Sunday, October 28, 2012

How to Love a Book

This book may shock you, will make you laugh, and may break your heart, but you will never forget it. 

Shortly before we moved back to the United States from East Pakistan, on the precipice of undergoing a revolution to become Bangladesh, we were frightened by an event that made my family and I pack our bags for flight. We had been in Dacca three years, and for the first two, life had been sedate, albeit not normal. Nothing on the  Subcontinent appears normal to westerners. But we felt safe. We were Americans after all,  the White Gods, impermeable .

This past year, however, our status as rich foreigners made no difference to the rioters and demonstrators. Because I was young, fourteen, and lived a privileged lifestyle rendering me immune to local politics, I didn't pay much attention to outside forces unless they inconvenienced me. My brother Paul and I attended the American School, and began missing school at least once a week because of  strikes and curfews. Phone service grew sketchier, and power outages occurred almost daily. Still, I had my books. I read by lantern light.

Our house had a flat roof, perfect for watching weather or surveying happenings in the neighborhood. One  spring evening my father and i stood rooftop after supper and noticed a trail of light snaking its way in our direction. "What is that?" I asked.

Dad squinted, and said, "I don't know. Go get the binoculars."

I returned with the field glasses, and my father stared at the light, now much closer and brighter. "Jesus," he said.

"What is it." He handed the binoculars to me. A crowd of men, perhaps a hundred, carried lit torches. They were shouting, waving the torches, and heading toward our street.

One of our servants stood in the doorway at the top of the staircase. "Sahib, it is not good what is happening."

What are those men saying, Kardir?"

"Death to the governor, Sahib."

The governor's daughter lived in a large new home caddy corner across from our compound.

My father hustled us downstairs, shouting for my mother and brother and I to pack a bag. "We may have to get out tonight."

I retrieved my blue suitcase from the godown (closet) and flung it on my bed. This bag had seen me through several trips across the United States and overseas. The suitcase was blue, yet covered with decals and stickers signifying various places i had journeyed.

"We might not be coming back," my father had said. "Take what you need,"

I gathered up my favorite books, records, my diaries, yearbooks, and a few souvenirs and dumped them inside the bag. I threw in a few clothes and sat on the case to close it.

 My father came in to get my luggage. "What the hell?" He set it down and opened it. "You can't take all these books,"

But you said take what's important to me."

He sighed. "We can buy you new ones when we get back to the states. Now pack some more clothes. "

After quick negotiations, I was allowed to keep my yearbooks, diaries, a few record albums, a couple of souvenirs and one book. I filled the rest of suitcase with clothing and a pair of shoes. Dad and I dashed to the back fence where my mother and brother waited in the dark.

The solitary book was a paperback copy of Catcher in the Rye. The book had leapt into my hands one day when the book wallah, a man who sold books from his bicycle, every Saturday, visited our house when riots didnt keep him away. The cover bore a picture of a young man wearing a brown coat, backwards red cap, and a red scarf. He was illuminated by lights from a strip club at night as he held a battered suitcase littered with stickers, much like my own. 

The text on the cover read: This book may shock you, will make you laugh, and may break your heart, but you will never forget it. How could I resist that?

I fell in love with crazy old Holden Caulfield on the first page."If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth."

 Having recently turned fourteen, I identified with his disenchantment with school, parents, peers and life in general. Catcher in the Rye is the first novel I read more than once, the first novel that made me laugh and cry sometimes simultaneously, such as a scene in Chapter 25, when Holden takes his little sister Phoebe to the park and tries erase all  the graffiti. He resigns himself to, "That's the whole trouble. You can't ever find a place that's nice and peaceful, because there isn't any. You may think there is, but once you get there, when you're not looking, somebody'll sneak up and write "Fuck you" right under your nose. Try it sometime. I think, even, if I ever die, and they stick me in a cemetery, and I have a tombstone and all, it'll say "Holden Caulfield" on it, and then what year I was born and what year I died, and then right under that it'll say "Fuck you." I'm positive, in fact."

As a toddler  before I could read the words myself, I tortured my parents  to read it again!  and in elementary school I repeatedly recited lines from The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham. What kid didn't?  But the Catcher in the Rye is the first story I lived within; I was Holden Caufield, even though I was not a seventeen year old boy living in New York City. It didn't matter.  His voice lived inside me, and I became part of the story.

It's been years since I have read the book, but subconsciously I channeled Holden when I wrote my first novel, Parallel Lines. The lead character, Nick Verseau, unintentionally bears a similar voice, so Holden still lives inside me. I'm oldish now, yet perhaps still a rankled teenager at heart.  Maybe someday I will be promoted to tell you all the David Copperfield kind of crap about my life.

This morning I thought about how there are no original stories. All the major themes in life can be placed written on one 3 x 5 card. Yet every  new novel, memoir or book of poems released is original because each of us experiences the universal themes  uniquely. So even though all the stories seem to have already been told, there are still some great tales yet to be written. Write one.

What is YOUR favorite all time book? If you were being evacuated to a new planet and could only take one book, which would it be and why?

Happy Writing.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Thirteen and a Half Things Writers Need to Know

I watched a good Indy film this weekend- The Magic of Belle Isle- directed by Rob Reiner, starring Morgan Freeman as a writer who has stopped wribuildingting. As Freeman's character, an award winning Western writer named Monte tells his nephew, "drinking is my full time job now, and I can't work two jobs."
I like films where a hollowed out character regains his voice from unexpected sources. In this case, it begins with a nine year old girl named Finn who yearns to write. She is one of three neighbor girls of a single mom who live in the house adjacent to Montes. Finn finds out he is a writer, and she stops by to she ask Monte to teach her to create stories. By helping a child discover her inspiration, Monte gradually rekindles his own, which serves to remind me Inspiration cannot be forced. Its intrinsic.

Incorporate your own life experiences.

This s not the same as the old write what you know. We write to deepen what we already know, yet discover new knowledge as well. " Monte tells Finn to tell me a story and make me interested.  He instructs her to look outside and tell him a story of what she sees. I dont see anything, she says. Keep looking. What don't you see? See with your minds eye. Look for what you don't see. Finn looks again, and narrates an imaginary tale of intrigue, but uses details she knows from the island.

Writing takes us outside ourselves

Monte has spent most of his adult life in a wheelchair after a car accident. He tells Finn, "All the things I couldn't do in the real world, Jubal let me do on the page."

Write slowly

National Novel Writing Month is coming up, where the goal is to write 50,000 words in thirty days. Ive done this several times, and the books I created were all terrible. Only one, a mere skeleton of a tale, is salvageable.

In the film, Finn wonders why Monte uses a Typewriter rather than a computer.
I like that you write a bit slower , he says.I like that letters bite into the paper.

Writers must connect to their work

At dinner one evening with Finns family, Monte narrates a treacherous event about his recurring character,  Jubal McClaws, to the girls. As he describes a part which might give Finns 7 year old  sister Flora, nightmares, their mother interjects, " Remember , it's just a story. It didn't really happen."
"It happened to Jubal" "Monte says

The subject finds you

Finn has fallen in love with  Jubal McClaws., and she gets angry at Monte when he writes new stories about an elephant named Tony and a family of mice for her younger sister instead of penning another Jubal McClaws tale.
"But Jubal hasn't come calling in years," Monte tells Finn.

 We can't force inspiration. If the writing is true, and yes, fiction IS true, the story comes from a real place inside the writer. Our characters are real.

Monte says, Real life doesn't always ensure up to what's in our heads, but every once in awhile it comes close.

Use the right words

In a scene in belle, Finn parrots something offensive Monte had said, and her mother admonishes by requiring the girl to learn three new words. She learns her words, inspiration,

Read work out loud

The girls mother, Cassie ONeil, with whom Monte harbors a secret crush, reads the Tony stories out loud to Flora, and later to herself. As she reads,  she hears Montes voice.

Stories originated in the oral tradition, written work is relatively recent, and all writing has a cadence. Reading ones work out loud allows a writer to see where syntax might drag, or lines of poetry need to be broken.

Freemans character is in a wheelchair, and he tells Finn Writing gives you legs.

Stories, essays  and poems take us places  otherwise impossible

 Revision is part of the writing process, and its never too late to re-vise a work.

When Finn tells Monte she bought an old copy of his most celebrated book, but the last page is missing, he says You didn't miss much. I always meant to change that anyway.

Don't write in order to get a house with a pool

Most writers will never own a house with a pool like the one above. But that does not stop me from imagining  myself sitting poolside, sipping a glass of lemonade, reading the blazing hot reviews of my latest novel. Later, I will be getting dressed for my appearance as an Oscar nominated writer of an Oscar nominated film. starring Meryl Streep, Harrison Ford.but I digress..

Don't give up. In Belle Isle, Morgan Freeman's Monte believes his writing career is over, and Virginia Madsens Cassie ONeil has given up on love.

Always have a deadline Monte tells Finn

There are no guarantees

Writing is a gift, unwrap it wisely.

Happy Writing.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Five Writing Rules According To High School Students

Earlier this year, I asked my students what’s important to them about writing. Since teenagers are the authority on all things cool, I expected negative comments and complaints about such staid topics as writing and English, but the kids surprised me;. their responses were astute and thoughtful.

Victoria said, "If I try to add things to sound smart, it ends up making me look ignorant." Novice writers are tempted to sound writerly. In the early days of my own writing, I front-loaded stories and essays to reveal my large vocabulary. No wonder nobody wanted my work. It was pretentious.

Sure, in grad school I used ten dollar words for essays, but my reader was usually an erudite professor who ate such words for breakfast.  When I first started teaching students occasionally handed in papers with sentences like “Such cartulary  extrapolated its theophenia to provide a history of said diety.” When asked what did you mean here, the response was always a red face and a shrug.

Say what you mean in words you understand. Clarity is priority one.

2. Kayla remarked, "I never want to repeat myself so many times to where I become uninteresting or sound stupid."

Early drafts are often loaded with repetitive mantra-like words and phrases and words and phrases and words and phrases, as if the writer needs to warm up the engines, and remind themselves of the point of the essay, poem, or story. I call these false starts. For me they come in three’s: the first three lines or stanzi of a poem, the first three paragraphs of a story, and the first three pages of a novel. The holy trinity of crap.

Ok I repeated my syntactical structure there. You get what I mean in those words and phrases.

3. “Vocabulary ...can turn a bland sentence into a memorable one with relative ease," Mallory wrote. "Large words, small words, it doesn't matter, I'm happy to use them all." Words are the foundation of good writing, and fluency with them makes us better writers. I tell my students to take a foreign language. "It will enhance your English. "

Mallory is a good writer, largely because she always has her nose in a book. Readers are exposed to multiple words, and it shows in their work. Read a lot.

4. According to Katie, "Books allow a person to see the world and know things they didn't know before."

If we are doing the hard work, we aren’t relying solely on what we know; we write to explore what we don't know as if excavating for a new spin on a truth.

5.  “Writing is hard,” Tosha said. “I wish there was a handout that told me how not to make mistakes."

I hate to tell you this, kid, but there ain’t no such thing. The only way to learn how to write better is write, make mistakes, write even more failed manuscripts, screw up more of them, and eventually write something good. Next time you will write something bad, but maybe not as often, and eventually your good writing will outweigh the putrid pages. But there will be days, always, when some of your writing stinks a big one.
Exercise: I stole this from my Friend Cindy Sterling. Whenever her students were stuck, she had them remove a shoe, set it on a piece of white paper, draw an outline, then write a first person narrative through the viewpoint of the shoe. The shoe can belong to anyone famous (Madonna, the president, Clark Gable), or not ( your own shoe,) cartoon characters (Scooby Doo, Charlie Brown) etc. . What what the shoe's life like? What have they seen? Where has it been? What happens when it rains? What happens on the basketball court if you are Michael Jordan's shoe? What would the Dalai Lama's footwear know?
Happy Writing

Sunday, October 7, 2012

My Writing is as Dead as a Mouse in the Closet


My friend Elizabeth and I met for dinner this evening, and she discussed a certain poet's work, , saying, " i love it, but I'm not sure i understand it. "

"Can we love something we don't understand?" I asked. She and I had a good discussion on writing. Elizabeth is actively writing, working on her MFA. I am envious, even though she struggles with literary analysis. Analysis and creation are in opposition, so it's difficult to go into analysis mode when one creates writing. Lately I am neither creating or analyzing.


It's rare when I have writers block, but this week, a harvest moon, a dead mouse and a steady stream of rejections have all contributed to building a brick wall between me and words. Blaming the moon for my creative vacuum is a cliché, but otherwise I'd have to blame political ads, a frantic work pace and bad hair, and disturbing news about a former student. So why not blame the moon?  The moon at least make me sound wistful.

A dead mouse should lead to a poem, or a story, but I work in a school library with robust circulation stats, and I teach two college comp  classes at the high school. My role as a ‘writing Nazi’ sometimes backfires because the more writing  I assign, the more I have to grade.  This week my students write three drafts of one piece, so maybe i was analyzing a little. Whatever the case, I had nothing leftover for wordplay.

Okay, so where does the dead mouse come in?

A week ago Friday, at the end of a hectic day of checking books in and out  to seventh graders, my assistant  leaped on top of a wheeled desk chair.

"There's a mouse in here!" She shrieked

It ran under a trash can under the front desk, and when I lifted the can, the critter skittered into my office. I've never been scared of mice. When I was a kid I was the one who had to to clean the traps when my mother would climb on chairs and screech.

"He'll probably move on when he gets hungry." I said.

On Monday I saw no evidence of the mouse, and forgot about him. Until Thursday morning. i opened my office door and a stench assaulted me. Like someone farted on sweaty socks. .

i sniffed around, looked under my desk and behind the door.  What is that smell?

The door to my office closet doesn't latch and always hangs ajar.  When I opened it to set my purse on the shelf my olfactory went into overdrive.


Brown streaks dotted the white floor like smudged fingerprints, peppered  with what resembled burnt sesame seeds. Mouse poop. Nestled inside a blanket on the floor of my coat closet was the dead mouse. The poor creature died alone and starved on the floor of my office closet. Yes, i know, mice are vermin, and pardon my anthropomorphism, but it was a baby mouse, no bigger than my thumb.


But I can't blame deceased rodents for my sloth. Perhaps the  two more rejections this week from agents spawned my inertia.


Rejection has become a unwelcome habit, like a yo yo diet that never works, tempting me to ask,why should I bother?


I sit in the cafe of Barnes and Noble, surrounded by books, many of which are crappy books. I know MY crappy books are better than many of THESE crappy books.  Aren't they? I know, I know, writing is an art and book selling is a business. We have to write what’s marketable.


But I refuse to write fifty shades of rip offs.


I COULD if I wanted to, yet I risk losing credibility with myself. It's more important to me to write stories that matter than stories that sell. And there are plenty of great stories that sell. Kite Runner, Fahrenheit 451, The Grapes of Wrath, and anything by YA authors Judy Blume, Laurie Halse Anderson and John Green.

Stories matter.


Yet publishing seems to have taken a page from Hollywood and TV by flooding the shelves with replicas of the Twilight, Hunger Games, and Wimpy Kid. Series. The originals sold and continue to sell, and publishers are banking on marketability of their mutations.

Is there hope for those of us whose tales are character driven rather than dependant on hackneyed plots? On my desk is a framed rejection which says, “I wish we had the room to publish all that we love.” I let those words keep me from giving up.

Here is a short, eloquent video showing the importance of fiction.

AmI whining too much, or am I justified? Or both?


:Writing Exercise: consider the following words:













You may change pluralization and part of speech. Use all ten words in a poem, paragraph or story. You have ten minutes. Go!

Happy Writing!.