Sunday, June 21, 2015

On Slowly and Quietly Standing Up

A few months ago I heard the novelist Colum McCann speak at a luncheon. Colum McCann is the author of nine books, including Let the Great World Spin, which won the National Book Award in 2009. I hadn't read any of his books. The truth is I had never heard of Colum McCann. I only went to the luncheon because a writer friend had invited me.

As soon as Colum McCann began to speak, I rustled around in my purse as quietly as I could to find a pen and my little notebook. I had a feeling that I might want to remember what the guy was saying.

Stories are important, he said in his lovely Irish accent. We each have stories to tell, stories only we can tell. It's important--as human beings--that we do this.

I nodded in agreement, but I didn't write it down. I knew it already. If I believe in anything, I believe in this.

He went on to to talk about how scientists have done studies. They've looked at our brains when we tell stories, when we write stories. Apparently, our brains light up. Something powerful is going on. What's fascinating, though, is that the same kind of lighting up of the brain happens to the listeners of stories.

When we hear another person's story, we experience it too. We feel what he feels. We step into her shoes if only for a moment.

"You can't hate someone when you know their story," Colum McCann said.

He called on the audience to practice radical empathy--truly listen to what other people are saying-- even people who seem to us to be close-minded, people who are unwilling to consider other points of views. It may be hard, but we must listen and listen and listen until the other person is storied out.

Only then can we begin to bridge whatever gaps we have between us.

I don't know if this is true. Some days the gaps between people seem unbridgeable to me.

I do what a lot of people I know do: I feel immense outrage and horror and sadness. I rant and rave to anyone who will listen. Or I mock everything.

How stupid people are. How crazy. How ridiculous.

I turn off the news when it gets to be too much. I immerse myself in a seemingly endless array of entertainment options--anything to forget how lucky and privileged I am. Because if I don't think about it-- I don't have to do anything about it.

But not very deep down I know that I am one of the carriage riders in Les Miserables, flying past suffering and abject poverty. I am a laughing clapping audience member sitting in the front row of the Hunger Games. 

The other day my little notebook fell out of my purse.

I flipped through the pages and found the notes I took when I listened to Colum McCann.

Think of others. Listen to others.

And then what, Colum McCann?

Friday, June 19, 2015

On Standing By

I go through a weird depressing manic cycle. Maybe you are familiar with it too.

A horrible shit thing happens. You see it or read about it on the news. Five sleeping and sometimes not sleeping girls are molested multiple times by their brother. A teenager at a pool party is grabbed by her hair and thrown to the ground. Nine people are killed at a bible study.

I feel horror and outrage and disgust. I torture myself by reading the idiotic and vapid responses, the inevitable framing of the horrible shit thing along party lines.

I feel sad and helpless and powerless that shit things like this happen in my country and at the same time I feel incredibly blessed and lucky and privileged that shit things like this are not happening to me or my family members.

I go back to my writing or digging holes in my garden or reading books or watching silly movies and TV shows until the next shit thing happens.

And the cycle begins again.

Recently, for a research project, I came across a horrifying picture online. It's an old picture, something tucked safely into the past, but still terrible to stumble upon. It's a black man hanging from a tree and crowd of white people standing around him. I feel a visceral revulsion when I see a picture like this. I am sick at the sight of the person who has been murdered. But I am also sick at the sight of the onlookers.

I used to pat myself on the back when I saw pictures like this. First, because I would tell myself those kinds of things don't happen anymore. This particular picture was taken in 1935. Some of the people there turned the picture into a postcard. This would never happen today, I tell myself.

If I lived in 1935-- if I lived in the town where that lynching took place-- (Fort Lauderdale, Florida) I can tell you without a shadow of doubt, that I would not have been one of the people in the crowd. I would not have been in the mob that tracked the man down (his name was Reuben Stacy and he was 37 years old and he was accused of assaulting a white woman but he didn't live near where she did and he had an alibi, but no matter.) I would not have been smiling in the crowd or clamoring for postcards.

I know what I would have done if I lived in Fort Lauderdale, Florida on July 19, 1935. I would have been sitting in my house. Maybe I would've been listening to the radio or reading a book or cooking a meal or cleaning up dishes. I wouldn't have known what was going on. Or maybe I would've known and felt disgust and horror and outrage, but it was happening somewhere else in my town and so, did not involve me or anyone I knew in any way.

Maybe I would've read about Reuben Stacy's murder in the paper the next day or heard about it from someone else. I would've felt sad and helpless and powerless.

And then I would've gone back to listening to the radio or reading a book or digging a hole in my garden.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Wine and Trees: Interview with Scott Zanon

A few weeks ago I was milling around at the annual Ohioana Book Festival in downtown Columbus and ran into one of my neighbors, Scott Zanon. I've known Scott for eight years, but only in the sense that we live on the same street and I am in a neighborhood Bunco group with his wife. 

I had no idea that Scott is a writer and so I was surprised to find him signing at the festival, and I practically keeled over in a serendipitous swoon when I saw the topic. TREES. I happen to be writing a book about a dryads, and fun fact: dryads are connected to trees. For months I've been doing tree research and all along, there was Scott, a few houses down from me, a freaking tree expert! 

We got to talking--mostly this was ME, asking him stuff about trees and probably sounding like a complete loon--and then the conversation turned to wine. Fun fact number two: I like wine. Scott, my mild-mannered neighbor, is a writer AND A WINEMAKER. 

So after the festival, I bought a bottle of Scott's wine and we sat down in the virtual sense and chatted.
(Scott Zanon. credit: The Columbus Dispatch

Jody: (drinking Scott's wine) Okay. This is good. First, I've got to know: how did you become a wine-maker?

Scott: I previously had spent sixteen years in the wine industry from both the retail and wholesale side. Zinfandel has always been one of my favorite grape varietals and over the past ten years the style of this wine has changed. Most of them available on the market are high alcohol, jammy, fruit-bombs that do NOT go with food. So I decided that I would create my own Zinfandel in the style that I grew to love in the 90’s, one that is lower alcohol, medium-bodied, with slight nuances of pepper, oak, and acid. It smells and tastes like the grape. It is the way Zinfandel should taste.

Jody: (drinking more of Scott's wine) This is really good. Admitting here that I know absolutely nothing about wine-making--I'm picturing the old I Love Lucy show with Lucy stomping around in a barrel of grapes-- but how does an Ohio guy end up making a California Zinfandel?

Scott: I've been long-time friends with a third generation Italian family who have been growing grapes and making wine since 1927. I went to them and asked if they would sell me enough wine to make 400-500 cases a year in Ohio only. So I flew out to California and we struck a deal. I go out to the beautiful Sonoma County twice a year for harvest in October and to blend in April. They give me estate grown and bottled wine and I blend my style.

Jody: And you set up some kind of distribution here in Ohio?

Scott: Right. I had to get a wine distributor in this area who buys, stores, distributes and sells the wine. When you are as small as Zanon Zinfandel is, it's difficult to get placements. But once folks try ZZ, it becomes much easier. I do as many tastings as possible.

Jody: It seems like it's working out for you. I was at the local supermarket the other day and saw a huge display. I was so excited. I know him I kept saying to everyone who walked by. So you're doing well...

Scott: Yes, but I'm really doing this for the fun and certainly not for the narrow profits it generates. Introducing a style of wine to folks is satisfying as well as having one’s name on the label. Of course that also brings high expectations, but I would never bring an inferior product to market. I am most proud that the label states Zanon Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley. This region is truly the best are in the world to grow Zinfandel.

Jody: Totally switching topics on you, but how did your tree book come to be?

Scott: Landscaping with Trees in the Midwest is actually my second book and was published in 2014 by Ohio University Press. My first book Desirable Trees for the Midwest was self-published in 2009. I could write a book on the self-publishing process!

I was Chair of the Green Committee at the Ohio State Golf Club for ten years and in 2003/04 the vaunted Scarlet Golf Course underwent a much needed and large restoration. I was appointed Chair of the Scarlet Restoration Committee and we removed many trees from the golf course to allow sunlight and air circulation. We started to discuss what trees to re-plant into some areas and there was nothing out there to help or guide us through the process. That is where the seed was germinated for the books.

In my latest book I describe sixty-five desirable tree varieties, their characteristics, and their uses. There are more than 325 color photographs--

Jody: Those photos are stunning, by the way. Did you take them?

Scott: Thanks. I did take most them. I wanted to illustrate the appearance of each species through the seasons – including height, shape, bark, flowers, and fall colors – as well as other factors that influence selection and siting.

Jody: Would this be a resource more for a professional landscaper to use?

Scott: Professional landscapers would definitely find it helpful. The book includes a table of growth rates and sizes, a map of hardiness zones, and plant usage guides by categories. I also touch on underused species of woody plants that are overlooked in the industry and discuss areas of concern for landscapers, such as the Emerald Ash Borer.

But gardeners at all levels of expertise have found the book to be a useful visual reference--something that helps them make informed choices when landscaping.

Jody: Nothing in there about dryads, though.

Scott: Ha. No. But I am working on developing a picture book. I've teamed up with an illustrator and we're in the process of searching for a publisher.

Jody: Well, best of luck to you! Thanks so much, Scott, for talking with me today and sharing this bottle of wine.

Scott: Thank you!

*Clink clink*


For more information on Scott Zanon's wine... or trees, see below.
Landscaping with Trees in the Midwest

Monday, May 25, 2015

When a Writer's Not Writing

When writers talk about the act of writing, they tend to speak metaphorically.

Writing a book is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.-- E.L. Doctorow

To write, you sit down at a typewriter and bleed. --Ernest Hemingway

Stephen King talks about diving into a dark pool or digging up fossils.

Maybe we speak metaphorically about writing because the literal description is so boring. Basically, writing a book involves parking your ass down and picking up a pen or typing on a keyboard until you finish writing it. Sometimes this take months.

Sometimes it takes years.

You are alone. Or you are surrounded by people in a coffee shop, but after awhile you forget those people. You type the letters right the hell off your keyboard.

(Goodbye A, S, and E) (the N and L are gone too)
Some days you forget to wash your hair or change your clothes. Your fingers get cramped. Your back aches. Your eyes burn. You drink a lot of cold coffee. You babble like an idiot to your family about plot holes and snippets of dialogue. 

Or you grunt at them. 

I'm kinda manic when I shut down for the day. I walk out of my office in a daze as if I have been holed up in a cave. There I go speaking metaphorically. 

It does feel like emerging from a cave when you finish writing a book. 

I stumble out into the sunlight, blinking my eyes. Huh. It's spring. Who knew? 

I don't know what to do with myself. 

Cleaning is usually number one on the agenda. When you spend nine or ten months writing a book, you tend to let household chores go. Now it's time to sweep up the dust tumbleweeds in the living room and tackle the science experiments brewing in the bathrooms. 

Do the laundry 

Plant seeds

I always think I should celebrate. Throw a party. Or at the very least, flop out in the hammock and read a book. Instead, I assign myself projects like Paint the Office or Create a Rock Garden. 

I'm not sure exactly why I do this. 

Yesterday I sat in my garden all day pulling up weeds and scattering mulch. There was something very zen-like about it. 

I was not thinking about the book I had just finished, the book that had pretty much consumed me for months. I wasn't thinking about how this possible mess of a Thing is now in the hands of my trusted first readers, how what they say about this Thing will determine how I spend the next few months. I wasn't thinking about publication or the fact that the last book I finished is still bouncing around with editors or more likely, sitting in editorial inboxes, untouched and unread. I wasn't thinking about why I Do This when there is no guarantee that anything I write will show up on a library or bookstore shelf ever again. I wasn't think about next books or speaking engagements or book signings or book festivals or teaching writing workshops. 

Instead I was squatting in dirt chasing the shade around my garden. I had mud under my fingernails and bugs crawling in my hair. 

My mind was blissfully empty and I didn't even realize what I'd accomplished until I stood up and stumbled out of the garden and looked. 

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The End (ish)

I wrote a ton of stories when I was growing up.

Age 8, 9, 10-- nearly all of my stories were about broken people. Literally broken. With broken limbs or incurable diseases. The typical story-line: a crippled child saves a friend by miraculously recovering the ability to walk. Those were the happy ending stories.

In the ones with the sad endings, the kid dies while saving the friend.

I guess it goes without saying that I was a weird kid.

The book I have been writing and rewriting over and over again for the past thirteen years was "finished" multiple times. There are various permutations of the end but none of them ever felt quite right. It bugged the hell out of me and I couldn't figure out what to do.

When I go on school visits or talk on author panels, the question inevitably comes up: Where do you get your ideas?

I usually answer by talking about the Two Sticks Theory. I think Sid Fleischman said this: It takes two sticks to build a fire and two ideas to make a story--two seemingly unrelated ideas come together and spark the book.

My multiply-written book, regardless of all of the variations and permutations it's had, has always begun with the same two sticks.

Stick one:

A Greek myth about a man who decides to chop down a massive beautiful oak tree even though a dryad resides in it. [Side note: Dryads are nature spirits connected to trees. The belief is that if you destroy a tree that has a dryad attached to it, you kill the dryad too.] The man ignores the screams and the pleas of the dryad and chops down the tree.

Stick number two:

When I was eleven years old I went to camp for a week and when I got home I found that the tree in my backyard, the one I loved to climb, had been cut down. My mother didn't like the tree because the roots were messing up the yard so she had my stepfather take care of it.

When you write a book, you don't always know what you are writing. Sure, you might have your two sticks, your outline. A plan. But stories have a funny way of morphing into something else as you write them. They veer into places you didn't intend to go, places you may not want to go. Ever.

People talk about the difficulty of writing, and what they usually mean is the time spent. Hours of working on your computer, banging out draft after draft. Self-discipline. That part is all true.  But that is not what makes writing difficult. At least for me.

Last January I went to visit my critique partner at Hamline University. Hamline offers an MFA in Children's Literature and my friend is finishing up her coursework there. I went to hear her present her critical thesis, but I also sat in on a few lectures.

The one that pretty much slayed me was given by Jane Resh Thomas. Jane is a writer and teacher. She's the mentor of people like Kate DiCamillo and Gary Schmidt and she is one of the most amazing speakers I have ever had the privilege to hear.

When I sat in on Jane's lecture, I was in the midst of struggling with my revision. There I was AGAIN reworking this story, which for whatever reason I could not let go of and could not get right. And there was Jane, speaking in this booming voice:




When you write a story, Jane said, you are not the same person you were when you come to the end of it.

All of us who write for children have a locked trunk in our attics, a box where we hide all of the secrets from our childhood, the things that hurt us, the things that were too difficult to handle when we were children... BUT WE ARE NO LONGER CHILDREN. 

It's time to go up into your attic and unlock the trunk. 

The heart of your story is like a hot stove. We don't want to touch it, but to do the story justice, we must. 

We have to sit on the hot stove and cook. 

I came home from Minnesota and started the book again. I wrote every day for seven days a week. Every day I climbed up into the attic. Every day I parked myself on the hot stove.

In the midst of all of that, I purged my house. I literally cleaned out every closet and drawer. The Goodwill guy threatened not to take another carload of my stuff.

There was a certain point--maybe back in March?-- when I realized that I didn't care about publication anymore or even if another person ever read this damn book. The only goal was to come out on the other side of it without suffering from third degree burns.

I finished a couple of days ago.

I am happy to report that I don't have permanent skin damage. But I am sorta wandering around my purged house like a stranger. Apparently, I have different furniture. New pictures on the walls. New drapery.

Jane Resh Thomas was right.

I am not the same person I was when I started this book. I'm not exactly sure who I am. The story, it turns out, is about broken people who have to figure out how to save themselves-- or die trying.

Who knew?

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Never Begin a Novel with Weather -- Guest Post by Jennifer Salvato Doktorski (THE SUMMER AFTER YOU AND ME Blog Tour and Giveaway)

I am so excited to be a stop on Jennifer Salvato Doktorski's Blog Tour, celebrating the release of her latest novel THE SUMMER AFTER YOU AND ME. This is a great read. Beachy romance--with a twist: the action take place at the Jersey shore the summer after Hurricane Sandy upended the lives of the main characters, a girl who is a permanent resident of the area and a boy who visits only during the summer.

I loved the romance, of course, but was curious about the hurricane aspect. The storm and the devastation almost feel like a third character in the book, so when Jen asked me what I'd like her to blog about, I said, how about the weather?

Here's Jen:

Never begin a novel with weather. It’s one of those generally accepted taboos that most writers come across at some point or another. I’m not sure if Elmore Leonard was the first to say it, but it is number one on his ten rules for writing fiction. Irrespective of its origins, the point is “It was a dark and stormy night” = bad story opener.

But that doesn’t mean weather can’t provide you with the spark or impetus to write a story or novel, or serve as the perfect backdrop. That was the case with my latest YA novel THE SUMMER AFTER YOU AND ME, which debuts today. The story take place the summer after Superstorm Sandy unleashed her wrath on the Jersey shore. It was the largest and most destructive Atlantic hurricane in history, affecting several countries and 24 states with New Jersey and New York being among the hardest hit.

When the mega-sized storm made landfall in New Jersey on Oct. 29, 2012, it was the second time in two years that we here in the Garden State had been done wrong by a freak storm on that exact date. The year before, on Oct. 29, 2011, a nor’easter hit the East Coast covering everything, including the trees still heavy with fall foliage, with a thick snow and icy mix. The result was downed power lines and trees everywhere. Schools, businesses, and roads were closed. Nearly 1 million people were without power in New Jersey, and Halloween got cancelled—boo—and the nickname Snowtober was born.

Our property dodged any major damage, but a large branch from one of our giant oak trees fell onto our neighbors’ property, nicking their gutter and pulling down some cables. I took it as a warning sign and had the tree taken down. And a good thing too, because it wouldn’t have survived the 65 mph sustained winds that barreled through here the following year on that same date when Superstorm Sandy pummeled the East Coast on Oct. 29, 2012. Halloween was cancelled, again, but that was the least of anyone’s worries. The New York Stock Exchange also closed for a record two days, but again, small potatoes in the grand scheme of things.

One of the scariest parts about Superstorm Sandy, was that it lived up to the hype. That hype began on October 22 as meteorologists watched as it developed in the Caribbean and crept along the Eastern
seaboard like a slow-moving monster. By Saturday, Oct. 27th, our governor had already ordered a mandatory evacuation of all coastal regions.

We have a place at the shore and were there that day to participate in the annual scarecrow building contest (it seems silly now that I think about it) and to batten down whatever hatches needed battening. It was eerily quiet. We saw some people filling sandbags and some fisherman on the beach, but it seemed like everyone should have been doing more.

The next day, back at our full-time home, which is further north and inland, people were running from store to store, picking the shelves clean of camping lanterns, flashlights, D batteries, phone charges, candles, water, bread and milk. I bought lots of lunchmeat and packed our coolers with ice because our stove is electric and Snowtober made me realize we are fully dependent on electricity to cook. This was Sunday, Oct. 28th, and already schools had been closed for the next day.

And so we awoke on the morning of Oct. 29th, turned on the TV and began flipping channels, from CNN to The Weather Channel to our local news networks. All of them were showing the same Doppler image of a behemoth storm with its red, angry eye and a massive green swirl that looked like a dragon wings and a tail. Outside the wind was picking up; becoming stronger by the hour.

I can’t remember when it started raining but the rain seemed secondary to the wind. I brought our garbage cans into the garage and watched our remaining oak trees swaying back and forth. We used our landline to make calls and kept our cell phones charged. Shortly after 5 p.m., the lights flickered once, the TV made a zapping sound, and then the electricity went out.

“This is it,” someone said. It was either me or my husband, I can’t remember which. What I do remember is the wind. Wind that sounded like a low flying jet or a high-speed freight train. It rattled the windows and bellowed all night long. When it got dark, we turned on the Coleman lantern, ate sandwiches, played board games, read books, and listened to AM radio on the only device in our entire house that go reception—and old, battery-powered walkie talkie with an AM signal that my husband has had since he was five.

We were up most of the night, listening to the soothing voices of the deejays, watching the sky light up a purplish color each time a transformer blew, and waiting for the deafening wind to abate. We grabbed pillows and blankets and stayed together in the living room. In retrospect, we should have holed up in the basement, but somehow I think my husband and I felt better watching those giant oaks sway all night long; willing them to stay up with our eyes. Somehow they did. But all around us, others weren’t so lucky.

The next morning, we stepped outside to find trees and branches down everywhere. A giant oak blocked our road, another lay on top of the neighbors’ minivan. We used our cell phones to call friends and loved ones to make sure everyone was okay. But the power was still out, and would remain out for days, so we had no idea what the rest of the state and New York looked like, or whether our condo at the beach had survived the storm.

The days that followed were surreal. Driving conditions were horrendous without traffic lights, schools in our town remained closed for nearly two weeks, we ran out of hot water, and sleeping without heat in the unseasonably cold weather was tough. I couldn’t make coffee, or any hot food or beverages for days, and we all grew tired of sandwiches (I haven’t eaten bologna since). But these were all minor inconveniences after this major storm.

People had died, property had been damaged, and homes had been destroyed; swept away by ocean and bay waters along with cars, boats, swing sets and whatever else was in Sandy’s path. The hardest hit areas looked like they’d been ravaged by war not a storm.

Suffice it to say, experiencing Superstorm Sandy changed me. It reinforced what I already knew—life is delicate and precious and nothing should ever be taken for granted—and made me appreciate just how good people could be to one another when faced with the aftermath of a tragedy.

Somewhere around our third night with no electricity, I even began to understand why people in the old days went to bed so early and woke up with the sun. There’s only so much you can do in the cold and dark! I also realized how ill-prepared I was for a hurricane of that magnitude or any other natural disaster. That Christmas, I gave everyone in my family emergency kits complete with crank radios and flashlights (I’m too much fun, I know!)

The following summer, I began writing THE SUMMER AFTER YOU AND ME. I didn’t open with the weather, but I wrote this book because of it.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

The Summer After You and Me
Jennifer Salvato Doktorski
Sourcebooks Fire
May 2015 ● ISBN: 9781492619031
Trade paper/$9.99 ● Ages 14+

Will it be a summer of fresh starts or second chances?

For Lucy, the Jersey Shore isn’t just the perfect summer escape, it’s home. As a local girl, she knows not to get attached to the tourists. They breeze in during Memorial Day weekend, crowding her costal town and stealing moonlit kisses, only to pack up their beach umbrellas and empty promises on Labor Day. Still, she can’t help but crush on charming Connor Malloy. His family spends every summer next door, and she longs for their friendship to turn into something deeper.

Then Superstorm Sandy sweeps up the coast, bringing Lucy and Connor together for a few intense hours. Except nothing is the same in the wake of the storm, and Lucy is left to pick up the pieces of her broken heart and her broken home. Time may heal all wounds, but with Memorial Day approaching and Connor returning, Lucy’s summer is sure to be filled with fireworks.

Jennifer Salvato Doktorski is the author of two YA  novels and is a freelance nonfiction writer. Her first paid writing gig was at The North Jersey Herald & News, where she wrote obituaries and began her lifelong love of news and coffee. She lives in New Jersey with her family.

An Excerpt

Connor opened the gorgeous double doors, each with half-moon stained-glass windows on the top, and motioned me inside. “After you.”
The house had that distinct yet hard-to-describe smell of a beach home that had been closed up for a while. I walked to the center of the high-ceilinged foyer and immediately pic­tured pine garland and twinkling white lights wrapped around the sweeping banister.
“Wow. I’d love to spend Christmas here,” I said and immedi­ately regretted being so sappy.
Connor smiled. “You could fit a twelve-foot tree in this hallway.”
I admit, over the years I’ve had my share of Connor-centric fantasies. However the image of him watching his children pad down the stairs on Christmas morning had never been one of them…until that very second. I liked thinking about Connor that way.
“Come on. You’ve got to see the master bedroom.”
The wholesome image of a Malloy family Christmas van­ished. Aha, I thought. That was the Connor I knew.
“Uh-uh,” I said. “The widow’s walk. I want to go there first.”
“Race you,” he said and took off running.
He beat me up the two flights and was waiting for me in the third-floor hallway toward the back of the house. Off the hallway was an art studio, with a drafting table and a bookcase. There was also a telescope standing near the window.
“Follow me.” He crossed the studio and unlocked the dead­bolt to the narrow door leading outside.
“You’ve already been up there?”
“First thing I did when I got here,” Connor said.
“Not the master bedroom?”
“Nah, that’s the first thing I wanted to do when you got here.”
I thought it was just more flirty banter, but Connor’s flushed cheeks looked as warm as my body felt. He stared at me for a beat too long and my throat constricted. I was suddenly aware that I’d left the house with slept-on hair and no mascara. The look on Connor’s face told me he hadn’t noticed. His eyes never left mine.
Finally he said, “Come on, Luce. I’ll follow you.” The space was tight when I passed in front of him, and the closeness of his body gave me the shivers. I opened the door and stepped outside onto a small patio. I walked toward the wrought-iron spiral staircase that lead to the widow’s walk on the roof and placed my hand on the railing. My knees felt shaky as I began the climb, but I never looked back.

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Thursday, April 30, 2015

Musings on a First Criticism

I received my first negative review of something I'd written when I was in tenth grade.

Up to that point, I'd gotten lots of lovely gushy praise. It helped that I wrote mostly for myself and rarely showed my pieces to anyone else. Teachers, when I was growing up, did not assign creative writing in class. Anything I wrote for them was extra credit. They didn't mark up those papers. They'd scrawl the word Nice across the top. Or, Good. 

So, I had many years to feel positive thoughts about my writing and that encouraged me to keep doing it.

That is, until 10th grade. My English teacher that year was a nun who was big time into grammar. We learned the hell out of the parts of speech. Lots of underlining of the subject once and the predicate twice.

I was the only kid in the class who enjoyed that. Sister taught us how to diagram sentences, and I was awesome. She would throw the most complicated sentence at me and I could break that sucker down.

My love for Sister wavered when she introduced prepositions. It was her belief that prepositions could not be taught. The only proper way to learn them was to memorize all of them in alphabetical order. She pointed out the list in the grammar book and told us that our assignment was to memorize the list. In a week, she'd have us recite it in front of the class. If we made one mistake, we would get a zero.

I raised my hand and explained that I understood what prepositions were and I felt that I could identify them without going through this memorization exercise.

Sister smiled and told me I was wrong.

When class was over, I went to the guidance office and asked to be taken out of the class. The guidance counselor was sympathetic. She putzed around in a file cabinet (no computers then) and informed me that I'd been mistakenly placed in a lower tracked English class. I should've been in honors. Unfortunately, there wasn't much that could be done to change the schedule.

Luckily, Sister taught both English classes. The solution was that I would keep going to my class, but meet with Sister once a week to do the honors level work. Weirdly, I was okay with that. Sister gave me a list of novels to read and a packet of work, and I kept diagramming sentences and underlining predicates. I also failed the preposition quiz. Proudly.

One of the assignments for the honors class was to write a story. I had never written a story for school before, but I was excited about it. By tenth grade I called myself a writer. I had been keeping a journal for years. I had written two full-length novels and a stack of shorter things, some finished, some not.

I wrote a story that I was sure would wow Sister. It was literary and complicated, heart-wrenching, with allegorical overtones.

The story was called "I Am the Lamb" and it was about a girl who grew up on a remote farm in Iowa (I laugh at this now because I had never been to Iowa and knew absolutely nothing about farms, but whatever.) The girl had a hideous birthmark on her face, a birthmark so gruesome that her parents kept her isolated on the Iowa farm. They said it was because she was special, but the girl suspected that the parents might be ashamed of her hideousness. One day a white sheep on the farm gave birth to a litter? group of baby sheep (I wasn't sure on the lingo) and one of the lambs was black and the mother refused to nurse the lamb because it was different. The girl was given the task of killing it.

In case you don't see the parallel, I helpfully pointed it out at the end of the story when the girl makes a moving speech to her parents about how SHE IS THE LAMB.

The day I met with Sister to discuss my story, I was eager to hear her thoughts. We met in a small office with no windows. I sat down and Sister stood, and I waited for her to gush about my brilliance and creativity.

Instead, she yelled at me.

My story, she said, was wrong. No parents would ever treat a child the way the parents in my story did.

I walked out of the room, embarrassed and ashamed.

The rest of the year was full-blown crappy. I kept reading books on the honors list, but my heart wasn't in it. Diagramming sentences had lost their luster. The kids in the grammar class asked for my homework and fought to sit next to me on test days so they could copy my answers. I let them.

I didn't write a story for a teacher again until college. I never looked at the Lamb story until a few weeks ago when I unearthed it during a recent purging of my house. I was almost afraid to read it. I felt sick just looking at the title. I assumed it was a terrible story.

I read it the way I might read any student's work. The Iowa farm. The horrible birthmark. The story itself, surprisingly, wasn't as terrible as I remembered. Nice set up and character development. Dialogue. Description. Very few grammatical or punctuation errors.  If the writer was my student, I might praise all of that. Maybe ask a few questions. Like, why'd you write about farms and lambs when they're, uh, not something you know that much about?

I can't imagine mentioning the over-the-top symbolism and drama. Fifteen-year-olds sometimes write stuff like that.

It's interesting how the voice of your first critic worms around the voice in your own head, twists and winds, until the voice becomes one voice, and that voice whispers in the back of your mind: You can't write about this. 

This is wrong. 

The book I am writing now is full of things that would make Sister cringe. It's dark and edgy and weird. Fantasy bleeding into reality and the other way around. Characters doing cruddy things to each other. Parents hurting their children.

I've been writing the book on and off for 13 years. For a variety of reasons, I could never get it "right." Some days I work on a passage and I hear what I'd always thought was my editor voice, whispering: No. This is wrong. You can't write this. 

Lately, I've been shaking my head, telling the voice to shut up. Guess what, Sister, This is my story and it's not wrong. 

Watch me. I'm writing it.