We all know that feeling. Those times, we’ve stared at the computer screen for an hour and found that we couldn’t even compose a shopping list, let alone the next chapter of an overdue book. We’ve all experienced that panicky sensation that our muses have taken a Celebrity cruise through the Panama Canal and forgotten to take us along or even send a post card.
And then there are those moments, when I’ve worked myself up into a frenzy, when I’ve started checking the want ads for administrative assistant jobs because I don’t think knowing how to make a fabulous matzoh ball soup is a marketable skill, and something happens which essentially is a message directly from the Lord telling me to “chill, girl.”
I had one of those epiphanies a few weeks ago. I was visiting the M. Allan Fogelson Regional Branch Library in Voorhees, New Jersey, with fellow Stiletto author Maggie Barbieri. It was a lovely, lovely event, billed as “Tea and Crumpets with Mystery Authors.” The turnout was great (and the refreshments were fantastic!).
I had just started talking about my book and the creative process when a group of 10 teenaged boys joined the audience. While they’re not the standard mystery fans found at these events, they listened respectfully as Maggie and I talked about our work.
Afterwards, one of the boys shyly approached me, encouraged by a man I assumed was the group’s leader. The teen told me he was 14 and liked to write. I asked him to tell me about one of his stories. It was a fantasy tale about a young boy who was locked out of his home for three days. He detailed a series of adventures and dangers, and the surprise twist at the end — the hero wakes up and finds it was all a dream.
Later, privately, the group leader explained that these teens were from a program funded by the Juvenile Justice Commission of New Jersey. They were at risk kids who’d already entered the court system. This program was an alternative to a detention center. A final chance to turn around lives headed for big trouble. And the fantasy tale this boy wrote? Not so much a fantasy. He lived it.
My emotions were all over the place.
I was furious that any child should have to worry about where he will sleep at night. That should be a given.
I was worried about this youngster’s future. On a basic level, would he learn from the program, get an education, pursue his dream? Or would he ditch this chance and end up back in the courts? Would he be locked out of a future?
And then there was the reality check. Was this child smart enough, strong enough, stubborn enough to pursue a life as a writer? For all the thrills and satisfaction that writing brings me, I also know how frustrating and disappointing this career can be when the mail brings another rejection letter. The odds of a high school basketball player making it to the pros are .03 percent. I’d bet that those are the same odds for a high school kid making it as a professional writer.
I don’t know what I can do to help that child – and the millions of others like him. Writing – his and mine – can be one answer. For him, it can be a way of channeling his emotions and using words, not violence, to handle the frustrations of his life. For me, writing can be a way of exposing the underbelly of life, with all its glory and despair.
I always end my library talks with the explanation that I write mysteries because I want the good guys to win. How I hope that there can be the same neat, clean resolution for the real-life story I heard in Voorhees.