girl at the End of the Book
September 20, 2012 at 08:00AM
Last night I had the privilege of hosting ten talented, thoughtful, and yes, strong female authors of young adult and middle grade fiction at the Boston GLOW “Fight Like a Girl” panel. It was awesome, and aside from repeating “strong” and “strength” enough times to make a fairly decent but wildly inappropriate drinking game, I felt like something was said. Something was accomplished.
The panelists–particularly in the YA panel, which featured Susan Carlton (LOVE AND HAIGHT), AJ Paquette (NOWHERE GIRL), Terry Farish, (THE GOOD BRAIDER), Diana Renn (TOKYO HEIST) and Gina Damico (CROAK and SCORCH, out next week!)–repeated this idea of the things that make us strong, as writers and women, as characters in their books. For example, their books all deal with outsider culture and this idea of foreign places, if you will. Main characters find themselves in San Francisco in the 1970s, a town of Grim Reapers, Tokyo, South Sudan, and Thailand. A rich backdrop where everything is foreign to the main character–a new world.
I think it’s such a prevalent theme and so relevant to YA because there is a sense of stepping into an entirely new arena as you enter the hallway that leads to adulthood. I get that.
But it also speaks to the nature of strength and young people in a way that I didn’t really connect until last night. One writer (I believe it was AJ) was talking about wanting to give your characters a lovely, easy path, because they’ve been through so much already. But you can’t. You kind of have to torture them.
IT’s the Kill Your Darlings approach. It’s an oft quoted thing amongst writers; be tough, be brave, cut the pretty scenes in favor of the grit, the truth, the core.
My answer to this oh-so-simple question was always because it’s good writing. It makes for more interesting situations, reading experience, and characters.
Suddenly last night it hit me. Character. We stick with characters–say, Scarlet, for example–because we have faith that by the end of the book, their struggles work out, their problems are at least manageably resolved, and they have gone through some sort of arc. They’re in a different, better place than they were at the beginning.
And that happens by way of all the difficult things they went through. Weakness transforms to strength; fear to tenacity; insecurities become the most indispensable thing about a person. A fine line, perhaps, between struggle and success, but when it ends, the girl at the end of the book is someone strong, someone we’re rooting for, someone we love.
And in a lot of ways, we are all seeking to emulate that girl at the end of the book. When I put out the call for this panel I expected a discussion on the anti-Bellas of the literary world. I expected the ass kickers, the name takers, the bitch slappers.
And instead I found ten different definitions of strength, struggle, and success. It was amazing. On the MG panel (comprised of Erin Dionne (NOTES FROM AN ACCIDENTAL BAND GEEK), Ellen Booraem (SMALL PERSONS WITH WINGS), Lynda Mullaly Hunt (ONE FOR THE MURPHYS), Padma Venkatraman (CLIMBING THE STAIRS), and Jennifer Carson (HAPENNY MAGICK)), they talked about standing up to bullying; the simple strength of knowing who to ask for help; this idea that a level of strength starts with self understanding, and how deeply that is undermined by having a gross majority of children not able to recognize themselves on book covers.
Through it all, I kept thinking what this means for the young women we talk to in Boston GLOW. More selfishly, what does this mean for me, as a writer? As a person? As a girl?
What it felt like was that the struggles, and hardships, and difficulties aren’t just what make us who we are. They are what make everything worth it, and we’ve been going about it all wrong. Not only is a book without conflict something no one wants to read, but a life without conflict is something where nothing is gained, nothing is earned, nothing is won.
That includes remarkable traits like resilience, courage, honor, tenacity, and strength.
It’s difficult because we don’t have the luxury of framing our lives in the context of a book. We aren’t always able to see the arc so clearly. But it’s there. And it leads to new arcs, bigger sequels, greater gains.
We always strive to be the girl at the end of the book. But we have to remember that strength is earned, and life’s hardships do not make you weak, or broken, or hurt. They test you, propel you, and push you to be stronger.
Strong enough, perhaps, to make your own kind of happy ending.
Thank you so much to the remarkable panelists who donated their time and wisdom. It’s deeply, deeply appreciated.