Where Some See Ignored #History, #Writers See The Beginnings of New #Fiction.

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An Indian Summer gripped Wisconsin for far too long this September. Mosquitos rejoiced, trees clutched their green leaves. It was even hot enough to go to the beach for my mother’s birthday. But no heat wave would thwart me this year. I would have my fall foliage pictures no matter what Mother Nature said, dammit!

So when Bo suggested getting one more weekend at the family cabin up north, I gave an emphatic “YES!” Trees galore, beautiful lake, a well-timed cold-snap. Awesome, right?

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Just look at that gorgeous blue water. Surrounded by green leaves. Grumble grumble.

But there was no denying the joy of a lakeshore littered by wee rocks. Bo and Blondie worked on skipping stones. Biff and Bash enjoyed their “fireworks”–aka, throwing clumps of sand into the air over the water.

Bo knew I was disappointed. “Did you want take pictures of the fish hatchery for your blog?”

(Insert irritated glare here.) “No.”

The weekend over, we stopped at a nearby town for gas, coffee, and a playground before heading home. We passed something we pass so often when visiting this town, and an idea hit me:

“Can you handle the kids at the park for a little while?”

“I guess. What’s up?”

“I want to take some pictures.”

“Of what?”

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Many immigrants of German descent came to Wisconsin, which is why this state had such a large number of breweries for a while. Unlike the others, however, the Tiger Brewery has never been torn down, even though it’s been out of use since the 1930s.

 

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It’s not for public entry. It’s not a museum. It’s just…a monument? That requires power lines, and blinds in the windows?

I take care with my camera when I near the occupied house next to the brewery. Perhaps they’re the caretakers, or neighbors who loathe snoopers.

But I can’t help but wonder about this place. It’s not falling apart, it’s not technically in use. In this town, it doesn’t seem to be anything. Why leave it alone? Why not enter it, and invite others to do the same? What’s in there people can’t look at? What’s hiding in there? What is this town protecting? Even the apples hang forgotten, rotten, from its trees.

One window board upon the tower flaps open. Bet there’s a stairwell in there to the top, and even to the underground. Deep, deep into the earth, beneath the river running behind this ignored place, deeper still where another forgotten world awaits, where eyes blink in darkness and long nails dig through stone, hunting…

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Perhaps your own town has a similar street, where life hums at sunrise and sunset, but is otherwise left to a breezy quiet. What hides among the normal? What is the price this world pays to ignore its presence? What…where…when…who…why, why, why….These questions fly by us as leaves caught up in the wind.

Give chase, and don’t look back.

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Conflict of Interest

“Don’t waste your time on something you don’t care about,” Michael Dellert warns as I pour through my old posts on Diana Wynne JonesMy presentation for N– University’s Literary Conference is in just a few days. The theme for 2017 is Lessons Learned–perfect, right? Half of what I do on this site is share lessons I learned from novels. If someone could present on the costume design changes in Pride and Prejudice films at a LITERARY conferencethen surely, I was fine with my collection of past lessons.

But I want to be better than fine, dammit. I want to prove I’m not just another schlub trying to get an hour or two of professional development. I want my colleagues to see that I give a damn about myself as a reader, and as a writer.

I receive notice of the conference schedule: my nonfiction reading is midday. My DWJ presentation is just after Blondie’s school gets out.

Four hours apart. I’m solo with the kids. Bo can’t get out of work. I can’t hire a babysitter for that long when the presentations themselves are barely twenty minutes each. My appeal for a schedule change is denied. If I’m going to do it, I have to do it with the kids, and trust them to not burn the house down.

~*~

I’ve written before about the rare gift that is time for writing, but I don’t think I’ve ever said how bloody hard it’s been to maintain a job while being a full-time parent, let alone a job like college adjunct. Maternity leave, vacation? Those words mean nothing for those paid only $1,700-3,000 for a semester’s worth of class. If you take a break, you are out of the loop for upcoming courses, and Lord knows when you can get another one. I graded student outlines hours after giving birth to my daughter. I hauled myself from the hospital room to a computer lab during the boys’ first day in the world to lead a discussion on critical reading. A term only lasts a few months, and you don’t know if you’re teaching the next term until it starts. As far as stable employment, it’s about as unstable as it gets.

The ability to teach from home made it tolerable, in its way. I could do schoolwork when kids slept. Audio classes only happen once a week, so I scheduled those for when Bo was home, or when the kids were in bed for the night.

But as the kids got older, they needed more of me. And more. And more. And the postpartum depression snicker-snacked through, and creative writing gave my soul strength…at the cost of more time.

Which, until that point, had been for school work. You know, the thing that earns the grocery money around here.

~*~

“Can we go to the library after school?”

“No, Mommy’s got a special presentation for her school today.”

“Let’s go to the park!”

“No, Mommy has to talk to other teachers today.”

“But I don’t wanna go home!”

None of them want to go home. It’s a beautiful day, Blondie just finished her first day of 2nd grade, but Mommy can’t care. She’s got to drive through construction while dodging the books flying in from the back seat because we’re not going to the park, we’re going to fight, we never want to go home….

“Here, watch Dragons,” I give Blondie a kiss on the head as I hop over a pile of wrecked cars to open the DVD player. “When my presentation’s done, I want to hear all about 2nd grade.” Because I do want to know, but that presentation just eats the forefront of all thoughts. Don’t forget to mention this, and note that book, and make this reference to that event, this thing about her father, that quote about Tolkien.

“Snack?” Biff throws himself at the rocking chair where his posse of Blanket, Grandpere, and Mel the Koala await. “Let’s have a snack. Fruit Loops!”

“Can I go outside?” Bash asks as he runs out the screen door.

“Bash get in here NOW! Fruit Loops and Dragons, come on, dude!” I say as I hoist him up and under one arm while thrusting the door open and I’ve got FUCK ONLY FIFTEEN MINUTES.

Cereal dumped in bowls. Dragons on. “I’ll be in my room. Just…please, sit nicely, and stay inside. We’ll go outside and talk about school stuff when I’m done,” I say as I back-run down the hall, trip into the Mother’s Day flower Blondie had taped to my door. I use tape from one of the fishy Father’s Day pictures to fix it (“We’re hooked on you, Daddy!”) and then frantically press computer buttons. My mic is a go, I’ve got my notes set, T-minus two minutes…

“Mommy I WANT to go outside!” Bash stamps in the doorway.

“Jean, everything okay?”

“Fine!” I say into the mic as I hiss at Bash. “When. Mommy’s. DONE.”

“No. NOW!”

“Bash, I am not doing this now. Go watch Dragons.”

He fights as I close the door. He bangs the door. Kicks the door. Screams into the door.

“Ladies and gentleman, please welcome Jean Lee as the next presenter of–“

Screaming triples. Blondie’s voice pierces: “Mommy, you have to open up! Open up NOW!”

Oh for fuck’s sake–

“Jean, is something wrong?”

“I am so sorry, just one moment while I deal with…” I have no word for what I’m dealing with. I’m too angry, nervous, frustrated–all the things I feel when the boys erupt and try to destroy something a family member’s done for them, or when they lash out at a complete stranger for coming too close. I rip open the door, where all three of them stand with tears streaming down their faces.

“Biff threw a toy at me. And Dragons is done.”

“And I am in my meeting right now, and you’re just going to have to handle it.”

“No I don’t, YOU have to!” Blondie says with all the authority a seven-year-old musters.

And I’m…I’m done. “No. You have to work it out with Biff. Bash, move.” And I close the door in their faces. Lock it.

The banging is downright thunderous. Comments have sprung up in the presentation: Uh oh, someone’s in trouble. Oh those poor little guys! Sounds like someone misses Mommy. Etc.

“Again, I apologize for that delay.” I can barely hear myself above their roar. I carry my books in one hand and the computer with the other into the bathroom, where I close the door.

This professional, literary conference. This chance to showcase research and criticism to colleagues. Me, presenting next to the toilet.

~*~

Twenty minutes later, I open the door. Screaming and fighting: over. Biff plays with cars in the boys’ room. Blondie’s door is shut, but I hear her talking to her “pet puppies.” Bash sits alone, sniffling, rubbing his eyes, legs and floor littered with shreds of construction paper.

“Bash, what did you…” My voice crumples. Tears.

The door is bare.

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Lessons Learned from Diana Wynne Jones: Yesterday Needn’t Stay in Yesterday.

While I frantically prepare a presentation on Diana Wynne Jones for my university’s literary conference, please enjoy an essay on I wrote last year but never posted.

I distinctly remember the sensation of pins, countless pins, all over my body.

“Stand still, Jean.”

The pins held paper shapes to my clothes, and I’m sure my skin.

“Turn this way, Jean. No, this way.”

My grandmother and my mother titted and tatted over the pattern and its potential for Sunday best. I stared at the green shag carpet and thought of a great green plain that led to a waterfall there, where my grandparents’ blue comforter ruffled by the floor. To mountains, where the white metal closet door clanged shut as my grandfather got his hat and announced he was taking my kid brother for a drive to the park.

Sure. He gets to go to the park. I have to be a mannequin.

Grandmother lets out a loud arc of a laugh that verges on a bark, but there’s a music to it, too, like a drunk opera singer. I still get a “stand up straight, Jean” from my mom, but my grandmother laughs until my scowls subside, and I can’t help but smile. The scent of old cigarette smoke clings to her fingers as she removes some pins, HOORAY!…only to re-pin the back paper shape down a bit.

Blast.

So I take off inside me across the green plains for the white mountains, and wait for life to be not-boring.

~*~

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Isobel, Diana, and Ursula. Photo from Publisher’s Weekly.

Diana Wynne Jones took the initiative to make her life not-boring. As the eldest of three, she was required to look after her sisters, and occasionally other village children, while her parents ran a conference center where adults could spend a week or weekend to experience some culture. Nine years old, and in charge of cooking and cleaning for two kids younger than she. To entertain them she would write stories, endless stories, since their parents would not allow made-up stories in their meager library.

I, too, made up stories for myself. They rescued me from the boredom endured in fabric shops as my mother and grandmother pondered over fabric costs and pattern catalogues. I could see roads through the patterns, beasts in the shapes. There wasn’t a monster my trusty Pound Puppy Spike and I couldn’t handle.

Except for one.

~*~

Diana Wynne Jones’ mother often called her a “clever but ugly delinquent.” Jones and her sisters were never the priority when compared to work, which left the kids to fend for themselves. Often there was no food in the family residence, and if the kids went into the conference center, the cook shrieked at them to get out. The sisters’ garments were often cast-offs from the orphanage while the parents always had proper clothes. Diana’s sister Ursula even knotted her own hair to keep it out of her eyes. It took 6 months for their mother to notice. Sister Isobel was nearly strangled by the neck when they strung her up to fly about like a fairy. God forbid if they got sick; Diana went to school with chicken pox, German measles, scarlet fever and more because their mother insisted all their illnesses were “psychological.” No grown-up noticed them. Knew them. All they had was each other.

That kind of past is not easily forgotten.

~*~

time-of-the-ghost-1Published in 1981, The Time of the Ghost is Jones at her most autobiographical: neglected sisters whose lives mirror much of Jones’ childhood accidentally awaken an evil god. Time is not one of her most popular books—I’m not sure if it’s the time-jumping or human sacrifice that get people, but any time I hear of Jones, it’s never over this book. Maybe it’s because of her life story, and people take one look and think, “Yeah, right.” When I look at the past, cringe from the nightmare-years of sexual abuse no one else knew, and then see The Monster who made those nightmares still walking in the sunlight, I know how friends and family would react to such a revelation: “Yeah, right.”

It’s a harsh epiphany, realizing one’s “normal” childhood doesn’t fit the pattern of others. Memory darns the past to be presentable to the eye: there. Fit to be seen.

So long as no one looks underneath, and sees the desperate stitches and knots that hold the perception together.

Perhaps this is why I connected to Diana Wynne Jones as fiercely as I did: she pulled the old pain out of her closet, put it on, and stepped out into the world. Sure, it had the dark red glitter of a wicked fantastical god stitched on, but it was still her.

It only took her several decades to do it.

And if she could do it, then God-willing, so can I.

 

 

Tales of 100 Hearts

I never linger in sight. Last time I did, Bash screeched his head off the entire march down the stairs from his classroom, and Biff nearly pushed the child ahead of him down the stairs. So I remain around the corner where a small corridor leads to the church’s daycare.

February holds two major events for an elementary school: Valentine’s Day, and the 100th day of school. I don’t remember celebrating the 100th day as a kid, but Blondie assures me this is a big deal that requires special games and treats all revolving around the number 100. O-kay.

The boys’ school was in the spirit, too. I couldn’t stand far enough away to get a complete shot, but I was able to take a few close-ups.

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I loved studying the variety of writing styles, of what must have come from adults vs. tweens, of kids vs. teeny ones. And the choices made in both topic and writing fascinated me. Take that pink heart in the bottom photo–why history? And why write it with the teensiest letters possible? One seems to enjoy her cursive “friends” (because I’m guessing a boy’s not going to change font, let alone write the cursive so carefully), while another is equally writing friends so long as it can be in nearly invisible red ink. Two kids apparently like Spirit Week, though one’s definitely younger than the other…

I love the creativity little ones put into spelling words they don’t know, with letters big and proud. And then you have some who wrote at a weird angle–why? And one who really digs the teacher but must have forgotten how to spell her name, so a few letters had to go above the “Mrs.” Then, of course, there’s the over-achiever who had to explain why she picked what she did, and needed to make extra hearts to emphasize her love for it.

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Yes, being a Christian school, there were bound to be a few God-related hearts. But the heart in white is the one that really got my attention.

Bo’s certain it was written by a grown-up, but I’m not so sure. I studied that heart quite closely compared to the others, and the letters are a bit stilted and crooked when compared to the other more rounded, brighter teachery lettering.

The political climate of the United States has become a nightmare for many. I’m not going to lie–Wisconsin feels very cut off from it all. Milwaukee’s always been racially tense, Madison’s always been loudly liberal, but the rest of the state is, well, quiet. It can be easy to forget such a basic want is still very much a want everywhere: to be safe. To be where one is wanted, protected, and loved.

Every heart shares a piece of life tied to that school. I look upon how these words are rushed, curled, misshapen, stiff, and cannot help but wonder what else is tied to these hearts. That if I were to pick a heart from the wall I’d find a string, a string leading up and down stairs and around the playground and back into the room where the heart’s maker sits. I’d look upon the maker, tied to all the scraps and bits of life that brought the heart maker to write that word above all words.

And I’m betting I’d find a story.

Children’s Writer A.J. Cosmo & I Wonder What Can–or Should–be Stuffed into Kid Lit

franky002AJ Cosmo has written and illustrated many books over the years, his latest being Poop, a Middle Grade tale of a boy learning to handle life at a new school as well as living with his body’s needs. After writing about how dark kid lit can gowe decided to take turns “debating” a few other elements of children’s writing.

What purpose do you think stories have?

JL– For some reason this question takes me back to all those years of Bible class, where if one didn’t know the answer, one could just say “God” and somehow be right, however tangential a manner.

At the most basic level, stories help us grow.

They send us shivering to bed with cautionary tales of witches haunting the yard. They teach us to cope with loss, be it a pet, friend, or family member. They test our understanding of how the world works. They free us of reality’s constraints and let us loose in realms both fantastic and boundless.

Stories provide that which we do not always have in our realities: Camaraderie. Understanding. Hope.

A dream.

AJ- I have to agree with most of this. I see stories as stemming from two things: 1) it’s an outgrowth of human language and 2) it’s a consequence of the uniquely human ability of imagination. Stories aren’t just lessons that we tell each other, they are proposals for life. We tell them not just to warn of what is there but to ponder what could be.

With all the entertainment out there, why do you think reading is important?

JL- No other entertainment involves the kid like a book. I see it with my kids more than anything. My son Biff (age 4) can sit and stare at books for ages. He can read quite a few, but he mainly does it for the pictures: he’ll make the characters talk and go on adventures all his own. He doesn’t need the television to make adventures for him; books give him the tools to create his own. My daughter Blondie (age 6) devolves into a couch potato whenever she plays computer games or watches a show. Yes, we keep it pretty limited to educational stuff, but that’s still not the same as a book, where the senses depend on language to create. When Blondie reads, she’s speaking the words out loud, listening to herself say them, and in that, taking them all in. Her fingers run along every line of the page. She must study each word in order to say it correctly. The more she reads, the more story involves her, and therefore, the more Blondie utilizes her skills and senses.

AJ- I had a conversation with a child once at a school about Minecraft. He asked why I didn’t play it anymore. Don’t get me wrong, I love Minecraft, but no matter what I create in that world I am still playing within the confines of someone else’s creation (plus most people simply won’t care about what you make in the game.) Video games and films present reality, basically saying “here it is, interact with it” while books collaborate with your imagination asking “what do you think this person looks like? What’s the scary thing in the dark doing?” This exercises imagination which in turn prepares us to actually contribute to reality. I like to say to kids that I much prefer to make my own Minecraft rather than live inside of Notch’s (the creator of Minecraft.)

 Should a book be literal in its meaning?

JL- Ah, here’s a dicey question. I suppose I should pick a side, yes?

Then no. No, I don’t think a book needs to be literal. I suppose this comes from childhood and Bible class again—all those parables of “earthly stories with heavenly meanings.” I’m used to the idea that there’s something more going on than what the story tells.

Kids are smart…I mean, yeah, they’ll eat their own boogers, but they pick up on meaning pretty fast. Diana Wynne Jones, my favorite writer of all time, lamented how much a story had to be dumbed down for grownups. Children are used to figuring things out, she said. They don’t have to have everything explained to them—they take what you say as you say it, and figure things out as the story progresses.

If a story insists on being literal in its meaning, then that just sounds like the writer won’t let the readers work out the meaning for themselves.

Take a painting in an art museum. Viewers will look upon it with minds forged by countless different experiences. No perception is the same, which means no interpretation is the same. Yet interpret they will, and from that interpretation forge new ideas (even if that idea is Reason #73 of “Why I Don’t Like Art Museums”).

Now let’s say the artist is right there, explaining what all the meaning is in that painting. Some may agree, but for those who don’t interpret the painting that way, how do you think they feel? They didn’t “get” that meaning, which means something’s wrong with their perception. Something’s wrong with them.

That’s not how I’d want my readers to think.

AJ- LOL, forcing me to pick a side, eh? This was the question that started this debate process in the first place. Since the first proposal, I have had a lot of time to ponder the question and my answer is, well, a non-answer. It’s interesting that you bring up the bible because its use of stories, particularly the parables of Jesus, are a great example of why stories are both literal and figurative at the same time.

 To continue with the Jesus analogy, consider the well known parable of the good Samaritan: taken literally you could interpret it as good people help other people (or super literal, as in news, that at one time a Samaritan helped a man on the road.) The brilliance of parables is that the listener opts in to the depth of meaning that suits their capacity to receive it. Most people will see that they are called to be like the good Samaritan. Others might comprehend that the Samaritans were neighbors to the Jews and should thus be treated accordingly while a select few may realize that none of these labels matter at all and that we are all both Samaritan as well as the traveler in need.

 My favorite children’s book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff is revealing meaning to this day. I’m still not sure if we should be willing to give mice cookies, knowing that we may be taken advantage of, or that we should be cold and heartless city dwellers that never give money to the homeless because it doesn’t alleviate poverty. If the book has taught me anything, it’s that the answer depends on the mouse who is asking.

On a final note, I’ve found that people will apply meaning to things even if the artist had no intention to have any meaning. Seriously, the human mind is active enough that it only needs a few crumbs in order to formulate a philosophy. In actuality, the fewer the hooks of evidence the more likely the person is to attach their own thoughts to the piece. Perhaps this debate isn’t for the artists at all because no matter how many toasters we paint, there’s still going to be a lot of people who point and say “what a lovely fridge.”

Should a book be primarily a metaphor?

AJ- Going off my previous comment, I believe that most stories are a mixture of metaphor and literal interpretation. Yet, just as a cake can’t just be flower, so too could a story collapse if it is only metaphor. I’ve seen other writers get caught up in a metaphor trap and by that I mean that they so stringently forced the components of the story to represent something else that they forgot that they were telling a story. Often this results in what people call “convoluted” or “overdone” because the writer was trying to apply some grand meaning to a canvas that simply wouldn’t accept paint.

JL- Oh, yes. While I adored the Chronicles of Narnia series as a child, allegory is not meant for everyone. It can also easily get very, well, “preachy.” Kids don’t need to be whacked in the face with a MESSAGE. They’ll learn by reading and discovering for themselves. I think some writers get so caught up in what everything “means” that they forget a story can be precisely that sometimes—a story.

What about allegories and fairy tales, how do they fit into storytelling?

AJ- LOL, I kind of already answered this one but let’s delve a little deeper. I believe that fairy tales are the appendix of religious myths. Once humanity found other ways to explain natural phenomena, a part of our culture started to miss the fun and interesting stories that were now replaced with hard facts. Fairy tales are the one place where imagination is still permitted to go to absurdity (and yes I’m lumping sci-fi into fairytales at this point.) I doubt if anyone ever questioned the motivation for the dragon stealing the princess, it’s simply what dragons do. While allegories are teaching tools best suited for spiritual progress, fairy tales are the literary equivalent of recess. They are necessary for our growth, relaxation, and crucial to our entertainment.

JL- Ha! Yes, we did rather scope this out a little, but I think I’m going to step onto the other side of the fence here. Many fairy tales strike me as cautionary tales: beware of strangers giving treats (Hansel and Gretel). Beware of wanting what you cannot have (Little Mermaid). Beware of not paying what you owe (The Pied Piper). As you point out, humanity didn’t have a whole lot of science going for it back then, and it needed SOMEthing to explain the bumps in the night. Angels and devils work, sure, but they’re not earthly, are they? I’d imagine that few kids thought they’d see an angel in their lifetime, but they were all more than certain that a witch lived  out in the unknown, waiting for them if they were naughty.

Do stories only have one meaning?

AJ- Stories have as many meanings as any member of the audience is willing to place upon them. I think back on many visits to modern museums where I overheard patrons snickering at what was on display saying “I could do better than that” or “this isn’t art, I know art,” never realizing that the craft and look of modern art is a sideshow to the context and meaning of the work. Modern art expects the viewer to interact with it and place meaning upon the object with the aid of clues left by the artist. Literature has the same expectation, though the clues are usually contained within the piece itself.

JL- Oh dear. I was one of those snickerers, I’m sure. Well, when an artist literally puts an empty acrylic display case up, and calls that “art,” I start to question it! Or that long blue plastic plank leaning against the wall—what’s that about? Now the suitcase on the floor that opened up to a hole lower down where a shimmering pond full of life thrived—THAT I dug.

Anyway.

On the one hand, yes. I should think stories have many potential meanings, though I do think readers tend to force meaning on them sometimes. I’ll never forget my first graduate-level lit class: I was scared ****less because I had never taken any form of theory before, and people had been throwing out terms and theories over such’n’such and this’n’that for weeks. Our teacher only wanted OUR thoughts; we weren’t to research. Yet I was so overwhelmed and confused as to where people GOT all these meanings that I started reading critical theory about the story of the time anyway. Well, later that week the class was audibly stumped over a character. No one could think of anything. I slowly raised my hand: “Would you like to hear what the critics say?” The teacher threw up his hands in surrender, and smiled.

Whether or not the writer intends so many meanings is, I think, irrelevant. The writer can’t go around to every reader pointing at various things saying, “See how this means that? See? SEE?” Nor should the reader be banging on the writer’s door demanding, “So what does THIS mean? And THIS?” If we can all accept that many stories have some themes, some things it wants to get across, we’ll either catch them or we won’t. And the writer should, I’d hope, care more about telling a good story than preaching a message. That’s what pulpits are for. 🙂

What happens if a reader misses the point of a story?

AJ- I don’t think either the reader or the writer are penalized in any significant way. Now, if the story was boring and lost the reader’s attention, that’s a whole different issue, but if the reader simply walked away entertained then it was mission accomplished. Not every story is life changing, however, the ones that are resonate with the receivers for their entire lifetime. I have my own collection of impressions from great works that usually boil down to a single sentence or scene. Sometimes it doesn’t even make sense why I kept them, yet they still bubble up at the weirdest times. If I choose to, I may reflect on that impression and place it into the context of my current life. If not then what’s the harm? First and foremost stories are meant to entertain. Instructing and inspiring are secondary.

JL- I’m with you, AJ. I even blogged about this recently, too—I never understood how people pick up all these themes in stories; it was one of my biggest struggles in graduate school. I was either engaged by the story or not. As a writer, though, I’m starting to appreciate the importance of theme in creating the story. Whether people pick up on that theme or not doesn’t matter; I just want them to enjoy the story. But I have to write it first, and I have to write it right. Theme, or having that point, helps guide writers in setting the right stages to get the right reactions out of the characters to keep the story moving forward. How’d I put it… “It is THE definitive in a world our imaginations have not yet defined.” So, I’d say writers MUST have some sort of point, theme, however you want to call it. Readers? Readers might pick up on it. They might create some totally new themes on their own. And why not? A reader is in and of him/herself an element of the story, too. A reader brings all his/her perceptions and ideals into visualizing the world and characters. They’ll see things the writer never considered, and from there, discover new themes and ideas to apply to their own imaginations.

Nothing wrong with that. 🙂

Can you give any examples of a story that has no meaning at all?

JL-Hmm. That’s a tough one. I suppose the short answer would be this: “Nope.”

A slightly longer answer would be this:

Every reader has his/her own tastes. While other girls got into The Little House books, I was reading about the cases of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. I wasn’t out to derive any meaning from them, just like I doubt my daughter’s determined to learn about life from The Black Lagoon books. Children aren’t the ones who “look” for meaning, nor do they know it when they see it; that’s on the parent, I think, and as a parent, I’m not restricting my kids to strictly “meaning-full” books. I like how The Black Lagoon series shares Hubie’s various misadventures in various school experiences, because they help my daughter feel more comfortable in her own school, but I’m not going to keep my kids from books whose meaning–if there at all–eludes me.

 Perhaps that is a question to handle for a future debate: how much can an adult ask of a child’s story?

 AJ- How much can adults ask indeed. I often wonder if parents obsess over the meaning or the lesson of a book when none of that actually matters to the child. Not to mention that it’s questionable if the morals even sink in with the child without parental intervention. Again, stories have meanings placed upon them and it’s critical for the parents to discuss the story with their children and communicate what they want the children to learn from it. In that regards, the chief job of the book is to open the conversation, not preach to the reader.

How do you explain pop culture media, or other “non-artistic” entertainment?

JL- Super-short answer: I don’t.

Rambling answer: I’m unable to explain this sort of entertainment, but I can tell you this: I certainly don’t care for the current trends in humor aimed at kids, nor the adult humor thrown into kid’s entertainment for the adult’s sake.

For instance, my family adored the recent The Peanuts Movie. The previews shown before the film, however, are atrocious, as each highlights peeing in the pants and turds rolling out of pant legs as the highlights of their kid-geared comedy. Then you have plenty of Disney films with extremely adult-based humor, such as a plane saying he “kicked ASSton Martin out there!” and cars describing how they wore out their tires on their honeymoon…driving.

Thanks to my controlled exposure of current pop culture, I’ve kept my children out of some markets, such as the “sexy” Bratz/Monsters High. Unfortunately, peer pressure at school can undo a lot of effort, and further propagate the “non-artistic” entertainment kids devour like a plate of brownies. My daughter has shed tears more than once because we won’t give her an I-Pad. Why does she need an I-Pad? So she can play Minecraft like the other kids.

Sadly, books no longer drive the pop culture. I don’t know if books ever did before the Harry Potter series, but they certainly haven’t since. The video game Minecraft has appeared to be the greatest of, well, game-changers, crossing from entertainment medium to medium. Yes, I know there are Minecraft books now, but those books don’t grip my daughter’s classmates for hours on end like the game does.

 AJ- LOL, you are correct that most books never break into pop-culture; however, books do provide a foundation for the rest of pop-culture to build upon. Most movies have some literary foundation, as do television shows and some comics. Video games too have drawn from that well, but the same isn’t true in reverse. Movies and books based upon video games often fall flat or are disappointing because there’s no literary substance to the source material. Successful property adaptations, such as the Angry Birds movie, require so much additional material that they end up only sharing token aspects and a name. For the foreseeable future, I believe books will continue to be the breeding ground for most pop-culture ideas.

Does everything have to be so serious? What’s wrong with entertainment?

JL- GOSH no. How boring if everything had to be serious! It’s not like I learned any life lessons from my favorite 80s cartoon Silverhawks, (You can stop snickering now.) (Seriously, stop snickering.) (Okay I KNOW everyone thinks Thundercats was cooler. Leave my 80s alone!)

Sure, it’s cool when a book about pigs doing the polka also teaches instruments, or when the kids learn how weather works thanks to Curious George. But to say that’s all reading is good for–expanding knowledge–is an injustice to literature. Reading not only expands knowledge, but imagination and creativity. Reading introduces us to characters who know all our fears and hopes and dreams. Reading nudges curiosity out of its safe corner and into the wide world, if only to say goodnight to the moon.

 AJ- Much like candy, stories without a hard edge are good only in moderation. The same goes for serious stories though, as they can make the world seem hollow and unfair. There has to be a mix and the best stories actually have that mix built into them. I strive to achieve that in my own work, even though most people think I do silly monster nonsense. I’m totally ok with building Trojan horses though. 😉

 

Writer’s Music: Nick Cave & Warren Ellis

Featured

51tandu2qrl-_sy355_Do you imagine in words?

I do sometimes. When I’m working through a piece of life, as I am now with The Telling and my own history of sexual abuse, I tend to see in words. It’s a strange switch from seeing a story: I don’t smell, feel, or hear. My eyes see nothing but words an inch from my face, and even they have a fuzz to them, so it takes a few tries to decipher. The more I read, the more my senses follow, and life within me finds a focus.

 

Music helps me see more than the story. Music helps me see the language of me.

I knew how to read notes before words, having started piano at the age of 4. My father loved to write hymns, and my mother often directed choirs. We kids learned numerous church-friendly instruments, and sang in the choirs. (Bo likes to think my father secretly aspired for us to become a Christian version of the Partridge Family. Thank God THAT didn’t happen.) Even after Dad died, my mother and elder brother continued to give to the church with music, while my kid brother went on to become a pastor himself.

Despite all I have experienced–all the time-stops on those afternoons long agoor the endless days with my newborn sonsmusic and stories always propelled me forward. One word follows another; one note comes after another. They emote. Inspire. Begin. End. Define, yet live on without limit.

Which, at last, brings me to that which I wanted to share with you.

Whenever I’ve written about parenting, depression, or abuse, I pull up The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Some of the tracks are more narrative than others; these I ignore. But a few have such a…it’s a tense hope. Like Mychael Danna’s Capote, the score is dominated by strings and piano. Capote, however, has more menacing undertones to it than Assassination–a result of the bass and fewer harmonies, I think. I also feel more of a time-stop with Capote, especially during the solo piano I love so much. Assassination‘s “Song for Bob” has a very slow build while strings are added, and added. A sense of resolve comes through when the violin joins at the 1:30 mark, and even though the rhythm of the harmonies repeats, the build goes on. When the piano joins, the strings seem…not forced, but their harmonies alter, and for some moments the viola provides what feels like the final monologue in a Shakespearean tragedy. The return of the original rhythm and harmonies is different, yet the same.

How like us, we who undergo the shift within to reclaim our total selves.

 

Markers

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This lovely emerald isle was my Narnia whenever we visited my mother’s parents in Watertown.

Yeah, I know. Not much when I think about the camp that truly felt like Narnia to me. But my grandparents had no yard of which to speak, and the park  of the forgotten portal was off-limits without a grown-up. Something about drowning, or strangers, or, you know, those boring things grown-ups think about when there’s adventure to find!

Beyond the emerald isle, you can see a fenced-off cemetery. It’s very old–clearly once the outskirts of the town, until they built around it. It covers the entire hillside, a mile if not more. We always drove past it to go into town, and every time, my eyes fixated on this:

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Hard to catch, but I wanted you to see what my kiddie eyes saw: a stone tree.

I didn’t understand it. Why did someone build a stone tree in a cemetery? What’s it mean? Who’s it for? I imagined other strange creatures of stone, a whole land captured in a moment, eternally asleep until the right magic could wake it.

“No, Jean, you can’t play there. Good girls don’t go and play in cemeteries. NO, we are NOT going in there.” Neither my grandparents nor my mother seemed to remember that we used to live smack-dab next to a cemetery up north until I was 4, where our yard WAS the cemetery. So, was I evil for playing in it then?

Anyway.

Years passed before I finally dared to go it alone. Living at boarding school, free of sports and off of work. My grandmother in heaven, my grandfather in another part of town. We were told that GOOD students don’t go to this side of town, too much seedy behavior from the public children, keep OUT of there–

–until finally: “Fuck you, this is MY hometown, so I’M GOING,” I thought quietly and respectfully to myself. For I did think of Watertown as mine. It’s been the only place I’ve really known all my life. So to be told a precious piece of my little years was tainted by others’ sin…well. Note the aforementioned thought.

After visiting the park, I looked down the road, and remembered the hill. The cemetery.

Years of looking through the fence. Of a stone tree through a car window.

I had to see.

~*~

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No, these pictures aren’t from the 90s, sorry. 🙂 And I’m sorry to report the cemetery wasn’t the magical world trapped in reality as I had dreamt back then. What I found was the past entombed in the present.

At last.

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Rusted spikes run round the graves. I see old hoops for a chain to run across the opening. Someone did not want these places touched by strangers. I am sorry, but…I need to see.

Two books: one so faded I cannot read, and I have nothing with which to trace. Words lost to time and sight, but not to my fingers. If only I had the tools…. The other book marks names and dates. A hummingbird forever flying, vines forever climbing. But the tree has no top. A tree with no branches cannot live.

Why such small pieces of stone life? Surely a stone tree, branches and all, would symbolize life eternal, right out of Eden.

Perhaps the one who commissioned this was not thinking of life eternal. Perhaps all he, or she, wanted was some bit of hope clawing up through the ground. A flicker of life that darts in and out of the corner of one’s eye. One that could never be caught.

Whoever it was, this person wanted to sit with those laid to rest, and be with them. The difference in tombs, though…why but a trunk face for one, while a formal tomb with book for the other?

No inscription of any kind could be found on the trunk. Perhaps…not the one really loved? And yet this one was allowed inside the compound. Curious.

It made me think of another grave in another town.

I looked to the sky, to my empty hands. I had no flowers to give, but…

~*~

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No works of art marking where the dead rest this time. For every plaque embedded into the ground, you can instead see a bouquet of artificial flowers, courtesy of the memorial park.

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I cringe at the sight of a small yellow and white collection of fibers and plastic marking my father’s place.

No, it’s not fair to say fake flowers equal fake grief, but they seem so…obligated. For show. Look, someone likes him enough to make sure something bright is above his name. It will be there day after day after day–unless the lawnmower destroys it, of course. It could wave about in the wind for months, even, like the artificial Christmas wreath I once found on my grandfather’s grave in June. Faded, broken.

Sad.

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The closest thing to statue work is here: a tower with each side portraying a Gospel writer. Dad got St. Luke. He’d have liked that, I think: the practical doctor who saw Jesus better the lives of others’ through His Words and Actions.  Dad referred to Luke in more sermons than any other book of the Bible.He worked among all, gave them hope and faith, just as he learned from his Savior.

Do I wish we had given my father more of a marker? Good Lord, no…well, maybe a walk-in stone Tardis, but that’s besides the point. No, Dad, and me, and all of my family, are firm believers that death is but a chapter break, and that the bones and ashes placed in the earth are simply that–bones, ashes. The soul is not in that box, but in the heavens, beautiful as a star, and far, far happier. The last thing Dad would have wanted was for everyone to fixate on this rectangle with his name on it, and think that’s all it comes to.

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I get into the car as thunder bordered on the edge of the air. Grab a random burned CD and turned it up so I wouldn’t be lost to tears. And on comes “Journey of the Sorcerer” orchestrated by Joby Talbot. It just so happens to be the theme for Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, a favorite author of my father’s. Banjo and piano meets with raindrops, drops turned to streams as the brass swells to the that rebellious staccato up and down, down and up. Set to repeat, I feel the build and dance every minute of that drive home, awash in memory of  Dad’s eager talks about childhood adventures in Milwaukee, how Douglas Adams wrote the best Doctor Who stories in the Baker years–

–and hope to God this downpour smites the damn flowers.

 

Discordant Melodies of Heaven

Some places only have character because of memory. This street, for one. It’s the primary thoroughfare for students between campus and the rest of the town.

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Rather than ride a bus and attend a “normal” high school, I attended a boarding high school where teens were prepared to attend a ministerial college. College graduates and seminarians were obligated to watch over us in the dorms, cell-like structures as old as my parents and older.

I should know: my parents met here.

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Some buildings have been left untouched. The auditorium, for one, an important place: it is where my mother practiced music, where my father performed on stage. Where I did both.

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Some spaces have changed. This new dorm was built on the only open green space on campus. Yes, I’m still miffed about that. It’s only been sixteen years…

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At least the little things still thrive. This fruit tree, for one.

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Crab apple? I honestly don’t think of the fruit much. It’s the blossoms I adored every spring. Each morning on the walk to the first mandatory chapel service of the day (for day must begin and end with Christ) we went by this tree. The petals are only waking up now, thanks to Wisconsin’s wonky spring temperament. One can never predict when the blossoms will peak, but I remember walks past that tree when the petals rained down as the organ marched off another hymn, calling His Disciples forth to be counted. I often tuned the organ out to watch the petals dance to their own song, one only they could hear in the breeze from heaven. It was always a beautiful melody. It must have been, the way they swirled about before laying spent on the sidewalk and trod under our feet.

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One day, I don’t know when, I stopped following the march. Oh, my body went along, sure, but my soul stayed behind with the petals. We sang “Here I am, Lord,” and I felt myself a liar, for I knew I was no longer among The Counted. As every pew creaked with our five-hundred-strong bow for silent prayer, I asked God if it was okay.

Please, God, let it be okay.

~*~

I turn to leave the campus. My boys will be done with school soon. Still, I can’t help but pause by the blooms:

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Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. (Matthew 6:28-29)

Hope fills me as my fingers grace the branches, the flowers.

Just before my enrollment, the school changed its mascot to a phoenix. I always found that a bit strange, choosing a mythical creature to represent God’s Followers, but then, the phoenix rises up from the ashes of its old life to live again, brighter and stronger than before. There is certainly a bit of Christ in that.

And, I’d like to think, in me, too.

Guest Author Michael Dellert Discusses the Land’s Influence on Writing

Time and Place: The Real World of Fiction

Hi, Jean Lee. Thanks for inviting me to write to your audience today.

You asked me recently, “How does the landscape around me influence my writing?”

Nothing anchors a work of fiction so solidly in a reader’s mind as knowing when and where something is taking place. Settings provide bases of operations for everything that happens in a story or novel, and these settings—along with the characters that will do things in there—provide writers with a means to actually tell a story, rather than simply report information.

I grew up in a small, rural farm town in the Appalachian Mountains, surrounded by reminders of the US Revolutionary War, during the height of the US détente with the Soviet Union. Down in the valley, there are rolling hills, twisting streams, swamps, and small family farms with dairy cattle, sheep, horses, corn and other vegetables. Up in the mountains, where I grew up, there are worn, blunted peaks, steep drops, and tumbled collections of fractured boulders, deposited by the retreat of glaciers so long ago that the land didn’t even know a footprint when those stones were laid down. There are lakes in the low places on top of the mountain, most of them man-made in a time not so long ago when my town was conceived of as a close-to-home retreat for wealthy New Yorkers.

In the winter, the temperatures fluctuate, sometimes bitterly freezing for days at a time, during which the lakes ice over. Then at other times, the weather is mild and merely cool. On such days, the icy lakes suddenly melt, and fog rises, obscuring sight beyond a few dozen yards, and the black-barked, leafless trees loom through the mist. In the Spring (which comes late and slow to the mountains), those same trees suddenly riot with yellow-green leaf-shoots, and the blossoms of flowers in purple, yellow, and white. Summers are a time of blue skies and white clouds reflected on the still waters of the lakes, but also of drenching, earth-shaking thunderstorms. Autumn is a cacophony of colors, gold, red, brown, and yellow, as the leaves change. The temperature drops off in late September when the apples ripen on the trees, and then rebounds for a last hint of summer in mid-October before dropping off again and for good until the following Spring.

As a young man, I didn’t fully appreciate where I’d grown up. It was too familiar, and familiarity breeds contempt. I left that small town as soon as I could to see what this “real world” was really like. Since then, I’ve been a lot of places, and seen pictures of the rest. From city to wilderness, I’ve crammed a lot of travel into a short time on this blue-green marble of ours. And one thing I’ve always found? When I’m stuck for inspiration in my writing, one of the things I can do to break the block is go for a walk wherever I am.

The Credibility of Setting

Human beings are strange creatures. Despite all evidence to the contrary, we’re always in search of “objective truth,” a common reality that is beyond all dispute and argumentation. Why else is “based on a true story” such a great marketing hook? The idea that some strange, absurd, and fascinating story “really happened” carries a certain amount of magic, doesn’t it?

For this reason, every one of our stories has to really happen in the minds and eyes and ears of our readers. The worlds we create have to exist as surely in fiction as if they had actually transpired in fact. And this comes down to two simple things:

  1. Establishing our characters and their situations and the details of the setting so completely that it all could possibly take place; and
  2. Effectively conveying those characters and situations and details so that the story does take place.

One of the very best ways to ensure that both of those things happen is to pay close attention to the description of our settings.

For example, in my recent book, A Merchant’s Tale, I take the reader to a time before they were born and a place that never existed. Yet through the description and use of small details, the reader is actually there, seeing the things the narrator is seeing, feeling the chilly, early spring morning of a rural farmland:

The wagon rocked beneath my seat. The trail was rutted and pocked with holes and stones. The axles groaned as the old, grey-haired drover tapped at the oxen with a long, flexible switch and nickered encouragement. Ahead, the hills rose and fell. Early spring leaves on the scattered trees had recently broken bud, and flowers belied the hidden dangers lurking amid the shadows.

We passed through croplands. A ploughman and his ox-goader struggled to drive a team and their ard-plough through a fallow field. It had been cold overnight. No doubt the soil was partly frozen. Adarc told me it was hard work, but they might plough at least an acre that day.

Elsewhere, cow-herds mustered cattle through pastures and dogs barked and nipped at the herd to move it toward the best grazing.

The land rose as we passed through the village fields, bearing east into the hills of Droma. We could look down on the king’s village behind us. It wasn’t much more than a ramshackle collection of thatch-and-daub mud hovels clustered on a wide, shallow bend in the river. The tower was impressive, a three-story shell-keep on a tall hill, but otherwise, I’d seen much more civilized mud-holes.

For the reader, this event really happens, just as surely as the events in any “based on a true story” movie. Despite the distance in time, culture, and place from our modern world, this little scene comes through as clear and crisp as if the reader was standing on that trail on that chilly morning, looking across the countryside of Droma.

All fiction should seem that real to the reader. The only way to make it happen is to pay close attention to the details that you want, and only those you need, to convey your story. Then find the very best words you can to describe those details.

The end result will be a work of fiction that brings your readers in and gives them a realistic sense of where things will be taking place.

Thanks so much for having me on your blog, Jean Lee!

—**—

Michael Dellert lives in the Greater New York City area. Following a traditional publishing career spanning nearly two decades, he now works as a freelance writer, editor, publishing consultant, and writing coach. He is also the sole writer, editor, and publisher of the blog MDellertDotCom: Adventures in Indie Publishing. He holds a Master’s Degree in English Language & Literature from Drew University, and a certificate from the Cornell University School of Criticism & Theory (2009). He is the author of two fantasy fiction novellas: Hedge King in Winter and A Merchant’s Tale, which can be found on Amazon in print and for Kindle.

Step Out for Dawn

Waking up before sunrise has its uses.

For one thing, the house is quiet. When one is the mother of small children, silence is one of the greatest luxuries EVER. I can read, or write, or just, you know, stare out the window and see this:

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I wanted to catch more, but my sons woke early. Dammit.

Last night Bo begrudgingly agreed to wake up in time to handle the kids so I could go out and photograph the sunrise elsewhere. Out of town, among the fields, with a rustic barn, or maybe a bird. It sounded like the perfect piece of my life to share here–the glory of morning as it unfolds, the last minutes of silence in the world. (That, and I’m experiencing bad writer’s block on a nonfic piece, but anyway.)

So I go out. And find–

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–power lines. Curses!

The parks I hoped to utilize were closed off due to snow. I drove out of town, into town and out again, losing pre-dawn light as I tried to find one blessed stretch without those accursed power lines.

Found it.

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(Sort of.)

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Fine. I had to accept the power lines. But what about clouds? The sunrise earlier this week unleashed such incredible colors on the sky. The previous day was all cloud cover. Where the hell’s my painted sky?

Honestly? I chewed God out a bit.

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Yet I stayed. The trees, I think–they stood as living shadows against the light as it slowly seeped into my space.

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No clouds to reflect colors, but the colors came, nonetheless.

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I went back to my car to warm my fingers, and nearly missed it:

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It occurred to me as I stood, watched, pressed buttons: I had never watched a sunrise before.

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Color filled the expanse above my head and under my feet.

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But then, the trees looked like trees again. Cars found my patch of countryside and wouldn’t leave it alone. The world insisted I had to press on, return to reality and all its obligations.

Blondie needed a ride to school, anyway.