on poetry and shyness and the way i wish i were… by Kat Yeh
I’ve been thinking about poetry a lot, lately.
The main character of my second novel and current work-in-progress is a shy twelve year-old poet. I was once a shy twelve year-old poet, myself. It is a few decades later and I am a shy poet still.
When I was nine, my mother bought me a little green diary and I vowed to write a poem a day, all year long. I still smile in memory of What Did You See in the Fog Tonight? And laughingly cringe thinking of Shampoo a Kangaroo in the Zoo. For me, poetry was a way to express my inside voice. The voice I was often too shy to let out into the world. The one that liked to play with words and make them curl or hang or just sit still.
More recently, poetry was a way I explained myself to a new friend.
During Book Expo America, I had lunch with a woman who is a wonderful author, editor, literacy advocate, and so much more. For someone who is maybe 5′ 2″, she is pretty intimidating. Earlier this year, we had both taken the same flight from JFK to Austin to attend the annual TxLA conference. I had seen her board the plane from a distance and became overwhelmed with a sudden shyness — and, though this was someone I had always wanted to meet, I couldn’t quite walk up and say Hello. I made a promise that I would at least introduce myself to her later. Since we are both Little, Brown authors, I made sure that I sat next to her at the company dinner and we ended up talking the entire evening. We made plans to meet when we both got back to New York and this turned into the lunch during BEA.
Over Greek food, we discussed our early careers in the ’80s and I mentioned how hard entering the workforce had been for me — particularly with how shy I am. She looked at me and said, “But you’re not shy…”
And where I usually would protest and explain how shy I truly am, I found myself, instead, telling her about a line of poetry written by that shy 12 year-old protagonist from my second novel:
if i act
i wish i were
am i still acting
She is trying to figure out how she fits into the world and how to deal with the helpless feeling of not being who she wants to be on the outside — as everything around her changes. This particular line is actually part of a poem I wrote years ago when I was a teen myself. I think of how I longed to reinvent myself then. And still do, I suppose. Haven’t we all had that fantasy at different points in our lives? The new school year. A new home. Even a new book.
Reinvention has always fascinated me and is a topic I explored in my first middle grade novel, THE TRUTH ABOUT TWINKIE PIE. After winning $1 million in a cooking contest, sisters DiDi and GiGi start their lives over. And 12 year-old GiGi boldly decides to reinvent herself.
I have never won $1 million, but it was not hard to put myself into this story. It was such an appealing concept for me to write about and I was immediately deep into the emotions of a young girl willing to risk being what she had always hoped to be.
Could “acting the way I wish I were” really result in “becoming”? It is a question I asked myself as a young poet. And I think that I finally have the beginning of an answer.
I have always been an avid and obsessive reader, escaping into the books around me and living the lives of their protagonists. Every book was a chance to see and experience different ways to live. And to be.
If I was not brave in real life, I could be Lucy Pevensie and go into battle against the White Witch.
If the idea of sending a story out to be published seemed impossible, I could be Jo March, knocking on the door of a publishing house with a handwritten manuscript tied up in a ribbon.
If I was afraid to push ahead, unsure if I really had inside me what I hoped I did, I could feel what it was like to be Schmendrick the Magician the moment his true talent filled him for the first time.
And isn’t that how change happens?
By first wishing for something.
And then acting upon it?
Doesn’t this make reading and writing potential catalysts to becoming whatever it is we want? I love the idea of encouraging this in our next generation. I think of librarians I’ve met who open the doors wide for readers. Letting them see worlds outside their own where things can and do work out differently. I think of teachers who encourage creativity in writers. Giving them an invitation to create their own unique paths through these worlds. Discovering the ways of Becoming. And finding those ways through books and paper and pen.
I have been reading and writing my whole life.
I have been thinking about the ways I wish I were.
And…I have been acting.
Acting like I could change the recipe of my life and make it into whatever I want. Acting as if writing a second novel is not scaring the pants off of me. Acting as if I’m not that same shy poet anymore.
I have been acting and acting and acting.
Which means, maybe, I have been becoming a little bit, too.
Kat Yeh grew up reading, doodling, and scribbling in Westtown, Pennsylvania. She worked for many years in advertising and sports marketing, while writing children’s books in the wee hours of the night. She currently lives on Long Island where she can see water every day and explore all the bay and harbor beaches with her family. You can find her online at katyeh.com .
The Truth About Twinkie Pie (Little, Brown 2015) is her debut novel.