Saturday, February 25, 2012
Sunday, February 19, 2012
Paper Towns and Looking for Alaska (which won the Printz Award) are really good books, but my favorite (until roughly two hours ago) is the first book I read of Green’s, An Abundance of Katherines. The main character is a cynical, depressed boy who’s had the cruddy luck to be dumped by nineteen girls named Katherine. After yet another break up, he goes off on a zany summer road trip with his best friend.
There’s clever dialogue along the way and something about a vicious boar attack and also an attempt to plot out the perfect mathematical equation—one that will pinpoint exactly when a person is about to be dumped.
I was cracking up nearly the entire time I was reading it and marveling at how spot on Green was at capturing a type of teen not often portrayed in YA novels— a kind of nerdy, gifted, wise-cracking boy. (Side note: everyone in my family got hooked on John Green’s books. My son, when fifteen, read all three books on a family vacation, literally toting the open books around with him wherever we went. This was a kid who did not read YA books and most of the time did not read any fiction at all. He had jumped at age twelve right into the world of adult non-fiction, stuff by Jon Krakauer and Bill Bryson. After reading the John Green collection he remarked that he hadn’t known there were books out there meant for him.
So Fault in our Stars came out about a month ago and I went right out to buy it but my son got to it first. He closed himself up in his room and basically didn’t come out until he finished it. Then he handed it to me, solemnly, tears in his eyes, and said, "This is a great book."
I put it off for a week because I knew what it was about. I’d read little snippets of reviews online. It’s a love story. About kids with cancer. Which doesn’t sound—how shall I say this kindly?—good. But this is John Green we’re talking about here. If anyone could pull it off, he could.
I read a lot of books. Specifically, I read a lot of books for young adults. So many, in fact, that lately I can sort them into categories without even reading past the first page. There are the “bad” books. Many more are simply “meh” books—quick (or not so quick) reads, a fast food equivalent of literature. (You know how you like that big mac for the 20 seconds you’re wolfing it down and then you kind of wished you hadn’t ever pulled through the drive thru?) There are a lot of good books, too. Page turners and slow builders. Cool flashy entertaining ones and books you want to get lost in and return to.
And then there is this other level all together. From the very first page, you’re in. The writing is effortless (which is to say that it was probably incredibly sweated over but after much work has been boiled down to its essence and seems effortless). Sometimes I read a pretty good book and I feel nothing but despair. I’m envious of the writer’s talent. I’m jealous of the cool idea or the clever execution. I look at my own writing and find it sadly lacking. But here’s something cool about a great book: there is no despair or envy. Instead I am inspired.
There are very few books that fall into this category for me. And this is a key point to make—it’s very personal, this response to literature. But if anyone’s wondering, here’s my list of all time greats—books that made me suck in my breath, cheer, marvel, cry, be grateful that I got to share in the experience and/or feel pride that I live in a world where such a book exists:
Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson
It’s a love story about kids with cancer. Hazel Grace is stricken with an incurable lung disease. Augustus Waters has beaten bone cancer but lost a leg in the battle. Neither Hazel nor Augustus would like that I used the word "battle." It ticks them off that people frame the discussion of disease in terms of war. They also mock the "cancer perks," cool stuff well-meaning people give cancer patients out of pity, such as free tickets to Disney World. Or champagne. (But they’re not above taking the champagne.) They also discuss books, recite poems, play violent action video games, and have philosophical discussions about life.
I know I haven’t even scratched the surface of capturing this book, a shameful side effect of Great Bookism. A truly great book can’t be adequately explained or dissected or pitched. There really is nothing you can do in the end, but read it and share it with someone else.
So do me a favor and get your hands on this book. Read it and share it with someone else.
Friday, February 17, 2012
Thursday, February 9, 2012
One of my favorite writer blogs is Nova Ren Suma’s distraction no. 99. Every month lately, she’s been posing a question—what scares you, what inspires you, what’s your turning point—and invites a dozen or so people to weigh in. I’m not sure how she’s managed to befriend such a large varied group of cool writers but I bow down to her networking prowess. Full disclosure: I’m not a member of the varied cool group—I suspect that this is because Nova, although I refer to her by her first name, does not technically know me. Still that hasn’t stopped me from answering her questions for myself. For example, a few months ago I wrote about what scared me after reading a bunch of creepy responses on Nova’s blog. (here was the creepiest of those.) And this month I’ve been mulling over my turning point as a writer after reading this and this.
Apparently I am like a lot of Nova’s guest bloggers in that I’ve had more than one turning point. You can’t do this (by which I mean, write with little external acknowledgement or reward) without experiencing several decent turning points along the way in your alternating exhilarating and soul-crushing Writer’s Journey.
I’m picturing a yellow-brick road type of thing, with my ruby-slipper-clad foot starting out in the swirly center the way Dorothy’s did. In my case it was Me, age seven, probably not long after I learned how to read, writing a story called “You Are Cute” which answered that age-old question: Who is cute? My mother was my first reader and she gushed over the story. I think she even said the words that every writer longs to hear: “You are such a good writer,” and she passed my little story on to others (my relatives) who were equally effusive. That was my first turning point and I have to say it was a lovely way to start on what would turn out to be an extremely long, windy, exhilarating, and soul-crushing yellow brick road.
When I was in school, writing wasn’t really taught, unless you count how to draft dry book reports or how to answer questions in COMPLETE SENTENCES ONLY after skimming passages on Australopithecines or the Middle Ages or Henry Hudson. Creative writing—stories, poems, or plays—was rarely assigned, unless it was for extra credit. I loved those rare times, because I always got the extra credit. Plus, once in a while I got a nice gushy “you’re such a good writer,” from a teacher. (Side note: writing, including creative writing, IS taught in school now, at every grade level, and while that seems like a positive development, I sometimes wonder about it. When I was working with fourth graders during an extensive and demanding portfolio-writing year, I saw kids crushed after their stories and poems were picked to pieces. Teachers scrawled stuff like “Work on your dialogue” and “Let’s be more specific with that character” on papers. I remembered my seven-year-old self, so proud of my dippy You Are Cute story. What if a teacher had gotten her hands on that with a red pen?) The beginning writer’s ego is such a fragile, eggshell-encased little thing. I see it as a crucial turning point that I received nothing but praise in those formative years.
I needed that praise, because my next turning point happened in college when I signed up for my first official writing class. The students in those classes took it as their mission to rip apart each other’s stories and poems (and egos.) It was great vicious fun. Making it through somewhat unscathed is a point of pride. It didn’t hurt that I won a few awards for writing along the way either. More turning points. One, that’s kind of funny: Senior year I won the award for the best poem. I sat next to the guy who won the award for best story (fun fact: I had a crush on him. He was soooo creative. Sigh) and we opened our envelopes together and grinned like idiots the rest of the awards ceremony because the prize was a HUNDRED dollars. Which is a lot of money when you’re in college. (sad fact: it’s still a lot of money. Sigh.)
There’s a long stretch of yellow road here where I pretty much stopped writing. I was teaching instead. And then I was raising kids and cleaning my house and making meals and volunteering to chaperon field trips and sitting on contentious school boards. The creative part of myself, I thought, died. But every once in a while it would slip out like an aggravated ghost. This happened when I made my son an elaborate paper mache' model of a Viking ship complete with fifty toothpick oars. Or when I organized my daughter’s 8th birthday party around a Harry Potter theme and concocted butter beer refreshments and designed an interactive potions lesson and orchestrated a game of quidditch in the backyard. (The party guests ran around on broomsticks while I pelted them with bludgers, er, water balloons.) I won’t go into the story of the time I made a Sputnik cake for my son’s birthday. Let’s just say it was AWESOME.
It’s possible I was losing my mind.
Which leads me to a very important turning point. Somewhere between Vikings and butter beer, I wrote a story and I got it published and I used the money to go to a writing retreat. I must give a shout out here to the Highlights Foundation for the phenomenal retreats and workshops and conferences they put on. The one I attended was called Room to Create, and for someone like me—a busy stressed out mom with a buried battered writer soul—it was like winning a trip to an all-inclusive spa resort. Every day, nothing to do but write. Or read. Or chat with other writers. Or eat gourmet catered food. In an idyllic setting in the woods. I started the week unable to say out loud that I was a writer. I went home and told everyone I knew. And most importantly, I actually started writing again.
But the truth is, it was only a hobby.
Until four years ago when my husband was transferred and our family moved from one state to another and I decided against the advice of pretty much everyone not to renew my teaching license. Teaching had been my fall back career forever, the safety cushion, the Practical Responsible Adult Thing To Do, and I just let it go. It was one of the hardest decisions I ever made and yet, the moment I made it, the moment I said it to someone, probably my husband, hardworking bread-winning supportive fellow that he is, I felt lighter, better, like what I was doing was right.
If you’ve followed this blog at all, you know that for the last four years I have been on the verge with my writing—plugging along, following my dream, skipping and/or trudging down the last remnants of the freaking yellow brick road I’ve been on since second grade, about to cross over into the emerald green city, otherwise known as Published Book Land. Apparently there are more remnants to go. But I’m assuming there are more turning points, too. And like the ones that came before, these will be just enough to lift me up and give me the push I need to make it there.