As a developmental editor and literary consulant, I work with a lot of aspiring writers. And aspiring writers are often a mess, let me tell you. I know that some of the no-no’s they commit simply stem from not knowing any better, but some things they do make me want to throw their stories into the burning pits of Hell. These mistakes generally have little to do with grammar or plot. I do have peeves related to those too, but I can work with you if those are your only issues.
If you are an aspiring writer, try to avoid these mistakes:
This is the worst writing sin that you can ever commit. If you are a writer, then you are also a reader. I can tell if you don’t read. It’s very obvious.
Recently a piece came across my desk, and I just knew its writer didn’t read. I felt sure that he had never read anything other than the signs on the road. His whole novel was written in all caps, bold, and italics. Not to mention that almost every single word was misspelled – but that’s a grammar issue, and I’ll deal.
I asked this writer why on earth he thought that this formatting was okay. He didn’t have an answer. So I pushed further.
“Who are your writing inspirations?” I asked.
“I don’t have any,” he replied. “I don’t really read. I just had this idea in my head.”
Let me say it again: if you write, you must read. If you aren’t a reader, then you can’t be a writer. This is the #1 rule of writing: Read first, then write.
Not taking criticism
I try to be polite and not directly tell people their work sucks. I really do. I’m kind of a give-it-to-you-like-it-is girl, but I understand that being a first-time writer is hard, so I am nice. I don’t come right out and say it sucks, even though it probably does. But that’s why you’ve sought me out, right? You want to get better.
It’s hard for me to be nice, trust me. So when I tell you that your story needs some work, please be nice back to me and don’t flip out.
Flipping out usually comes in one of two ways:
You’ve never had anyone other than your mother look at your work before, but you feel you have written the next Twilight because she said your work was great.
Narcissism. Writers don’t have time for it. This industry is cutthroat. You hear of a story now and then about someone like Stephenie Meyer who just sends one copy of her book to one big-name agency and voila, it’s a bestseller. Oh, wait, that’s the only story I know like that. It doesn’t happen. Your mother is not a good critic, which is why you have come to me. I don’t love you or care about your feelings.
Willful Ignorance of writing basics
Not knowing the difference between an outline/background/summary and an actual story
Okay, this one is a little bit of a grammar issue, but it’s tied so closely with the other bad habits that I must mention it. This is the problem that I often see with narcissistic writers, suicidal writers, writers who don’t read, and writers who don’t write. In fact, I see it in almost all of them. (Non-readers being the worst, though.)
I get lots of manuscripts across my desk that the writers claim are finished, but all I see in front of me is a summary/outline/background for a story. It takes me hours to just force myself to sit down and read what is going on. They read like this: “MC did this, and then she thought this, and then she did this, and then this happened.”
There are several problems that go into this. First off, 97% of the time, books are written in past tense. Unless you are a literary genius, don’t use present. It makes the book sound like a summary. Problem two: not using dialogue. How can you have an entire novel without one line of dialogue? These books have no scenes, no dramatic presence, very little drama, and I don’t care a flip about anyone and anything happening in the book. There is nothing other than description going on. Books aren’t descriptions of what is going on; books are lively, make you cry and laugh, throw the book across the room because you hate a character so much, pieces of art.
Willful Ignorance of publishing
Will you write/edit/polish my query for an agent even though I haven’t written more than the first ten pages of the story? (Because that’s all agents require, right?)
So far your query letter looks good, which means that you have Googled how to write a query letter. And I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that those pages you Googled gave you a certain piece of advice. The #1 rule for new authors about querying agents: have your manuscript finished. So I assume you must think that you are the exception. But, honey, you aren’t. Stephen King wasn’t the exception either. For fiction, you must, must, must (can I say it again?), must have your manuscript finished and polished to the best of your ability before sending it to an agent. I’m not going to help you query an agent if you haven’t finished your book. It really is a waste of my time.
Now, if you are an Important Person, someone with a following, platform, etc., and you want to write a non-fiction book, that’s a different deal.
Being a writer without writing
I’m a writer…but I’ve never finished a writing project before.
This one usually goes along with asking me to write a query for an unfinished book. Having an agent doesn’t make you a writer. Writing a book makes you a writer. Or a short story. Or an article. Go finish something. Once that is finished, go finish something longer.
And the unfortunate part of this: I get job applications for ghostwriters who haven’t completed a full-length book. My ghostwriting company (www.theghostwriting agency.com) only works on full length works. It says that upfront on the website. I don’t do blogs or content. My ghostwriters are expected, if necessary, to complete a full length rough draft in 1-2 weeks. If you haven’t been able to complete a full-length work in your 10-year writing career, what makes you believe you can do one in 10 weeks?
My family has been immigrants and nomads for centuries, preferring to be identified by a set of beliefs, principles, and morals rather than by any country. The furthest we can trace this pattern back is to a man named Peter De Tringham, who lived in Northern France in the 16th century. Peter, a Huguenot, which is a French Protestant, fled to the Netherlands with his family after their village was burn down by Catholics. They decided to drop the De and became Trigham. In the late 19th century My great, great, great grandfather Tringham decided to seek a better life in America, following his brother to West Michigan.
Upon Entry at Ellis Island, my ancestor could not find his brother, who was to vouch for him and thus allow entry to the United States. That’s how immigration worked for Europeans at that time period: You showed up on ship, presented yourself at the port of entry, and had someone vouch for you. It looked like Mr. Tringham wouldn’t be able to enter, but somehow he did. I’m not sure how.
Did his brother eventually show up? Did his brother send a letter? Did he just disappear into a crowd and sneak in? Or perhaps, he was vouched for by another immigrant? Often immigrants of various nationalities would stand waiting on the docks to vouch for other immigrants from their homelands.
Eventually, Mr. Tringham made it in to the US and a transcription error turned him from Tringham to Stringham, my maiden name. He eventually had a son named Harry, who married a woman named Bertha, and became a homeless, alcoholic bum. His son, Harry Newton, grew up to be a kind-hearted workaholic, who died at an early age from a heart attack, leaving behind his wife, Wilhelmina, who had her own personal immigration story, to raise my sweet, poetic 14-year-old grandfather, my feisty, stubborn 16-year-old great aunt Phyllis, and 19-year-old Navy recruit Bob, who sadly went the way of his grandfather.
Unlike her husband, Wilhelmina herself was a Dutch immigrant. Her father – my great, great grandfather – Cornelius De Jong, fled famine and serfdom in the Dutch province of Groningen. He worked and saved and eventually sent for his family to follow. My great, great grandmother packed up her starving, unemployed family onto a boat, and set sail for a life that included proper nutrition for her several children, including the youngest, my 4-year-old great grandmother called Mina.
Due to lack of proper nutrition, the unsanitary conditions on the boat, and lack of vaccinations, little Mina got sick. Very sick. And as was custom, the ship’s crew planned to throw the sick little girl overboard. Luckily for me, this is not where Wilhelmina’s story ended.
I have a nearly 4-year-old niece named Inola. She’s a sweet, spunky little princess with 3 older siblings who dote on her and fulfil her every wish. I imagine my sister, Maria, in my great, great grandmother’s wooden shoes, and how she would have turned into Wonder Woman, shouted SHIELD to her other children, and catapulted herself into the air, incinerating all those in front of her who would dare wrest her sweet child from her arms. You do not come between a mother and her children.
I don’t know what she did or said to keep her child, but it was an anomaly. Thousands of sick children were thrown overboard. Sometimes entire families would succumb to illness on the way. Little Mina made a full recovery, but her mother was not so lucky. Cornelius remarried a lovely woman, who saw all her step-children as her own and raised Wilhelmina to be a righteous, intelligent, and loyal woman.
What would cause my family to brave the rough journey across the ocean, knowing that many times most of the family would die on the way over? To leave everything they’d ever known? Parents. Siblings. Friends. To face down the great, gaping maw that swallowed so many other immigrants into its watery depths?
They were serfs, living at the discretion of the landowner, and when famine hit, the landowner’s generosity dried up like the land they owned.
While visiting Joop, I had a chance to visit Groningen, the province that sentenced my great grandmother’s family to starvation. Joop’s Opa, Bart, explained to me about these rich farmers, or Herenboeren – gentlemen farmers if you translate literally, but I feel there’s hardly anything gentlemanly in taking advantage of the poor – who just over a 100 year ago still had a feudal system intact, and how they ruled over the people that worked the land. The workers could leave, but where would they go? Another Herrenboeren? They could eat the food and use natural resources, as long as there was enough for the lavish lifestyle of these farmers.
I saw little Mina in those artificially raised hill towns called Terpendorp, playing with her one little doll, perhaps because she was the baby and the little princess of the family she was afforded the luxury of a toy. Maybe it was her older sister’s once upon a time. She was beyond lucky. Lucky her mother held onto her so tight, lucky she wasn’t taken from her mother, lucky she didn’t die, lucky she had a toy, lucky she got a good step-mother.
If it wasn’t for my great, great grandmother refusing to surrender her child, I wouldn’t be here today. If it wasn’t for Mr. Tringham presenting himself at a port of entry and grace being shown when all the papers weren’t in order, I wouldn’t be here.
I’m proud to be an American, but like Peter and Cornelius, by loyalties lie not with any country, king, or even president, but with a set of beliefs, principles, and morals higher than any man-made law. Here or there, America or the Netherlands, Europe or the Americas, Earth or Mars….it makes no difference.
If there’s one thing Americans are known for collectively, it’s our need for independence. We don’t like to be told what to do or having to conform to a set cultural standard. That’s made us both unique and full of variety, but also caused a lot of strife between us. And social media has turned that into a regular circus show.
I’m not sure we can even point to a true American food. Hamburgers? German. Tacos? Mexican. Meat and Potatoes? Pick your European country. Pizza? Italian. Black Eyed Peas and Collards? African Diaspora. Immigrants come with their food cultures and Americans bastardize it with chemicals and industrial processing. Sometimes we come up with awesome weird combinations: Hey, what happens if we mix Native American cornbread with German sausages and then deep fry it? Corndogs!
I guess if anything is American, it’s the deep fryer.
For those of you that know my family, we take the American credo of independence and variety to a whole different level. Most families in the US are somewhat homogeneous. It’s up to the family to decide what they want to be, but that’s what they are. They’re a dance family or a church family, etc.
My family? Not so much.
My mom says our family’s motto is “Conformity is highly overrated.” She raised us to think for ourselves, questioned us if we did things similarly to her just because, and played devil’s advocate so well the devil is looking for employment elsewhere. For example, in the last presidential election, no more than 2 or 3 people voted for the same person. That means Trump, HRC, Johnson, Stein, write-in, and non-voters all sit at the same table together every week.
For those of us who spend most of our time in America, it’s easy to forget that what makes us unique, our variety, is a cultural decision that is not carried over pretty much anywhere else in the world. It’s especially hard for me as a contrarian raised by a contrarian.
Going to the Netherlands was an eye opener for me.
There certainly existed a set cultural standard for what it meant to be Dutch, from down to what you wore to what and when you ate.
So, if you’re going to ask me what I least like about the Netherlands, I think their (your) somewhat Stepford wives’ conformity was it.
This was best summed up by Joop’s mother, after days of trying to explain a certain cultural difference to her, which she was completely unable to grasp.* Her eventual response: “I don’t understand this whole cultural differences thing. There aren’t different cultures. There’s only one human culture!”
Joop of course groaned and said, “See, see! This is what I have to put up with! I want to move to America! I can do what I want there.”
With every cultural difference you come across, there are benefits and drawbacks. America's independence, if not tempered leads to isolation and possible implosion, while the Netherlands conformity can lead to stagnation. Take your pick. Or learn how to moderate your worse tendencies.
Like I said upfront, our desire for independence causes a lot of strife internally and getting laws passed that benefit everyone or are excepted by everyone is a pain. But if I want to, I can dye my hair rainbow, love a gay redneck, and wear nothing but plaid shirts and striped pants, and belong to an agnostic Muslim congregation, and I can find other people like me. I can eat paleo, or keto, or vegan. I can eat tacos every Tuesday, or even every day, or not at all.
Joop’s going vegetarian was not well accepted. Dutch eat meat and potatoes. They are very good quality and tasty meat and potatoes, but they are still meat and potatoes.
I basically brought a black uniform with me to the Netherlands. I still couldn’t completely wear Dutch clothes because I need color! But it was far more subdued that my average wardrobe. Walking into Joop’s school where everyone could where what they wanted, was like walking into an American school with school uniforms!
The positive side to this conformity is that the Dutch have much more of a sense of shared identity and therefore more social security. Joop said to me, if America really wanted to take care of healthcare, they would have to band together and decide that caring for everyone was the best.
My response: We do want to take care of anyone! It’s just we can’t decide the best way to do it!
Of course, for the Dutch, taking care of your people looks one way and one way only. Not so much in America. There are a million ways to take care of your people. I joke not.
Look at how we deal with healthcare: Religious healthshare groups, churches, workplace health insurance, family support, non-profit organizations in the millions, federal government insurance, state government insurance, free clinics, free dental buses, civic organizations…
I could continue.
It really can be a pain to track down all the programs for your needs, and sometimes as soon as you find it, it disappears. The red tape and bureaucracy needed to navigate this properly is financially infeasible. So people complain, and network, and join support groups, and give money to friends…until the correct help is found. Hopefully, before it’s too late.
It’s a mess and I have no ideas on how to fix it, or if it can even be fixed, or if we really even want it fixed.
All I know is Americans don’t like people telling them what to do and the Dutch don’t need to be told what to do because they already do it.
Anyway, that’s what I had the hardest time adjusting to there: Nobody told me what to do, but I was still expected to know and do it. Luckily, I had Joop. However, I still felt like I should have a sign on my back that said, "Sorry! Idiot American."
*If you're wondering what cultural difference I could never satisfactorily explain to Joop's mother: it was how no group of 25 American 4th graders would travel on foot a couple miles across the streets of Amsterdam with nothing but 1 teacher in the front and 1 parent in the back, in order to tend to their highly organized and identical garden plots. Now I given every American mother a heart attack and brought every American teach to tears...
Well, I’m back from my book tour and trip in the Netherlands and I’ve finally had time to process my thoughts about it. I’m not exactly a quick processor with most things. I have to let them sink into my subconscious and let it do the job for me. Then one morning I randomly wake up and have an epiphany. So bear with me through my long epiphany post.
It was amazing, and quite odd, seeing Joop in his home culture. I always knew Joop was European and Dutch, not an American, but between his expertise in language, which made him sounds like he was from some vaguely northern Midwest location, and his adaptability, it was easy to forget.
But, hearing him speaking Dutch 24/7, watching him hanging out with his Dutch friends, and the ease with which he, after indulging in several beers for the King’s birthday celebration, threw me on the back of his bicycle and sped through the narrow Dutch streets…well, they were never things I had seen him do before. I can hardly ride a bike while sober.
I also had to shift my role with him a little. I was no longer his mother, because his mother was there, and she, like him is Dutch. Joop had some intense anxiety about his two worlds colliding, i.e, his two mothers living under the same roof. At first, I couldn't understand the anxiety because we his mother and I have completely different styles of parenting, and most things...as time passed, I understood a little more. (Hint: we swapped stories and now both have a better picture of...things...)
So before I left, I resolved to myself that I was going to be Joop’s adult friend visiting. And honestly, switching that role was easier than I thought. Partially because the Dutch mom is way more momish than me. For instance, I was not allowed to my own laundry. I resisted at first, but then Joop called me ungrateful, and I realized he was right. If someone really wants to follow me around and make sure I'm comfortable, and I'm complaining about it, that is pretty rude.
Secondly, Joop is no longer a child, and a natural part of raising children is parents shifting from the overt parent role to more of a mentor, and then even to being friends. I suppose it was a natural part of our relational evolution. Finally, I didn’t become a parental figure for Joop until he was nearly grown. I never had to change a diaper, potty train, tuck him into bed, or make sure he brushed his teeth.
What I saw between Joop and his biological parents was more of the typical struggle to figure out the balance that happens during young adulthood, which, I think was occasionally intensified by Joop and his father being opposite personalities. Joop has an uncanny ability to jump into anything and everything and learn as he goes, charm the world, and come out on top. He’s not much a planner, and when he does plan, things tend to go awry and stress him out. His father, on the other hand, plans all the details and bends the world to his plan. Lack of detailed plans and foresight makes him a little crazy. Joop sees his father’s plans as somewhat controlling and his father sees Joop’s charming spontaneity as irresponsibility. (In the extreme, both can be true, which can be said about any personality trait, but generally both behaved quite mildly.)
My own mother says parenting young adults, which I classify as those between 18 and 25ish, is the hardest age of parenting. It’s comforting to know, that in any culture, maintaining a positive parent/child relationship during the college years is difficult.
I enjoyed getting to know his parents through my own experience rather than through his personal prejudices. I quite understand his father Chrisiaan’s need for concrete plans and the annoyance he felt at Joop totally ruining said plans at the last moment. And his mother, Hanneke, wanted me to set the record straight on a few things about her. I’m not quite sure what those would really be. The one things that really surprised me about her, given how organized and in charge Joop portrayed her – and let’s be honest, Hanneke, you are the woman in charge! – was that Joop completely got his personality – in addition to his good looks and poufy hair – from her.
She rambled and bounced and giggled and yelled and laughed and cried and worried and stressed and blew everything out of proportion just like Joop. Her energy and zest for life rubbed off on everyone around her, just like Joop. And when she entered a sour mood, like Joop, it was just best to leave the room and let her stew, and then the next morning, or maybe ten minutes later, she’d apologize and tell you a funny story. Or maybe even dance.
I was living under the same roof with two Joops. Granted, one was much more organized and clean…and a morning person. It was enjoyable, if not a tad overwhelming once in a while.
Some of my favorite times were sitting out on their back porch chatting with them about Joop or cultural differences, amongst many other things. They had unusually good weather while I was there and we’d often sit on the patio talking until it got dark at nearly 10 at night. And then the parents would head off to bed and Joop’s friends would start appearing. (I didn't sleep much.)
We’d switch some topics, but everyone, no matter where I went wanted to talk about the cultural differences and what I thought about Dutch culture. With the younger crowd, things tended to get more philosophical. We talked about spirituality and God, but also psychedelics, metaphysics, and morality. And, of course, if they could come to the United States – all of his friends at once – and stay with me for a couple weeks. I’m trying to imagine a dozen giant-sized Dutch young men sprawling out on sleeping bags in my living room…
Young and old alike would ask me what my favorite thing about the Netherlands was, and being a slow processor, I didn’t know what to say. So I’d respond by saying Joop was my favorite thing.
And while Joop is still my favorite thing, and will probably always be favorite thing about the Netherlands, I now have an answer.
These talks, the open and inquisitive dialogue, and the relaxed ramblings that were exchanged over long hours – and many cups of espresso like coffee – were my favorite thing about the Dutch. They pulled no punches in telling their opinions, and I never once had to guess what a Dutch person thought, whether they were a soccer mom I talked to for 5 minutes about abortion or Joop’s Frisian grandfather that loved to talk religion. Sometimes it was frustrating trying to correct certain misconceptions about Americans, but I always found it fulfilling and engaging.
Here’s a list of a few other things:
So, for all you Dutch that kept asking me what my favorite things about the Netherlands were, there you go. And, I’m sorry it takes me a moment to gather my opinions. Once I have them gathered, I’m rather Dutch about it. I’ll tell you flat out.
The other question I was asked by everyone was what was my least favorite thing, but that’s a post for another day.
I leave for the Netherlands tomorrow and I’m sitting here in Chic-fil-A thinking about how all this got started years ago. I’m ever so thankful that I decided to open my home to an international teenager and I’m beyond grateful for the example my mother set by taking in teenagers, like me.
When I talk about hosting exchange students I get a couple typical responses, but they usually end with “I could never do that!” And that makes me really sad, but not just because I’m a Christian and feel that hospitality, grace, and unconditional love are cornerstones of my religion.
It makes me mad, not sad, when I have other Christians put their own comfort ahead of showing love to young person far away from home. This doesn’t mean everyone and all the time should host an exchange student. Life happens.
I get angry when someone asks me why they should have someone that isn’t family live with them – or some variation of that – and my response is always, “You aren’t having non-family stay with you. You are adding to your family.” Most of the time people know me well enough to shut up after I say that, but occasionally someone will say something along the lines of “not really” and then I go on a tirade and say that blood doesn’t make a family.
Feeling righteous indignation toward a tiny group of small minded people doesn’t move to tears though. As my mom always says, “We don’t care what stupid people think.”
What makes me sad is knowing what these families are missing out on. Year after year I hear people say, maybe when the kids are older, maybe when my kids are grown, maybe when I have more money, maybe when I have kids…
Apparently, I’m a freaking goddess for hosting exchange students while I am penny pinching and dealing with a special needs kid, a bipolar husband, a chronic illness, and a demanding career.
But I’m really just a regular person, just a mom.
You want to know how I do it?
It’s easy, really. Having the exchange student here makes everything better! I’m not kidding. And it’s not just that I had Joop and he's so funny. I also had two other teenagers live with me and they made everything better too. Charles’s depressive swings were more moderated; Drake learned about sharing his parents and got a glimpse into the life of siblings. I could name dozens more. I had an extra hand around to help and the ability to learn first hand about the world was intellectually stimulating on a level I will never replicate.
Not to mention that hosting is just fun. When you are going to McDonald’s with your American family, it’s just dinner, but when you add in an exchange student, it’s an adventure!
If you’ve read Joop Does America already, you may be calling my bluff. But! But! But! Yes, there was crap. Tons of it. Some pretty intense crap with all of the teens that have stayed with me. And not just the general run of the mill teenage crap, but addiction, hospitalization, and serious mental illness.
(Just to be clear, my experience is a little more intense than anyone else I’ve known, which is why I wrote a book. There’s a running joke going around that God sends me the neediest. Something about my family…and maybe a little payback for what my mom dealt with?)
But even with Leonie being hospitalized for a severe case of mono, I would still do it again. I would try to brush out the hospital bed hair and figure out what dizzy, nauseated Dutch girls will eat. I’ll deal with despondent, my girlfriend just broke up with me Joop curled up in a fetal position on my bathroom floor. I’ll handle paranoia and wild accusations.
After 3 years of working with exchange students, I can tell you, most of the time, the drama is pretty low key, run of the mill teenageness. I remember one host mother’s big complaint: They don’t use the top sheet! OMG! Such a problem… Guess what, neither do I. If you run into more pressing issues than top sheet usage, there is a community representative not far away. And then a district manager. And then the company itself. And even the state department.
Maybe this year with my Brazilian Princess I’ll just have top sheet usage issues….
So, if you want to host a student, feel free to send me an email. And if you just want to read about my experience with Joop, you can buy the book here.
I leave next Thursday at 2:30 in the afternoon from Atlanta. I found the cheapest darn flight I could, which happened to be through Delta of all things, and am flying overnight to Amsterdam through Washington DC. I’m supposed to arrive at about 7am on a rainy Amsterdam morning, which would be about 1am for me.
If I were Joop, 1am would be my prime time, but as luck would have it, I’m a terrible night person and will probably spend most of Friday battling sleep and jet lag, so I haven’t planned a thing that first day. I will do my best to stay awake through dinner that night, but otherwise, I’m not promising a thing.
The rest of the trip will be a full force, coffee fueled Dutch extravaganza.
Before all this, though, Joop Does America will be officially published on the 16th of April. For all of you that pre-ordered your books, your book will be sent to you that day. If you are in Athens and would like a signed copy before I leave, I’m going to ask you to please purchase a book from Amazon and wait for me to return. I have limited supplies of the book and limited funds at the moment to purchase more, and it looks like I may be selling out of all the books in the Netherlands. Sorry, Netherlands first. 😉
So here are our important dates:
April 16th: Book publication and article in the local newspaper in Edam
April 20th arrive in Amsterdam
April 23rd Speaking with local students and teachers
April 25th The Amsterdam Art Museum with Don Boscoe College
April 27th Koningsdag (The King’s birthday) in Amsterdam
April 30th Second newspaper article
May 1st Big book signing at the church in Edam
May 4th I return home.
In addition to these dates, we also have more malleable plans for every day. Here’s a list of other things that we will fit in between these set dates. We will have at least one video every day available on our YouTube channel, which you can check out here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC0ZvBSmv2JX-14wFJNGBTyw. It’s brand new and we’d appreciate it if you’d subscribe:
Plus much, much more! I'm keeping a few surprises up my sleeve. If you subscribe to our YouTube channel or like the Joop Does America Facebook page, we’ll get notification when new videos, posts, or general shenanigans happen.
Joop and I are two very different people, and we remember situations differently. This week Joop’s dad was reading an advanced reader copy of the book and had a question about the very first anecdote in the book in chapter one, which is about teenagers lying. I only grounded Joop once his stay here and this story is about what caused me to ground him.
Here’s the story from my point of view: I grounded Joop because he lied to me. From Joop’s POV, I grounded him because he was driving around in a car with a girl.
A basic run down: I got a call from Joop’s school one afternoon saying that he hadn’t shown up to school! I was panicked. Last time I saw him, he was off to school. It was now after 4, when he was normally home and he wasn’t and he hadn’t called me. I called Anastasia, my best friend, and she talked me down.
“He’s probably just being a stupid kid and skipped school. He’s not laying facedown in a ditch,” Anastasia said. “Try texting him again.”
Throughout the year, one of the main points of arguments with us (and worry for me) is that Joop wouldn’t keep me informed about his plan changes. And his phone would die. And it would be 6, dinner time, and I would have no idea what happened to him. I didn’t care much what he did, most of the time, as long as he kept me appraised of his plans so I could adjust the entire family schedule. However, I had never received a phone call from his school saying his was absent.
After I hung up with Anastasia, I texted him again, and this time he answered.
“I’m at drama club. I’ll have someone give me a ride after it’s done.”
A-okay! Maybe it was just a fluke the school called me. It was an automated message, maybe some wires got crossed. I was about to call Anastasia back, but she called me before I could.
“I just saw Joop driving around on Cedar Shoals Road.”
“He just told me he was at school…”
“Well, Joop and his red hair are pretty easy to spot. He was driving around town…I mean, he wasn’t driving – the other girl was, but he certainly wasn’t at school.”
I text Joop back. No drama today. I’m coming to pick you up.”
He attempted to get out of me picking him up. I was insistent and gave him a couple opportunities in the texting to let me know what was happening. I had no problem with him hanging out with friends after school. In fact, he did it most days, so I was having a hard time understanding why he would keep lying to me. My mom’s voice rang in the back of my head, “Teenagers all lie. They lie for no reason. They lie for good reasons. They lie for bad reasons. The good ones, the bad ones, the braindead ones. They all lie.”
And that was the point of the chapter and that anecdote: Joop was your average teenager and he lied.
I gave him a couple more opportunities to tell me the truth, but he never did. So I called him out and then grounded him from riding around with that girl for two weeks. He’d have to take the bus to and from school.
When Joop’s dad read the story, he didn’t understand why Anastasia had called me. After Joop explained things to his dad and Dutch friends, the general consensus was she was a snitch. As far as Joop was concerned, Anastasia was calling me to snitch that he was in a car with a girl. Just randomly.
From my point of view, Anastasia called me back to inform me that my missing child was not face down in a ditch.
For about two days because of our differing POV’s on the story, I thought he Dutch didn’t care about their children being missing, and the Dutch thought American parents would text each other every time they saw someone else’s kids. The Dutch didn’t care at all what their kids did, and didn’t want to know what they did unless they were swinging from trees doing crack and shooting off guns. American parents on the other hand, stalked their kids and had their friends stalk their kids.
Sunday, I finally realized what was going on. Joop kept saying that Dutch families let their children make mistakes because you learn from mistakes. Well, so do American parents, I’d say, but we try to shield our kids from life changing mistakes. He kept saying that riding in a car with a girl was not a mistake that was life changing.
But, riding in cars with girls was not the point of the story, and it was most certainly not why Anastasia had called me.
So, I texted Joop’s dad, Christiaan, on Sunday afternoon and said, you know, American parents don’t go around snitching on each other’s kids. Anastasia called me because she was calling me back…because I was panicked thinking my kid was missing.
And apparently, Dutch parents would have responded similarly. It suddenly made sense to Christiaan. “We had no idea Joop was missing.”
Joop and I experienced this situation differently. I was a panicked parent, and he was an annoyed teenager.
In the end, Joop was never missing, so he didn’t understand what was going on from my point of view. Plus he’s not a mother, so he doesn’t understand that pit in your stomach every time the kid takes the keys… Joop was only late for school; he stopped to have Waffle House for breakfast, and the first period teacher responsible for taking attendance didn’t update Joop from absent to tardy.
However, I didn’t know that. Anastasia didn’t know that.
If he had just told me he was going out with friends after school, it wouldn’t have been a big deal. He did it all the time. His lie was completely pointless.
What I thought originally was a cultural misunderstanding, ended up being a difference in point of view, in how Joop and I experienced this situation.
Honestly, this happens a lot in life. You hear about when police interview witnesses to a crime. Each of them tells the cop something different. It’s not that these differing stories are untrue, or true even, but that these people are relaying their personal experience.
So if you ask Joop something, he’s likely to recount a different story than me. If you ask him, or me, to explain something to you, and it sounds too outrageous – whether good or bad – to be true, then it might just be our own personal understanding, or misunderstanding, of the transpired events.
And this, is why talking to people with different backgrounds, experiences, and beliefs is so important. If we don’t talk openly about even small issues – such as a story about a teenager getting grounded, we start making wild assumptions about cultures or people that are different from us.
In this instance, the wild belief was the Dutch are nutso amoral pseudo parents who don’t care if their kids are missing, and on the flipside Americans are nutso holier-than-thou stalkers who helicopter parent their kids into submission.
Sure, Dutch parents are typically more lenient that American parents…but parents everywhere would be concerned if their child was missing.
Have you ever had an experience like this before? How did you handle it? How long did it take before you realized that their experience was different than yours and coloring their response differently than yours?
Most Americans I know have a family origin myth. It’s not uncommon for us to say I’m Italian and Irish, even though we know we’re Americans. It’s really no surprise because, unless you are fully Native American, your family originally came from some other country, whether taken under duress, shipped with a prison colony, or looking for a new start.
At this point in time, most white, and I dare say African Americans, are a complete mutt and mixture of countries, ethnicities, and even races. I don’t come across too many people that claim to be to be from of just one country origin.
My dad was one of them. His famous claim was that he was all Dutch.
But, there was a little blip on his family tree where he couldn’t be sure if he was honestly all Dutch. His grandmother was adopted. The family lore suggested that his grandmother’s biological mother may have either been Irish or Mexican. She was certainly Catholic and from Texas, but that’s all we knew for sure. Her name was either Mary or Maria. My dad has a nice dark, olive skin tone, and thick black hair – like his mother – and therefore we suspected that her name was Maria and she was Mexican. Or perhaps the biological mother was Black Irish, and therefore my dad had some Jewish blood in him. Otherwise, he was fully Dutch.
I grew up learning all about Dutch culture because I was Dutch: All Dutch on my dad’s side, half on my Mom’s. I was, even accounting for the adopted great-grandmother, at least 50% ethically Dutch.
But as with many of those now taking DNA tests, this narrative came crashing down.
My family knew that not all our ancestors where ethnically Dutch. Before the discovery and eventual rush to The Americas, many refugees sought asylum in the Netherlands. The Pilgrims did this before they came to America. And we knew that my family did the same, it just took them an additional 300 years to immigrate to the US.
The furthest I can track my patrilineal heritage is to France in the early part of the 16th century, when my family was called De Tringham. Side note: My maiden name is eerily similar to my married name, so if you’re seeing Ingraham in De Tringham wait a minute and you’ll see where I’m going.
Peter De Tringham was a French Huguenot and after his village was burned down by the Catholic church, he and his family escaped to the Netherlands, where he changed his name to Tringham. Somehow in the immigration to the US, an “S” was added and we get my maiden Stringham. During this time, a lot of Huguenots immigrated to the Netherlands instead of Germany, or other Protestant leaning nations, because Huguenots followed a more Reformed theology as opposed to a Lutheran theology espoused by Germany.
I also knew that some of my ancestors were from England or general British Isles. They left for similar reasons as the Pilgrims. They were similar to what we call Quakers. Their religious practices were Reformed, simple, personal, austere, and quiet. Huguenots and Quaker/Separatists were welcomed with open arms in the Netherlands, as long as these families became Dutch. You could practice your religion with similar Dutch enclaves as Dutch.
The Pilgrims, unlike my family, didn’t want to become Dutch in culture, so they eventually made the treacherous trip across the Atlantic. My family stayed and became part of the Dutch culture. We became proud of that Dutch culture, but due to famine 300 years after the Pilgrims, were forced to make a new way in the United states.
While my Dutch heritage has started to fade, my family’s loyalty to the same faith that has caused it to move to Holland in the first place, has continued. Being Quaker is so deep within my DNA, that my offspring could mix with extra-terrestrial DNA and we’d still be Quaker.
Back to my dad, and his DNA test: We knew that originally, some of my dad’s DNA was not Dutch, or as the DNA test would lump it together, Western European. But France was still in that broad Western European category, so I assumed he would be at least 50% Western European. And perhaps quite a bit from the British Isles.
There was of course, the possibility that my dad would be part South of the Border, or Jewish. I assumed he would be mostly Western European and British, with a touch of Mexican or Jewish blood in him.
But, we were all wrong. And DNA doesn’t lie.
My dad is just an inexplicably dark, mostly Scandinavian man. I can’t remember the exact break down, but it was something like 40% Scandinavian, 35% British Isles, 18% Eastern European, and only 14% Western European.
I’m going to assume that my great-grandmother’s biological mother was just plain old Irish. I have no idea why my dad’s coloring matches my Hispanic sister. It’s an American mystery. That 14% Western European accounts for 95% of what I know about my family, and the stories that we’ve been told, and we’ve continued to tell, but only account for 14% of the DNA.
I’ve got plenty of stories on my mother’s side too. I’m interested to get DNA tests done on myself, and my mother, to see if the stories we’ve been passed on match our DNA. Was my matrilineal grandmother a gypsy as I’ve been told?
I know lots of Americans have been told stories that aren’t matching their DNA tests. A common story among many Americans is the Indian Princess Narrative. Many families tell a story about a white settler falling in love with and marrying a chief’s daughter. While I know there were lots of tribes scattered throughout America, I kind of doubt 75% of the white population had a Native American princess ancestor. I don’t know why we tell ourselves these stories. Perhaps, to assuage our guilt? If we are part of them, part of that terrible genocide, then maybe we aren’t responsible for what the white part of us did?
While I grapple with not being as ethnically Dutch as I thought, and as I prepare to go back to my ancestral lands, which maybe aren’t so ancestral, have you had an upset to a story your family told? Did you think you were Italian to find out you’re were Russian? How are you dealing with it and how will it change the narrative you tell your kids?
As I’ve gotten older, especially since I haven’t been in school, I’ve delved more and more into reading nonfiction. I’m sure this has to do with my intense need to learn. I want to learn how to do things better, faster, neater, weirder. I want to learn what keeps the sun a fiery hot mess year in and year out. I had to understand why my kid was screaming in the middle of the night, not just so I could quiet him, but out of sheer curiosity. I had to know why 12 ordinary men from a repressed people would spread one of the most virulent religions ever.
Some of my favorite books are cookbooks. I don’t just cook the recipes; I read the whole cookbook. I want to hear the funny stories, learn the reasoning behind why one did things, and if there are any alternate ways of making a recipe. Every year of my adult life, my grandma Jeannie buys me a cookbook. The first one was Julia Child’s treatise on French cooking.
In retrospect, I believe it was Julia Childs who hooked me on nonfiction.
My taste in cookbooks has progressed over time. Today, I have an enviable collection of classics from around the world. I can just as easily cook you an authentic borscht as a Midwest meatloaf. Joop claims my pea soup is as good as any Dutch grandma’s. And I can cook a Thai dish so hot it pleases my “I eat pure capsaicin for breakfast” husband.
My reading progressed as much as my cooking repertoire. I was as comfortable reading Stephen Covey as I was Charles Darwin. Currently on my night stand are Inklings of Reality by Donald T. Williams—a leading expert on C.S Lewis--I am Malala, Walden by Thoreau, The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonagall, and A Good Housekeeping manual from the 1980s on how to get stains out of everything. On my phone, I am reading an ebook by my friend and editor Deborah Natelson, which is the only fiction, other than for my job, I have read in nearly a year.
One of my favorite subgenres of nonfiction is books on habits, and I have fallen in love with the writings of Gretchen Rubin and Charles Duhigg. My mom discovered Rubin for me, and I found myself reading everything Duhigg had to offer after hearing him speak at the Atlanta Catalyst a couple of years ago.
But, as my life and cooking skills progressed, my writing did not. I kept writing the same young adult fantasy I had been writing as a child. Literally. The same exact story.
Recently, I bought Duhigg’s latest book and haven’t been able to put it down. The reason I’m writing now that something he said stuck out to me. He talks in one of his chapters about the movie Frozen. Whether you like the movie or not, you have to admit the pop culture storm surrounding it was nothing short of amazing. I’ve watched it a dozen or more times because of my son Drake and listened to the sound track in Dutch 40 million times because of Joop. Duhigg gives us a glimpse into the creative process that created the animated giant. And I was surprised to learn that they got stuck creatively on the end. I wasn’t surprised that coming up with the plot was hard, or that making both sisters likable and unidentifiable while creating tension had its difficulties.
Duhigg crosses over into the world of biology to explain what happened. The crew had gotten so wrapped up in the way things were in the film world that new, necessary ideas were getting crowded out. Joseph Connel was a biologist studying biodiversity in the 1950s. He was fascinated with the fact that one area could be teaming with life and diversity, but that another only a mile or two away would be dominated by maybe only one or two types of life. Connel’s studies eventually led him to the intermediate disturbance hypothesis, which says that diversity in biology is caused by intermittent, moderate upheaval. Too much and stuff dies and not enough and diversity fails.
I’d been stuck in a large, non-diverse universe of my own making. We all get in this rut sometimes and need an intermediate disturbance to wake us up.
For me, I needed one in my writing, my personal writing.
It’s easy for us to live in a biosphere of dominated by what makes us comfortable, what is just like us. Whether we are a white middle-class Americans living in the white suburbs, attending white churches—Sunday morning is the most segregated time in American culture—or liberal city dwellers hanging out in coffee shops discussing the fall of intellectualism, it’s a good idea to shake things up. Talk to a person from a different background or one who holds more conservative or liberal views.
Or you could take things to an extreme and host an exchange student. There’s nothing quite like having a foreigner in your midst to throw a wrench in your cozy, unexamined life.
In the case of Frozen, the team decided to introduce new people to the group, people with different expertise. And it worked. Of course, there were still some issues with the ending, but that was to be expected: Frozen was the first Disney princess movie to feature true love of the non-romantic type. And it was revolutionary.
I’ve often sought out upheaval. I grew up with it and I saw the benefit of it, but I couldn’t see some of my deepest areas of stagnation. Even though I had written quite a few non-fiction books in my ghostwriting career, in my personal writing, I had never written anything other than fiction, specifically young adult fantasy. I was getting pretty bored with it, but it was all I knew.
As I close out this chapter, I challenge you to find areas of languish and torpor in your life and introduce, on purpose, an intermediate, moderate upheaval. Is Tuesday always Taco Tuesday? The bland ground meat, cheese, lettuce, sour cream, and salsa? Why not have a friend from an actual taco-eating country come over and show you their family recipe? Or maybe throw a complete wrench in your plans and have spaghetti?
Whatever your own area is, mix it up. And if you ever see me around, let me know what you did. I’d love to hear about it.
Today is my birthday! I’d say I’m 29, but I just published a book that says I was 31 years of age 3 years ago… My dad told me to change the book because I’m only 24. My mom is not old enough to have a 34 year old, apparently. Someone should tell her that my older sister turns 40 in a month.
I think it’s appropriate that today is the day that Amazon has approved my book for publication. Unfortunately, though, CreateSpace, who I am using to publish the paperback, does not offer pre-orders, which is stupid, if you ask me.
What am I going to do? Let it derail my plans? Scream at customer service agents? No. I’m not. I’m publishing it…today. Surprise! Well, you won’t be able to order from Amazon for another couple weeks unless you are a wholesale retailer. I have at least that much control.
So, I’m going to offer the pre-order myself. Since I have an exclusivity contract with Amazon, I can’t offer the book through my website, and anyway my website isn’t set up to accept payment. So if you ant to pre-order the paperback, please go to my Gofundme page. It will ask you for your address so I can send it out to you on the day it comes out, which coincidentally is my sister’s birthday. The payment through Godfundme is secure.
Just put in the comments on your Gofundme donation that you are pre-ordering the book. The cost is 12.99, which includes shipping within the United States. If you are in the Netherlands and want the paperback, you will get it from Joop or me when I am there starting on the 20th of April.
So if you want to support me for my birthday, here are the links to pre-order both the ebook and/or the paperback. I’m currently at 10 ebooks sold, which means I need 40 more to hit my goal. If you could help me reach my birthday goal of 15 paperback pre-orders, and 10 more ebooks, I would appreciate it. And any books pre-ordered through my Gofundme will also go to my goal there too, which means more funny videos. We’re $200 short of me and Joop redo the Rickrolling video he love so much.
I live in Athens, Georgia, with my son, my husband, and an ever-revolving list of exchange students, who are a never-ending source of entertainment and writing material.