Thursday, June 30, 2011
Lately my daughters and I have been watching Angel on Netflix Watch Instantly. We watch it in the late afternoons after writing, reading, library, pool, herding chickens, taking naps, visiting friends, practicing driving. . . all of the activities that shape our summer. In the afternoons we are tired and relaxed and we watch a few episodes of cartoony violence. Angel fights evil. The show is fun and funny.
Also, if there is a handsomer fellow than David Boreanaz as Angel in all of Christendom, then I don't know him. I mean, my God.
I used to have to wait for reruns on television to see reruns. Now I get to see a bunch of reruns whenever I want to and it's awesome. The trick is not watching so much that I forget to write. That would be evil, and beside the point of Angel.
Let me tell you something else about watching Angel on Netflix. I can learn something about plotting from episodic shows. It's hard not to click on "next episode" when the show leaves you hanging and wanting more. If I can do that with every chapter, every page, every sentence of my novel, I'll be happy. The essence of storytelling is suspense, no matter the kind of story. Interest in what happens next is the essence of life, if you want to get deep about it. We're all fighting demons inside and outside of us. Addictions, pay cuts, mildew. Demons, all. Good suspense leaves you caring about what is at stake. As a writer, I'm always asking myself as I revise: What is at stake? Life? Limb? A really handsome fella?
If only we all had an Angel.
My friend Lora is getting married this weekend to an amazing man. A wedding is one of the few important rituals we have in our culture. We make a big deal about weddings and we should. Marriage is important and sacred, but weddings celebrate more than marriage. Weddings mark transitions of identity. In a big fancy wedding as well as a quiet legal thing in a courthouse there are rituals and special words that say: You are changed now. Before you were this. Now you are that.
It's a big deal.
I wonder if there should have been rituals and special words on the day I met Lora. Before Lora, I was one person. After our friendship, I've been another.
The day I met Lora I was hugely pregnant. Her special words when I welcomed her to our department: "Wow. You're huge."
I was shocked at first but I really was huge. Her saying so cleared the air. It was helpful to have it said. I got even huger, by the way. Lora thought it was awesome.
Lora tells the truth. Before Lora, I could tolerate non-truth from people. After Lora, truth is like fresh air and water that I have to have or I can’t be friends.
Lora listens. Before Lora, I was odd and boring. After Lora, I have wisdom that people sometimes ask to hear.
Lora laughs. Lora remembers. Lora likes the gifts I give and I love shopping for her more than anybody else. Lora believes in spirit and magic and knows all of the good information. She is generous and funny and fun to eat with. She is so beautiful that when we go places, people on the sidewalk freak out a little bit and I always think it's so funny.
Lora stands up for herself. Lora is strong.
Her sweetheart is a lucky man and she is lucky in his love too. They are great together and they are going to be graceful parents. At their wedding, she has asked me to say some words to affirm that the wedding will be a sacred space. I'm honored to do it.
But for me, the sacred space was called the day I met her. Before I was this. Now I am that. Lora changed me. She has spoiled me for any lesser friendship than being loved exactly as I am.
Now Lora goes into her new life and she will be married and his and still her own. She goes and I won’t see her much anymore but she will still love me, and all of her friends.
But she won’t be the same. She will be a married lady. She will live in another state far away. She will make a sacred home and spoil her family for anything less than the truest love and the lovingest truth. She will meet new friends and new young people who need her, and for them everything will be different after Lora.
She will change everything. I should know.
Tuesday, June 21, 2011
There is a mall in my town called Arden Fair Mall where the boundary between worlds is very thin. This is why I call it Arden Faerie Mall.
If you don't believe me, I dare you to go there today and just sit down for two minutes and look around. Most of the people there are not people at all. They are faerie tale creatures (or FTCs as I call them), and once you know what to look for, you'll see them too. They're not even hiding.
Just don't let them know you see them. Faeries are crazy. You never know what they'll do.
Which brings me to today's Literary Tuesday selection. The author Melissa Marr has written a series of five paranormal Young Adult novels, beginning with Wicked Lovely. The main characters of the first book are Aislinn, Keenan and Seth and they live in a world where the boundaries between faerie and human realms are very thin indeed. Aislinn has always seen faeries, and she has always managed to avoid their notice. Now that she has attracted the attention of Keenan the Summer King, Aislinn faces dangers and desires that threaten to destroy her.
I loved this book for its language, imagery and intelligent use of folklore to tell truths about the human experience. I admire Marr's ability to develop fully dimensional characters from multiple points of view. Another thing Marr does that I haven't noticed many reviewers mention is that she writes with exceptional integrity about teen sexuality. Melissa Marr does not cop out (i.e. a vampire that won't even make out with you until you're married), yet neither does she invade her characters' privacy. The result is a fantastical tale that rings surprisingly true in its exploration of growing up, self-empowerment and love.
Melissa Marr has a new novel out called Graveminder. It's a horror novel for adults about a woman whose family line has had a secret but very important job to do in a small town where the borders between the dead and the living can be more permeable than is healthy for the living residents. It looks awesome and I'm going out to Arden Faerie Mall to buy it today.
If I ever meet Melissa Marr I'm going to tell her about Arden Faerie Mall. I have a feeling she would understand.
Monday, June 20, 2011
For a model of a good man, read Emma by Jane Austen. Yes, read the book don't just see the movie. The movie is pretty good too, but the book is awesome. George Knightley is secretly in love with Emma the whole time (Spoiler alert. Damn. Too late.) but he doesn't reveal himself until the exact right moment. That is because he is patient and wise.
Seriously, if you have lately found yourself frauding investors, telling lies, or taking advantage of old people, sit down and read Emma. Go ahead it won't kill you. Part of your problem is probably that you never spent enough time reading anyway. It will be good for you and you just might learn something.
Here is a partial of the good man resume of my Mr. Knightley:
1. Has integrity.
2. Works hard.
3. Looks after older people.
4. Takes care of his friends.
5. Owns such a finely tuned bullshitometer that he can smell Frank Churchill from a mile away.
6. Leaves his pants up.
I married a fella like this. My husband never read any Jane Austen but he doesn't have to. He already does all these things and more. In fact my husband is better than Mr. Knightley. Mr. Knightley didn't feed his own chickens, I'll tell you that right now. He also couldn't fix a car.
However for the men who fall (ahem) short, Mr. Knightley could be their guru of gallant. If it were up to me, any fella caught with his pants down at the wrong time would immediately get the book thrown at him. Emma. Which he would then be forced to read.
Jane Austen was ahead of her time. Maybe she could see the future. Perhaps she wrote Mr. George Knightley so that we would have this gentlemanly paragon as our beacon of truth during a modernity that needs him so desperately.
Mr. Knightley's clarion call to all who would behave selfishly when given the opportunity to serve others:
"There is one thing, Emma, which a man can always do, if he chooses, and that is, his duty..."
Oh. Mr. Knightley.
Friday, June 17, 2011
There is a lady who made a lot of money selling a book called 14,000 Things To Be Happy About. In college she started keeping a notebook of random things that made her smile and it grew into fourteen thousand things so she made it into a book. It sounds like something that would make me mad because it's so obvious, but I actually like the book. Every other item in the list is some form of pancake. The lady really likes pancakes.
I have way more than fourteen thousand things. I have five hundred thousand million things to be happy about. I wish I thought of the idea first because my book would be the size of a set of encyclopedias. Starting with:
1. The back of my daughter's neck. Look at that photo and tell me that isn't a pretty neck.
2. Dragon Football. I might have become a public high school teacher solely because of the show Friday Night Lights. I say might.
3. Summer mornings. There's a bunch of beautiful old people walking around at 6 in the morning in the summers.
4. Old houses. Pointy roofed ones with a burgundy Prius parked in the front are the best. It's like hipster Snow White lives there.
5. Magazine subscriptions and Netflix. Anytime you get something good in the mail it cheers you up.
6. A long, free morning and a lofty writing goal. A perfect summer day.
What makes you happy?
Thursday, June 16, 2011
Nobody makes one of my favorite things anymore. In a mid nineties corporate takeover that rocked the foundation of my world, Bic swallowed up Sheaffer and decided to stop production of their inexpensive and glorious fountain pens.
All through college and my early twenties I could walk into any drugstore and purchase a jewel toned plastic Sheaffer fountain pen, along with my choice of ink color. I wrote in black. The pens leaked all over my fingers and my classmates thought I was a car mechanic. But I wasn't a car mechanic I was a writer. I was a writer for twenty-one years before I had a word processor and fountain pens let me write as fast as I thought.
No other pens are as good. Ball point pens are a tragedy for a left handed person anyway because the side of my hand smears the words across the page right after I write them. Besides that ball point pens are the equivalent of slow walkers that are in your way on the sidewalk or in the mall when you are trying to go someplace. They gum up the works.
Gel pens are okay but they lack the gravitas of the fountain pen. They aren't heavy enough in the hand. Also sometimes the ink gets stuck and they start skipping like a cell phone with a bad connection.
Nobody suggest to me that I just go out and buy a different kind of fountain pen because I tried that. Other fountain pens are expensive and they break after a day. My Sheaffers lasted months. They let me write without getting tired. They let me write without ceasing.
I went on Ebay last night and found a selection of four brand new ones, bidding starting at $22.99. They used to be a dollar fifty apiece and you could just buy them when you felt like it.
Sometimes modern times make me mad. I love my Mac and my ipod and no shoulder pads in my clothes, but can't I have my Sheaffer fountain pens too? They were awesome.
I have one Sheaffer fountain pen left. I keep buying the ink for it, praying that it will last. This pen and I are lone companions in an apocalypse of slow and stupid writing instruments, one another's last hope for redemption.
Wednesday, June 15, 2011
I love the women in Joss Whedon shows. I'm talking River Tam, Buffy, Cordelia, Faith. I'm talking Kaylie the mechanic in Firefly, and her shipmates Zoe and Inara. Name one girl who couldn't kick your butt in any Joss Whedon joint. You can't because there aren't any.
I like it when River says "I can kill you with my brain." I also like it when River kills all the reavers in the Firefly movie. Reavers suck.
We need more of these characters in life. I wish I was a Joss Whedon woman, but I'm not. In my mind I am much braver than I actually am. I hate danger. Danger freaks me out.
I like danger in books though. That's why I'm writing this book The Arrow. My main character Fynn and her sister are bad ass. That's why I like them. Fynn can kill a nasty daemon with one hand and heal a sick baby with the other. She's awesome. She's also in love with two guys--one a sexy narcissistic rock god, the other a reformed daemon who was born to kill her but now just wants to protect her. Both guys are hot, both have issues. They give Fynn somebody to play with when she isn't busy saving the world.
I know why Joss Whedon writes these badass women. It's because it's fun.
Tuesday, June 14, 2011
What are you reading?
You can tell a lot about a person by the answer to this question. One summer, I went to two conferences. The first was for Advanced Placement English teachers, the second was Squaw Valley Community of Writers. If I feel like I am in a group with others who share my booklove, I'll ask new friends what they are reading as a way of being totally nosy. If you invite me to your house and give me a tour, I will be fully eyeballing what books you have on your nightstand too. Just so you know.
At the AP conference, no one had an answer to my reading question. Finally one lady looked at me funny and said, "Why would you ask that? I don't have time to read."
Don't have time to read?!
A couple of weeks later I arrived at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers conference. I knew I was amongst my people right away. I wasn't the only one asking the reading question, first of all. It came up in the get-to-know-you moments right after what is your name. There were teachers at this conference too. Teachers, lawyers, judges, naturalists, artists, scientists. . . all had something they were reading.
The writing conference people were also more interesting than the teacher conference people. I think the correlation between being interesting and being a reader is not a coincidence.
Right now I am reading Shanghai Girls by Lisa See. I loved Lisa See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, and I am looking forward to her new Dreams of Joy. I like going to see Lisa See at author signings. She is nice and always writes a personal note on the postcards she sends to announce that she is coming soon to a bookstore near me.
Shanghai Girls is about two sisters who are Beautiful Girls, or models for advertisements in Shanghai in the thirties. War and their father's bad debts force them to leave their beloved Shanghai and travel to America. I'm in the middle of it right now and it's evocative and engaging. She has a way of writing characters that feel like real people I know personally. She writes about food beautifully too, which is hard to do but important when establishing character and place. I'm trying to slow down a little so that it won't be over so fast, but as with all books I love I'll be done with it by tonight. It's hard not to read compulsively when an author makes you care so much about the people in her novel.
What are you reading?
Monday, June 13, 2011
Two of my novels are about teenaged boys whose parents have failed them completely. The characters are left alone to try to grow into good people in a world filled with violence, greed and mayhem. In other words, stories not unlike the real lives of most of my students.
My former student Orlando could have been a character in one of my books. He was in my English class during his junior year of high school. He was absent a lot because he had to go to court, or meet with the counselors at his brother’s school, or otherwise hustle for his family’s survival. He ended up earning high marks in my class and in all of his classes despite his often empty desk. This is because Orlando is hella smart.
For two years Orlando spent the last day of each term hanging out with me in my classroom while I cleaned and organized after finals. Sometimes his sweetheart Javi would join us. Sometimes we talked about their futures, where they would go to college, what they would study. Sometimes Javi and I worked quietly while Orlando made phone calls to arrange for his siblings’ Christmas presents, shelter for the night, or school placements.
Orlando is the man of the house, even when his family doesn't have one to live in. He’s been so since he was a boy. His sister and brother have depended on him for food, shelter, transportation and guidance. I never asked too many questions about his mother. I mostly listened while this young man vented frustrations and imagined something better.
(I’ve been criticized for being too “harsh” for my lack of sympathy for whiny adults. Maybe if you knew the kind of young people I work with every day at the urban high school where I teach you wouldn’t be able to stand self-pitying grown ups either.)
In his spare time when he wasn’t looking out for his family, Orlando earned good grades, forged professional and supportive relationships with his teachers and participated in environmental clubs. He interned with an environmental sciences agency. He arranged for the rides and the funds and the support he needed to take the SAT and ACT and apply to colleges. He got in to several.
That just left paying for it.
At graduation two weeks ago, a few private donors awarded several scholarships. None of the winners were aware that they were the ones. The biggest was for twenty thousand dollars.
Orlando won it.
"I can't believe it," he said to me after the award and on his way to get his diploma. "I still can't believe it."
Orlando will go on to a California State University. He will graduate and achieve the wonderful dreams he told me all about during those long afternoons at the ends of the terms.
Orlando, if you are reading this, I believe it. Now you are out there hustling for all of us. Saving yourself.
Saving the world.
Friday, June 10, 2011
Not every Friday is a day for frustration, but I have to say what I feel about bestselling books full of obvious advice.
Do you know what I mean by obvious advice? Maybe you are at a party and casually mention that your muscles are sore from a workout. You’re only mentioning this to make conversation or to draw attention to your shapely muscles. Then up pops somebody who suggests that you take Advils and drink water and stretch. It’s the lactic acid build up that's causing the ache. Once you get rid of that lactic acid you’ll be fine.
You already know this. Everybody already knows this. That is because this is obvious advice. The obvious reaction to the obvious advice giver is to nod politely and to walk away.
So someone explain to me why the thing that makes you annoying at parties makes you published in the world of books? For example, the newly released The Art of Roughhousing is full of such important knowledge it took two people with advanced degrees to write it.
I’ll give you the gist: Studies show that playing with your kids is good for your kids.
No duh. My rubric for obvious advice is that if most barnyard animals already know it and practice its wisdom, then it might be obvious.
It seems the road to publishing is paved with obvious advice. Forget my five languishing unpublished novels and two heavily rejected teacher memoir book proposals. I’m going to write a big fat book full of obvious advice and I’ll probably sell a million copies in the first week. The title of my book of obvious advice will be No Duh.
Here are the chapters of No Duh. If you click on them, you will find a link to the actual published bestselling book that I have saved you the time having to read:
1. If You Avoid Junk Food And Exercise More, You Won’t Be So Fat
2. If You Clean Up Your House You Will Have A Clean House
3. If You Let Your Kids Do Whatever They Want, They Are Going To Be Obnoxious
4. Shut Up And Let Someone Else Talk. You’re Not The Only One with Feelings
5. Stop Complaining For Half A Minute And Focus On What You Want Out Of Life. You May Not Get What You Want Out Of Life But You Will Be Happier Than You Were When You Were Whining And A Hell Of A Lot Easier To Live With Besides
Actually, to save time I’m not going to write the chapters at all. The titles are enough on their own. That’s the beauty of my book. The hook, you might say. Readers can take the obvious advice and move on with their lives right away.
While I’m at it, I’ll add more:
6. Being a Bitch To Your Kids Will Make Them Hate You
7. It Takes A Lot of Practice To Get Good At Stuff
Last but not least (although one so important that they had to make a movie out of it with Drew Barrymore):
8. People Who Ignore You Are Not Your Boyfriend
I don’t know what it is about the reading public that makes us want to read obvious advice. Maybe we feel smart when we read studies that have just confirmed something we already know. I mean, I've read all of these books. A few of them I read more than once. That book on cleaning house was awesome.
Maybe the primal caveman inside of us all that likes to hear the same story over and over again around the campfire. It’s the same urge that compels me to watch an hour’s worth of Office reruns on the television every night. In an uncertain world, books of obvious advice don’t have any surprises and can be as comforting as an old story.
That’s cool I guess. I just want a piece of that action. Obviously.
Thursday, June 9, 2011
Graph. Size Medium. Hard black cover. Pretty cheap considering the awesomeness. Here's where you can get one: Piccadilly Notebooks
These notebooks are awesome because the paper is just the right thickness so that regular fountain and gel pens do not bleed through. Fine point Sharpies do, but the notebooks are so chock full of paper that it's okay to just write on the fronts sometimes. There's always another page.
Lately I have to have graph paper for my notes and plot outlines. Margins won't do. I have enough margins in my life. I don't need my notebook telling me what to do.
Piccadilly notebooks are the middle class girl's answer to Moleskine. I love Moleskine, but I use so many notebooks that I can't plop down twenty bucks every time I need a new one. Piccadilly stays open on its own better than Moleskine, besides. It lies flat in a very generous way.
I have a fresh Piccadilly medium graph with a black cover wrapped and ready to go on my shelf at all times. It says to me, the next idea is waiting.
Wednesday, June 8, 2011
Rachel does not look like that purple fairy. She does have blond hair sometimes and she is made of magic, but she is better dressed and not so sleepy-looking. Rachel is a friend of my family. She makes my family happy. She makes us better whenever she walks through the door. Rachel is our Mary Poppins but not just for the kids. For all of us.
Do you have a Rachel? Someone who walks into your life and shares your family with you in such a way that you can't imagine life without her? Someone who helps you be better to your family and yourself, someone who manages to keep you honest while sympathizing with you at the same time?
I have a Rachel. She helps look after my daughters, but she isn't a nanny. She understands the perfect gift to get my husband and she shares his taste in music. Thursday night Bones is a weekly holiday because Rachel comes for dinner and television. She understands my work problems. She plays a mean game of Bananas. She's nice to our dog.
Rachel took me to meet Tori Amos and to more concerts than I can count. She did African dance with me and because she was doing it my daughter joined us too. I'll never forget those nights with the drums. They were awesome. Rachel can dance.
Rachel can write. Rachel is a snappy dresser. Rachel is an amazing teacher.
One night a while ago, Rachel was looking after our daughters while Jim and I went for a rare night out. On the way home a reckless driver totaled our car. We came home shattered and in pain. "Can you stay the night?" I asked her. For no reason really. We didn't need her for anything. Except that she's kind and good and she made us feel better by just being in the house with us. She slept on our lumpy couch. In the morning she played with the girls while Jim and I phoned insurance and stared into space.
In other words, she took care of us. Like she always does.
Rachel has her own family that loves her very much. I love her family too. Her dad was my favorite teacher in high school and her mother was pretty supportive of some awful hairdos I had as a teenager in the eighties. When I first met Rachel she was a day-old infant at my high school graduation party. When I met her again, she was a ninth grader in my English class. I thought how cool it was that I was able to return the favor to her dad by being the best teacher I could to his daughter.
I had no idea that I was meeting a young woman who would one day end up being one of the best friends I've ever had.
Rachel is getting married on Saturday to a nice man who is worthy of her. There is a lot going wrong in the world, but Rachel is in love and getting married this weekend so that means love is winning.
Tuesday, June 7, 2011
Whenever anybody asks me what my favorite book is I always say Sula by Toni Morrison. The reason why is because of this passage:
Sula squatted down in the dirt road and put everything down on the ground: her lunchpail, her reader, her mittens, her slate. Holding the knife in her right hand, she pulled the slate toward her and pressed her left forefinger down hard on its edge. Her aim was determined but inaccurate. She slashed off only the tip of her finger. The four boys stared open-mouthed at the wound and the scrap of flesh, like a button mushroom, curling in the cherry blood that ran into the corners of the slate.
Sula raised her eyes to them. Her voice was quiet. "If I can do that to myself, what you suppose I'll do to you?"
I've thought about that passage every single day since I first read it in 1988. There is a whole world in that passage. Words are magic and if you don't believe me I present to you that passage.
I had a long walk between home and school myself as a little girl. I met my share of scary bully boys along the way. It never came to my mind to do something like what Sula did. I wish I had. I was always more a Nel than a Sula, doing what I was supposed to do and saying what I was supposed to say and then wondering why it didn't add up to happy. Sula on the other hand is an anarchist and I love that about her.
I also happen to believe that every American should have to read Beloved as a requirement of citizenship. Toni Morrison makes me want to say things like most important writer ever. That may or may not be true but I do know that this passage is why I am writing today.