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2010

26March

Never Feed Him Too Much

Never Feed Him Too Much

We're told that picture books should go easy on the morals; if you beat kids over the head with a lesson they're supposed to learn, you'll take the fun out of reading. But I must have been loaded with teacher genes from the get-go 'cause a lot of my favorites are a tiny bit didactic. I loved A Fish Out of Water. The idea that a fish could grow gigantic (or in real life - go belly-up) from overfeeding was a revelation to me. How was it possible to love a pet to death? Terrifying that - in giving him too much of a good thing - I could smother him with love or floating flakes of nutrition or both.

I was probably not at too much risk here, in reality. I'm not a creature of routine, so the idea of a regular feeding time - for me or said pets - is a bit of a burden. I always assume babies will cry when they're hungry, too, and they usually do. (This mentality does not bode well for the poor plants on my desk who droop in silent supplication, praying I will glance up and notice their desperation for w-a-a-t-e-r.)

I did manage to raise two incredibly cool children, somehow, who do not evidence any lasting effects of the benign neglect to which they were subjected so maybe the fish book lesson was worthwhile. I like to think my "hands-off" attitude benefitted them; I was never the kind of parent who snooped in their rooms or asked a million questions, or tried to live vicariously through them. I guess I was really lucky that they made it easy to trust them (not that they never did anything wrong; they are very real velveteen rabbits.) This would be a good spot for one of those silly quotes about giving your children wings as well as roots, but P.D. Eastman made it much simpler:

"Never feed him too much
Never more than a spot
Or something may happen
You never know what!

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Posted in March, 2010

24March

Let it Simmer

Tim O'Brien reminded us of an important writing practice in his chat with Mediabistro on Monday. On the 20th anniversary of the publication of The Things They Carried, he worries that the ease of digital publication in blogs, online articles and even books, will adversely affect the quality of writing. He fears it's too tempting to "push the button" and launch freshly written prose that hasn't had time to marinate. Whether you're writing an angry letter to your boss or the first three chapters of your new novel, it's always a good idea to "let it simmer." Most of us have had the experience of revisiting a piece we once thought quite brilliant and discovering that it's mostly crap. When you're caught up in a burst of creative energy, it's easy to overestimate your own originality. Always, always let your work in progress sit for at least a couple of days and preferably a couple of weeks until you can read it with an objective eye that is not influenced by the heat of the moment.

And if you haven't read The Things They Carried, it's an amazing look at war and its effect on the human psyche. One of my favorite writing assignments was asking my students to write an informal journal entry on "The Things I Carry." Through the years I read the most amazing pieces that ranged from discussions of how the contents of one's purse define its owner to thoughtful discussions of the emotional baggage we carry from our life experiences and how those biases shape our actions and relationships. If you take the time to try it, you might learn something new about yourself. And don't forget to let it simmer, then revise it.

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Posted in March, 2010

15March

A Dragonfly by Any Other Name

A Dragonfly by Any Other Name

While doing some research for a story line yesterday, I came across all the different animal sounds in various languages. I only became aware of this difference a few years ago when a friend's child, whose babysitter was Japanese, began to answer "Boof, Boof," when asked "What does the pig say?" My friend mentioned this to the sitter, who was a bit defensive. "Do you actually hear, 'oink, oink' when a pig makes a sound?" she asked. Hmm, she's got us there.

I remember sitting by a pool a couple of summers ago with a British friend and her French boyfriend watching a dragonfly float past. I told him they were called "mosquito hawks" in New Orleans where I grew up, and I asked him the French word for "dragonfly." He taught me the word: libellulle, which he pronounced lee-beh-loo-lah. It's amazing how differently we look at things when they're called by different names. Shakespeare might've been wrong about that one.

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Posted in March, 2010

12March

Pen Down, Brain Off

I really liked what Rebecca Stead said in a recent New York Times article about how she spends her weekends. Her book When You Reach Me is the latest Newbery Award winner, and it was one of my favorite recent reads. I don't always agree with awards committees and I don't read a lot of YA books aimed at younger readers (her MC's are sixth grade), but this one was charming - in a Time Traveler's Wife mixed with Encyclopedia Brown kind of way. Stead said Sunday is her day to turn her brain off. She said that it's the only way to allow it to relax and make new connections. Without the input that comes from "days off," storytellers have nothing to say.

Her comments reminded me about the importance of doing nothing. In our society, where productivity is so highly revered, we seldom give ourselves permission to do nothing. I've commented that some of my best ideas for writing have come to me while I'm in New Orleans, but maybe that's because I'm away from my routine and not feeling tied to a computer or compelled to work (although I do think the city's ambience has something to do with it.)

So, this weekend, turn your brain off. Take a walk or go for a bike ride. If this rain keeps up, hit the couch and let your mind float free. Yep, you can even take a nap if you like. A lot of writers think your best stuff is accessed in those first few moments of waking up, when the censors aren't up and running at full throttle yet. Natalie Goldberg writes about writing from your "wild mind" or "monkey mind," accessing the universe through your imagination. You just have to unclutter your head to dig down to the deep primal issues that are waiting to be mined (pun intended.) There's no telling what will come to you if you give yourself permission to drift.

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Posted in March, 2010

10March

More Adults Reading YA

The Los Angeles Times said yesterday that more and more adults are reading YA or Young Adult books. The article cited the reasons as word-of-mouth (Twilight), awards (Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian), movies (The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightening Thief), the "mother test" (What I Saw and How I Lied), and the jump-start given to the genre by Harry Potter. Adult readers like the fast pace of YA books and the openness of the characters. Because YA is aimed at a group of people who have many distractions from reading, the plot must move along, the characters have to be real, and the opening needs to grab the reader by the collar from page one.

It's what all good books should be, of course. I used to tell my high school students that textbook writers got a bonus for making stuff boring. Sometimes it feels like many writers of adult books do the same. Personally, I'm glad teens don't put up with superfluous detail in books, 'cause I like my reading straightforward and stripped-down too. Elmore Leonard says to leave out the stuff people skip. It's one of the most engaging qualities of YA - lean writing. If you haven't in a while, read a book today that's "high school skinny." Let me know if you need recommendations. There are so many that I love.

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Posted in March, 2010

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