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A couple of months ago — shortly after my oldest son got back from his mission — I hijacked him for a day to go driving with me in the northeastern suburbs of St. Paul, about 45 minutes from where I live. He, unwary soul, neglected to ask the purpose of our expedition prior to departure. When eventually he did discover the purpose — to check out a neighborhood and high school that I’ve adopted as the model for the set of novels I’m working on at present — much eye-rolling was evidenced. (Note my clever use of the passive voice to clue the reader in to just how clever I am. For, um, using the passive voice. Yeah.)
I’m sure the only thing that made the experience bearable for my son was the fact that he didn’t have to interact with anyone himself and could therefore more or less ignore the embarrassing way his father was acting. Later, when I told him about emailing a vice-principal chosen at random from the school website with questions about the school — and then showing up in person one day just as school was getting out — he made a comment the precise content of which I cannot remember, but the sense of which was that (a) I’m really quite weird, and (b) the publishing industry does not have enough money in it to persuade him to go out and be nosy and intrusive and chat up complete strangers. Which, I pointed out, was kind of an odd comment for him to make, given that he’d just spent two years talking to strangers about religion. That, however, was Different. Or so he informed me.
I concede nonetheless that he has a point. Being a writer, I’ve found, frequently puts me in situations where I act in ways that push the boundaries of my comfort zone — and leave my family’s far behind. I’m reminded, for example, of the time I showed up at a community PFLAG meeting for No Going Back (Parents and Friends of Lesbians And Gays, except that now they’ve expanded it beyond the acronym to include other categories such as transgendered). I felt intensely uncomfortable going into the meeting — but I did it anyway, because I thought my writing would be better if I had actually experienced some of what I was writing about. And I think it was.
Part of the reason for my embarrassment, I suspect, is that I lack confidence in myself as a writer. Perhaps this will be different once I get a few more publications under my belt. When I say, “I’m doing research for a book I’m writing,” I feel very much a fraud, even though it’s nothing more than the truth. It’s a truism that if you act as if what you’re doing is perfectly normal, others are likely to treat it that way too.
I admit in this respect to a certain jealousy of Shayne Bell, a member of my old writing group Xenobia who (together with Dave Wolverton) was among the first to break into professional writing. Shayne had a remarkable ability to approach total strangers with what appeared to be absolutely no embarrassment when it came to requests related to his writing. So sincere was his demeanor, so clean-cut his appearance, so reasonable and modest his approach, that he could charm pretty much anyone into doing pretty much anything — or at least, so it seemed to me at the time. Shayne was a dangerous man, or at any rate could have been had he chosen to use his gifts as a con artist or politician instead of storyteller. Perhaps I’ll develop more of that kind of confidence when/if I have more published titles under my name.
The day I showed up without prior notice at the school, I first drove around the neighborhood. My original intent had been to drive back and forth in front of the school several times (I wanted to observe while kids were getting out of school), but after a couple of passes, I decided that was a little too stalker-like. So I parked in the nearby district office lot, walked over to the school, and then talked to someone at the school office, who in turn called out the vice-principal I’d been communicating with. We talked briefly. She said I wouldn’t be able to stay there and observe without talking to the principal first, and encouraged me to email her to set up something.
So that’s what I did. I thought about it for a couple of weeks, then decided that what I really needed was a tour of the school — ideally while students were there, but I assumed it would be less disruptive and easier to arrange after school. I composed an email to the vice-principal, specifying the types of areas I wanted to see (halls, commons areas, auditoriums, etc.) and explaining that it wasn’t so much a matter of wanting specific information about the school but rather of wanting to get a feel for the school — which is both older and larger than the one my own children attend, and with a somewhat different student demographic. I also was careful to trot out my credentials as an actual published author, one who had even received a short review in one of the local Twin Cities newspapers, and listed my website. I then had to do the same for the principal — and was rewarded with a message asking me to schedule a time for a school tour with the principal. Success!
So that’s what I’m set to do tomorrow morning (the Tuesday before Thanksgiving — this part was originally written a week ago). I’m looking forward to it. Part of me wishes that I had been more self-assured from the start — it was kind of awkward talking to the office staff when I showed up without any kind of appointment, saying, “I just want to stand somewhere and watch the students going out the doors.” But comfortable or not, the fact remains that I actually did it: another small-but-real challenge surmounted in my quest to write my stories.
So. I went into the office, spent about 10 minutes waiting — which was actually kind of nice, since I got to watch students going back and forth during one of the breaks between classes — then spoke with the principal. He had concerns about confidentiality, but when I explained that what I wanted was all in the nature of background and that I wasn’t planning to share any specifics about their school and its students, it seemed to allay those concerns. I also gave him a copy of No Going Back — don’t know if he’ll read it, but it seemed like the thing to do. (Note to self: remember to record the cost of the copy as a research expense…)
After we had talked, he fetched a counselor to show me around for about 20 minutes. We got to see open areas, the library (er, media center), the lunch area (with students eating lunch), the gym, and the halls. I took some notes — more as an immediate aid to memory then as anything else. I took in the ambience. And then I went home.