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Archive for September, 2010

Write about yourself!

I have just come back from administering the English 252 midterm prompt for my class. We are on day one, which means there is another full class period for everyone to use to write the story of one very unselfish act that was somehow life changing. My students are instructed to use a good hook and have a thesis statement in the first paragraph that sums up what they learned from the story they are going to tell. (It is a narrative essay, and that means, at the risk of redundancy, a story with a foreshadowing of lesson learned in the first paragraph.)

This year’s midterm prompt is about a kindness, or to be more specific, a great show of unselfishness. At the age most of my students are, they either haven’t performed such a significant act OR ,more plausibly, they have not attained the maturity to recognize that they probably have performed an  unselfish act for someone else more than once if not many times.  Recognizing such a thing takes reflection, and as Sylvia Fowler will attest, sometimes the writing of a full memoir.

Sylvia once told me The Red Sea Bride took five years to write.  She did not realize what she had accomplished or endured until she had written, rewrote, lost her mind and rewrote, wrote yet again to wild gnashing of teeth at night and exorbitant pounding in temples by day, and then—to be blunt, did it all over again and again. She read her words aloud, sent the manuscript to her agent (who read and made notes),  read to other writers in her group and finally finally finally begin to understand what she had lived. There were days she looked like a wild woman.

Based on Sylvia’s testimony, writing about anything one has done, wonderful or terrible, but especially when such writing is meant to praise or at least exonerate one’s self, is the damned hardest thing one could possibly be asked to do, certainly a writer, and my God, especially anyone who is still trying to gain confidence as a writer.

However, I am not—let that be carefully understood–not trying to say the English 252 prompt is bad. This is a wonderful prompt. This is an inspired prompt. This is a prompt which will make the students grow in ways that will improve them as not just writers but human beings.

Why?

Thinking is a good thing to do, no matter how painful, and thinking about whether one can define what one has done as selfish or unselfish is a good exercise, which can give one something to do for the rest of a lifetime.

(I really hope I did not mess up all that goodness by telling them they could lie.)

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I never met Nathan Luke Ray, the 18-year-old Fresno State student who died in a car crash on the fifth of September, but I’ve found myself thinking of him often, sometimes for hours on end, since I learned of his death.  According to stories in the Fresno Bee, Nathan had dreamed of playing the sousaphone in the university’s marching band since he was twelve.  

Normally, when I think of folks with lifelong dreams, I envision people my age (50s) or older. Perhaps that’s why I was so deeply touched by Nathan’s story. He had entertained his goal for all of six long years (!) before seeing it come true.  It took me some twenty years of writing before I held my first published book in my hands. That was ten plus years ago, but I can still remember how excited I was to have finally realized my dream.  Nathan must have had similar feelings that night when he played at his first Fresno State home football game. He was only 18, but he was already living his dream. All things were possible!

Later that same night, Nathan lost control of his van while driving home and crashed head first into a telephone pole. Drugs or alcohol were not a factor. I feel terribly sad for Nathan’s family and friends, all of whom surely must have expected to see his smiling face at many more games. And yet, amid all the awful sadness, I find myself feeling happy for Nathan in one small respect: he lived long enough to realize his dream.

If there is a lesson to be learned from this tragedy—and I’m not sure there is—it would be to make the most of our opportunities. Work at realizing our own dreams no matter how big or small they might be because when our number is up, it’s up.

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Julia’s post below does a great job of pointing out the distraction factor of internet technology and social networks like Facebook and My Space. But what about our blog here on WordPress? Isn’t that a technological distraction as well? We have committed to writing at least one post per week each. Sometimes those posts can be written in half an hour; others take several hours. (Writers are perfectionists after all.)  So yes, maintaining this blog does distract from our regular writing schedules. But unlike posting a personal update on Facebook (What are you doing right now?) or a new photo spread of our latest vacation (as if either of us has time for that), our posts here on the Grassroots Writers’ Guild are career oriented. With a few exceptions (mostly mine, sadly), our posts relate to something or someone in the writing field. In addition, they are constructed in readable English complete with punctuation and correct spelling. While I have abbreviated words or skipped capital letters and commas now and then while composing a text on my phone, I wouldn’t think of writing that way here on this blog, or even on my Facebook page, which, incidentally, I haven’t used in at least three months.  

But I digress. The point I want to make today is that there is nothing wrong with spending time on Facebook or My Space or even Twitter, as long as that time is free time, meaning you have already put in your writing work for the day. As Julia said, self-discipline is the name of the game.

That isn’t to say we should bar ourselves from the internet while we write. Obviously the net is a vast source of information available at our fingertips for free. To ignore that bounty would be insane for any writer. We can research nearly any subject by typing a few words into a search engine, which is a heck of a lot faster than hopping into our cars and driving to the nearest library. When I was working on Elvis Presley, Richard Nixon, and the American Dream in the late 90s, I did perhaps ten percent of my research on line. For Hoop Lore (published in 2007) that percentage was over fifty. But research is to Facebook like apples are to lumber. An apple comes from a tree, but what are the odds you will ever trace that tree to your local lumber yard? (This apple, as it turns out, does fall quite a long way from the tree.)

Writing and the internet make a great team as long as we remember to separate the business end of our writing careers from the personal one. While the two can be mixed to a point, as Julia and I have done on this blog, the point remains a very fine line.

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Facebook is a great socializing tool, but sometimes it offers more to writers than they need, reminding me of the old saw about too much rope and strangling one’s self.  It is bad enough when writers feel they write best on a computer.  (J.K.Rowling says she writes her first drafts by hand, and I am willing to bet any points I have ever won in Mafia Wars that she gets more done that way than I do with spell check and automatic save.)

Connie is better than I am: she hides in another room with a computer that is not connected to the internet.  She may not hide from her three dogs and five cats (I only have one dog and two cats), but she hides from the technological age, which cannot sniff her out unless she is on a modem.

Habits are hard to break. I have always liked letters, and even though they are mainly electronic nowadays, I have a hard time not looking at my mail box first thing in the morning.  I am almost obliged to do so, considering that some of my writing students may have emailed me in the night (they have odd hours; they are young) to ask help on something. How can I look at one mailbox and not open the non-student mailbox? Suffice it to say that Facebook and IM chatting are only a click’s distance from both. Eeeeeeeeeeek!

So what are writers and other artists supposed to do? Work on our self discipline. We will not write anything that gives us satisfaction without learning to make that kind of writing our priority. There are only 48 half-hours in each day, and a half-hour goes by with the blink of an eye when scrolling down  and making pithy comments in boxes on the Facebook newsfeed.

Yet keeping Facebook, MySpace, or whatever other tools we use to effectively promote our writing and stay friends with people who care about us and about whom we care is essential. We cannot blame these programs any more than we can blame our babies or toddlers for calling us away from piano practice. If Facebook or its cohorts steal from our inner lives, it is because we have exchanged being writers for being social doodlers.  Mind you, I mean no criticism against social doodling, so long as it is defined this way and  not as something that is against the law and will get you pinpointed on a map of offenders with the result that no one with small children wants to live next door to you.

( With thanks to henrikeger.com for duck cartoon.)

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Annie

Warning: the following post is intended for dog lovers only

It’s been nearly three years since we lost the best dog we ever had, a lovely lab boxer mix named Annie. Annie was Katie’s dog; the two grew up together. When Katie moved out to begin her grown up life at USC in the fall of 2002, Annie and I became inseparable. We adopted each other as we adjusted to life without Katie. When my vet diagnosed Annie with bone cancer in August 2007, I was devastated. I stopped my life as it were to care for her 24-7. She lived a couple of months, and I don’t regret one minute of our last days together. When the time came that her life had deteriorated to such a point she couldn’t stay with me anymore (she could no longer keep food down), I made the dreaded call to Doctor Brewer, who came out later that day and helped Annie over the Rainbow Bridge.

Some six months later, when I had our boxers in for their check-ups, Doctor Brewer noted I hadn’t filled Annie’s spot on the Kirchberg roster yet. I said I didn’t think I ever could. She gave me a hug and said, “You’ll know when it’s time.” We had similar exchanges over the next couple of years.

Doctor Brewer was right, of course. About three months ago, I realized it was time and began my search for the potential new member, scouring websites of local and national shelters and rescue groups. I printed out dozens of possibilities, but the pup I wound up with was one I met face-to-face at one of Petsmart’s weekend adoptions. I had pretty much decided I was going to get a small dog. By small, I was thinking 15 to 20 pounds. I’m in my 50s now, and while I love our boxers more than words can say, I’m just not physically able to handle another dog that size. 

But dog people know when a match is right. Such was the case for me and Elvis. The minute I saw this cute little basset hound dachshund mix, I knew he was the one. And that was before I learned his name was Elvis. He walked great on a lease, sat on command, and dished out numerous kisses. Still, at a year old and 35 pounds (what if he gets bigger still?), he didn’t fit my criteria. I left without taking him home.

Little Elvis

The next day I remarked to Julia that I’d come across a hound dog named Elvis, but that he was too big. She responded, “You didn’t adopt a dog named Elvis? Are you insane?” Another friend responded with a similar message, albeit a bit more subtle. (Katie, incidentally, just thought I was insane period. Another dog, Mom? Really?) Okay, so the writing was on the wall. I called the lady who runs the rescue (Barbara Henry, For The Sake of Dogs) a few days later and told her I wanted to adopt Elvis. We brought him home Saturday.

I know Katie has my best interests at heart. She knows how important my writing is and sees another dog as another commitment. She’s right. But it’s a commitment I’m willing to make. Dogs always give back way more than they take. They are truly best friends for life. And there are so very many who have been abandoned at shelters or left to fend for themselves on the streets. So many who need homes. Someone to love and care for them. So I do what I can. In this case, it’s filling Annie’s spot. If I listen very closely, I can hear her barking her approval from over that Rainbow Bridge. Sweet dreams my dear, until we meet again.

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My Birthday Wish

My friend Peggy is talented in so many ways it is hard to know where to start in describing her.  When I first met her at Newport Harbor High School in the 70s, she was a ballet dancer.  From the top of her lovely head to the bottom of her toes encased in point shoes, she looked every inch as I thought a dancer should look.  Her beautiful blonde hair was very long. She wound it up into a knot at the back of her head when she needed to practice a plié or pas de deux, but when the tresses spilled down unbound, she could sit on it. (Trust me, I was impressed.)

Peggy was/is a lovely Southern Belle who was being raised in Southern California; she visited Stanton Hall in Natchez, Mississippi, during summer vacations. I was not quite aware of where she went and did not understood much about her roots  until I became adult and noticed the blend of Californian articulation edged with a Southern lilt.

Though I had none of her grace (being barely go to the opera without tripping on the stairs leading to my seat) she never made me feel clumsy or awkward.  As friends, we reveled in what we shared, which, apart from fair skin in a world of tanned beach bunnies, was an adoration of history, travel, art, music, cinema, and literature.

Peggy and I took several classes together in high school; I recall our creative writing teacher reading aloud one of her short stories. When I went away to boarding school, she wrote to me, pretending to be Edgar Allen Poe.  It was such fun! Reminiscences aside, this young lady could write and still can, just as she continues dancing, acting and now paints with great flair.

We are still friends, thirty years on, and in our fifties. Today she is married to a handsome and charming gentleman named Jim. She devotes most of her time to her husband, family and social demands. She has been dreaming of writing a play for longer than we like to remember, but never gives her own desires priority.

So this is a reminder to Peggy, who I hope has not forgotten what I want most for my birthday: the first act of a play, by none other than the dancing girl who  has always been one of my dearest and most creative friends.

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By now most of you have heard about the female doctor from Bakersfield (CA) who attempted to enter her boyfriend’s home by climbing onto the roof with a ladder, removing the chimney cap, and lowering herself down the chimney. She got stuck halfway down and suffocated via crushed lungs. She was there three days before someone found her. (Her boyfriend left the house prior to the attempted break in.) It’s a tragic story of course. So tragic, in fact, that I had to read it a few times before I was willing to accept it had actually happened.

Further details will emerge regarding this unfortunate woman’s relationship with, as the police put it, “her on again off again boyfriend” in the weeks to follow, but what’s relevant to this post is how utterly unbelievable it seems that a 49-year-old woman with a medical degree would even contemplate such a foolish act let alone attempt to carry it out. I decided to mention this incident here because it reminds me of something a writing teacher of mine once said regarding fiction: If you write about an event in your story that sounds too outlandish to be true, your readers are likely to set your book aside with a roll of their eyes and a sarcastic, “Like that could ever happen!”

The point is, just because we may have witnessed or been party to a bizarre event in real life doesn’t mean it would make good material for a novel. When I lived in Seattle I attended a weekly writing group. One of our members, I’ll call her Jennifer, refused to incorporate this advice. Jennifer was a good writer and a very nice person, but at least once a month she would read a scene that contained some outlandish or unbelievable aspect. Every single time, the majority of members would say it “bumped,” meaning it pulled them out of the story because they started to think about how or even if said event could have occurred. Jennifer would always respond with a civil but exasperated, “But it really happened!”

Maybe, but so what? Our goal as writers is to create a world readers want to spend time in. If we clutter that world with scenes and/or characters that make them roll their eyes in disbelief, it won’t be long before they close the cover and return to the believable reality that is their everyday world.

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