Friday, June 10, 2011

Shocking Real Life Event, Writing, #YAsaves

Five days ago, my small town was hit by an unexpected tragedy. There were no bells and whistles. No fireworks or crowds. But uncharacteristically, there were gunshots, a statewide car chase/manhunt, death, and tears. Lots of those. So this post is written with a heavy heart.

Three of my children and I were in our driveway shooting hoops and chatting. We're blessed to live in a nice neighborhood, so the only time we see police cars is during their laidback drives through out streets. And as much as I respect our police force, just picture Dukes of Hazard in Hawaiian shorts and straw hats eating donuts. It's not their fault. Nothing happens here. EXCEPT for the other day when three black-and-white's raced along our streets.

My oldest ran over to our neighbor's house only to discover there was nothing wrong. HERE. But real trouble was brewing across the river in our former neighborhood, which is nice just a bit older. The police had gotten the wrong street. Now, I know that sounds lame, but like I said: nothing happens here. Moments later, my son jogged up the driveway as the cruisers screeched away to the real scene in need. And it was more horrific than one little town should endure.

A young husband (32) had chased his wife (30) out of their house and up the urban street. He shot her and she dropped in the middle of the street while children played outside...and their two young children watched, screaming in horror. Witnesses say, he caught up to her, bent down and whispered in her ear, and then shot her twice in the head. One of these witnesses was a fifteen-year-old old friend of my sons. His view was out his bedroom window.

The young family appeared to be happy, although lately it's stated that the couple had been arguing. But who doesn't argue?? I intend no ill view of the military when I add this, but the husband was a Marine, who was apparently standoffish when he returned from Iraq and had never quite been the same. Something was off but not off enough to justify help. I wish I knew where that fine line tread.

Family and friends are in shock, and our town has come to a standstill. Councilors were sent the following morning to the elementary school where the two now parentless children attend the 2nd and 4th grade. The junior high and high school was also attended to.

How does one explain such a senseless tragedy? Is there really an explanation? 

Tying this into writing ~ when a senseless element of life crosses your path does it affect your writing? Or better yet, do you think it affects you as a writer: the way you process serious topics in a scene or have a character internally handle them? And how dark do you go?

I've yet to chime in concerning the #YAsaves hashtag in response to the WSJ article of Young Adult Literature. But this local tragedy has made me explore my feelings on the subject. SPEAK, Laurie Halse Anderson's amazing book about a young high school girl who endures the horror of rape, is a great example of how a true life experience put within the confides of fiction can be the road to healing and recovering for some, and open awareness to others. Yes, the book has been held up to scrutiny. But life is not always pretty and sweet, and teens do undergo rough situations--as do younger children like in my town right now.

As a teen, I was not a huge reader...for pleasure, that is. But I was a major movie buff. Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast club, The Outsiders, Iron Eagle, Youngblood are just a few. Even the first few Nightmare on Elm Street flicks--the first one where I learned how to fully appreciate Johnny Depp...ALIVE.

Despite what any adult thought of these films, they were my escape, my way to deal with whatever new life lesson my teen psyche was butting heads with. They also were a teacher. Through the teenage character's lives, I was able to find someone who understood me and let me ponder my experiences through theirs on screen. They were a road aiding me in finding myself ~ the real me. The YA literature of today is exactly that. And I'm proud to be a part of it.

So you tell me: if a writer decides to use the above tragedy in a fictional YA or MG story to move the reader, to provoke the reader's thoughts about life and the importance of community do you think that's exploiting it?


  1. One of the concepts of play therapy is that a child will, through the process of play within a safe, containing environment, explore, process, and eventually master his or her experience, thoughts, and role in whatever the kid is going through. I think the same process goes for older people. We use the page as our safe place to explore and process our ideas, and sometimes our experiences. In nearly all cases, I don't think it's exploitive. I think it's natural for people, including writers, to process in the way that feels the most useful and natural.

  2. Argh--and I hit post before I got to say--I'm so sorry, Sheri. What a traumatic time for your community! I'm sure you'll all come together and support each other, but that loss and shock will linger, I know.

  3. My gosh. I'm so sorry to hear about this tragedy. It sounds just AWFUL. No I don't think it's exploiting it. Every writer uses real life experiences to write. If we didn't nothing would sound realistic.

  4. how terrible! we never expect these kinds of things to happen in our community- so sad for their children and witnesses to the scene. It is important for everyone, teens included, to understand that some acts can't be taken back and can ruin more lives than they could ever imagine.

  5. Sorry for such a sad experience for your community. I don't think it's exploiting to use the experience or in books in general to show kids the sadly darker side of our world. My daughter's just turned 14, but we've been sharing a lot of what goes on in the world with her since late grade school. And I loved Speak and she just read it for class. I suggested she read it because that's another part of life I want to be sure she's prepared for, even though I pray she never experiences it.

  6. No. Real life is reflected in stories all the time! And television and movies. They make the best stories.

  7. Oh wow...I'm so sorry for those children...I absolutely think as writers, we sometimes write about things that happen in life. I do. It's not exploitation, it's finding a way to connect with others who might feel something, find answers, from the words in print. When I read, or listen to a song, or watch a movie, there are moments when something speaks directly to me, and I feel like I have whatever answer I was needing at that moment. Books do just that. They don't provoke more [insert whatever], they inspire thought and hopefully connection so the reader doesn't feel so alone.

  8. Unfortunately, that isn't the first time something like that has happened, nor will it be the last time. What a lot of people don't understand is that war changes the soldiers, and sometimes in ways we never expect. Domestic violence is high in soldiers after them come back. Maybe it has something to do with personality traits, which is what made them sign up for the military in the first place. Whatever it is, a lot don't get the help they need. And a lot don't realize they need help. In the end, the biggest causalties of war are the families of the living soldiers, as you now know.

    I'm sorry your community and those kids now have to deal with the grief and pain of what happened.

  9. I'm so sorry about what happened in your neighborhood. That family is in my thoughts and prayers.

    I don't think it's exploiting it...but writers should tread carefully, showing compassion and sensitivity especially when writing about an event real people have endured, do endure every day. That's a lot easier said than done, but books like Speak show it can be done!

  10. What a heartbreaking story! War often brings out the best in the men and women of the military, but there is so much PTSD that goes undiagnosed and untreated. It's horrific.

    Reading is a safe way to work through difficult topics and internalize them in a thoughtful way. Teens cope with so much. All these people who decry the darkness in YA need to step into a high school. Suicides, bullying, drugs, pregnancy, rape, pressure for sex, car crash deaths, and not least the interminable pressure to succeed and stuff more hours and activities into each day--teens deal with all this, not to mention everything they see at home, in their communities, and in the news. Why would we teach them to simply escape with light reading as opposed to giving them excellent literature that lets them work through their thoughts and feelings while they read? If they have to live amid the darkness, isn't it unfair to say their reading shouldn't reflect their reality? There is plenty of fun, beautifully-written YA out there. Teens, like adults, deserve to choose what they want to read--and I believe they are choosing, which is reflected in what is selling.

    Great, thoughtful post!


  11. What a horrifying tragedy. Just awful.

    I think writers should be able to write about whatever they want--but the stories I'll actually want to read will be done with careful thought and not just for the sake of sensationalism (which all the writers I know wouldn't do anyway).

  12. Wow. That's awful. There are no easy answers, no easy truths. I lived in a neighborhood where I had to teach my kids to duck at gun shots because kids were killing kids with gun violence. Yeah, a million hours of therapy, aka writing, kept me sane. I don't think kids ever get desensitized to violence. is a story that must be told.

  13. Thanks, Martina & Stina.

    E. Arroyo ~ masterfully said.

    Laura ~ very true.

    Candyland ~ You are so right. That's what YA did for me as a kid. I want to pass that on.

  14. Oh wow that is so terrible and sad. And NO I do not think writers are exploiting such thins. I think most of us write about things to make others aware of them, to help others who are going through it, and to work through whatever terrible thing we've endured or seen.

  15. Heather ~ that's perfect, and exactly what #YAsaves is talking about. :)

  16. How ironic that you should write about this Sheri. The novel I am currently editing is about a disturbed, alcoholic Marine Corps Captain. He abused his wife for twenty years and now it new target is his seventeen-year-old son.

    I have done a lot of research about how the effects of war changes people. There is also a huge facility in San Diego for these people who have been psychologically damaged by the effects of war. It's very sad.

    What a tragic thing to happen to those poor children who had to witness this disturbing scene.

  17. I'm so sorry to hear this. *hugs*
    I think tragedy can help in writing in many ways. I lost a friend this year who I've known for almost all my life. A teenager, like me. That pain, that agony, that comes from the grief, that has helped me show that feeling in my writing. The whole "write what you know" thing? Writing about sadness works the same way.
    As for your question about exploiting, how can it be bad? #yasaves, and to take that tragedy, and use it to try and avoid another one, can only help. If I were to write and publish a book about a girl who suffers depression after her friend's death, and someone else was to read that book and use it to fight her way through her own bout of depression, can you call that exploiting my tragedy? A tragedy can have a happy effect, somewhere down the line, and it would be a shame for someone to avoid YA because of articles like the WSJ's, when they might just need #yasaves.

    I'm done here.

  18. That is horrible! And almost impossible to explain. Things like that tell me the devil is very real.
    I don't write young adult, but the reality of death appeared in my first book.

  19. No, I don't think so. I've got chills racing up and down my arms-how awful. AWFUL!! Esp. out in the street like she was being hunted. *sad*

  20. What a horrible thing! It is one of those things that you *think* only happens in a book or a movie, but you only have to look at the news to see it isn't so. The Casey Anderson trial comes to mind.

    Art mirrors life; life mirrors art. They are reflections of one another. To use the situation above in a work of fiction is not exploiting it. The names will be changed; the circumstances altered. Literature expresses real truth, and truth comes in good and bad events.

  21. Whoa! That's HORRIBLE. I'd have a hard time shaking that image.

    When I was in middle school, my parents got the idea to send me to a private Christian school where we were sheltered from the world. Likewise, the only books we could read were those that also sheltered us from the real world. In ninth grade, I transferred back to public school and couldn't handle what I saw on a daily basis. I was so out of touch with what teen life had become. I WISH I had at least been exposed to these issues through books. Perhaps I would have been prepared.

    YA Contemporary novels reflect contemporary teen culture. My thought: if you don't like what the books are portraying, then take a look at the culture they represent. It's REAL. If the issues didn't exist, neither would the books.

  22. Wow. Just -- wow. I can imagine how that would be shocking. I mean, I live in London and shootings happen all the time, but if I heard that story happened here, I'd still be just as shocked.

    One novel springs to mind after your question - 'We Need to Talk About Kevin' by Lionel Shriver. It follows a mother whose son opens fire at a high school. Some might say that's glorifying brutal incidents, but I disagree. I think novels inevitably use such tragic events - they are our reality, however sad that is.

  23. What a terrible thing. Another casualty of the war....

  24. Oh my goodness, that is terrible. I can't begin to imagine what was going through the minds of those who saw the incident, especially the children. Nothing every really happens in my town either, and I can't really even imagine something like that happening here.

    I don't think writing about this incident would really be exploiting it...I mean, I guess it WOULD, but it wouldn't be a bad thing--especially if you changed names and all. As long as your intentions are good, then it shouldn't be a problem. I suppose you could get the permission of those involved...


  25. WOW. I pray for those kids and everyone involved.

    I think back to one book I read as a teenager that impacted me. GO ASK ALICE. I remember reading that and realizing the danger of party life. I did not want to end up like her.

    In this day, when HS cheerleaders are overdosing on heroine and kids are shooting kids, us writers need to voice hope, and we do that with our words. No way should we ever hold back.


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