Last Thursday I had the opportunity to speak with the entire 6th grade of Pitman Middle School. I'm still not sure who had more fun.
The kids certainly seemed to enjoy themselves thanks, in large part, to the efforts of the faculty and staff at Pitman Middle School. They had food prepared straight out of my novel Kira the Rainbow Princess, complete with cauliflower, bagel pizzas, and snoozeberries. The teachers held a bookmark art contest that I got to judge (it was really difficult), and two lucky winners received limited-edition Kira t-shirts. Finally, every student received a personalized and signed copy of Kira the Rainbow Princess!
But at the end of the day, I still think I came out on top. Not only did I get an awesome Pitman Panthers hooded sweatshirt, but I got to spend the afternoon surrounded by kids who wanted to talk about my book. It must be every author's dream come true! The students themselves were an engaged, polite, and respectful audience - a testament no only to their teachers, but also their families and community. Best of all, they had some incredibly insightful questions about Kira and the writing process.
One of the questions that seemed to pop up again and again was if any of my characters were based on real people. I told them that EVERY character was based on real people because all of my life's experience has colored and shaded my imagination. Kira is very much based on my daughter Fiona. Ben the Brave is a reflection of my son Aidan and my brother Michael. But I also told them the truth, which is every character was also based on myself. I am Kira. I am Ben. I think I'm very much Fred the Zombie. But that also means I'm King Bill.
And this led to a new thought. I often tell my high school English students that the purpose of a novel is turn our eyes inward. To understand who we are, question who we are, reflect on who we are, and possibly to change who we are. But what happens when I'm also the person who wrote the book in the first place?
I understand that my life's experience has shaped my art, but now I'm left to wonder how my art is shaping my life. Am I stuck in an eternal loop of life changing art changing life? And would that even be so bad?
I had an experience earlier this week that brought this seeming paradox to the surface. I was in attendance at a public meeting when my wife's character was attacked. I don't know that the man knew who he was referring to when he called Vanessa a "low life". I certainly doubt that he knew her husband was sitting in attendance (thankfully Vanessa was not). Nevertheless, those words were spoken and I was left facing an unpleasant decision... Now what?
I don't think anyone really enjoys conflict. Certainly we argue, and debate, and compete... but that's not what I'm talking about. The conflict I experienced that night cut much deeper, cutting down to the core of character. It was ugly, uncomfortable, and unavoidable.
I responded with my words. I defended my wife and her character in no uncertain terms. I took action when action alone would suffice. I'd like to think that Kira (or Snugg) would have done the same. But more than that, I'd like to think that maybe Kira and Snugg helped me do the same.
I'm not telling this story to brag - although I am incredibly proud of speaking up in support of my wife - but rather I'm sharing this story to leave one final thought. . . my character as a husband, father, and human being has been shaped by the sum of my life's experience, including every story I've ever read: The Black Cauldron, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Spider-Man, To Kill a Mockingbird, and yes, even Kira the Rainbow Princess.
To think that my words may one day give a young man or young woman the courage to act when action alone will suffice... it's a humbling thought, and I can only hope it proves to be true.