I can’t pretend with any degree of seriousness that I’m interviewing myself by coming up with clever questions and intelligent answers as other writers do for their Q&A pages. So here’s the lowdown on what’s going on writing-wise.
The bullying prevention work has been all-consuming. It’s thrilling to hear educators say that they love the program and that it is doing a world of good for their students. And nothing is more fun than going into a classroom to talk to the kids and being, as far as I can tell, the first adult they talk to who actually understands their problem and how they want adults to work with them to solve it.
But there is still much to do to change the public’s understanding of the problem around bullying and educate them on the solution. As my friend Izzy Kalman, a bullying prevention researcher and program critic, has pointed out, the world became consumed by the punishment approach to bullying prevention after the Columbine tragedy in 1999. Zero Tolerance and laws against bullying are the result of this mindset. Both of these, of course, have been proven to be ineffective, if not counterproductive, in stopping bullying. Educators who try to police student populations and attempt to stop normal and natural aggressive social interactions, most of which are harmless, are just swimming against a very fast, powerful, and unrelenting current. And bullying prevention programs built on this approach have done, in my opinion, more harm than good, both in failing the students they were intended to help and conditioning much of the world to respond to bullying using tactics that ignore basic psychology and invariably make the problem worse. And now it seems that educators are completely burned out from trying the latest and greatest programs that all deliver the same dismal results. Programs and approaches that try to police student populations, stop natural and normal social behavior, and have, at their core, punitive consequences for aggressors, are just not going to work.
The simple way that I describe the problem to principals is this:
If a principal talks to a target and an aggressor about a bullying problem, and the target says, “He’s bullying me” and the aggressor responds, “No I’m not!”, who’s right? They both are. And if the principal decides to punish the aggressor for his behavior toward the target, who suffers an injustice? They both do. And now the principal has an even bigger problem on his or her hands and one that is even harder to solve.
That in a nutshell is the problem with traditional approaches to dealing with bullying in schools.
My job will be to keep writing about this topic, to keep working with schools and students, and to keep up the hope that educators will start to get it and, most critically, that students will finally start getting the help and support they need to solve bullying problems and avoid the lifelong scarring and emotional issues it can cause. Every child deserves a chance to have a socially positive school experience and to develop into the happiest and most confident and well-adjusted young adult that he or she can be. So I have a whole list of blog topics planned based on my work with students and educators in schools; I’m updating and expanding the program materials; and I see a point in the not-too-distant future where my writing on this topic will be largely complete and I can focus my effort on advocacy.
I sit writing this on the last day of March 2017, knowing there is a looming deadline coming that I am about to blow. Last year I committed to someone—I’m not sure how to describe him; he’s a boy I met at a school years ago where I spoke about Bitopia who really, really liked the book and has since been helping me with every book I write by providing feedback, and who, by now, is most certainly a young man. We met only that once but have corresponded many times over the years, the old-fashioned way, with actual handwritten letters (though we do communicate via email through his mother). So I had committed (in writing) to starting, on April 1, 2017, a new fantasy trilogy based on the very first novel I ever wrote. Given how much this young man had liked Bitopia, I had retrieved the manuscript from a box in the attic and let him read it. I was relieved when he thought it worth using as the basis for a new book.
What is the holdup? I’m just about finished revising the third novel I wrote, about a young counseling psychologist who tries to help a man who had a severe breakdown at work and who comes to realize at the end that he himself is on the same trajectory as his patient. By gaining an understanding of his patient’s life, he learns about his own, and the decisions he will face by the end of the book, based on this knowledge, will change his life forever. (I know, that’s not book-jacket-copy-ready quite yet, but it’s the general idea.)
The good news is that book is almost finished. Just a few sections to rewrite or cut, a few story threads to reweave or snip. (So please give me a few more weeks, Derek, and then we’ll begin.) As I mentioned, the fantasy trilogy will be based on an old manuscript that I produced just before the first Harry Potter book hit the scene. The book made its way to two NY agencies and was conditionally accepted by one; however, on the advice of a family friend who was also a literary attorney, whose son read the manuscript and declared it “the best book he ever read, after Harry Potter,” I passed on the offer, certain in the friend's confidence that the next agency would accept it unconditionally, a decision that ultimately led to the pages winding up consigned to the aforementioned box.
The new trilogy is not going to be pure fantasy; while I love escapist stories, to me there are too many problems in this world that need to be addressed to spend a year or so producing something for mere entertainment. I hope to write something meaningful, as close to as inventive and richly imagined as the Harry Potter stories (I will never reach that level, but every writer should aim for that bar), and as detailed and expansive as Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, one of my favorite books. I actually hope this story will be a Pillars of the Earth for young adults. I started work on the rewrite a few years ago before the bullying work took me down a side track; I can’t wait to return to the main line.
I have a number of other books on the docket, and as I get older I keep looking ahead up the road to see if there is enough pavement left for me to get them done. Right before I was asked to create what became the CirclePoint program, I had started sketching out and writing scenes to a novel about a boy living in the future, where climate change has wreaked subtle havoc (a fair description of climate change; it’s not a Mad-Max dystopian landscape of brutality and desperation but rather where people live, on the surface, as they do today but are forced to adapt all they do to the changing environment). As an exercise in plotting, I wrote a religious-themed mystery novel years ago about an art historian and his nephew on the trail of an ancient relic that the God of the Old Testament does not want them to find; the book has sat long enough and just needs a fast revision to make it reader-ready. And I still wake up every morning and step into the bathroom where photos from a trip to eastern Poland adorn the wall, a journey my wife and I took to explore the setting for a planned book, also outlined with sketches, about a Jewish family that flees Warsaw during the Ghetto Uprising during World War II.
As I sit writing this, my mind is flooded with scenes from these unwritten books and images of characters who are so real to me but are only alive in my imagination, who are just patiently waiting until I can bring them to life and set them free through the pages of a book. I’m almost afraid to admit it, but these imaginary people, more than anyone who exists in the real world, drive my daily thoughts, organize my work, and have been influencing my life’s direction for the past twenty-plus years. Only when I finally set them free will I feel that my work is complete and I’ll be ready to reach the end of the road.
Oh yeah, and my favorite color is green.