A Lesson in the Art of Reading

I learned to read  because of envy.  Some little girl in my pre-kindergarten class walked in one day, waving a Little Golden book like it was a fan. During show-and-tell she read aloud to the class.  The teachers all went nuts.  How smart she was, how sweet she was and wasn’t she wonderful to entertain the other children?  Phooey. A show-off in a pinafore is what she was and I wasn’t interested in being her audience.  I buckled down to understanding the Little Bear books Mom had been reading aloud and soon there were two readers in my Pre-Kindergarten. With a little help from Dr. Seuss, I left Blondie behind in the dust. Since then, I’ve read most things with ease.

The thing is, even a talent for reading won’t make every book easy and some worthwhile works require effort.  I found that out in high school when we were assigned Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” and all those Russian characters were confusing me.  That is also where I learned the single greatest reading trick.  When you sit down to read a challenging work, have something close you can write on.

Let me go back to “The Cherry Orchard”

This play may be instantly comprehensible to people who grew up in Russia but it can drive American teenagers crazy.  Almost every character has at least three names and they were usually referred to by at least two of them.  We couldn’t even pronounce the lines, much less make sense of the plot.  So our teacher had us create a page for each character and write everything we learned about them on their particular page. (Always short of notebook paper, I put 3 or 4 on a page).  At any rate, as I learned things about the characters, I added data to the collections of notes, drawing arrows from one entry to another as I memorized the relationships between them.  (Lyubov mother to> Anya is an example).  It was slow going at first, since I was writing down everything, but pretty soon I was writing down my impressions as well (Is Yasha fooling around with Lyubov?  He’d better not, he’s dating Dunyasha!)  and the characters were coming to life.  Fairly soon I could remember all the characters and I didn’t need to rely on the notepad.

That practice served me well a few years ago when J. K. Rowling published The Casual Vacancy.   After her like-able and easy to read Potter series, The Casual Vacancy was an unwelcome surprise to those who secretly expected all of her books to be charming.  Instead there was a huge cast of unpleasant people trying to manipulate each other.  A lot of readers gave up.  Me, I’m stubborn so I got out the old steno pad and started making notes.  By a third of the way through I could see where the author was going  (she has a huge social conscience) and I didn’t need the pad any more.  Now when I can’t keep focused on the text, out comes the  pencil and paper.

A lot of people think reading should be easy, and popular literature follows that mantra, but some really good books require effort. If you want to try something a bit more sophisticated but you’re having trouble keeping up with the characters, break out the pencil and paper.  Give big characters a page of their own where you can write about them, allow extras to share a page.  Write down what you know, and draw arrows or underline until you understand what’s going on.  And if you see my English teacher, Mr. Schultz, tell him the old technique still works.

The Past We Leave Behind

I remember a few things about my first trip to Disneyland.  I loved riding the flying elephants with my Dad and I screamed all the way through the Sleeping Beauty castle, terrified that Maleficent would appear.  I don’t recall much more of that day but memories are like overstuffed closets; if you pull out one or two items, you’ll be surprised what you’ll find underneath.
The hero in The Ocean at the End of the Lane  has similar holes in his memories.  He’s driving down roads he doesn’t remember to a childhood home destroyed long ago.  Some neighbor ladies remember him and, at his request, take him to a duckpond  behind their farmhouse.  He stands by the pond, remembers someone called it “an ocean” and the memories crash in like a wave.

Water’s important in this story, as is memory, and all the things we don’t know.  As a child, our hero knows he was lonely but he doesn’t know what makes loneliness bad.  So, other children play with each other while he stays inside and reads books.  What’s wrong with that?  His parents said they’ve lost their money but what he knows is they’ve rented out his bedroom; he’s not really aware of all the stress this puts on the family.  He knows the new babysitter is evil but his parents and sister can’t see that.  Only the neighbor ladies named Hempstock seem to understand everything.  How old these women really are or  or how they tend our fragile world is another unknown but our hero knows they’re the people he needs when he lets an “Other” into our world.  Only the Hempstocks can save him or the world and they’ll need their duck-pond ocean.
Part of the charm of this book comes from the idea that a child may have a truer vision than an adult.  Any adult worth their junior high science classes know there are very few inland oceans and none the size of a duck pond.  Yet, a seven year old has the imagination to see beyond the facts.  Who has the clearer vision, the adult whose memory has been drilled out and re-stuffed with knowledge or the youngster who sees the magic and potential all life conveys?  Does the adult forget because he’s seen so much or because he blocks out what he lost as a boy? 
Gaiman is one of those amazing authors that writes for multiple age groups and in different formats.   The Ocean at the End of the Lane could be read aloud to children but it’s story for adults, at least adults who like a bend in reality.  Read it and see what memories come out of your closet.

Lessons I’ve learned in Writing No. #1: Forget about Giving Up.

Picasso’s Don Quixote

If there’s a central bit of advice I’ve heard or can give, it’s “Don’t Give Up.”  Don’t give up working, don’t give up trying, and don’t give up on anything if it gnaws at your soul.  If you want to put something new into the world, you have forget giving up.

Successful people know, first hand, how hard it is to succeed.  The process involves a lot of failure and mistakes and they developed the fortitude to keep trying until they got it right. Once, I was disheartened to read F. Scott Fitzgerald rewrote some pages twenty times; now I wonder how he made his prose that good after only nineteen revisions.  To make something of quality takes a kind of tenacity comparable to OCD.  If you want to make something good, get used to the work it involves.  Don’t Give Up.
It takes another type of resilience to find the people interested in publishing your work.  There are all kinds of venues looking for creative people but few of them will be interested in you.  Your precious creation will be too long, too short, too old-fashioned, too avant-garde and mostly not what they’re looking for.   Your ego has to be strong enough to withstand all that rejection but open to honest criticism when it comes your way.  That’s a hard balance to achieve but it’s necessary for you to eventually find the people who will take a chance on your work. They’re out there, keep trying to find them.
The time you use to create is important but it’s not the only part of your life.  Most people have family, a job and friends.  We have responsibilities to our world and to others.  Sometimes the work you do for yourself will feel like a self-invented taskmaster that isolates you from life and love.  Everyone in your social media circle will be doing something with someone, somewhere; and you’ll still be alone, tied to the work.  Under these circumstances, do you wonder why every creative person hasn’t already quit?
Well, they probably have at one time or another.  Quitting is an easy thing to do.  Staying quit is not.  The need to create and communicate is a drive that must be regularly tended or it makes its victim miserable.  Ignoring it or medicating it with sweets leads to self-hate and a lot of extra pounds. 

So, if you’re driven by the urge to create, you have my sympathies.  There’s a treatment, if no cure. The treatment is to continue creating, despite doubt and the certainty of rejection. Commercial success is beyond your control but you can figure out why that sentence won’t work.  Fix it, a word at a time, and then go to the next.   Keep working.  Keep trying.  Keep tilting at windmills. Don’t quit. Never give up.

Love & Death in a New England Summer

There are stories that pass through your brain and leave, unnoticed and unmissed.  Others are  like summer romances that hold you until there’s a change in the weather.  And there are stories you find by chance that stay with you forever.  I’ve been rereading Bag of Bones for fifteen years now and I believe I’ve fallen in love to stay.  That’s good because love is a driving force in this book, along with death and in a New England summer.

Stephen King turned into a writer sometime while my back was turned.  A first, he was a commercial success and a critic’s nightmare come true.  I couldn’t stand his early prose, so I ignored him.  Then one August day I was combing the shelves, craving a good ghost story.  (Ghost stories and haunted houses are DOCs of mine.)  This book was on the shelf and I was desperate enough to try anything, even a book by Stephen King.  It hit like a tidal wave.

Mike and Joanna Noonan have the marriage we lesser mortals crave.  They like and understand each other and she knows when to deflate his ego.  Not that Mike needs much deflating.  He’s one of King’s Everymen, a decent, sensible guy who happens to write for a living.  These two likeable people should have given each other decades of joy and a couple of kids.  Bag of Bones could have been called, “Lives that Should have been.”

Because Joanna Noonan is dead on page one and Mike is left alone.  His ability to write packs up and leaves shortly after her funeral.  Now, Stephen King published thirty-three novels in the quarter century before Bag of Bones but somewhere along the way he learned about writer’s block.  It’s real and it’s hell and he captures that pain on the pages of this book. Without his wife or the ability to work, our hero is a man without focus.

Luckily, he still has a few things left to love, like his summer home “on the TR” and reading.  If anything, Bag of Bones is a book-lovers book.  It cites authors from Melville to McDonald and is tied, through multiple references to Rebecca (one of my all-time, hands-down, favorites)  After four years of grief, Mike returns to the summer home he and his wife loved so well.  That’s when the bad stuff really starts.

One issue pertains to the nice girl down the road and her toddler daughter, Kyra.  Mike gets caught in the cross-fire of a custody battle between the girl and  her terrible father-in-law.  That’s bad but Mike’s bigger problem are the people in his house.  You could say Mike’s not living alone, except he’s the only one in the house that’s alive.  These problems and others keep him on the place and in the bulls-eye of unending curse.  To survive and save someone he loves, Mike must unearth the secrets that holds the TR in its grip and he’ll find out which forces really survive death.

Lyrical in places and perfectly paced, Bag of Bones turned me into a fan.   If you pick it up now, you’ll read it at the height of the summer, the perfect time for this story.  Read it in the woods, or by the lake but don’t read it when you’re alone.  It’s too easy to believe in ghosts when you’re book-deep in a summer’s night.

A Tale of Two Orphans

Everyone, from my college advisor on down, will tell you I love tales with orphan heroes.  You name them: Oliver Twist, Harry Potter, Tensy Farlow, the Baudelaire children, I fell in love with each and every one of those books. (Well, I hated the ending of the Baudelaire series, but that’s another story.)  The thing is, there are orphans and then there are orphans and they aren’t really alike.  To explain what I mean, look at one of the most famous kid books to come out of the 19th century: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

You can’t get past the first page without learning Tom’s parental status. Aunt Polly’s first soliloquy says, “he’s my own sister’s boy, poor thing, and I ain’t got the heart to lash him.”  So, Tom is an orphan but he doesn’t really fit the mold.  Orphan heroes are usually vulnerable kids who miss the love and security of a stable home.  They tend to grow up fast because they have to and any tendency toward mischief has been knocked right out of them.  Can you think of anyone less like that than Tom Sawyer?

Tom and his siblings may be orphans but they’ve never lacked a home or love because of the redoubtable Aunt Polly. (Twain describes her as old but I’ll bet Aunt Polly’s not that much past thirty; living with Tom ages a woman).  Because of this secure grounding, Tom’s a king in his own home town.  He struts around, confident of his place in the world, bossing other boys or showing off for Becky Thatcher.   The world is his and he knows it.  Of course, Tom’s chutzpah is another reason to like the brat (His explanation for forcing patent medicine down the cat’s throat is almost as funny as the cat’s reaction) but he doesn’t fit the mold of an orphan does he?

His side-kick, Huck does.  Huckleberry Finn is a pariah among the respectable citizens of Saint Petersburg.  He wears rags and calls no shelter home.  Some nights, he probably goes to sleep hungry.   But Huck Finn is not an orphan, at least not in this book.  Pap, Huck’s father is the town drunk and although he’s abandoned his son, the town assumes a living parent keeps a child from needing aid.

 Huck and Tom complement each other but either one would tell you, Tom’s always the leader.  He’s the one who decides they should search for treasure or what Pirate Names they should have.  Huck is the logistics man, finding and lifting the tools and going along with the game.  In his own novel, Huck shows he’s pretty good at coming up with ideas on his own and he’s even better at executing them but all of Huck’s projects are a means to a practical end.  Unlike Tom, he never starts something, for the “glory” of it.  Huck is a serious boy in a serious world and in his own book, he shows true nobility.  But by then, Huck is really an orphan.

In the end, there is no choice between these two wonderful characters.  But as Mark Twain, himself wrote, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is the history of a boy and he ended it before it became the history of a man.  Tom, with the security of his home and family has the limitations and and irresponsibility of a boy and, despite his daring and adventures, a boy is what he remains.  Huck Finn, after years of isolation and freedom finds the structures of civilization hard to abide.  The true orphan is more than half way to becoming completely grown.