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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Help! I Am Becoming My Chair!

Mine was a hardcover.
There is a cartoon circulating around facebook that sums it up for me today. I’ve just finished a life-changing book and noticed a trend in my most recent book choices. The book is called The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, and it’s about a girl who can taste the feelings of the cook in every meal she consumes. Not much fun for little Rose, who is the MC—especially when she tastes that her mother is miserable.
     There are various reasons that this book is life-changing for me. Numero One: It got me thinking of what my kids would taste in my food—and I didn’t like what I came up with. Numero Two: The genre of the book is one that I’ve been drawn to over and over. My last reading stint included two books by Sarah Bird (The Gap Year and the Yokoto Officers Club). These two and Aimee Bender’s Cake are examples of a fascinating crossover genre that incorporates a lot of YA elements in a story that is placed firmly within the realm of adult literary fiction. It’s not New Adult—because that category doesn’t seem to embrace the literary quite like these crossovers do. It’s not like Room, because the MCs’ lives are traced over a period of formative years. It seems more of a hybrid of the two. Whatever it is, I want to tap it.
     Another amazing revelation spawned from Aimee Bender’s Cake is my gift, which I now accept as such wholeheartedly. You see, in Cake it turns out that various members of Rose’s family have gifts approximating her ability to taste emotions in a dish. They just never talk about them. Too taboo. Hits too close to home. Yadda, yadda. Déjà vu reverberated in my brain as I empathized with these characters. Why? It finally dawned on me. I have a similar—albeit not so glamorous—ability. Titles sing to me. When I walk into a library, I never have to research authors or ask the librarian or even friends for recommendations. If there is a book I’d like to read but I’ve forgotten the author, I don’t need to look it up. I pick an aisle, stroll through and wait. Eventually a title will blink from the towering shelves that flank me on either side. That’s right—the spine of one book surges up, shot through with light. (Hey! At least I didn’t admit to masticating on hate and greed. Work with me here!) Oftentimes, it is the very book I had in mind. Sometimes it’s not, but it’s still one I need to read.
     Now, I’m not going to claim that the book jumps off the shelf into my hand, but if I’d somehow stumbled into The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (which I had, by the way, and stayed fully immersed there for two days), it would do just that. And, honestly, I shouldn’t make the poor books do all the work. I contribute by plucking the book with the ticker-tape-ish, blinking spine off the shelf. (Alright, alright. In all fairness, the title only blinks until I touch it.) I then take it to the front counter, where I check it out. On occasion, I ignore the blinking one and steal off to aisle Er-Fa for a nice, light Janet Evanovich. Those never blink at me. They wink.
     I haven’t confided this to many people over the years, but when I have it’s almost always garnered me some odd looks, which I’ve got to say are pretty scary coming from people who already know how weird I am. That can’t be what really happens, these looks seem to say. That doesn’t happen.
An obvious choice 
     I too would prefer to dismiss it as an intuitive way of making reading decisions, just as young Rose tried to escape from the reality of her eating…disorder. And I have. Even in college, when I conceded that the trend was here to stay as opposed to being a silly game played with myself. Even when I noticed that the books that blinked had eerie parallels to something that was about to happen in my life, I laughed it off. An example of this is when I picked up my first Graham Greene book on a whim (snort). My brother, who had been away pursuing a Master’s degree in another state, came home for some holiday and saw it on my nightstand. Bemused, he said, “You like Graham Greene? I never knew that.”
     I shrugged. “I don’t know. I just picked it up at the library.”
     “That’s weird,” he said. “Because I’m taking an intensive course on Greene.” He scratched his head and cleaned his glasses. Then he shrugged too, and we continued our game. (It was a board game. Imagine that.) My brother had been researching Graham Greene for months, was writing a paper on him, but couldn’t remember ever mentioning it to me. We never talked about school in our household. Our parents used some sort of reverse psychology to get us to attend college. They trashed the universities non-stop, labeling them useless, money-grabbing outfits. We enrolled quicker than you can say Ponzi scheme.
     Which brings me to Numero Three in the life-changing bullet-point list regarding The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. Bender weaves the story in a way that makes the reader believe. I won’t ruin the ending, except to say that something happens which would be all-out laughable if Aimee Bender wasn’t such a skilled storyteller. My husband did laugh when I told him. But the same retelling that inspired such mirth for him chilled my soul. As the unbelievable words made lyrical fiction escaped my lips, they rendered my harmless little skill (which I now argue taps the psychic energy of an Avatar-esque mother tree that is the written word) ominous. The blinking could mean use caution instead of read this, I thought. Like poor Zan in the above video, my Wonder-Twin power fizzled to crap. It had never occurred to me before that the blinking guides to my reading decisions could be dangerous. Until now. I mean, what makes them blink? Who chooses them? It doesn’t feel like it’s me.
     Then, to my horror, I saw the parallel to writing, which is often like a monster in the attic threatening to break out. Unmentionable, uncontrollable and somehow deviant. My writing has historically been the thing that needed to be suppressed, whereas the reading part is A-okay. More ominous info: I’ve been writing so hard these days I’m afraid I will fuse to my chair. No, wait, what I meant to say is that it would be easier and far more acceptable to fuse to the chair than to get the words onscreen arranged to my satisfaction. That’s how I feel. Bereft. This is usually when I take a break and do some reading.
     But maybe at moments like these I should push harder. If it’s the reading that is deviant, I can grant myself permission to continue to write. I’ll do an experiment and take a little vacay from the library—or at the very least get some blinders. Perhaps I’ll go back to pretending I’m simply intuitive when it comes to selecting reading material. Except now the cat’s out of the bag. Do me a favor. Forget I ever mentioned the blinking part. Unless…anyone else have a benign "skill" they’d like to confess?

Monday, May 6, 2013

Womb with a View

     I can say with complete confidence that having kids makes me a better writer. Not only does it allow me to be around young adults, to observe them and to empathize with them (without racking up stalking charges) it puts my world into perspective, which enhances all my fictional worlds. It’s especially helpful since I write young adult novels. However, I believe it helps in the realm of general fiction too. Nothing feels emptier to me than a book wallpapered with stereotypical children thrown in just because they exist. Any parent knows that kids are rarely stereotypes, yet people who don’t know any kids tend to cast them as such.
     Even a grand Matriarch like Mary Higgins Clark has some tiny characters toddling through her books that just don’t seem real. I think she writes them like that to contraindicate the screaming-kid-on-the-plane syndrome. She doesn’t want to turn off members of her potential audience with whiny kids. Or, being Catholic, she doesn’t want to come across as an advocate of birth control. I don’t know. It’s a puzzle.
     To me a poorly written kid is as annoying as the one that’s screaming on the eight-hour airplane ride. The only cliché worse is the anal-retentive, childless complainer that everyone gangs up with against the kid and mom. Not me. I’d say to the complainer: “Then I guess you won’t be interested in the cure for cancer this screaming kid might invent when he or she grows up.” I’d take his or her name down then, for future reference. Hey! It could happen! Don’t tell me screaming kids don’t come up with stuff—they do. And I am all for keeping methodical records and withholding said cure from people who have griped. (Except we'll let this young woman get the cure on account of her priceless facial expressions and the stoic acceptance with which she greets her sucky plight.)
     I am lucky not to have to worry about falling into the cardboard kid trap. Thirteen years of research and some stretch marks under this belt, baby. Kids in my stories will be very realistic. Indecipherable wonders all.
     So, that’s settled. If you want to write kids in, having them or researching them is a must. (Author's note: Researching is cheaper and not as gross—but you don’t get dibs on a cure for cancer.) 
     By the same token, shouldn’t writing for kids—or even in general—make us better parents? I would argue that it does. That’s why it's great for all parent to keep some written record of it. The baby book doesn't count. The baby book is lame. Mine causes more stress than anything (which one’s most finished, are they equal, aaaahh!). I’d much rather write a full-length novel than fill out the freaking baby book, but that’s just me. I’ll concede they have a certain historical merit. It’s probably no coincidence that they have been around so long, proving the existence of a writing/parenting connection even back before people talked about such things. Now with the advent of blogging, scrapbooking and the myriad other ways we can chronicle our parenting journey, it’s much easier. We should be awesome parents in the digital age.
     Or not.    
     In my case, my writing makes me a better parent because it puts me in the same boat as my kids. We’re, like, co-conspirators in growth, sharing funny stories along the way. They tell me all about what happens at school. I file it away and tell them I will use that someday. They’re, like, wow my experiences belong in a book! Everyone feels valued. I write the promised book and then another and another. I go to conferences, I learn. With each new book I’m pushing further and further, pressing against that membrane that is keeping me from fulfilling my potential as a writer. I’m a fledgling in the womb and someday, I’ll be out.
     The kids are going through a similar struggle. I offer them my help and support (plus room and board as required by law). They can’t avoid giving me theirs in return. That’s the beauty of this arrangement. Like I said, they enrich my writing—in the very same way they do my life—just by being their rambunctious selves. They’ve saved me thirteen years of grueling research. How could you not love that? This totally makes up for all the fingerprint graffiti on the wainscoting and the puke I’ve laundered out of clothes and linens.
     All kidding aside, how invaluable is that, for a child to see his parent go through such a journey? Now that I think about it, it could be any journey, except writing is a particularly good example. There are so many womb-y parallels like the one I’ve just mentioned. It’s also a highly visible, amazing transformation. Writing happens right before their eyes, albeit gradually. You might be able to keep writing a secret from the outside world, but your immediate family has to know you’re working on something. They see you typing. They know you’ve ditched out of family time. They see the sacrifice and the rejection. (It’s kind of humiliating, really. I mean, aren’t you supposed to always know best?) Then suddenly, what was once a compilation of scraps of prose in notebooks or scribbled on napkins becomes a typed behemoth of three-hundred pages. It will ideally become a real and far more compact book. 
     But really, it's a story that comes out of it all of this. The kids listen, and their eyes pop just like they do when the butterflies emerge from those little mail-order chrysalises we fed and nurtured all those weeks. It seems impossible when the larva takes on life, but that’s the secret behind the very essence of wonder. 
     In our house, it's a given that once my kids decide upon their passion, I’ll help them get to the same place. It’s not the same as getting a promotion at work, rising through the ranks and assuring them a job when they're ready. I can’t make a phone call or throw money at them while they languish in uncertainty on their way to their own careers. But I can give them the human connection they need on their way to any real achievement. I can tell them from experience that it might not turn out the way they planned, but it will turn out okay. I can give them the kind of parenting spawned from years of writing over, under and around obstacles. That's way better than a trust fund, right? Or a horse. Or a trip to Disney or an I-phone or a...well, anyway--that's my story and I'm sticking to it, so there.