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On Writing a “Clean” Book

The bottom-side of my classroom desk was shingled in wads of old, chewed-up gum. The topside of the desk had cartoon illustrations of reproductive organs doing all of the things that reproductive organs tend to do. I’d put money on idea that the blossoming artist was a freshmen boy.

Do high school kids still do this? Or were these desk-e-crations (had to) isolated to Littleton, Colorado circa 1996?

Gen Z has far more compelling and far-reaching mediums for self-expression than sharpies and desks. Because of this, our kids are bombarded with more taboo words, images, and ideas than I ever had. Our kids also have more complicated choices. As parents all we can do is guide them through the muck the best we can.

When writing “Called Upon,” I decided to write it clean—meaning without profanities, illicit drug use, or sex-scenes. My reasoning for this was simple. Our kids deserve a little break from the heavy, oversexualized messages they receive every day on their phones and in the hallways at school.

But writing a clean book that is interesting and realistic is difficult to do because:

a) Sex is a relevant and interesting subject. Sex sells.

b) Teenagers swear. Sometimes they do drugs and mess around. Writing teens as if these are not their everyday issues can come across as inauthentic and doesn’t give teens enough credit for what deal with.

c) Sometimes I find that clean literature can get pretty cheesy, side-stepping important storylines because it is uncomfortable or unsavory.

d) I am sorry, but “Darn it” just doesn’t pack the punch of a solid “Damn it.” I, myself, enjoy an occasional, mild swear every here and again and I had to sit on my fingers to prevent myself from letting my characters do the same.

I find that the most successful clean books are the ones that I didn’t realize were clean until after I read it. This usually means that exclamations like “Oh my heck” and “Goodness gracious” are used sparingly. Plus, the romance has to be written so well that I didn’t notice that the love-birds didn’t consummate their relationship. Whether or not I did this successfully with “Called Upon” is up for discussion.

However, while avoiding explicit descriptions and vulgar word-choices, “Called Upon” does not skirt difficult issues. On the contrary, one of my main characters in an unwed teenage mother. If you find such a storyline problematic, “Called Upon” might not be for you.

Another trigger warning, “Called Upon” has a fair amount of violence and blood.

I do not glorify the hard issues—teen pregnancy, gun-violence, cyber-bullying—but I shine a light on them, hopefully causing the reader to think about problematic behaviors and their consequences, instead of pretending these issues do not exist.

What clean books have you read that did a good job with this balancing act?

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When filling out an author questionnaire about myself for my publisher, I was asked about previous published works, awards, and speaking engagements. Well, I won the poetry competition in fourth grade for Reflections and got to read it out loud in front of the parents, but that’s my main claim-to-fame. That poem was, admittedly, rad.

My successes in life are most often quiet and understated. I am a loving and silly mother. I am a loyal friend and a supportive spouse. I am not coordinated, but I am very athletic. I am kind. I like sharing my stuff. Yesterday, I killed a black widow by stepping on it. I have recently mastered touching my toes from the standing position. I have outstanding lips.

I am proud of myself for these things, but I don’t require a lot of outside recognition for them.

While filling out the questionnaire about myself, however, I was overwhelmed with how little I have done, at least things that seemed relevant in the publishing world. There is no master’s degree in snuggling. There are no awards for sharing my tomato harvest or delivering plates of cookies to my neighbors. My life, which is beautiful and fulfilling, does not look that impressive on paper.

What business do I have being an author when I have never been an author? Why would someone read my book if only have a few hundred followers on Instagram? What if no one but my mom buys my book? And what if people do buy my book, but they think it is lame and they give it two stars on Goodreads? What business do I have parading around like an author when the biggest speaking engagement I have ever had was at the pulpit at church.

I vacillate between euphoria at fulfilling a life-long dream to humiliation for the failure I have not yet had. I have spent hours over my laptop crying, overwhelmed, and feeling like a complete poser. I feel more vulnerable than I ever have.

I posted a pretty pathetic picture of myself, but I am not throwing a pity party (haha, well maybe a little bit). While my feelings are big, they are also good. I am doing something scary and hard and exciting. I am shooting my shot, and maybe I will fail, but maybe I will succeed.

Have you ever felt like an imposter? How did you overcome those feelings?

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The Scarcity Mentality

In Ryan D. Lee’s defense, the whole world had also gone crazy.

In fact, I bet if YOU opened your linen closet right now, this very second, an avalanche of stockpiled toilet paper would bury you within seconds. That’s right; I see you.

But, being that the Lees already had months of emergency toilet paper and food stored in our basement, I was a little surprised when the Amazon Prime truck dropped off five huge cases of Scott toilet paper. My surprise turned to alarm when I realized that these rolls were… uh… large. I mean, even Shaquille O’Neal would feel daunted by them.

“Ryan, what-did-you-DO?!”

“What do you mean?” he joined me at the open box and peered down inside. “Oh… well, that was unexpected.”

Ryan had been expecting five cases of regular human toilet paper, not five cases of Megalodon toilet paper (for the sake of accuracy, these were actually tightly wound industrial paper towels, which have since come in handy, surprisingly. Just not on our bottoms).

Even though we’d been prepared for the Toilet Paper Crisis of 2020, the mass pilgrimage to the grocery stores left us feeling worried. What if there was no TP at the store ever again? What would we do? How could we survive?

The reality was that there was plenty of toilet paper in the world for everyone. And even if there wasn’t enough, it would be okay. We would innovate.However, it FELT like a major crisis. We were in scarcity. The more toilet paper other people had, the less confident we felt in our own supply. That’s when Ryan ordered “the rolls.”

We humans are predisposed to this scarcity mindset. We worry that the more someone else has, the less we will have. This is why we feel threatened by people who have money, cool talents, and own their own bidets.

“How can I be skinny when she is so much skinnier?”“I thought MY car was cool, but look at the rims on THAT Tesla.”

“That person’s faith is so solid. Why do I waver? What is wrong with me?”

This comparison game is brutal. We all do it.This new generation of teenagers plays an especially viscous match. Imagine dealing with all the typical teenage insecurities but adding social media into the mix. It would be like sinking chest-deep in quicksand and then someone handing you an iPad.

When I see those Junior High kids standing on the corner waiting for the school bus, being loud and obnoxious and toting their smartphones and Hydroflasks, my heart squeezes in my chest. These kids are fighting a billion battles a day, putting each other down, puffing their chests outward, trying to hoard all of the “coolness” because it feels like there is not enough to go around.

There is enough, kiddos! There is more than enough. You are enough.

My many years (LOL) have taught me that the less I compare myself to others, the less chance I have of suffocating in an avalanche of metaphorical toilet paper. When I celebrate others for their successes and celebrate myself for mine—not balancing the two on opposing sides of a scale—I find that I like everyone, especially myself, much better!

Ryan and I preach this concept to our kiddos every day, but we know they will only internalize this lesson when they get pummeled a little by the “scarcity” game. So I write them books with characters dealing with the same stuff, pray like it is nobody’s business, and love those little monsters unconditionally.

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The Art of Outside

I call panic attacks “Hulking.” If you have experienced a panic attack, you know why. When your anxiety is sky-high, your body produces adrenaline meant to give you super speed or mega strength if you need to run or fight. The result is a racing heart, labored breathing, nonsensical thoughts, stomach unrest, and every other badness that you could possibly imagine. You feel painfully out of control, like you are becoming a huge green monster.

I developed a hulking disorder a few years back. It was not a case of the blues, stress, or just anxiety. It was full blown panic ragers, one on top of the next, hours, then days, then weeks. I went for almost a week of zero sleep. I tried every western and eastern therapy and remedy available, and I’ll tell you what, some of that shiz got weird. But none of them could shrink me down to my rational, normal self. It was excruciating.

One thing I discussed with my mother-in-law/therapist is that once you are hulking, you can’t fight it. In fact, fighting panic is a sure way to give it wings. The best thing to do is to breathe and wait it out, engaging in calming and semi-distracting activities.

I finally found some relief in the dirt. Literally, the dirt. Somehow, in the early hours of the morning, while running my hands through the cold damp earth, my heart rate slowed. I could finally catch my breath, cry, and feel real emotions other than panic and fear. My garden became a gateway to healing.

I haven’t gone full-hulk in several years, a feat achieved at least an hour of outside time a day (and a little friend named Zoloft). My garden is my sanctuary, but really, any outside activity–preferably surrounded by mountains–will do the trick. Hiking, mountain biking, skiing, rain-smelling, porch-sitting… it is all medicine for my soul. Being outside grounds me in the present moment. Because, almost always, in the present moment everything is okay.

The mountains were a natural backdrop for my book, Called Upon, because I love them, but also because the mountains are a place of worship and revelation. The mountains area a place of healing and a fountain of peace. My girl, Kaitlin certainly finds healing there. And trouble. Plenty of trouble too. But between healing and trouble, she really finds her complete self there.

Like me.