Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Literary Tuesday - It's Kind of a Funny Story

So I just this second finished It's Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini. They made a movie out of it, which I haven't seen. My friend Tricia gave it to me to read and it was good.

It's Kind of a Funny Story will help me be a better teacher to my high school students. I teach AP and Honors, and many of those kids are depressed, just like this character. In fact, the author wrote it in the month after he was discharged from a hospital psych ward for suicidal depression. The story puts you right in the character's head. It is full of the best description of depression that I've ever read.

Here's a line I like: "It's when people compliment you that you're in trouble. That means that they expect you to keep it up." So true. Simple, but true. Good thing to remember when you are working with teenagers.

Another thing of merit about Vizzini's novel is that like Melissa Marr, he is honest about human sexuality. He manages to be both respectful of his characters and truthful about how important sex is to them. Not too many authors achieve this balance, especially in Young Adult.

The character's voice was absolutely consistent and developed throughout the story. I always respect that in a writer, the ability to embody a voice.

I've written two books from the POV of teenage boys, and they are the only two that I believe in unequivocally. Whenever I reread a part of one of those books, I always wonder who wrote it. It isn't me at all. It's like I channeled the spirit of a boy. I get along with real teenage boys really well too. Maybe I was a teenage boy in another life. It would explain a lot.

Now back to Anna Karenina.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Monday Man - Leo Tolstoy

I just got back from a camping trip with my husband and daughters. We were in the desert so my skin is still so dry and stuck to my head that I look like Skeletor from that show He-Man.

Camping with my family makes me feel guilty. When I was a kid my mom was the camping champion. She made magic at our two-burner Coleman propane stove. She worked so hard. We had full breakfasts of pancakes and scrambled eggs and bacon and my mom's camp dinners were more spectacular than anything I've ever cooked at home with a full kitchen and running water. She made sure we had an army-tidy tent and site too. No clutter allowed. On top of that, she wore fresh outfits and always looked amazing.

Yeah, I don't do any of that.

Another thing my mom used to do while camping (between looking after our complete and total comfort) was read Tolstoy. I couldn't believe a book could be as long as War and Peace. It was impossible to read it. A lot of what my mom did as a matter of routine seemed impossible.

Once when she was reading Anna Karenina I asked why she would read something that impossible. She said that it was a wonderful book and that Tolstoy always had something profound to say about the human condition. I blinked my eyes and then went back to turning the pages of my Seventeen magazine.

While we drove through Nevada's Great Basin on my own family's camping trip, I picked up the Kindle my parents gave me for Christmas, loaded with War and Peace and Anna Karenina. I'd read all my regular books. I'd read the Oprah magazine I'd bought at the gas station. Ten hours of road stretched before us. It could be avoided no longer. I started in on the first chapters of Anna Karenina.

I thought it was okay.

So then I came to this part when Levin returns home:

"He felt himself, and did not want to be any one
else. All he wanted now was to be better than before. In the
first place he resolved that from that day he would give up
hoping for any extraordinary happiness, such as marriage must
have given him, and consequently he would not so disdain what he
really had."

And then this:

"The study was slowly lit up as the candle was brought in. The
familiar details came out: the stag's horns, the bookshelves,
the looking-glass, the stove with its ventilator, which had long
wanted mending, his father's sofa, a large table, on the table an
open book, a broken ash tray, a manuscript book with his
handwriting. As he saw all this, there came over him for an
instant a doubt of the possibility of arranging the new life, of
which he had been dreaming on the road. All these traces of his
life seemed to clutch him, and to say to him: "No, you're not
going to get away from us, and you're not going to be different,
but you're going to be the same as you've always been; with
doubts, everlasting dissatisfaction with yourself, vain efforts
to amend, and falls, and everlasting expectation, of a happiness
which you won't get, and which isn't possible for you."

In other words, Tolstoy reached up through the muted screen and twisted my heart in his big hairy fist just as we drove through Fallon, Nevada.

Nobody in my family is getting pancakes or steak in camp. My gnarly hair and dirty pants with pine sap on the butt will continue to render me barely presentable enough for a gas station bathroom.

But I read Tolstoy now.

Friday, July 8, 2011

4 Reasons To Write

Nobody asks me why I write because nobody cares. Carolyn See in her book (my personal bible) Making A Literary Life gets it right when she advises aspiring writers to "Keep it to yourself. . . .Because the last thing on earth people living an ordinary life want to hear about is how you want to be a writer."

So maybe nobody reads this. This 500 word essay will go the route of hundreds of thousands of other words I've written for an imaginary audience. That's cool with me, because I write for:

1. The friendships. Writing is a solitary activity. Nobody who hates being alone writes for fun or a living. Yet if it weren't for writing, I would not have had a chance to meet some thoughtful writers who have become my friends. I've met some superb people through my writing groups and Squaw Valley Community of Writers. My handwritten fan letters to authors whose work I've loved have occasionally developed into longer conversations with some of the coolest people ever.

In my favorite scene in Almost Famous, Penny Lane says: "If you ever get lonely, just go to the record store and visit your friends." That's how I feel about bookstores.

2. The diversion. I filled dozens of notebooks with handwritten novels and stories during my junior high and high school years. If I had the misfortune of having more good teachers I would not be the writer I am today because I would not have had the hours and hours of raw practice. Writing gives me something to do during meetings, boring classes and long orthodontist appointments. Writing gives me something to think about during hundred mile drives, walks and angry silences. The recession can kiss my ass. Writing doesn't cost me anything.

3. The sparkle.
Sometimes I get published. Sometimes in the middle of a boring day I get an email or a phone call from a glorious, wise and blessed editor who says yes to me. Sometimes nestled in with bills and grocery flyers there is a magazine or anthology with my byline inside, or a payment check for something I've written. Sometimes I Google my name and find out that a school district is using my articles to help them build a better curriculum for their students. I love a bit of sparkle in the midst of an otherwise stupid day.

4. The compulsion. A teacher colleague of mine once said at the lunch table that she was thinking of being a writer but she just didn't have time. She sighed. This friend loved to read novels and thought maybe she should write one but she just didn't know when she would be able to do that. She eyed me with a certain distrust. Me, the writer, with a suspicious amount of extra time on my hands. I eyed her with a certain envy. She wasn't compelled to write. She could think about writing and then pass it over like it was an unappealing dish in a Chinese buffet. I never had that choice.

I teach full time at an urban charter high school. Many of my work days stretch from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. I'm also a wife and mother. I don't have extra time on my hands to write. But I write. I write hundreds of thousands of words a year between my novels, short stories, articles and blogs.

How do I find time to write? I don't know. I find the time to brush my teeth and go to the bathroom. I could get too busy to do those things but after a couple of days I would feel less myself. The same goes for the writing. I can go without it but after a while I get nightmares and can't sleep and bump into things and feel like crap.

I write because I am compelled to write. I was a writer before I even had literacy, filling pages with loopy fake handwriting. My stories.

Encouraging people who don't know me very well have said to me, "keep writing." Persistence pays, I'm told. That would be nice. Either way I'm going to keep writing. I can't not.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Wednesday Woman: Vanessa Diffenbaugh

A few years ago my writer group friend Vanessa Diffenbaugh submitted the first pages of her new novel for me to critique during our next meeting. Vanessa always wrote with courage. I expected to like the pages.

I didn't expect the pages to yank my heart out of my chest. I didn't expect to meet a main character as compelling and damaged and brave as Victoria. Victoria is a young person whom the foster care system has failed completely. She finds human connection and communication difficult except through the Victorian language of flowers. At 18 she must fend for herself in San Francisco with no support, no money, no friends.

I put the pages down and called my mom. I didn't know what else to do. My friend Vanessa's book was going to change the world. I had to tell somebody right away.

When writing group met I had critiques and suggestions as always. I also had the message that this novel was special and amazing and would sell for tons of money and start Vanessa's career.

Well I was right.

Vanessa and I had been writing buddies for four years when she began The Language of Flowers. We met Tuesday nights at Cafe Bernardo's in midtown Sacramento for salads and wine and talk. We wrote our names on a restaurant napkin as we would like to see them on the covers of our first published books. By the time she was in revisions for Language of Flowers, I was her foster son's teacher and advisor at the urban charter high school where her husband served as principal. Our smaller children played together at the neighborhood pool in the summer. Our lives entwined in a certain kind of rare, effortless friendship that made everything better.

Vanessa made being a writer fun. We had a similar work ethic and we worked hard together. We wrote and read one another's work. We recommended books to each other and then read those books and discussed them. We holed up for entire days in her in-laws' empty apartment in San Francisco, breaking only for dim sum before getting right back to it. Vanessa's discipline and focus inspired me.

Vanessa still inspires me, of course. Her husband's acceptance into a doctorate program at Harvard took the Diffenbaughs away from Sacramento last summer. The past year has seen Language of Flowers released in 31 countries, including the U.S. this August. She has used her new fame to build a non-profit organization called The Camellia Network in order to connect foster youth with the support they need to transition into productive adult lives. In the Victorian language of flowers, a Camellia means "my destiny is in your hands." She has used the success of her novel as a platform to help young people like her character Victoria who have so few adults looking after them.

So while I miss our Tuesday night salads it is amazing to see so many readers embrace and appreciate an author who deserves accolades both as a writer and as a human being. She is living the dream that we shared together. So many children are already benefiting from her hard work and success.

I will review Language of Flowers properly closer to the August 23 release date. As for today, I am sitting down to a long day of writing. I will eat salad for lunch and then go right back to it. Vanessa taught me how powerful writing is. She taught me that it is important.

If Vanessa were writing across from me right now like she was in the old days I would not interrupt her work with talk. I would simply present her with a pink rose. A pink rose for grace.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Literary Tuesday: Raymond Carver My Literary Godfather

In the early nineties my husband and I lived in a converted garage in Arcata. The garage, or “studio" as the landlady called it, had a dirty carpet, an organic garden in the backyard, loud crickets that chirped all night. I used to get out of bed and slip on my husband’s big black motorcycle boots and move the refrigerator so I could stomp on the crickets when they kept me from sleeping. We called it the Spider House for the big fat spiders that wove their webs in front of the doors in the fall. We used to feed them live crickets sometimes. We loved that place.

When we lived in Arcata I taught fourth grade at a Catholic elementary school in Eureka. Jim worked the cashier at the co-op and went to Humboldt State. We didn’t have cable television and nobody had internet access from home in those days. We had no money. We worked a lot and kept different hours. I spent long afternoons in the public library and took home stacks of books to fight back loneliness on the nights Jim worked late.

The first time I read a book of Raymond Carver stories I was stretched out on the nasty carpet of the studio in Arcata. Maybe rain hammered the roof. Maybe the bass from my neighbors' wild party rattled my windows. All I remember was reading a story of a broken down man stumbling home from a bar in Eureka and rolling on to my back and thinking, I am meant to write.

Raymond Carver’s stories are no bullshit. He saw truth where nobody cares about it. He dared to look at need and frustration and banality without flinching. It wasn’t that he wasn’t afraid or that he didn’t care. He saw weaknesses in people and noticed them. He didn’t hate his characters for their weaknesses but he didn’t glorify them either. He wasn’t dispassionate but neither was he cold. He noticed his characters in their down moments when they weren’t showing off for anybody, when they didn’t know what they looked like to people. He said the things you weren’t supposed to say.

In his personal life Raymond Carver overcame alcohol addiction. Lung cancer took him in 1988, four years before I even knew about him. You can read about his biography and his relationship with poet Tess Gallagher in interviews and books. I have nothing new to add here.

I never met Raymond Carver. Yet Raymond Carver is my literary godfather. If he didn’t write Nobody Said Anything, I never would have written The Cameraman, or The Saints, or any of the stories I’ve dared to write without any sort of soft-focus lens on my characters. I wasn’t brought up to be truthful. Nobody is. In that studio in Arcata, Raymond Carver reached out through his stories and said to me, tell the truth. It won’t set you free, but anyway tell it.

Tess Gallagher said in an article for The Sun that her husband was very careful about his energy level. A big part of his recovery from alcoholism was that he was careful never to get too tired. He put his own wellness and energy first before other people’s desires for him. He went home early and he didn’t over extend himself with obligations. He knew that if he did overextend himself, then he would get tired and once he got tired he would be vulnerable to the demons that had wrecked his life before he got into recovery. On top of that, if he became too tired he knew he would not be able to write. He protected himself in order to live and write.

Since those early Arcata years in a one-room studio, my life has grown obligations and over extensions like ivy. My house has a great many rooms.

Raymond Carver my literary godfather says to me, protect yourself for writing. Protect your time. It won’t guarantee anything, but protect it. Obligate yourself only to your health and your love and your art.

I wonder if I will listen this time as well.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Where the Recession Never Finds Me

The word recession would be pretty if I didn't know what it meant. It's whispery like water flowing over stones. Like the words gonorrhea and effluvium, it sounds kind of nice unless you know (or have lived) the meaning. Meaning changes everything.

Here is a list of some American Dream stuff I like in Sacramento that the r-word has not (yet anyway) messed up:

The pool and library at McKinley Park. Budget cuts have made life pretty sucky for people without millions of dollars. The days of going to a free library and an inexpensive community pool are probably numbered. Till then, this place is pretty great.

Our neighborhood pool closed. The turquoise waters glitter in the sun behind chain link fences, empty and wasted. McKinley is one of the few pools I can still take my kids to during the hot Central Valley summer, and it's right there by the library. The pool is overcrowded now. Swimming is difficult but at least it's water.

But what the hell. As long as I can reserve any book I want online and then get a friendly email from the library telling me that my book is waiting for me on my special pick-up shelf, corporate greed can't hurt me. Right?

Deseret Thrift Store on Auburn Blvd. This thrift store is organized, clean, and cheaper than Goodwill. They organize stuff by size so it's easy to shop. Another thing I like about Deseret is that unlike other thrift stores, they don't try to charge more for quality. I once found an Armani skirt with the tags still attached for the same three dollar and fifty cent price tag as every other skirt on the rack. Almost everything I wear comes from there. It's awesome. Mormons seem to be making a move on the Republican party, and I say let them have it. Those LDS know how to thrift.

Costco. Costco says, "You can have what you want as long as you buy a million of it." I like how I can buy a million tortillas for two dollars. My kids are really into bean burritos lately, and Costco lets me tell them, "Yes, you can have it." Costco says yes when everyone else says no. Walmart says "yes" too, but then Satan takes your soul and grinds it into a spicy powder that he uses to flavor his burgers. Costco has highly ethical business practices. Costco would never take your soul unless you tried to get out the door without paying for it. As long as it's on your receipt, it's yours.

The Farmers Market of the Apocalypse.
On Sunday mornings sometimes we go to the Farmers Market under the freeway. It's not really called the Farmers Market of the Apocalypse. I only call it that because the vendors and farmers huddle under the roaring traffic like refugees at the end of the world. You can buy a whole live octopus there, as well as little sachets of fresh lavender and bags of oranges. It's nice to know that if the recession goes any farther and civilization collapses in on itself there will still be a place to go for those things.