Monday, June 13, 2011

Barnum and Bailey, Here I Come

I learned how to juggle as my plan B.  I was ten, vaguely secure in my academic skills, and absolutely confident that my clumsiness would exclude me from a career in organized sports.  When people asked me what my plans were for the future, I could say anything really, because in the back of my mind I knew I had an ace in the hole.  I could juggle.  Well.  Extremely well actually, better than any of my friends or even my parents knew because I practiced in private.  I learned how to juggle quietly in the middle of the night and cushion the beanbags when they hit the floor.  I now know that I was drawn to juggling because it fit the way my mind works.  I feel the best when nothing is concretely in my hands.  I toss up thirty ideas in the air and manage to keep them all moving and flowing in a relatively smooth path with only the occasional fail where everything tumbles down around me.  I haven’t juggled (seriously) in some time, but I remember my juggling days when I think of all the characters I create.
My characters are kind enough to let me keep them up in the air at all times.  I have to, or else they start to read like mundane, everyday folks.  It’s risky.  I can lose characters for pages and have to fight to bring them back to the ground.  They reappear not quite kosher, with different hair colors or a limp.  But it’s worth it.  I carry the characters with me wherever I go.  They fall into my fingers at odd moments.  My husband and I were driving down the street and a large but not giant turtle crossed at a leisurely pace.  A car stopped and put blinkers on to slow everyone down.  An older man scooped up the turtle and placed him safely in a neighbor’s yard.  I realized pretty quickly that the father in my new story would do that.  He’d take the time, because he always took the time to move his daughter out of harm’s way, even to the detriment of his job or his new relationship.  He was that man saving the turtle.  And whoosh, he vanished just like that back up into the air when he was done reminding me just what he’d do.
As a teacher I tell my students to be organized.  Buy binders with labels.  Sharpen pencils before class begins.  Know where you are going when you write!  The truth is I think the best moments in writing are those that fall down from the sky and boldly claim their places in our writing.  I never want to know exactly where any of my characters are going.  If I do, they’ve lost their sparkle and suddenly writing becomes a burden.  An arduous journey where I’m going through the motions and don’t believe in where I’m heading.  We’ve all done it.  We’ve outlined plots or decided firmly that this character will die, that one will fall in love, and another will ruin that love and then die, or thrive.  Regardless of the situation, once in awhile we need to throw our characters up in the air to expand and grasp at things that we might not have originally conceived.  At least I do.
Today I’m much more confident in my academic talents, although I still wouldn’t be the girl you’d want on your volleyball team.  With a summer ahead of me, I’d like to try my hand at juggling again.  Maybe I can teach my son or at least amuse his friends when they storm the house for play dates.  Maybe in the process of relearning the art of juggling, a few characters may stop in to take a look.

Friday, June 3, 2011

A bird doesn't sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.

Twilight makes me cringe.  Any of my students, family, friends, strangers stuck in an elevator with me, all know how much I detest it.  Not because vampires shouldn't glitter.  Or sparkle.  Or shimmer.  Not because the same seven words are repeated so often that my mastery of the English language begins to fail me.  (I say this knowing that Stephanie Meyer likely sell more copies of the dreaded text in a year than I might in my entire lifetime.  I do give credit where credit is due.)  I can't stand Twilight because of the message.  It advises young women to obsess, to change themselves, sacrifice anything they have for the man they love.  It promotes digging ourselves a lovely hole in the leafy ground and staying there until love returns or else there is nothingness.  A cliff and an abyss begging us to throw ourselves in.

I study my current project and ask myself, what message am I sending forth?  What do I know about life that is worth spreading and infusing my characters with who might otherwise run around the book knocking into each other like meaningless bumper cars?  Love is a sticky subject to approach.  Experience enhances and taints our perspectives.  Career and education goals are often utterly subjective and individualized.  I could talk about shoes.  I've got some good ideas about shoes, but I doubt the Newbery Medal will be knocking down my door to commend me on educating today's youth about blowing out their Achilles tendons in favor of jaunty little wedges.  So what's left?  What can I teach?

Forget it, I tell myself.  I don't need a message.  I've got strong characters.  They do things.  Interesting things.  And there are pretty or desolate landscapes thrown into the mix.  My readers will stay with me for the sheer joy of reading.  They don't need a message.  Except some of them will ferret around and find one regardless.  They'll point to the character who smokes on the pier.  The girl who sleeps with someone and regrets it, except they may not see the regret.  They see the girl who is liked by a boy for a brilliant shining moment.  And before I can race around and FIND that girl, hit her over the head with my book and say it is fiction and don't you dare use it as a role model for your life, the damage is done.  A message has scuttled its way out there.  And I am responsible.

I believe that writers (successful or no) carry with them an unbelievable responsibility.   It is their jobs to study what they write, find the kernels of truth that occupy even the silliest pieces, and make sure they are intended or at least palatable.  I often write and make the message so obvious it is bigger than the characters surrounding it.  Or I forget altogether that the messages are lurking and create lascivious characters who ought to watch themselves more carefully.  What a responsibility but what a thrill to decide what in our lives is worthwhile, valuable to share, and toss it into the wind, reaching maybe a few.  Maybe many.

What a privilege it is to be a writer.