Archive for September, 2010

…like myself, and any others out there who were (and occasionally are) meant to feel somehow not as good as all you people who can whiz through books.

I know there are some of you out there who can polish off books in mere hours while us slow readers will take days.  Sometimes it’s a question of mood.  Sometimes its fatigue.  Occasionally our minds winder, us slow readers.  We aren’t necessarily savoring these books either, we read at the speed that is most comfortable for us and when that gets in the way of other goals it can have a huge detrimental effect on things.

Back in 1986 when I took my first stab at an MFA in creative writing, we grad students were marched across a hall at orientation and meant to stand in front of a freshman undergraduate class and introduced as the students who would be delivering lectures on selected titles.  Our names, books, and lecture delivery dates were chosen at random right then and there.  I was given two weeks to read and prep an undergrad lecture on Moby Dick.

I dropped out of grad school instead.

But I tried first.  I went home and sat down with Melville, and tried like mad to get that damn book read and could not get past page 32.  Even without a lecture assigned, we were expected to read two books a week, write compare-and-contrast papers on them weekly, and in our spare time keep a log of “all the other” books we read.  It was expected, and none of the other students raised an eyebrow.  Many relished the opportunity to devour books like mad and get little gold grad student stars on their heads while doing so.  I felt like a failure of a student, and it took me another 20 years to get over that feeling and try again.

I’ve always had this “problem.”  In elementary school things were mostly fine, but by the time I hit seventh grade the expectation to read and read closely never came to me.  To do close readings slow me down even more, because there’s a part of my brain that’s second guessing whether or not I’m missing something.  The epic battles in my head to shut down the doubting voice and the negative voice and instead listen to the story voice are sometimes an additional cause for the slowdown.

Stepping back a bit and thinking in defense of slow readers I have a question: just how many books a year is a person supposed to read?

Absurd question, no?  It isn’t like we have a national average or standard for this sort of thing.  People who like to read and read a lot occasionally tally how many books they’ve read in a year – Goodreads and Library Thing exist almost entirely for readers to show off their virtual shelves of books – but how many books should we, could we, expect an average human to read in a year?  A dozen?  A hundred?  One?

Out of curiosity I asked my teen daughter what she thought would be a good number of books for a person to read in a year.  After admitting that people read at different speed – she herself can polish off 300 pages in less than five hours – she thought it was reasonable to say eight books a year.  She said, as an average, sometimes you’d read more books back-to-back and other times you’d go for long stretches without reading and sometimes you just wouldn’t be in the mood.  Could she have been saying that for my benefit, knowing the old man isn’t anywhere near as fast a reader?  Perhaps, but it was an interesting thought that an “average reader” who was reading for pleasure and at leisure would spend eight weeks between titles.

When I’m not busying myself with plot or picking at the bones of craft, I sometimes think about what an awesome responsibility it can be to tell stories.  To ask strangers to take time out of their lives to read the words and think the thoughts and experience the emotions, it’s not something I take for granted or lightly.  I am constantly thinking about that teen boy I was, and what he would read, and what he wished was available to him, because I remember how bad it felt to be effectively standing still while everyone whizzed past him in the fast lane of reading, and how he felt like he was somehow doing it wrong.

I pick up so many books now that stretch to nearly double the size of the books I would have read as a teen and find myself wondering why they had to be so long.  Recently at this summer’s SCBWI conference Jon Scieszka was quoted (and retweeted) as suggesting that most picture book manuscripts need to be cut in half.  I would say the same thing should be done with most middle grade books and a fair number of YA titles.  I won’t name guilty parties here, but what a lasting testament to all those books I read that the main thing I remember about them is that they were too long by half, not their stories or their authors intent or that I enjoyed the experience, but that reading them felt like a chore.

It’s easy to dismiss the slow reader.  He or she (most likely he though) is probably a marginal force in the market.  Slow reading is anathema to the idea of book commerce, of quick sales and quick profits.  And while it’s easy to blame our accelerated culture for leaving slow readers in the dust, I’m going to argue that the very same acceleration that has built fast readerships has done so to the detriment of books the way fast food has assaulted nutrition.  I find I’m just not interested in hurrying up to gobble up the next book and then the next.  Its like literary indigestion, I don’t find that pleasurable.

I am a slow reader, and I enjoy reading.  It takes me longer to read most books and it’s taken me a while to be okay with that. And I am okay with that.

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I’ve spent the better part of the last month working and reworking some crazy limericks for a collection (yeah, we’ll see how that goes over with editors and publishers) but in the midst of it all we had a one-day storm that birthed the following amusement.

how to tell if it’s raining

not thirty seconds
after the cat

begged and clawed
to go outside

he flew back
up the stairs

in three bounds
pausing to see

if the thunder
had followed him

through the door
then looked up

with a glare
as if betrayed

as if somehow
I had known

and said nothing
just to see

what he’d do
so I laughed

to reassure him
about human nature

It’s been a while since I’ve hung out with the Poetry Friday crew.  Picture Book of the Day is hosting Poetry Friday this week.

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why dabble?

A number of things have come together recently that have caused me, as things do periodically, to wonder why I am so adamant to insist I am not a poet.  It has taken me years to feel comfortable calling myself a writer, but that for me was always a matter of time, a simple sense of inevitability; considering myself a poet has always been akin to a small boy talking about how he was going to invent ray guns and wipe out Martian invaders before they could attack the Earth.

Facts speak differently.  If I am being honest with myself, I can look back and see myself casually dabbling in poetic forms for the last 35 years.  The limerick writer in fifth grade, the seventh grade romantic inspired by cheesy pop songs, the ninth grade parodist, those very serious high school years. Those college days where I looked to use my fake poet’s eye on my newly learned letterpress skills.  The occasional inspiration that had me sending neatly typed (yes, on a typewriter, back in the day)  verses to small publications and zines.  File folders full of ideas written on scraps of paper, the small notebooks the size of a credit card jammed with ink, notes to myself about ideas for collections.  And all over my computer hard drives, floppy disks, memory sticks, lines kept in small packets set off to the side like tiny fairy rings of fungi surrounding the serious trees of my fiction.  Poetry Friday among the bloggicenti.  Twitter, with it’s character limits, daring me to write a haiku a day during National Poetry Month.

But no, oh no, I’m no poet.

I like to think I have an ear for meter, and am quick with a rhyme when necessary.  As a kid I used to be able to catch jingles off television commercials and parody them after a single listen.  Later I would do the same things with classic rock.  Wordplay was all it was, fun and games.  Surely not the work of a poet – I’d rarely even bother to write any of it down.  At times I would even complain about it as if it were an affliction, that one of the most annoying things to me about commercial television is how quickly ads can turn into ear worms for me.  I promise you, I can still very clearly hear and sing cigarette ads that were forced off the air by law over 40 years ago.

Despite all this, every once in a while I catch the faux-etry bug and set out to capture some lines.  And when enough of them collect a certain amount of mass I begin to actually consider sharing them with the world, sights set, hopes high, ridiculously thinking I’ve merely been hiding my light under a bushel that only now the world is ready to see, or accept.

Eventually it passes.  The feelings subside because I am not serious enough.  After all these years I still do not have the courage to read these words aloud, to seek out other poets and commune with those who truly do take this unique world as seriously as I take my other writing.  It feels as though my poems are poseurs, the work of a dabbler who like other dabbler cannot see their own limitations.  Not unlike those who see themselves as children’s book writers because they have come up with a marvelous story about a teddy bear that their grandchild just love and know it will rival Goodnight Moon if only someone will take a moment to view their brilliance…

So why dabble?

Why attempt anything for that matter?  What is this need we feel as thinking beings to want to communicate with one another in very open and public forums?  Not just in poetry or fiction, but in blogs, in movies, in comics, in doodles and slogans we turn into t-shirts to wear and share among the knowing, in the gluebook journals we keep of magazine photos that inspire us to turn around and create something else, something more, something different.  Is it really nothing more than the craving for recognition and all the messy psychology that goes with that, or can we really just not help ourselves?

Which is probably my problem with thinking of myself as a poet: in my brain, somewhere along the way, poetry became associated with a form of narcissism. Regardless of whether or not its true, or if I even believe it, that thought makes me uncomfortable.  Almost as if there is a misfiring connector near the ego center sparking confused signals and garbled communications.

I do it, dabble in words, for the same reason most people do what they do: I can’t not do it.  Among all the creative conflicts in my brain, the need to use words is impossible to stop and the demand that they be limited to prose is like a tissue paper barrier to a gale force wind.

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A little over two years ago I was flummoxed by someone’s attempt to indicate profanity using an odd string of substitute characters on the keyboard.  I decided to write a blog post about it, and about the “proper” ways one can use symbols to replace curse words in print.

It has, to date, been the most popular blog post I have ever written.  It still gets dozens of hits every day, even two years later.  And while it’s good for my overall stats, it’s a little depressing.

Recently I saw an upswing in visits and casually noted a number of them were redirects from another person’s blog (at this point, with my link back to his post that links back to mine we are in serious logrolling territory).  Curiosity sent me to fanboy.com and I’m glad I did because I got me some schooling in the process.

First, that chicken scratch that’s used to fill in for curse words, those are called grawlixes. And there’s quite a history of them stretching back to the early days of comic strips. I had assumed these symbols had a name but two years ago I was more interested in getting my complaints off my chest than doing the necessary research to find this out.  I also learned that the word for the beads of sweat that shoot away from a character in surprise or embarrassment are called plewds.   Or rather, I relearned this word, because I had come across it decades ago but in my mind it had mutated to the word ploids, which have been co-opted by the Frito-Lay people as their trademarked name for proof-0f-purchase tokens to be exchanged for worthless gifts.  I’m happy to be corrected, knowing that the proud plewd has not been subsumed by a corporate entity.

Interesting is how various strands of the universe intersect.  Okay, so maybe its the strands of the internet interconnecting, but same diff.  This morning my wife was reading a review of the new William Shatner TV show Stuff My Dad Says, based on the book Sh*t My Dad Says, which was based on the Tweets by Justin Halpern from an account called shitmydadsays.  You can spend days on the internet reading all the outrage over the numbing-down of the title, about people shocked by such profanity being “introduced” to mainstream culture, about how the entire concept jumped the shark before the book even came out, and yet another rasher of anger over censorship.  All this fuss and bother over a word. And to top it off, the critic gave the TV show a D- grade.

But what does it mean when we replace a profanity with symbols and scrawl?  When we make the choice to replace a word generally understood to be profane, are we not bowing just a little toward censorship?  It used to be such language, even symbolically, was seen as outrageous, a sign of bad character and questionable morals.  Now even the most genteel librarians unabashedly speak fluent potty mouth without once begging us to pardon their French.  If we read these grawlixes and can make out their true meaning, why do we continue to pretend that we are somehow keeping our language elevated from the vulgar and profane?

I will admit, the use of grawlixes is a more elegant solution than placing self-censored language on “word” lists.  You know, the n-word, the f-word, or like little kids on the playground who feel empowered doing so, the s-word.  As is “the s-word my dad says.”

That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it, this power we invest in certain words.  We elevate certain bits of our language by making them unspeakable, like the name of God, invest them with talismanic powers to shock, offend, represent darker ideas.  I suspect we prefer to limit their use in order to retain that power, to prevent the words from becoming commonplace.  If four-year-olds use and aren’t afraid to use certain words, then over time they cease to retain their power, and the power of their meaning is lost.

Form all this you might assume I’d support The Parents Television Council ( and their Orwellian “Because Our Children Are Watching”) and their pressuring CBS to change the title of their doomed sitcom to Stuff My Dad Says, but you’d be wrong.  Changing the title and toning down the father character removed the power and the humor inherent in the premise. Like watching Betty White on Saturday Night Live delivering sexual double entendres, the whole point of SMDS is that it’s outrageous. It’s about what Justin Halpern’s dad says and how he says it.  Take that away and you have nothing left. Take away the language and you have removed the power of the humor.

So let’s keep the grawlixes in place when their intent is humorous, but lets use the actual words themselves when they are culturally significant.  In a YA novel, let the profanity rip where it would be natural for teens exploring the limits of language (and sex and everything else) takes them into the territory of overuse.  Let’s remain sensitive to words that have been used historically – racial slurs and epithets – so that we don’t accidentally re-empower the hatreds that created them.  And lets not go around assuming that everything on television is meant for every member of the house.  The audience for shitmydadsays is/was mature adult children dealing with coming to terms with their elderly parents. The only way the TV show could have reflected that was to hold true to the Tweets that inspired it.

The sacred and the profane are the two sides to the same coin.  Like Yin and Yang, they require each other to maintain balance.  You need the one in equal measure to recognize the other.

H-e-double-toothpicks yeah!

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The other day I was bringing my older daughter and some friends home from field hockey practice. On this final practice before their first meet – and their first day of school – the Freshmen were paired up with JV and Varsity buddies to talk about life, school, and field hockey.  It was the first time these younger girls were getting an unvarnished look at this new adventure called high school.

“My buddy said that the thing that upset her the most was when she was an incoming Freshman was that high school was nothing like how they showed it on Degrassi High.”  This was followed by nervous laughter, a small pause, and a quick change of subject.

I think even I was a little surprised.

I remember the trepidation I had going into high school and the feeling I had later on of wishing that I had more insight going in, but I don’t recall ever expecting it to be like something I saw on television.  For that to be the case it would have had to look like a cross between Welcome Back Kotter and Room 222.

Thinking about my daughter and her friends, and the TV shows they were partial to, I began to mentally fugue on what sort of high school they imagined themselves approaching.  Would they imagine it to be like the McKinley High School of Lima, Ohio in Glee, or the Sunnydale, California of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or somewhere in between?  Would they discount the high school of Dillon, Texas in Friday Night Lights because of their New England locale, or would they be keyed in enough to recognize that the troubles and anxieties of those Texas teens are more common than they imagine? As public school girls I doubt they expect the high school world they see in the Gossip Girls TV series, have probably never encountered Veronica Mars high school, and think of Beverly Hills 90210 as a joke told by their parents about their high school TV viewing.

But what is it about the high school experience that at once seems so crucial to our grounding and entertainment, and yet has to be made so fictional that it doesn’t resemble anything close to the real American high school experience?  And what do teens learn about a world that presents them with a fictional high school world that is nothing like reality?

Given that books and movies and television shows set and based around high schools are written by adults, the lasting lesson is this: adults lie.

I sometimes wonder if, given the opportunity, teens would develop entertainment centered around high school life.  Beyond puerile revenge, would teens create shows with teachers and classes and pep rallies and football games as their focus?  We know that to a toddler anything higher than four feet above the ground is like a world in the sky, but do teens really not see – or want to see – a world beyond a high school diploma?

At the risk of being a hypocrite, because my current work-in-progress is set in a high school in 1974, I’m beginning to wonder if writers don’t do teens a disservice by not looking beyond the walls of education.  I know I’ve said this before, but back in the prehistoric years of my on teendom we didn’t have YA books and went looking for lessons about the world from adult fiction.  Just as younger readers like to “read up” to characters older than themselves, we teens wanted to get a glimpse beyond the insular world of our own families into what the adult world held for us.

In that light, shouldn’t YA have characters and settings beyond the world of high school?  No, seriously, I’m asking.  Does anyone know whether teens would be interested in stories about twenty-somethings who spent they summer break from college working fisheries in Alaska, or getting lost and homesick (and not falling in love like they expected) while traveling abroad?  If the fourth grader wants to read about the sixth or seventh grader, doesn’t the high school senior want to read about that first year of life out of college?

Why does high school become the stunting ground of fiction aimed at young adults?

These field hockey carpool girls just got their first taste of the reality of high school, that this exciting adventure before them is full of things they never could have imagined.  For the next four years they’ll be getting similar shocks to their system about everything from personal responsibility to academic success.  Their assigned reading will shift sharply away from the pleasurable reading they’ve enjoyed that has been marketed to them toward the classics, assigned reading meant to increase vocabulary and make them college literate.  When they do take the time to read something outside the required list will it be anything more than an escapist vampire fantasies about abstinence?

I should think, at the very least, teens shouldn’t be as shocked and surprised that high school is nothing like what they see everywhere else in the media, but I always thought books were supposed to provide that alternative viewpoint.

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