Archive for March, 2008

If you had asked my friends in high school what I was destined to be they wouldn’t have hesitated to anoint me the next Spielberg, the next Lucas.  In the late 1970’s there could probably be no greater honor, akin to calling a young golfer today the next Tiger Woods, or tapping a teen hacker the next Bill Gates.  It’s a heady thing to know you’re thought so highly of, that your peers see something in you that you do not see in yourself.

The problem wasn’t a question of self-esteem, it was that the people I was being compared to and the things they produced didn’t resonate with what I wanted to do.  I had always felt that I wanted to do something with film, in motion pictures, something that had to do with sequential storytelling in a visual media, but by the time I trucked off to college I still didn’t have my definitive role model.  I held onto the “dream” and went along for the ride through college, coming out the other end only slightly less clueless.

It’s taken me nearly 30 years to figure it out, but today while reading a newspaper article about the band R.E.M. I realized why I’m not a filmmaker.

It’s because I wanted to be in a band.

I didn’t want to be in a rock band, or a blues band, or any kind of musical organization.  I wanted to be in a film band.  I wanted to join up with a bunch of like-minded people and pool our collective talents into filmmaking.  Like music, film is a collective medium, with individuals specializing and participating for the whole.  The problem is that filmmaking is generally consumed by people full of authorial ego and is collaborative in the most mercenary of ways.  You don’t see the bassists union making pay and lifestyle demands while the drummer’s union stipulates the length of a workday.  You don’t see lead singers with their agents holding off until contracts arrive stipulating their name above the title of the album.

Sure, there are film production companies that are formed by people who have gained enough clout to make the films they want.  But that’s not what I’m talking about.  I’m talking about a small crew of people who get together and jam out some ideas until a cohesive image comes together.  Not some cheesy collective, like some holdover from the hippie days, but a group artistic endeavor that expresses themselves visually the way musicians do aurally.

Oh, Hollywood tries to market their movies this way with “From the producer of” and “From the director of,” and historically you have director/star match-ups like Burton-Depp and Scorsese-DeNiro but these are hardly what I’m talking about.

Imagine you’re off to see a new film by The Seven Samurai, or Die Wenders Staat, or perhaps a little something from Un Petit Chat.  As with bands, over time would would come to know their strengths, could fairly compare them with their previous works, and have a better sense of the quality of the work going in.

Perhaps then, with bands as brands, we could address the ticket price issue.  A local band playing a local gig isn’t going to command the same door fee as a big ticket band commanding seven nights at the local arena.  A paperback doesn’t fetch the same prices as a hardcover.  So why does the low budget indie film get stuck helping foot the bill at the box office as a big budget box office failure?

But I digress.  The sad fact is that it’s taken me 30 years to see now what I wish I could have seen then.  Bands are for the young.  No forty-something dude is going to pick up a guitar and pull together his poker buddies and start making waves as The Midlife Crises.  Sure, you can age into the scene but you can’t capture the market, you can’t reach the hearts and minds of viewers and listeners open to your ideas.  Couch surfing and living in a van just isn’t conducive to folks in need of daily fiber and condroitin supplements.

In the off chance there’s a band of filmmakers out there looking for an elder member with a sense of history and humor; I’m totally into the French and German New Wave (Godard, Wenders, Herzog), early 80’s indie films (Cox, Syales), classic screwball comedies (Sturges is king), and any film that isn’t afraid to go longer than 45 seconds before cutting.

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Not that I needed any reminders, but you know you’re nobody when you take up nearly one third of a photo and the only people named are the people on either side of you.

What am I talking about?  The Children’s Book Shop’s 30th Anniversary bash a little over a week and a half back, as reported here on Alison Morris’s PW blog ShelfTalker.  Seventh picture down, the guy in the black sweater waiting to get his copy of The Wall signed by Peter Sis.  Yup, that’s me between Terri and  Karen.

Plenty of shots follow, featuring my place of employment when I’m not at home bleeding my way through a major overhaul of my middle-grade-novel-in-progress.

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Semesters are like manuscripts for me: the middle is the toughest part to get through. Up to my eyeballs in reading, writing, and revision, I haven’t had as much time as I would like to actually enjoy any of it.

Earlier this week I read two books for review, back to back, that sent crazy tingles up and down my spine. In both, teens were using digital cameras to make movies as projects for school; both projects were subjective documentaries; both projects were hailed by adults and peers as wildly successful, amazing accomplishments for first-time filmmakers. It speaks to the availability (the democracy, as some would have it) of the medium that teens can just jump in the fray with a vague idea and come out with a perfectly edited work that impresses adult mentors. Then again, it also speaks to a society (and especially a youth culture) brought up and weened on cheap reality program that has brought down standards of quality and diminished expectations.

What initially struck hard was the fact that my as-yet-finish YA novel, on hold until I can sort out some plotting issues, featured teens who also make films. They do this out of a twisted love of silent movies, but that isn’t what bothered me. What bothers me is the casual use of filmed media as a story telling device for YA titles, a camouflaged gimmick used to tell without telling. These “scenes” add a false sense of drama — as anything worth filming is automatically dramatic, if not documentary — where if the camera was removed the story would collapse. Indeed, the idea of “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!” is about as old as Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney back in the 30s and 40s, the show being nothing more than a gimmick used to allow the characters to sing and dance.

More cliches appear: The younger sibling who takes care of the older screw-up sibling, the good brother versus the bad brother; The girl who eventually realizes she’s with the bad boyfriend and takes up with the good one (usually the main character) when she realizes his heart of gold; The guy who can’t confess his feelings to the girl he likes, but eventually they hook up so it’s okay; Teens rallying against The Man, against society, against corporate greed, against artificial additives in food, against their meds, or, as Brando once said “What’ve you got?” The gym coaches are bad; The gifted kids are always more interesting than any other students; It isn’t impossible — in fact it’s almost required — that there be at least one sensitive jock who also has some hidden talent like art or music (or maybe all three!); All adults are dolts, except for the cool ones whose behavior is more adolescent than the teens, which makes them palatable; Parents are dysfunctional, or clueless, or both.

Yeah, all of those from two books.

Crap, I thought, what if YA if nothing more than the marketing of successful cliches? What if everything I thought would be good and fun and original in my stories were nothing more than the artful accumulation of genre specific cliches? All of a sudden I don’t know who I am.

You see, whenever people would ask me what I wrote I would say “young adult fiction” because that’s where I felt my heart was. True, my interests are all over the place and I have ideas that span picture book to YA with a smatering of poetry and non-fiction in the mix. My interests are varied, so the things that I write will probably be as varied. But overall I always associated with YA because… well, because of what?

Have I bought into the marketing so much that I cannot see the difference between a story featuring teens and a product pushing all the right buttons? YA has this problem of not being able to define itself because there are so many definitions floating around out there. Is it a book whose main character is a teen, or a book whose story or topic is of particular interest to a teen? By creating a separate market of books for teens are we saying “These are designed with your tastes in mind” or are we attempting to retard their jump into adult books because, as a society, we no longer hold a collective consensus on what we consider to be good national literature? Is YA little more than the PG-13 rating for books, another way for parents to relinquish their duties to monitor what kids read by creating a safe haven until they’re out of the house?

So many questions. I look at the books on the shelves that are called YA and wonder where they would have been shelved 30 years ago, before there was a YA section. Would they have even been published? Wouldn’t The Clique books or the Traveling Pants series have been mass market paperback in the grocery store back then?

If I’m writing stories intended for YA, is YA even a legitimate audience? And if so, how, what makes it different that writing literature that happens to have teens as main characters.

After all, there isn’t a “Middle Age” fiction section in the book stores and libraries, no “Elderly Fiction,” no “Fiction for Adolescent 30-Somethings.”

I understand the need for middle grade books, for the progression in language and as an introduction to literary themes and concepts. But once a kid hits 12 or 13 why aren’t they looking for stories that take them beyond their limited world of high school and navel gazing social drama? Why don’t they want to jump into books about the world beyond themselves, beyond characters they recognize, into stories about the non-teen world? Are they really not ready to accept that there’s a life beyond high school. Indeed, so many of them are clamoring to get out of school, why do they want to read about it?

I look at the “classics” that end up in YA sections, that get assigned as class reading in high school: Fahrenheit 451, Of Mice and Men, The Great Gatsby, As I Lay Dying, Animal Farm, Heart of Darkness, Sister Carrie, The Trial, The Stranger, Siddhartha… not a one of these traditional YA books, nor would they be marketed as YA had they been written today. Are we selling YA readers short by not giving them future classics? I’m not saying one or two here and there might not slip into the canon of classic literature, but…

I guess that’s the ultimate question: Why aren’t we, as writers, as people who care about YA fiction, not more concerned with making sure that YA is more a literary genre and less a marketing gimmick?

It’s on us, I guess.

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Let’s say I was in a position to run a social experiment that involved two groups of boys ages 14 to 16. The experiment would run for five consecutive days. Each of the boys would be placed in a comfortable room that contained an overstuffed chair, a nap-worthy couch, a bean bag chair, the ability to play whatever music they desired, and access to whatever type of food they wanted when they wanted it. They would be able to request the room be painted the color of their choosing, lighting would be plentiful and adjustable.

The room would also have a large work table that contained four milk crates: one filled with age-appropriate fiction titles, one filled with non-fiction titles on a variety of subjects, one crate filled with broken small appliances and electronics (toaster, cell phone, hand blender, &c.), and one crate filled with hand tools, hardware, glue and a soldering iron. There is also a spiral-bound notebook and a selection of pens, pencils and markers, a ruler and a pair of scissors.
There are no outside phones, cell service or access, televisions, or video games. There are no clocks on the wall and no watches allowed.

The boys have to check into their room for eight consecutive hours each day, their choice of time, and they are not allowed to bring anything but themselves into the room. One half of the boys are given the following instructions:

“We are doing a study on the perception of time in teens in a time-free environment. You are to spend eight hours a day in the room doing as you please. What you do is not our concern, you won’t be monitored. You may elect to keep a journal of your experience in the room or participate in a short discussion with our staff afterward.”

The other half of the boys are given the following instructions:

“We are doing a study on the perception of time in teens in a time-free environment. You are to spend eight hours a day in the room doing as you please. What you do is not our concern, though you will be monitored. Afterward you will be asked to participate in a short survey of your activities and a discussion with our staff.”

Of course both groups will be monitored, and for the study they will be asked some nominal questions concerning their perception of time, but that’s not the question put forth by the environment and the expectation. The question is, How many of those books will be read, which ones, and what percentage of their time will be dedicated to reading?

My amateur hypothesis is that the group of boys told they won’t be monitored, who are allowed the “out” of a journal or a discussion on their experience, are not going to read as much as the other group. The other group, knowing they will be watched and hearing the word “survey” will no doubt feel the need to read — or make a greater attempt — due to an expectation to have to justify their time.

In other words, how many boys see reading as an obligation to expectant adults?

There would be any number of curiosities that might come from the data collected. How many of the boys, for example, will keep a journal while others use the notebook for drawing or calculating information? Do the boys turn to reading out of boredom with whatever else they do to occupy their time? If they are also told that they can take home with them anything from the room after they have finished the study, what do they take?

I thought about this randomly walk taking a walk last night. How it got into my head, I don’t know. I was wondering partly what I would do in that situation, what I would choose. Would I feel free enough to start taking apart things and building something or would I have gone for the books? If given the choice I think I’d have preferred the more daunting debriefing rather than share a journal, which I know I would have kept. If I did read, and the non-fiction titles were the sort I grew up with — dry blocks of text, murky color printing, dull topics — then I doubt I would have touched them. If, however, among those books there were magazines like Make or some old Popular Mechanics, or perhaps some how-to books on film-making and photography, I might have found some inspiration to read a bit of non-fiction.

With all the data compiled I wouldn’t be surprised to find that the boys spent as much time reading and exploring with the junk as they did eating and napping on the couch. Eat, sleep, read, tinker. If these turned out to be the four-part cycle of a teen boy’s daily life then I wouldn’t mind seeing the integration of more tinkering into formal education, supported with reading that matched.

Schools used to include shop classes, or “the manual arts” as they were called in my junior and senior high school, classes that included architectural drawing, print shop, wood shop, metal shop, electric shop and, in high school, auto shop (and, yes, for the girls this meant typing, “business skills” (secretarial stenography), home ec and, in some places, practical nursing). There was a time when we felt that the mission of a school was to prepare emerging young adults for a world beyond school, and that didn’t necessarily guarantee or require a move toward college. Preparing a blue collar worker was just as important as preparing a white collar, the challenge to create a literate mechanic equal to giving a scholar the appreciation of a craftsman. If you want to know half of what’s wrong with American business you needn’t look any farther than the “back to basics” movement of the Reagan era.

My point isn’t political, at least not intentionally. My point is that we used to honor and acknowledge that part of an education included organized forms of tinkering. We used to send the message to all kids, boys and girls, that reading and history are important, but so is physical activity and learning how to properly use hand tools. I think we do many boys a disservice by not giving them the room to muck about and learn how to explore the world of physical things. By marginalizing their non-reading activities to be outside of the school environment we send the message that these things are less valid, less important, and as a consequence make boys feel less enthused with their education by telling them perhaps half of what they find interesting isn’t worth exploring.

The most radical thing we could do with regards to teen boys is let them regain their balance between reading and exploring. One without the other kills the love of both.

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Today while hunkered down at the library, working over an essay on character definition through omission in a book by Richard Peck, it finally hit me:

I need to start over on my middle grade novel.

Actually, a part of me has known this for a good part of the week.  Each day that I sat down and tried to write up journal entries for my main characters it was harder and harder to deny that I was lost.  It should have been easy for me to slip into the skin of my characters and free write a couple pages of what they think and how they feel.  But each day was a slog; no, worse, it was torture by my own hand.

How did this happen?  I’ve known these characters for so long, known what I wanted from them and what I wanted them to do.  I’ve plotted their story several times, tweaking bits along the way, I’ve known what they wanted and what they get (not exactly the same things), I’ve always felt this should have been a fairly straightforward thing to write.

What I thought I wanted was to see two boys become friends.  I wanted two characters with nothing initially in common to discover another side of themselves that meshed with the other.  I wanted boy being boys.  Oh, and maybe some conflict with a couple of girls to keep things interesting.

A writer, a good writer, plotting my adventure through this manuscript of mine, would have known this would be my first setback.  This is where Main Character Me suddenly recognizes the clues that have been there all along.  A week of near panic as I tried to write and couldn’t led to the realization that unless I figure out what went wrong I’ll never snap out of it.

But it’s been there all along, from the beginning.  The boys are defining their friendship, but against what?  One of them has friends who don’t even miss him when he moves, and the other boy has moved around so much he’s never known how to make friends.  Meanwhile, and this has been in my notes from conception, they are surrounded by girls who not only have the friendship thing down but one of them is pushing an olive branch (via an anonymous note) that asks if it’s possible for boys and girls to be friends with each other.

Like an idiot, I had to be as blind as my main characters before I could seen what had always been there in the text.  The story looks like it’s about boys becoming friends, but it’s heart and soul is about what it means to have and define friends, and how those choices get complicated.  The girls aren’t there to “keep things interesting,” they’re what drives conflict.

How did I not see that all these years I’ve been thinking this story through?

My advisor has had me looking at beginnings and character building in my essays.  This past packet he’s seen that my story has broken free of the reigns and that the timing is off.  He’s probably seen the problem all along and was just waiting for me to finally see it.  He knew I would too because he asked me to do a couple of exercises to help me see the characters clearer, define the story, and then go back and rewrite from the beginning.

Because I need to.  Because it needs it.  Because I now know what the story is about and can actually write to it.

It was a good 50+ page run initially, but it ran wild, overflowing it’s narrative banks like the Nile, but leaving in its wake fertile soil in which to plant and harvest anew.   There’s still a lot of good material in those pages, most of it easily recyclable.  Time will tell if I can capture it properly the second time.  At the very least I should be closer.

But, man, what a bummer.

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I’m not saying “the essence of a story” is a joke, but that at it’s core, everything necessary to writing a story is contained within a joke.  It has a setting, characters, action, dialog, and it ends with a perfect (if unexpected) conclusion and doesn’t linger a moment longer than necessary.  It gets in, does it’s business, gets out, show over.

Which is why I think kids are drawn to telling jokes.  They are contained stories, manageable in length, work with shorter attention spans, and requires the smallest of audiences and is guaranteed instant feedback.  How far we drag ourselves as writers into plot, character arcs, subplots, natural sounding dialog, choice of narrative voice, when all we’re trying to do is capture that joy of being able to tell someone a story and get instant gratification.

Check it out:

 A piece of string walks into a bar, climbs up on the bar stool and orders a drink from the bartender.
The bartender looks at the string and says, “We don’t serve your kind in this place.”
The string gets up and walks outside.
He ties himself into a knot, frays up the ends of himself and walks back into the bar.
He climbs back up on a stool and says, “I’d like a drink please.”
The bartender says, “Look! I told you before we don’t serve your type. You’re that same string who was in here earlier aren’t you?”
The string says, “Nope! I’m a frayed knot.”

A piece of string walks into a bar…

How evocative!  You’ve just introduced a fantasy character and the setting in just seven words

climbs up on the bar stool and orders a drink from the bartender.

Only the necessary details of the setting, and a piece of action, and it’s all in the first sentence.

The bartender looks at the string and says, “We don’t serve your kind in this place.”

Second sentence and we’ve introduced the secondary character, and a piece of dialog with the central conflict.  How will the piece of string get his drink now? Is there something deeper to the “your kind” comment?  Does our little piece of string represent a minority of some kind, or is he a generic stand-in for all ropes, cords and wires?

The string gets up and walks outside.
He ties himself into a knot, frays up the ends of himself and walks back into the bar.

Okay, now our main character has taken the reigns, and in a bit of action that suits the logic of a piece of string.  We assume he knows what he’s doing because he does so with confidence.  Does anyone care to read “ties himself into knots” as an emotional struggle? Why is this piece of string so determined to purchase alcohol?  What would cause a piece of string to want to get drunk?  Is he simply line dry, or does he just want to unwind?  Many questions.

The bartender says, “Look! I told you before we don’t serve your type. You’re that same string who was in here earlier aren’t you?”

Confrontation and more dialog. The bartender has shown himself to be a bully, bigoted, aggressive.  We can just see his pugnacious frame leaning over the counter and into the face of this porr little piece of string.  Conclusion has to be just around the corner…

  The string says, “Nope! I’m a frayed knot.”

A pun!  A denial!  A challenge to the bartender to actually define what “his type” is!  Hooray for the little guy!  The punchline signals the natural conclusion of the story yet we know these characters will continue on without us.  Whether the bartender appreciates the joke, whether he can justify his discrimination, or perhaps with the intervention of the other barflies the string gets to stay, we’ll never really know.  But we are satisfied that that little piece of string didn’t back down, showed some moxie, and went after what they wanted.  There is satisfaction in the struggle and attempt, even if the main character didn’t get what they set out to get.

These are the undercurrents in a joke, these are the stories that resonate with children precisely because the are concrete in their goals and satisfying in their conclusions.  The “art” of modern storytelling comes in being able to mask these basic elements, to make them seamless to the reader so that they appear to be swept up in the action.  Formulaic?  Perhaps.  So it is incumbent on the writer to mask the formula and entertain, like a magician pulling slight-of-hand making you look one place while, over here, something entirely different is going on.

What is it the aliens tell Woody Allen in his movie Stardust Memories?  “If you want to do mankind a favor, tell funnier jokes.”

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To my daughters, age nearly 10 and 11.5, because the topic came up over how to deal with boys at school dances who might experience erections while grinding on the dance floor.

This is what the world has come to, so to speak.

I’m remembering how dances were when I was in junior high, when I dared to attend them. For the most part he dance floor had a clump of people who came to dance and usually came with their friends. It wasn’t a dating situation, people went to the dance to meet their boy and girlfriends and hide out in the corner. In fact, the walls and corners were the most populated parts of the cafeteria and gym during the dances, and the room was fairly segregated with boys over here, girls over there, and a rumor and gossip on both sides. Occasionally one side would send an ambassador with a message to the other side, like feudal messengers courting on behalf of the royal families, testing the waters to see who sorta likes whom.

Now urban white kids without an ounce of dance rhythm are attempting to grind against each other on the dance floor, and the parents are talking about what to do about boys deliberately getting erections in public? And my girls, who hear about these conversations, these ‘issues’ of grinding and how oral sex isn’t really sex, ask for more information, and more information, and somehow the question of boys having no control and wet dreams enter the discussion and I’m called in as an expert (being the only guy in the house who isn’t a cat) to explain what they are and how they happen.

I thought I was going to avoid all this by having girls.

What’s funny is that in trying to articulate the situation there’s a little bit of my writer voice echoing in the back of my skull as if shouting from another room:

Tell ’em about the time you got an erection watching Roots on the living room floor as a kid, and how you took an unusual interest in the 11 o’clock news that followed because you hoped it would buy you time to calm down before you could get up and leave the room.

No, that’s not a good story to tell, but how do you explain this uncomfortable phenomenon in a way this isn’t totally gross?

“So, it’s like, it doesn’t even have to be a sexual dream. In fact, when it happened to me I woke up not even remembering what I’d been dreaming…”

Mostly true. I only think I had, like three of these in my lifetime, but…

“… And you’re all groggy, and you’ve got this erection and, it’s like when you’ve wet the bed and it feels colder because it’s wet…”

Big eyes from my youngest. This is grossing her out.

“… But it’s not like peeing the bed because its… You know how when there’s sperm? Well, it isn’t the same consistency as urine. It’s more like… runny hand lotion…”

Runny hand lotion? That’s the best you can do?

“… And you’re still coming out of the dream, you’re not really awake, and you don’t understand what just happened. And it doesn’t happen immediately when you hit puberty…”

Whoa, hold on. This is tricky. I don’t think they need to know that the first couple of times a boy orgasms he doesn’t ejaculate, because I don’t want to give the impression that sex with boys is safe early on. Nor do I want to explain why my brain is shouting:

Hey, it’s like how marijuana doesn’t always have an effect for the first couple of times you smoke it, and it’s kinda funny how this conversation started about oral sex, and how Bill Clinton said he never inhaled and–

Shut up! I’m almost out of the woods here!

“… Wet dreams usually happen later, they don’t usually get wet dreams at the first onset of puberty. It happens–”

Don’t get confessional!

“–sometimes when they’re older, and it’s more embarrassing. Like, a guy wakes up, and he realizes what happens…”

The writer’s voice moves forward.

“… And he’s all grossed out. So he sneaks into the bathroom and changes, tries to clean up the mess himself and hide his clothes so they can dry out before he puts them in the laundry hamper. But he doesn’t really do a good job, and the clothes are a little stiff and starchy, so he’s suddenly saying Mom, I think I want to start doing my own laundry and mom goes What?!

They laugh. That takes the remaining edge off my discomfort.

“So, does that answer most of your questions?”

I take my bow and leave my girls to the rest of their bedtime discussions. And for future reference, should the question of whether or not oral sex (or any other kind of sex) is real sex, the rule is this: anything that requires at least one of the participants to remove or alter their clothing in order to create access for another party, that’s sex.

That’s the party line.

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