New Thoughts on Historicism

Though I have much work to do to prepare a manuscript for submission, The Killers plot bunny won’t leave me alone. After rolling my main character’s possible name on my tongue for a few hours, pretending her friends were being either tender or tough with her, I think I’ve settled on it. The name is decidedly Irish and her story utterly fantastic. And I mean that in the true sense of the word – of fantasy. That lead me to start initial research into Irish lore. What if this story has been told before  – nay, I’m sure it has – so in what ways has it been told? If I find the answer, do I want to draw on the mythology as source material, acknowledge that it exists in an author’s note, or not look at it and write around it in my own way?

I’m tempted to do the last thing, as research is exhausting and attempting to create a new mythology in our modern world seems more fun. I get to create a society without all the hassle of creating a whole new world. If anyone has the link to Kristin Cashore’s wonderful speech at the Simmons College 2009 Symposium about the difficulties of world building, please let me know.

I guess I hesitate to play with melding historicalities with my own imaginings like a child would smash blue and yellow Play Doh together. Roger Sutton points out in his blog that a writer at Jezebel totally misunderstood Sharon Dogar’s forthcoming book Annexed, a novel told from the point of view of Peter Krause, one of Anne Frank’s companions in hiding. I have much to say about this book and the way fiction uses and plays with a historical reality, but that will come in a GoodReads review soon. While off base, the Jezebel writer and her commenters have valid fears that an author could co-opt a history for her own fictive purposes.

Not that fictive purposes need be nefarious. When you smash blue and yellow together, you sometimes get the lovely green. A whole new entity worthy of its own consideration. I suppose what I will do is what any of the great authors do: put the story first. History will always be there if I need it.

Pote-Purry

Last night I stopped looking at cute cat pictures and actually wrote. Me and words: reunited, and it feels so good!

Accomplished:

– Revision of my MbM picture book. I shoe-horned in a subplot, and like Cinderella’s glass slipper, it was a perfect fit once everything settled.

– Envisioned two brief scenes and came up with awesome names for my plot bunny, to be referred to as The Killers, as the story’s genesis came from a song lyric of theirs. Some people sing in the shower. I write in my head.

– Researched names for the main character using this awesomeness: www.languageisavirus.com/

Still Pondering:

– What the writerly equivalent is to singing into a hairbrush

– How to trust my dear readers with character names and titles. I don’t want them to be stolen!

– When being cute becomes too cute.

Almost There

The past few days I have been in Iowa visiting family. I read, I reflected, I edited my nephew’s collection of short stories (he’s 9), and I breathed.

In terms of my writing life, I feel as if I’m teetering on the edge of some precipice, hesitant to fly off. I can’t go back. The back is a dead wasteland where I felt nothing. Sometimes feeling numb is good, necessary even. But there came a point where  the feelings slowly crowded the air, and I couldn’t stay there trying to be impervious.  I’m going to need to embrace the air.

Someday soon, I will lock myself in writing mode, spend hours creating, obsess over submissions, and be flying.

“I Know it When I See it”

The it does not refer to what the original speaker of the titular quote used it to refer to. Instead, “it” is that pronoun that encompasses any number of sins in literature (or sins of literature for that matter). In my online life, I recently railed against an “it” that led me to question my usually literarially liberal viewpoint.

A Catholic school assigned The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons for summer reading. To sixth graders. Now, we could argue until eternity the distinctions of adult vs. YA vs. children’s literature, and whether or not the classifications need to a velvet rope or to see ID before you can read them. But who wants to visit Purgatory today? That’s not to say, though, that we shouldn’t think about what it means to command a child to read a book s/he may not be ready for (a determination made in conjunction with parents), a point which I will try to make while willfully ignoring the thematic inappropriateness of the novel’s content in relation to the school’s specific values.

When I was in seventh grade, I picked up A Time to Kill by John Grisham for reading time at the end of the day. What can I say? I had recently seen The Rainmaker on TNT, thought Matt Damon was cute and the writing of the movie as smartly humorous. I checked out the book to bring home. While I was in the midst of the gripping narrative on my pink carpet, my mom came in and told me my teacher had called and said I had picked this book. This book with the rape and the sex and the shooting. “Was I okay with it?” my mom asked in a gently concerned voice. I nodded and got back to the cool lawyer. Mom let me be, but made sure I knew she was around if I wanted to talk to her about it. In the end, I wasn’t traumatized by the book, and since I speed read, I pretty much glossed over the “inappropriate” stuff and felt unaffected.

I share this story to illustrate 1) Neither my teacher nor my mother barred access to this book. 2) I had self-determination in my reading. 3) No one told me I had to read this book, nor told other kids who maybe weren’t slighlty emotionally dead inside that they had to as well.

I normally hate when one parent tells a library to remove a book because s/he doesn’t like the thematic content. I want to join letter writing campaigns to save the banned book. But today, I found myself willing to write a letter to the school that I don’t know to ban these two books – from the reading lists.

I guess I don’t think it’s disingenuous to say once, “Don’t tell me I can’t read that,” and another time “You can’t make me read that.” Because the only person who gets a final say in reading a book is the reader herself.

Day of Pauses

Today, I pause to say a prayer of thanks for my dad (Vietnam), his friends Phil and Dave (Vietnam), my grandfather (WWII), my cousin Brian (reserves), and my friend’s boyfriend Sean (Iraq). Luckily, all these men decided to choose to fight for freedom – if not directly ours, that of our brothers and sisters around the world. But I take this space to pause and say something to those who deride the way Americans celebrate Memorial Day.

Many of us celebrate with BBQs and ice cold drinks or take a trip to the pool or the beach and spend time with friends and/or family. Why? Because for many of us, Memorial Day is the first day of pause from 50+-hour work week, and there is no shame in celebrating our lives. We all have been affected by the work of soldiers, even if we have to reach back a generation or two. I like to think that those who died fighting would smile on us, their heirs. I think they like knowing we’re reveling in quality time with friends and family, that we’re taking advantage of what they made possible.

Alas, some of us must work, especially retailers. Don’t judge us or decry those who patronize our stores. For many retail employees, paid time off is only a dream. If the store closes, they don’t get paid for the day, which could seriously affect the weekly budget. Why sales? We know people will be out and about and the more we attract to shop, the more we feel like we can keep the economy chugging.  Why shop? People exist in this world who can never afford to pay full price for anything. This weekend has become a tradition in that people can count on it for a deal, the likes of which aren’t seen until Labor Day, a long, hot quarter-of-a-year away.

No matter how we spend today, let us all pause, even if for just a moment, and be thankful for the soldiers of yesterday and today, and also for each other. Let’s prove who we are and what we do are worth fighting for tomorrow.

Matter of Consent

When writing mainly young adult fiction, I come to the moment in plotting where I consider giving my characters typical teenage firsts: pimple, period, um, accident, kiss, that other first. Generally the characters I write  find themselves both wanting the it-takes-two firsts. At the very least mentally, if not outwardly expressive of the desire.

Yet in fiction I’ve read, the authors have done a swell job of swaying me to root for the firsts, but have at least one character unsure, hesitant, and then ultimately find herself “forced” into the first, however subtly. What do these readings have to say about issues of consent in the real world?

One example is scene in a novel I read for a summer study while in high school. It’s not of “the canon” of YA, so I can’t remember the title or even the character, but I remember clearly feeling uncomfortable as the heroine’s new love interest came to her dorm bed at night, lay with her, and then left. And later in the book she’s still with him. The next day during discussion, the professor distinctly said “so, after what we all agree to call ‘the rape’ of…” What gives us readers the power to judge an action if the character herself doesn’t see it that way?

In a second example, from an upcoming dystopic YA, the first-person narration tells us reader she is terrified; she’s just been through a dramatic escape during a raid; she is bleeding heavily from the leg. And yet the hunky guy starts running his fingers along her face and then his mouth until they are kissing.  At first, I was swept up in the drama and heat; but later I felt disturbed. Obviously not all characters can be like one particular ex-boyfriend who literally asked  permission before kissing me, but still I found myself later thinking, wouldn’t taking advantage of the heroine and the moment be cause for concern? Why did she, a naive love neophyte surrender to someone who knew exactly what he was doing, fully conscious of the fact that she did not? Am I allowed to bring my real-world sensibilities into the reading, or should I accept the characters’ granting of permission?

At the very least, expounding on these questions will inform my conscience when writing my own firsts scenes, unless of course BoyWonder the Character gets out a broom and sweeps me up.

The State of Education and SB 6

The issue: In March, Sen. John Thrasher of Florida introduced legislation that could forever change the culture of education: SB 6. The House soon introduced HB 7189. The bills, nearly identical, would introduce annual end-of-year exams (beginning as early as in kindergarten). Teachers’ bonuses/raises would be tied to their students results beginning in 2014. Beginning July 2010, any teacher hired beyond that point would face a potential layoff each year, again, based on test scores.  Both bills were passed last week in the middle of the night, after a debate that went on from after 11:30 p.m. to nearly 3 a.m.  Under Florida law, Governor Charlie Crist has one week to either sign a bill into law or veto it. Deadline: Friday, April 16, 2010.

My take: SB 6/HB 7189 cannot be passed under any circumstances. A veto would guarantee educational and economic health for the state of Florida. Implementation would be disastrous for teachers, parents, students, local economies. However, this law could benefit financially its loudest advocates and potentially become a model for education reform across the country.

First and foremost, the bill does not address the lack of equivalency across districts, schools, and even classrooms within the same school. Teachers are at the whim of principals who cut ESOL classes (those that instruct students for whom English is a second language) and ESE programs (instead giving teachers full-time aides for the children mainstreamed into the classroom), who design schedules so that one teacher always has under-performing children from homes where education is not respected and another always has the advanced, gifted or eager students who’ve had decent meals. Teachers should not be judged and have their livelihoods depend on decisions and actions of another. This point also begs supporters to remember their own school days. Surely they knew students who disrespected teachers, lied to parents about homework due, forged signatures on F papers, had severe test anxiety but could win the science fair with a long-term project. Teachers understand the need to be held accountable, but for too long, they’ve needed uncooperative adminsitrators, parents/guardians, and students themselves to be held accountable for their roles in education.

Instead, SB 6 aims to have an as-yet unwritten exam as the sole measure of accountability. Once the bill is passed, the public loses its say in the resulting consequences. Legislators will decide which company will write the questions. It’s public knowledge that some of the supporters of the bill have financial stakes in charter schools. If schools do not show improvement, parents can receive vouchers to send their children to private or charter schools. Hence, the SB 6 advocates stand to profit.

Money is a key issue that should have sunk this bill on the floor. It is an unfunded mandate. The bill has no language, no rubric for determining how successful teachers should be awarded their merit pay and where it will come from. Presumably, this money will come from increased property taxes (meaning a flight of people who cannot afford to live there), perhaps elimination or reduction of county services. Boston recently closed 3 neighborhood libraries to close a $3 million budget gap. Surely the money could have come from somewhere other than libraries. Florida could face the same future.

SB 6 passing would just cause a severe downward spiral of increasingly negative and long-term consequences. Laid off teachers would not be replaced because fewer college students would want to major in a field where their pay is based on test scores and not boosted by advanced degrees. Fewer teachers mean bigger class sizes, necessitating passage of a companion bill that would scale back a constitutional amendment that the people of Florida themselves voted for to reduce already egregious class sizes (35). Bigger class sizes mean less attention given to students, meaning performances suffer. With children failing to make progress, teachers will not get merit pay, will not be able to afford to live in safe neighborhoods, buy cars, have children themselves, or in any other way stimulate the local economies.

Eventually, with more and more state dollars going to send children to private schools and charter schools, public education as Florida knows it will cease to exist. Sure, teachers will have employment, students will learn, but politicians will profit. SB 2126, another bill up for discussion, will expand corporations’ abilities to write off donations to private schools (largely religious in nature). What do the children, the future of the state and its economic prospects, stand to gain from such an arrangement? Of course, after a few years or so, the charter and private schools will start to face the same problems public education now faces – too big classes, lack of support at home, students who hurt each other rather than conjugate verbs, etc. Merely diverting children from building that started to burn to another that’s just as likely to burn just moves them around. It doesn’t stop the fire.

SB 6 attempts to solve ballyhooed perceived problems of some genuinely bad teachers not being able to be fired due to union rules by throwing money at them. Merit pay is a great idea in theory. It does give corporate workers, sales people, etc. to do better. But such professionals have control over their situations. Teachers do not. By attempting to control the contracts of Florida teachers for “better,” SB 6 actually contracts a worse future for Florida itself, and if Arne Duncan’s southern friends have their way, for the nation as well.  Charlie Crist, veto SB 6.

Chapter One

It was a dark and stormy night. So I stayed in and started a blog. Though I may travel into another dimension in my dreams.

But you, grab a sandwich, book, and kitten and get in bed. That is perfection. This blog will not be. But it will be full of wit and whimsy and wherefores about the writing world.

At 25, I am facing an epoch in my life. I can feel it. One day I will have full books under my name in your local independent book store. Until then, check out my publishing progress, thoughts on the craft and industry, pieces of my mind, and general coming of age.

I love you forever, dear reader.

P.S. Bonus points if you can name the literary allusions riddled throughout this post.