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Pay attention not only to the cultivation of knowledge but to the cultivation of qualities of the heart, so that at the end of education, not only will you be knowledgeable, but also you will be a warm-hearted and compassionate person.


~ HH the 14th Dalai Lama

11/01/2008

Halloween Horror Fest

I've watched an abnormal number of horror movies this year. Some of that is because my wife is researching portrayals of librarians in film, and the most recent batch she added to our collection simply happened to include a lot of horror flicks. But I've also been re-embracing my horror roots, not only in film but also in literature (for a while this summer I returned to reading my beloved vampire novels, though only a handful turned out to be any good; I do highly recommend Robin McKinley's Sunshine) and in my own writing.

In that vein, I've been more in the mood recently to watch horror, and I've seen some interesting movies (Rob Zomebie's The Devil's Rejects and his remake of Halloween) and re-watched some old favorites (the original Wicker Man, Interview with the Vampire). But for this Halloween, I thought I'd list a few of the disappointments.


Weirdest/lamest/silliest horror movies I've seen this year:

House of 1,000 Corpses
Yes, I know it's Zombie and has become a cult classic of sorts, and it is fun in places, but it's also chaotic and mostly absurd; The Devil's Rejects was better.

The Dunwich Horror
Despite the lame "Satan spawn" write-up on the DVD case, it stays surprizingly faithful to the story, at least as far as this sort of movie can remain faithful. But Dean Stockwell tries way too hard for "intense and creepy"; he only ever manages "numb gaze" and "dull breathy monotone." Plus, in a weird sexploitative move that violates the tone of the original story, they tossed in a "sexy" leading girl, who winds up being one of the stupidest "blonde bimbos" in the history of horror cinema--and that's saying something.

Chainsaw Sally
Imagine an unintentional spoof of House of 1,000 Corpses crossed with a intentional (but failed) attempt at an homage to the bizarre but far superior Suspiria, all on a $6,000 budget. The hick-cop dialogue was sort of funny, though, and I admit I enjoyed all the serial-killer references.

From a Whisper to a Scream
Actually not half bad, but the Vincent Price interludes are the best part--the four sketches that make up the rest of the movie range from idiotic to hilarious to mildly interesting, sometimes in the same sketch, but it does manage to stand in the great tradition of the old Amazing Stories and Twilight Zone serials.

10/16/2008

Judy Blume

Last night I drove with my wife and another university librarian (our education librarian, who oversees our children and young-adult literature collection on campus) to Madison to attend a lecture by Judy Blume. Blume's speech was part of the larger Wisconsin Literary Festival underway this week, but her specific appearance was at the invitation of the Cooperative Children's Book Center, a youth-lit organization my wife belongs to; Blume was giving the 11th Annual Charlotte Zolotow Lecture, named for a children's-lit editor and author and anti-censorship activist who attended UW-Madison in the 1930s.

Like most kids in this country, I read Judy Blume's Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing when I was myself in fourth grade. And, like most kids in this country, I thought that book was about me. Blume has an almost eerie ability to tap the minds of young people and write about our universal confusions, questions, explorations, and discoveries as we grow up. Because of her ability to access our universal experiences, her books have long felt timeless: I was surprised to learn, as an adult, that Tales had been published a full four years before I was even born; she so convincingly related to my own experiences I was long convinced the book was contemporary, that Tales could only have appeared the year I read it, when I was in fourth grade. More amazing still is the revelation that the book's sequel, Superfudge, didn't appear until 1980, eight years after its predecessor, yet none of the characters had aged more than a few years and the sequel felt just as contemporary as the first, as though they had appeared back-to-back (which, incidentally, is how I read them). Most of her character-series (the Sally Freedman books, the chronicles of Fudge and his family, the saga of the Great One and the Pain) follow that pattern, some letting whole decades lapse between books. Yet every one of them feels new, familiar, contemporary, and, because of this, timeless.

Blume's fiction shares another magic, related to or perhaps even the cause of her timelessness--she writes with superb realism. We connect with her books because they are about us, our lives, the real world in which we live and fear and love. And it is this second quality that sometimes--thankfully--gets her into trouble. Some people feel Blume's fiction is too real, that it exposes children and teenagers to subjects they should not be exposed to (underwear, death, sex, religious doubt, etc.). The truth is, Blume is simply describing the reality in which children and teenagers already live; she is voicing the questions and doubts and fears and curiosities that children and teenagers are already longing to express, and in acting as a voice for them, Blume is helping them make sense of their world. "How can children possibly understand when no one tells them what's going on?" Blume asked toward the end of her speech. "They live in fear and confusion, and have to invent their own truths."

Blume's speech last night dealt with issues of censorship and intellectual freedom, but she spent most of her time focused on her own career as a writer. Brilliantly, she organized the speech into three "chapters," which followed her brief introduction explaining how she'd been invited and how nervous she was to be following previous Zolotow Lecturers Lois Lowry and Patricia MacLachlan (whom Blume called "Patty"). She also asked a question, which she waited till later to answer: are storytellers born or made? (She was careful to clarify, though, that in her view "storytelling and writing are not the same thing.")

The "chapters" of her speech-proper were all centered on fear, beginning with her own childhood fear of sharing her made-up stories. The closest she came to sharing her own fiction, she said, was a period in the fifth grade when she would have to give book reports in school. As a child, she had almost unlimited access to books--her parents never wanted to censor what she read or protect her from books other people felt she wasn't ready for, though her aunt did instill an almost religious reverence for the printed word, making Blume wash her tiny hands and display them for inspection, palms and backs and fingernails, before allowing the young girl to even touch a book. Her parents also frequently took her to the public library and let her spend hours reading from the shelves, anything she could reach and pull down to the floor where she sat. Consequently, she quickly read through everything available at her age level and began very early to read books well beyond her "appropriate" reading group. She described reading books like Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March and Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead at a very early age; even if she didn't fully understand what she was reading, she felt compelled to always have a book in hand, and even as she grew older would continue to read anything she could pull off the shelf. (Later, she related how so many of her family members, including her uncles, had died while she was growing up--"I spent my childhood in shiva," she said--and her mother had developed the habit of constantly knitting sweaters because, as Blume explained, "God wouldn't take her in the middle of a sleeve." Blume, who was attached to her father and worried about his safety, decided to read books in order to save his life; she became convinced that if she always was in the middle of a book, God wouldn't dare take her father--as though Blume's salvation could be passed along to her father. It was a touching moment.)

As a result, when Blume was in fifth grade, she knew she couldn't give a book report in class on anything she was currently reading because no one would understand the material she was reading--or, worse, everyone would think she was "weird." Instead, when book report days arrived, she would stand in front of the class and invent a book--title, author, and all--and spend her entire presentation expounding on the characters and themes of this imaginary creation. They were usually about horses, she said, because she had some idea that girls in her age group all liked horses (or were supposed to like horses), even though Blume herself was indifferent to horses.

Her second chapter dealt primarily with her discovery of fearlessness and her growth as a professional writer. And it was in this section that she revealed that, for her, storytellers are indeed born--that a true storyteller must have some innate ability and desperate need to tell stories. It's not a view I completely buy into, but it's not one I can much argue with, either, because I have certainly read people and met people I remain in awe of, people of whom, despite all my education and years analyzing the craft of writing, I continue to ask, "How did they do that?" I think this is perhaps why Blume made her early distinction between storytellers and writers, the implication being not only that writers can be made and that storytellers must be born, but also that some writers can study forever and never be storytellers and, conversely, that some storytellers can write forever and never be writers. This, I suppose, I might more readily agree with. Whatever the case, Blume clearly feels she is a storyteller, though she doesn't attach any pride to this label or suggest she is in any way an accomplished writer. She seems to claim her status as storyteller mostly by merit of her continual surprise at her own work--even she doesn't fully understand how she does what she does. "I'm not aware of where things come from," she says, referring not only to her story ideas but also the craft of her books, though this latter she is inclined to credit to her early editor and mentor, Dick Jackson. She described one of her early meetings, to discuss her book Then Again, Maybe I Won't, and despite her "professional" demeanor (she laughed that she had worn a yellow turtleneck with a plaid kilted skirt and go-go boots, because it made her feel "professional"), she claimed she was nervous through the whole meeting. Jackson kept asking her what her book was about, and she stammered through a very short list: "I don't know. It's about Tony, it's about his family...." For Blume, everything revolves around character and dialogue; she struggles with plot and loathes descriptive writing (a view I've written on recently). But Jackson wasn't after any of that. He didn't want to know whom the story was about, but what is was about. "A book has to be about something!" he told Blume. Finally, they began working on a list of things the book could be about--not themes, precisely ("I hate themes!" Blume said while slapping the podium), but ideas, issues, even physical objects that became central to the narrative. This, she claims, is how she learned to focus her writing.

Still, she seems suspicious of craft and relishes the "freedom" of pursuing ideas outside analysis and criticism, the ease and joy of writing that can occur when we don't have our educated self-editor on our shoulders. "It's great not knowing anything when you're starting out," she says. "I envy people that now." I can see her point, though I've recently been arguing against just this perspective with a friend of mine. I think the issue isn't one of education ruining a writer, but of how we engage that education and what we do with it. I agree that some people pursue an education in writing--or some people teach writing--only to the point of introducing us to our shoulder imps with their forked tongues and their little red pens. We get to the point in our writing where everything we do is wrong, or at least everything we do could be better, and for some reason--we get fed up and leave too early, or our teachers through laziness or ignorance choose to take us only so far--we never get past the critic, we never learn how to set aside the education and rediscover the joy. I maintain that studying craft is important--perhaps vital--for a working writer, but I also remain a fan of the axiom that we must learn the rules in order to know how best to break them. There must be a way to re-access the joy in writing without abandoning the craft. My friend is in the process of struggling with that now--I hope successfully, and her recent blog posts sound promising. Blume claims to have found her method in setting aside the writing entirely until a story builds up in her and she can't wait any longer to burst into her little writing room and sit down for her two hours a day. This, of course, is a luxury only an established writer can afford, but the result is the same--she finds a way to set aside whatever "rules" she's learned in her long career and re-access the pleasure and necessity of writing.

Her final "chapter" moved from her own fearlessness in writing to combating the fear-mongering of censorship (Blume herself has been labeled "the most banned author in America" on a number of occasions), and intellectual freedom has become one of Blume's most-championed causes, for which she has frequently been recognized. (She recently edited a collection of stories related to censorship, all written by banned authors; the collection is called Places I Never Meant to Be: Original Stories by Censored Writers.) This is where I began this entry, and it's where she would want me to leave it, so I'll end by pointing out only two things: 1) Without ever revealing her candidate of choice (though it wouldn't be hard to guess), Blume made several references to the debate we were all missing last night (and which she encouraged us to watch online later) and to what she perceived as the importance of this year's election--"the most important election in my lifetime," she said--and she urged us to act with our votes to preserve intellectual freedom and encourage an attitude of hope for our nation and our nation's children. 2) She insisted, repeatedly and heatedly, that banning books creates ignorance and supporting intellectual freedom is a necessary component of any free society; we must, she said, work to preserve the First Amendment rights of our children as well as ourselves. Throughout this blog entry, I've placed links to various sites about intellectual freedom and Blume's own efforts to protect books and the children who want to read them; please click on those links and take up Blume's call to action.

9/28/2008

Taboo: The answers

  1. Your grandma makes it--it's warm. You sleep with it.
      Answer: a quilt

  2. This is a really old famous writer.
      Answer: William Shakespeare

  3. It's Friday! It's a candybar!
      Answer: Payday

  4. It's coming out of your nose.
    • "Boogers! Snot!"
    • Yes--another word for what's happening....
        Answer: Drip

  5. (hilarious laughter) Just skip it!
      Answer: Armpit

  6. Thing in the sky. When you're little, you make fun of it.
      Answer: Uranus

  7. People who can't have regular bikes use this.
      Answer: Tricycle

  8. Uh..... no.
      Answer: Pierce Brosnon / Judge Judy

  9. When a little kid wets himself, he had a....
      Answer: Accident

  10. When you get owned, you get....
      Answer: Pawn (Internet geeks will love this)

  11. You're an animal in the jungle, and you have an abnormally large butt.
      Answer: Baboon

  12. They're white. They're really annoying.
      Answer: Seagull

Also, most disturbing outburst, followed by most awkward silence, followed by funniest/most appropriate pass on a card:

A student turned over the word "Kiss" and shouted, "Oh, this is what you do with your girlfriend!"

His partner shouted, "Fight!"

The reader said, "No, the other thing!"

Everyone went silent and looked around at each other.

The reader said, "Come on, man!"

His partner gave a nervous laugh and said, "Uh, what do you want me to say here?"

The reader waved his hand and said, "No, not that! Before that!"

His partner said, "Oh! Kiss!"

The next card they turned up was "Sexism." They skipped it.

9/26/2008

Taboo

This week I have my students playing Taboo. The exercise serves a number of functions, actually: 1) It helps them form bonds within their newly-created workshop groups; 2) it allows them to practice description by finding alternate ways of describing things or ideas, since they have to avoid the obvious descriptive terms on the cards; 3) it teaches them tactics of audience analysis, since they have to make sure their teammates can understand their alternate descriptions; 4) it gives them bonus points on their workshop grades; and 5) it's fun.

But the best part of today is that I get to walk around the room and hear some fascinating descriptions, sometimes depressing ("This is what you do on Friday nights"--"Get drunk!"; "When you've been drinking, you're eyes look..."--"Bloodshot!"), but sometimes hilarious. In fact, some of the things I overhear, whether in context or out of context, struck me as so funny I've started keeping track, and I'll share them here (watch for updates throughout the day).

For fun, I'm going to number these and leave the item being described blank. Anyone reading this, feel free to guess what my students are after here [NEW CLUES--6-8] [and EVEN MORE new clues--9-12]:

1. Your grandma makes it--it's warm. You sleep with it.
2. This is a really old famous writer.
3. It's Friday! It's a candybar!
  • 4. It's coming out of your nose.
  • "Boogers! Snot!"
  • Yes--another word for what's happening....
5. (hilarious laughter) Just skip it!
6. Thing in the sky. When you're little, you make fun of it.
7. People who can't have regular bikes use this.
8. Uh..... no.
9. When a little kid wets himself, he had a....
10. When you get owned, you get....
11. You're an animal in the jungle, and you have an abnormally large butt.
12. They're white. They're really annoying.


The most-sexist-clue award: "It's a chick who's at a game." Answer: Cheerleader.

And, strangest outburst: "You are a..." Answer (immediate--not even a pause): "Badger!" They were going for "teenager," but we are in Wisconsin, the Badger State.

9/21/2008

I'm watching The Watchmen, that's who!

Thanks to a generous loan from a former student/current fraternity advisee, I'm reading The Watchmen. I'd long heard of the book, but back in the apex of my high-school comic nerdism, my tastes tended more toward the X-Men, a healthy dose of Spidey and the Punisher, and a handful of mainstream DarkHorse titles (if there was such a thing back then). I wasn't terribly picky in what I read, but my one fast rule back then was that if DC published it, I wasn't interested. (Alas--I had learned from bad childhood experiences to equate DC with cheap Superman and Batman runs in which the heros pontificated in long strings of spoken exposition, which even then felt horribly false to me.) Consequently, I missed out on the genius of Alan Moore (and Frank Miller, for that matter), and I am reading The Watchmen now for the first time.

Initially, I'd planned to pick it up only because the movie is due in theaters this coming spring, and I like to read the books ahead of the movies when I can (which is the main reason I subjected myself to the Twilight series this summer). But since deciding I needed to read The Watchmen, I've begun studying graphic narrative and reading more graphic novels (I finished the initial ten volumes of Neil Gaiman's Sandman this summer as well) in an effort to learn more about the medium and the genre--because I suspect it is both, and more--as I set out to write my own graphic novel. In my studies, I've seen Alan Moore's name come up repeatedly, and though I was already familiar with his stature thanks to works like V for Vendetta, From Hell, and his important additions to the Batman mythos, the book most people talk about is The Watchmen. Except they never actually talk about it--they mention Moore himself off-handedly, almost as a given, the way we might mention Shakespeare or Austen, yet they always write The Watchmen in a whisper, as though they're all afraid to inadvertantly disrespect scripture. And that seems to be the way most serious comics writers and scholars and critics approach The Watchmen, as the Bible of graphic novels. (Or, perhaps, the "New Testament" to the power of the comics medium, the "Old Testament" being Will Eisner's The Spirit, a film version of which is also due in theaters soon, this time directed by comics legend Frank Miller.)

I am barely a fourth of the way into the novel, but already I see why it is so revered. I cannot yet comment on the intricacies of the story--of the plotting and the structure as a whole--though I am already picking up on subtlties of visual structure that astound me. But even only this short distance into the story, I am amazed--awed is not too strong a word, I think--at the sheer scope of Moore's storytelling prowess, particularly as regards his understanding of character and of symbolism--which, in the comics medium, is somehow textual and visual simultaneously. Moore is famous for his angry disavowal of any film versions of his work: he insists that the comics medium is unique to the degree that no other medium, even film, can possibly accomplish what he can do in a graphic novel. I have long been prepared to disagree with him, and I am still looking forward to the film adaptation of The Watchmen, but reading this novel now, I'm beginning to see his point. And I am beginning to understand for the first time the full possibilities of the comics form, which excites me for my own writing so much that I'm hoping to assign comics to my own creative writing students, not because I can teach the form but because I am so thrilled at the potential for it and want desperately to see what students would do with it.

9/17/2008

Passive voice

I don't lecture on passive voice with the same frequency or fervor as I did back when I taught technical/professional writing, but it's still a sticking point for me, and I like to point it out when I see it. My favorite example remains the Reagan line during the Iran Contras of the `80s: "Mistakes were made." By whom were those mistakes made, Ronnie? What a "clever" way to deflect blame! Why Bill Clinton didn't use the passive voice is beyond me--how much news coverage might we have been spared (yep--passive voice deflecting blame here, too) had he simply told us, "Sex was not had with that woman." Still, I have discovered a resurgence of the line in recent politics: Three years ago, expressing his frustration with the Bush administration's non-response to the Katrina disaster, Sen. Trent Lott told the press that "mistakes are being made" (Lott is a Republican and, angry as he was over the tragedies unfolding in his home state--his own house was destroyed by the hurricane--he was understandably reluctant to openly blame his fellow Republicans for the fiasco). And more recently, in an interview with Charlie Gibson, vice-presidential hopeful Gov. Sarah Palin explained away the military mess in Iraq and Afghanistan with the old line, "Mistakes were made."

Today, I was reading an article about hiring Amish contractors, and I discovered a convenient example of the kinds of misinformation and obscurity passive voice can create. In the article, the author extols the benefits of Amish craftsmanship and the Amish work ethic, but she follows this with a caution about the "special challenges" associated with Amish contracting:

"Imagine trying to keep in touch with a contractor who doesn't own a phone--most are forbidden to have one at home. They also aren't allowed to drive, so they need a driver or other means to get to the job site."

Most Amish "are forbidden" by whom to own a phone? The Amish "aren't allowed to drive" according to what? My problem with the passive voice here is that it implies a kind of authoritarian moral structure in which individuals or even religious texts are dictating the lifestyles of the Amish. And this simply is not true.

The answer to these questions is that those Amish who refuse phones or cars forbid themselves (or, I suppose, each other) these technological luxuries. And even this is dependent not on religious law or even widespread custom, but on individual communities. Each Amish community revolves around the Ordnung, a word referring both to the community itself and to the system of ethics and rules governing that community. Each Amish community gathers in regular meetings, presided over by community elders, and decide in an essentially democratic process what sorts of ethical and moral guidelines they would collectively like to hold each other responsible for. And most Amish elect to forgo technological luxuries because they view such luxuries as distractions from a simple, contemplative religious life. I like to refer to the Amish as secular monks, communities who choose to live highly spiritual lives focused almost exclusively on their faith and their God. For the Amish, tilling the fields and washing the linen and eating dinner all become a part of their regular religious experience; mentally, they are always "in church."

The use of the passive voice in the article confuses this important feature of Amish life. The author has made it sound like the Amish live restrictive, oppressive lives dominated by antiquated laws that originated and continue to exist outside the group or the individual. In fact, the opposite is true: the Amish choose to live their lives within the spiritual liberty of work and family, free from the distractions of our modern "English" lifestyles. The passive voice takes that away from them; I am writing this in an effort to let them have their freedom--and to correct the mistakes that were made in the article.

9/11/2008

Dissertation vs. Novel

Today (yes, it took that long--it's been nearly a year), the bound copies of my dissertation arrived in the mail. It's an odd thing to see, this document long finished here anew in my hands, in a solid form suggesting something like legitimacy. In some ways, I dread looking through it--over the past year, while revising portions of the novel and revisiting sections of the scholarly preface, I have found many dozens of typos and whole paragraphs, even chapters I'd like to significantly rework--and since this new printed form has such an air of finality about it, it makes that dread all the worse. Still, I've been browsing the print version of the preface just now, and it turns out this isn't half so bad as I thought it was. Maybe it's simply because it is in print and appears authoritative for that: Also a year ago, around the time I was finishing this dissertation, I quoted in this blog a line from Dylan Thomas: "I always think typescript lends some sort of certainty: at least, if the things are bad then, they appear bad with conviction."

Which might explain the joy I get from the second document to arrive today. In placing my order for bound dissertations, I selected several copies in the traditional large, hardbound versions, as this is what those family members who'll receive them requested. My wife, too, demanded a large hardback version for our shelves, and of course she's right--it will look quite nice sitting next to our masters theses and her undergraduate thesis. But on a whim, I also ordered a single copy in paper, run in reduction on smaller pages so it looks like a trade paperback. That's the only difference really, but when I took to flipping through it this afternoon, I discovered it does indeed look quite like a published novel, and seeing it in that form has allowed me (rather giddily) to excuse all sorts of flaws and faults in the writing and start imagining it as a novel again.

I'm in the middle of adapting that story into a graphic novel, which has been an education in economy, in plot development, and in visual imagery (to say nothing of visual narrative and the totally new possibilities available in so different a format), but I'm beginning to wonder if I can take what revisions I've made and re-adapt them to the old novel format. (One of my earliest writing mentors used to compress his novels by rewriting them as screenplays and to develop his film characters by writing them into novels; I find myself in a similar process with this novel-to-comics endeavor.) I'm starting to think this novel might not be as hackneyed as I'd first considered it. And I might just shop this thing around in both forms.

9/10/2008

Lost won; Fringe is frayed: a study of character vs. plot

Okay, lame title for a comparison of JJ Abrams series.

For the past several weeks I've been embroiled in an on-and-off argument with a friend of mine. It relates to how we define quality writing and how we use the terms "literary" and "genre," among other things. (I use "literary" in a positive way and until recently had been using "genre" derogatorily; she extols the virtues of "genre" and uses "literary" derogatorily, though she also considers "literary" as a kind of genre itself. This latter point I cannot disagree with and I've come to shift terms, describing the schlock I once called "genre" as "Wal-Mart fiction" or "airport novels.")

One of the issues we've hit on in our debate is the importance of plot versus the importance of character. And last night, I stumbled across an interesting comparison of the two approaches: I watched the pilot episode of Fringe, the new JJ Abrams series on Fox, and found myself comparing it to Abrams's creation Lost on ABC. Fringe, I would argue, is a plot-driven series (or, at least, the pilot was, and from what I saw of the series teaser and from what I've read in reviews, the rest of the series follows that formula). Lost, my friend and I have often agreed, is character-driven.

But, to return for a moment to the argument of craft and writing: My friend (who is finishing a PhD in creative writing from the same program I earned my degree from) has observed that most writing teachers avoid teaching or even refuse to teach plot. She contends that some people choose not to teach plot because they fail to understand plot beyond its basic elements. But I have to wonder if no one teaches more than the basics of plot because there is no more beyond the basics. Plot, in my experience, is a basic element, quickly understood and mimicked. I suppose one might look for ways to go about constructing complexity in plots, strategies for creating intricate patterns of action (I do--it's an area I continue to work on, usually without much success), but then we'd be teaching formula, which is a very different sort of writing, and it can be found more easily and more appropriately in books on the subject than it could in a classroom.

I was glad to stumble across a similar idea in the comments of Robin McKinley, a sometimes-YA author whom many would probably label a "genre" writer, though I want to argue she manages to transcend the trappings of genre and write with a literary attention to art. I've only read the one book so far, her fascinating vampire/sci-fi novel Sunshine, but the writing was good enough that I plan to read more. I also looked her up to see what she has to say about the craft, and I discovered a handful of comments in her FAQs online.

McKinley professes to be an inspiration writer, claiming her stories "come to her" or "happen to her" as though through a muse; she barely claims ownership of her own work. But that doesn't prevent her from being aware of her process and the influence she has over the stories that happen to her. She does acknowledge what my friend is seeking--the need for instruction in how to construct plots: "One of the trickiest bits about writing a story is getting the connections to look inevitable," she writes in one section of her FAQ. "When I've managed to put a scene in the wrong place, it's not merely a question of putting it in the right place; I have to rewrite all the connections too — including checking all other scenes in the vicinity to make sure there aren't references to the newly-moved scene in its old location." But she claims to have learned how to accomplish this from exactly the sources I'd have expected: not in a classroom but in books.
You can also learn a lot by sheer plagiarism, so long as you recognise that that is what it is and that it's only a writing exercise. I wrote an awful lot of very bad Tolkien pastiche when I was younger — I didn't realise what I was doing at first, but even when I began to, later on, I could see that I was learning a lot about characterisation and plot development, how you get people from one place to another, how much background you need, how to slip in information your story is going to need later, how to lay a good ambush for the innocent reader — and so I kept on with it, when I couldn't think of any stories of my own.
I love McKinley's comments because (and I suspect this is true for most writers) they sound familiar to me. I was writing great plots when I was 14 years old. Really fascinating, action-packed narratives, stories about drug dealers and alien races and genetic experiments gone wrong. But they were cartoony, with broad outlines and only four colors. I needed the attention to detail and the nuances of a nearly psychological focus on character to make my fiction live, to make it real. I'll grant you, I'd have liked more concrete suggestions on how to go back and recombine those things, but then, I don't believe it's always necessary. John Irving does--he says fiction begins and ends with plot, and to hell with anyone who says otherwise. But I disagree. I can pick up a textbook on natural science and read about the formation of the planet, and it'll be rife with plot--the world is full of conflict and action and resolution and even narrative arcs, and we don't need people to create those. But it's not story--it's science.

Alternatively, you can drop a character in an empty white room and take away all the doors and windows, and you can still have a compelling and fascinating story. There is no plot at all--nothing to accomplish, no physical action--but there's plenty of character, and I say that's where fiction begins and ends. I'm oversimplifying, I know--to simply drop in a character and describe their situation and environment is, at best, a sketch, so if the fiction is to be successful, the plot will develop from the character, and our lonely soul in the white room will slowly go mad trying to escape or else become enlightened in the acceptance of their fate, and this would be the plot. (The film Johnny Got His Gun--source text for Metallica's epic "One"--deals with an even better scenario, in which a man is hit by a mortar shell and winds up with both arms and both legs amputated, blinded by the flash and deafened by the roar of impact, and his spine severed in such a way that he's lost all sense of touch or taste or smell. He is literally left as only a mind, alone in the dark, deprived of everything--including "plot." And yet, from this, we receive narrative.) But my point is, if we write a plot and then try to place characters into it, we have a terribly difficult time making those characters believable or interesting, whereas if we write a character and then see what happens to them, the sky's the limit plotwise and we might also stumble upon art. This, I would argue, is the mode of probably 85%, maybe 90% of all contemporary literary art.

Anne Lamott agrees, I'm happy to say. In her book Bird by Bird--a simple text on writing, famous for its often-anthologized chapter "Shitty First Drafts"--she writes a chapter on "Plot":
Plot grows out of character. If you focus on who the people in your story are, if you sit and write about two people you know and are getting to know better day by day, something is bound to happen.

Characters should not, conversely, serve as pawns for some plot you've dreamed up. Any plot you impose on your characters will be onomatopoetic: PLOT. I say don't worry about plot. Worry about the characters.
Which brings me back to JJ Abrams.

My friend and I are both Lost fans. (I would say "fanatics," but I've read some of the Lostpedia, and I know how obsessive the real fanatics can be, so I won't diminish their devotion to the show by claiming to be one of them.) We both love the show for similar reasons, and when we both first began geeking out over Lost, we mentioned how terrifically character-driven the show is. I've read interviews with Abrams and the other creators expressing exactly this intent: that the show was intended as a study of characters, both of individual characters and of their interactions with each other. Whatever plot developed (and until recently the writers freely admitted that there was no plot--they were just making things up as they went), the story was directly dependent on the nature of the characters. The pilot episode of Lost begins with a close-up on Jack's eye precisely to illustrate that whatever we're about to see is going to be through Jack's experience, from his perspective, focused (if you'll excuse the pun) on Jack's character. And, true to form, most of the first-season episodes begin in the same way--a close-up on a character's eyes to hint at that episode's focus on that character. The show dropped the visual device eventually, but with the exception of a few season-three missteps, it has never abandoned its focus on character. Yet it also boasts some of the most complex plotting in the history of television, and it does this not through any speculative sci-fi formulas but through following the natural developments and possible interactions (a Buddhist would say interdependence) of its characters.

Last night's pilot for Fringe, co-created by Abrams, lost all that magic and settled instead for the coincidences, conveniences, and forced developments of a plot-driven narrative. Like Lost, it begins with a plane crash, and like Lost, it relies on some vast underlying conspiracy and strange, inexplicable events to set up the situations in which the characters exist. But the characters are never characters. They're "Sort of Smart but Really Just Lucky FBI Agent," "FBI Agent's Lover Who Is Also An Agent," "Creepy Boss Who Seems At First to Be A Jerk But Who Really Has a Secret Agenda," "Mad Scientist" (I'm not making this up--it gets that cliche), "Mad Scientist's Brilliant But Edgy Son," and, of course, "The Villain." We're never expected to question these characters or really even care about them--we begin the story with "an incident" on a plane (all shock and horror, but not much substance), which thrusts our agents into the plot without more than a 30-second introduction, and the "action" (if you can call it that) railroads us through the rest of the episode. There is no concern on the part of the writers for who these people are, why they do what they do, what the implications are for them. They are tools in the story.

This is why Fringe failed for me as a show, and it serves as an interesting example of my problem with formulaic, plot-driven narrative as opposed to the introspective, character-driven narrative exemplified by Lost. Even though they're from the same creator.

9/09/2008

An assignment for me

My students are busily typing away at an assignment I've given them. Which surprises me. Ordinarily, when I bring my classes to a computer lab, I have to all but beat students away from IM, Facebook, YouTube, or any of the other distractions I, too, would ordinarily have open in side windows. But either they're getting better at hiding their in-class extracurricular activities, or they're genuinely interested in getting some writing done. Better in class than at home, which is why I'm offering them the opportunity in the first place.

But it creates a kind of onus, I think, that I should write alongside them, and so here I am.

Worse, I once joked that I should tackle their assignments in order to set an example, and though I'm reluctant to do so while they're still working on a piece (I wouldn't want anyone to feel even subconsciously beholden to imitate me), I do believe in modeling as an educational tool. The good news: They've already turned in a much shorter version of this same assignment, so I will tackle it.

The assignment: To write a short credo about my views related to community. (I'm basing these assignments on suggestions from curriculum offered by the This I Believe series on NPR, but I've tailored it to my particular classroom project.)


Yesterday, I was writing in my online classroom site about the origins of the word community, because a student had made some guesses about the etymology and the intentions of "the founder of the word community." I promised I'd look into it, because I'm a geek and enjoy such investigations, and I did so that very evening. I discovered (thank you, OED) that the word stems from an early Latin noun communis, an abstraction meaning "fellowship, community of relations or feelings."

But this word in turn developed from the Latin roots that form our contemporary word "common." There are differing theories about how these roots originally combined, but I prefer the combination of com ("together") and munis ("bound" or "under obligation"), because it reinforces my belief that a community holds certain communal or social obligations, whether the whole is somehow obligated to assist its individual members or each of the members is obligated to assist the whole (why not both?).

And this is what I believe about community: that it is a group of people who, for whatever reason (and these are myriad) come together for mutual support and compassion, who understand each other to the best of their capacity and seek to help each other for the common good.

Or, this is what it should be.

9/04/2008

"The Bullet Surprise," courtesy of "beta amphetamine"

My friend Beth Ann Fennelly has a new book of of poetry out, Unmentionables, which I've been salivating for since I finished her nonfiction book Great with Child a year ago. I haven't ordered it yet, but I've been thinking about the book, so to whet my yearning I've picked up an old favorite, her book Tender Hooks, to browse the poems there. If "browse" is possible--it's accidentally apt, her title, because while there's nothing "tender" about her poems (they are sweet, but sweet the way of baker's chocolate, sharp and honest and un-sugared), they do tend to reel me into them, to snare me so I have little choice but to read the next poem, and the next poem, and the next. She's a hell of an angler, Beth Ann.

Anyway, in reading the next poem tonight, I found all over again a section that reminded me that this is my first week back in the classroom, teaching--what else?--freshman comp. It's the second section of her disjointed but delicious poem "A Study of Writing Habits":


2. It's a Doggy-Dog World

for poets who grow up to be comp teachers
because our spelling is recked forever
so are our idioms and old wise tales

a student writes of the novel
that won "the Bullet Surprise"
it drives her "out of my mime"

It's good to keep a sense of humor
if your name sounds like "beta amphetamine"
and you find yourself thinking
when you're supposed to be sleeping
a bullet surprise would be fine


***

This afternoon, before I indulged in a Beth Ann Fennelly fix, I finished reading Robin McKinley's Sunshine, a fascinating and well-written sci-fi/vampire novel. I liked her prose and her imagination enough to look her up online (my wife's a HUGE fan, but I'm new to McKinley), and as I was browsing her FAQs, I found a neat little paragraph about what Anne Lamott famously calls "shitty first drafts":

And you don't have to think you've got it all right and perfect to be proud of what you've done. If you come to the end of a story or any piece of writing you've sweated and bled over, and you can look at it and say, I've done the best I know how to do, and really, it's not at all bad — then you've done very well indeed. Give yourself a pat on the back — and then get on with the next story, the next thing.
If any of my students are reading this right now--this is what I mean by permission to screw up, permission to revise, and permission to move on.

9/02/2008

New journey, no map

I've been neglecting this blog nearly all summer. That doesn't mean I've been neglecting my writing, of course: I've written reviews of the books I've read, I've typed up my journals from my trip to Scotland (and written a 20,000-word photodocumentary of the trip for friends and family), I've worked on stories and even started adapting my novel into a graphic novel. And since this blog is, presumably, for my students, I suppose I can excuse myself for writing elsewhere these past few months. But then, when I started this last September, I claimed I wanted to demonstrate writing practice, and when I end each academic year in the spring, I send my students away with the reminder that writing doesn't adhere to a calendar, so I also suppose, if I'm being honest, that I ought to extend this visible means of writing practice into the summer months myself. But I chose to write elsewhere.

So be it.

I'm back now, is all I know--here to begin anew, to rediscover Natalie Goldberg's "beginner's mind," to remember that "each time [I sit down to write] is a new journey with no maps." After a long and meandering hiatus, here I've wandered into this blog again. So I write on.

Mapless or not, I've been thinking of setting myself certain goals this semester, at least related to this blog. So, for myself, here's what I hope to do:
  • I'll try to post at least once a week.
  • I'll try to keep tabs on the writing I'm doing, even if I'm not doing that writing here.
  • I'll occasionally comment on the teaching craft, perhaps as a means of developing an idea I've had for a book on teaching.
  • And, because I enjoy the stupid things, I'll keep tossing in any meme I find related to reading or writing or creativity in general, because, well, why not.
At least, that's the plan. But now that I've made the map, I'll go ahead and throw it away, because frankly, I often find wandering more fruitful, when I have the time to do so.

6/27/2008

Books meme

How can I resist? Some friends of mine in another blog site have been passing this around, and though it's nothing new, I can't help but participate:


1) Look at the list and bold those you have read.

2) Italicise those you intend to read (as in the book is bought and sitting on my shelf).

3) Underline the books you LOVE.

4) Strike out the ones you thought SUCKED.



1. Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen

2. The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien

3. Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte

4. Harry Potter series - JK Rowling

5. To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee

6. The Bible (also, may I please add The Dhamapada? the Tao Te Ching? the Bhagavad-Gita? the Qur'an, which, though I've not yet finished it, is so far glorious?)

7. Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte

8. Nineteen Eighty Four - George Orwell

9. His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman

10. Great Expectations - Charles Dickens

11. Little Women - Louisa M Alcott

12. Tess of the D'Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy

13. Catch 22 - Joseph Heller

14. Complete Works of Shakespeare (most of the plays)

15. Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier

16. The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien

17. Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks

18. Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger

19. The Time Traveller's Wife - Audrey Niffenegger

20. Middlemarch - George Eliot

21. Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell

22. The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald

23. Bleak House - Charles Dickens

24. War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy

25. The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams

26. Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh

27. Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky

28. Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck

29. Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll

30. The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame (I need to re-read it)

31. Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy

32. David Copperfield - Charles Dickens

33. Chronicles of Narnia - CS Lewis

34. Emma - Jane Austen (Why are the Austens separate?)

35. Persuasion - Jane Austen

36. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (how is this distinct from the entire series?--see #33)

37. The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini

38. Captain Corelli's Mandolin - Louis De Bernieres

39. Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden

40. Winnie the Pooh - AA Milne

41. Animal Farm - George Orwell

42. The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown [I'm proud I haven't read this!]

43. One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez

44. A Prayer for Owen Meaney - John Irving

45. The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins

46. Anne of Green Gables - LM Montgomery

47. Far From The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy

48. The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood

49. Lord of the Flies - William Golding

50. Atonement - Ian McEwan

51. Life of Pi - Yann Martel

52. Dune - Frank Herbert

53. Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons

54. Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen

55. A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth

56. The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon

57. A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens

58. Brave New World - Aldous Huxley

59. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon

60. Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez

61. Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck (I've forgotten most of it--I should read it again)

62. Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov

63. The Secret History - Donna Tartt

64. The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold--part of my dissertation!

65. Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas

66. On The Road - Jack Kerouac

67. Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy

68. Bridget Jones' Diary - Helen Fielding

69. Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie

70. Moby Dick - Herman Melville

71. Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens

72. Dracula - Bram Stoker

73. The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett

74. Notes From A Small Island - Bill Bryson

75. Ulysses - James Joyce

76. The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath

77. Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome

78. Germinal - Emile Zola

79. Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray

80. Possession - AS Byatt

81. A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens

82. Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell

83. The Color Purple - Alice Walker

84. The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro

85. Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert

86. A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry

87. Charlotte's Web - EB White

88. The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Albom (should I really admit to having read this? oh well--it was almost part of my dissertation, but I found a way to get rid of it)

89. Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

90. The Faraway Tree Collection - Enid Blyton

91. Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad (are you reading this, Grey!?!?!)

92. The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupery--and in French, no less!

93. The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks

94. Watership Down - Richard Adams

95. A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole

96. A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute

97. The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas (I started it; I need to finish it)

98. Hamlet - William Shakespeare (again, how is this distinct from the complete works?--see #15)

99. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl

100. Les Miserables - Victor Hugo

5/13/2008

My eyes, they are strained

I've been going through my students' online discussion posts this semester, looking at the statistics, and I think I'm about ready to collapse.

So far this semester, I've written 276 discussion posts. Many of them are short replies to questions or comments on other posts, but several have been lengthy essays. But that's not the part that hurts my brain.

I have also read 1,218 posts this semester.

Of those, a full 999 were formal response essays, and while the average of all my classes was well below the required 600 words per essay, the posts did average around 400 words a pop, which is roughly a single typed page, double-spaced. That means, had I been reading these on paper, as if my students had turned them in during class, I'd have read almost 1,000 pages this semester.

And that's only counting response essays. It doesn't count the slew of questions, workshop group discussions, and pop-culture commentary my students also posted. It also doesn't count their formal research papers.

If I count only the papers I received and read, and I assume an average of 3 pages per short paper and 8 pages per long paper (which is about what the averages were), I also read 1,124 pages of research.

And then there were my students' research portfolios, full of abstracts and outlines and bibliographies and notes.

And their e-mails, sometimes as many as a dozen a day.

On top of all that, I also judged our campus Creative Writing contest, which added another 400 pages or so of reading, and I've been working with a student creative writing group (though I admit, I don't always find time to read all their work), which has added another few dozen pages.

With all this, somehow I've managed to also stay on top of my New Yorkers, half my Shambhala Suns, and a few of my issues of One Story; squeeze in three books this semester; and regularly read several blogs and news articles, as well as every word of every issue of our student newspaper.

No wonder I've finally had to start wearing reading glasses once in a while.

5/04/2008

Typos

I ought to put this on a stamp and keep it on my desk, so I can just slap it on a paper whenever I find cause:

"Typos are very important to all written form. It gives the reader something to look for so they aren't distracted by the total lack of content in your writing."
~ Randy K. Milholland, Something Positive Comic, 7-3-05

(This, courtesy of my dad. Was he trying to tell me something?)

4/16/2008

National Nonviolence Week

Please visit this site. If you have a MySpace page, consider joining the group.

3/23/2008

Happy Easter!


Catholic, Orthodox (Coptic, Greek, and Russian), and Lutheran views (which I've included for regional reasons and because Lutherism is one of the earliest--perhaps the earliest--of the Protestant denominations). If I've left out a doctrinal view you prefer, feel free to post it in a reply--I'd love to see some other beliefs.




3/20/2008

San Francisco and Pop Culture

As I did in New York, I decided to write blog entries about my conference in San Francisco, so my students can see what I'm up to at these conferences (this one over Spring Break no less!). But this time around, my conference hotel is not offering free wireless, so I'm having to write these offline and post them later. Still, I'm dating them retroactively, so they'll still reflect the intended date of the post.

Flying into San Francisco, I was more taken by the West Coast mountain-and-Bay scenery than I thought I would be, particularly with the sun high overhead but the Bay and low hills thick with gauzy fog. On the ground, I found the warm, breezy hills and meandering roads relaxing, the sight of all those thick evergreens and swaying palms oddly comforting, even as I realized that I was recognizing them only from film and television: I had been coddled and nursed by Hollywood, and now felt almost infantile in the presence of California. It was like the Chili Peppers song internalized, brought into an almost religious reality. Perhaps it was the BART subway train we rode from the airport to the hotel--it was hands-down the cleanest, most comfortable, most efficient rail system I’ve ridden so far; the seats are larger and softer than those on our plane from Madison!

Our hotel is downtown, in the center of a shopping and arts district that is home to what seem like hundreds of what my friend David Horsley calls “alleywalkers.” (I remain in the habit of calling them “homeless,” but in a personal essay titled “The Alleywalker,” Horsley argues that for many people who live on the street, a home is the least important of the things they are “less.” Therefore, he chooses to call them “alleywalkers,” a better descriptive of their lifestyles.) I’m used to encountering alleywalkers in my travels--I’ve become something of a magnet for them, often chatting with them for blocks as I walk to a restaurant or a reception or a bar and they follow, hoping without begging that I’ll hand them some change (which I often do, in exchange for the conversation). In Atlanta last spring, I actually followed a man more than a mile into the depths of back-alley Atlanta; he’d asked me to put him up for the night in a shelter, and rather than simply hand him the money, I chose to walk with him and see the shelter myself, in part out of curiosity, in part out of suspicion (I didn’t know what he’d really do with my money), and in part out of simple human companionship. He told me about his children in Florida, about his struggles to find work without a local permanent address, about his life on the street. When a gang of shadowy figures began crawling from beneath a distant overpass and making their way toward us, he stopped me and explained that we were entering a part of town dangerous for white people (he used the word “Caucasian”; he was African-American), and that on second thought, he’d feel better walking me back to my part of town. He didn’t ask for any money. I gave it to him anyway, along with my leftover Indian dinner, and he hugged me and offered again to walk me back, but I waved him off and wished him well.

Here in San Francisco, the alleywalkers are different, or at least, more open. I’ve seen more in just these several blocks than I have in all the other cities I’ve visited combined. Having so many in such close proximity, many camped out in front of the swanky downtown hotels and the pricey shopping centers hoping to catch wealthy tourists, I’ve had the opportunity to make some observations I had long assumed from pop-culture presentations of the homeless but had never fully encountered before. Here, many of the homeless have gathered into tight communities, small traveling congregations of friends and fellow beggars. Some of the lone wanderers carry signs and sit silent, as though in meditation or stoic repose; others try to sell trinkets made from found paper clips or woven bits of discarded thread, or hand out free community newspapers in hopes of a donation; others simply sleep, an empty Starbucks cup held loose in their hands. But the congregations conspire, they arrange themselves in lines to beg collectively or vote on representatives to follow shoppers and tourists, debate the amount to be begged and then allot the money they collect, like a church charity plate in reverse. As my wife and I walked down Market Street to the city’s public library--a regular pilgrimage in all new cities we visit--I overheard such a conversation, a stooped, bearded man in a dirty denim jacket explaining to his colleagues that he needed five dollars, the rest electing him to track down the money (and telling him he needed to get more than five dollars if he expected his share), at which point he tucked away the capless prescription bottle he’d been holding, stuck his long-reused plastic water bottle under one arm, and followed us across two streets and half a block, shuffling in a limp, rambling a barely coherent but clearly practiced narrative in hopes of getting our change.

I find such encounters difficult. The truth is, I often have some change to spare, and if I can do so safely, I’m always willing to offer a bit of help. But here, the alleywalker population is so dense that I can’t donate funds without revealing the money I have on hand, and--excuse though this may be--I worry about giving some money to some people while excluding the rest, and I certainly can’t afford to help out everyone. So I choose to help no one, often explaining--falsely--that I’d love to help out but I have no change. Everyone I’ve encountered seems to accept this, not as truth but as the code that it is: I have some change, but I don’t have enough, and I’m not going to give. No one has so far seemed offended. It’s just a part of the culture, a part of the dialogue of this place. It’s been an education for me.

The other thing I’ve encountered here, not for the first time but in the most open ways and in the greatest numbers, has been vocal activism of various sorts. On our way to the library, my wife and I watched the set-up for an anti-war protest we’d heard announced on the previous night’s news. On our way back, we strolled through an open market of vegetables, baked goods, and falafel vendors, and we wandered into the United Nations Plaza, where I met a young Tibetan woman handing out flyers about the Olympic torch and it sole stop in the US (in San Francisco), a Free Tibet tote slung over her shoulder and a quiet sadness on her lips, in her eyes. (I thanked her when I took the flyer then, once I saw what the flyer was, I turned and said, “Thank you very much!” but she’d already gone, gently pushing flyers at the crowd behind us.) When we got closer to our hotel, we got stopped by a small crowd of people, many with their cameras and cell phones raised to snap pictures. I cast about, unsure what was happening, but then I remembered--it was the protest, quieter than I’d expected because it was less angry march and more guerrilla theatre. On one side of the small square, a group of people in fake fatigues held cardboard machine guns aimed at hooded “prisoners” like the ones we held at Abu Ghraib or that we currently hold at Guantanamo or other “secret” prisons. In another corner, a man in a fishing vest displayed a Ken-doll Bush hung in effigy from a flower-wrapped fishing pole; behind him, signs were arranged like a bouquet in a large white bucket, with a note to “Return signs here.” Across the street, arrayed in front of Bloomingdale’s as though protecting the shoppers, a line of twenty police officers sat on blue-and-black dirt bikes like a street gang or a motocross team. Down an alley half a block away was a large police bus prepared to cart away arrested protesters.

3/15/2008

Tibet

I'm in Chicago, working on my novel and some short stories and preparing for my reading at PCA/ACA next week while my wife attends an important Intellectual Freedom committee meeting with ALA. I plan to post about my pop-culture conference in San Fransisco, so I had intended to spend this week posting a preview of sorts, writing about my revision process and what I am doing to prepare for my presentation.

Instead, I find myself in tears.

I don't like using this blog as a political platform, in part because I allow my students to read it and I don't like propagating my political beliefs via this blog any more than I would do in my classrooms; I believe both should be open and available to the free exchange of ideas, which requires if not my silence then at least some semblance of my neutrality.

But I can remain neither silent nor neutral on this issue, and I feel I must share my thoughts here as I did when writing about similar anti-protest crackdowns in Burma just a few months ago.

For those readers--especially my students--who are unfamiliar with this news I'm referring to, here are some links:
I was (slightly) relieved to read yesterday that Prince Charles is planning to boycott the Beijing Olympics in protest over China's Tibet policies--and that he'd announced that decision before the demonstrations. Talk of boycotting the Olympics is spreading, and I'd like more world leaders to step forward in this form of protest, because, as the Olympic Games are designed to represent the possibilities of human cooperation and friendly competition, it seems a travesty that this Olympiad's events are taking place in so disharmonious a nation as China. If ever we needed a better demonstration of that travesty, the tragedies unfolding during these brave Tibetan protests are it.

Yet I am dismayed that the situation in Tibet has reached this point. (Full disclosure: I am a practicing--if poor--Buddhist of the Tibetan Mahayana tradition, and, having attended teachings from His Holiness and intending to attend more this summer, I consider myself one of his millions of students.) His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, who is the exiled but beloved leader of the Tibetan people, has long called for what he calls the "Middle-Way approach," resisting these sorts of violent protests and insisting on dialogue and compromise. While the Chinese government has for years claimed the Dalai Lama is a "separatist" causing unrest in the interest of Tibetan independence, His Holiness has remained steadfast in his insistence that he only wants autonomy within and with cooperation with the broader Chinese government system, in the interest not of preserving Tibetan nationalism or Independence but of preserving Tibetan religious beliefs and Tibetan culture (which the Chinese are systematically trying to stamp out). In his speeches on the situation in Tibet, His Holiness has consistently called for patience and compassion, which has frustrated a lot of young Tibetans who find patience difficult and resent the Dalai Lama's "passive" (he would say "pacifist") approach, and these riots, I fear, are the result of those young Tibetans' pent-up frustrations bursting loose. This is not what the Dalai Lama wants, and it is not in the best interest of the Tibetan people.

Nevertheless, now that the violence has erupted, I think we need to make what good of it we can by calling attention to the frustrations of Tibetans and to the brutality of Chinese policy regarding Tibet. Through that, I hope, we can most quickly restore peace and begin the more productive process of restoring Tibetan autonomy and Tibetan cooperation with China. But to do this, we cannot relax our attention. So please, anyone reading this, try to stay on top of this story, these events, this long-standing political situation, and speak out--call or write our own government, which only several months ago awarded the Dalai Lama a special medal of recognition, and demand that we increase our pressure on China to show restraint in their dealings with Tibet and, ultimately, to work with the Dalai Lama to find the most beneficial compromise for everyone.

In the meantime, here is the official statement from His Holiness the Dalai Lama: http://www.tibet.net/en/ohhdl/statements/10march/2008.html.

2/04/2008

Good-bye, New York

Good-bye, Manhattan.

Good-bye, Hilton New York. Good-bye Best Western President.

Good-bye, Chrysler Building. Say hi to the others--I’ll catch them next time.

Good-bye, Broadway. Good-bye 5th Avenue. Good-bye 59th Street. Good-bye corner of Grove and Benton--what great Friends you made.

So long, Times Square. You’re a little flashy, but I like you anyway.

Good-bye, $5 silk pashminas, $5 hats, those wrinkled old paperbacks arranged on the folding table next to the old Dylan albums.

Good-bye, King-Kong-sized M&M. I loved how you aped that movie in your gargantuan ads. While I’m gone: no monkey business up there.

See you around, Radio City Music Hall, Ed Sullivan Theater, Museum of Modern Art, New York Public Library.

Good-bye, Patience and Fortitude.

Hey, Bryant Park: thanks for being so cool.

See you later, NY Giants. Good luck this afternoon.

Ciao, all you little pizza joints. Tell Starbucks to piss off.

Good-bye, New York cabbies, city buses, and grubby old subway trains. You have charms all your own, and you treated me well.

At ease, mounted police. You did a great job.

All the best, NYFD. It was a pleasure abutting your firehouse. This city is proud as hell of you all, and it shows.

Good-bye, frail old black woman in the puffy pink coat who only wanted quarters for the bus. I hope it was enough, and God bless you too.

Good-bye, people singing out loud to the music on their iPods; good-bye street musicians; good-bye that guy in the subway who only knew one chord and just kept strumming it over and over like a mantra, like a prayer for spare change.

Great show, Hunting and Gathering; I have new respect for off-Broadway theatre.

Good seeing you, Isaac Byrne. Glad to reconnect--you’re one of the coolest freakin’ people I know.

So long, The Village. Nice to meet you, Four Faced Liar.

Good luck, pretzel vendors. It can’t be easy out there. (Watch out for those hot nuts carts--those people are crazy.)

Shalom, gang of somber Hasidim protesting against the state of Israel--I admire your discipline, but I admire your chutzpah even more.

Sorry I missed you, World Trade Center site. Hang in there--I hear you’re making a comeback.

I hadn’t heard from you in ages, Beastie Boys on the radio. Let’s stay in touch.

Good-bye, Lady Liberty. I’ll always love you from afar. (Don’t loose your head.)

Good-bye, Martin Amis, Joyce Carol Oates, Francine Prose. Wish I’d gotten to know you better.

Good-bye Billy Collins, Beth Ann Fennelly, Tom Franklin, John Irving, Frank McCourt, Hannah Tinti--you’re an inspiration, all of you.

Good-bye, AWP. See you next year in Chicago.

2/03/2008

Three things: notes from yesterday

To try and catch up from yesterday, I'm sitting on the floor against an out-of-the-way pillar in the conference hotel, writing this over a tiny, cold, and weirdly tasteless portabella mushroom sandwich that cost $7.50. Anywhere else, this sandwich would have come from a vending machine and cost $1.25, but this is New York. When I called Isaac, my director friend, last night to arrange our evening plans, he asked if I had any place in mind. I said, "You tell me--you live here. I'm just looking for a beer cheaper than eight dollars." He said, "Oh, then you might be out of luck. This is New York, man." (Isaac, a born-again New Yorker who lives in Brooklyn and works in midtown Manhattan, spends a lot of his time in between, hanging out in The Village. He took me to his favorite bar, the Four Faced Liar, where he found me beer for only four dollars. What a great friend!)

Among the events of yesterday--the conference panels I attended, including some ideas for teaching creative writing to children and teenagers and a discussion of the difficult transition from writing short stories to writing a novel--three stand out.

The first, and most absurd, of the three was the fire alarm.

1.
It happened during a reading for my current favorite literary magazine, One Story, a brilliant little publication that takes the unusual approach of publishing and distributing only one story at a time, which you can then collect into "box sets"--they even sell a box to put them in. It's a tiresome, hectic, and largely selfless endeavor--they're actually a non-profit now--that I appreciate more for its ambition than for its novelty. The editors also have remarkable taste in short fiction (which may be why they keep politely rejecting me); the fiction they've published has gone on to appear in every major anthology and prize series available to short fiction, and the magazine has gotten mention in New York magazine and in O, Oprah's magazine. Also, I love Hannah Tinti, one of the cofounders, who is always polite and chatty at these conferences and who does an amazing job representing the magazine and nurturing their writers.

Anyway, aside from its purpose of commemorating One Story's 100th issue, the set-up of the panel was a typical reading, in which various writers who've appeared in the magazine stood to read their fiction aloud. (For my students: this is exactly what I'll be doing at my Pop Culture conference in March.) The authors were terrific, a little funny without being goofy or loosing the seriousness of their work, and clearly practiced in performance reading (though one reader was awfully quiet at first). The second reader, Nicole Kelby, was particularly hilarious, giving a bombastic and rich delivery of her story about two hapless middle-agers, both unattractive, both married to different spouses, about to fumble their way through their first experiment with adultery. And then, as though ignited by the sexual friction of those two characters rubbing desperately on each other, a blaring fire alarm erupted throughout the hotel. Everyone turned momentarily in our seats, but--lovers of fiction that we all were--no one got up and, perturbed but undaunted, the author just read louder.

After a few moments of brilliant fiction out-voicing the grating whine of the alarm, the tone and pitch changed to a low grit like the wrong-answer buzz from a game show cranked up to maximum volume. Nicole Kelby paused, we all chuckled nervously, and then Kelby shouted at the alarm on the back wall, "Shut up! We're trying to talk about sex in here!" When several people impulsively grabbed their bags and headed for the door (some claimed they were only going to check the situation, though I admit, even I stood up, just in case we all needed to run), the author shouted again: "Come back! We have sex!" Now everyone looked torn, anxious about the situation out in the hotel but also caught up in the inferno of sex and now enjoying the jokes Kelby was making on the fire's behalf.

Then an announcer came over a loud speaker (loud speaker may be giving it too much credit; it sounded more like an amplified drive-thru speaker at Wendy's) and told us all what we already knew: "An alarm has been received."

He went on to explain the hotel's heroic response to this potential disaster: "We are trying to determine the cause of the alarm."

And then, as though to put our minds at ease, he said, "As soon as a cause is know we will inform you of the cause."

He would not, apparently, tell us what to do if the cause was a fire.

Still, this seemed to settle the matter for those in the room--we wanted to get back to the sex, and now that the alarm had ceased, leaving us only the lasciviously winking strobe of the emergency light, Kelby raised her voice and plunged us all back into bed. But--appropriately for a story about the awkwardness of illicit sex--she kept getting interrupted. The inane announcer, whom Kelby later dubbed "Inspector Clouseau," returned again and again to repeat his message about investigating the alarm. Finally, after Kelby had made several comical attempts to get the story back on track, Inspector Clouseau gave us an update: "The cause of the alarm has been determined. The alarm is determined to have been false. Thank you for your patience."

"You're welcome!" Kelby shouted.

And then, because the people in the Starbucks one storey down and across the four-lane street hadn't heard him the first time, Inspector Clouseau returned: "The cause of the alarm has been determined."

"Oh God," Kelby said, and I couldn't tell if she had given up making jokes about her frustration, or if one of the characters in the story had just orgasmed.


2.
The second, and bravest, event yesterday was my trip on the New York subway. Though the complexity of the routes and the stations was a bit intimidating (this is the largest subway system in the world), the subway itself wasn't nearly as frightening as popular conception has built it up to be. True, the cars were older, dirtier, and less recently maintained than the trains I've ridden in Atlanta or Chicago. And the stations are quite murky, the walls brushed dark gray in dust and grime like shavings from a wet pencil lead. Staring into the black, tarry-floored rails between platforms, and then up and the dim tiled platforms themselves, I couldn't help but think of the movies and TV shows and novels in which some unfortunate character trips, or jumps, or gets pushed into the train as it comes marauding into the station. For the first time in my limited metro-rail experience, I got the definite impression that I wouldn't come away from a late-night excursion unscathed. Still, the cars weren't nearly as crowded as I'd expected, and though one frightened girl seemed to think I was following her and kept inching away from me (how did I become the scary one?), everyone else was quite polite. The rail rode fast, the tide of passengers ebbed and flowed smoothly, and in just a few short moments, I'd made it from midtown to the Village, where I embarked on the third, and best, of the events yesterday.


3.
When Isaac Byrne and I were in college together, he was probably the strongest actor on our small campus. I saw him in almost every play he did those few years, and I even went to some of his community-theater shows. Then, because that college's theater department was extremely supportive despite how absurdly tiny and underfunded it was, Isaac managed to direct a few plays, and he proved at least as good in the chair as he was on the stage. He not only had an actor's understanding of the performance process, and therefore was able to coax impressive performances from even unskilled actors, but he also had a fantastic eye for scene-setting and lighting--even in a theater the size of our living room, he managed to create an immediate mood and invested the audience easily in the reality of the play. He may not know this, but excepting my then-fiancee/now-wife, he and our playwright/screenwriter pal Justin Cooper were among my strongest friends back then. (And given the knack I had for stirring up trouble through our school newspaper, of which I was editor, I needed all the friends I could get.)

Now Isaac is living in New York, where he has worked his way up from acting in small parts on stage and in indie films to co-founding a production company and directing critically acclaimed and award-winning off-off Broadway theatre (Isaac won the 2006 Innovative Theater award for Best Director, and his company's productions picked up five other IT awards; IT is like the Tonys for off-off Broadway theatre).

He met me just to grab a few beers on his way to the theater (I drank; Isaac is getting over a cold and stuck to water). He's working as assistant director for an off-Broadway play called Hunting and Gathering. (For those of you who don't know, off-off Broadway and off-Broadway are technical distinctions in the theatre industry, and they form a ranking of prestige leading up to, of course, Broadway. This gig Isaac has now, though thankless and only a small-print item in the playbill, is actually an important step up for Isaac.) Because Isaac is cool as hell, he invited me to join him, and when we got to the theater, he managed to get me in for free.

The play details the migratory apartment-hunting that consumes so many New Yorkers' lives and, blended into that structure, the interwoven narratives of four people: A divorced English professor and his seductive, predatory student (played by Meryl Streep's daughter!), the professor's ex-girlfriend (whom he had an affair with while still married), and the professor's nomadic, neo-hippy Buddhist half-brother (who is best friends with--but also in love with--the professor's ex-girlfriend).

The script feels short, though the production comes in at 90 minutes, and the text is still a bit rough in a few places (it developed in a workshop not unlike the workshops I lead my students through, though of course professional and much more intense), but the writing is witty, efficient, and surprisingly complex, dropping innocent lines that turn out to be important set-ups for more revealing scenes later and pulling the characters apart and remixing them in new relationships in such an organic flow it was like dropping liquid mercury on the floor watching it break into little silver balls and run around on its own until reforming into new shapes.

The production was also impressive; I especially liked the city skyline created, symbolically, out of blank brown moving boxes and which opened in various places to reveal refrigerators, linen closets, and couches as we shifted from one apartment to another. The actors, too, were terrific; I loved Ruth, the ex-girlfriend (she had both an honesty and an intensity that projected her character all the way up into the last row of seats, where I sat even though I felt like I was on stage with her), and Astor, the Buddhist couch-surfer, who reminded me of a blend of Jack Black in School of Rock and "The Dude" from The Big Lebowski and who delivered his comedic lines with a pitch-perfect high-on-meditation drawl while also demonstrating an explosive emotional range during serious scenes.

But regardless how much I enjoyed the play, it wasn't really the highlight of the evening. The best part was simply seeing an old friend, chatting and hanging out and running around the city together. It made the city seem smaller, if you could imagine that of Manhattan, much less of New York. It made it seem familiar, more livable, less a metropolis and more a home.

2/02/2008

With apologies

For the three people actually reading this, I'm sorry: It's been a long day. My morning started--after very little sleep--with my witnessing the motorcade of someone famous (I've yet to learn who) pulling away from the Fox News headquarters, and ended with some brilliant and engaging conversation about the creative process with my old college friend Isaac Byrne, who is now a rising stage director here in Manhattan and who was generous enough to invite me to a showing of his new off-Broadway play staring Meryl Streep's daughter. Between these events, I attended several fantastic panels, endured a fire alarm, rode the New York subway--twice--and drank way too many beers. So now I'm off to bed, with the promise that I will post the longest entry yet--to include today's events (which I recorded in my handwritten journal)--sometime tomorrow evening.

2/01/2008

On friends, lions, and Friends again

This morning, I woke early and walked the dozen blocks to the conference hotel so I could hit the first session of panel presentations on the schedule. The panel I attended was a discussion about creative writers and their careers as teachers. Strangely, every member of the panel managed to utter at least one withering statement highlighting the futility of everything I do as a writer and/or every ambition I have as a teacher, effectively undermining my exhilaration at being here. After that disheartening experience, I decided to make an appearance at the monstrous bookfair here (more on that later) and then abandon the conference to get a little sightseeing done. The first day is always fairly light, anyway, and the weather was only good today, so I had to get my photography in while I could.

Fortunately, at the bookfair I met a fiction publisher who invited me to a reading and reception this evening, which immediately preceded the keynote address by author John Irving (my students will know him as the author of The Cider House Rules, though he was first famous as the author of The World According to Garp). I planned to attend the keynote address--why would I pass up a chance to hear John Irving speak?--so I agreed to attend the earlier reading as well, partly because the publisher who invited me prefers more experimental fiction and, though it's not my normal milieu, that could be one way to describe my latest novel and some of my recent shorter fiction. Besides, as a promotional gimmick, the publisher had printed loads of "Kiss me" buttons, each with a different punchline, and I found on rooting through the basket a button that reads "Kiss me--I'm a vampire." I took it as a small sign: while I'm in New York, I've been tinkering with a novel that opens in this city, and it happens also to be a new, semi-experimental take on the vampire genre.

When I got back to the conference hotel this evening, I bumped into my friends Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly in the hotel bar. While Tommy balked at his eight-dollar Budweiser (I nodded at the tab and said, "Welcome to New York"), Beth Ann hugged me and said, "Well, okay--if the first person we see after getting to New York is Sam Snoek-Brown, then this should turn out to be a pretty good conference." (We're not as close as I sometimes like to make out, but I do love Beth Ann and Tommy--they're both brilliant writers, and because they're far more generous friends to me than I'm able to be to them, I always feel like I owe them a lot. Still, they manage to find this small excuse to cheer me up.) That brief encounter--and the John Irving speech later (more on him later, too)--served as the perfect bookend to my conference day; it managed to undo the damage done this morning and set a much better tone for the conference. To paraphrase Beth Ann, if I end my day with a hug and a passing compliment, this will turn out to be a good conference after all.

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After I left the conference this morning, I took a long walk through Times Square to 42nd Street ( a full ten blocks south of the conference), then headed east to 5th Avenue and Bryant Park. The park was awash in long white tents that swarmed with black-shirted set-up crews like ants from a disturbed nest. I stopped to read one of the flyers tied in a row down the low wrought-iron fence: "Please excuse our construction as we prepare to reestablish New York as a fashion city." Anyone who watches Project Runway as religiously as my wife does will know they were gearing up for Fashion Week. But that wasn't what I'd come to see. On the back side of Bryant Park, across a wide patio from a stubby bronze statue of Gertrude Stein, is the rear of the New York Public Library's humanities & social sciences branch. It's only one of many NYPL branches, really, but it is the most famous: this is home to Patience and Fortitude, the huge marble lions that guard the front entrance and serve as the Public Library's official mascots.

I have made a habit of visiting the public libraries of every major city where I attend a conference. Or, I try to anyway. I missed Atlanta's, because the conference wasn't close enough. And I skipped San Antonio's because I'd been in several when I used to live there. But I have seen Albuquerque's, where I studied a huge scale model of the Globe Theater and enjoyed a quiet cup of coffee in their small sunken garden. I have walked through Vancouver's, a fascinating spiral-shaped building frequently featured in movies. And I have been in the hallowed halls of America's first public library, the wide, museum-like Boston Public Library (its lions perch on either side of the grand interior stairwell). I've also been in Chicago's public library, the largest in the country, though its entrances are guarded not by lions but by looming owls perched along the eaves. But New York is the crown jewel, if only for those two huge lions, which my wife--a librarian and a Leo--has come to adore as though they were distant adopted pets.

The library itself is a strange sort of sanctuary for literature, where librarians have chosen the protection of books over access to them. When I entered the grand marble foyer, a pair of velvet ropes guided me to a guard, who searched my bag with a flashlight. When I climbed the majestic staircase to the second floor, I found another guard at the top, with a third pacing the hall. On the third floor, the same. And nowhere could I find any books--only long corridors of marble, a few statues, and the cold eyes of the guards. Occasionally I'd pass a narrow door tucked away in a niche; some of the doors had brass plates specifying a special collection, and through the glass windows I could see long polished tables with little lamps and red padded chairs. I began to understand the monkish stereotype of some librarian portrayals, because here, researchers are scuttled away into corners, cloistered in tiny (though apparently comfortable) cells in which to pore over secret, protected tomes.

Finally, on the third floor, I wandered into an open lobby brightened by huge, colorful murals of Moses and his stone tablets, a mother helping her young son to read, and a medieval scholar painstakingly copying ancient manuscripts. And I found an open entryway, above which was a sign announcing a public catalog room. At last, I thought, I've found the books. But I hadn't. Instead, I'd found the computers on which they keep their card catalog--a whole room, just for looking up books. (I was amused to note that the library's acronym for their catalog system is CATNYP--a treat for the lions, maybe.) Beyond this were two separate rooms filled with desks, designated solely for reading the books (my students might have recognized the one I entered as the site of many New Yorkers' final stand in The Day After Tomorrow). Between these room were long rows of counters and windows like tellers' stations in a bank. There were books in the reading room, but they were separated from the readers by a railed walkway along which paced yet another guard. Instead of browsing shelves, researchers and casual readers alike need to look up a record in the catalog room, take their printed request to a library assistant at the tellers' stations, and then wait patiently in the reading room while the assistant--not you--retrieves your book. (Those of you who've seen Breakfast at Tiffany's will recognize the process.)

It was an altogether forbidding experience, especially when, having casually wandered into and then out of the reading room, I was stopped by another guard (the seventh I'd seen and third I'd spoken to) so he could search my bag. Ordinarily, I like to browse a library's catalog or shelves to find writers I know (my usual test is to see if they carry Tom Franklin's books, since he's the guy I wrote my masters thesis on), but here, I gave up on trying to track down anyone because, for me, half the pleasure of a public library is the freedom to roam the stacks, to take down any book that catches my eye, to touch the spines of so many volumes of genius. Here, all I could touch was stone. So I headed back to the main entrance, where I had my bag searched a fourth time, and I left.

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I grabbed a bus down to the south end of Manhattan. I wasn't exactly sure of my directions, but I was looking for the corner of Bedford and Grove, in a quiet residential neighborhood of brownstones and small apartment buildings. I got off at Christopher and found myself strolling west, then south along Bleeker--a name I recognized from hundreds of television references, but the street was not quite residential (I passed a few internet cafes, a couple of unassuming boutiques, and a surprising number of sex shops, with inflatable dolls and tight leather lingerie in the windows). But after a short block I hit a row of brownstones and found myself on Bedford. West another long block, past racing children and a couple of young mothers pushing strollers, and I'd found it: the corner of Bedford and Grove, site of the little apartment building they used for exterior shots on Friends. I was standing outside Monica and Chandler's place. I took only two photos, but I lingered on the corner as long as I dared (the mothers were starting to stare), basking in an almost fervent awe as though beholding a relic or holy place. That's not quite fair, really--I certainly felt a great deal more reverential awe in the presence of Saint Nicolas's bones or the Green Mosque on a Friday during Ramadan when I was in Turkey ten years ago--but in the sense that I am a Friends fanatic, the emotions of amazement and veneration are as close as I can come to describing my brief moments outside that building.

Downstairs, where Central Perk would have been had it been a real place, was a tiny restaurant called The Little Owl. Had it been open for lunch, I'd have eaten there, no matter how expensive it might be (it looks pretty swanky); I would definitely have ordered a cup of coffee. As it was, I could only gawk alongside a foursome of teenage girls, who were giggling at the not-quite-Central-Perk until the restaurant's launderer arrived with an armload of white tablecloths and brusquely shooed us all away.

---------

It's late now--after 1 a.m. here, and I have an early start again tomorrow--so I think I'll save my John Irving notes for later. I will offer this one observation, though: I think sometimes that the most engaging fiction writers are also brilliant storytellers, because so many of the best I've met are masters of the long oral story, especially the narrative joke. Tommy Franklin was the best I'd ever met until I heard John Irving tonight. That man can certainly weave a yarn.