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Saturday, January 1, 2011

What We Did Right This Year

Last night across America, millions of people who’d never met and may not have ever wanted to meet turned to a stranger and said, “So, what do you do?”

I have no doubt some of these folks had an uproariously good time, but little did they know this question works like torture not only in these economic times but pretty much any time at all.

“Do” means “Give me your stats.” Your income, your résumé highlights, your impressive numbers. "Do" boils us down to concrete, financially-viable actions taken and monetary results achieved. What do you do? never means, Tell me who you are, tell me what you value, tell me what you love.

I think a better question for the New Year is, "What did you do right this past year? What didn't make the billboards, Twitter, Facebook status, or Google Alerts?"

Forget feverish revolution and anxious browbeating. Let's not spend the first day of 2011 with to-do lists. Let's make it a Sabbath from the shoulds, the musts, the wills.

For writers, it is tempting to berate ourselves with the stats not yet achieved: agents not landed, contracts not signed, and manuscripts not done. To feel that our pages and publications number too little to be noticed; to feel sad that our writing practice lacks the perfect devotion of a triathlete, a marathoner, a special ops soldier. Always there is someone far more devoted, persistent, and perfectly successful out there. They must never cease working, these dynamos. If only you had resolve, you, too, could be they...I like Hope Clark's wisdom about having never arrived on this writer's journey. The work never ceases for any of us, and it's a delusion to think all the others who have success are "already there."

This last year I became more patient with what I once deemed lack of progress. At my day job I keep an African proverb by my desk: "If you want to go fast, walk alone. If you want to go far, walk together." I used to think certain people and situations stymied me. I now know they're here for good reason, and on the worst days, if for nothing else, for short-story fodder. At my writing job (which is also every day), I keep many quotations, but these catch my eye today:

"We've got to measure goodness by what we embrace, what we create, and who we include." Hugh O'Connor

"Bide your time, for success is near." Fortune Cookie. (For all local North Carolinians, you must try the wonderful Gourmet Kingdom where this fortune was found.)

When I write I ask myself if what I'm writing I love and believe in, if my writing brings me and others good, and if I am making time for people as much as my pages.

This last year I set my mind on higher things. I listened to the quiet while driving in my car. I listened to the wisdom of spiritual guides and read sacred texts. And I asked myself sometimes before I spoke, but most often after: Is this how I wish to speak? Sound? Be?

My family can tell you I sound much wiser here than I do in person, but, I would like some credit for thinking right every once in a while.

No one puts these details on a résumé or in a query letter. It's the kind of do we refrain from sharing with strangers.

I had a moment wondering if "do right" is proper grammar. Upon further review, I determined I mean "right" this way "uprightly or righteously." That's more than correct--that's right good grammar.

It's all good, as they say down here in the South, if what you do is not about racking up the stats but about expressing who you are.

Writing Prompts for Students:

-- What did you do well this past year? How did you know you did well?
-- What did you do right? How do you know?
-- Describe a person you admire greatly for doing things that are true to self. By "true to self," we mean, doing what is honest, right, and good.
-- What did you do that was true to yourself?
-- What did you not do this past year that leaves you feeling discouraged? Why?
-- Make a resolution about how you will think differently this year. Do not resolve to do this or do that, but instead, describe the types of thoughts you wish to have going forward.

Writing Prompts for Teachers:

-- Describe a moment from teaching last year that leaves you smiling. What makes you feel joy or amusement?
-- If there is one thing you do right in your teaching, what is it?
-- Write a paragraph of your thoughts for 2011. This paragraph should be the thoughts you wish to wake up to every morning.
-- What in teaching most discourages you? How will you try to think differently about it this year?
-- Who is a teacher, author, or some other person you admire greatly? Write about not only the concrete accomplishments but the intangibles of character that you value so much.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Why Harry Potter Should Help Raise Your Kids

I'll admit coming late to the whole Harry Potter thing. As in, really late: a few weeks ago I just embarked on book three. I don't think there's much better than a day off work, chocolate plus Fritos, and a great book like a warm blanket.

This is only to be topped by making your own story magic. Clearly I had this figured out at nine: that my little cahier could hold a hundred stories. This was my version of wizardry and casting spells.

If Harry Potter tales make you feel safe yet make your heart beat fast, and if they make you forget yourself, then we already have three good reasons for our kids, preteens, and even older teens to read them. We all want escape--the healthy kind that lets our mind rest, our spirits calm, and our hope soar.

You can enjoy the twisty turns of the hairpin plot for sheer, diamond-slope action and breathless momentum, and you can also read deeply for gems in the subtext--the values. I'll dare say "family values" said here without praise or scorn, but what I think family values ought to be. What Harry finds at Hogwarts--his real family--teaches him to be a wise, kind human being.

Some Adults Do Know Best. Professor Dumbledore has Harry's back and he knows exactly what tools Harry will need when. Plus, everything's better when he's around.

Phonies: Not Just Made for Muggles. Check out Professor Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. WIth him Rowling mirrors our society's PR hounds and paparazzi, showing us how easily we're sold by a stunning smile and a flashy tale. He's also a bad a fake as the Dursleys who lie their way through life, a standout moment being when they pretend Harry doesn't exist in order to impress a potential customer, Mr. Mason.

And a corollary of that: The Truth Will Always Out. Whether in the form of a house elf Dobby or Hagrid's baby dragon, you can't hide things for long. These symbolic outings won't be lost on the likes of Bernie Madoff or any Hollywood star who's tried to conceal adultery.

People Choose Evil. We May Want Slytherin Down Deep in Our Hearts, But We Don't Have to Go There.

Heroism is Handed to the Unlikely. The Messy-Haired, the Orphaned, the Quiet. Initially, Harry is unimpressive. He's a victim, he's a dodger of bullies, and he's a skinny survivor who barely escapes high jinks hardly of his own making. We're not ready to hold any parades, and he's not even as well-defined as the academic, obsessive Hermione or the goofy, hot-headed Ron. Yet he emerges strong, wise, and dependable at all the right moments. We also like to believe that our ordinary selves might be worthy of note someday for great deeds.

Even When You're a Hero, People Will Hate You. Every time Harry and his cohorts accidentally lose points for Gryffindor, the rest of his house and sometimes the whole of Hogwarts turn on him. At least with the first two books, Harry's fans are quite fickle.

Your True Friends Stay With You When It Gets Ugly. Like Forbidden Forest ugly. They will face basilisks and white queens and boggarts and trolls for your sake. I don't think quirky friends come more loveable than Hermione and Ron, and the secondary characters like Neville Longbottom also have their heroic scenes.

More Expensive Sports Gear Doesn't Mean You'll Win. No matter what Malfoy's dad just bought him yesterday, sometimes you'll get the snitch with the 2000 model, and that's all that matters.

These are just my first musings of why Harry's captured hearts. I've hit on themes because I'm thinking a lot these days about YA books being redemptive. Check out how blogger and author Nathan Bransford identifies Rowling's other skills--allowance for character flaws to management of an artful, intricate plot to deft usage point of view.

Back to Book Three. Sirius Black's on the loose in Hogwarts. Why I stopped there, at one of the scarier moments, I'll never know. Wait: yes, I do. Another tenet for the list of Family Values: Sometimes You Have to Put the Book Down, Because When You're Big, There are Consequences the Next Day.

Which is why I miss being nine and staying up late under the covers. I wasn't the one who had to get me up for school in the morning. (Thanks, Mom and Dad!)

Writing Prompts for Students:

-- Which Harry Potter character are you? Why?
-- Which Harry Potter book is your favorite? Why? What do you remember most?
-- If you could make a bumper sticker that sums up what a Harry Potter book or the whole series means to you, what would you choose?
-- Write four status updates or tweets for Harry or another favorite character.
-- Do you believe in magic? Why or why not?
-- How do you define magic? Is the magic in the Harry Potter series true magic, in your opinion?
-- Write a story where a character suddenly discovers s/he has a certain power unknown before this moment.

Writing Prompts for Teachers:

-- Have you read the Harry Potter series? Why or why not? Which YA or middle grade or children's books do you prefer?
-- Are the messages that the series sends the kind of messages you feel are wholesome, redemptive, and wise? Why or why not?
-- If you could craft a series for children, preteens, or YA, what messages would you like the work to subtly or not so subtly send?
-- Some agents tell those who write middle grade or YA works to take care that their works don't come off as "preachy." Have you read any works that seem that way? What do you think? Should authors take care to be more subtle, symbolic, and clever with sending messages through their works?
-- Should authors even bother to send messages or should they just tell the story?
-- Make a list of books you must teach and books you would like to teach. Which books are a risk? Why? How might you explain and teach them in a way that others see these works have merit?

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Seeking Redemption

Okay, what's the best Christmas present ever? Having a boy who happens to be your stepson tell you that a book you gave him is pretty cool.

"I read like 40 pages last night," he said. Then a day later, "I finished."

I bought Heavy Metal and You by Chris Krovatin off Amazon after reading some reviews, then read it myself before I wrapped it (or sent it back). Each time the F word appeared, each time drinking occurred, each time the possibility of sex was mentioned, I made a mental note. Where is this going? How will the character's choice be handled? The jury was still out.

I finished it and deemed it worthy of boy consumption, especially by one whose first choice of music is thrash metal. This story of a heavy metal-obsessed youth was now authorized for his access. Why, despite all the aforementioned flaws? Because the tale was redemptive.

With teens in that strange, limbo stage of kid one day and young adult the next, you can tear your hair out wondering if that R movie or that less-than-savory language in a classic piece of literature is doing unspeakable damage to heart, mind, and soul. English teachers wrestle with this before they crack open a book with a class; how will we get through this hypersexual language in the repartee between Mercutio and Romeo? Do we explicate it, or do we ignore it? How about the mention of rape and incest in To Kill a Mockingbird, never mind the "n" word in that or Twain a dozen other canonical works on the yearly American Lit lists?

Here's my checklist of how difficult words, difficult themes, and difficult character behaviors redeem themselves:

1. Does the character struggle with issues of conscience? Does he act wrongly but reflect at some point about mistaken actions? Is there internal as well as external conflict?
2. To what degree are wrong actions glorified--such as taking drugs, cussing, etc.?
3. Does this character or a foil evolve in any way? How static and trapped are the characters in a one-note stance or attitude?
4. Does the plot and its resolution challenge the darkness--and by darkness I mean hatred, hedonism, narcissism, racism, sexism--or is it merely stated, as in, "People make terrible choices, terrible things happen, and well, there it is." Is the plot merely a mirror of human misery or is it a discussion of human misery? By discussion, I mean, is there interesting action that explores our journey through misery, with sparks of light somewhere, giving some kind of hope?

When we talk about the book, I raise these issues. I also treat the plot seriously--those choices by the characters, analyzing them without immediate judgment, trying to get to the root of the evil all humans seek. How else do we train youth to listen to the angels on their shoulders?

There is always the risk that exposing youth to the existence of bad choices can preach an unintended message of, "Well, he did it, so why not me? He survived it, so why not me?" True.

I feel safer knowing as a stepmom that I am in charge of the discussion that occurs before and after. This is not a simple pitch in the dark, hoping the ball will hit some target; it's a throw within your control. He knows I already read it, and he knows what I think of cussing and underage drinking.

As a stepparent, I'll take different risks than I would as a teacher pitching to 100-some students; the audience is much more diverse, and thus your argument has to be sure and solid--often erring on the side of canon rather than contemporary--in order to justify a choice. You want to talk with colleagues who've taught the work before, besides having read several critical reviews. And if you're pioneering a choice, listen carefully to all the feedback you get. Risks I've taken in the past include Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane, Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich, and Colors of the Mountain by Da Chen. I still stand by these works as worthy and redemptive.

As you build your reading list for children or students, do the works meet the four-question test? Can you add some questions to the quiz?

If you feel you can argue the case for this book in front of one of your parents or grandparents, your favorite English teacher, and/or your partner, chances are the work is redemptive. Then you can head off to the child with work in hand, and gamble that he, too, will see all the light shimmering through the darkness.