This Is Going to Be About Heroes
Enough of the educators who were at ALAN/ NCTE ‘16 have asked me for the transcript of my keynote there that I’ve finally decided to post it. Here it is, give or take.
This is going to be about heroes.
I’m going to tell you three stories about heroes and bravery, and then I’m going to tell you how all three of those stories could be told differently.
Nowadays, I find myself a professional storyteller. A maker of heroes. I spend my days putting swords in stones, monsters under beds, ghosts in attics. I have learned that often the difference between a hero and a villain is merely the narrator I choose for the lens of the story. I have learned, too, that the difference between a horror and a romance is sometimes as simple as where I choose to begin the story. A tragedy and a comedy can convey the same events — the difference is in how you tell them.
I’ve also learned that this isn’t just true of the stories I write. It’s true in the story I’m living. The first hero I ever built was myself.
So. These three stories. I’m sharing these three stories about heroes because I want to talk about how the most important stories we tell are the ones we tell about ourselves. Those who have the power and wherewithal to change the narrative of the events around them are the ones who will change the future. Those who have the guts to say “that’s not my version of events” when they hear someone else telling their story are the ones who get to own their own story.
Here is story number one: I drove down to NCTE from my home in Virginia on Saturday. It was supposed to be about a seven and a half hour drive but it turned into a ten hour trip because of Atlanta traffic. Because of my car’s tiny gas tank, I ended up stopping for gas three times. Each time I pulled into a station, a thing happened, the same thing that’s been happening every time I park my car in a public place for the past month. I’ll get out of my car and swipe my card at the pump, feeling like there are eyes on me. I plug in my zip code and put the fuel nozzle in the car, and as I do, I’ll see that the eyes are attached to a motorist or a pedestrian who has paused to stare at me. By the time the tank is full and I’ve gotten my receipt, I’ll discover that they’ve made their way over to me. The conversation goes pretty much the same way every time.
The first time it happened on Saturday, it was a guy in an Orkin pest control vehicle. He sidled up and said, “Is that real, or is it a decal?” “It’s real,” I told him. “Why?” he asked. “Why would you do such a thing?”
Some of you in the crowd probably already know what he’s talking about. A few teachers stopped me in the exhibit hall on Sunday to say they saw my car in the parking garage. It’s pretty recognizable at the moment.
You should know that I love this car. It’s stupid fast, particularly now that I’ve suped it up with a new engine and turbo. And it’s stupid cool in its sick yellow vinyl wrap with racing stripes. And it’s stupid infamous, since John Green challenged me to a race in it last year and then set himself on fire during the race. Anyway, I love it. Readers know I love it, and so they sort of love it too — humans are good that way, you love something hard enough and it rubs off on them, the love, if nothing else.
Last month, I told readers that I was going to drive my car to the Southern Festival of Books, and after I was done with my talk and my signing, I was going to let them spray paint it.
The day was clear and warm. I brought a tarp to park the car on and about twenty cans of spray paint in every color of insanity. The festival closed down a street for us, and volunteers helped tape off the windows and the exhaust and the wheels and everything I didn’t want covered with spray paint.
Readers were excited to add a piece of themselves to the car. There were about fifty of them, from all over, and they were all lined up obediently, waiting in a patient line for their turn. I pulled them in closer.
I told them this, or something pretty close to it: It’s been a fraught and difficult year, both politically and personally, for just about everybody, and it’s getting harder to stand up for you believe in. I’ve always used my cars as a way of sticking it to the man. Driving a car like this around has always been a middle finger to car culture, anyway. Tuner cars like this are always driven around by a certain kind of guy, and I make waves every time I get in it just by being a woman. I like to think that every time some dude pulls up next to me and sees me behind the wheel, it makes him think about the world just a little bit differently.
Anyway, I said, now it gets to stand for something else. You can paint anything you like as long as it’s not a proper noun, a hashtag, or a brand name — this car is about expressing just you, not someone else’s cause. It’s going to be a rainbow mess at the end, and that’s the point. Because I want your tag to be a pledge that you are going to be yourself loudly and truly, and sometimes that’s going to mean doing something that people can’t understand or appreciate. People are going to see this car from the other side of the street and they’re going to think it’s ugly or strange, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that we know what it stands for, and I believe in what it stands for. I want your tag to mean that you’re going to do that too. I’m going to drive the car around like this, painted, until the election, as my pledge to live that way too.
This, I said, is what being brave is about. This is what it means to be a hero: to be yourself no matter what other people think, to be yourself, even if other people think it looks irrational or disordered from the outside.
And then they painted it. They climbed on the roof and the hood and they ducked down by the doors. People stopped to watch. It did indeed become a rainbow mess. There were peace signs. Stars. Hearts. A flock of black birds that blended into someone else’s paint so that the combination looked like fish scales on a beautiful strange Technicolor creature. Circles and dribbles. Even though words were allowed if they weren’t proper nouns, there were very few words. The biggest word was painted large enough to cover most of the left side. It said simply: ASCEND. No one painted over that.
That’s story number one about bravery and heroism. I told it wrong. Well, not wrong. But there’s a different way to tell it, a better way, but I didn’t figure it out until a few days ago. I’ll come back to that in a bit.
For now, story number two: Owen Glendower. Before I begin this, maybe I should ask, has anyone here read the Raven Cycle? I’ll to try to sum it up, but it’s a fairly difficult task. It’s daunting enough that sometimes I run contests on the internet where the only thing you have to do to enter is to try to sum up what the series is about. Anyway, the salient points: The Raven Cycle is four books long; the last installment came out this April. In the series, four contemporary Virginian teens are looking for a long-lost Welsh king who they believe is sleeping supernaturally under the Blue Ridge Mountains. This king is Owen Glendower, and his legend is a very good example of how the way we frame a story defines how we interpret events.
Here are the facts of Owen Glendower, as far as we know. Glendower was a real person in 15th century Wales. He was a medieval kid with money who got educated in England, just like most medieval Welsh kids with money. After spending some years as a soldier for the English king, he settled down to become a lawyer in Wales on an enormous and expensive piece of property. This is where his story could have ended, but one of his Welsh neighbors decided to help himself to some of Glendower’s land. Glendower angrily went to the court of England, but the other dude had more favor there and so Glendower didn’t get his lands returned. Like most men do when legally wronged, Glendower raised an army against the English king and declared himself king of Wales. After his revolt went sour years later, he disappeared into the countryside of Wales and died in hiding.
That, however, is not how Glendower is remembered. Although those facts are one way to tell his story, this is the story he is better remembered for: Medieval Wales longed for its freedom, its Welshness, its honor. It was trapped under the thumb of England, who rifled through Wales’ resources as if it were a spare pantry. Glendower, noble Glendower, took up the sword at age 60 to come to his country’s need. Using his magical and royal lineage he led a righteous and overdue revolt against the English to free the Welsh. The English army was larger, but Glendower could speak to the birds and control the weather, and what could the English do with such a fated wizard of a king? After years of intrepid battle, Glendower finally succumbed and was driven into the mountains. There, he did not die, but instead went into a supernatural sleep. He waits there now with his closest soldiers, waiting to be woken when his country needs him again.
This is the power and danger in how we tell stories — the sword in that stone has two edges. Owen Glendower the man would not have been able to move Wales to destructive war. Owen Glendower, the descendant of ancient raven-eyed Welsh goddesses, the prophesied Son of Destiny, fated to restore Welsh glory? That’s someone people will sign up for.
The way we frame stories is important. Like I said, the difference between a hero and a villain, I’ve discovered, is how you tell the story. Sometimes the kinds of stories we tell about other people really say more about us than them. Turn the vase on that Glendower biography and you see a tragedy. Turn it again, you see a hero. Turn it again, it’s an adventure story. What do you want? You can bend it for good or for evil: power and danger. Stories can shift an entire people to war or peace.
Here is story number three: Maggie in past tense. Myself as a child. I was a very small child. Very small. I recall that in third grade, I was so scrawny that one of my teachers sent home a stern letter to my parents that they needed to stop starving me. I was not being starved. I just didn’t like food. I suppose it was not that I didn’t care for food in general, it was just that I only cared for some foods in specific. Really, I preferred to only eat foods that ended with an O. SpaghettiOs. OreoS. CheeriOs. Anyway, this specialized diet left me rather puny. Like many puny creatures, I was afraid; I knew I was small and edible and easily carried away by hawks.
I was also paralyzed by obsessive compulsive disorder. I was a twitchy, silent, watchful creature of secret fears and secret rituals. I had an impossible number of phobias, ranging from the easily understood — thunderstorms — to the more abstract — a pack of upright soldier wolves who lived in my heartbeat and marched closer to eat me when my heart beat faster or louder. I once spotted my father watching a movie where a character in a deep sea suit was reduced to white sludge after his swim and I refused to take a bath for a month afterward. I read about killer bees one day and didn’t sleep for days after I learned that they were supposed to reach Virginia in four years. I once choked on the end of a hot dog and did not finish another hot dog for a decade.
The toxic combination of fearfulness and OCD meant that when something hit my anxiety, it burrowed down inside me into an infinity ring of fear. I was afraid of fire, I was afraid of using the telephone, I was afraid of school lunches, I was afraid of making change in stores, I was afraid of people looking at me, I was afraid of the way my closet door was open just a little bit and it was liquid black inside.
I have actually brought the source of one of my old phobias with me today.
This here is a book called PLANT PEOPLE, and it is written by Dale Carson. When I first encountered this book, I was getting my books from the enormous Williamsburg, VA public library. They had a huge children’s section, fiction on one side, nonfiction on the other, and every week I would live in the stacks and select an enormous pile of books to bring home. This was one of them.
You can’t see from there, but it is about a small Western town. Everything is normal until a mist descends which turns everyone except for the narrator into a plant. Here’s the thing about this book: it has black and white photographs. Of the town, the mist, and the one that haunts me still: the narrator’s mother cooking dinner, a close up of her hands, and you can see how she has veins in her hands, not regular veins, but plant veins because she’s turning into a plaaaaaaaaaant.
And the worst part of PLANT PEOPLE? I couldn’t remember if I’d gotten it from the fiction section or the nonfiction section. I could have asked someone, but instead, I spent an entire year being petrified of anything like mist or fog. Every time mist descended, I would run inside the house and shout, MOM SHOW ME YOUR HANDS.
You think I’m exaggerating. I’m not exaggerating.
The difference between this Maggie and me is a lifetime of stories.
While I was being young and terrified of how edible I was, I was also reading. I was a Navy brat who moved 18 times before I was 18, but every new place that we moved, the first thing my mother did was sign us up for a library card. The beautiful thing about libraries is that they encourage wide reading — you can range all over the shelves without a care for genre or age. And so all kinds of stories poured into my fearful brain. Not just PLANT PEOPLE, but stories that ended up changing me. And the stories I loved were not the stories full of people like me, but rather stories full of people I wished I could be. I read about Diana Wynne Jones’ insouciant wizards and Jack Higgins’ sharp-edged assassins and C. S. Lewis’ boy kings of Narnia. They were heroes of the kind I couldn’t find in every day life, heroes of the sort that I couldn’t find in rural Virginia or Florida or Wisconsin.
Through these, I built an idea in my head of the hero I wanted to be, a grab bag of traits from heroes, villains, and side characters. I did not have book role models, I had book blueprints.
But there remained a huge gap between the person I wanted to be and the person who I was. This was because no matter how many book blueprints I had, as much as I wanted to make myself the hero of my own life, it didn’t matter as long as I kept telling the story wrong.
Nowadays, as a storyteller, I know what the problem was. I had all the elements I needed to tell a good story. But I was telling it the wrong way, so I could never get to the ending I wanted.
If you tell yourself you’re a winner, you know what kind of story you’re telling, and you will march toward that. Everything that happens in your life will become a part of that narrative, proof of a trial you have to overcome to manifest your victory. Likewise, if you tell yourself you’re a loser, you’ve made that your story, and you will march toward that instead. The same setbacks could happen in the loser’s story as in the winner’s story, but the self-defined loser would let them be proof that they were never going to be anything.
Here’s the story I was telling myself back when I was little edible child waiting to be carried away by hawks and making OCD rituals for herself: once upon a time, there was a girl who was afraid of everything. When I was 16, I realized that I knew what this story looked like and how it ended, and it wasn’t the life I wanted for myself. If I wanted my ending to look different, I needed to change the kind of story I was telling about myself. I needed to shape my events into a different genre: once upon a time, there was a woman who was afraid of nothing. At age 16, I legally changed my name from my birthname — Heidi — to one I thought sounded like the hero I wanted to be: Maggie. And I vowed that I would never be afraid of anything ever again.
Did it work? No, of course not. Not right away. But it became a mission statement, my hero’s journey. Everything that happened after that was framed to fit in that version of the story. And luckily for me, I had one thousand fictional book blueprints for the kind of story I wanted my life to be. The hardest step to take — not just for me, but for everyone — was committing to live the new narrative.
Now, back my spray-painted car. As I said, this story could be told differently too. When I told it to you before, I said that the moral of the story, the purpose of the exercise, was to express myself loudly and boldly without caring what other people thought. To be myself even if other people didn’t understand.
I realized after the election there was a better way to tell it. If I turned the vase on that story, I got a better view.
There were two siblings (I think) at the spray-painting event who decided to paint silhouettes of their hands next to each other on the car. They put their hands down flat and then sprayed black spray paint over both of them. Lifted them up, and voila, two handprints. They were delighted. I was delighted, too. There was nothing more primal and personal than two reader handprints on the fender. Later, they came over to me with their hands all stained black and asked me, “Is today Sunday?” “Yes,” I said. “We thought it was Saturday!” they said. “We just remembered! We’re going to a wedding after this! Look at our hands!” There was no way, of course, to remove the paint from their hands in time; they were just going to have to go there like that. Spray-painted and strange, just like my car, marked with physical evidence of a belief no one else would understand from across the street.
But here’s the thing: later, they contacted me on social media and told me that they had a wonderful time at the wedding explaining where they had been and how their hands came to look like that.
And I realized I had been telling the story wrong. Because I hadn’t realized what would happen after the act of painterly rebellion — teens explaining the paint on their hands to a wedding party, me explaining my newly Technicolor car to curious strangers at gas stations. I was wrong: it wasn’t a wordless and defiant middle finger. It was a bold and joyful dialog. The story wasn’t about being a hero by being yourself even if people don’t understand you. The story was about being a hero by being yourself in a way that prompts a conversation. Art and stories have always been our best conduit for heroism and creativity and growth. Yes, there’s a valor in being bold and misunderstood. But unless we step past that to an outstretched hand, we aren’t affecting change in anyone but ourselves. And when we are able to step beyond merely protecting our own right to be odd and wonderful to encouraging other people to express themselves too: well, that bravery is where heroes truly shine.
Somehow, when I was telling this story, I had forgotten about the actual power of story. When we graffiti our hearts, some of the overspray is bound to color other people’s hearts, too.
That’s a much better story.
I’d like to finish by thanking the people in this room for what you do. I remember a few years ago, I arrived at NCTE a day after it had already begun. I checked into the conference hotel, and stepped into the elevator. There was a couple already there, staying at the hotel — not for NCTE; they were just tourists. The dude turned to his partner and said, “There’s some kind of conference going on in this place. I don’t know what it’s for, but it’s got a great vibe.” His partner replied, “Oh, I saw somewhere that they were teachers.” And the dude nodded and said, “Yeah, that makes sense.” Thanks for being the kind of teachers that dude obviously had growing up. You’re all here because you care about the kinds of stories kids are going to tell themselves while in your charge.
Thank you for making heroes.