Friday, February 27, 2009
In the grocery store: "Mommy, why is that lady so fat? You told us not to eat too much or we'd get fat. How come nobody told her?"
On the street: "Mommy, is that guy with the beard and sandals a HIPPIE? Is he a hippie, Mommy, is he? Is he Jesus? Is that what Jesus would look like if he came back? Would Jesus be a hippie if he came back?"
In front of her friends: "Happy Birthday, Mrs. B. How old are you?"
"I really thought fifty, but I wanted to make you feel good."
You can see where Frances gets her funny-isms from.
So tact was my word. "Couth" was my sister's word, usually when she put her mouth around a two-liter bottle of soda. But I live with tact, still trying, still applying it. Not always succeeding.
My third grader is feeling the effects of children who may not have heard the good word. A school chum said recently, "I'm (blank)er than you." You can fill in the blank with any description, it doesn't matter. I'm smarter than you...I'm faster than you...I'm prettier than you...I'm BETTER than you. And the child is not a mean spirited one, maybe only shortsighted.
Tact. Yes. That would help. But, even better, an understanding of SUBTEXT. I'm prettier than you = You're not pretty. Opening the window to You're ugly. Kicking down the door to labeling, name calling, harassment, alienation: You're a hideous deformed pile of cow innards!
First grade, a little girl, dark hair, big eyes, blue dress---we played Dawn Dolls together. One day she held her arm up next to mine and said, "You're too fat. You should be skinny like me." Where was my big tactless mouth that day? Instead the outside world intruded. I looked around the room and COMPARED myself to others. I was indeed in the top two or three "fattest" girls. And every year after, every classroom, I evaluated and ranked myself accordingly. And by the time I was Grace's age, I barely spoke in school...or outside the house at all.
What is the age of compassion? Never-years old?
Friday, February 20, 2009
Here's the background: I didn't like riding with anybody in carpools as a kid. I thought it would be ok with our neighbor but...we join the story already in progress:
Next field trip, off I go in Aunt George’s station wagon with her two sons, Robbie, two years older, by the window, and Jerrold, my age, in the middle. Their car is shiny clean inside. Though it does smell kinda like floor wax, I decide to overlook it for the time being.
“Now everyone is going to sit, facing forward, with hands in their laps!” Aunt George’s voice strains.
I try not to giggle. I know she’s serious. I’ve seen Robbie and Jerrold go at it: pounding each other, shrieking and crying, their socks falling down...it is bad. I sense each is itching to reach across the bench seat toward his brother.
“And don’t even look at each other!” Aunt George adds.
So, I focus on sitting, minding my own business, trying to keep my hands still and my eyes forward on Aunt George’s hair, trying to ignore weird smells...when I notice Jerrold laughing and pushing his face toward me.
I try not to look, but he won’t quit it. Now Robbie’s laughing too, just quietly enough that their mother hasn’t noticed. Finally, I peek.
Jerrold has a long long long yellow tube of snot...like a Slinky...and it’s bouncing!
He shakes it toward me.
“Do not scream in a moving vehicle, young lady. You’ll distract the driver. I could drive right off the road!”
“Sorry,” I turn away completely, covering my eyes. How can I hide? How can I get away? I inch closer to the door.
Surely the booger snake has fallen off by now, or smeared across his face, or...or...oh the thought...maybe he’s snuffed it back up into his head.
I peek again.
He’s laughing. He swings it toward me.
I scream again and wedge myself between the edge of the seat and the door.
“We don’t touch the door in this car, young lady. You could fall out and then what would your mother say? Move away from the door...I’ll pull over if I have to.”
I scooch back a bit, still covering my face with my hands, and shaking my head.
“It’s Jerrold. Look at him, look at him, look at him!” I say.
“His brains are coming out his nose,” Robbie says and punches Jerrold for emphasis.
The brothers are immediately in a heap of flailing and kicking, furious cat sounds coming out of them. Jerrold’s bouncing booger is smeared across Robbie’s NY Jets jacket and I am free. Oh, the relief! But I’m still trembling inside. I can’t look at any of them for the rest of the day.
So, then I said, “Never again! With anybody! Ever!”
My mother sighed, “Ok, I’ll drive you to things. But other kids will come in the car with us—it is a carpool.”
“All right,” Relieved, I jumped into her lap for a long cuddle. “Oh, and Mom, when you tell Aunt George, can you say it in a way that won’t hurt her feelings. It’s not her fault.”
“I think I can try,” Mom pushed my head back down on her shoulder a little hastily I noticed, but still, she understood me. And that’s why I could never ride with anybody else’s mom ever again.
What my mom couldn’t fix though, was my fear of being around Jerrold. He had allergies—that booger episode could be repeated at any time! It was hard work playing with him everyday without looking at him, or getting too close.
What cured me was this: I dreamed I saw Jerrold in his kitchen making one of his smelly peanut butter sandwiches---super sweet and overly oily---cut on the diagonal, just to annoy me. Chewing with his mouth open...because he supposedly can’t breathe, or whatever. But what struck me were two fat long long long yellow banana-curl pigtails bouncing on either side of his head. Like Slinkies. Like booger hair. And I laughed so hard that I woke myself up. Thank goodness! And I wasn’t afraid of him anymore.**Names have been changed to protect the writer.**
Friday, February 13, 2009
Thursday, February 12, 2009
So, are you comfortable with the word narrative? Let's say you're taking a class on Civil Rights and you are forced to memorize names and dates and bills and meetings and conventions and timelines...are you overwhelmed? Tuning out? Snoring? But then the sun breaks through the clouds: somebody gives you a first-person account of a sit in.
We were sitting there peacefully, the way we'd been taught, and the cops came with clubs and tear gas and hoses. Some folks ran and trampled each other, others lost their cool and threw rocks, but I just sat there until they dragged me away, arms folded, legs crossed, like I was taking a nap.Suddenly you're transported. You can see and feel and hear. The people become real and you care about what happens to them. That's why narratives are such an important part of history classes.
You get the idea that you're telling a story with the intention of letting readers look through your eyes for a while, you're plopping them down right in the middle of your life. You want to give them a satisfying experience. Beginning, middle and end; escalating tension; a resolution that is worth the trouble. But how do I know what to say? Which words? Which sentences? I've got a lot of pages to fill before I get to that resolution! Don't panic; I'm here to help.
Years ago I read a guide for romance writers and I apply the best advice from it to kids lit (and why not all writing?): introduce your main character on page 1 (and your romantic hero not long after, by page 3) and introduce your problem no later than page 3. Simple, direct. I come from the school of thought that concise writing is the ideal, and from the Plain English movement. Works great when writing for young readers, or increasingly impatient adult readers---years of tech writing were not wasted. You might come from a different school of thought, but you will never go wrong taking the first possible opportunity to connect with your readers. Draw them in. Engage them. Memoir, same deal: you are the main character, set up your major arc quickly.
Now what? Tell your story. You want a blend of description, action and dialog...what I like to call DAD. Get them into balance.
- No big chunks of description. (Some people skip them, not mentioning any names, you know who you are!) Thread it through the action and dialog.
- Show the story through action. Show; don't tell.
- Dialog on every page. If you write long hand, fold your paper into thirds and aim for dialog in every panel. (You could do the same with lines on the electronic page.)
Last thought for today, my favorite advice, try your hand at screenwriting. Even if you don't want to write screenplays. Why? Screenplays are almost exclusively action and dialog, teeny tiny description is mostly setting (so DAD becomes SAD). This exercise makes your writing stronger and more visual (showing). For example, you would have written: "It is very very very cold." But now you're writing it as if it were a movie and the audience can only see and hear. They can't feel cold. They can't smell stuff. They have to experience it through the characters. Now: "Charlie pulls up his collar and blows on his hands. His breath is a white cloud. 'Why'd I let them move me up to the home office in Winnipeg...freezing-a** cold!'" Something like that. You'll do it better.