Sunday, March 09, 2014

Rediscovering the Brilliance of Dr. Seuss

This month is Dr. Seuss' birthday, celebrated in elementary schools far and wide. Of course, in this era of short school years and pressures to meet the standards, it's a bit harder to manage a full day devoted to Dr. Seuss, with Cat-in-the-Hat hats and so forth. But I couldn't let the moment pass without some acknowledgment. So, I read YERTLE THE TURTLE to my students, and in the process I was reminded of how truly brilliant Dr. Seuss was.

We think of Dr. Seuss and we think of GREEN EGGS AND HAM, THE CAT IN THE HAT - fun rhymes and childlike simplicity. Those books manage to use words accessible to early readers without being dull as dishwater. Cat?  Hat? Can you think of any more basic rhymes? But that's part of Dr. Seuss' brilliance - the deceptive ease of his rhyme. Read it aloud and it flows, smoothly, effortlessly, from one idea to the next, the rhyme and meter giving the whole text this magnificent lift without ever getting in the way or collapsing into obvious rhymes and predictability. Have you ever tried to write in a Seussian rhyme scheme? It is anything but easy.

But the doctor's genius goes beyond his remarkable skill with language. His books are subversive, revolutionary, political. When I asked my third graders to identify the theme of YERTLE THE TURTLE, they didn't miss a beat. "If you have power," they said, "You shouldn't abuse it."  Think of HORTON HEARS A WHO, a statement about the power of one small person to make a difference in the world against the great and powerful. Think of THE SNEETCHES, a fable on the importance of diversity and difference. The BUTTER BATTLE, THE LORAX - time and again, Dr. Seuss dove boldly into the political arena via his children's books. No wonder. He started as a political cartoonist. And yet, despite the unflinching, often explicitly stated, morals of his stories, he never seems "preachy," a term we writers have been warned against in the strictest of terms when it comes to picture books. Somehow, Dr. Seuss is able, through his humor, his clever writing, his fantastical visions, to hurl these powerful morals at his readers without insult or condescension.

While I was reading YERTLE THE TURTLE, one of my students pointed out that Yertle really shouldn't be claiming he is king of a house and king of a tree and king of all he can see because nobody elected him. And just like that, we were connecting with current events in the Ukraine. The issue of rightfully elected leadership is at play there, just as it was for Yertle. Geopolitics emerges from a children's story about a turtle in a pond. That's the brilliance of Dr. Seuss. Happy birthday, Theodore!

Saturday, February 22, 2014

100 Rejections

A few days ago, I reached my personal goal of 100 rejections. I set this goal a while back as a way to embrace the fear inherent in submitting my work and take the sting out of rejections. I made a rule that all the submissions had to be in good faith, of course, to count towards my total. The 100 rejections represents a number of different pieces of writing, from novels to short stories to poems to picture books, so it's really still a drop in the bucket of what I know I must reach when you play the numbers game. However, I see it as an important milestone. And I plan on celebrating, though I'm not sure how just yet.

As writers, we need to set goals, goals we can control. I can't control what an editor or agent ultimately decides to do with my work, so I don't want to set a goal like "sell this many short stories" or "get an agent by such-and-such date." I CAN control how good the work is, how I decide which pieces to send where, how often I submit, how much I write. I can set a goal like "finish the revisions on this novel by such-and-such date" or "submit this many queries by the end of the year." I figured the only way to reach 100 rejections was to keep submitting, so really my goal was to keep submitting my work. And I did.

I wish I could say that along with these rejections I had some huge and monumental successes. Not yet. On the other hand, I did have some small but notable successes. I sold three short stories. I had a few pieces shortlisted. I had one agent and one publisher  who were incredibly complimentary of my novel. I had several pieces win recognition in contests of one sort or another. All of these kept me going.

Reaching any goal, no matter how silly or small, is a good time to stop and take stock. So, having reached my 100 rejections, I am taking stock. Where do I want to go from here? How do I want to push myself? What is a realistic goal? I know I want to finish the first draft of my dreamscape novel and finish the rewrites on what I'm calling my problem novel. I know I want to continue to create NEW short stories, to improve my "inventory" for submissions. I know I need to get better at the all-important and hated query letter. But what about a goal to push me to keep on submitting and not give up?

If I try for 200 rejections, maybe I'm giving myself too much permission to fail. Perhaps this time, I will set a goal for number of submissions. My 100 rejections represent 127 submissions. Those that weren't rejections and didn't result in an award (honorable mention, 2nd place, semifinalist) or a sale, are ones with no response yet, and perhaps no response ever. So, maybe my new goal will be 250 submissions. That seems like a nice round number. 123 to go.

What are your goals?  How would you celebrate 100 rejections and the determination, tough skin and hard work they represent?

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Ender's Game and the Creator-Creation Disconnect

I loved the Ender's Game trilogy by Orson Scott Card.  I am not a sci-fi fan.  I read it with my stepson because he is a fan of the genre and I was trying to bond with him during his adolescence and teen years. A friend recommended it. I loved it not only because it was well-written but because it dealt with deeper themes and did it so deftly and darkly. It is, in my opinion, a remarkable exploration of the issues of prejudice driven by ignorance, and the dangerously fine line between child's play and violent training, and how the adult world manipulates that line. It is a Lord of the Flies for a new age, with the hope that the individual conscience can fight against the darker human impulses, though both are at vicious war inside us. The entire trilogy demands you to ask questions and dispel ignorance before you act on it.

Now it is a movie.  But there is a snag.  Because of Orson Scott Card's raving homophobic side (more than homophobic, based on the hate-filled statements he makes), there is a move in the LGBT community to boycott the movie. I credit this boycott effort with raising my awareness of Card's public vitriol against gays.  I didn't know this about him before.  I only knew he was an author whose work I admired.

I am heartbroken to realize that a man capable of writing such a powerful exploration and excoriation of prejudice and its end results could be such a bigot himself. How is this possible?  How is it that creative individuals can give voice to such noble and beautiful truths in their art and work and be such small-minded souls in the rest of their lives?

This is the same question asked by the play and movie Amadeus. How can a man so clearly gifted by God with a divine musical genius be so heartbreakingly human and flawed and small in how he lives his life? Literature and art are full of similar examples, works of inspired beauty and brilliance created by individuals who are petty-minded, cruel, hypocritical. Human beings, in short, who insist on being human while their work seems to illuminate the human condition in some transcendent manner that causes us to expect more of the creators.

Perhaps this disconnect between the truth of an artist's work and the truth of their lives is a demonstration of the sacred, mystical element of creativity, the notion that something else, outside the self of the artist, is speaking through the artist. If literature and other art is a manifestation of the divine through a human conduit, it would explain why the human conduit never lives up to the beauty of its creation.

Perhaps this is giving creative work more credit and significance than it deserves. Certainly, there are many creative works that fall far short of divine inspiration. But I am not speaking of mediocre creations, static-filled half-glimpses of divinity. I am speaking instead of the work that seems to rise to a level of brilliance that surpasses its creator. Perhaps we human beings are, in some strange way, akin to old radios, ever seeking to tune in to that crystal clear signal transmitted from the divine. So many outside influences interfere with the signal most of the time. But once in a while, on a clear night when conditions are right, the signal comes through, and works of timeless truth are the result.

In case you're wondering, I did go to see the movie of Ender's Game. It was the work of many other artists besides Orson Scott Card, artists who saw the power of his trilogy, not the pettiness of his personal views. I wonder if the attention to his homophobic attitudes that the movie engendered has given Card pause. I hope it has. I myself have decided to separate the man and the work. Whatever his espoused beliefs, at some point in time, the signal transmitted clearly enough for him to write the books he wrote, books that hold no trace of the ugly views expressed by the man himself, except, perhaps, as the impulses of certain characters whose brutality and ugliness are acknowledged as such. If the truth of the books are overshadowed by the ugliness of Card's personal statements, maybe the ugliness wins. Or maybe I am simply justifying my own human failing.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Is the Choice to Write Inherently Narcissistic?

Is the choice to write inherently narcissistic?

This is the question that is rolling around in my brain this morning. To be a successful writer, especially these days, requires an almost pathological commitment to time alone and to the belief that your own thoughts, ideas, stories and visions are not only worth recording for posterity but compelling, entertaining or important enough for other people to more than give a damn about - in fact, so magnificent that other people will spend money and time on them. Beyond this, it requires you to hold this conviction so firmly that you're willing to prioritize the time and effort spent on your writing over hundreds of other things demanding your time and energy.

Mind you, time and effort on writing encompasses more than the actual act of creating - planning, drafting, revising and editing. It also includes the time spent researching possible agents or publishers, submitting your work, or, if you're self-publishing, the time and energy needed to format, edit, track down artists, and launch kickstarter campaigns, not to mention the many and varied activities needed to market your work, self-published or otherwise. It requires time spent at conferences and workshops, whether as participant or presenter, and time spent with critique groups and time spent on twitter and in other online forums cultivating your digital platform. It requires you to believe that all of this deserves a full-tilt level of commitment because your words are just too damn good to languish in a drawer.

Furthermore, writers must read, voraciously, not just at bedtime. Think about the time it takes to read a book. Think about how many books you should read if you want to write. Think about how much has already been written. Let's face it - you could read every minute of every day and still not read even the smallest portion of books and stories already out there in the world. Therefore, to be a writer requires you on some level to believe your words are valuable enough to justify spending time on your work at the expense of reading some of the wonderful work already out there in the world, and that other people should also choose to spend time reading your words instead of someone else's. Doesn't that belief take a certain amount of self-importance?

Full disclosure - I believe there are things more important than my writing life. There are sacrifices I won't make for the sake of my writing. I love being a teacher. I won't short-change my students for the sake of my writing. I love my husband, and my friendships, and my health, none of which I am willing to sacrifice for my writing (or for my teaching, to be fair). Perhaps that relegates me automatically to the role of hobbyist, of "good" rather than "great". Where is the line between balance or moderation and apathy or mediocrity? If "great" requires placing myself and my own stories so far above others, perhaps I must let go of aspirations to greatness. Perhaps I already have. 

One might argue that the choice to write is the ultimate participation in the human community - the choice to dive into the great ongoing conversation of humanity, a conversation that spans time and place, crossing centuries and generations and continents, reaching back into the past and forward into the future. It is a show of faith in the inherent value of that conversation, of human thought and expression, of story. The Taoist part of my brain believes this is the wise view, the balanced view, the healthy view, the view that lets go of sales and publishing and the narcissistic side of writing and embraces an odd kind of humility. There is a humility in the notion that the words, the stories, the ideas are not your own to begin with, but belong instead to the collective human soul, and that the act of writing them and putting them out into the world is the true act of the writer. What happens after that is no longer writing. As Lao Tzu says, "Do your work and then step back."

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