Tuesday, January 31, 2012
Here I should add that this is a private school -- a good, smart, thoughtful type of private school, though it perhaps leans a bit toward the conservative.
The sign miraculously works. They're let in. Buoyed by this successful demand via a sign, they make other signs.
After some embarrassing debate over the correct spelling of the word "OCCUPY," they opt for "We are the 99%." By this, one figures that they meant they were the 99% still waiting to get their club picture taken alongside all the other clubs -- it's a school with a high over-achiever population, lots of clubs.
They go on to create a "Close the gap" sign, making it read "Close the gap between high honor roll and honor roll." (My son teeters on the lower edge of plain honor roll so this was a bold move.)
Now there are many kids with signs and many more in the making.
A young stray English teacher walks by and shouts encouragingly, "Stir the pot, son!"
Things are going well -- so well that when one kid asks my son what he's doing, he answers, "Protesting! This is the beginning of Protest Club!"
Within minutes there's a Facebook page entitled "OCCUPY [Name of School Here]".
Now let's keep in mind who we're dealing with here. Now, my DAUGHTER, well, she aspires to be pepper-sprayed, but this one? No. He's here not to OCCUPY but to MOCCUPY -- if you get me.
So eventually, the person in charge of organizing the photography of all the clubs at this school shouts at my son, "Gentlemen! Put the sign down!" BUT the best part is this: this teacher had a bullhorn on him. A bullhorn! I don't know why or how the organization of photographing clubs required a bullhorn -- or perhaps he'd just strolled in from some bullhorn specific event.
But there it was. My son in a Moccupy Moment was yelled at through a bullhorn. A thing of beauty, a memory to behold forever. He was ORDERED TO STAND DOWN THROUGH A BULLHORN!
(My daughter, on the other hand, would have spearheaded a NORMA RAE moment.)
But my actor son put his sign down, shrugged, and posed for his Drama Club photo -- which was why he was there in the first place.
When I asked him if I could write about it, he said, "Try to do my bravery justice!" with his fist clenched and raised in the air.
Monday, January 30, 2012
Here is a 1/2 Dozen
with my dear friend (from way back)
His story collection THE DEATH OF BONNIE AND CLYDE and his novel GO LOVE came out this past year.
(GO LOVE is a triumphant novel that I read early on. Truly wonderful. Click here to read a Q and A with Gills in Psychology Today -- in take a look at his process.)
I adore Gills and his brilliant writerly soul!
Current obsessions—literary or otherwise.
I play guitar and sing in a band that is currently working up a cover of Gregg Allman's cover of Sleepy John Estes' "Floating Bridge," this killer blues song from the 30's about a near death experience in muddy water. Allman's version appeared on Youtube just after his own near death from liver failure and subsequent transplant. That edge comes through--his voice shakes, and I believe. Now, I'm rehearsing the song, and it's under my skin, that eerie bridge, the tremolo, what seeps between.
Writing Tip #2.
Get up at 4:30 a.m., turn on your machine, and go. Your inner-censor is turned off then and you can knock out a chunk before the sun even rises--hard to fuck up a day like that. Revise by the hard light of day. In bed by 8:30 p.m. Do it all again.
What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer?
I grew up in the sticks of Lonoke County, Arkansas. None of my people had ever gone to college, much less made it much past the lipstick line at the Maybelline factory, or the driver's seat of a longnose Peterbilt. When my step-father was off wherever he went for months, I built rabbit traps and set them on the thinly winding paths in the fields. They’re naturally curious, rabbits, so no bait was needed–just a box with a trap door, and a little trip stick stuck through a hole. All winter of my eighth-grade year, when Moma got depressed and stayed in bed through Thanksgiving and Christmas, my brother and sisters and I ate like kings–I learned to cook rabbit ten different ways, how to find wild onions and gig bullfrog, trotline catfish. Squirrel and flour dumplings was my brother’s favorite, and we never got too skinny. My friends the Mayfields, Cherokee Indians from the Trail of Tears, poached deer all year long, and there was always a hog in a pen just inside the hill thicket, they’ll eat anything at all, including what’s left of the trotlined catfish and rabbit guts. I suppose I learned early that what you need is always close at hand if you just open your eyes. Poor people either get smart or die. I’ve always heard that rabbit’s good for the brain.
What’s your reading life like? Do you have any current favorites or sleepers that may have flown under our radar?
For about thirty years I've been reading Lao Tzu everyday, and I'm maybe about to get it, though probably not. The Tao that can be spoken of is not the Tao... Humbling stuff, really.
What other jobs have you had -- other than writing or teaching writing? Did one of these help shape you as a writer?
I've poured concrete, roofed, framed, insulated, plumbed, bricked, painted and done trim and fine cabinet work--pretty much the whole shibang of construction, and every one of those jobs is immediately useful to the writer. Then, when you get off work, go fishing, one cast after another over blue water, until the moment comes when the drag flies and you've hooked something ancient and beautiful. I've also worked at a chicken plant which is a bunch of shit--also useful, knowing about that, maybe.
If you teach the craft of writing, why do you do it -- other than cash?
It beats the Jesus out of laying bricks in Lonoke County.
So I made up the sentiment, Dave designed it and put it to a printer. Those will ship to independent booksellers ... but what about YOU and YOUR significant dystopian other?
WELL.... we have THIS!!!, created by one of my brilliant offspring (the third one with the blue eyes).
PLEASE feel free to send to your Valentine on 2/14. Meanwhile take a gander.
Tuesday, January 24, 2012
This week in New Orleans walking on Bourbon Street, Dave asked me where I wanted to eat. I said, "How about a place that doesn't have a TB feel to it?"
He said, "You know when people cough like that you don't have to look back to see how it all turned out."
"Right," I said, "right. Don't look back! Stop looking back!"
So, maybe it's just me and I'm kinda prissy and all, but Bourbon and Royal Streets have a kind of Old World ripe-for-a-Black-Plague feel ... which is basically the apocalyptic writer in me surfacing.
This week in Dallas, I only wanted to see THE GRASSY KNOLL.
And I heard that the tv show Dallas was coming back -- with original actor of J.R. -- but wasn't he shot? I mean, seriously, wasn't that the reverberating phrase of my childhood? The two most ponderous questions of my youth were (correct me if I'm wrong) Where's the beef? and Who shot J.R.? (It was an era of great questioning and deep introspection...)
A general observation: In a bookstore, an optimistic writer (a rare specimen, I'd like to meet one some day), will say that if there are no copies of your book, they must have sold out and if they have lots, well then, they really stocked up! The pessimistic writer (a plentiful breed -- like the writer gene and the pessimistic gene are side by side on some lowly part of the chromosome) is going to say if there are none that they didn't even order any and if there are many that no one's buying.
Listen, I'm writing a lot these days -- bloggishly -- but just not here. I'm doing Q and A's at blogs scattered all over the place. And so I'll be giving random buckshot updates ... but expect no cogent thought here -- not for a while. (Book II of the trilogy, FUSE, is on my desk, marked up with edits from my editor and while not being in traveling salesman mode, I'll be in deep ... very deep...)
Saturday, January 14, 2012
But before I dig in, let me first say that I worry about the erosion of the skill of being alone. My students don't seem to ever be truly alone. They walk in, thumbs pumping on phones, and leave, thumbs pumping. First, I worry about the loss of the skill set of relating to people in person. While texting to someone far off, they're ignoring the person sitting next to them in those moments before class starts. It takes me a long time to create a community in a classroom of texting strangers. Work? To get college students to be social?
And then, too, I talk about how and when we humans often get our best ideas -- I talk about Thomas Edison, sitting by a fire with ball bearings in his hands and pie pans below so that when he fell asleep the ball bearings would hit the pie pans and he'd wake up and write whatever he was thinking. I talk about Grant Wood, the painter of "American Gothic," having to leave the city because he got his best ideas while milking cows. Alone. Contemplative. Drifting. Associative thought ... idea.
But, also, once those ideas are hatched and mulled, we talk about them, hash them out, draw maps on the board ... We collaborate. Why? Because the stories are better. I'll explain why ... but first:
As a young writer, I was taught to write in solitude, emerge with something whole, collect criticism, and hole up again. This model broke down for me over time. I found it inefficient and creatively limiting as a writer and as a teacher. It didn't play to my natural instincts and so, over time, I've changed the way I teach writing and the way I write.
Writing a novel -- as the sole author -- is solitary. You can't write 300 pages and not feel alone -- like the sole survivor on a ship at the helm (in a storm, approaching icebergs).
Throughout my life, I've heard writers say that you shouldn't talk about your work -- that it ruins the writing. Maybe this is just a very easy -- almost superstitiously-based -- way to shut up aspiring writers who only want to talk about the project they find themselves hip-deep in -- young writers who really aren't looking for tips and warnings from those who've sailed through a number of storms and hit a fair share of icebergs. (Sometimes it's hard to listen to -- like hearing another person's dream, which sometimes I love and sometimes I loathe.)
But I took it to heart and didn't discuss my work until finished. In a poem, fine. In a short story, doable. In a novel?
I think about when I was studying French in France. Why would I do homework at home? Why not do it on the Metro while surrounded by people who are specialists? I mean wouldn't you do your math homework on the bus if you knew the bus would be filled mathematicians? If I'm surrounded by smart storytellers, why not ask their opinions about a novel that I'm mired in?
When I started to get desperately stuck as a novelist, I began the habit of coming to my husband, rambling about my issue (with little context), and he'd ramble back.
He says one thing and I say, What? Were you even listening? He says something else. I say that won't work ... He says a few more things until I lift my hand and say, "Stop. I got it." Sometimes what I've come up with is related to what he's saying, sometimes not. It's that he's shed a new light on it and I'm seeing different shadows.
I need a fresh head, fresh eyes. Someone not mired in the word by word of it all. He provides.
(I've recently heard novelist Marisa de los Santos talk about a very similar relationship with her husband, children's book author David Teague.)
Just yesterday, I described the entire plot of a novel to my parents -- to the mid section -- and asked them what they thought might happened, told them what I thought might happen, offered options. We talked for well over an hour.
I have a close friend and now a reader I truly trust -- who does this work-for-hire editorially, Heather Whitaker. Early on a project, I ask her what she thinks. Why early? Well, she's brilliant and the work is still really supple in my mind. I'm open to huge suggestions early on.
Am I too open to suggestions? I don't think so. I've always been able to discern -- more or less -- when an idea feels right, on a gut level. Maybe not at first mention, but if it is the right suggestion, it won't go away.
The older I get as a writer, the easier it is for me to throw pages away, sections, even entire novels -- because I don't actually throw them away. I collect them. I put them in my junkyard where they get all kinds of fecund with wear and weather and rot -- until they're good and usable elsewhere. I have faith -- established by experience -- that no writing really goes to waste. If nothing else, it's taught you how to write it -- and that is transferable.
It's harder, however, to convince a writer at work on only their fourth or fifth short story of all time to make major changes once they've written a whole draft of 15 pages. They labored. They don't know it's not a waste.
Some not unusual responses to a story by a young writer:
Wonderful, but it's the plot of a 350 page novel, not a short story. Yes, yes. Nice scenes. One problem, it really starts on page 9. I see what you were going for, but why not tell this story from this other character's point of view? See how it all becomes much more organically suspenseful?
Now, take that same new writer, and ask them to think, jot, collect memories, tie them together, imagine, invent, plot, scheme, map, and then come in with only a first page and an idea for the rest ... well, at that point, they can appreciate the comments above. They're not damning them to start from scratch -- which is what it feels like after the 15 pages of words are committed.
(By the way, I make them go through a very specific process for the first story they write for class. The second story can be written any way they see fit.)
A few other thoughts on the article.
1. I thought that open classrooms were a feature of schools built in the 70s primarily and most of them have since been cordoned off because it was clear they weren't working. (The upper parts have to be kept open a little for circulation, but they're no longer fully open.)
2. Donuts. I think what I'm saying actually fits with what Susan Cain writes here about the donut breaks at Hewlett Packard. Getting halfway through a novel and then asking for other people's thoughts isn't anything close to GroupThink. I'm not writing novels by committee -- see ship above.
But I do believe deeply in the donut! I can stew in my office -- stuck -- endlessly. But if I walk out and talk to Dave, donuts or not, often the confusion lifts and a new tack is found. Yes, I get a lot of ideas when I'm alone. But I've also been very aware of the people I'm with when I get ideas while not alone. Because not all of my ideas are hatched in solitude. (Four kids, two dogs ... alone isn't always easy to come by -- my process hasn't been allowed to be built on concepts like solitude, no interruption, quiet ....)
I've noticed that the grad students here who create smaller critique groups and commit to them over time and geography do well. Books emerge from these clumps of dedicated friends/critics.
The writer in isolation -- good old Walden Pond -- is a very powerful cultural concept. It's still holding strong. NewGroup Think hasn't touched it. And I think, actually, that some writers might benefit from some interaction. One could at least try a discussion as an experiment with a fellow writer you know and trust -- especially if brooding lonesomely and fully stuck.
Wednesday, January 11, 2012
There are moments that you recognize in your life as ones in which you see the future -- and it's here -- and you realize, even as you're experiencing the moment, that you'll remember where you were and who you were with and, vaguely, the damp stain of emotion.
This is how it started. Yesterday someone sent me a link to a book app. I didn't know what a book app was, exactly, but it was for kids, had won awards; we have an iPad. I sent the link to Dave and told him we should buy it. $4.99, not much of an investment, and made by the man who brought us Wilbur Robinson. We were in good hands -- William Joyce's hands.
I worked late and Dave "read" to Oti before bed. When I saw Dave that night, he said, "Jules, it's amazing. The book, the movie. You have to see it."
Cool, I thought, exhausted, and went to bed.
I woke up to my 4 year old's face. "I want to watch the book movie."
"The book movie! I want to watch the book movie!"
I came to and figured it out. The kid was set up with the iPad, the day drove on. Dave took the iPad with him on the way to pick Oti up from preK because watching it on the way home was something that had been properly pleaded for. My parents watched the book movie with Oti in the afternoon. And then finally, it's bedtime and my turn to read to Oti.
My eleven year old showed up too. And we read it together. But there is no reading. There's a short animated, word-less film (though filled with words) and then a version where the book narrates to you with words on the page. The story itself is stunning, emotional, beautiful. I cried at the end -- so moved by it. (If you're wrecked every time you see the life-set-to-music section of UP, you'll cry here too.)
The pages are all touchable -- and I'm pretty sure you have to be with a kid to know how they all work. The kids can spell things out, play the piano, make things fly and talk and dance and turn day to night, change the seasons, rotate a house in a twister ...
Right now, my two youngest are playing with certain pages found in the book or film or movie book, as Oti calls it.
I watched The Making Of which fascinates -- the back story of Hurricane Katrina, the inspiration from old films, the emotional range of the simple music, the artistry of it all.
In case you want to know what I'm raving about ... HERE. Check it out [child not required].
Tuesday, January 10, 2012
Weirdest thing. I gave birth to this person. Finneas Scott. Today, he turns 15.
He was a hilarious-looking baby -- cheeky and purposeful, a brooding baby -- one that seemed like he was contemplating a foreign film. We were once asked to leave the audience of a small crowd gathered in a coffee shop around an acapella singing group because his intense stare was making it hard for the singers to keep a straight face.
An incredible memory for film lines, he turned to us at two and repeated his first, "You can't change the past, Buster," from Arthur and very profound.
At three, he'd coined the joyful phrase (always to be shouted as loudly as possible), "Het da day!" It's best said if raising a sword or wearing a cape. We don't really know what it means -- but we do. I mean, Het da day! It's self-explanatory.
Put on his first peewee soccer league in Newark, Delaware -- at four or five or so -- he spent his time trying to corral the other kids into playing the roles he'd mapped out for them -- Batman, Robin, Joker. On his first baseball team, he twisted his cap and wore it upright and convinced others to do the say -- as part of super-hero headgear.
He said the word Batman so much that it was his younger brother's first word.
When teaching Finn French as a little kid, he would only say, "Je m'appelle Robin."
After French camp one summer, he said, exasperated, "The French! They have a different word for EVERYTHING!"
And at the end of a long day of Vacation Bible Camp, he said, "Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. It's all they ever talk about."
Well, he's passionate. I mean, he loves the movie Inception so much that he's made me swear not to be critical of the third act -- ever -- which I'd discuss here (even briefly) but I'm not allowed.
This past week, while watching the opening of Midnight in Paris -- no credits, only shots of Paris to music -- he said, "If Woody Allen plays the credits over the actors' faces, I'm going to be pretty annoyed." And then Woody Allen plays credits over a black screen while the actors are talking. "Really? Oh, come on!" (I'd have never noticed.)
He went to districts in acting this past week and ran into a kid faking a British accent, girls flocking around the kid. Finn knew the kid was faking. So he walked up and shook his hand and said in a pretty sweet British accent, "I'm from just outside of Manchester. You?" And the kid buckled. And then they engaged in an Accent-Off.
He wanted to create a quotable line, so he worked, really honed it and came up with, "It's not our enemy's victory that defeats us. It's our own loss." You have to say it in a deep voice, slowly -- a mix between General Douglas MacArthur and Vince Lombardi, a man among men... and maybe some Barry White.
He's funny -- really truly funny, deep down, and right on the surface of his skin, funny. He's sweet -- a wonderful brother. He's smart. He's disarming. He's been in a lot of FSU Film School films and he's fierce on screen -- because you see what's inside of him -- and he is lit up from within -- a bright and brilliant soul.
Happy Birthday, my son, Finneas Scott.
And, as always, het da day!
Sunday, January 1, 2012
My New Year's Resolution is along the lines of the person who gets three wishes and asks for unlimited wishes with the third wish. My Resolution is to resolve weekly. In other words, I want to back up every week, take a longer view, and decide if my resolve has failed and make a re-resolution or figure out what new resolve I need and make a new resolution.
I like resolutions. Maybe it's kind of Catholic of me -- it feels like it goes back to my uber Catholic middle school years when I chose my confirmation name, Joan of Arc (not just Joan, the whole thing). I've also heard that vows are quite Buddhist, and that in the Buddhist tradition if you break a vow, you simply recommit. Makes sense. More vows keep you focused -- more so than one broken resolution that, well, kinda gets you off the hook.
2011 was one of the most challenging years of my life -- in particular the second half.
Professionally? I've gotten to work with some of the most brilliant minds I've ever come across -- company so creative that, honestly, I don't know that I deserve to be in it.
Personally? It's been hard. Our family suffered a trauma -- from the outside in -- and it's taken us a while to feel safe again. Over the course of it, I miscarried. I have to say that we also felt an outpouring of love and support from our friends and family. One day, I might write about what happened. We got to see some ugliness in humanity but also incredible beauty and courage.
I said to Dave last night, "I think we feel freshly pistol whipped, but there's an adrenal rush that comes after getting beaten, right?" We've got adrenal, resolve to push forward. Last night, Dave dreamed of finding a multi-tiered waterfall off of a highway filled with outlet malls and fast-food chains -- he'd driven by it many times and just never noticed it before. There are things we need to see, but we need to look for them if we're to lay eyes on them. Eyes wide.
We're gearing up for big changes in 2012, again, personal ones. We're making resolutions first and foremost about how best to raise our kids -- in a sometimes brutal and cruel world; we're resolving to live by our convictions; we're resolving to be bold, professionally (so much I want to do visually, narratively, weirdly, fiercely... gloves off, literary handcuffs gone); and we resolve to have faith that we can't know the future, only seek to create the best possible one. To struggle toward it. Day by day. Resolution to resolution.
We resolve to have more resolve.