Archive for the ‘observations’ Category

Back in my relative youth when I was learning to write screenplays I came across a fascinating tidbit. What it came down to was that on a deep thematic level, everything a writer writes is about what is currently gnawing away at them in the moment. It didn’t matter what the plot or the story was about, deep down all the character issues and concerns were the manifestation of the bubbling subconscious fears and anxieties of the moment.

If that were true, a story written five or ten or twenty years ago would have characters behaving one way, while if that story were being written today they would behave differently. And it wouldn’t be that one version of those characters was more “true” than the other, or that I had learned more about them, but that the things that concerned twenty-something me were different than fifty-something me. The characters — if this line of thinking is to be believed — were mere reflections of my state of mind.

But then, what of these stories? Do their themes not change with the desires of the characters? Aren’t those old plots with current characters like an old man trying to put on the clothes of his youth?

Earlier this week I had a little down time and no access to my current larger WIP so I doodled around with a short story idea. Three pages into the idea I found myself writing a variation of a scene from a project I started working on over 20 years ago. The characters were different, their motivation and reasons totally unlike the older piece, and the eventual outcome would be… similar?

Both stories are about a group of boys who create a club on campus, both clubs are mere shells designed to allow the boys to act outrageous with some semblance of school authority, both ending in a sort of disaster that would raw national scrutiny. The moment I realized the new story was on the same path I stopped and took stock. Who the heck were these two boys, and more importantly, what did their appearance say about where my head is currently at?

Originally, 22 years ago, I had finally come up with a story I thought was a perfect encapsulation of high school. I was planned as an epic tale, with so many subplot and character arcs, that I jokingly referred to it as The Great American Young Adult Novel. In truth, that original story contained over a dozen plots worthy of their own books, some I’ve attempted, some I realized were a bit goofy. At the heart of them all was a story about a club of mostly boys who ventured out through three years of adventures that eventually lead to a cataclysmic ending that garnered national attention.

And my main character was some kid trapped in the now yearning for the future away from the madness.

All those years ago I didn’t know what I was doing, what I wanted, what I’d hoped to achieve. Today I do, and the fact that those old feelings are manifesting themselves again in stories is an equal combination of alarming, reassuring, and frustrating. It’s not the same story, it’s a better story, this time with a character who knows where he stands and is clear about what comes next.

So I’m really writing two stories now, one on the page and one in my life. I have a good feeling about both of them.

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I’m back, I’m tanned (okay, burned in splotchy areas), rested, shaking the sand out of my clothes, and ready to get back into things.

Or rather, I’m ready to see what new things I can get into, because the old things made me want this vacation so badly that clearly there is something wrong with what I’ve been doing.

There are no promises to make here, no resolutions, no grand agenda, but there is an enormous desire to undo what I’ve been doing which isn’t hard, because lately it’s it felt like I’ve been doing nothing.

I have not been reading. For months now. I have picked up books here and there and never got into them then let life get in the way. That’s just stupid. The “life” I let get in the way had to do with things I’d rather not be doing, i.e. a job for money, where the reading constitutes the necessary manna required for the thing I love, which is writing.

So I’m back to reading.

I have not been writing. Not seriously. I have squeezed in 20 minutes here and an hour there but I’ve also only been toying with things until I could find the time to do the “real” writing. Wrong. That’s just flawed thinking. Back-burnering larger projects because I don’t have time for them? No, I MAKE time for them and stop giving myself these little outs of being busy. Busy doing what? Things I hate, things I don’t want to do?

So I’m back to writing.

And the book reviews, my poor sad book review blog. While I have been reading for some reason I have fallen out of the habit of writing about those titles. In the past I have tinkered with the point and purpose of those reviews – initially they were part of my personal exploration and education, then they were an offshoot of both grad school and the reviewing I did for The Horn Book – but I’ve had a sort of crisis-of-faith that reviewing on a blog was somehow pointless. But I was able to do some quality reading while on vacation – my one and only goal for vacation was to read, which I did – and that reading kicked up some spark that makes me want to rethink and revisit the notion of writing about what I read. Hang the purpose and the style, if it isn’t for me first and foremost then it won’t matter to anyone else anyway.

So I’m back to blogging.

I guess there really is a list there, a plan, a scheme. Basics, I’m back to basics. It isn’t hardcore, planned on a calendar and scheduled to the minute, but the desire is there and I think, ultimately, its important for my soul that I get these parts of my house in order. Of those thing the blogging might lag behind the others, as I have recently been reading non-children’s books which don’t fit within the scope of that blog. I see this occasional gorging on “adult” literature as a sort of palette cleansing but also as a way of refreshing my critical reading skills. How much different is reading Don Delillo from a graphic novel? How are short stories for adults different or the same as those for teens? Whole new topics seemed to materialize out of the salty beach air. Cobwebs of the brain, be gone! I have things to think about and discuss!

So now we’ll see.

How is your summer shaping up, world? Any brain-clearing vacations on your horizon, any grand plans for these next couple of months?

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Five unsettling days here in Boston, and somehow I didn’t feel as anxious as I could have. I’ve spent the weekend mulling this over in spare moments and I’ve come to the conclusion that, somewhere along the way, I decided I simply refuse to let fear rule me.

If there’s one thing terrorists, politicians, and the media have excelled in since 9/11 its been the increase in peddling fear for their own gain. It doesn’t matter to me if its an improvised bomb set off at public event or a pundit deliberately spewing slanted opinion or a politician trying to rationalize the sanctity of gun ownership in this country, these are all terrorists utilizing the language of fear for their own purposes.

And I’m done with all of it.

It sounds simple, to say you won’t be ruled by fear, and the amazing thing is that it is simple. I grew up in California and when I would tell people from other parts of the world where I grew up they would inevitably tell me that they couldn’t live under the constant threat that an earthquake could come without warning at any minute.

You know what? So could getting hit by a car crossing the street. Tripping and falling down a flight of stairs. A gas explosion. These things, and millions of others, could happen at any time. Maybe it sounds like a false sense of security to say that when you live under the constant threat of danger you become enured to it, but how could a person truly call it “living” to be in such a constant state of fear wondering when “the big one” is going to send your home state sliding into the sea?

Accidents happen. Tragedies occur. Horrific acts of violence are committed. Yes, there are ways to prevent and mitigate them, but should we fear them? Should we allow ourselves to live in fear?  Of course not. And there’s medical evidence to suggest that it can be both physically and psychologically damaging to your well-being to constantly worrying and living in fear.

In short, fear itself can kill you. How’s that for something to be afraid of?

I know people who were down near the Marathon last week who were fortunate enough to not be harmed; hell, my younger daughter was planning to be within a few blocks from there before her plans fell through. And later in the week, on Thursday night, I walked past the location where the MIT security officer was shot less than two hours before it happened. There was actually a moment where I almost had to double-back to work while on my way home which would have put me in Cambridge right when the convenience store up the street was being robbed by the alleged bombers. These are the “close calls” with recent events that were on my mind on Friday while I watched (as did the rest of the world) while the metropolitan area I lived in was shut down for an unprecedented manhunt. I went through a range of complicated emotions as the events unspooled but in the end, as eerie as the entire week was, I didn’t find myself once afraid.

Fear is the currency of those looking to hold power over our emotional well-being, and I’m no longer interested.

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Naive. Unrealistic. Fascist.

These are just some of the things I have been called for saying that the biggest problem we have with gun control in the United States is not having enough of it. The presumption is that I have some ill-formed liberal notion about the Constitution or our civil rights or that I somehow want nothing more than a parental state governing my every moment of liberty. Invariably, every person who has passed judgment on my views, most of them either conservatives or gun owners or both, does not have the experience I have had with guns.

I have been held up at gunpoint. Twice.

Many would argue the first time “didn’t count” because the circumstances were far from malicious. I was a teacher at a middle school, coming out of my classroom during the passing period, when a boy of 13 leapt out from around the corner and aimed the revolver square at me from ten feet away. “Freeze!” he shouted, like a cop in a TV show, egged on with laughter by the friends around him. By the time I realized what was happening a campus supervisor – a hall and yard monitor, the closest thing we had to security – wrestled the boy to the ground and called out for help. A group of teachers surrounded and escorted the boy to the principal’s office while a fellow teacher stayed behind to make sure I was okay. The whole thing had happened so quickly, so surreally, that only later I understood they had wanted to keep me as far away as possible from the boy, fearing I had been his intended target and that my presence would antagonize him.

He was only showing off to friends. The gun wasn’t even loaded. It was taken from his home where it was purchased and kept to protect family and property. This was the one and only time it had been ever pointed at another human being.

I was told I was lucky that day.

But that kid was just showing off. One teen with access and a case of severely bad judgment. Perhaps it shouldn’t count as having had a weapon drawn on me but some of my fellow teachers afterward said things like “Makes me wish we could carry our own weapons.”

Why? So we can turn schools into gunfights at the OK Corrall?

The second gun incident was more “traditional.” I was coming home extremely late from a nighttime job – it was after 2 AM – and I was forced to take a different bus than normal because my usual bus stopped running. As a result I had to walk a half mile from the bus stop to my house through a pretty sketchy area. I wasn’t more than a block from the bus stop when I realized I was being followed. One person passed in front of me, pulled a hood over his head, then turned, forcing me to stop. From behind there was a gun pressed into my back from a second person. I was told to lie face down on the ground and make no sound. My shoulder bag and wallet were taken, my pockets turned inside out, and my jacket yanked off my back. Just in case I was doubting their sincerity, the guy holding the gun brought the barrel to my eyes and told me to count to one hundred and not to get up until I did. I counted and listened as they ran to a truck parked nearby and sped off.

When I finished counting I stood up, got my bearings, and saw an all-night diner just a block away. There was a police cruiser in the parking lot, an officer inside on his break. When I approached to report what had happened he looked at me with a start as I pointed to the location of the incident, clearly visible from the windows of the diner. None of the nighthawks inside saw or heard a thing. When the officer asked what they had taken, and I reported my jacket, a bag with a notebook in it, and less than $5 in cash he shook his head and said “You’re lucky to be alive. When they hold someone up and get nothing for it, that pisses guys like that off.”

Lucky. As in, not dead. How lucky would I have been if I’d been carrying a concealed weapon?

This is the problem I have with the self-defense argument. Most of the times you would want or find yourself in the position of needing to defend yourself, a gun isn’t convenient. Nor is it a solution.

“If someone was breaking in you could be damn sure they’d realized they made a mistake!” This is the counter-argument I hear the most,usually said with the bravado of someone who has never actually been in an home invasion situation.

I have. Twice.

The first time, in broad daylight, a scruffy-looking bearded crack fiend started climbing in through my living room window, cursing up a storm and sounding for all the world like he was fixed to murder. My housemates ran to the back of the house, to call the police, while my instinct was to walk up and push him back out the window. It was the first floor, so it wasn’t that far to the ground, and it seemed as if the fall had sobered him up some. I went outside to confront him and on closer inspection he was merely drunk and disoriented: he sincerely thought he was climbing into his own home, having lost his keys somewhere. Many a gun advocate who have heard this story pointed out how dangerous my behavior was. “What if he’d had a gun! I tell you, if it had been me there’d have been one dead hobo on the rug! Next time you might not get so lucky.”

There it was, that word again. Lucky.

The next time there was nothing innocent about the invasion. We were living on the fourth floor of an old Victorian, our windows open in the summer, safe from outside intruders by the virtue of having no access that high up short of a ladder.

Or the old tree next door, as we discovered.

This time a young man intent on performing some sort of mischief climbed the tree, hopped onto the roof, and was attempting to lower himself into my kitchen by hanging from the rain gutters. He’d managed to get half way in, his head, a leg, and one arm trying to squeeze through ll at once. And in his had, a gun.

I hadn’t heard anything and was simply on my way into the kitchen for some water when I saw him there, looking for all the world like he was stuck. I yelled, in a voice so deeply unhuman that to this day I simply think of it as my reptile brain voice. “You get the hell out of my house!” I shouted and then proceeded to take the nearest thing I could find – a cast iron skillet – and threw it at him. I got him in the leg, and between my yelling and throwing things he must have figured I was crazier than he was so he backed out of the window… and dropped four stories to the ground. The police were called and he was eventually caught – sans gun – limping along with a broken ankle. No word on whether it was the fall or the skillet that broke his ankle.

But he’d had a gun. And that, according to some, should have been enough to convince me that even if I didn’t believe in gun ownership for protection that I should be sympathetic to others who do.

But I don’t.

This is where I get called naive, suggesting that we treat the cause and not the symptom. Because guns are the symptom of diseases called fear, ignorance, and violence. Fearing (and hating) other people provides people the opportunity to find the justification in killing other people. A teen boy who thinks its “funny” to pull an unloaded gun on a teacher at school is simply ignorant of the reality behind the imagery he emulates from TV and movies. Violence, no matter the source, is a learned behavior, one that alters the chemistry of the brain over time the same way that abuse, drugs, and fear do. And if we knew for certain that a person’s brain was impaired I’d like to think we wouldn’t knowingly give them access to weapons (or armies for that matter) because what would follow would be carnage.

We are, as a society and individuals, defined by the choices we make. If you choose to live in fear, and raise children to live in fear, that fear will consume your thinking and alter the prism of your world view. If  you believe that American liberty and freedom are inexorably linked to the ownership of a machine whose sole purpose is to kill then there will be no argument that will persuade you otherwise.

If this is how we choose to live as a society we should expect to see scores of violent gun deaths and massacres, because unless we choose to change things we have agreed to choose gun violence as a bi-product of freedom and liberty.

I long thought the phrase “Live by the sword, die by the sword” was a fair enough summary of the notion that violence begets violence but it hides a bitter truth about who suffers the most.  Sadly, those who live by the sword (or gun, as the case may be) kill and those who choose not to live by the sword are more often the victims of those who do.

I will no longer argue with those who believe that gun ownership in America is what the Second Amendment is all about. People will stand behind any excuse that allows them to continue thinking what they believe, without question. If those who shout the loudest in favor of a right to bear arms will not more actively help solve the problem of gun-related violence in this country I am forced to accept only one conclusion: they have chosen to accept the slaughter of innocent victims as an acceptable price in exchange for the false sense of freedom and liberty their belief provides.

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Last night I worked my first author event in eight years. It wasn’t a kidlit event, but it was public and there was a book for sale and I was suddenly reminded of something I have noticed in the past.

Less chatter = more sales.

This isn’t scientific, and my not ring true for name-brand authors, but I witnessed once again something I had seen many times over in the days before there were blogs and twitter and other social media, so I’m sharing.

I’ll make the numbers round so they’re easier to discuss. As the author began their talk and reading there were 50 people in the room. The author spoke for around 40 minutes and then took questions for over 50 minutes. As the Q&A wore on people slowly began to slip quietly out of the room. By the time the event was over there were 20 people left in the audience. Those who slipped out went to the nearest exit, as unobtrusive as possible, not wanting to create any noise or fuss… which included avoiding or barely glancing at the table with books for sale.

Bottom line: we sold 3 copies of the author’s book.

True, it may have been that everyone who wanted the book already bought it elsewhere, or that they decided the author’s presentation wasn’t all that great, but what is more commonly true is that you cannot sell books to an audience that isn’t there.

Here’s where I think many authors make a huge mistake: getting so caught up wanting to talk about their book or area of expertise that they do so at the expense of book sales.

Granted, it can be tough to set a limit of questions (or worse, open the floor to questions and not get any response) but time and again I’ve seen audiences leave the longer they were forced to sit and listen. It’s almost as if there is a point where the authorial magic is lost, where people feel like they’ve heard so much that they no longer need to purchase the book.

And so they don’t.

I have read (and seen) a similar principle with business meetings. Any meeting that is over 20 minutes long becomes a drag. People stop listening and cannot wait to leave. The experience is not positive, and honestly, the longer the meeting the more it taps into the those memories of boring school days. Conversely, regular meetings that are no longer than 15 to 20 minutes make people actually enjoy the meetings. They feel like their time is being respected and they’re more engaged in the process of give-and-take.

You wouldn’t waste a reader’s time on the page, so why do it in person?

Here’s what I think would make an ideal author event: After the introduction, five minutes of anecdote or something light-hearted, ten minutes TOPS of reading, and then ten minutes TOPS of public Q&A, with the promise of “I’d really rather talk one-to-one with you.” Then the author should plunk themselves down at a table and sign books for those buying and answer questions for those not buying. The author would still be devoting more time to talking to people but there’s a greater chance people will buy the book because it makes people feel more comfortable to make purchases when they see other people doing it. This is a proven fact of retail, that people will be more inclined to buy what everyone else is buying. Why do you think there’s such a thing as a bestseller’s list?

There will be times, of course, when sales aren’t the goal – a lecture at a symposium or a Skype visit to a school, for example, or giving a keynote address. But any author whose appearance provides the opportunity for sales would do well to take into consideration the simple fact that you cannot sell books to people who aren’t there, so you really need to think about doing everything you can to retain your audience.

So they’ll buy your book.

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I am someone for whom the internet was invented. My friends have told me so. It has to do with my generally insatiable curiosity and the ability to ferret out the bits of life’s ephemera, the stuff that amuses and illuminates and unifies our lives. I am a scholar in the loosest sense of the word but no less so than one with a formal doctorate. Of course, internet surfing – or “research” as it is sometimes derisively called in our house – has turned us all into masters of the ephemeral, but it also has become a giant time-suck as well. Such is the double-edged sword of knowledge.

On one of my ventures into the wilds of the internet I came upon a tumblr blog that did a daily upload of the scans made from the journals of artist Keith Haring. I could try to summarize Haring’s life, style, and his impact on the art world, but that’s what the internet is for, and others have already done that. I subscribed to Haring’s journal feed because the archive handling his journals were uploading pages chronologically from Haring was a teen and I was curious to see if there was a moment when you could see an artist emerge. I wanted to know because I have a back-burnered project to write about a teen artist coming into their own and I was hoping to limn some sense of what it looked like from within.

There was a lot of earnest trying-to-be-an-artist type entries, and while I recognized the truth in this from my own life – those early days when everything is so deep and so full of meaning, as if you were the first to have these thoughts – what I wanted was the moment when the trying became simply being. This, I knew, was what I wanted to capture, the narrative moments that rang true without all the sturm und drang attached. Sometimes capturing the truth means editing out the whole truth. Then this past week the beginnings of a new journal were posted and I felt like I’d found the emotional core of what I was looking for.


Haring had written this on the inside front cover, and it encapsulates not only the inculcation of a life deliberately set on understanding the process of creating, but it so underscores the experience of the reader and the writer and the event. Haring isn’t likely the first to articulate this idea but his youthful phrasing was what I was looking for, and his use of a box as a metaphor was exactly what I’d hoped to find. He elaborates on the first page of the journal proper


We experience “art” as a result of many factors outside of the actual “art” itself.

Are all of the factors part of the “art experience” itself?

Three years after Haring had written these words I was coming to a very similar understanding though through a different lens. I had encountered Koestler’s theory of bisociation at the same time that I discovered the Dadaist art movement and suddenly it was as if the creative world started making a whole lot more sense. But I didn’t keep a journal (foolish me) and it was stumbling onto Haring’s that helped me understand what I had been wrestling with in this shelved project.

But beyond my personal searching Haring underscores what makes books a distinct storytelling medium that has survived, and thrive, despite the development of television, movies, and other narrative distractions. Other media control the speed at which the story is told but the book allows for an individual, personal, and perfectly tailored experience. Naturally time can be controlled within all storytelling – it can be condensed, expanded, telescoped, and otherwise manipulated – the the experience of that time, that’s the ability to look inside the “box” and decide when it’s time to move along. When you look at a painting or a photo and are amassing the thousand or so words the picture paints you are composing the page that places that experience, that moment, in a box of memory. Likewise, reading a book allows the reader to take in the information at their own speed before defining the memory box in which it is kept.

So while casually looking for an attempt to capture the feel of a young artist making sense of the creative process I managed to find some comfort that working in the written word isn’t the pointless exercise it can sometimes feel like. Especially when the idea of finding an audience is still in a distant “someday,” a box full of time for another day.

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If you’re not scared, you’re doing it wrong.

It’s one of those clichés that shows up in movies as an unimpeachable truth, a type of suffering artists grok and continue to believe is necessary in order to create great art. Ray Bradbury’s own advice to writers is to make a bucket list of fears and write about them as a way of conquering them, and in his own work those fears, guilt, and anxieties he possessed all manifested themselves in great stories; his fear of flying was the source of his writing about ships heading into deep space!

In the kidlit game, writers are encouraged to mine the depths of their childhood anguish in order to render a realistic world for their young readers. This is what allows a 40- or 50- or 60-year-old to capture the imaginations of those just barely into their double-digits. The advice to writers is to put the reader into the main character’s head, then keep putting the main character into increased danger, and at the very last minute pull them to safety — the requisite “hopeful” if not happy ending.

A bit sadistic when you think about it.

The danger in a culture, a media, an entertainment that continually relies on fear, pain, and anxiety as its inspiration is that it diminishes the value of other emotions and experiences. It trains individuals to respond more and more (and ultimately only) to fear to the extent that our political discourse is almost entirely based on our reaction to manufactured dangers. The worst part of all this fear-conditioning is that as a society we have also been trained to expect someone to come to the rescue at the last minute and save us.

If our ancestors had that same expectation during the Great Depression we might never have recovered as a nation.

In children’s literature, more so in middle grade that YA books, there is a fervent cry for realistic stories with hopeful endings. The idea is to give kids something they can relate to and then let them know they can rise above whatever crisis or turmoil is at stake. The problem is that the world around them, around all of us, isn’t interested in making the hopeful happen. We aren’t interested in the same gas or food rationing that was the result of the last Depression because it wouldn’t produce the “right” kind of fear; the fear of imaginary assault on our protected freedoms as opposed to the real fear that would cause us to rise up against the banking, corporate, and political entities that do well by courting our collective fear.

While I certainly agree that the traumas of our past make great fodder for the stories we tel,l I think writers owe it to kids to tell them the truth, the whole truth, and without the sugar-coating of a false hope tacked on. Perhaps this is what makes realistic fiction difficult for all but the best writers, and why fantasy gluts the shelves, because when you control the world you can control the outcomes better. But writing about the fears or growing up, the pains of adolescence, the anxieties of the world requires endings equally bold. If you want young readers to remember what they have just read you need to leave them hanging with all the suspense that the world has to offer. When it comes to endings writers might do well to remember:

If you’re not scared, you’re doing it wrong.

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