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Posts Tagged ‘essay’

memento requiem

It’s early in the morning on the tenth anniversary of American tragedy known simply by its date, 9/11. In the days leading up to this anniversary it has been impossible to avoid all sorts of media about today. On radio and television news there have been stories and reflections, in blogs and internet forums, everywhere people are processing the occasion through the myriad lenses of humanity.

I’ve read articles about history textbooks that give the terrorist attack nothing more than a paragraph’s mention, and heard accounts from journalists about how people in other countries cheered as they watched repeated viewings of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center. I’ve heard college kids asking their professors who is winning the war on terrorism as if there was a pat and simple answer and I heard how radicalized Muslim young adults were taught in school that there were no civilians on the planes that we hijacked. I was even asked to answer a few superficial questions about my memories of that day for my Sophomore daughter’s homework assignment, dutifully asked and noted with the same measure of masked annoyance that she would have for any other homework assignment.

In the end i don’t feel I have anything to add to the general din because I still feel there are too many unanswered questions.

I look back at the way the United States behaved during times of war and don’t feel we have done enough or taken the situation as seriously as we should. We should be united, not politically rancorous. We should be sacrificing but stable, not un- or underemployed and economically divided. We should be smarter to the core, not hardened.

I will mourn the senseless loss of life that took place on this day ten years ago, but also all those lost since in the name of securing our peace and freedom.

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Sports writer (it figures) cum YA author Robert Lipsyte rattled the cages of the kidlit community this past weekend with his essay in the NYT Book Review essentially lobbing the teen boy reading problem back across the net into the “more boy books” camp. This naturally, almost assuredly, possibly deliberately, raised the hackles of those who feel that the problem isn’t books (don’t blame the books!) but in the way society raises the boys (we need to raise boys as feminists!). Here’s the one line that resonated with me out of the whole essay, the one most true, the one ring to bind them:

“We need more good works of realistic fiction, nonfiction, graphic novels, on- or ­offline, that invite boys to reflect on what kinds of men they want to become.”

Forget everything else Lipsyte said for a moment (especially if it bothered you) and think about everything this statement embraces.

First and foremost it recommends we need books. Define that how you will, I would love to hear someone argue the opposite side, that we don’t need books anymore.

Second, the modifier good is in there. We don’t just need more crap, we need quality, and again there’s a spectrum there.  Suffice to say we know good when we see it, what defines good isn’t at issue here.

Third, following the rule of threes, comes the type of good books that we need: realistic fiction, nonfiction, and graphic novels. Any naysayers out there? Anyone think we couldn’t use more quality nonfiction, solid realistic fiction, or good graphic novels? No? Let’s move on.

The next part is tricky: inviting boys. This gets tossed around and argued quite a bit, and it usually has to do either with cover designs or whether a girl is involved with the story. This is the “Ew, cooties!” argument, and the division is usually between “if it’s good, it shouldn’t matter” and “we need to teach boys to get over it.”  This is the point where I would think most pro-feminists would want to weigh in with just exactly how boys get to this stage of thinking. There’s an avalanche of advertising and marketing out there that is conditioning boys from a very early age to think of pink as a girly color and that stories featuring girls will contain content of no interest to them. There’s a ginormous world out there molding and shaping the ways boys approach their entertainment and free time, and you want to draw a line in the sand at books and dare boys to cross it? If we aren’t going to invite boys into books, if the stand is going to be pandering versus political, or if there’s just no desire to even bother, then how can we possibly imagine a world where boys even begin to come close to recognizing books as valuable?

Now comes the most interesting phrase out of the Lipsyte quote, to reflect. We don’t just want them to read for the sake of reading, we want them to find meaning and purpose in what they read, we want them to think. This is where I feel a lot more harm than good is done in the schools when there is a dramatic shift from reading for fun toward reading for meaning. I do think boys can and should be able to analyze texts and glean relevent meaning from a story, any story, but I don’t think books should be used to do this. This is where I get a little radical and run my post a little off a side track, but this is the crux of it:

Apply all the lessons taught about subtext and metaphor and literary devices via movies and television shows.

Why? Because we already know they spend more time with visual media than they do books. Because we need them to see that these lessons exist in the world outside the classroom. And because they will be better able to apply those lessons to books if we don’t remove them from the category of pleasurable pursuits. You can take any contemporary television sitcom and use it to teach racial and gender-based stereotypes for example – and there’s a LOT of examples out there, many of them hit shows, a lot of them negative – then have them read any work of fiction and they’ll spot them without effort. It doesn’t work the other way around however. Kids who are whipsmart at spotting literary devices in books view their favorite TV shows as somehow being separate or above all that.

Anyway, if we want our boy readers to be able to sincerely reflect on what they read in books we might have to actually teach them how to reflect somewhere else besides books first.

The last part of Lipsyte’s quote is a loaded gun: what kinds of men they want to become. You ask any boy what character from literature they would most like to be like, and what are the odds you’ll get a character from a fantasy novel, a hero with superpowers? Not very realistic. On the spot I can only think of one good example, and I don’t know that I’ve ever heard of a boy wanting to be like Atticus Finch. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard of a guy (outside of fellow writers) who said they wanted to be like any male, author or character, connected with books. There are great men to emulate in the world, politicians and athletes and movie stars, but these are all men of action who give no appearance of having read any books.

So if we want to invite boys to reflect on the type of men they want to become, and we want them to do it through good, realistic fiction, nonfiction, and graphic novels – and there’s nothing in that restatement I find objectionable – then we need more books that allow this to take place. This isn’t an argument of pandering versus bootstrap feminism, it’s about saying, simply, let’s put out more books like this and give them time to find an audience.

Boys and reading are like a teen driver and his broke-down truck by the side of the road. You can either give them a lift to the next town and help them one step further along the road to reading, or you slow down long enough to smirk at their choice of vehicle before driving off and leaving them in the choking dust.

We can argue all we want, but there are boys all over the literary map who need lifts into town.

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My friend L forwarded me a link to some movie back lots from our home town back in the day. That and another link to a video of Hollywood back in the 1940s and all I kept thinking was how much has changed, how fast things can change, and what this fascination is with tearing things down to make something new. It’s reasonable to expect a home to be built to last, for example, while businesses come and go as success, growth and other factors change the economic landscape. We have to believe in some level of change in order to accept progress.

Even while growing up in Los Angeles I came to hate how the landscape seemed to change before my eyes. Irrationally, the thing that bothers me most is the lost of many of the movie back lots. Imagine, fake buildings that weren’t meant to last longer than the shooting of a movie, repurposed into new backgrounds, new movie towns that would forever exist on film, to be upset that they should be torn down is absurd. Disposable buildings. I guess that’s what makes the movie back lot a perfect metaphor for Los Angeles, a town made by movies, constantly in a state of rebuilding its facades to suit to daily lives of its occupants. As if by tearing down this old restaurant and building a new strip mall somehow didn’t resemble obvious plastic surgery on the face of the city, as if the stretch marks didn’t show and everyone simply smiled and pretended the place looked so much younger as a result.

But is that the difference between a young, vain city like Los Angeles with its artificial tan and dyed hair compared with an old, well-aged city like Paris? Does it come down to the buildings, the sense of acknowledging its history with the grace of a face marked with the character of age lines framed by a stylish silver mane? Do we recognize the old cities from their buildings because of what they were as opposed to the new cities which distinguish themselves through the infinite potential of their youth?

If the attachment to buildings, to the permanence of place is to stake a claim to time and place and the collective history of a city, could not the same thing be said for the desire to publish a book? Do we not also define the architecture of our lives by these miniature monoliths that we erect and house in cities full of bookcases?

I know, I just a giant leap sideways. Mother, may I?

When an author writes and publishes a book are they not unlike the architect and contractor putting up a building? Some of these books are built to last, to stand the rigor of time and the tests of history. They may in time become classics or simply long-lived and well-read. Others are written to be consumed and forgotten, mere back lot facades that exist for the movie of the moment to be held as a memory in the mind of reader but over time pulped by the construction of new memories.

It occurs to me in all this thinking about facets versus facades that the world is essentially divided into two factions of thought, sometimes opposed to one another and other times working in harmony. The playwright sets down the words that are meant to be spoken, setting the scene and the tone, with the performers and director given some leeway in their interpretation, and in this way erects a very permanent building of his or her work. But the audience receives only the performance of the moment, words and images that fill the senses and are carried only as a memory. The artist makes the object to be viewed and builds a body of work that is both public and private, meant to be seen but not necessarily owned, and so we rent the memory of it for as long as we can. It isn’t important that the audience owns a play or a museum piece, only that they enjoy the performance or the viewing. The creators erect a building and its up to the audience and patrons to decide the long-term value.

What bothered me about Los Angeles growing up was this sense of being surrounded by consumers who valued nothing but the consumption of whatever was new. This was often called progress, or the price of progress, this constant change, but deep inside that notion rang hollow. That constant need for something new, for adopting the latest trends, the newest technology, the shiniest geegaw, it looked so much like addiction at times.

Balance is necessary. New and old, in the right proportion. Creator and audience in the right proportion. Book and readership in the right proportion. When it’s all new, all creators, all books, all facade and nothing behind them then all that’s left is Los Angeles.

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So work on the Critical Thesis for school is plodding along.  Today I got my first dump of articles I requested from the library and began to sort through to figure out what’s useful.  I’m in this odd state where I’ve got some ideas about what to say but not really how to put it.  At the same time I’ve got all this information that I’m thinking would work well if I could find a way to force them into the text.

This is where I’m trying to force slivers of truth into my thesis.  Suze thinks I’m doing this backward, or wrong, but I’m not really sure what I’m doing.  I mean, I know what I want to say, but not how to say it, and as I’m finding a chunk here and a nugget there I’m finding it doesn’t really fit like the jigsaw puzzle I imagined.

In talking with my classmates its become clear that we are either doing the impossible or need to reinvision the end product.  The average for most of us to come up with a first, rough draft is three weeks.

Three weeks.  For a critical thesis.

With most of us still waiting for books or articles and other secondary sources, or reading books frantically instead of giving them the close reading they deserve, this idea of a draft of anything coherent is simply impossible.  Fortunately none of us believe its impossible and we’re setting out to prove it.

Some are writing sections of their drafts with notes to themselves to drop in documentation when they find it (if they find it!), while others are still gathering the raw data.  I tried dictating some and transcribing it, and that seemed to work to get some rough ideas down, but I’m still worried I won’t have the time to do it all this way — a bit to leisurely — and I’m going to have to work a lot faster.

Just to really show how disorganized I am, I’ve also got a journal going that has a list of running questions.  Anything that I think can be asked or challenged, I phrase as a question with the idea of going back and making sure I cover every base.  What do I mean when I say a picture book?  How does a picture book biography differ from other picture books?  From other children’s biographies? And so on.  It’s a little like an assignment I had when I was credentialing to be a teacher.  We were charged to write an entire essay on our subject area — in my case, teaching art history — using only questions.  Each question had to lead to the next, or suggest the answer to a previous question, and it had to make sense in the end.  It was a lesson in the Socratic method, getting us to think about how we would organize and phrase our thoughts to lead students to draw the conclusions we wanted them to.  It was a great exercise, but it was only four pages, and it didn’t require footnotes and MLA style.

What am I trying to say in this thesis of mine?

Why is it important?

Is it possible I’ve bitten off more than I can chew, or can barely understand within the aloted time?

If I was worried about page count that went out the window when I began makin notes on the individual titles and found them coming in at around two or three pages per book.  Given that I’ll probably expand some of these ideas, at eight books, I’m not going to have any problems meeting my minimum 20 pages (though my advisor keeps saying things like 30 pages, which scares me because I think she might be right).

So I’m up late worrying about things because I can’t sleep and I can’t focus.  I’m looking at the weather and praying there’s no snow days this week because, much as I love the girls, I need these full days I have withou distraction to knock this thing out.  I need to have an outline and some structured ideas by the end of this week.  I need to write solidly all next week.  I need to edit and slot and jigger and slam and wobble this thing into some sort of shape.

Because all of a sudden I can hear my middle grade novel calling me.  Loudly.  It’s saying Hey!  I think we’ve got a new angle!  Present tense! And that sounds more intriguing to me than anything else right now.  Of course, the whole time I was playing with the boys in my middle grade novel there were ideas about the thesis trying to catch my eye.

Figures.

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essay on the fly

So earlier this week I began working on the essay I had wanted to work on since residency.  I mean, I was all fired up over this thing.  It was about the intersection of montage theory in film and elison in graphic novel panels and how it applies to writing and…

Okay, so when I got back from rez and found the book I discovered that I remembered it sort of wrong.  There was the example of building scene details and guiding the reader/viewer, and that was still good and usable, but it wasn’t all I thought it was.  Okay, so my memory was 18 years stale and there’s a lot I’ve probably fogotten since then.  So sue me.

But, hey, I can work with this.  I can talk about recombining the narrative and the rule of three in building details and all that.  But it wasn’t coming easy so I set it aside to work on my second essay. That took me three days to wrangle, but I’m at a point where I feel I can make my points.  All I need to do now is edit it down.  I always overwrite these damn things.  I can make these ten pages into a solid seven.  Six on a good day.

Today was not a good day.  Nothing to do with that second essay, oh no, today I decided to go back to the first essay and start tightening up those quotes and…

Damn!  Where’s the book?

Yup, since I last had that book in my hand I’ve been able to unload four dozen boxes of books into our new shelving system.  The shelves look great, and all the kidlit is going to be in one place and organized by genre/age groups and…

Where’s that book!

It’s okay.  It’s okay.  It’s okay.  I can do this.  I’ve done this before.  My entire creative life has been about adapting.  There was that film, my senior project, where we ran out of film with only 40% of the script shot.  I worked around it.  That time I made a giant bee for a theatre marquee using Fed-Ex mailing tubes, papier mache, and chicken wire.  Yeah, that worked.  That end-o-year wrap-up show for the film review program where I couldn’t transfer the mix and wound up editing eight hours of tape with a raxor blade over the course of three straight days.  Uh huh.

I’m going to have to write a different essay.  I’m going to have to dip into the well and pull something else out of nowhere.  I can do this.  Three days?  No sweat.

I’m good.

Really.

Just.

Seriously.

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Bookshelves of Doom pointed me in this direction.  Must have been in last Sunday’s NYT, because I hadn’t gotten to it yet.  Gore Vidal, his fiction never really caught me but I often enjoyed his essays and social commentary.  I might not have always agreed with him but I certainly enjoyed his style.

Read the interview.

What I love, he flat out knows he doesn’t have much time left on this planet and feels no need to be indirect.  In my salad days I dreamt of a world where people spoke what they felt, without rancor or remorse.  I think it would sound something like this.

Also, am I the only one sick of reading these short Q&A’s with people obviously written by junior staff or people who feel they are getting “great interview” by prodding or being outlandish?  The tete a tete doesn’t always have to be confrontational to be informative or entertaining… or can’t these cub reporters get the lions to roar without poking them with a stick?

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As I mentioned, when I was originally putting my application package together I had finished the spit and polish on my critical essay and went back to check and make sure I didn’t screw up the page length requirement. It seems a small thing, but I really didn’t want to look like a dingledork chowdermonkey: I got the page count right but the focus of the essay was all wrong, wrong wrong.

See I was supposed to talk about a book in relation to the craft of writing, an analysis piece that showed I knew how to pick the meat from the bones and examine the undercarriage. Under the gun with only four days before I had to send off my application materials I decided against rewriting the essay I’d just finished and took the college at its word when they said I could submit something previously written.

And that meant finding something suitable.

A cruise through the archives of the excelsior file dragged me back to a review I’d done for a YA title called Joker. I liked something about the tone of the piece, and that it allowed for a direct comparison with that fluffy playwright Bill Shakes, so with my nose to the whetstone I hacked it to bits and made it fit Cinderella’s slipper.

Herewith is the souped-up final draft.

A Portrait of the Dane as a Young Adult Character
Joker
by Ranulfo, HarperCollins 2006

Shakespeare’s Hamlet contains all the elements necessary for great Young Adult fiction. There’s a remarried mother, a devoted-yet-tragic girl, a sadistically vengeful boy, the haunting of the dead, meddling friends and families, in-jokes and meta-drama, double-crosses and, yes, even multiple murders both accidental and premeditated. Perhaps murder isn’t a necessary element for Young Adult fiction when a good suicide will do (and Hamlet also has one of those) though it does add an extra jolt of drama.

But at it’s core Hamlet is the tragedy of an individual driven to self-destruction. Hamlet’s father is dead, murdered we later learn (from his father’s ghost) by his brother, Hamlet’s mother remarries said brother, and the young prince is urged onto a mission of revenge against all parties. Hamlet plays at madness as part of his vengeful scheme and though it pains him on some fronts to take down innocents along the way, the collateral damage is a necessary part of his single-minded determination. Hamlet correctly draws out the guilt of all parties, the bodies pile up, and he pays for all this righteousness with his own life.

No such luck here with Ranulfo’s Joker, and if that counts as a plot spoiler then it should also serve as a warning that the book isn’t so much the self-proclaimed adaptation of Hamlet as it is a relatively bloodless variation on a loosely-based theme.

It’s safe to say that wearing the skin of a bear does not make the person a bear, nor does wearing a necklace of sharks teeth give the bearer the bite or the ferocity of a killer. Assuming the audience isn’t familiar with the original it follows that fashioning a costume of modern dress over the amateurishly assembled fossil remains of Shakespeare does not necessarily guarantee a fully engaging tale of teen angst or feigned madness. To a modern audience familiar with the source material it seems fair to expect an updated version would provide new insights and relevance, otherwise why retell the story? The exercise then becomes one of appropriation with little to show for itself.

Particulars appear to be rearranged for our modern age. We teach school children the blood and guts of the original Hamlet but it appears we could never tell the same story in a modern setting for fear of appearing gratuitously violent or histrionic. Ranulfo opens with Matt – our modern Hamlet – reeling from his parents divorce. No, his father is not dead, just drunk and broken from having been fool enough to let this cypher of a Gertrude slip away from him. The interloper in this case isn’t even a relative but some smooth-talker from the sales department at dad’s company. The dead party is Matt’s best friend Ray who died off-stage in an arson fire set at a youth hostel. Matt may be feeling some guilt over this because it was a holiday trip he backed out of, but his feelings are a bit muddied here. Already, by splitting up the death-and-remarriage, and by making that death a random act on another character rather than a closely personal loss integral to the plot, Ranulfo has drained the original story of it’s potency and emotional center.

In an attempt to compensate Ranulfo has created the character of Joker to bring out Matt’s inner demons, an evil trickster of a free spirit who, if removed entirely from the book, changes nothing. Serving as occasional alter ego, the book’s title character does little to convince us of Matt’s madness, internal suffering, or of providing Matt much in the way of guidance. At best Joker seems a literary contrivance aimed at convincing readers of some dark, sinister force at work behind the scenes.

Ophelia – Leah here – is as much the clinging girlfriend as she is in Hamlet. There’s a lost opportunity in this where Ranulfo might have shown us the greater reason for her devotion, or better mirrored what Hamlet/Matt was once like before the great tragedy came. There’s a fine line between undeveloped and under-developed being trod here, neither being a great position to take.

And it continues. Hamlet’s journey abroad with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern becomes a mere blip of self-exile at a trailer parked along the beach, with the messenger’s bloodshed replaced by their dropping out of society to join the circus. The play-within-a-play is translated as Matt’s attempt at social commentary through artistic expression — an abusive retelling of the musical South Pacific — and not the thing wherein he captures the conscience of the step-dad from sales, much less a king. Finally, where emotions should be driving everyone mad and bodies should be piling up, Ranulfo has Matt running away to the big city for an encounter with anti-World Trade Organization protesters that leaves him feeling like he needs to return home.

But home to what? On the bus ride home Matt dreams all his possible futures (well, a handful at least, and only the most extreme versions), back to Leah, to his senses, and mostly to the conclusion that love triumphs over anger and vengeance any day.

That makes for a tidy little ending, almost trite, and with so much source material to work with therein lies the tragedy.

When she read it my Suze thought I spent a little too much time talking about the original Hamlet, but I maintained (and still do) that this great tragedy, properly handled, could yield an amazing YA novel. I’m not saying I’m the one to do it, but I think it’s out there.

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