"Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does...Love is a growing-up."
- James Baldwin
During my first year at NYU, I signed up for a required creative workshop that happened to be a fiction writing class. The professor was a white guy in his late thirties - long and lean and vaguely disheveled - like a mix of ET-era Steven Spielberg and a King of Leon. He was smart and unassuming and he sometimes said things to me like, "This story is good, but also crazy."
He probably did some other introductory things to start the class, but the first thing I remember is him turning to the guy sitting next to me (an older man with a beard from Louisiana who gave me a strong Leonard Maltin vibe) and asking him to bring his favorite song - a song he loved - to play for us. He didn't explain why.
The next week, the bearded man brought in a CD of Audra McDonald singing Adam Guettel's "How Glory Goes." I sat in the tiny classroom with no windows that used to be someone's office and listened to the song fill it up and expand it until the room felt enormous and vaulted. When the song finished we were all quiet, partly because the song was beautiful, but mostly because that one song told us more than we ever thought we would know about the bearded man.
During the semester, the professor asked each of us for a song. He never gave a reason or commented on any of our song choices.* Once the week's song was finished, he just got on with class like nothing had happened. But looking back now, I think it was one of the most sage of all his lessons, perfect in its simplicity: The things you love say something about you, and taking time to identify them will make you a better writer. Or lawyer. Or architect. Or chef. Or property appraiser for the County of Los Angeles.
In young adult fiction, the most foundational of narrative concepts is coming-of-age. The stories we write are all in part or in whole about what it means to grow up. There isn't a uniform definition or timeline for this. We are, all of us, complex and intricate and forever changing, and discovering who we are is a full time, life-long job. But, for me, growing up is about learning what it means to belong in your life. Sometimes it seems so much easier now to see truths that felt a little out of focus when I was younger, and I think it's because part of that belonging is growing to know yourself and your passions - the things you love - as fully as possible.
When I start a new project, I make a list of movies that I love - movies that have stayed with me and resonated with me and held up to many, many repeat viewings. When I'm done, I look at the list and I write down all the connections I can see between the movies listed. Maybe they're all stories about unlikely relationships. Maybe they have bold visuals. Maybe they explore different kinds of desire. Maybe they're about characters whose identities are not easily defined. This list is my map - it shows me what I love, what light sources I'm drawn to and find myself growing toward, what weapons I use to arm myself to fight doubt, difficulty, disillusionment and hate.
Sometimes, I change it up. In tribute to my NYU professor, I make a list of favorite songs instead of movies. Sometimes I use books. Sometimes instead of all-time favorites, I make a list of things that I can't stop thinking about in that particular season. What are the questions I can't stop asking, the things I can't get out of my head? If that NYU fiction workshop were today, what song would I bring to share? Like us, the things we love are always growing, deepening, and changing, so taking the time to make these lists and answer these questions keeps me current and relevant and connected to the inspiration that will move me forward in a project. It makes my writing both more buoyant and more grounded - the way singers simultaneously anchor and launch their voices with the richness of breath.
But mostly, making these lists reminds me that I am a person who loves things. A person who can belong in her life, in her body, in her mind. The more rooted I am in that belonging, the more bold and still and true I can be in the work I do and the stories I choose to tell.