Archive for February, 2010
February 27th, 2010
February 26th, 2010
The Guardian recently published an article that asked different authors what their rules for writing fiction are. A variety of authors responded, but I think some of the most entertaining responses came from Margaret Atwood:
1 Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.
2 If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.
3 Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.
4 If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a memory stick.
5 Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.
There’s always a danger in getting advice from other writers, especially that of the “top ten” variety. I admit that I can thrive on it–hearing a word of encouragement or a systematic “how to” from someone I admire can fuel my energy and lead me to inspiration and productivity. But the truth of it is, I feel, that everyone is different. Some people get MFAs; others don’t. Some work in publishing to get their foot in the door; some don’t and still turn out to be just fine. My previous two posts were about people who just had popular blogs, which led to book deals and successful literary careers. Jodi Picoult writes one book every nine months; Wally Lamb’s books took between five and nine years each.
Clearly, there’s no one way to do things. In an art that can be so subjective, it can be tempting to seek out an exact scientific formula for success. But I think that most of the time, it’s up to the individual artist to pave his own way–and I think that’s what Margaret Atwood’s sarcastic, funny advice suggests.
February 26th, 2010
I’ve totally jumped on the blog-turned-book bandwagon. Today I found The Happiness Project, a blog-turned-book that chronicles one woman’s year of test-driving different philosophies/advice on how to become happier. You can find the blog here, but this one post sums up the basic ideas. So many of them apply to teaching, learning, and writing (she even references Ben Franklin, Henry David Thoreau, and Mark Twain–all units of study in my Junior English class). Here it is:
Secrets of Adulthood
- The best reading is re-reading.
- Outer order contributes to inner calm.
- The opposite of a great truth is also true.
- You manage what you measure.
- By doing a little bit each day, you can get a lot accomplished.
- People don’t notice your mistakes and flaws as much as you think.
- It’s nice to have plenty of money.
- Most decisions don’t require extensive research.
- Try not to let yourself get too hungry.
- Even if you think they’re fake, it’s nice to celebrate Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.
- If you can’t find something, clean up.
- The days are long, but the years are short.
- Someplace, keep an empty shelf.
- Turning the computer on and off a few times often fixes a glitch.
- It’s okay to ask for help.
- You can choose what you do; you can’t choose what you LIKE to do.
- Happiness doesn’t always make you feel happy.
- What you do EVERY DAY matters more than what you do ONCE IN A WHILE.
- You don’t have to be good at everything.
- Soap and water removes most stains.
- It’s important to be nice to EVERYONE.
- You know as much as most people.
- Over-the-counter medicines are very effective.
- Eat better, eat less, exercise more.
- What’s fun for other people may not be fun for you–and vice versa.
- People actually prefer that you buy wedding gifts off their registry.
- Houseplants and photo albums are a lot of trouble.
- If you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough.
- No deposit, no return.
February 26th, 2010
My coworker loaned me a copy of Julie and Julia–the movie based on the book based on the blog based on the book. After getting a call last night that today would be a snow day, I decided to finally watch the movie.
I wasn’t impressed at the beginning–oh boy, a spunky New York gal in checkered Vans and an Anthropologie-decorated loft enters the high stakes world of cooking and blogging–but as the movie continued on, I found myself getting into it. Not only was part of the movie filmed in one of my favorite NYC bistros, but more than that, Meryl Streep as Julia Child was completely inspiring. She gets into the cooking game later in life, and things don’t happen for her easily. From her book’s inception to publication was eight years! But she smiles through it all, finding reasons to exclaim delightedly, without reservation over the life’s small things and big things.
I have a habit of attributing aspects of my life to my external circumstances. Greatness usually seems reserved for those with a leg-up, the right connections. Virginia Woolf said herself that for a woman to write, she needs money and a room of her own. These things make it easier to immerse oneself in an art instead of being distracted by a day job. There have been many nights when I’ve neglected writing, blaming my exhausting job as the reason for it. I usually say I’d cook more if I had a bigger kitchen. Or some days, when everything is going wrong, I’ll fantasize about leaving it all behind to be a waitress in a Paris cafe and live in a Montmartre studio–as if that would lead to some kind of answer or nirvana that has been eluding me in my life as an English teacher in New Jersey.
But after seeing the movie, and checking out the original blog that started it all, I realized it doesn’t have to be about external circumstances. As Julie Powell wrote in her first week of the blog:
“Julia Child wants you – that’s right, you, the one living in the tract house in sprawling suburbia with a dead-end secretarial job and nothing but a Stop-n-Shop for miles around — to master the art of french cooking. (No caps, please.) She wants you to know how to make good pastry, and also how to make those canned green beans taste alright. She wants you to remember that you are human, and as such are entitled to that most basic of human rights, the right to eat well and enjoy life.”
I do grocery shop at a loathsome Stop-n-Shop in my town, where I buy spinach and salads in plastic shrink wrap, turkey burgers, and yogurt for eighty cents a pop. I do live in suburbia, in an apartment also too loathsome to describe here. I absolutely do believe that better circumstances lie in my future, but after seeing the movie, reading the blog, and being inspired, I’m realizing that we don’t have to wait for the future to enjoy and appreciate our lives. We should make the most of what we have, embrace creativity, and live happily in the present.
February 21st, 2010
I read a book called The Secret History over the summer. It defies category, as does its intelligent, enigmatic author, Donna Tartt. She published The Secret History when she was 26 and ten years later she published her second book, The Little Friend. Read a few interviews with her and you’ll see how special and different she is–she references Greek gods, Dickensian texts, and Virginia Woolf in the same way an average American today would reference Jersey Shore Season One.
I came across an interview with her today that particularly struck me because her opinion on Virginia Woolf is the same as mine:
“I didn’t like Virginia Woolf when I was a teenager but I love her now. There are some writers that one doesn’t like as a child that one gets to like as one gets older. I tried to read her as a teenager and I just couldn’t stand her. Now, I think she is incredible.”
I’m still working on the “I think she is incredible” part of it, but my heart sang when I read that line. Feeling at one with another writer gives me such joy. In a few months I’ll gradaute from the MFA program, leaving behind my weekly writerly discussions with my classmates. There’s nothing like having a conversation with someone who’s coming from the same place, who cares about the same art you care about. But even though I won’t be in classes anymore, my goal is to keep my literary circles alive, keep meeting writers, keep growing as a writer.
February 20th, 2010
Are our paths set for us long in advance? Below are some real diary excerpts from when I was in different years of high school. Did they reveal my future as a writer and English teacher before I was even aware of it?
Freshman year: “I HATE GEOMETRY!”
Sophomore year: “I feel like a blob of indolence.”
Junior year: “When I told Carl* I couldn’t go to the study group, he called me shallow, and refused to speak to me. We were reading Macbeth in English and how Lady Macbeth manipulates Macbeth to make him feel guilty for stuff that wasn’t his fault, and the whole while, it was like, I’m Macbeth and stupid Carl is Lady Macbeth. Cross dressing required. Haha.”
Senior year: “Real life is annoying.”
Senior year: “I’ve seen Dead Poets Society a total of three times over the 4-day weekend. I’m sooo addicted.”
*Name has been changed to protect the innocent!
February 15th, 2010
I’ve been reading some young adult (YA) novels in preparation for my next endeavor–writing a YA novel. I’ve been trying to focus on today’s most popular YA writers, starting with Sarah Dessen (Dreamland) and Laurie Anderson (Speak). There’s also general fiction writers who have written a few novels specially for a teenage audience: Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Joyce Carol Oates’s Freaky Green Eyes.
I read Speak in just one sitting. After finishing, I went directly to GoodReads to review the book. Ever since becoming a teacher and M.F.A. student, I’ve become accustomed to criticism, be it positive or negative. I understand that reviewing helps make the publishing world go round, that feedback can help a person grow.
But then I read a review of Speak that really made my blood boil.
To preface this: Speak is a short novel about a freshman girl’s first year of high school. Two weeks before the school year starts, she’s raped at a party. Afterwards, she calls for an ambulance which brings the cops to the party, breaking it up and getting the host arrested. She winds up running from the party without waiting for medical help and tells no one what really happened. She starts school having lost all of her friends, who blame her for the trouble they got in at the party. None of them know about her attack and she is too scarred–and scared–to talk about it.
The review was posted by a ninth grader who had to read the book as part of the English curriculum. In the first part of a GoodReads review, you list to whom you’d recommend the book. This student wrote: Young women who have horrible, horrible lives.
I don’t think that just because a book is about a serious subject, like rape, that it automatically should have credibility. But this is a story about a girl who feels she has no voice, who isn’t being heard, who is silently suffering for something she’s too scared to talk about. Does that make this a story for women with horrible lives?
Why is it that when a story has a female protagonist, it becomes a story just for women?
It’s not an easy question. Most English curricula are steeped with male authors. When you think of the greats on a high school reading list, who do you think of? This is what I teach my own students—Chaucer, Shakespeare, Orwell, Fitzgerald, Twain, Emerson, Thoreau, Sophocles, Hemingway, Poe, Hawthorne, Wordsworth. All men. (All white men, really, but that’s for another post.) Once in a while, I’ll teach a Kate Chopin short story, an Emily Dickinson poem.
Millions of high schoolers read about Gatsby’s struggle to attain the American Dream, for success, for the woman of his dreams, Daisy Buchanan. If Jay Gatsby was Jessica Gatsby, maybe the novel would be considered chick lit, tossed into the bin of books only suitable for beach reading. Jessica Gatsby lives in a fancy home on Long Island, perhaps bought with profits from illegal capers probably committed in Emma Peel cat suits, is only seen in stilettos and designer handbags, throws fabulous parties, and longs for the love of her life, David Buchanan, to come back to her. Her girlfriends tell her, “Move on! He’s married! He flirts with you, but he doesn’t really want you!” But she never believes them until the day she’s killed by her cousin’s husband’s late lover’s husband while lounging in the pool. It sounds like a horrible soap opera.
I can see the candy-pink cover now, covered in stilettos, martini glasses, a smoking gun. Or worse, a picture of Fabio and Mia Farrow in a silk gown slashed to the navel.
But The Great Gatsby is the universal story that everyone reads, that everyone appreciates. Same with the other stories in the literary canon. Why do we read them? To learn about other cultures, other time periods. To learn something about humanity, about people. To be warned, if we’re reading a tragedy. To sympathize. To empathize.
So I ask again: Why is it that once the story is about a woman, it becomes a woman’s story?
Which brings me back to the precocious ninth grader who wrote this review. He calls the main character whiny, cynical, and sarcastic, with “angst on overdrive.” In reality, the girl was sexually assaulted, leaving her traumatized. Her friends abandon her after the incident and the reviewer says he would be happy if that happened to him because who’d want friends like that anyway? In his words, “why is she so upset?” There seemed to be no effort to look through her eyes, through the eyes of someone who has experienced something terrible, who is depressed, that has lost all confidence and faith in herself.
I know, I know. It’s a freshman who had to read the book for class. It’s a review on a website. Don’t all reviewers have the right to say what they want to say; isn’t that the point? Am I giving this too much thought?
Well, this kid isn’t going to be fourteen forever. He’s going to grow up and be part of the global community. If nothing else, it makes me wonder how many other people out there feel the same way. It bothers me as a writer, a teacher, and a human being that things like this are considered women’s issues. And bigger than that is the fact that this young man is not making an effort to see a difficult situation through the eyes of someone else’s experience, someone else’s lens–male or female.
Speak wasn’t the greatest book I ever read, but, in my opinion, neither is Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But, as is the case with Huck, Speak certainly gives me a lot to think about as an educator, as a human being, and as an American. Both protagonists are the same age, survivors of abuse, running away from a corrupt society either physically or mentally. And yet one’s considered a masterpiece; one’s in the YA section of Barnes & Noble and getting slammed by kids on the Web.
I don’t have an answer for this. I wish I did.
February 10th, 2010
Last week, I took my creative writing class to the Museum of Modern Art, concluding our study of how art begets art. Many of them were enamored by the Tim Burton exhibit–a delightfully creepy mishmosh of his drawings, writings, sculptures, paintings, you name it–launching several class discussions upon our return to suburbia about the intersection of childhood and horror, meaning-making through artistic hyperbole, and the dark origins of fairy tales. Burton’s forthcoming remake of Alice in Wonderland, to be released next month, also entered our conversation.
“Alice in Wonderland was my favorite story growing up,” one of the students, a die-hard Burton fan, told us. “I can’t wait to see the new version.”
It lingered in my mind as I pulled my own copy of Alice in Wonderland off of my shelf at home later that night. I had long ago removed the book jacket. When I was little, book jackets thoroughly annoyed me. I think I always removed them because I felt there was something noble about a hardcover book with a plain cover. A book looked smarter when you didn’t have any clues as to what was on the inside; all you had was the dignified, solid-colored canvas. I also had an obsession with covering disintegrating paperback covers in clear contact paper so the binding wouldn’t fall apart–favorites like Matilda, Harriet the Spy, and Behind the Attic Wall that I read over and over.
Now, years later, I opened the front cover of Alice in Wonderland. On the endsheet, there was a little box that said: THIS BOOK BELONGS TO… and in shaky blue handwriting below that: Jessica Rosevear, 1991. I was about eight.
Along with my particular method keeping of books, another trait I developed early on was an obsession with writing the date on everything. I remember being four years old, drawing a picture at my next door neighbor’s house. I remember liking what I drew and thinking, “Remember that you were four when you drew this.” Letters to family, penpals in France and New Zealand, would all be dated. School work, notes, countless diary entries. I think it came from an early sense of the importance of preservation, of remembering. As I went through my teenage years, I wanted to remember exactly how I felt during each stage so one day I could understand and relate to children of my own.
When I began student teaching, in a sort of Wonderland myself, I re-read diary entries dated the years I was a freshman and sophomore in high school–the two grades I now had to teach. I’ve been there, too, I reminded myself as I would shake in the faculty room in the minutes before my classes would start. I’ve sat in those seats, too. I can do this. Reading those old entries helped me feel a little less like Alice, a little less lost in the strange high school world of Mad Hatters and grinning Cheshire cats.
And then once I started my first year as an official teacher, my plans were so meticulously organized and dated that the next year, I could easily see where my classes were on a given day the year before compared to how my classes of that year were progressing.
I feel like many authors want to delve back into childhood–not just young adult and children’s authors, but writers in general. Jonathan Safran Foer in Everything is Illuminated; the late J.D. Salinger in The Catcher in the Rye; Alice Sebold in The Lovely Bones. But it’s hard to capture that voice, to put yourself back into those shoes that you long outgrew. Even with my detailed volumes of adolescence, notebook covers collaged with magazine pictures and text, some days I still find myself looking at the sea of students, or just one in particular–one struggling to articulate a thought, cracking her knuckles; the flush when an answer is wrong; the groan when an essay is assigned; the small smile when receiving earned praise–and wonder about their mystery, obfuscated by the years and perspective that comes with getting older.
Keeping track of life is important to me: dating every scrap of paper, keeping journals both of today and of the past, re-reading old books. I guess my reasons for doing it have changed over the years, and maybe at the end of the day there’s no real great reason for doing it. Maybe it’s just me. But somewhere deep down, when it helps me connect to someone else or understand something deeper about another person, it proves worthwhile.