11 Authors Discuss Quitting Smoking, Online Harassment, and More in December’s YA Open Mic
YA Open Mic is a monthly series in which YA authors share personal stories on topics of their choice. The aim of the series is to peel away the formality of bios and offer authors a platform to talk about something readers won’t necessarily find on their websites.
This month, 11 authors discuss everything from online harassment to quitting smoking. All have YA books that either release this month or released in recent months. Check out previous YA Open Mic posts here.
Erica M. Chapman, author of Teach Me To Forget
“Is my dad dead?” I had asked.
“He took his own life.”
At 16 I didn’t think one sentence would make such a profound difference in my life. But I’ve found that my life is separated by before it happened to after it happened. Defined by the decision he made. At the time, I was confused and angry and hurt. Hurt that he didn’t think of me at all. I thought he was selfish. I hated him for leaving me before I even got a chance to really know him.
I told everyone I knew about it before they had a chance to judge me. I thought everyone was going to look at me differently, treat me different because of what my dad did, so I shoved all my emotions in a box and nailed the lid shut and that worked at the time.
I didn’t understand his decision until I was older and felt the cold hands of pain and despair claw at my soul, like they must have done to him. I cried until my face was burnt and streaked in wetness, until I wanted to run away from everything and everyone. I understood him better but I was still mad, because why?
Why when there were other days left to live?
So one night I decided I would do the one thing that’s always saved me from that feeling of hopelessness—I would write it down. All my whys, and fears, and questions. Ellery, the protagonist of Teach Me To Forget, came to me in October of 2012 and changed my life. Through her I was able to feel the depths and layers of what he might have experienced. She helped me heal and forgive.
Now I am not defined by the befores and afters, but by the present and the future. Life and love. And hope.
Jill Mackenzie, author of Spin the Sky
I’m a crazy-fast typist.
So fast, in fact, my friends often comment on the speed at which my fingers fly around the keyboard. I’ve told them I never could have written (multiple) 200-plus-page novels without being fast. I told them that typing fast was, to me, nonnegotiable.
My tenth-grade typing teacher, Miss Purba, stood 4’9 and always wore dresses that covered her knees and blouses that, to me and my fellow tenth graders, were three sizes too big for her. She had a mouselike voice and stood with one hand on her desk, as if to steady herself. She was weak. We all knew it. We were 15.
We tormented Miss Purba for reasons that, now, I can’t recall. I remember we never covered our hands to repeat the asdf; drills on the keyboard like she asked us to. I remember things flying from our side of the room to hers, missing her head by inches. I remember the water filling her eyes and I remember, most of all, not caring. We hated Miss Purba. We were united in that fact.
One day, Miss Purba didn’t show up to class. I remember my best friend, who sat next to me, yelling, “I hope she’s dead.”
A few minutes later, our principal stood at the front of the room and told us that our typing teacher had killed herself the night before. He didn’t console us with words about how she loved our class and loved teaching and loved life, though not enough to stay. “She committed suicide.” It was all he said.
For the rest of the day, we stayed quiet. Instead of our normal repartee, we practiced our typing drills like it was everything. A, S, D, F, ;. It would never mean more to us then than it did then. But I silently wondered if my classmates felt changed by what had happened—by what we had done—the way I did. In Spin the Sky, my main character, Magnolia, feels haunted by things she wished she had done differently and sometimes I wonder if I wasn’t channeling what happened in typing when I wrote that thread.
After Miss Purba died, I vowed to become the best typist anyone knew. I hadn’t honored Miss Purba in life. The least I could do was learn what she had tried to teach me.
I don’t often tell people why I never, ever look at the keyboard or my fingers. Why I hear her voice though can’t hear it clearly on a daily basis. But I am a damn good typist. And for that, I have Miss Purba to thank.
Brianna Shrum, author of How To Make Out
The day after my dad’s funeral, I dyed my hair bright cherry red.
I grew up like Hermione Granger in a church building—as perfect as possible, quoting you book/chapter/verse on the spot; I wasn’t a preacher’s kid. But I was a former preacher’s grandkid. And that’s enough to make a big difference in who you are. My hair was wavy brown, and I always wore it long, tried to be elegant at church, made sure never to say a swear word. The closest I ever came was at 16, walking down the sidewalk by myself, and I breathed the s-word, not even giving it tone so I could go to the afterlife saying, “I never cussed.” I kissed an atheist boy at a party once. My secret rebellion.
But the thing is that as a teenager, past college even, I arranged my life and choices around making sure I didn’t go to hell. And possibly just as important, around making sure no one ELSE thought I was going to hell. Being a perfect example wasn’t just a thing I had to do for my little siblings, it was for EVERYONE. I love a lot of things about how I grew up, and my parents were always a lot more lax, more rebellious. But still. That stuff soaks into your skin.
But three years ago, when I was 23, my favorite person died out of nowhere (screw cancer for real), and it was at that moment that I remember deciding that maybe I shouldn’t arrange my whole life around making sure everyone knew I was side-stepping hell. My faith is still big to me, but I have a tattoo (and plans for a lot more), and I don’t breathe cuss words silently, and I have cherry red (or pink, or blue, or rainbow) hair. And I like it.
Sarah Raughley, author of Fate of Flames
As an author who has recently seen so much abuse being launched specifically at women of color and other vulnerable identities on Twitter, I can safely say that cyber-bullying against marginalized identities is a really big deal and has to be taken seriously. Even I’ve been attacked by trolls over voicing my honest opinions, as a female author of color, about race, democracy, and social justice.
And yeah. It kinda sucks.
I remember having to block tons of people over the years when talking about the Ferguson protests, Trump getting elected, police brutality, and so on. Perhaps it’s something you’ve gone through, or a friend of yours. It happens far too often and the fact that people feel comfortable about brushing it under the rug sends a message. It covertly tells us whose pain we’re supposed to care about and whose safety is supposed to matter to us. When I look at the vitriol and threats launched at black women like Leslie Jones and Normani Kordei, and when I see bloggers and fellow marginalized writers being attacked, it makes me realize just how difficult it is just trying to exist peacefully in cyberspace.
As an author who hopes to have a long career writing children’s novels, I’ve often worried about what the consequences might be if I don’t “play nice.” Will I lose readers? Lose opportunities? Or worse, will I get threatened? I know a lot of young people, bloggers, readers and would-be authors feel the same anxieties and have been in this situation. I don’t have any easy answers because I don’t think this will end any time soon. Just know that if you have experienced this, then you’re not alone, nor are you powerless. Remember that.
Erin Summerill, author of Ever the Hunted
In 8th grade my family moved from one town in Hawaii to another five miles away. But it felt like a world away. Being the new girl, I was out of place and desperate for friends. I didn’t own the jeans with the flashy tag over the zipper. I didn’t understand how to wield a curling iron. When other girls had curves beneath their sleek hairdos, my second-hand clothes and excess of baby fat marked me as different.
But I was determined to make friends. I became the poster child for extrovert awareness.
Eventually, I gained two friends. They invited me to eat with them. Except not all their friends were so welcoming. I still felt out of place.
One day, while I waited for my mom in the school office, one of those unfriendly lunch girls stood nearby. My mom rushed in, hugged me, and signed the sign-out sheet.
The girl scrutinized us. “That your mom?”
I glanced at my mom. And under a self-conscious microscope, I took stock of our differences. I’m the spitting image of my dad. Hawaiian, Chinese, Filipino. Black hair. Brown Eyes. Deep tan all year round. My mom’s Caucasian skin was as fair as the paper she was signing.
I choked, worried what the girl would think of my parent’s biracial marriage. Did their differences make me weird?
Panicked, I lied, “She’s…uh, my stepmom.”
I wanted to fit in so badly.
Well, my mom wouldn’t have any of that. She squeezed me, blurted my birth weight, and said she’d never be the same. I was mortified as she dragged me out the door. Did my mom have to be so loud?
Turns out, she did. I needed someone to love me loudly and claim me. I never became friends with that girl, but I didn’t care. I hated that her scrutiny and my insecurities made me want to disown my mother.
That moment taught me to love myself for who I am and where I came from.
Heather W. Petty, author of Mind Games
After this horrific incident in the third grade where my mother admitted she’d read my Hello Kitty diary, I decided that was no longer a safe place. So from then on, I wrote my deepest, darkest secrets where no one would find them:
In the margins of books I knew no one would read.
On scraps of paper my dad would use to start a fire in the fireplace.
In the vapor on the upper right-hand corner of my shower door.
I wrote secrets I could never tell anyone, because I had to be strong. Because I was a strong woman. And strong women don’t love someone who will never love them back. Strong women are never made to look the fool. Strong women don’t cry. Strong women aren’t bothered by such trivial matters as matters of the heart.
But I’d left clues to the real me. And those secrets waited for years, until one day when I tore out a page of a notebook, the very center of the next page held these words:
I wish I had a sister, because then someone would have to be my best friend.
I cried for the little girl who wrote that, and for the teenager who still felt that way. She’d been told all her life how independent, strong, and powerful she was, but she’d never been taught that independence doesn’t mean isolation, that strength doesn’t come from holding everything in, and that power shouldn’t make you cold.
I still write secrets in odd places, but I’ve learned a few things about what it means to be strong. Like sometimes we love people who don’t love us back. And it’s okay to love ourselves even when we don’t like how we handled things last night or last week or that one time four years ago. It’s okay to feel things, and it’s okay to cry.
But mostly, I’ve learned that being strong means being yourself with no apology, even if you’re still figuring out who that is, even if it means you still write secrets where only you can find them.
Ibtisam Barakat, author of Balcony on the Moon
I started to smoke in college in Palestine after one of my classmates was shot by an Israeli soldier during a political demonstration and died. Smoking comforted me for a while. But after that I got up every morning with the same decision: To quit smoking. I pretended the pack of cigarettes was a tiny coffin and did a ritual then buried it. I soaked cigarettes in water. I tried nicotine chewing gum. I looked at pictures of the lungs of smokers and the lungs of nonsmokers to scare myself. Nothing worked and several years passed with me deciding to quit smoking and continuing to smoke!
Then one day I lit up a cigarette that suddenly looked like my imaginary childhood friend, Alef, the first letter of the Arabic alphabet. As a child caught in the aftermath of war, I had trusted Alef with all my heart. Now Alef said that my fight with smoking was not any less serious than war because smoking endangers life, too. So each time I was about to smoke Alef reminded me: If you are planning to write books you need to be healthy for that. I began to write about smoking rather than smoke. I transported the fear that was buried inside my heart to my notebooks. The sense of defeat became a determination to become free of smoking. Alef and writing and tears reconnected me to my heart and set free the feelings that were shut down by smoking. Now when I see a cigarette stub on the ground, I take a deep breath and step on it to renew my decision for freedom. Alef cheers me on…
Andrea Cremer, author of The Turncoat’s Gambit
In the spring of 2012, I moved to New York City to start a new, thrilling chapter in my life: writing was now my full-time job and my new home was a city I’d fallen in love with.
Fifteen months later cracks had appeared in my life that would soon shatter my existence. What began as inexplicable pain in my jaw and joints became exhaustion and migraines. Specialists ordered test after test, but when results came in my doctors had no answers.
I only got worse. The effort of taking a ten-minute shower left me shaking from head to toe. I couldn’t concentrate enough to read and, most frightening of all, I couldn’t write. I was watching the life I’d dreamed of disintegrate around me.
In October I was finally diagnosed with Epstein-Barr and told that all I could do was wait, hoping my immune system would eventually triumph. When my mom called saying, “Come home and let us take care of you,” I did go home because I had to admit I could no longer take care of myself.
Just after the New Year in 2014, I began to recover with the help of an extraordinary group of women physicians: in addition to medication, I received nutrition counseling, physical therapy, and acupuncture. It was a slow process, but by the summer I felt like myself again.
Unfortunately, writing had become a menacing stranger. I associated the furious pace at which I’d been producing books with the disintegration of my health. I had to begin another process of healing, excavating the pain of losing creativity then beginning again.
The true architects of my recovery were those who understood that I was broken and still loved me. My family and friends, my agents, editor, and publisher told me every day that my well-being mattered more than deadlines or sales. I learned that in order to heal, I first had to be vulnerable, to surrender to the care and support of others. I had to let go of the illusion that I could control what would happen next. I had to be willing to start over completely and rediscover my craft. In order to be brave you have to be scared first.
Genevieve Cogman, author of The Burning Page
I like to assume that I don’t make assumptions about people.
A few years back, I was on a plane trip from England to America to visit friends. We were getting off the plane, and as often happens under these circumstances, the queue was moving slowly. I had a book in one hand as we shuffled along. For the dull bits.
A woman standing a few metres away from me caught my eye, because she was holding a paperback as well. (This was before the days when phones were quite so universal.) She was a brisk-looking energetic lady in her sixties or so, with brilliant white hair cut short, a suntan, and a red jacket tossed over one shoulder.
As we got past the chokepoint of the plane door and started walking towards the passports check, I adjusted my step slightly so that I could see the cover of her book. I was curious about what she’d been reading. A romance? Historical fiction? Maybe a cozy crime novel, or something cheerful about family life?
Then I caught sight of the cover and back of her book. It was a Battletech novel. It was hard (well, hard-ish) science fiction involving giant robots and military science wargaming and evil politics and lots of blowing things up. She’d slid one finger between the pages to keep her place, and she was clearly well into the book.
We kept on walking toward the passport check, and I lost sight of her. I have no idea who this nice brisk elderly lady in her sixties was. I will probably never see her again. I don’t know what she’s reading now, but she could be reading anything at all and enjoying it.
I try not to make assumptions about people. It’s a work in progress.
B.T. Gottfred, author of The Nerdy and the Dirty
As a kid, I was sort of late to the game of “take regular showers” and “don’t wear the same clothes for a week straight.” In 4th grade, my best friend Dave—without me noticing—had evolved into the school heartthrob. All the girls loved him, all the guys wanted to be friends with him. I had no real idea what was happening other than increasingly feeling like I wasn’t cool enough to be friends with my best friend anymore.
One day, seemingly out of nowhere, he said to me, “Your hair looks terrible.” This might seem an odd thing for one 10-year-old boy to say to another 10-year-old boy, but it felt like a punch to the face and the end of the friendship. I started crying instantaneously. (Probably another area I was a late bloomer. [P.S. I may or may not still cry at Disney movies.])
If my 10-year-old self had his own novel, that would have been the moment the reader knew would transform me. I started begging my mom for better clothes, got slowly acquainted with personal hygiene (the amount of hairspray I used might be responsible for our climate change crisis), and became exponentially more aware of the fairer sex. All the while, I never said a mean thing to Dave in retaliation.
This is a total lie. By fifth grade, I had assumed Dave’s spot atop the social ladder and exacted my revenge a hundredfold. Insults flew, girlfriends were stolen, and our epic war over who had the best hair began.
I’m not sure there’s a lesson here other than be nice to kids who are slow to jump on the good hygiene train. As for Dave? We remain the best of friends and since at 41 years old we both still have hair, I think we can call it a tie.
Tessa Elwood, author of Split the Sun
Her sister cleans the fridge. You couldn’t pour me on anything involving Lysol, but her sister thrives on it. The bathroom, the dishes, the freezer—all lose years of grime. Her husband weed eats, or else went looking for the weed eater. The yard’s quiet.
Her mattress whispers. She stirs, but not enough for the anxiety meds. They choke her since she’s no longer inclined to swallow, and I’m slower to give them.
Not the morphine, though. I stay on top of the morphine.
Hey Siri, set timer for two hours.
Okay, two hours and counting.
Later, when the sun’s gone along with her sister and her husband is deep in conversation with Old Crow, the nurse will ask for the morphine back. What’s left will be measured and destroyed. I will remember how I’d grilled yesterday’s home health aide for weekend office numbers in case the meds ran out before new prescriptions came in. How worried I was.
Later still, while the nurse and I wait for a hearse apparently on a detour through Canada, I will ask about the nurse’s day. It will have been a good day, involving a potluck and friends. It will fill the holes in the silence, and my hand will drift across the bed to her chest. It will not rise, I won’t expect it to, and yet—
I’ll find myself waiting for that last heartbeat.
But that will be then. For now her chest has rhythm under my fingers, despite the rattle in her throat. I load her beloved Elvis on my phone, hit speaker, and he begs to be our teddy bear.
Her sister comes in from the kitchen. “How’s she doing?”
“Still here,” I say.