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Friday, December 30, 2011

You're So Pathetic...Let Me Kick Start You!

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
-- Albert Einstein

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.
-- Albert Einstein 
Image found here

Ever looked pityingly upon a fellow human and thought, "Oh, you're so pathetic"? This person might be one who plays the victim; one who willingly lies down like a doormat; a person who runs his car into the same ditch again and again and when stuck in a rut, cries up to you for help, saying, "Why me?"

The problems and the response of these individuals forever remain the same. The complaints always strike the same chord. The response you have is also the same: you wanna shake 'em.

(Of course I would never behave that way, we think. The mote in someone else's eye is so much more compelling to spot.)

But the pathetic behavior of human beings--our tendency to keep knocking our heads against the same door--is a lesson about what we ought NOT to write and why we drop certain books. As my agent has coached me, we don't want to hear about Wendy's woes for too much of the book before we see her take action. Having just seen Lisbeth Salander kick a-- and take names in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, I've taken a few notes about powerful characters and why we need catalyst behavior in our stories.

Here are some tips for kick-starting your characters into New Year's resolutions of new behavior. Get them off their I'm-such-a-sorry-soul track and into action that forces them out of their consistency, their comfort zone:

  • Write a chapter that ends on a cliffhanger and forces your character to choose Door A or Door B. Originally, I thought HOW WENDY REDBIRD DANCING SURVIVED THE DARK AGES OF NOUGHT would be a wovel (web novel) where I'd enlist readers help, giving the readers the vote of Door A or Door B? at the end of every chapter. That forced me to write a compelling first 50 pages, where each chapter ended at a crucial point in the action--either a defining moment, where the reader must digest something big, or a cliffhanger, a moment where the reader says, "Hmm, just a few pages more."
  • Have your character encounter a person who is a foil--opposite in thought, action, family background, speech--and makes your character highly uncomfortable. In my novel, Wendy runs into two foils within the first 20 pages: her sworn enemy since seventh grade, the local Paris Hilton popular girl, and an evangelical Christian/BMOC, the school's quarterback. The differences between Wendy and these two are great enough that sparks automatically fly.
  • Make a list of your characters' intellectual and emotional traits and color code them by theme. For me, I could list the following characteristics for Wendy: gifted, highly verbal, analytical, argumentative, and all of those I might color blue. Another set of her characteristics are shy, defensive, suspicious--color those yellow. Then there is her angry and rageful side; there's the sad and suicidal; there are the traits of creativity and her passion for research and writing. Red, green. I now have a rainbow. Does the plot of your story test every color in your characters' rainbow?
  • Make a list of heart-clutching moments that can turn your character's comfort zone upside down. In "How to Make Your Novel a Page-Turner," Writer's Digest author Elizabeth Sims gives some fantastic advice to keep the reader engaged, awake, and caring. She advises that your protagonist must survive tests of heart-clutching trials. You might want to print her list and keep it near your computer).
I'm not saying great art can't be about the pathetic, dithering, wondering, worried, and paralyzed folk. Doesn't Holden whine and wander for much of Catcher? Doesn't Emma pound her head against a wall with well-intentioned but mistaken match-making in Jane Austen's tale? Doesn't Hamlet have a bit of trouble taking action? Doesn't Lily Bart fall from grace for the entirety of The House of Mirth (and so very gracefully)? But what's interesting about these stories is that we a) like the characters, b) believe the characters are doing the best they can, and c) enjoy watching them get into all kinds of scrapes avoiding the truth they refuse to see. It also helps that these authors (Salinger, Austen, Shakespeare, Wharton) were masters of scene and summary, style and image. If we can bring all that to the page, by all means, let your characters sit tight in the same spot for a few more scenes!

There's also a distinct artistic choice to catalog the repetitive trials a pathetic, dis-likeable soul for many pages for the sheer art of all of the above--but frankly, I can only handle it with Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." A poem can contain just the right dose of pathetic, and then my tastes lean toward active heroes for the long haul of a novel.

In everyday life, pathetic behavior is understandable. After all, society often demands conformity. The road not taken is not what the neighbors and in-laws and family advise. Don't rock the boat. Don't alarm the neighbors. Color inside the lines!

But that's everyday life and many of us don't want to read about that. Gimme a break; gimme a hero, dark or otherwise. Iago and Lady Macbeth and Ewell might leave rack and ruin behind them, but by God, they did something before they died. Meanwhile, the Othellos and Macduffs and Atticuses left the world better than they found it. And it was fascinating to watch.

Writing Prompts
  • When are you most pathetic? Why? Write the stream-of-consciousness of your pathetic thoughts and paralyzed behaviors, letting someone enter inside your head in these moments.
  • Look at Elizabeth Sims' list of heart-clutching moments for characters. In what situation have you found yourself in your life? Write that scene from memory with all the sensory detail you can muster.
  • Now rewrite that scene with a different beginning, middle, or end. Write it the way you wish things had gone; write it with you having different character traits or responses in the moment.
  • Write about someone who is your foil and how this person brings out the best or worst in you.
  • What are your least desirable traits of character? Your most admirable? In what situations have you seen both emerge? Write parallel scenes from your life where different sides of your character have been most evident. 
  • Can your protagonist be accused of being pathetic? When? Why? If you can't see it, ask yourself where your character takes a new, significant action in the novel that he or she normally would not take. Now count the number of pages from page 1 where this action occurs. If you're over 50 pages, go back and write a catalyst scene where your character is forced to do something seemingly "out of character" but required by the heart-clutching moment.
  • Find your favorite novel and pinpoint chapter ends that insist on page turns. See Sims' list (the section titled, End Chapters with a Bang), and categorize the craft at work at the end of these scenes. Now turn to an end of one of your chapters--or all chapters in the first 50 pages of your novel--and see if your chapters accomplish the same thing.
  • What is the most appealing and least desirable characteristic your protagonist has? Have you let your protagonist show both those characteristics? Where? How? If not, write a scene where both traits emerge.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Pay Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain

Image found here
Some make the argument that good writers should "make it look easy." In other words, don't carp about all the hard work it took to get the manuscript in the gorgeous shape it now boasts. Don't ever show the seamy underbelly of revisions, cross-outs, ripped cuticles, and gray hair. Your readers don't really need to see all that.

I disagree. If people think your art is magic (muse-driven and easily wrought) then they don't get art, at all. At certain times and places--your book signing, on your web site--I think it's fair to showcase the drafts that got away, the revisions that got dumped, and the hours it took to get the glossy draft your readers now enjoy. Pull back the curtain on the perfect and say, "There's a bit of slime back here..."

If audiences don't know the truth, they are likely to think, as I've heard too often in reference to the art of teaching: "Hell, anyone can do it!" They may well decide it's not worth paying the price. Hey, can you spot me a copy of your book/CD...can you get me a free ticket to the show?

Never mind the ego that seems to have taken many Americans prisoner in this age of self-publishing: I'm going to be the next J.K. Rowling/John Grisham/Toni Morrison/Stephen King/Malcolm Gladwell! Check out my first draft! 

The man behind the curtain--the neurotic artist full of woes and struggles, never mind a history of disappointment--that man matters very much.

This said, I want to make the argument that writers and other independent artists (I would place painters and other visual artists in this category) have it easier than those who need others to make art. The independence is all.  Why? Because you have no one but yourself to blame. Being married to a musician gives me this perspective, as does being the sister of an actress/producer. The group arts are a lot harder to sustain than the solo arts.

Writing is 95% solo. Sure, there's working with agents and publishers; there are tours, speeches, and signings; there's social marketing and comments on blogs. But every morning when I sit down to write, I only have Lyn Fairchild Hawks to hold accountable. I don't lose momentum today if someone in my writers' group failed to show last night. For my art to get done, I gotta do it, no excuses.

My husband is a musician dependent on at least four others in his band being able to

a) attend practice and show on time;
b) agree on singing the same songs;
c) practice those songs when no one's looking;
d) assist with set-up and breakdown of sound equipment;
e) dress appropriately for the gig;
f) behave appropriately during the gig;
g) invest financially in a recording venture or new sound equipment;
h) and bring an audience to a show.

I'm leaving out a long, long list of other assumed professional behaviors that one would hope everyone would follow but don't always appear.

Even with a strong group of musicians, a band leader faces these challenges or variations on them constantly because he prefers the sound that's made by a group to his solo act. He is not merely artist but also manager, mediator, motivator, coach, etiquette trainer, and a thousand other roles that have nothing to do with songwriting, singing, and playing. Somedays, my biggest problem is believing in myself. Professional musicians don't have much room for personal worries to get a performance going.

I won't talk here about theater and its group dynamics, except to recommend you check out the series Slings and Arrows. Let's just say that not everyone's on the same page when it comes to putting up a play.

So, writers, what can we do? Stop complaining about how hard writing is, and just do it. I mean, if you're an incredibly difficult, lazy, and irresponsible person, then maybe you do have something to moan about to a therapist, but if you have half a will and show up to the page, you've got an easier gig than some other artists.

And go support the local theater or musician playing near you. Listen and tip well. It took them a lot to get to that stage.

Writing Prompts

  • Who has it easier than you? Who has it harder? Why? Rant a little, and empathize a little. Describe two people's lives in detail and explain why one has it easier and one has it harder than you.
  • Write about a time in your life when you had it harder than anyone or easier than anyone. How did you feel? What did you do with that difficulty or privilege? How do you see that past experience now?
  • Should one compare oneself to others, or is it a futile exercise? Why or why not?
  • Do you know others who work in different arts than you? What do you know of their lives? Step into their shoes and write a few paragraphs of a life through another's eyes.
  • How hard is writing for you, on a scale of 1 to 10? Why? What makes it difficult for you to show up to the page? What makes it easy? 
  • Do you consider yourself a professional writer? If so, then what constitutes professional behavior? (You can start with the musician's list above and see if any of these assumptions apply to the writing life.)
  • What are your writing goals for 2012? 
  • What are the  psychological and physical barriers to your writing or writing well? List them and brainstorm three solutions to each.
  • What arts different than yours do you resolve to support in 2012? Why?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Taking the No out of NaNOwrimo

You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage—pleasantly, smilingly, nonapologetically, to say “no” to other things. And the way you do that is by having a bigger “yes” burning inside. The enemy of the “best” is often the “good.”

-- Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

All of us intrepid writers out there are fighting temptations throughout this month so we can get something down on paper. 50,000 words of something--but really, more than "stuff." Any creative act is a big yes and full of light. Messy and unformed as our thoughts look on the first pages, there's such a beauty there, and yet we run from it to embrace lots of negative, empty, life-denying actions and thoughts. Why?

I don't care if I make the 50,000 mark of my sequel to HOW WENDY REDBIRD DANCING SURVIVED THE DARK AGES OF NOUGHT--for now titled INEXTRICABLY--but I do want to emerge on December 1 with some sense of forward momentum and trust that this manuscript is worth finishing.

A tall order, perhaps, especially when the temptations are everywhere. Not just the laundry and everyday tasks that don't have enough time to be done, but the dark and wayward thinking that derails the mind.

I don't mean writer's block; that's its own mountain to discuss. For me, it's lazy thinking. I don't have crises of faith, but I do follow lines of thought that are worthless.
  • Like making to-do lists beyond the bounds of the day job, when I should be off duty, "driving the truck all night," as my mom used to say, reviewing that which yields no fruit or pay 
  • Like spending precious minutes ranting and resenting the unsolvable--like the annoying habits of highly invasive and unconscious people
  • Like wondering what the Kardashians or the Braxtons are up to
  • Like stewing over how so and so didn't do me right the other day when they did such and such
  • Like chewing on how if I could only change this unchangeable thing about x, then everything would be better, or...
  • Like guilting myself out for not being perfect in writing, discipline, or whatever I feel like beating myself up for
Needless to say, these minutes make many hours, and these habits sap creative energy. They are big nos that stop the flow.

Like my commute, for example: some days, I spend 40 minutes or more on any of the above worthless mind meanders when I could be plotting my story. Author Lisa Jordan asks, Why not steal those moments to write? I've generated so many good ideas when I start demanding I do, and suddenly, the tiresome commute becomes incubator, lab, office. I ask myself the simple question from childhood when I wanted a story to go on: "What's going to happen next to Wendy?" That stokes the creative fires.

Off goes NPR and tales of political corruption and Wall Street greed; off goes the local station giving the celebrity dish and traffic despair. Instead I put on a favorite song, set to repeat, and after 20-some plays, I have new scenes, new threads, new dialogue for the novel.

Writing is about mind control. It's about the muse, yes, and the creative impulse, but at the end of the day, it's no different than being in any other discipline. What gets a person up at 5 AM to run and train for the half-marathon? The same belief in oneself and commitment past fear, laziness, and greed to get the seat of the pants to the chair, staying focused past the desire to check Facebook and email, and reminding oneself that this time is worthy, necessary time. Somedays that's the most important mind control: telling myself I should make time to find the seat in the first place. Prior to sitting some writers fight many battles, mental demons of whether they even deserve to be present on the page. I battle whether to stay there.

The other day I went straight from work to a coffee shop and began Nanowrimo-ing. I ran into a fellow teacher I worked with in the past, who was hard at work with colleagues at his own table: grading, grading, grading. He and his colleagues, after a long, hard day in the trenches, went back to work with each other's companionship and coffee to keep them going. I remember those years. Grading in that very coffee shop is what I used to do, day after day. I said yes to those kids' papers and my job every day.

Writing is my job now. It's no less important, meaningful, or spiritual than any other day job. Don't listen to culture that calls it hobby, lark, detour. Do what you were made to do. Say yes, Lyn, and seek that light!

Writing Prompts:

  1. How's Nanowrimo going for you? Or any writing project? Do you have a daily discipline, or is the project surviving on stolen moments now? Is it time to recalibrate and ask yourself where time hides and must resurface for your writing?
  2. What dark thoughts plague your thinking and trap you in the "no"? Where do these thoughts come from? What need do they serve?
  3. What light thoughts can drive you back to the page? Write a few lines that can serve as mantras or pep talks--succinct and quick messages to self--to get you back to the page.
  4. What did your favorite authors do to find time to write? 

Friday, November 11, 2011

He Gets Me

Now the road I want to travel’s a little driveway made of gravel
On a shady Piedmont hill in Caroline
Where the trees sway in the breeze whispering sweet melodies
It’s the closest thing to heaven in my mind

When I met Gregory Lewis Hawks in February of 2005, I'd just stopped a traditional line of work--teaching--and taken a risk to do freelance curriculum work and write my novel. Not an eyebrow was raised from my suitor on the topic of pursuing my art, as my husband-to-be, a country and bluegrass musician, had one album to his credit and another in the hopper. When you marry an artist, here are some things you never have to explain:

  • I need to be alone with my art. (In his line of work, it's said Alamance County-style, as in, "I wish everyone'd just leave me alone so I can pick."
  • It isn't right! There isn't enough time in the world to get this right! (In our house, a Saturday morning is happily spent facing the demons of a wayward song or manuscript.)
  • I'm crazy to be an artist. Why am I an artist? (When certain bills come, we shake our heads and then remind ourselves we'd not be able to sleep at night if we took a job just for the big money. Not that anyone's offering that, but you have to console yourself somehow as you're paying bills in an economy where wages are stagnant and artists never made much anyway.)
  • Nobody cares what I do! (When you spend years making a piece of art, you start to lose it somedays, thinking that no one will ever hear it, read it, care about it, nor understand why you took so long to birth it.)
Of course, someone does care what I do--a lot. That's my husband who believes in me, who's patient with my artistic frustrations and moods, who gives me my own verb ("are you deadlining?"), and lets me face the process, day after day, in my office alone, with writers' groups, with an expensive coffee and sweet habit. 

Besides understanding my need for space, Greg thinks like I do, in ideals, possibilities, arguments, wishes, and dreams. He makes art because he wants life to be better, sweeter, more blessed. Life is a rhyme and a pun and a lyric; it's an image, a snapshot, a line of verse. Our conversations about people and politics and ourselves all spring from this artistic view--a spiritual view that claims man was made to create. I never have to explain the passion so consuming. I never with him have to shelve the dream.

It's rare in this life to find soul mates--friends, family, or lovers who let you be exactly who you are. When we find them, we need to celebrate them, every day. What I have I didn't always have and won't find everywhere. 

Thank you, my sweet husband, for building this artistic haven with me and giving me all your love every day. Happy anniversary.

Writing Prompts:
  • Who gets you and your dreams? How do they give you license, space, and support?
  • Write that person a love letter, a thank you card, a poem, or a lyric of thanks.
  • Whose dreams do you support? How
  • If support is lacking in your life, visualize the people you need and want in your life. 
  • What is the biggest need you have right now in order to pursue the artist's dream? What are 10 ways you can fulfill that need?
  • In your writing, are your characters pursuing their dreams, or are they stymied? Why? How?
  • If your characters lack dreams, give your protagonist and a secondary character each a goal that is an impossible dream, something they gave up when they were 16, 25, or older. Why did they give up such dreams? What were the obstacles? Is there any way they might try to get back to these hopes?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

How Distance Kills a Darling

Alysse Finkel sees me do it but doesn’t say a word. She’s thin, pointy, and gray like a mouse, but she ripples all over like a cat resisting a rub. I think it’s a giggle. 
This one might be Good People.

-- Wendy in draft #7 of my novel, How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought

I thought I'd never give Alysse up. Never. But now she's dead.

Don't worry: she's only a figment, a former character in my novel who's now a killed darling. She was a weirdo and I loved her, a lot.

Through conversations with my agent, I've realized that I need to streamline. Fewer characters allowed to develop fully leads to clarity of structure and robustness of storyline, never mind better momentum.

What's hard is when one of those characters was "there at the creation." Alysse did kick the whole show off, rescuing Wendy at a key moment.
“This act will cost you your soul,” says a voice.Everyone turns. It’s Alysse, steps away to my right.Koyt says, “What the hell?”Deanna says to her girls, “Who the hell’s that?” like they’re Wiki Wenches on demand. They shrug, like, We didn’t authorize her existence.Alysse Finkel’s eyes burn like hot coals. You can’t call her pretty, but she’s incandescent, she’s about to burst into flame. I swear Deanna backs up a step. 
But that's my illusion. I was there at the creation, as was the heroine, Wendy. Wendy is the catalyst for her triumphs and total fails. When I look back to see whodunnit in the first 10 pages, Wendy is the star. And that's how it should be.

Which is one reason why Alysse needs to go. If she's there at the creation but not there for the clean-up, but not part of the crew who brings things home--then sorry, she just needs to go. She can't light up things like a torch and then fade away with weak flickers halfway through. That's what I allowed when I couldn't quite cut her from the beginning. But then I figured out who might take her place.

The frame of your story--first and last pages--tell you who matters in your story. If my ending got rewritten to remove Alysse, then the beginning must also be rewritten without her. That's the demand of this particular story. I can't sew things together like a crazy quilt, hoping that the mix with her still in it is going to match the rest of the changed manuscript.

Once I got brave enough to let go, a road opened up. All of sudden, the way got wide and I began to see new scenes. That solution to the problem is worth its own blog. In this one, I just have to bemoan the emotional impact, the wrestling I had with it. My agent advised, Take her out, but I couldn't listen. I had to go through with one draft with Alysse still stuck there until the next round of comments showed me it really was time for her to move along.

Have you had to be similarly brave, or have fictional deaths and disappearances gone easier for you?

Writing Prompts
  1. What's the harshest cut you've ever made to your manuscript? The kindest cut?
  2. What is the hardest thing you've wrestled with during revision?
  3. Create a character. Give this person a full profile--personality replete with quirks, enough reality to walk this earth, a family and history, total physicality. Write 10 scenes with this person. Have him or her make friends, lose friends, fall in love, triumph with a dream, and fail miserably.
  4. Now kill this character. Design his or her demise or make him or her a missing person. 
  5. Just kidding. Don't do #3 or #4 unless you absolutely have to.
  6. What novel or story have you read where a character might have been "streamlined out," thus improving the story? Why?
  7. Rank your top three favorite characters in a beloved novel or story and argue why an author could never remove them from the tale.
  8. Now do the same for one of your stories. Look at the top three and ask yourself about numbers 4, 5, and 6. Why might they be able to leave the tale and no one's really worse for wear?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Teaching During a Tragedy: Remembering 9-11-2001

English teachers pick up tragedy, horror, and the grisly details of human behavior every day. That's the normal fare of classroom literature; we deal in anguish and suffering while parsing metaphor, symbol, and paragraph. The racism and incest of To Kill a Mockingbird; the bloodbaths of Julius Caesar; the horror, the horror of imperialism and slavery in Heart of Darkness. Teachers must walk a line of clinical curiosity to help students see the craft behind the passion and the pain. Sure, I've done a lot of dramatic readings, dragged my students up to the front of the room for role plays, and insisted students see the beauty, meaning, transcendence, and emotion. But like many of my colleagues, I've rarely forgotten my role and mission as skill mentor. We've got work to do here, people.

Words like competencies, skills, and grades cease to mean much when bad things happen for real, off the page: real deaths, real hurricanes, and real Twin Towers falling. When they're happening while class is supposed to be in session.

10 years after 9-11, I struggle to remember how or what I taught that Tuesday. I recall a student rushing into the classroom at break (was it about 9:45 AM?) to tell us to turn on the TV, turn on the TV! I sat in shock with a small group of students watching news footage. I remember a student crying next to me; I put my arm around her; and I believe I said to her, "Are those people--" Did I actually ask, Are those people jumping from the burning buildings? I couldn't believe my eyes anymore than my students could.

Because nothing was making sense, I moved in very slow motion that morning. It hit me right about then that my sister had just moved to Manhattan (less than a month before, so I still pictured her elsewhere, not having yet visited), and my best friend from high school lived there, too. I began making phone calls from my classroom. My father assured me my sister was okay; or, at least she'd said she was when she called my father sometime after 9:00 AM. 10 blocks away, 10 years ago, my sister felt the whole building shudder and knew she had to leave, right away, without really knowing why. She would then spend four hours walking home, covered in dust and debris, and we would hear the whole story days later. I would learn that my best friend and her husband heard the news before they left for work that day; that they, who often worked 9:30 AM to 7:00 PM, a New York schedule, missed being near the terror by the mere fact of routine.

Then a student asked me to come outside and pray with them at the flagpole. This student had just formed a religious group on campus, asking me to be the advisor, and despite lots of resistance from the faculty, we were allowed to meet in an unused room before school began once a week--Wednesdays. But on that strange, slow-motion Tuesday, no one seemed to much care about following any rules or who was doing what. We gathered out there in sharp September sun, under a bright blue sky, and in a shaky voice, with all of us holding hands, the student led us in prayer.

My other block class that day watched TV with me; I felt it was necessary for us to see what was going on. Then I turned the TV off at the sight of crowds celebrating somewhere in the Middle East. One of my students later told me the footage was contrived--that no one was actually celebrating at the news. I still don't know the truth, but I very much hope she's right.

None of the above qualifies as teaching. It was response, mere response, a matter of being there, moment by moment, trying to grasp the events and their magnitude. The rest of the day is a blank to me.

I asked students to journal about it the next day. I remember grim faces looking back at me while I told them writing can help us process and help us heal. At least, I think that's what I said. I gave a very vague prompt, probably asking them to write whatever they felt. We wrote together. I always let my students fold over pages for privacy, and I can't tell you what anyone wrote.

10 years ago on a Tuesday, I did not teach. I was physically present, I was observant, I was reactive. I was a person trying to understand what was happening and to not cry in front of my students. I had no comforting words, just a knowledge I had to keep moving through this like every other American. I, usually the question asker, had too many that day and the rest of that year no one could answer. And I could not hand my kids these insecure, tragic, and painful queries for study.

Today if I were in a classroom I could, no doubt because questions 10 years later would be different for high school students who were 4, 5, and 6 that day, who may never have been to New York, and who know no one there. I'm not sure. But I can't ignore the event anymore than I can ignore metaphor when it's time to teach it. Perhaps a teacher's Hippocratic oath is to do what we believe aids healthy learning and human development. That does include stopping a task to remember the past; it includes giving honor to people and events over pacing guides and curricular goals. Stop, drop, and heal. For all those legislators and officials who would give teachers another duty for their plate: let me say we educators strive toward--dare I call it?--spiritual competency, human feeling, on those days that are anniversaries, when we can't ignore what's gone before and that which yet may never be parsed, ever, to a test's satisfaction.

Writing Prompts:

-- What are your strongest memories of 9-11-2001? Are any memories ones that you still struggle with? Are there any ones that you cling to?
--- Is there any element of strangeness to your recollections of that day, making you wondering if your memory serves you right? Do you wonder if any memories might have tangled with others'? What parts of the day are blank to you? What do you ask yourself now about that day that you wish you could remember?
-- What has this tragedy meant to you over the last 10 years?
-- How has your perception of this tragedy changed?
-- In the wake of the tragedy, has there been any event that has continued the pain for you or started the process of healing? What would those events be?
-- Do you believe in anniversaries? Do they help you and others you know? Why or why not?
-- Should schools provide official recognition of landmark dates since national tragedies? Why or why not?
-- When a tragedy strikes, how have you handled yourself, responded to your students, and addressed your curriculum on such a day?
-- What do you want the children of tomorrow to understand about 9-11?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Canoodling with my Nook

I'm in love. An e-reader has won my heart.

Its name is Nook and it's become my constant companion. I adore the huge print, the ease of page swiping, and the light weight in my hand. I also like paying $4.89 for The Hunger Games so it can tuck me in at night. I don't miss propping hardbacks or even paperbacks on my stomach and trying to make pages stay put. The lazy reader I'd become is no more.

I fought getting an e-reader for some time. It seemed decadent when I have shelves full of unread books. Then a good friend gave me this surprise gift, and it gave me permission to try 21st century reading. 

When the Nook competes with the desktop and the iTouch, it wins handily. The iTouch, helpful for checking email, is not the right screen for many pages. And the desktop? No contest. My neck and back thank you, dear Nook. Now I'm reading literature on the weeknights again, whether in bed or on the sofa. The Hunger Games delivered via Nook is the tool of my conversion.

Touche, technology. Thou hast outwitted thyself and brought my reading life back!

As a writer, I love loading my critique group's manuscripts on this device. Reading their work while I'm kicked back in a chair, bed, or sofa changes the whole dynamic. The manuscript has a different status when read this way--easily, like a book, yet without the pressure of pen and paper. I'm no longer feeling the need to "do something" with their pages. Before, I'd have their print-out with a pen close by or be sitting uncomfortably at my desktop, and that quickened my tendency to look for things to mark. I'm reading more  receptively and humbly, giving the manuscript a more thoughtful, peaceful read.

This new approach helps tremendously when reading first drafts. Writers in first-draft mode need global comments and questions, not line edits. My temptation to home in on some of their trees and prune the branches has disappeared. When you seek the flaws too quickly, you're missing the bigger mission, and until a writer is sure of that bigger mission, all that sound and fury of the line-edit pen is wasted time.

When it comes to actually writing a critique or marking notes, I assume an iPad would prove superior, giving me the ability to mark up manuscripts with a note-taking app. But I'm happy enough right now with this new view of others' writing, canoodling with my multi-functional Nook.

This doesn't mean I've emptied my nightstand. Housekeeping, Souls Raised from the Dead, Alice Munro's stories, the Bible, and a pile of other books await me there. The two voluminous Harry Potters are loans from a friend who'd no doubt like them back, especially if I don't finish them before Pottermore opens for e-business. But the rest? They'll stay. Housekeeping is an '80s copy my sister loved on again and again; I'd like to read that artifact. Souls Raised from the Dead bears Doris Betts' autograph; that's a treasure I won't lose. The Bible I read slowly, carefully, sometimes the same bit over and over. Turning pages of these works, 'tis no work at all.

As my husband sings, Some things are better left alone.

Friday, August 19, 2011

How The Help Helps

"I was scared, a lot of the time, that I was crossing a terrible line, writing in the voice of a black person. I was afraid I would fail to describe a relationship that was so intensely influential in my life, so loving, and so grossly stereotyped in American history and literature."

-- Author Kathryn Stockett on writing THE HELP

It was 2004 and I was teaching 10th graders. One white male, 15 years of age, informed me in no uncertain terms that racism was over, kaput, and certainly not worthy of discussion.

The next day I came in and drew a timeline on the board: a civil rights timeline.

It featured the highs and lows of the Movement's struggles from 1900 through 2004. Among many other events, it included the scary fact lynchings continued unabated throughout the first half of the 20th century, and the happy fact that our armed forces, our lunch counters, and our schools desegregated in the second half.

Then I asked students: when were you born? When were your parents born? Your grandparents? We filled out the timeline with these happy events. I also included my and my family's births.

Then I gave students a recap. "So, (insert name of student who thinks racism is nonexistent), when your parents were in grade school, our schools were desegregating. So, when I was born, Dr. King was shot..." And on, and on, and on.

The argumentative student suddenly had very little to say when he saw his life and ancestry coinciding with the indisputable events of history. That he and his family were not so far removed from relatively recent events that shook our nation's segregated society to its core.

It's for this reason I can't help but like The Help. It reminds us we have a complicated, painful history, and that past doesn't go away simply because of someone's opinion it no longer matters.

I also appreciate how well author Kathryn Stockett walks in someone else's shoes. She crafts the characters of black Aibileen and Minny as deftly as she does white Skeeter and Hilly. Every character is complex, flawed, and full of possibility and surprise.

Yet she has obviously spent sleepless nights full of guilt for making this choice.

I've meditated on this topic in a former post, A Right to Write? I've been challenged by others when I wrote from the perspective of an African-American woman. As one wise friend put it to me,
“(It’s) something about the audacity/privilege of a white woman to imagine she could speak for a black woman when the white woman couldn't (by definition) have experienced some of the episodes the black mother did. . . I do have concern about the perspective, however, as presumably, it is projection. I sit here asking myself if this story challenges white supremacist norms and consciousness by taking the reader inside this situation - or if it perpetuates white supremacist norms and consciousness in a subtle, complex way.” 
I am a white woman saying I find Aibileen and Minny complex. Is that because my lens only allows certain options for black women, and Stockett's characters happened to fit just so into my view?

No doubt will I be challenged again when (I say when, not if) my novel HOW WENDY REDBIRD DANCING SURVIVED THE DARK AGES OF NOUGHT is published. In my novel a white girl and a black girl befriend one another in 2010. I'd like to think that's not such a rare event, but in Chapel Hill, NC, I wouldn't call it "common." Let's try "possible,"which is better than "unlikely" but not as good as "common."

I'll admit that THE HELP frustrated me sometimes. I don't know if the writing felt weak in places due to structural flaws or more because of issues with character development, but I did want to ask if Skeeter really was that clueless about the danger she embraced. Maybe I should chalk her obliviousness up to youthful idealism and the absolutely distinct worlds blacks and whites lived in back then, that she would rush so headlong into an expose of abuse of black domestics that was rampant in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi society.

Then I remember what I used to be like, embarking on my first years of teaching, assuming as a young white woman in a diverse school that all my students were similar and that together, we could easily learn and grow. That I could treat all students exactly the same (my same, remember) and expect the same results. I also remember the boy I began this post with, the one who couldn't see that our society still has any true inequality whatsoever, and that if any does exist, it's merely because of some lack the will, drive, and sweat. Like it or not, we who are white walk in a world where we are the background, the default, the mainstream. As author Marcia Mount Shoop writes in her post, "Waking Up White," those of us who are Caucasians aren't truly ready to deal with our race:
"We don’t have time to think about and talk about whiteness.  We’ve got better things to do; and perhaps, less disruptive things to do.  It is more comfortable to reach out to the people who are less fortunate to us than for white middle/upper class people to name how we are complicit in the systems of racism. 
Indeed, whiteness is an intimidating thing to think about in this country.  If we think about whiteness, that means we have to think about blackness, too. More to the point, if we think about whiteness then we have to think about how we benefit from the racism that whiteness helped to create."
In my story, a black girl named Tanay talks about how white people always need to be "the entree." If you're always the star of the show, and that's your norm, and as that celebrity you are relatively safe and secure in your societal status, why would you meditate on the race that brought you that privilege?

Class must inevitably be part of this discussion, too. The boy who questioned racism in today's society was sitting in the classroom of an upper middle-class, suburban school, and I, his teacher, am the product of a similar background. Just like Skeeter.

Stockett writes an apology and an explanation at the close of THE HELP. She titles it, "Too Little, Too Late." I disagree. Every story is something, an effort to tell our truths and bring struggles to the light. You tried, Stockett, and you succeeded in reminding us of past anguish and horror. Skeeter would be 70 today, and last time I checked, that's still within the realm of white women's life expectancy. That past is not yet dead.

Aibileen and Minny with worse odds against them--the stress of potential violence, the humiliation from employers, unchecked racism, and poverty, would not be so likely to make it to 70. They might not still be alive, but their children would be. Their past is not yet dead.

Stockett seems well aware she rode into this publishing fray on the same horse of benefits I can claim, too: enough food and safety to grow up confident, enough love to grow up happy, and enough belief in self, that one's words should be heard and can indeed help. How about time to write?

Of course there's an amazing family in my back story and so many other heroes who light my way; I don't discount these facts. Yet I will not ignore that particular intersection of race and class helping Stockett and me get here, or wherever we believe we deserve to go. We had lots of help along the way.

 P.S. I'm headed to see the movie this weekend and even more intrigued to see another way of telling this story after some very interesting reviews by Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman--"Is The Help a condescending movie for white liberals?" and Professor Melissa Harris-Perry's assessment (MSNBC interview and tweets while watching the movie).

Writing and Discussion Prompts:

-- Does THE HELP help? Why or why not?
-- Does Stockett walk well in others' shoes? Where does she succeed? Where does she miss the mark?
-- When you have used the word "racism" in a sentence recently, how did you use it? Record that sentence, then define racism.
-- What events in American history to you illustrate the story of racism in the United States?
-- In his interview of Professor Harris-Perry, Lawrence O'Donnell asks about artistic judgment. As a work of art, does THE HELP offer us redemption, realism, and art? What criteria do you use when judging literary works?
-- Are some points of view off limits for certain groups? Or should we all write from any point of view?
-- What points of view do you need to understand better? Which points of view do you not want to understand better? Which ones will you trying walking in?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Sunday Truce

In my favorite TV show that we're following on DVD, The Wire, gangsters from both sides of Baltimore agree that whatever you do, you don't shoot someone up on a Sunday.

Then Barksdale's crew violates this rule. Omar, a gangster with his grandma on his arm, is in the sights of two incompetent henchmen. They call for permission to fire, and a distracted gang leader, in the middle of a mob meeting, gives the go-ahead. It's slipped his mind that it's Sunday.
Image found here.

They shoot Grandma's Sunday hat--her "crown"--right off her head. Omar's last-second dive, shoving her into a taxi, saves her. Except for some cuts and bruises, Grandma survives.

But the one rule the gangs held sacred--that one point of trust--is now broken among the gangs. All agree: what the Barksdale crew did was beyond the pale.

You don't do that kind of business on Sunday.

I've failed the Sunday truce. Writers need a Sabbath, and lately, I struggle to find it. I'm talking about the ability to stop, rest, and cease and desist from picking at your manuscript.

Before I took a vacation, I sent my agent a draft of the novel, showing my efforts to address some issues. I knew this draft wasn't perfect, but I had to submit it. I couldn't sleep at night thinking I would just head off into vacation and just, well, you know, relax.

That would be wasting time. That would be less than diligent, focused, goal-oriented. Right? The rest of the world is busy pursuing passions. What are you, some kind of dilettante?

Agents need more than a few days to read a manuscript; you aren't the only client, nor is reading manuscripts the only thing they do. I knew that, and understood when I returned from my brief vacation she would need a little more time. The problem was, I suddenly could spot a bunch of problems in my story--problems I would have seen if I had been patient and let the manuscript sit while I did the impermissible, relax.

But what if someone else publishes my idea before me? What if by the time I finish, My Moment has passed? What if, if, if, if?

Here's what Seth Godin says about wasting time. And here's what former agent and children's author Nathan Bransford says about distractions.

In short: waste time and be distracted. Good authors do this and the writing soars because of it.

I took this manuscript back and asked for more time. My agent was willing to read it right then, but I said, No, I must make it better. With my typical zeal and impatience I dove back in.

A number of problems are fixed now--I'll give myself that. But this tendency to dodge the quiet spaces in my writing life...this is something I must look at. There's a bearing down, a gritting of teeth, a self-flagellation that isn't any part of the joy of writing.

What's that I've said before? Huh?

If a tree falls...?... Go super-slo-mo until it's time...?

Breathe. Wander away from words and say, "It is what it is now--and it will be something different someday."

The dark side of passion is perfectionism. Zeal can lead to beautiful phrases and pages as well as neurosis, obsession, and single-mindedness.

Next Sunday, I'm going to church. I'm going to a movie. I'm going to slow down, back off, and let the mind wander away from the work that will always be there.

Writing Prompts:

-- Where in your life are you most impatient? Where do you bear down, stress out, demand things be immediate, chop, chop?
-- Write about a time where impatience or patience served you well. Write about a time where it did not.
-- If you were raising a five year-old, an eight year-old, a 13 year-old, and a 17 year-old, what advice about patience would you give each? When should one be patient, and why?
-- Is impatience ever a virtue?
-- What is your Sabbath? Where does rest enter your life each week? How do you protect it?
-- Do you rest too little or too much?
-- In your writing, are you a Mozartian or a Beethovian?
-- In your favorite story or novel, which character is fueled by endless energy, impatience, or excessive devotion to work? What type of journey does this character take, and what kind of end results? Is there a moral to this story about patience, work, and rest?

Saturday, August 6, 2011

How to Bake a Rejection Pie--A Poem in Honor of Short Story Rejections

In honor of losing yet another short story contest, I declare it time to write poetry. Found poetry, that is, since the following lines are excerpts from the hundreds of rejections I've received for my short story manuscripts. I think they make a rather sweet pie of rejection.

Image found at http://www.jasonshen.com/2010/the-rejection-therapy-challenge-week-1/

Thank you for your submission.

We have carefully considered your submission.

We wish we could respond more personally to your submission.

We read your submission respectfully and with care.

Please know we read and appreciate every submission
and it pains us
a little
to be resorting to such a standard reply,
but submissions
keep coming in
and the hours keep
slipping away and
what is one to do.

We respectfully ask that you wait at least one month before submitting more work for our consideration.

We get a lot of submissions and can only use a fraction of them,
so please understand that this No most likely means
"Not Quite the Right Fit," not "No Good."

Because we read so many stories,
it is not possible for us to give specific feedback,
but, if you're a relative beginner,
you may find something of interest here: Editors' Input.

We receive many
compelling, (sic)
stories, but can only take a very limited number due to constraints of space and style.

We were literally shocked at the quality of so many of the entries.

Even quality work often has to be declined.

We appreciate your willingness to entrust us with your writing.

Our editorial staff and needs change for each issue,
so I hope you will consider submitting your work to us in the future.

However, we particularly enjoyed "Retrograde" and hope
you will keep us in mind for future submissions.

One of our editors would like to leave you some personalized comments,
so look for an email regarding "Retrograde" soon.

There was much to be liked in this story, and it got some good comments from our readers.
But alas, it still just didn't seem to work for us.
I'd be happy to see you submit something the next reading period, which is now open.
Best of luck finding a home for this story.

Unfortunately this particular piece was not a right fit for The St. Petersburg Review,
but we were very impressed by your writing.
We hope that you will feel encouraged by this short note and send us something else.

Iron Horse Review: About your manuscript ("By the Water"), our editors said: Okay, this story is very, very good. The father is rendered in great detail and is consistent, and the three boys are all clearly distinguishable from one another. The story, moving. At the end, though, the conflict with Jeremiah seems unresolved, and that conflict seems to be the most important, next to the protagonist's own internal conflict. So we were just a little dissatisfied by the ending. But boy, that swimming pool scene is really nice.

The New Yorker: We really enjoyed this story of a father and his three sons; it was very tender and at times even humorous.

The Missouri Review: Lyn, Thank you for sending us your work titled "By the Water" for publishing consideration. Though this piece will not work for us, we encourage you to keep sending your work, as your talented writing style is one we look to promote through our publications. Your eye for detail and subtle humor are apparent throughout this piece, we congratulate you for excellent technique and hope to review your work in the future.
Sincerely, The Editors

We wish you success in placing your work elsewhere.

Never mind what we say. Keep writing!

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Just the Facts, Ma'am: How I Got My Agent

I have an agent. For once, I'm a bit speechless. So let's just focus on the facts.

My query journey began in May, 2010. I studied model queries, and I followed helpful agent blogs such as Nathan Bransford's, Rachelle Gardner's, and Janet Reid's Query Shark, so I could appropriately approach agents about my novel, ST. MICHAEL, PRAY FOR US.

Queries must commit your novel to a market, so I struggled with defining the novel's genre. I imagined potential readers, studied books I loved with similar themes, and pictured shelves in the bookstore. First I called ST. MICHAEL "commercial" or "mainstream" and eventually "upmarket women's fiction." Then I decided in December of 2010 I'd written a YA novel. That was my original belief while I was writing it, but I'd changed my mind as I began querying. I wondered if some material was too adult. By December I came back to the original conclusion, figuring the material, while adult, could still be possible for upper YA readers.

I found agents everywhere I looked: in Writer's Digest, in Poets & Writers, in blogs I followed, in Hope Clark's weekly emails, and from friends. One friend and fellow writer recommended I try QueryTracker, which turned out to be incredibly helpful. Not only can you access contact information there, but you can also see agents' client lists (books on Amazon) and hear from other writers about their querying experiences with a particular agent.

I Googled agents I was interested in and found Chuck Sambuchino's Guide to Literary Agents blog and Casey McCormick's Literary Rambles incredibly helpful. I wanted to find points of connection between my work and the agent. I also looked at some of the authors they represented to see if the genres of their works were similar to what I thought mine was. Google Books helped me search acknowledgments with agent names to see how authors spoke of their agents.

I wrote and rewrote that query countless times. I worked off of at least three different templates. Each query became its own, depending on the agent. I studied the agency web site to make sure the query format matched preferences and most importantly, to ensure I expressed what I already knew about the agent and why I hoped this agent might represent me. I shared my query with fellow writers following the same journey and made revisions.

I decided to start with electronic queries only. I found so many agents accepting electronic submissions that I opted not to exhaust another printer ribbon or ream of paper.

I queried in batches of three to five emails at a time. Conventional wisdom says wait and see what you hear from the first group and don't exhaust your pool of agents with a query that may need work. I will admit in more frantic, worried periods of my life, I exceeded five queries in a week. I quickly learned that the wait time could be more than three months for some agents, so waiting three months on five agencies didn't seem wise after a while.

While I waited for responses, I sought more feedback on my work from many trusted readers. I'd had readers before querying, and several more graciously stepped up to read the beast. I submitted pages to my writing groups. I completed new drafts and currently am on Draft #17. HOW WENDY REDBIRD DANCING SURVIVED THE DARK AGES OF NOUGHT became the title.

During the year of querying, I received 99 official rejections. These responses involved some variation on a form letter.

I received 48 unofficial rejections, meaning, not even crickets. Some agent web sites explained that after three months, six weeks, or whatever time period the agency chose, one could assume a no. Some web sites didn't specify, so I made the assumption for them.

Of the official rejections, eight were personalized. Agents told me my writing was strong and skilled, that the premise of the novel was original and compelling, but the journal format or the length was not quite right. I also heard in these same responses that the market wasn't optimal to push this type of a project or the agent didn't feel he or she could appropriately advocate for it despite the fact he or she liked my work.

I received five requests for partial reads and four requests for fulls.

How did I know how to keep going? If I hadn't heard in October of 2010 someone was interested, would I have kept going? I'd like to think so. These are the decisions that are gut level, inspired by stats, but not driven by stats. I'll tell those stories later; I'm just not ready yet. This is a facts post and I'm sticking to it.

The final fact is Sarah Heller of the Helen Heller Agency is my agent. I'm very excited to be working with her and look forward to the next steps. More posts will come on the topic of the revision process and what I'm learning about prepping a manuscript for queries to publishers.

These stats represent Phase 1 of my journey. (And I thought writing the novel was Phase 1!) But if we authors dream of publication, that's its own separate mountain and we need to pace ourselves accordingly. Pedometer, pack, map--check. Miles trekked, pounds carried, points covered--check. Break it down like a journey and the road's not such a monster anymore.

Writing Prompts:

-- What do you love doing? Whether cooking, rugby, writing, or dance, ask yourself, how have I pursued it? How have I studied it? Can you convert that study to statistics--the numeric facts of your hours of study, type of tasks, and results of your labors?
-- Do stats matter in art? Are stats too scientific, too clinical, too concerned with achievement?
-- Have you ever spent a year pursuing something that had no guarantee of success? What kept you going?
-- How badly do you want to be published? How do you know that the desire is something beyond you?
-- How many agents have you queried? What are the stats of your querying labors? What about your stats impresses or discourages you?
-- What have you learned from the querying process? What do you want to try differently with the next round of queries?
-- How do you pick yourself up when just the facts leave you discouraged? Are you doing all you can to overcome the facts? Are you doing all you can to create new stats?
-- Have the responses from your queries given you any feedback of how your query and your manuscript need to change? If not, where can you find that feedback? What revisions have you made to both?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Are You Screening?

"Hey, Lyn, are you screening?"

-- a friend calling our land line

Actually, I'm not screening. I've turned the phone away and the ringer off so I don't see or hear calls.

That's how writing gets done.

When was the last time you wrote 396 pages of a coherent narrative with believable characters, a protagonist with driving desire, and a page-turning plot that resolves satisfactorily? Yeah, me neither. I'd like to think I'm close, but that's only after a year of revisions. One hour here, interrupted; two hours there, uninterrupted. It's the uninterrupted time that gets the writing job done.

Modern life is not interested in deep reflection. It prefers breathless news cycles and explosive tickers and buzzing phones. Ring! means, Hey, stop and look at me! Buzz! means Stop thinking! An interrupted thought often dies; words hang off the edge of your page, bleeding energy. You look back at your words and ask yourself, What was I was saying again?

I'm having trouble getting into books lately and I know this is a bad habit of attention deficit bred by modern life. It doesn't help I crank out thousands of words a week in my two jobs, either. Thankfully I can say I finished the amazing Room and can tell you about the beginning, middle, and end. I just embarked on Life of Pi and am struggling some with the opening. Is it because I've not been literary enough in a good while, having read so much YA I expect a payoff by page 2? Thank goodness I have such a rich history of reading that I can ask myself these unpleasant questions about my own behavior.

I know someone who lives for the phone. It rings, she jumps. If I lived like I used to, like her, I'd sure as heck talk to a lot of people and clean a lot more house while I did so. I'd wander into a lot more lanes as I drove. If I lived open to the latest distraction--and believe me, plenty tempt me every second on this computer alone--I'd never have written a novel or a short story collection or nuthin'.

So now that I've clarified that I'm not actually screening--I'm hiding--I must clarify that I don't think I'm particularly special because I write. Everyone screens or hides or whatever we want to call it but we don't like it when you screen us. I'm the same way; if I really need to talk to someone, I hate that all I've done by calling is activated the game of phone tag. Four tries later, at least two on each of our parts, we will locate each other. Strange world this is and yet I fully participate in the antics.

Modern life is so breakneck fast I felt the need to clarify my writerly stance against the sound and fury of everyday living. But for those who don't write and those who pick up the phone all the time, you might prefer I reduce this post to three words: "Writers are freaks."

Fine by me. Back to my pages.

Writing Prompts

-- Do you have quiet space in your day? How do you define "quiet space"? How long is it? What do you do with it?
-- When do you do your best thinking? Your best being? Why?
-- Is your schedule to your liking or does it feel run by something or someone else? What runs it? Why?
-- How often do you sit and think and what comes of thinking? Is it worry and endless loops of stress or is it meditation?
-- When you are interrupted, how long does it take you to get back to what you were doing? What do you do to reduce interruptions? What's your best tactic that you could recommend to others?
-- If you are a teacher, how do you help your students reduce distractions, focus on the work or conversation at hand, and stay centered, both in class and at home?
-- Write a poem or a story called "Breathless."
-- Write a story of 50 words about a life with no place to breathe. Define "no place to breathe" however you wish. Then write a 100 and a 500-word version. Which of these flash fiction pieces captures a breakneck speed and life at full tilt?
-- Which people and things interrupt your day--in a good way and in a bad way?
-- Do we have a right to live uninterrupted? Is there something inherently selfish wishing to retreat from the hubbub (defined as "a chaotic din caused by a crowd of people")?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Peter Pan Generation

"I shall title this journal, How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought."

-- Wendy Redbird Dancing

Ever read someone else's words and get chills that this stranger's on your very same wavelength?

Yesterday at Forbes, author Jason Oberholtzer shared his mind with "In Defense of My Generation." Though I couldn't have written such an essay, I do feel as if I've written such a book.

Image found at Scottish Book Trust

Wendy Redbird Dancing (protagonist of my novel) would agree with him that this time we're living in needs some name, so might as well pick one. He points out that the 21st century is "the unnamed decade." He lists common titles--"The Two-Thousands, The Ohs, The Naughties, Noughties, Aughties, Oughties, or The Aughts."

Wendy votes for "Noughts" in an age where she finds communications ephemeral, people undependable, and dark forecasts everywhere she turns. She would say a big amen to his assertion that "We grew up with loose ends, loose labels and high expectations"--and then promptly introduce you to her mother, Sunny, who deems everything negotiable.

Wendy who loves the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, as her lord, savior, and saint, would agree with Oberholtzer that she is indeed part of a lost generation. He calls it a "Peter Pan generation" mired in questions and fears, suspicious of all things institutional and people over 30. In an age of reality TV, TMZ exposes, 24-7 news flashes of scandal as leaders fall like Lucifers, Wendy can't help but see like Oberholtzer that "every institution we have been taught to hold in esteem has, in the last decade, given us ample reason to question their (sic) integrity."

Wendy has Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, George Bush, the Catholic Church scandal, WMDs, Enron, and Halliburton, Wall Street, and the housing crisis in her news feed. All are reason to wonder who can she trust. And that's just on her TV. The people closest to her have shown that material goods and fleeting feelings are the best things to cling to in a crisis--and we all know how that approach works out. At the start of the novel, Wendy realizes she can no longer cover for those responsible for her and needs to find a new path with true integrity.

Oberholtzer has at least six years on Wendy, but his spirit and analysis reflect her sober assessments. Here are a few of his thoughts that Wendy "plays out" for the reader, through direct experience and feelings:

--"Osama Bin Laden has actively defined my generation...The event that welcomed us to the adult world taught us that evil is real, justice is complicated and institutions are fallible."
--"So let’s please do away with the following seductive assertions: we have no regard for sacred institutions or hard work and we prefer our mother’s basement..."
--"We do not shirk responsibility. Our coming of age involved a massive reassessment of the meaning of responsibility. Individualism is often a characteristic of one who has reason to believe he or she is alone responsible for the future, when traditional models have failed."
--"We don’t want pity."

Wendy's coming-of-age tale forces her to confront some terrible truths. There's the internal pain from a past trauma she must face, but there's the external anguish from one person closest to her she must confront and overcome. She finds her target, takes aim, and moves forward with her destiny.

As minds shimmer with the same thoughts across cyberspace, radiating kindred feelings, Wendy whispers in my ear. She says that if this is so--people who are strangers can think so alike--then she does, strangely enough, have hope for humanity in this lost and limbo Age of Nought.

Monday, May 16, 2011

What Sayest Thou, Cicadas?

Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Macbeth, Act V, scene v, Macbeth.

Image found at Reuters, "Hear That Buzzing?"

If you're a North Carolina resident, you're making peace with the alien, neurotic, machine-like whirring of 13-year cicadas recently descended in our midst. You may still cock your head as you exit the door--"What the heck is that?" Then your foot crunches on husks left behind, the shells of nymphs just exiting the ground. You see something sluggish and damp crawling through new grass and old leaves--a grasshopper gone worm?--and realize it's a cicada drying its wings before it flies. You lean closer to peer at the red-eyed critter that's been growing 13 years underground, one of billions emerging here in the South.

Then if you're like me, you think, "Wow, all this sound and fury for what, a couple weeks above ground? You got a raw deal, critters."

What was I doing back in 1998 when these brief little things were born? Besides entering my eighth year of teaching, I was cradling a four year-old novel close--not doing much with it, but still damn proud of the desire that birthed it. Little did I know my life passions of teaching and writing lessons would shelve my fiction till the summer of 2003. The North Carolina Writers' Network Elizabeth Daniels Squire residency with Doris Betts helped me grow new shoots and seek sunlight in hungry ways I hadn't felt in years.

Little did I know the novel would once again go underground in 2009 when ST. MICHAEL, PRAY FOR US, AKA HOW WENDY REDBIRD DANCING SURVIVED THE DARK AGES OF NOUGHT was born--hot and fast, furious like these cicadas. The 1994 novel--once called BUT YES--would re-emerge this year as the prequel to my current one: OUR WHITE LADY OF THE GENTLE SINS. Not so dead after all.

Some might call all these years since '94 wasted time. Dormancy is deadness, certain folk might say. Only it hasn't been a period of dormancy for my writing. Like the cicadas, my work was actively growing. Nancy Hinkle, a University of Georgia professor of entomology, shares how "The little nymphs are down in the ground, they've got their mouth parts attached to tree roots and they're sucking the juice out of tree roots." Apt image for us writers who seek out mentors, writers' groups, books, conferences, and now, agents.

I envy the cicadas in some ways: they grow uninterrupted, the equivalent of an ivory tower gone bunker, and then emerge for one big mating party. They get 'er done fast and furious. They leave a legacy in the soil. That has to signify something.

The 1994 novel has had a 17-year cycle, looks like. Not a periodical cicada, like the 13-year babies, nor an annual locust. The 2009 novel has been alive two years. But who's counting? There's no race here, though cicadas might have us believe their fretful drone says, "Rush!" Maybe they know something we don't about the private life underground. There, where they can't blog, Facebook, tweet, or brag, they do the tough work of sucking and growing, staying attached to the goal, eyes on the prize. And maybe their genetic code knows all along the fleeting nature of prizes such as publicity, fame, and other aspects of above-ground life. They stay focused on keeping the species--their stories--alive.

I get it, cicadas. That's where I'm headed. Back to my stories breeding in the silent, breathless soil.

Writing Prompts

-- What were you doing 13 years ago? 17? Write a scene from one of those times.
-- What did you think you would be doing today that you're not? What did you think that you'd be doing today that you are? What did you fear you would or would not do? What do you rejoice in?
-- What is horrible about waiting? What is magical?
-- Describe a time when you have been left completely alone and liked it. What happened?
-- Describe a time when you were very quiet and experienced peace. What caused that? What was that peace like?
-- What have you spent a lot of time, effort, and sweat doing but have not yet seen the results? How do you feel about the time, effort, and sweat? How do you feel about the lack of results?
-- Predict where you will be 13 years from now, in 2024--physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. Write a scene from your future life when you emerge from the next 13 years.
-- Dr. Marcia Mount Shoop shares a blog post called "The Sound of Emerging." How would you describe your sound of emerging?
-- Look at your writing projects and find the one that has needed the most growth. Why? What has that time on task allowed this writing that something shorter and faster did not need? What do you think will soon emerge from this writing?

Friday, April 29, 2011

Great Voice, But Don't Be a Tease

"I just need to know that someone out there listens and understands and doesn't try to sleep with people even if they could have. I need to know that these people exist."

-- Charlie, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky

Today on the bus I saw some teens taking a picture of a stranger they were mocking. I heard, "Dude, this is so going to Facebook," and "I'm tweeting this now" while one boy tapped his phone. Mockery gone viral. Ah, modern youth: everything's for posting, and everything's for comment. For one shining second, each of us can be paparazzi or celeb. Take your pick.

Beyond sociological observations, I could classify this scene as a "man versus man" external conflict, or even "man versus machine" for the stranger whose picture was taken unawares by cell phone. Or perhaps, assuming the mockers have a conscience, it's a "man versus self" situation where someone in that mob asked himself if his actions were right and wrong.

With youth in mind, I read YA wondering how well it will fly with teens. In case you haven't noticed, I'm pursuing my "personal MFA" here, reviewing YA while polishing my novel, How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought. Studies are going swimmingly. Besides wondering how today's kids take these reads, I take my own pulse--what's my taste?--while weighing the craft of many talented authors--how well does characterization, plot, setting, style, etc, work?

Charlie, the protagonist of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, had me at hello. His voice is honest, to the point of being embarrassing, and it's calm, to the point of being robotic. The whole novel is Charlie's letters to a stranger:
"I am writing to you because she said you listen and understand and didn't try to sleep with that person at that party even though you could have. Please don't try to figure out who she is because then you might figure out who I am, and I really don't want you to do that. I will call people by different names or generic names because I don't want you to find me. I didn't enclose a return address for the same reason. I mean nothing bad by this. Honest."

After defending himself against a bully who attacks him during his first week of high school, Charlie notes without any particular worry, "Some kids look at me strange in the hallways because I don't decorate my locker, and I'm the one who beat up Sean and couldn't stop crying after he did it. I guess I'm pretty emotional." Even with the frequent crying, it's as if there's a thick rubber curtain between Charlie and us; his emotions bat against it and sometimes, creep around the barrier, but the time they get to us, they're muted, enervated, distilled.

So naturally, I wanted to know what was up. I kept reading to find out what this boy's issue was. I knew his best friend had committed suicide before the novel began. I knew Charlie had lost his Aunt Liz to a car accident. From a great distance Charlie offers brilliant observations about the worlds around him--that of his family and then very slowly, new friends he manages to make, and then the girl he secretly loves. Friends treat him with kid gloves, like a breakable toy they play with or a small child they're teaching the ropes.

The entire novel I wondered if at the end we'd learn Charlie is on the autistic spectrum. We can only speculate what Charlie's psychiatrist visits are for, though I agree all along he needs them. I liked his differences that touched every relationship he forms--whether with his English teacher or other students--because you sit on the edge of your seat wondering if they will abuse him or take advantage in some way. But people find him charming--particularly two seniors who become his constant companions--and his teacher feeds him advanced reading all year. With the help of these "normal" people who all struggle with various issues of their own, Charlie can come of age in a somewhat normal way, learning how to make friends and survive classes and join the community. The friends have dramas that Charlie reports on as if embedded with the troops but not quite moved: cheating boyfriends, questions about sexual identity, and drug and alcohol use. Their dramas filter through Charlie's insulated perspective, we need to see how their train wrecks will turn out.


But I had no idea that Charlie suffers from a past trauma of sexual abuse. He cries often, and as the book progresses, suffers a few breakdowns, even catatonia. He discovers masturbation at a fairly late date, age 14, so maybe that was a clue. But it's not till the final pages that we learn of the abuse that fueled his current behavior and sadness. We also never learn who he's been writing all this time.

And so Charlie, a character I'd cared about, deflated for me like a balloon. All that rubber insulation had to pay off in some way, but not with this neat diagnosis, this tied-in-a-bow ending of a hospital stay. I liked the story, but I wasn't moved.

Obviously, if I made it to the end, the work was a success, correct? But Charlie's internal conflict is hinted at only via smoke signals--Charlie versus his buried pain--and even with his odd actions of writing to a stranger, his clinical observations about fellow humans, and the bouts of crying, I didn't learn enough to expect such an ending or even suspect who turns out to be the actual perpetrator (Aunt Liz).

I realize that trauma goes underground. I realize that Charlie is giving us hints all along of PTSD. I don't doubt that his character is quite possible and that his experience probably speaks to many readers. The goal of this novel is not to explore the terror of his flashbacks or his work with the counselor where we might descend into myriad labyrinths and never emerge. The novel aims to tell us the perks of being a strange, withdrawn boy who somehow manages to cross his own barriers, however unexplained to us.

Fine. I say, "Great voice. Great character worthy of being followed. But don't be a tease."

By "tease," I mean that if Charlie can't tell us what's up, then someone, maybe the surrounding characters, maybe elements of setting, must tell us somehow. Or how about the recipient of the letters? I know that Charlie leaves no return address--a clever way to ensure no contact--but why not let that plot be foiled? Lush by Natasha Friend has a similar premise of writing to an unknown person, where a girl with an alcoholic father and family chaos leaves messages for a stranger in a library book. But the stranger writes back, and Samantha the protagonist evolves. The mystery (AKA the tease) morphs into a conflict and complication for her character. We as readers feel rewarded for our time spent in anticipation, confusion, and wonder.

I find myself doing the same thing Perks does in my own novel: starting down a path and not finishing what I began. In my revisions, I've looked at the secondary and tertiary characters and asked, What's the consequence of their interactions with Wendy? What's the pay-off? For all actions there must be an equal and opposite reaction, if I may dare create a physics formula for fiction; there must be that gun going off...wait, I just plagiarized Chekhov. You write a stranger, we need to see that stranger's face some day. You act strange, we need to know why, or get some hints that are stronger, more helpful, long before the last few pages. Give me a chance to build a thesis about Charlie's internal conflict at least--and then fine, blow it out of the water like any good mystery novel, but give me a fighting chance.

I still recommend Perks. Do pick it up. See if you felt satisfied or thwarted. I felt some of both.

Writing Prompts:

-- If an internal conflict is the essential drama of man versus self, what types of feelings and beliefs cause these struggles? What aspects of self do humans struggle with?
-- Have you ever experienced one of these internal conflicts: self versus love or lust you don't want to feel? Self versus physical pain and suffering? Self versus addiction? Self versus grace or forgiveness?
-- Of all the types of internal conflict a character faces, which is most interesting to you?
-- How clearly does a character in a story you're writing manifest his or her internal conflicts?
-- How do you manifest your internal conflicts?
-- What topics are taboo for your writing? Aren't taboo? Can your characters explore anything?