Author Archives: Jan Gangsei

In Memory of Kent

So yesterday I sat down, all prepared to write a post taking on this article that claims adults should feel “embarrassed” to read books “written for children.” (Cue massive, unashamed eye roll.)

Then, because I’m an epic procrastinator, I popped on over to Facebook. Figured I’d hang there a minute, check out my friends’ latest antics/kid pix/inspirational cat videos. Maybe post something witty about said procrastination.

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Kent, just being Kent…

Instead, I was shocked to find people saying heartfelt goodbyes to one of my lifelong friends, Kent Batchelder — a guy I’d known since second grade, who sat next to me in classrooms all through elementary, middle, high school and college. The guy who nick-named me “Jan-baby,” and spent half of eighth grade enthusiastically chanting that from the chair to my right — much to my embarrassment — over. And over. And over again. When we got into high school, he then became the guy I could count on to call and ask me to every formal dance, even though I never said yes. (After all, he was my friend. My Kent. I didn’t want to wreck that by throwing dancing into the mix.) Still, he never stopped asking. And we never stopped being friends, despite my stubborn refusal to dance with him.

As I scrolled through my news feed with a growing feeling of dread, I began to hope maybe Kent had just moved. Or was taking a new job. He was definitely too young to die. But as more pictures appeared in his “memory” and word began to spread among mutual friends and old classmates, it was clear the worst had happened. Kent — one of the cleanest living, healthiest people I know — had been struck down in his prime by a very fatal and fast-moving cancer.

Suddenly, arguing with a so-called “grown-up” about what other grown-ups should feel “shame” about reading seemed silly. After all, the greatness of literature is not defined by the age of its characters or target audience. That’s just insulting — not only to the adults who enjoy and appreciate children’s literature, but to the people who write it, and even more so to the kids and young adults who read it themselves. I mean really… who is to say that your experience at forty-five is more important/meaningful/literary than a fifteen-year-old’s? Sadly, as I was reminded yesterday, you may not even live to see forty-five. The greatness in life is not how many days you spend living, but how you spend your days.

So today, I’d like to pay tribute to my friend Kent, a man who didn’t dismiss young people, but fostered their growth in his career as a middle school counselor. You may not have known Kent, but I bet (or hope) you’ve had a Kent in your life. As a kid, he was the guy who got along with everyone. As an adult, he was the cool grown-up kids could relate to – the young, active guy with an empathetic ear, constant smile and solid advice. Looking at his Facebook page, it’s clear how many lives he touched — whether he was mentoring students or leading one of his many international studies trips to places like France, Japan and Australia. Kent was a man who completely and fully embraced life and encouraged his students to do the same. The world won’t be the same without him.

Like most old school pals, Kent and I moved in different directions after college (he landed in Massachusetts, I wound up in Virginia). But we always kept in touch. When my first book was published, Kent promptly ordered it from the UK (and, of course, donated it to his school library). I last got to see Kent a year ago at our high school reunion. Thankfully, he didn’t chant “Jan-baby” at me. We did, however, have a great time chatting and catching up. Because that’s the amazing thing about friends who have known you since your banana-seat bike riding, braces-wearing days — once you get back together, the years just melt away.

I only wish he’d asked me to dance. Because Kent, I still owe you one.

Rest in peace, dear friend. I will miss you.

 

The Magic of Writing

It’s sort of a funny thing, being a writer. Tell people you’ve written a book, and they immediately think you’re a) rich, b) rich and famous, or c) going to be rich and famous (and able to help them find a publisher for their book, still to-be-written, of course).

But mostly, they seem to think you work some kind of voodoo magic. Spinning stories out of thin air. Casting them off into the world without blinking an eye. Case in point, a conversation I had recently with a good friend who is a commercial pilot.

Pilot friend: So how do you do it?
Me: Do what?
PF: You know. Write. What’s a typical day like for you?
Me: Well, I get up in the morning, have my coffee, walk the dog. Then I sit down with my laptop and write. Then I usually have lunch. And hit the gym. And then I write some more, even if I don’t really feel like it. Especially if I’m on deadline.
PF: Huh. That’s not at all what I pictured. No coffee shops? No writer’s groups with everyone wearing black and sipping espressos? No shots of whiskey?
Me: No. Coffee shops are distracting. And you know I like bright colors. Mochas with whipped cream. And wine. Preferably the sparkling kind.
PF: Laughs. Well, I still don’t know how you do it. I could never do that. Just sit down and write a book.
Me: Yeah? And I could never just step into a cockpit and fly a plane, either.

And that’s the thing — somehow there’s this strange myth that if you’re really, truly a Real, True Writer all you need to do take pen to paper and the words will flow, like magic. Yeah, right. Sure, some people are born with an innate talent for writing. Just like some have an innate talent for science or all things mechanical. But who on earth would expect (or want!) a pilot that flew on “innate talent” alone? Or a surgeon who just had a gut feeling where to find the appendix? (Unless, of course, he stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night, in which case your book signing is safe.)

In my mind, writing is no different. If we want to be any good, we have to practice. And read. And get out into the world and observe. And listen. And practice some more. But mostly, we have to commit — commit to putting our butts in our chairs, commit to writing, commit to learning and to accepting criticism. We have to be willing to put in the time and effort, kind of like a pilot logging hours before they can fly solo.

I’ve heard it said (probably a million times), that it takes a million bad words before a writer produces something worth publication. (Let’s see… that would be word number 925,461… not that I’m counting or anything…). And maybe it’s not exactly a million words, but the point is valid — to do something well, we have to do it over. And over. And over again. And we have to fail (probably more than once), so we can learn from our mistakes.

After all, an overnight success is just someone who has worked really hard to become successful, right?

So how do you learn and grow as a writer? (Or pilot? Or surgeon?) Tell me in the comments below!

Jan Gangsei doesn’t have a clue how to fly a plane. But one of these days, she’d love to learn. In the meantime, she’s perfectly happy using her imagination to soar into the clouds.

Flawed Characters

Recently I read a news article about the growing trend of plastic surgery. I know, in this day and age, it seems like everyone’s been Botoxed, air-brushed and made over until unrecognizable (hello, “Real” Housewives!). But what really caught my eye was this had nothing to do with Hollywood.

It was about kids. As in, the rise of younger and younger children going under to knife to fix their “flaws.” And right there on the page was a before and after picture of the cutest little girl, maybe eight years old. And, quite frankly, I had to actually read the article to find out what was “wrong” with her in the before shot. Because I just couldn’t see it. Seriously. (As it turned out, it was her ears, which stuck out and caused her to be teased when she put her hair in a bun for dance class.)

(Now, before this turns into a debate about parenting and such — let me just say I’m a mother and I know how hard it is. I’m not looking to pass judgement on this girl’s parents, who were trying to spare their child the pain of being picked on. I get it. I really do. After all, I STILL remember the middle school classmate who told me I could “be a model”… if I just “had a different nose.” Yeah, if my parents had let me get a nose job, I probably would’ve knocked myself out and hopped on the operating table right then and there.)

That said, the whole article just made me a little sad.

Because here’s the thing I learned as I grew up (and into my nose) — people are more interesting not in spite of their “flaws,” but because of them. And this goes for fictional characters, too (see, I was getting to a point about writing, really!). And by characters with flaws, I don’t mean the ones who are utterly perfect… (except for being clutzy/ditzy/too tall, etc.). I’m talking about perfectly imperfect characters. The ones with complex motivations, the perhaps not-so-perfect looking ones. The ones that make bad decisions and fall on their faces.

Severus Snape via wikipedia

A perfect example:  Severus Snape.

Snape has to be one of my favorite flawed — make that just plain favorite — characters in all of children’s literature. He’s surly and seemingly self-serving, not the most attractive guy in the room or even very pleasant to be around. But that made it all the more moving when his true motivations were revealed at the end of Deathly Hallows. I’ll admit, I choked up (especially at the movie — man, that Alan Rickman!). But the whole final scene would have had so much less impact if Snape had been less, well — Snape-ish. I can’t imagine a conventionally handsome Snape (George Clooney — ummm, no). Or one that was kind of tough with his students but really awesome in every other way. It just wouldn’t work.

In fact, flawless doesn’t work with any character — whether the hero or anti-hero. We all have flaws. Quirks. Things that make us who we are. And as I write this, I think maybe “flawed” isn’t quite the right word. Complicated, maybe. Human. Real. I mean, who wants to live in a world — or read a book — where everyone is exactly the same. Where everyone has been scrubbed down, airbrushed and made over until unrecognizable. There’s plenty of that on magazine covers. And as our kids find themselves surrounded more and more by unreal images of “perfection,” what better place to escape TO reality than in a good book?

So I say, let’s hear it for the not-so-perfect noses, the complex histories, the layers of good and bad that make us unique — the stories that remind us it’s cool to be different.

And let’s hear from you! Who are some of your favorite complex characters and why? And how do you go about writing characters that are more than just one-dimensional? Tell me in the comments below!

Jan Gangsei is glad no one ever let her “fix” her Jennifer Grey nose because she really likes it now. She also credits it with helping her develop a sense of humor (and the ability to detect gas leaks before anyone else in the house).