Saturday, March 27, 2010

the haphazard reader

Growing up, I couldn't get enough of reading.  People often describe themselves as voracious readers--and this was me exactly: ravenous, insatiable, even gluttonous.  Reading was my favorite thing to do, and I hated to stop.  If I had been allowed to do so, I would have read through meals, through social events, until the wee hours of the  morning. 

My parents bought me books.  Other family members bought me books.  I read them all, and when I was finished, I read them all again.  I read through boxes and boxes of old books my grandma got at estate sales and auctions--dusty hardbacks from old people's basements (I also read all these outdated school "readers"--full of strange short stories and poetry and prayers and little morals, on stained yellow paper).  I read encyclopedias and Reader's Digest Condensed Books.  Old science textbooks and Apple paperbacks from the school book orders that I begged my mom to order. 

Sometimes we went to the library, and I remember filling my blue plastic library bag so full of paperbacks that the drawstring cut into my hands.  Because I liked to reread my favorite books so many times (and my favorites were many--A Wrinkle in Time, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, all the Little House books, Nancy Drew, Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself, Harriet the Spy, and so many, many others...), I saved my library trips for the silly romance books or ghost stories or paperbacks I knew I'd read in one sitting, the books I knew I could bear to give back when I was done.

I never once felt like I had too many books, or not enough time to read.  It was the opposite; I was constantly scrounging.  Pilfering.  Scouring shelves. 

It wasn't until college, as an English major, that I started to have any kind of rhyme or reason to what I was reading, and that was only because I had so much assigned reading that it was all I could do to read that.  It was the first time I can remember having too much to read, the first time I felt the real scope of the literary world--the fact that I would actually not be able to read every book.  That I would have to make some decisions, to begin the process of figuring out what makes a book worth my time to read.  It was also nice to have a method to my madness, to focus my explorations of the "canon" and discover some of the brilliant works along the edges of it as well.

Since college, I've fallen back into being a haphazard reader.  I read what falls into my hands, basically.  Free boxes, school book orders (reading MG and YA books has been a constant since I started teaching, which eventually led me to try my hand at writing YA, which has led to a bunch of wonderful things, but that's another post entirely!), book club selections, classics from my school library, gifts from my librarian mother-in-law, paperbacks passed on by my mother, books that arrive in the mail because I somehow got enrolled in some book-of-the-month club.  Random reading.

This is so far from systematic.  I'm not good at being aware of contemporary fiction, reading reviews, making a to-read list, prioritizing.  I'm more likely to wander a bookstore looking for covers and first pages that snag me.  A  little over a year ago, I made a goal to be more intentional about  my reading.  I started a LibraryThing account so I could keep track of what I'm actually reading (I tend to forget), and I vowed to review everything I read, even though when I started I wrote about them in a friends-locked livejournal post marked "Not-A-Review" just to make sure everyone understands that I have no idea what I'm talking about.

I'm getting better.  I have the feed to the NYT Books section in my netvibes homepage, and I try to look at it a bit, even if I don't read everything.  I write down the names of authors I want to remember, and sometimes I even manage to read something by them.  I seek out recommendations from people who share my tastes.

Right now, my focus is on reading books that will somehow inspire or inform my writing.  With my current WIP in mind, I have recently read or am reading: (my thoughts on the books on are linked; I try to be balanced and reasonable about what I write, but I'm not a professional reviewer, so take them as they were intended: notes to help me remember what I've read and to help me reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of books in order to be more intentional about my reading habits.  I know there are a lot of sticky places to step in when you're a writer and you talk honestly about books, especially books in the same genre you are writing in.)
The Lottery by Beth Goobie
at Sarah's suggestion, for the wonderful use of tone.

Some Girls Are, by Courtney Summers,  
because I've heard so many good things about it, and because my WIP shares some themes dealing with bullying.

The God Box, by Alex Sanchez, 
as character research and some insight into conservative Christian viewpoints of homosexuality.

 and The Castle of Crossed Destinies, by Italo Calvino
because the Tarot is a big part of my WIP (not quite finished with this one). 

Right now I'm getting close to the point where I need to make a mental shift from first-drafting this new WIP to working on edits for TDBB, so I'm thinking about reading the copy of On the Road: The Original Scroll that I bought for David for his birthday (assuming he finishes first, that is).  I reread The Dharma Bums while I was working on the first draft, actually trying to read it at the same pace as Anna and Kat did and then flipping through it for the bibliomancy parts like they did as well.  I'm also reading Desolation Angels for the same sort of inspirational reasons, but I've tried to make it through this book before and failed. 

So how do you choose the books you read?  If you're a writer, do you read books that are somewhat similar to yours or avoid them?  Do you read more fiction or nonfiction?  Do you wear out your library card, or are you like me--longing to reread the books you love or even just to see their spines on your shelves?  Do you read one book at a time or three or four at a time, like I do?  Do you write reviews or ratings on a site like LibraryThing or Goodreads?   Do you read books your friends recommend?  Do you read reviews?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

I'm teasing...

...but I won't make a regular thing of it, I swear. 

So I'm a teacher.  My students are on the young end of the YA age bracket, but I admit that they, along with  my own memories of being a teenager, influence my writing quite a bit when I'm writing for teens.  So it's kind of weird to realize that in the three finished YA manuscripts I have, there are barely any scenes in a school.  Sure, the history teacher (and her badass metal sculptor girlfriend) are big characters in Just Think, and okay, so there used to be a couple of high school scenes in the long prelude to the real beginning of The Dharma Bum Business, back before I cut off that first 15,000 words or whatever.  (There was even a media center specialist who may possibly have seemed a teensy bit familiar to those who have some shared schooling experiences with me, but of course, all characters are a work of fiction.  And stuff.)

But for a person who spends so much of her life in school, writing about other people who spend so much of their lives in school, there has been remarkably little school in my books so far.  But not this one.  My current WIP actually takes place mostly at school, and it's so weird.  I have to write about teachers.  A lot of YA features terrifyingly awful teachers, or completely clueless teachers, or teachers who aren't really sure about the boundaries of professionalism.  This bothers me, as a teacher reading the book--after all, the teachers I know and love are astoundingly full of awesome at all times--but it serves a purpose, of course, which is to create conflict and personal growth for the teens who are experiencing the story.

I have decided that the only real teacher with lines and face time in my current book can't be evil.  He can't be completely clueless, either.  And he most definitely cannot be creepy.  So instead, I believe I have settled on dorky.  Which of course is true of all adults.

Anyway, I'm posting one excerpt from my work-in-progress, and it's a rough draft, but this bit makes me smile a little and wish that my main character would let the dorky teacher help her out a little bit.  Cassandra has to write a "Song of Myself" based on Whitman's poem, and she feels like there is nothing about herself to celebrate. 

Mr. Dawkins taps the edge of my desk.  "So did you make something up?" His voice is gentle, but the set of his mouth means business.
"I'm still working on it."  I work on shrinking down to a size so insignificant he will forget that I exist and pass on to the next slacker, but he doesn't budge.

"Let's see what you have so far."  His persistence is admirable for a veteran teacher.  Most of the faculty at Gordon have already settled into the pre-retirement mode of half-hearted, long-memorized lectures and prolonged sessions of busywork.  Mr. D. insists on being one of the ones who still pushes, relentlessly, against the tide of student apathy.
"It's too rough," I say.  "I'll show you when I get it polished."

"Show me, and I can help give some revision ideas."
Panic.  I can't show him what I have; he'll be harder on me than Darin was.  "It's on my computer at home."  The old stand-by excuse.
"Recreate it here," he says, and he officially becomes the second person to pick up my notebook without my permission and open it up to a blank sheet of paper.  "Now.  I'll be back to check it out in ten minutes."
"Now you're screwed," says Darin out of the side of his mouth.

"Sure."  I draw geometric shapes in the top margin of my paper.  "I celebrate myself and sing myself, for I am screwed."

"Write it," says Darin.

"Write that?"

"Write your song.  Write Cassandra."  He's doodling, too, like he always is, except is that me he's drawing?  A spiky-haired girl with manga-eyes glares up from the faint blue lines.  In her hand she wields a crystal ball.

 "I'm not…"  I don't finish it.  Somehow I don't mind his vision of me.

 Ten minutes later, my paper is still empty, and Mr. D. keeps me after class to discuss my midterm grade, which will be an F unless I turn in my poem on Monday.

 "I will, Mr. D.  I'll finish it this weekend, I promise."

 "Cass?"  He looks as if  he might try to pat  my shoulder.  I take a step back.

 "Have a good weekend!"  I force a smile and start toward the door of the nearly empty classroom.

 "Is everything okay?"
I feel a little bad about blowing him off like this.  He's a genuinely nice guy, and it's not really his fault he's a teacher.  I mean, how many jobs can there possibly be for guys who wear corduroy blazers and get all jittery over the words of some dead guy's poetry?  "Everything's great, Mr. D.  See you Monday!"  And I am out, merging into the slipstream of hallway traffic before he can say anything else, anything that would change even the slightest fiber of my existence.


Well, Mr. D. might be a dork, but he's no match for me...

Sunday, March 21, 2010

ringing my own bell...

I was six, maybe seven, and I had a red banana-seat bicycle with a bell.  I was an only child, and I spent most of my days quietly rambling around the little peninsula of my home--digging in the sand, climbing in the cedars, "discovering" secret pockets of lilies-of-the-valley, making up stories inside my head.  I talked to myself, constantly.

But every so often, I'd get a hankering to talk to someone new, so I'd ride up the dead-end road to the top of the hill--the limit of my solo territory. There, in a house I've forgotten and would probably drive past without recognizing now, lived a toddler boy that I  liked to play with. 

I think I was too shy to knock on their door, or probably my mother had told me not to because knocking on someone's door was being a pest, but instead of approaching their house like a normal visitor, I would instead ride my bike in little circles on the road, thumbing my bell.

Ring-ring.  Ring-ring.  I'd wait, and then try again, a little more quietly.  I knew that it was possible the baby could be taking a nap, and I didn't want to wake him.  But if he was awake, he would hear me out on the road and run to the door, shouting to his mother, "Lissa ring her bell!  Lissa ring her bell!" until she would take him outside to visit with me.

Thinking about this as an adult, I have to sort of cringe at myself, intruding like that on this woman's life.  I remember her being very kind to me, and maybe it was a nice break for her to have a visitor to occupy the little one, but maybe she was actually annoyed with having to watch two children instead of one.

This is leading somewhere, I think.

So I was thinking about this...about how difficult it can be sometimes for me to "intrude" in people's lives.  I hate the telephone, but it's not necessarily talking on it that I hate--I hate calling people because I feel like I have no idea what I'm interrupting in their lives at that moment.  There's a quality of self-assurance that I maybe lack, the assurance that no matter what they were in the middle of, of course they'll be happy to stop and talk to me.  I know this is ridiculous; if they're busy, they can just say so.

I was reading something recently (and if I were a good little blogger there would be a fancy link here or something, but I'm just a lazy writer girl, so sorry, you'll have to take my word for it) about how writers need publicists because they are, in general, a modest lot.  It's hard for us to go around tooting our own horns.  Instead (*tries desperately to make this post somewhat cohesive*), we'd rather ring our bell, quietly, while we make wobbly circles on the asphalt with our heads down, watching the ribbons woven into our own spokes.  We hope that the public will come running with a toddler's enthusiasm, but even that can feel like too much, can make me worry that I'm being intrusive.  I mean, I don't even like to friend people on facebook, as a rule, because I feel bad that I'm making someone else make the decision of whether to accept or ignore.  I worry that maybe they will have forgotten me in the stream of time or more important people and will wonder why they would ever want to read about the minutiae of my daily life.

I was thinking today about joining a local writing group.  This would require me to go to a meeting--to walk into a coffee shop and approach a group of people and intrude--to say, "Hey, can I join you?"  A difficult thing for me to do, in general.  But there have been several times in my life where I've pushed myself to take that kind of risk, to go beyond the quiet thumbing of my bell and the hope that someone will notice and instead have stepped forward bravely and introduced myself to a situation.  These situations usually involve some awkward moments (like when I went alone to audition for the Shakespeare play and nobody really talked to me), but they have usually resulted in really amazing things (like when the stage manager asked me for a ride home and promptly became one of my best friends who is still a part of my life).

Anyway, I'm failing at eloquence, but this tricycle my husband shot a picture of in our backyard reminds me of my seven-year-old self on my red bicycle, and it makes me think I should probably give that writing group a chance.  It was a bit of a stretch to go from there to facebook to phone calls to writing, and I never did manage to tell you the story of how Monkey recently invited himself and David right inside an acquaintance's house and how if it had been me there instead of David, I would never have gone back to the door and he would have cried and everyone would have missed out on a lovely little accidental visit, all because I would be worried about being intrusive.

Monday, March 15, 2010

is this real life?

Jabber and I spent last Saturday afternoon "rambling"--the code word around here for "please take one or both of the kids out of here before they wreck the place and send us all into a terrible spiral of craziness".  Technically, our job was to get groceries, but our real job was to occupy ourselves long enough that David and the Monkey could get in a good, long nap.

So we rambled.  We spent some time hanging out on the banks of a fast-moving city creek, had pancakes and coffee at a local coffee shop (where Jabber did write his note to Ms. C. and I did some writing of my own, both of us scribbling companionably in longhand in our journals), and eventually made our way through the aisles of the grocery store.  We did all of this mostly without driving each other crazy.

I enjoy being with my kids, especially like this--low pressure, low expectations.  I do best with only one at a time, and without much of a plan. 

On Sunday, after a short family walk around the neighborhood (which included a playground visit, a Laffy Taffy stop, and a rousing game of I-Spy, culminating with a bike ride along the sidewalk out front), Jabber sat on the front porch steps between David and I and sighed hugely. 

"Mom?" he said.  "Is this real life?"

I hesitated.  I mean, wouldn't you?  What exactly is he asking?  What kind of answer can I possibly give him?

"Well, is it?"

I took the Socratic approach, or maybe I was stalling.  "As opposed to what?" I asked.

"Well, it could be a dream."  He took a swig of water from his canteen, gazing out across the street in his little cosmic contemplation.  "It could all be a dream."

Maybe it takes a weekend of spring rambling to get a person back in touch with real life, but it was sort of like the sun got warmer, the air fresher, the Laffy Taffy stickier, at that moment.  I spend so much of my time immersed in fiction--the opposite of real life.  At times, don't we all live our life in a dream, thinking about what we'd like it to be, what we hope it will become?

"How can we tell that this is real life and not a dream?" I asked.  He couldn't see me smiling, but I'm sure he heard it in my voice because he laughed, then, and leaned back against my legs.

"Well, because there aren't any monsters or weird animals," he said.  "Everything just makes sense.  Duh!"

Friday, March 12, 2010

little white lies

Yesterday Jabber came home from kindergarten with terrible news.  His clip--that mythical clothespin with his name on it that hangs from the stoplight near the kindergarten door--had been moved from green to yellow.  Yellow as in caution, danger, slow down, watch out!  I asked him why his clip was moved and listened skeptically through the rash of protests--"It wasn't my fault" and "I didn't know..." -- to find the real story.  Well, the germ of truth that may be the real story.  The rest is conjecture, I suppose, but I know my son, and I know classrooms, and I can only guess that what actually happened probably involved a lack of listening and a surplus of silliness.

Anyway, I told him that this morning when we got to my classroom he could write a note to his teacher explaining the correct way to behave in the classroom.  However, this morning was a rush of getting ready for a billion other things that were going on at school, so we ran out of time for Jabber to write his note.

This evening I asked him if his clip stayed on green.  He claimed that it was going to stay on yellow until Monday but that he stayed off red.  Not sure if it's normal for it to stay on yellow or if he was having issues with his behavior today, too, and I know I wouldn't get a straight answer out of him even if he tried to tell me, so I let it go.  I didn't say anything about the note, but he remembered it and said, "We don't have to worry about writing that note to Ms. C. because I found some time today in class and wrote one to her already."

At this point, if he had left it at that, I may have actually believed him.  He's a pretty nice kid overall, and I don't think he gets a charge out of misbehaving, really.   Also, he is super, duper fond of Ms. C. and would be devastated if he thought she was upset with him for any amount of time.  So it's conceivable that he would have written a little note.

But he kept on talking.

"Yeah, I wrote, 'Dear Ms. C., I'm very sorry for talking with my friend T. when I should have been writing my name on my paper instead.  I will listen very carefully from now on.  So I will be a good listener during reading class and all the time.  From Jabber.'  and then I gave it to her."  He paused, and at this point I was getting a little suspicious.  My kindergartener is getting better and better at composing his own writing, but that seemed a little wordy even so.  Still, he talked on.

"Yeah, so I gave her that note already, so we don't really have to write another one this weekend.  She saw the note and stuff, and I'm pretty sure my clip will go back to green on Monday, and I had a chance to write that note because we had some time.  During class."  He paused.  "When we had some free time.  That's when I wrote it.  My note.  That she already saw."

Now I was really suspicious, but I didn't show it.  "Oh, good," I said.  "When I send her an email on Monday, I'll tell her that we talked about the apology letter you wrote for her, and that you're sure you can do like you promised."  I didn't look up from my dinner plate.

A small pause.

"You can just say my apology," he said.  "Not my apology letter."  He pushed the cereal around in his bowl with the tip of his spoon.  "She'll know what you  mean."

"Oh, well, I think I'll say 'apology letter', actually.  I like being specific."

A longer pause.  More cereal pushing.

"Mom?"  Tiny voice.

I looked up.

"Did you ever think something in your brain, but then your mouth got it wrong?  I got it confused in my head.  See, I meant to say that I was going to write the letter this weekend--here, at home.  And then I accidentally found my mouth saying that it happened already at school.  I got mixed up.  I mean, sometimes you think one thing, but you say another."  He tried for a super innocent facial expression.  "Does that ever happen to you, Mom?"

And like, I think I made my point, really, which was...well, I guess my point was that he should know I'm always going to get to the bottom of things and he can't get away with telling me lies.  But here's the thing.  I'm not always going to have that inside scoop that comes with knowing his teacher.  I'm not always going to catch on that he's not telling the truth--especially when he figures out the trick of not over-sharing.  He's going to lie to me; I'm not going to catch every one.

And he'll get better at lying in order to get better at not getting caught.  Because it's embarrassing to be caught in a lie.

So I didn't really know what to say right then.  I can hear my own mom saying the old stand-by: I'm not upset about what you did as much as I'm upset that you lied about it.  But let's face it:  I'm upset that he got in trouble at school AND I'm upset that he lied to get out of part of the consequence of it.  So I just said, "Yeah, sometimes my brain says one thing and my mouth says another.  And sometimes my brain tries to figure out a way to avoid something uncomfortable, so it tells my mouth to say things that aren't exactly true, just to make it easier on me."

He nodded.  "Yeah, I guess that's what my brain did."

"Yeah.  And that works for a little while, but it's not really respectful of the other person, who deserves to get the truth from you.  And if they find out about the truth, then it gets really complicated trying to get yourself out of what you just said."

He sighed, and his eyes had tears in them.  "Yeah.  It gets really complicated."

I went back to eating.  "Lots more complicated than telling the truth."

He ate a scoop of his cereal, the tears receding.  "I'll write that letter tomorrow, Mom."

I smiled.  "That sounds great, Jabber." And he smiled, too.