Monday, August 19, 2013

My Cast of Characters

In Carolyn See's marvelous book Making a Literary Life, she talks about a cast of characters that has inspired her throughout her writing career.  This was a brief list of people who stuck in her head and demanded to be figured out in her work.

As I enter the dreaded middle of my current novel, I think of my own cast.  Some are people I never even met personally.  Some aren't people.  Here goes:

1. My indifferent education.  Was anyone educated properly in the seventies and eighties?  My writing group friends and I discussed the question last time we met and the consensus around the kitchen table was probably not.  Twelve years spent under the radar meant twelve years of observation and writing practice and the kind of grinding boredom that forces you to cannibalize your own brain for some kind of nourishment. The sense of rattling around in a machine that doesn't know I'm there recurs in almost everything I write.

2.  Dani. There were a group of hippies at my college who weren't students.  They were vagabonds who slept in actual students' rooms and ate their food.  At the center was Dani.  This girl was skinny and had surfer blond hair and tan skin.  She wore long skirts and a satin robe with a dragon embroidered on the back.  She was the polar opposite of me in every particular and though I barely noticed her for the few weeks she hung around my dorm, I've been obsessed with her in the twenty-five years hence.

3. The street musician playing the Chapman stick and the girl with the blue hair.  When I was 15 my family took my New Yorker cousins sightseeing around San Francisco.  Near Ghirardelli Square I broke from the group to follow music echoing off the bricks.  Down a stairwell a dude sat alone on a stool playing this long-necked guitar thing and it sounded like everything I wanted in life. I'd seen a girl earlier that day just a few years older than me who had perfectly dyed blue hair.  It was an ombre effect, starting with navy at the roots and lightening to firecracker popsicle light blue at the ends. I bought a cassette from the man and have played it nonstop for the past twenty-eight years grasping at that perfect blue even though it always pops before I can touch it.

4. My husband.  The notion of a truly good, strong man.  The notion of a person with bottomless integrity.  The notion of the redemption that is possible with romantic love.

5. Randy.  The worst kid I ever taught.  He was nine years old and the whole school was terrified of him.  I've never met a more violent human being.  He was unbelievably fast. He could lay a kid flat and bleeding on the ground while you stood there.  Other teachers avoided him in the halls.  The entire class begged to be allowed to stay inside during recess to avoid being on the schoolyard with him.  He threatened to kill me every day. His last words to me were "I ain't trippin'."  I never taught him how to read.

6. Vietnam Veterans my friend's dad knew. In sixth grade, my friend's ex-military dad took us to a meeting of other Vietnam Veterans. These men suffered PTSD that prevented them from simple things such as enjoying the fair with their kids to being able to hold down a job.  Listening to grown men weep as they mourned fallen friends and their own broken lives stuck with me forever.

These people and situations keep coming up in different forms in most of my stories.  There are more than I've listed here, but this is a start. If you are a writer or artist, what are your characters that keep coming up in your work?  What human puzzles are you figuring out in your stories? 

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

I love Back-To-School everything.  I love the sales on erasers, decorations with apples on them, new notebooks.  My God, new notebooks.

I love the smell of sharpened pencils. My classroom is all set up with paper on the bulletin boards, brand new maps on the walls, everything clean and ready. The desks wait empty in their hopeful rows.

This year at my school we are setting up an ipad system.  All of the students will have one, as well as a special Facebook-like media site where we will all communicate.  It will be an organizational hoopla.  There won’t be need for much paper, or many pencils.

I like ipads and even if I didn’t, this is all happening. Whatever, I’m down. At one point pencils were a new technology, and they were far better than etching out sums on the back of shovels with pieces of coal.

Screens don’t smell like anything, however, and that’s a drawback no one talks about.  I love the smell of books and the feel of paper stacked thick in a binder. It’s so cool and smooth. I love doodles in margins and the notebook covers of students who love to draw and I love the sounds of pages turning.

Mr. Sketch markers, Sharpies, new backpacks, fresh uniforms, clean shoes, haircuts.

I love the August issue of Seventeen and the September issue of Vogue.  I love corduroys even though I hate to wear them and I love wool and sweaters even though it will be six months before it isn’t ninety-nine degrees outside.  For Back-To-School you iron your shirts and wear stockings and skirts and wine colored lipstick and rust colored nail polish.  You shuffle through red and orange leaves and wave pennants at football games and swear to yourself that you are making a fresh start.   

And you might make a fresh start. It’s all possible during Back-To-School, the witching season when you find out how much you’ve grown over the summer. When you find out if you’ve changed as much as you think you have.

Maybe you have.  Maybe everything is possible now.  This is my twentieth Back-To-School time.  I know the magic of a fresh pencil.  I know the promises made between the students in the rows and the teacher in the front. We say so many things we think we mean. We are so pure, so grandiose, so full of hot air.  But Back-To-School says that this year the dreams of students and their teachers will all be manifested. Back-To-School says that education equals freedom and this year we will be freer than we've ever been.
Palomino Blackwings, the best pencils ever.