Monday, August 31, 2009

Blue Bottle Bushes

In a magazine belonging to my 17-year-old daughter, I found the following. A certain national center at a major university, after more than a decade of research, has found that "the more often kids eat dinner with their families, the less likely they are to smoke, drink, or use drugs." The center has therefore launched a national "movement" to remind parents to make family dinners a frequent occurrence and to remind children to eat with their families. Now what's wrong with this?

In one way, nothing much. But in another, a lot, actually. It's an example of a logical fallacy, which pretty much hangs around everywhere, pretending to be science. So . . . if kids eat enough meals with their families, they won't do drugs? COME ON!

The proper statement of the case, of course, is: "Children who don't smoke, drink, or do drugs are more likely to eat frequent meals at home with their families"--not the other way around. In other words, the parents of such children have created loving, stable environments that deter rebellious behavior.

I don't believe that by merely eating meals with their children, parents can somehow ward off bad habits. That's just plain, old superstition. I'd much rather believe we could hang blue bottles in the bushes* to keep the drinking-and-drug-use haints away from the little ones. That's at least an imaginative, colorful solution. (*A voodoo belief: if you put blue bottles on the bushes outside your house, a haunting spirit must enter every bottle before entering the house, thus giving you time to get past him to safety inside.)

There's certainly nothing wrong with encouraging parents to eat with their children or children with their parents. But let's not kid ourselves. Parents that have to be encouraged to do this are not likely to take our advice too seriously.

Besides, did we really need a decade of research to arrive at a fallacious conclusion?

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Dunce's Seat

Several other moms and I recently volunteered to read (in a weekly rotation) to preschoolers during Story Time at our local public library. While my motives are partly altruistic, I also hope to learn something that I can put to use writing.

I know I'm going to have fun getting current on picture books, for one thing. My youngest child is 17, so the pb's I know about are oldies but goodies: Goodnight, Moon; Marvin K. Mooney; The Cat in the Hat; Where the Wild Things Are.

For another thing, I want to watch the children's reactions. Some I can predict, like relief at the end of Teenie-Tiny, when she yells, "Take 'em!" But I wonder if boys react the same way my daughters did to "Goodnight, nobody! Goodnight mush!" or "Marvin K. Mooney, will you please GO NOW?" (I doubt it.)

Today, I attended Story Time strictly as a visitor. After the reading of I'm a Little Teapot, which felt more "poured out" than "steamed up," I took a seat in the chair that today's reader had vacated in order to help the children with their coloring activity.

I hadn't settled in well before Brantley, the only boy, brought Thomas, the Tank Engine and asked me to read it to him. Then the girls began to filter in, bringing Rugratz, Winnie the Pooh, and various titles they pulled at random out of the School Bus Full of Picture Books. I had them waiting in line to hear me read their books! Hmm. I must be some kind of child magnet.

Then it dawned on me.

Never sit in the reader's chair if you're not prepared to read!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Waiting for the Mail

For me, trees rank right up there at the top of the love pyramid, just below grandchildren and sweetened whipped cream. (Not too far below is a Bloody Mary for breakfast on a deep blue October morning.)

The Bigleaf Magnolia (foliage at right, looking up) ranks at the very top of my tree pyramid. This is not the classic tree everyone associates with the Deep South, but its redneck cousin from the hills. Its leaves are at least a foot long, and, as you can see, grow like spokes around a central stem. It is thus sometimes called an "umbrella tree." In late spring, at the center of each umbrella, a huge white flower develops. We had Bigleaf Magnolias in the yard of our first house. They created beautiful texture and color alongside oak trees and sumac and wild hydrangea.

Although foliage appears as chaos, it really is an amazing marvel of fractals (patterns repeated on different scales). I don't think human eyes "get" chaos; it isn't interesting, and--in a way-- doesn't even exist: we "see" faces in a few dots on a page or monsters in clouds.

We see things in books and stories in a similar way. Foreshadowing, for instance, works by a kind of gestalt. The classic gun-over-the-mantel in the opening scene of a whodunit is at first a subtle suggestion. But by the climax, when we see the perpetrator aiming that same gun at the detective, we remember the beginning and say "Aha! I thought so!"

What does this have to do with my title? Nothing, except that I wrote it while I was--waiting for the mail!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

A Suitcase and a Change of Clothes

As one of those unfortunate souls who learn only by doing, I collect bruises and people who say "I told you so" the way housewives collect dryer lint. I was elated, therefore, when I avoided, if not bodily harm, then wagging fingers, by learning part of Assignment #3 on my own.

Here's how it happened. My instructor directed me to an article, "Show, Don't Tell," in the school archives. "Show, Don't Tell" is advice that novice writers frequently hear. I, novice writer that I am, have frequently heard it, so I had a moment of private skepticism, doubting that I would benefit from hearing it again--and then I read the article anyway.

The author claims something extraordinary. She says that by "showing, not telling," by involving all of the senses in setting a scene, it is nearly impossible for a writer not to stumble on a potential plot. I wouldn't have believed her, of course, except that a day or two earlier, as I've already explained, I'd learned that lesson by doing a rough draft of Assignment #3.

The assignment is to write about a place remembered from childhood using all five senses: sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste. I chose to write about being on the beach at night with my family when I was five years old. It was behind the Pink Pony Pub at Gulf Shores. Six of us held hands and waded into the Gulf of Mexico in our clothes. Do you see how even these sparse images try to form a plot?

It was very difficult not to go beyond the bounds of the assignment. I tried to limit the scene to sensory data alone, but every image has a suitcase and a change of clothes, if you know what I mean. If you start with the smell of dead shrimp, something tags along with that sensory image, whether from memory or association. You might remember that same smell from a certain fishing trip. Or you may remember the time you had delicious shrimp au gratin at a restaurant on the pier at sunset and later threw up. Or you may think of Forrest Gump.

When writers use sensory images, they get lots of baggage for free, so the writer in control of his material anticipates to a large degree what type of bag and change of clothes his chosen images most likely will bring along with them. This obviously won't be universal, but a skilled writer can appeal to a large proportion of readers.

That's also one good reason writers must also be readers.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Founder's Day

I live in a very conventional Southern town with a population of about 3,000. Today, on my way home from the grocery store, I accidentally drove myself into the middle of the Founder’s Day Parade. I guess I should have been participating, since my husband’s ancestors were some of the original white settlers here, peacefully coexisting alongside the Cherokee before they were dispossessed. But I wasn't participating. Or I least, I hadn't planned to.

I eased up behind the local fire engine, stopped dead in the middle of the street, but occasionally roaring along at ¼ mile per hour. A load of teenagers in orange and black school t-shirts—Lions, supposedly—rode on top. At a sidewalk lemonade stand a girl began jockeying cups back and forth to them. I was amused. But when the fire chief got out and set up a ladder so that the troops on top could dismount, my patience evaporated.

I rolled down my window and waved frantically at an officer in a golf cart who was stationed about 50 yards away, on the other side of the fire truck, guarding the left turn I needed to take. The cart lurched toward me. I thought he was coming to see what I had to say, so I leaned out the window, smiling, and was about to speak—when he drove right on by! I didn’t get the chance to lie and tell him I had ice cream in the trunk (I did have Lean Cuisines), and therefore wouldn’t he please let me go around the fire truck and turn left and be on my way.


So I drove around the fire truck and turned left and went on my way.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Is That You, Alice?

In another life, an instructor gave my graphic design class the following assignment: design the cover of Time magazine with yourself as the person of the year. One student merged a childhood photo with a photo of a flower for an Alice in Wonderland effect--a tiny little girl sitting beneath a giant flower. It was a cute and memorable trick with scale.

Scale is as important to successful writing as it is to visual art. In a story or article, however, "scale" morphs into something more like "emphasis." A lot depends on what you intend.

If you write with too much emphasis on one thing, you may wind up with a rant--a mutant child, or a Georgia O'Keefe flower. Of course, that may be what you intend. If you give every part of an article or story the same level of emphasis, you could wind up with (at least) two different effects: 1) a minimalist composition--child and flower, lost and unrelated, in an expanse of space, or 2) a cacophony--the equivalent of a verbal Jackson Pollock. Again, one of these may be just what you intend.

My point is this. Train your awareness of the various design elements (scale, rhythm, balance, composition, color, etc.), how they translate from one genre to another, and what effects you can achieve through intentional use.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

He's a Character

People who have never tried writing fiction probably wouldn't believe a lot of the stuff that writers say about "characters." I don't blame them. For instance, some writers insist that their characters "run away with" the story--meaning that the story winds up some way the writer didn't intend. Sounds kinda spooky, doesn't it?

But I've had a mild sense of this happening in a couple of my stories. Not that the story turned out to be wildly different than I had planned, but the more I thought about the scenes from different characters' points of view, the more realistic (and real) their dialogue became. And when one character began to talk realistically, the other characters had to get in line and do likewise or the scene didn't work.

It all boils down to getting to know your characters better. I'm sorry if that doesn't really explain anything either. After all, these are fictional characters. They don't really breathe, speak, or have beating hearts, so how on earth can you get to know them better? I don't know. But you can.

Saturday, August 8, 2009


Assignment #2 has passed from the rough draft stage to a more complete story. I'm now taking some deep, cleansing breaths.

It always exhilarates me to finish a story that I'm pleased with. This one pleases me because it seems to line up with Aristotle's ideas about fiction, as expressed in his Poetics. He thought the climax should be a reversal for the protagonist, based on "hamartia," which recent scholars have interpreted as "a [metaphorical or literal] mistake in identity." In my story, the 11-year old boy protagonist mistakes a grief- and worry-stricken teacher for an "old meanie," based on her facial expression. At the climax, he sees her for who she really is and learns a valuable lesson. See Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, by Janet Burroway, for an excellent discussion of "hamartia" in the fairy tale, "Cinderella."

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Not Bridget Jones's Diary

When I began writing daily at the end of 2008, I anticipated that "journal" writing would be the least expensive and most helpful exercise in self-discovery I'd ever done. It was. I am not the first to notice writing's therapeutic effects, of course.

If you haven't yet tried this kind of writing, I recommend it. I always use the back side of the paper that jams in the printer or the pages of e-mail with nothing but lists of addresses. This is not "formal" or "structured" writing you'll want to keep forever. Rather, it is more like a running record of what's important to you on any given day. Some days, for instance, you might write about what's going on--a relative's birthday, a family get-together, a movie you saw, a book you read--and other days you might wax philosophical, or even theological. Or, you might write about your resolve never to set foot in Wal-Mart again, or how much you hate your friend's new hairstyle. Whatever.

Since there aren't really any rules and you aren't going to keep this junk anyway, you have just set up the perfect "no-pressure" situation, which is probably why a journal like this works so well. Journal-writing makes a great warm-up for any structured story- or article-writing that you do. It also can serve as your writing "minimum" on days when you have a lot going on. I began with ten-minute timed sessions and worked up to 40 minutes.

Once I had written like this for a month or more and then began to read back over it (with a highlighter to mark any ideas that might be useful in a story or article), I discovered how fickle my moods were, how changeable I was from day to day, but also how certain themes kept repeating themselves. I was not aware of this as I wrote.

I've learned things about myself I never would have believed if someone had told me (they tried) and could never have discovered if I had not been writing regularly over time. There are other benefits too, but they must await another post.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Plotting with OCD

That deadline for Assignment #2, which was more than a month away the last time I noticed, is now just 16 days away, and I'm no closer to a completed story than I was then. At least, it looks that way on the surface.

It's true, I haven't worked out a plot and I haven't written a story. But I have eliminated a lot of things that I know will not work, and in the process of searching for what might, I have done a great deal of reading about plotting and studied quite a few stories published by others. So . . . I'm considering the time I've spent worthwhile; I'm telling myself I am making progress.

One article about plotting that I printed out to keep on hand was by a woman who claims to have an obsessive-compulsive disorder and that plotting is the perfect task for those who do: you know, the ones who keep poking around with the details longer than they should, tweaking everything until it's perfect. Who in the world is she talking about? (I still can't fold paper other than the way I was taught to do it perfectly in 1st grade--corner to corner!)

Maybe there's hope for me after all.