Archive for April, 2008

This is insane. I’m a week out from deadline and I haven’t got an angle. I’ve got these three books with male protagonists, each wrestling with their place in the world: Susan Beth Pfeffer’s the dead and the gone, Chris Crutcher’s Staying Fat For Sarah Byrnes, and Neal Shusterman’s Unwind. Two of them deal with a not-too-distant future turned upside down, two of them are in the third person, two of them are by male authors, two of them feature main characters without adult figures in their lives… there’s no one thing that binds them together.

Except voice, this elusive thing I am looking for, the key to authenticity in a teen voice in literature. Yeah, I bit off more than I can chew.

This would be a perfect topic to tackle for my thesis a year from now when I can stretch out and take the historical view. I’d love to drag a line from Twain to the present, through scenic stops along Salinger and Burgess, and talk about how the exaggeration of authenticity itself creates an authentic voice. It’s a wisp of an idea, but I think it’ll hold water once I pull quotes and citations. The problem is that paper if something like 50 pages and I only need to pull together something like 8 to 10 right not.

And I mean, right now.

We all talk about voice — authorial voice, character voice, the tone of voice, the quirky, the dull, the obedient servant at the heart of a story — but what is it, I wonder, that makes a voice particularly boyish. How do boys talk, and how is it different than girls? Would we know a boy is speaking because of an implication of action in what they say? Is there a difference in what they say versus what they do? Can we point to specific characteristics or traits and say, definitively, that is a boy speaking?

This is the problem I’ve set up for myself. I ant to examine what it means to portray a boys voice but the commonalities, the markers, all appear superficial to me. Can it really be as simple as amplifying stereotypes? Is it that boys think differently than they speak, speak differently than they act? Sure, I could support these statements, but to do so requires time, it requires rereading the books and hunting down relevant passages. Maybe this is stupid of me, but I don’t go into a book (or a set of books) with a critical agenda looking for things I can cull later for an essay. I’m also not the fastest reader – I’ve never enjoyed a book I couldn’t savor – so doing it under the gun of a deadline makes me sloppy.

I can’t let these things rip me up. The critical requirement is helpful, useful, and informative to my goal as a writer, but if I have to start planning for it, giving it more time each packet, then I’m cutting into the heart of my creative work, which I already feel suffers from neglect. The part of me that wants to b a good writer won’t let me toss out a crappy essay. The part of me that wants to write a good essay doesn’t want to have to cram it into super-tight deadlines that don’t allow me to properly address the ideas involved.


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Kids come into the bookstore all the time with requests, usually a specific author or the title of a series.  There’s a lot of word-of-mouth with kids books that the adult book world would kill for.  For some books, it’s almost as if a title cycles through a particular season.  One kid in the third grade “discovers” Louis Sachar’s Wayside School series perhaps thinking he’s the first kid that ever actually read these books, his friends check them out of the library, and the third wave forces their parents to the store to buy the books because the library copies are always checked out.  Two weeks of kids buying what’s on the shelf, or forcing their parents to order missing titles, and then just as quickly the fad has passed and it’s onto something else.

If I hadn’t been stumped over an essay topic this past week I might not have made a similarly obvious discovery of my own.  I was thinking about some of the titles I’ve been reading lately, and their authors, while examining the use of voice.  It was a very simple conversation I was having with myself — first person, third person, narrative, and dialog — and then I made a list and started matching up titles, authors and voices.  Any time you start making lists you start to see things, patterns and trends.  What did this list say about my choice of reading this month?  What does it say about the characters I’m drawn to?

What does it say about popular versus literary?  Yeah, suddenly that’s staring me in the face.  Like I’m in third grade thinking I’m the first to ponder this brilliant thought.

I’m being a bit vague, but for a reason.  First, I haven’t really given this theory of mine a true stink test yet — it’s only a theory based on a random sampling of things that have interested me that I’ve read.  Second is a little more tricky.

See, I know this writer — well, “know” is relative, but just roll with it.  They’re a very respected writer, many books published, often cited to me by others who consider this person a sort of paragon of style and substance. (No, it’s not my advisor’s books either.)  I read their books and can see why they are recommended; every lesson in writing is clearly, plainly, perfectly laid out.  The story jumps from the first line, the dialog sparks, narrative flows and characters feel. It’s everything I’m supposed to aspire to as a writer.

It’s a book no kid would read without being forced, by a librarian or teacher, someone who would have to sell them on it.  It’s a book no kid would “discover” on his or her own, no word-of-mouth for this book exists.  Not only is this writer’s name never on the lips of any kid looking for a book, if I were to mention their name they would look at me as if I’d started speaking in Esperanto to them.

Daily you can see the giant holes on the shelves in bookstores and libraries where the popular books are normally kept.  These are the books that make the rounds, that are read and become part of the shared culture for generations of readers.  They are the series with characters, or the authors who know how to deliver what kids want.  No one would ever confuse these books for literature, yet somehow these books are considered lesser than those held up to aspiring writers as paragons of literary virtue.

Why is that?

I’ve got this book in my hand and all I can think while I’m reading it is “This is so well written, it’s no wonder it’s used as an example for writing students.”  At the same time, whenever I take a break to consider the craft of the book I think “Who the hell is this book written for?”  There should be no doubt who the intended audience is, but the fact that I ask sends up the tiny hairs on the back of my neck.  I can see the structure, the armature, the finer points of craft, but has the machinery made the book too sterile for a young reader?  Should this magnificent arrangement of character development, motivation, and feelings trump the enjoyment of reading?

I’ve always thought that my ideal audience, the person I’m writing for, is me.  Not the adult me but the me that would be the same age as the main character of my stories.  It isn’t purely a question of my younger self wanting all action and no emotion, but this sense that… all I can think of right now is a cooking analogy.  I would rather be a baker of cakes people loved to eat than a decorator of cakes that looked good, tasted too “clean,” and were prohibitively expensive.

This is it, isn’t it?  This is where the road diverges in the yellow wood. Or, as a more contemporary wordsmith once said, I’m standing in the middle of life with my pants behind me.

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It sounded simple: spend a couple of weeks putting down diary entries my main character might have written that would give insights into his thinking and feelings. And since that would be a cinch, why not finally write the text of that picture book biography I kept talking about. And, hey, since that shouldn’t be a problem, read a couple dozen books and pick a few on which to write a compare/contrast essay of 8 to 10 pages.

Yeah, it’s called biting off more than I can chew, or at least chew comfortably, but I’m not ready to cry uncle. Not yet at least.

The thing is there’s still seventeen days to deadline. That’s a lot of time. The thing is there’s only seventeen days to deadline and that’s not a lot of time. I lose five of those days to work, another couple taking a short vaca with the fam, so it’s really more like ten days.


See, I should never look at a calendar. If I could just have this magical system that told me what I needed to do each day — without knowing the deadline — then I could just work on the daily goal without the deadline stress. Despite how much work I give myself, it’s all manageable as long as I don’t know what I’m up against.

All my classmates, and you wonderful occasional commenters, have been kind in their faith. Gwenda’s point a while back about learning what my process is turning out to ring more true that I imagined; I am learning which things I do that work and which don’t, and methods to keep myself focused. And my Suze wasn’t off the mark recently in pointing out how the residency probably serves as the vacation time we otherwise don’t get with our at-home, deadline-driven lives. I remember how charged up I felt after the last rez, I can totally see how that’s going to feel even better this time around. Like how good diner food tastes after you’ve spent a couple weeks living off granola and ramen in the mountains.

The diary entries, you would think that would be a snap. Ha! It isn’t like plunking down your thoughts in a blog, oh no, you have to crawl inside the character’s head and say “Look over there, at that playground — how does that make you feel?” Like going back in time and hunting down your younger self on the playground and poking that younger self with a stick saying “Why was this tether ball thing so important to you this week?” And the next thing you know the question “Why doesn’t the character have any sibling?” turns into an awkward moment between child and parent where the discussion of miscarriages gets brought up, only explained through the vocabulary of an 11 year old boy.

It’s as emotionally draining as if I were putting myself through therapy. Wait…

The picture book biography is another beast altogether. I’ve known this story for going on two decades now but I never conceived it as a book for kids. Why not? They’re the ones who would appreciate it better. That’s not the problem, the problem is that in telling the story I realized I had only worked from two sources, both mostly matched up but it would take a third to confirm various differences. Then there was the background details I wanted to nail. And in the twenty years since I first stumbled onto this story more and more resources have become available. Movies lost in archives spread all over the world are now available to watch on YouTube at all hours. The casual mention of a bit player in the story prompts another half hour of internet searching. There are easily five pages of documentation and bibliographic notes for every paragraph I’m going to end up with in the final draft. I feel beholden to get the story right the first time (a) to avoid the same pitfalls I’ve seen in other non-fiction for children concerning sloppy research and (b) so that mine enters the world as the definitive version, at least for a generation. You shoot for the moon and hope for a cloud.

I haven’t even got a clue about the essay yet, mostly because I’m not happy with the books so far. Usually having bad books, or at least deficient one, spurs the creative juices. But the reality is that I’m looking for clues and answers to my own problem in finding a character voice and I’m not getting any traction in the places where I should. I’m tired of every book I pick up needing to be read so closely that I can’t enjoy it on its own. I don’t want to have to pick apart the meat and bones in order to reconstruct the skeleton and show how adept I am at literary taxidermy. Yes, yes, I understand how this helps in my own work, but right now everything is working against each other — voice and essay are not in line with biography and research, neither of which is helping with feeling and motivation. In theory all this should be providing clarity but in reality it’s all siting like an oil slick on the top of a pond preventing the water hydra from getting any sunlight.

I just know a year from now I’m gonna stumble back onto this post and want to throttle my whiny self. Maybe I’ll be adept enough to have my 11 year old character visit me and we can swap places, maybe he can write my diary entries for me while I sit t/here trying to understand how to insert tab A into slot B.

I promised myself I wouldn’t spend more that 15 minutes complaining. Back to work.

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After posting last week’s Poetry Friday entry I was out and about when I saw a bunch of cards blowing around in the street. Some poor kid from the nearby high school lost a couple dozen of their study notes for class, notes penned in green marker, crammed into 3 by 5 card that had been cut in half.

I like how in their fragmented way they read like poetry. Almost, not quite. I was going to post two of them as-written for Poetry Friday and then realized that all it would take to make them interesting was to change a couple words. And then once I did that I thought it would make for a nice little open exercise for all you wonderfully creative folks out there.

Here they are. They can be combined, reversed, whatever makes sense. Feel free to complete them as you see fit in the comments.

______ is neither
created nor

a given _______
always contains
exactly the same
_______ of _______
by _______

And check out what everyone else is up to on Poetry Friday, the round-up is over at A Wrung Sponge.

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So I’m looking at the footage of the protest on the Golden Gate Bridge yesterday.  You know, the “Free Tibet” banners that were hung from the bridge?  Nice to see a bit of the old home, remember just how politically active the Bay Area is compared to the rest of this great nation.

But… wait.  Isn’t the Golden Gate Bridge one of the high priority targets for protection by Homeland Security?  If a group of protesters can mount these banners on the bridge with this sort of ease, what does it say about our ability to protect the bridge from terrorism and sabotage?

It’s just as I have always believed: terrorism in this country is built on fear, a fear perpetrated by our own government for its own political ends.  We’re not any “safer” than we were before 9-11, just as we’re in no greater danger than before.  The fear and terror are created within and come from the top down.  If we were serious about securing the homeland (which always sounds a little too close to the Fatherland for my taste) then things like this protest on one of the most visibly public American structures couldn’t have happened with such ease.

Americans should be afraid.  Of their own government.  The founding fathers said so.

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Do I keep revising the pages I have so far… or do I begin from scratch (again!) hoping to pin down the elusive “voice” of the main character?

The crossroads is the place where young blues musicians would meet Old Scratch and hammer out a deal for fame and fortune, or just the ability to play like it’s nobody’s business.  The modern idea of “devil music” comes out of this myth, but it makes me wonder what the equivalent is for writers.   Is there someplace one goes to trade, say, a blazingly brilliant first novel and the ability to crank out masterpieces in exchange for something, perhaps something a little more benign than a short life and a long memory?

Oh, not that I’m willing to take the shortcut, mind you.  I’m just thinking aloud.

It’s odd, music has this whole thing I once learned as “the death and resurrection show.”  It’s where a vibrant, talented, promising musician has one of these mystical hero journeys and comes out the other side an icon.  Jimi and Elvis and Lennon and Kurdt are all cats who were one thing one day, went through the netherworld, came out the other side transformed.  Look at Dylan.  One self-made version of himself one day, totally different following the motorcycle accident.  Sure, the Beatles were all dropping acid and whatnot, but come Sgt. Pepper Paul is still writing about a meter maid and wondering what he’ll be like in 2008 when he’s 60-something while John, he’s got Lucy in his skies and he’s doing benefit’s for a Mr. Kite and he’s not far from declaring himself a Walrus.  Something happened to John, man, and he came out the other side of it different.

Artists are the same way, painting studies of nudes and doing formal portraits in blue and rose and then BAM! they’re cubists.  Andy Warhol is doodling cats and working in advertising and WHOMP! it’s Marilyn and Mao in neon.  It’s like there’s a dam in there, somewhere, and something comes along and busts the thing wide open and all of a sudden it’s a raging torrent coming out.  Is it a battle between the id and the ego, between learning and unlearning?   What’s the trigger, where’s the key?

And how does that happen with writers.  Is there a moment where they’re writing sturdy, workman-like prose one day and then the come to something that turns them inside out and start writing like a demon possessed?  Is it the nature of publishing that we don’t see the process because we only see the ‘after’ and never the ‘before’ picture of their work?

Or is it all myth, the legend of the transaction at the crossroads a way of telling a story that hides the hours of toil and sweat, that makes it seem so effortless in hindsight.  No one wants to hear that its all hard work, they’d rather think some magician offered up an elixir in exchange for a little worldly soul.

I’m toiling, folks, I’m sweating this thing.  It needs a voice and I haven’t found it.  I keep thinking it’s right around the corner, just up the road a patch.  If anyone has a map I’d be most obliged

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Last summer I managed to keep up with Poetry Friday but didn’t feel I had the stamina to go year round. But it’s National Poetry Month and I don’t feel like I can ignore it so I’m sort of double-dipping and doing a PF post both here and my other blog. Both poems come from the recent anthology America At War edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins with illustrations by Stephen Alcorn.

The book breaks down the selections by war, beginning with the American Revolution and ending with the Iraq War. Most of the poems were written during the wars they represent, some in hindsight, all of them offering a panoply of American involvement in warfare.

The Hague, Holland
May 10, 1940

Heidi Bee Roemer

Tossed from the Luftwaffe,
fluttering to the streets below,
Nazi propaganda leaflets.

A little Dutch girl snatches them up,
stuffs the sheets into her basket,
and brings them home for her family’s use.

Toilet paper from heaven

I imagine kids today getting a small chuckle from this poem.  In the book the illustration shows a stack of leaflets with a swastika on the top showing pinned to the wall, a leaflet showing Hitler’s face peering out from the toilet.  But I don’t hesitate to wonder if the same thing didn’t happen recently.  By May 2003, the end of major combat operations in professed by President Bush (“mission accomplished”), more than 31 million leaflets had fallen on Iraq.* I wonder what happened to all those leaflets.

As I said, I’m double-dipping and including another poem from the same collection over at my other virtual home, the excelsior file.  It’s an e.e. cummings poem, my sweet old etcetera.

Check out all the Poetry Friday goodness this week over at Becky’s Book Reviews.

* See Herbert Friedman’s “Falling Leaves,” originally printed in Print magazine (September—October 2003), available online: http://www.psywar.org/fallingleaves.php

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