How “Lady Bird” inspires me to keep writing “unlikable” semi-autobiographical characters

(Note: Spoiler-wise, I don’t think there’s anything here that isn’t referenced in a trailer or review of Lady Bird. Let me know if this ends up not being the case and I will happily edit the post.)

I’ve written five novels, three of which feature high school-age girls navigating life, the inevitability of change, and the tumults of coming of age. The first time I workshopped a few chapters of one of them, my peers’ main feedback was that they didn’t like my protagonist. She was realistic, they said, but also annoying, uncaring, and most of all, “unlikable.” Inevitably, I’d reveal that this character was semi-autobiographical, based on myself in high school, and half my workshop would stare blankly, and at least one person would apologize.

This comment didn’t really bother me, all things considered. I didn’t need the apology. I know that in high school, especially, I could come off as possessing any of these three characteristics. This criticism wasn’t reflective of me now, but more likely the way I wrote her. However, as I’ve recently learned, a big reason for not being able to write unlikable yet relatable characters to the standard I wanted was that I’m not Greta Gerwig, the writer-director of Lady Bird.

In trying to cram all the good things I’d like to say about this film into a spoiler-free paragraph that will provide context for what I’m about to discuss, here’s what I’ve got: It’s incredibly well-written, but not forced. There’s no “how do you do, fellow kids?” about it; the teenagers sound like teenagers. It’s fast-paced, but each scene feels entirely fleshed out and also necessary, even the ones that are only a few seconds long. The characters and settings and storylines alike are given the right amount of attention for the story that’s being told.

Music⚡️Band 4 lyfe.

My main impression, though, was something I was instantly convinced of while watching for the first time, that I ever-so-eloquently put into words upon exiting the theater: Gosh, this is so real.

And the basic “real”-ness of Lady Bird is no coincidence. Reading about Gerwig, I learned about the similarities she shares with the titular character: they both grew up in Sacramento with a nurse for a mother, they both went to all-girls Catholic high schools, they both attended college in New York City. And then I read this quote of hers in a Rolling Stone article about the film:

“Writing this character was an exploration of all these things I didn’t have access to or I couldn’t be. In that way, it almost felt like this fairy-tale invention of a deeply flawed heroine, but one who I admire. I think she shows courage and a lot of character even when she’s flailing.”

Reading this is when it clicked: Lady Bird is the young-adult novel—and more importantly, the protagonist—that I’ve always wanted to write.

Can I also say that it’s the first time EVER that a film protagonist has shared my name and I haven’t recoiled in horror by the end?

I don’t exactly have escapism fantasies of returning to my senior year of high school. But in all of my novel-length works that feature teenagers, I’ve based characters, places, and even conversations on my own experiences. For example, as a 17-year-old, I didn’t think that I could get into a college in New York City, so I sent a character to a small liberal arts college in Vermont that mirrors where I first ended up, Gonzaga University. If I write a best friend character, she’s almost certainly based on one or two of my actual closest friends from that time—that way, I can draw upon our most naïve conversations, our most trivial arguments, and our overall friendship dynamic (how often did we see each other? were we huggers? did we mostly hang out right after school or plan activities for the weekend? and so on).

And it’s not that I can’t write “original” characters or scenarios. In fact, seemingly like Gerwig, I use my own experiences to set the tone for my stories, whether it’s a small town like the one I grew up in or a “borrowed” character or two, before introducing new ideas. To me, this kind of freedom isn’t restricted by the limitations of place or people I’ve set, but is in fact made wider by my extensive knowledge of the universe I’ve established. Being able to draw from my own life in order to tweak a scene or a line of dialogue and make it more authentic is a fantastic privilege.

I can’t describe well enough how empowered I felt after each time I saw Lady Bird. Here’s a writer-director who’s come up with a character, and a mother-daughter duo, who cycle between BFF-style bonding and familial bickering in the way that only mothers and daughters can, but who, more than that, are allowed to be as “unlikable” as they want. My favorite part is that what Gerwig has accomplished with Lady Bird and her mother has spurred reactions online ranging from enthusiastic relatability to abject annoyance. Which, not to compare the execution but rather the basic content, is pretty much how my own foray into the young adult genre has gone. My main shortcoming, though, is not letting my characters know well enough that they can be wholly unapologetic about their real-life qualities. Just because it’s fiction doesn’t mean it has to be fake.

Worth it.

Finally, I’d like to talk about the reason I’ve seen Lady Bird five times in the theater (as evidenced by the above photo). And best way (or at least, the way I’ve chosen) to do this is to list my general thoughts going into each viewing:

  • 1: My sister said I’d like this. I’m a big fan of Saoirse Ronan. It got good reviews. Why not?
  • 2: My husband MUST see this movie, and I enjoyed it so I won’t mind seeing it a second time.
  • 3: I’ve decided I want to write something about this lovely, lovely movie. But what? (Here’s where I realize that it’s very much like a young adult novel.)
  • 4: No, seriously, what? (Worth mentioning: this is the first viewing where I cried almost all the way through. I knew all the jokes and the emotional moments and what happened and whose performances would affect me, and it all hit me at once.)
  • 5: Here’s what I want to write about. Here’s how I want to view the film this time around; what I want to get out of it. And look, it’s only $6.

A fifth viewing may have solidified the topic I’ve chosen for this particular writing, but it still only scratches the surface of my attempt to learn more about and begin to emulate everything I love about this film, this script. I want to nail Lady Bird’s voice in my own characters. I want to learn to balance the unlikability of teenage characters with their (nostalgic) relatability. I want to balance how high schoolers present themselves with how they think, how the things that they never tell anyone influence how they see the world. I want to be able to write a mother-daughter relationship that takes the inherent volatility, love, and “like” and makes it feel effortlessly real.

It’s always been somewhat therapeutic for me to almost “rewrite” my teenage years through my characters, whether it’s working out a part of my personality that I was never able to figure out then by finally putting it into words, or so pettily finally getting to say what I wanted to say in a ten-year-old argument with a friend that hasn’t left my memories. But now, thanks to Lady Bird, I have a new wish for my future as a writer: I hope that I can develop the confidence and the skill to have my own characters reach out to others in the way that Lady Bird‘s have to me. As long as they’re well-written, then the more unlikable, the better.

All Lady Bird screencaps come from the trailer, which can be found here.


I’m publishing a book! And another one!

In 2015, I wrote a young adult novel called Bright Eyes during National Novel Writing Month. In 2016, I wrote its sequel, When Light Falls.

After months (and in the case of Bright Eyes, almost two years) of stressing about whether they were good, stressing about whether I should consider showing them to anyone, and stressing when I finally did, I’m happy to share that I’ve decided to self-publish both books!

I need to say right away that none of this would be possible without the wonderful Casey Baumberger, who I profiled in December as she prepared to self-published her own NaNoWriMo novel, Breaking the Pocket. Getting to speak to her about her process and her motivations for self-publishing was what made me consider following her lead, and I’m so, so incredibly grateful for her cooperation (and her support, as she’s one of a handful of people who’s read a Bright Eyes draft!).

At this point, I’m not sure what the publishing schedule will look like. I’d love to get Bright Eyes out by the end of 2017, but that will depend on a few things I can’t put on a timeline just yet, including editing time (shoutout to Macy Griffin for offering to be my first copy editor). After Bright Eyes goes out, I envision When Light Falls following it in a few months, if not sooner.

Now that I’ve finished rambling – but, really, thank you to everyone I’ve mentioned, as well as the dozen or so people in my acknowledgments section so far – I’d like to show you the synopses I wrote for both books during their respective NaNoWriMos (I’ve very vaguely tweaked the When Light Falls synopsis to avoid minor spoilers, FYI):

Bright Eyes:

Emily has just graduated from high school and is moving across the country to start college in the fall. But before she can leave her hometown behind, she has to spend her summer contending with Alexa, her longtime best friend who is suddenly maturing way faster than she is, her parents who own a business together and can’t stop bickering, a boy that she’d never thought about like that until recently, and Kelsey, her mysterious soon-to-be roommate who refuses to divulge much about herself in their e-mails to one another. When Emily makes a chance excursion to Kelsey’s hometown a month before they are due to move into the dorms, Emily finds out why Kelsey has been keeping her personal life to herself – and Emily isn’t so sure she can deal with what she learns.

When Light Falls:

The beginning of college has come and gone, and Emily is settling into life with her new roommate, Kelsey. While she thought they could be the best of friends – or at least, pretty good ones – Emily is finding that sometimes in college, the people you go in knowing aren’t always the ones you’re closest with. Can Emily make new friends so far from home, or will her college choice lead her to lose more than she thought she’d gain?

Meanwhile, Kelsey is having a rough time at college, but she’d never admit that to anyone. Even though she has more time to herself now that she doesn’t have to co-parent her three younger siblings, she’s learning that free time can lead to making some questionable decisions if you’re living life by your standards for the first time. As Kelsey sinks deeper into a dangerous life she never imagined herself living, she grows more jealous that her roommate seems to have it all together and wonders if going to college, even to get the education she needs for her dream job, was the best idea.

Thanks again for everyone who’s supported me so far, and I can’t wait to share these with you!

100 Things: Redux (21-40)

Welcome to part 2 of “This 25-year-old revisited her teen years. What she discovered about herself will shock you.” [ Part 1 ]

  1. Parallel parking PERFECTLY (on the 1st try!)
    I’m fairly confident this has never happened to me before.
  2. Powerpoints printed as worksheets
    Still true. However, I originally wrote this question when I had the convenience of “free” (that is, entirely covered by my private school tuition) printing, and I don’t have that anymore. I also prefer to print the slides to take notes when they’re posted before the class, and I’ve only had one professor at Iowa State who’s done that.
  3. Gay rights!
    Good lord, this is embarrassing. I was Jennifer Lawrence before Jennifer Lawrence was Jennifer Lawrence (and I’m older than her, so I can say that). To be clear, I’m not reacting this way because I don’t still enjoy “gay rights,” but that phrasing is so, so painfully shallow.
  4. Apples to Apples
    My first experience with Apples to Apples was actually more about my reluctance to play Apples to Apples when I was hospitalized for mental health issues. Every night on the ward, some group of people would be playing Apples to goddamn Apples and even though I knew it was an open-invitation thing I was still too worried about being rejected to join in. Then I learned it’s actually much more fun to play with people you know, and that’s why it ended up on this list.
  5. Psychology
    Every so often I think about what having a college degree in something means. Purportedly you’ve devoted a significant amount of studying to it, have developed relationships with people in the field, and you could conceivably be considered an expert in it. I don’t really feel like this. My grad school letters of recommendation were written by professors in the rehab & counseling education department (one of my two “second concentrations”) and while I feel like I have an understanding of scientific study design, basic psychological principles, and maybe a few tidbits I can regurgitate to impress people at parties, it still baffles me that I possess a piece of paper recognizing my efforts in psychology.
  6. Professors that are 100% badass
    I know exactly which professor I had on my mind when I added this item, and he wasn’t “badass” in the sense that most people probably use the word. He was a sort of understated, acquired taste-type badass. Sometimes – he never made it a “thing” – he’d have a YouTube video of a Joy Division song or something, and it was clear he was just showing it to us because he wanted to listen to some Joy Division. He was a history professor, and his lectures consisted of him standing in front of the class and talking about whatever was next on the syllabus, no PowerPoint or anything. It was hard to tell if he planned what he was going to talk about, because he was clearly so knowledgeable about history that it felt like he was just casually telling us about each topic. And I learned a lot! I almost added a history minor because of the classes I took with him. He also let me take a midterm late because my depression kept me from coming in on the scheduled exam date, which was nice of him.
  7. Apple crisp
    I made apple crisp for the first time ever about a year ago. It’s still one of my favorite things in the world.
  8. Sneaking outside food into movie theaters
    I didn’t do this at all until high school. When my friends and I would see a movie, we’d generally eat at the Mary’s Pizza Shack across the street, then walk to the gas station next to the theater and buy bags and bags of $1 candy, then unassumingly walk into the theater with our bounty. I doubt that theater would let us get away with that now.
  9. Harry Potter
    If I were to really go into this, it would warrant a post of its own. I have a story for every book, a story for every movie, and even some Stern Thoughts about how disappointing Pottermore ended up being for all the hype it got. It’s genius, it’s problematic, and it would absolutely be on my “100 happy things” list today.
  10. iChat emoticons :)
    I grew up a Mac user, and even after upgrading to OS X, I’d use the regular AIM client instead of iChat. I think I may have preferred the authenticity that came with seeing people’s screen names and custom fonts, as opposed to iChat’s first name/last name buddy lists and customizable-only-insofar-as-other-Apple-users fonts and colors. But when I first got my own Macbook Pro before starting college, it was iChat all the way. And I guess the emoticons were just strange enough to be cool, or something deep-sounding like that.

  11. Finishing a really long book
    I’m awful at remembering book titles and even plots unless they really stuck with me, so I can’t remember what book(s) I might have been talking about here. I assume either something by Italo Calvino or maybe W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, which I may have finished by the time I wrote my original list. Or maybe I was just thinking of a 500-page young adult novel that wasn’t great so much as it was long. That is a satisfying feeling, though, especially when you close a hardcover book and it makes that satisfying thunk.
  12. Reading outside in the sun
    When did I ever do this? I know for a fact I stopped going outside as soon as I discovered the Internet.
  13. Hugging people who smell nice
    I was thinking of a specific person when I wrote this. We don’t talk anymore.
  14. Pokémon
    My 2007 high school music department trip to Anaheim was all Pokémon, all the time. Pearl and Diamond had just come out for DS, and I was the only person who had Pearl, so everyone else with Diamond wanted to trade version-specific Pokémon with me to complete our Pokédexes, and the person I alluded to in #33 helped me beat the game that weekend, and, and, and.
  15. Finding old photos of myself I don’t remember taking
    I have Photobucket accounts filled with hundreds photos dating back to 2004, so this happens quite a bit whenever I remember my old passwords and feel like logging into them. And because I’d be an awful, unkind person if I didn’t share at least one, here you go (it’s probably from around the time I wrote the original “100 things” list – note the Rockstar can collection in the background):
  16. The way I make my lowercase “F”s
    Here’s a good example from my original, handwritten list. I just enjoy how clean they look. (And yes, I do dot my “I”s now.)
  17. Alan Zweibel
    I started watching the Late Show with David Letterman every night when I was a junior or senior in high school (but only during the summers – I was asleep by 9:30 on school nights). Alan Zweibel was on one night talking about his novel, The Other Shulman, which ended up being quite good. Here’s the video from his appearance:
  18. Teen lit that’s actually quality literature
    Today, there are a bevy of articles with a title similar to (or exactly) “In Defense of Reading Young Adult Fiction.” I’m not going to link to any of them, but just know they’re there. I think my view on this has changed quite a bit since I wrote this in 2010, because I think I was trying to “cover up” (in a sense) my love of YA when I didn’t really need to. Some “regular” literature is great and some is terrible, and the same is true of YA. I still read a ton of YA, and some of it is great, and some of it is terrible. But it’s not inherently worse because it’s YA. That’s all.
  19. My nostalgia drawer
    I know of two different drawers this could be, and thinking of either of them is not stirring any nostalgia. Sad!
  20. When things just make sense
    Deep, 19-year-old Christine. Very deep.