Ally Carter, Mira Jacob, and my coincidence-filled history with writing

This isn’t a post that has too much to do with women in history, but it does have to do with my own personal history with writing and two women who unexpectedly shaped it. And a perfect example of how your story is made up of a hundred tiny coincidences and chance encounters.

In third or fourth grade, I sat on the school bus home next to my friend Jessica who was leaving for Disney World the next day. She had forgotten to return a library book that would be due while she was gone and so she asked if she could leave it with me to turn back in. I said sure and did what I did when anyone put a book in my hands: read it cover to cover in the span of a couple hours.

It was a book called “I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You” written by Ally Carter. It was the first book released of a series that revolved around the students of Gallagher Academy, an all-female school for spies. They took classes like P&E (Protection and Enforcement) and Culture and Assimilation, and were required to practice speaking in a different language at each meal time. It was creative, it was funny, it was well-written, it was empowering, and I had found myself a new favorite author.

That problem was that the first book was the only one published yet and so I found myself facing down the year until the second book was released. As a kid, I think I read about a book a day so, by the time the second book came out, my mind had long since wandered off down other paths, and I forgot to keep an eye out for the latest in the series.

Until another completely chance encounter on a road trip from Tennessee to New Mexico. We stopped in Oklahoma (in Carter’s hometown, it turns out) to spend the night and made our way to a Walmart because I had somehow gone through all of my reading material in that first day and young Elena without a book was like a hydrogen atom without its only electron. (the first and last scientific reference to ever grace this site)

I think it might have been the first time I had ever been into a Walmart and I found it overwhelming, and, as I weaved through the small book section, I was desperate for something familiar to grab on to. That’s when I saw it, the green plaid cover of Carter’s second book, “Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy,” propped up on the lower shelf. It didn’t last me very long in the car ride the next day, but I didn’t care. I happily read it again.

I lost track of time again and, after about a year, I looked up Carter’s website to see if the third book was available yet. Let me emphasize the fact that this was the first time I had ever checked her site because that makes it infinitely more crazy that THE VERY SAME DAY, she just happened to be reading and signing books at our local Barnes and Noble. My wonderful, amazing parents dropped everything and came with me to the store after calling ahead to make sure this crazy coincidence wasn’t just a mistake. And that was how I met my very first author and realized that if I worked hard, this could be my life. I was hooked.

Technically, I had been hooked my whole life. I was dictating stories to my parents to write down before I even knew the alphabet. I bought every writing book I could find. I wrote plays and movies and novels and speeches and any slew of words that my mind couldn’t stop from rattling around. As I grew up, that love of writing continued in my essays for school (although I found the five-paragraph structure a little limiting for the narrative arc I was trying to convey.) I would write a page-long story every day in notebooks that began to line my shelves. But it seemed that writing was just one of those hobbies that, no matter how much it brought you joy, no matter how much you were good at it, no matter how much you relied on it to feel connected to the world, you had to trade it in at some point to survive in the real world. 

It certainly made looking for a college difficult because I didn’t have any clue what else I wanted to do. I thought about theatre for a little bit because I did a ton of it in high school and everyone sort of assumed that I would follow that path to its natural conclusion…whatever that was. So I used a college search tool and limited the results to schools that offered a degree in theatre. 1124 search results popped up because practically every school has a theatre department. I narrowed the list down based on size and tuition and decided to go through each result, alphabetically, until something spoke to me.

I had just made my way into the “C”s when I stumbled on College of Charleston. There was something about it that felt like I had to go explore everything it had to offer, and that, if I did, it would lead me somewhere amazing. And it did…just not in the way I expected.

We arranged to tour during spring break of my junior year of high school. My incredibly brilliant and incredibly organized mother looked at other schools in the area so that I could get a feel for different kinds of universities to narrow down some of my other options. We looked at USC and planned on looking at Davidson, but I decided practically last minute that it was too small for what I wanted. So Mom, seemingly on a whim, found this art school nestled two hours south in Savannah, GA, fully expecting it wouldn’t appeal to me, but wanting to give me a different feel.

I loved SCAD the moment I experienced it, but it would take a course of art history, a self-directed and written play about the value of art, and a year’s worth of complicated spreadsheets to reassure me that it was worth choosing as my college. I was taking a risk by not selecting some of the other “practical” universities with more fields to fall back on should art history or performing arts not pan out. But when I settled into my seat at graduation, I was so sure of myself and my passion for both areas of study that I told the voices in my head to shove it.

Which brings us to Extraordinary Human/Writer #2. Most of the commencement speakers that returned to Albuquerque Academy in the years before I graduated had been prominent alumni who had made names for themselves in the financial, scientific, or mathematical communities. That was fine by me. I figured that all commencement addresses were basically the same amalgam of greeting cards, so it didn’t really matter to me who we heard from. But, in a similar stroke of fate that had punctuated my life since then, our class heard from Mira Jacob, an incredibly talented author whose book “The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing” had earned praise from the most prestigious of literary critics.

Leave it to an insightful writer such as her to write a commencement speech that left me reeling. As I wrote this, I actually looked up “mira jacob albuquerque academy” on YouTube to see if I could find some of the key points of her speech to reference here. And I found it. And I watched it for the first time since I listened to her live on that stage four years ago. And I cried. I was overwhelmed by how her speech seemed tailor-made to me and everything I felt then and still feel now as a writer. She talked about how plans don’t work out and that there will be moments that you feel like you will never stop searching for things that will make you feel like you have the life that you always thought you wanted. She talked about the power of stories and how they are what will save our species and the importance of writing. She didn’t make me feel any more certain about my future, but she taught me that there was a powerful vulnerability in that uncertainty.

You would think that at that point, I would have snapped awake and realized that what I needed to be doing with my life was writing. But I was still so sure that theatre or art history was my future. I started my first quarter at SCAD with three foundation classes, Design 101, Drawing, and Speaking of Ideas, a speech class. I was so happy. I was in paradise. I had great friends, and I was in a great city and, even though I hated/sucked at drawing, I knew I was in the right place. That had to mean that I was on the correct path, right? Right?

I almost didn’t go to the Majors and Minors fair that the school made available to freshman to talk with professors about coursework before declaring their major at the start of their second quarter. I decided I had everything figured out but I went anyway, just to talk to professors from both performing arts and art history.

When you convince yourself that what fulfills you is not a viable option, it’s astounding how a part of your brain just stops processing opportunities that have to do with whatever that might be. It took wandering around that Majors and Minors fair, trying to find the Art History table for me to even realize that SCAD had a writing major. I stopped by to pick up some of the handouts and a literary magazine and talked briefly with the guy who would become my favorite professor and with whom I would take eight classes.

I stayed up that night searching every writing class in the school catalog, waiting for any of the courses to reactivate that part of my brain. My worst fear was that they actually would, that I would wake up and discover that I wanted to flip over the risky path that my parents and I had already staked so much on. I was so afraid to abandon one risk for another, terrified that it meant I still had no idea of where I needed to be or what I had to offer to the world. Perhaps the darkest fear was that I was lying to myself when I told myself that I was happy.

But I really was happy with the life I had made so far at SCAD. I tried to focus on the incredible opportunities that lay ahead but I couldn’t get those courses out of my head. I couldn’t shake the idea that happiness wasn’t what I was after. I wanted to be satisfied. I wanted to do something that I cared so much about, it would make me miserable sometimes. So, when I went home for winter break, I took a deep breath and told my parents that I understood that we had sacrificed a lot for me to study art history and performing arts at SCAD but what I discovered I really wanted to pursue was writing. My mom paused, then said, “Finally. We’ve been waiting for you to figure that out.”

And that was it. A bit underwhelming for a life-clarifying moment? Perhaps. But from that moment on, I stopped doubting myself because there were no more decisions to be made. I had been writing my whole life, so all I had to do was keep on living. Easy enough.

So fast-forward four years to March 14, the day I officially finished my classes at SCAD, the day I found that I was no longer a writing student, I was simply a writer. It was the only identity I had to hold onto anymore. The following Tuesday, two books were released. The first was “Dear Ally, How Do I Write a Book?” by Ally Carter. The second was “Good Talk,” a memoir by Mira Jacob. It was like the two most influential writers in my life were welcoming me into their world.

First, there’s Carter’s book, in which she shares her experience in crafting and creating the books that I flocked to again and again in my childhood but in terms that I studied and endeavor to master as an adult. She reaches out to countless other YA authors, many of whom I’m not familiar with, having grown out of that particular section of the bookstore around the time that Borders went under. But I feel like I know them in the way they talk about their work and what they hope it accomplishes. The book’s primary focus is on fiction, a kind of writing that I quickly discovered I have neither the interest or talent to create, but I’m a sucker for process and writers are some of the few people who use the same media that they create with to describe their own thoughts, and the result is something beautiful. It’s a must-read for any young writer in your life.

Jacob’s book is quite different in tone and composition. It’s a graphic memoir, made up of speech bubbles, portraits, and images to convey a series of conversations that Jacob has had throughout her life that affects the way she sees identity, including her own identity, the identity of race, and the identity of our country. A common thread throughout the book are conversations she has with her son on racism. She discovers that she sometimes doesn’t have answers to his questions and feels like she should be able to help him navigate the complexities of race that he is beginning to attempt to make sense of. It’s hard to put it any better than “Little Fires Everywhere” author Celeste Ng, who said that it was “exactly the book America needs.”

 

I highly, highly recommend both books, not just because their authors mean the world to me, but because the worlds they have shared with me have changed me and I can pass them on to you all in neatly-bound pages. Because that is what writing is, sharing a point-of-view, a conversation, a piece of advice, an escape, a confrontation, a game of what if, an endless existence between two covers. I get to wake up each day and play around with that.

As for my passion for history, which is, after all, what this site is about, I’m not a historian by training, just nature, but what is history if not stories to be told and retold. And those stories are strange, and weird, and made up of lives that could have ended up differently had a girl not given another girl a library book to return, had a mother not decided to extend a road trip, had a woman decided to settle for happiness rather than satisfaction.

All this to say, life is really weird, folks, and it seems that is all you will ever be sure of.

xo Elena

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