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Friday, March 28, 2014

I'd Give the Bible Five Whopping Stars on Amazon

     This is gonna be quick, because I’m writing possessed this week, trying to keep up with the momentum behind my latest WIP. It’s about a girl who is abducted and abused at five years old, and then miraculously returned to her family. Now she’s a teen and she’s understandably fighting off some demons. The story is about her struggle to grow up to be a functional person in the face of the abuse she's endured. It’s also about how a community responds when one of its members is victimized.
     Today the small thing I’m grateful for is the experience of teaching Sunday school. Before you go accusing me of being pious, let me remind you that Lizzie Borden taught Sunday school. I'm not a deeply religious person. I signed up because I like kids and they said that if I taught it, my kids’ catechism would be free. Plus, the church needed help desperately. They’re always looking for catechists. The requirements are about the same as what's needed to work at McDonald's (breathing) with one added thing: you should be Catholic.
Some light reading. Not.
     I went in riddled with doubts, because I’d recently considered swearing off religion for good. Still, I figured I could convey the basics of the Bible to the kids in my charge as well as the next person. At the very least, I'd earn the catechism tuition. Never did I expect to come out feeling like I'd been exposed to the work of a master storyteller!
     Yes, at the end of my eight weeks, I might as well have been to the best writing conference in the world. Part of it was the kids, and their responses to the stories we read, but most of it was due to the book itself. I’m telling you, if you need help in your writing endeavors, pick up a Bible. You’re guaranteed to be inspired.
     I guess my main objection all these years has been sexism. I'd hate to think it was the enormity of the text that kept me from reading it, because that certainly didn't stop me with A Game of Thrones. The Bible gets a bad rap for having women characters that seem to take a backseat where the action is concerned. They come across as wimpy and inferior, destined to be subjugated. Let me assure you, this reputation is undeserved. (Plus many other books objectify women far more.) 
     I now believe that, contrary to the uninformed interpretations to which I've been previously subjected, the women in the Bible aren't meant to be seen as submissive secondary characters. If they seem that way, it's probably due more to culture of the times than to a purposeful sway of the stories. In fact, I’d argue that if you want some model depictions of strong female characters, look no further. Think about it: Mary, Mary Magdalene, Sarah (the wife of Abraham), Eve (way more interesting than that dorky Adam), Jezebel. I had to rub my eyes when I saw a whole book devoted to a woman: Ruth. (I've been a Catholic all my life and didn't know this. Shame on me!) Ruth was a gentile to boot. Now, the people in Biblical times weren't exactly known for embracing outsiders, so I'm pretty sure that her inclusion was meant to make a statement. Which means a woman has the honor of being the sole Biblical person with her own book who was not raised in the Jewish faith. If you think they’re all submissive dunderheads, you're wrong. Meet Jael, the chick who hammered a tent stake into a guy's head while he slept in her tent under the assumption she was helping him hide from his enemies. Katniss Everdeen eat your heart out. (Disc.: There are no instances of heart-eating in the Bible. That’s Indiana Jones.)
    Above and beyond this, the Bible has everything a great story needs:
A charismatic main character (male this time) with an interesting backstory and (Spoiler alert!) a tragic end. Trust a Master Storyteller not to let the backstory--however brilliant--bog down The Beginning. Genesis is well-paced, right down to the day!
Gore—lots of it! Blood flowing eternal, people being torn in half and rising from the dead, bushes set afire, wars a plenty, bondage, starvation, plagues, FLOODS...are you absolutely sure that Michael Bay wasn't around in Biblical times? It's no small wonder they’re making movies with this stuff now. That's what you call stellar material.
Insight into the depths of human nature: People in the Bible are constantly faced with scary circumstances and hard decisions, which they meet nobly—for the most part.
An epic, on-going battle between good and evil.
Enough allegorical imagery to give Plato a hard-on. (Kind of puts his little man cave to shame!) 
An apocalyptic fantasy: Revelations rivals any on the bestsellers list.
     'Nuff said. That, my dear friends, is why people study the Bible. (And here I'm just starting to read it!)
     Today I’m celebrating the small awakening that resulted in a HUGE religious tie-in for my WIP. Almost has me believing in divine intervention.

Friday, March 21, 2014

I Love Jennifer Lawrence Like a Daughter

     Why? Jennifer Lawrence reminds me of my daughter. This interview on Conan made my day. If you watch it, you’ll be dying laughing but—if you’re like me—you’ll also have a bittersweet flash of déjà vu as you recall the pain of adolescence. Don’t have time to watch? Here’s the gist: Jennifer Lawrence wet the bed at thirteen years of age and then raced off to school to brag about it, thinking it was cool. MY DAUGHTER WOULD DO THIS. Yes, it defies logic. And, yes, she is a very logical person in every other aspect BESIDE the area of social graces. But my daughter wouldn’t hesitate to announce to the world that she’s a bed-wetter, a nose-picker, a toe-nail chewer--any gross thing you can imagine.
     Now, I don’t know if Jennifer Lawrence went home that day and voiced her utter astonishment that the kids at school didn’t embrace her bed-wetting amazingness, but I have been witness to many such A-ha moments with my daughter. It’s a horrible thing to see until she shakes it off and gets on with life. I don’t understand why she won't spare herself this pain. It's easy! Simply don't talk about it. When I was a kid, all I ever wanted to do was fit in. My deepest nightmare involved the very thing that Jennifer Lawrence described on Conan. Me, the center of attention, on the bleachers while the student body discovered some dark secret of mine. I would’ve been horrified if anyone ever found out I wet my bed when I was five, let alone thirteen. Granted, my daughter is only eleven. But still.
     “What were you thinking?” is my usual response when she tells me about the lengths she’s gone to in order to stand out. I often sink into a chair contemplating the enormity of having given birth to my photo negative. How does that happen?
     Her response is never: Gee, I guess I wasn’t thinking mom. It’s: I don’t know. 
     Translation: I was way past thinking about what was going on in front of me, and on to thoughts of next week or three weeks from now.
     She has ADHD. I forgot to mention that (although I have in other posts.) It means that she and the Border collie get along swimmingly. They are kindred spirits. Her and I? Sometimes not so much.
     Until Jennifer Lawrence came along. Now that I think about it, my daughter very well might grow up to be an academy-award winning actress who goes around astonishing people by being so comfortable in her own skin; so star-struck and congratulatory to colleagues vastly inferior to her; so lovable and real. (I bet Jennifer Lawrence could wet the bed TODAY and get a gazillion likes for it on Instagram.) She’s got the guts to say: “Photoshop my body? I don’t think so, generic magazine catering to Hollywood’s irrational whims. I’m fine the way I am.”  She tripped at the Oscars without a flinch and made it the coolest thing ever. I want to trip at the Oscars!!  Or I’ll go even further: I never want to walk up stairs the regular way again! Let’s all trip up stairs in honor of Jennifer Lawrence’s utter coolness, and when we do let’s scream: “Did you see that? I just did a Jennifer Lawrence!” 
     Right now my daughter might come off as kind of weird and completely clueless about what she is and isn’t supposed to say out loud. But there are also occasional bouts of brilliance too, which will probably translate to her career in adulthood. And people like Jen will inspire her to keep going with her gut and acting like herself.
     That’s why I not only love Jennifer Lawrence like a daughter, but I will love my daughter like she has the potential to be the next Jennifer Lawrence. Because she does.
BTW: The small thing I'm celebrating this Friday (other than JENNIFER LAWRENCE and the fact that no one wet the bed in my house last night) is that I've made the second round in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award.

Friday, March 7, 2014

How My Old Dog Teaches Me New Tricks

     I am owner to the smartest dog in the world. All good dog owners feel this way, I suppose, but I really am. I have a border collie, you see—well, actually she’s a mutt, but she has a lot of border collie traits. I’ve read that they are the smartest breed of dog and I agree. The test of a dog's intelligence is hiding a treat under a blanket. Most dogs won't know what to do. They know there's a treat under there, but they don't know how to get to it. The border collie nudges the blanket aside and plows her nose along the ground until she finds the treat. She passes this IQ test with flying colors every time. 
     Our first dog was a Labrador. We thought she was the smartest dog in the world too. Now I realize that we just loved her so much we projected an intelligence upon her that might not have been deserved. She was more goofy, loyal and lovable than smart—but still a good dog.
     Anyway, Riley (the border collie) is the kind of dog that looks at you when you’re speaking, either to her or to yourself, and you’d swear by her expression that she gets it. One day I wouldn’t be surprised if she started talking back (not in a sassy way, but like a treasured girlfriend). She is the inspiration behind a character in the middle grade book I’ve decided to work on next. It is the first book I ever wrote and is in dire need of a rewrite. I love it, and I hope someone else will too, in six months or so. That's when it will probably be ready for eyes besides mine--and perhaps Riley’s. (Surely she'll be able to read by then.)
     Another way I can tell my dog is smart is by the way she responds to being stuck out on her line. Sometimes her leash gets caught up on a bush, a root, or a section of decking. In this weather it’s very possible for it to become wrapped around a gargantuan block of ice. This morning I heard her barking and thought: what is she caught on now? By the time I had tracked down my boots and zipped into my coat, she appeared at the door, tail wagging. Business as usual. It occurred to me that many times Riley gets out of her situation without any intervention from me—and that’s exactly what had happened this time. She had tugged and tugged at the line until it gave. She knows that this method worked before. Because of this, she  figures there’s a good chance it will work again. She doesn’t give up. See what I mean? Smart.
     Today, I’m grateful for my genius dog, who’s smart enough to teach her old owner a new trick. Riley is the very model of perseverance. Have a great weekend!

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Sight Reading

Over the weekend I had the opportunity to attend my daughter’s band festival and sit in on her sight-reading exercise. The band went into the sight reading room right after their performance. (The performance rocked, by the way. They ended up getting a First Division rating. Yay! Brandon Schools.)
     If you aren’t familiar with Public School District Music Programs, Festival is a mandatory event that happens on a Saturday. The band arrives at the host school at 6:30 a.m. and they receive a schedule of performances. My daughter’s band took the stage at 9:30 a.m. and did three songs. Beforehand, they spend about an hour practicing in a specially-designated rehearsal room, for which they had a scheduled time slot. The rest of the time was spent milling about in a state of nervous agitation. Sometimes the band director can get them doing scales, but they mostly have just the one chance to practice. It's okay. They've been preparing for months.
     There are usually two bands from each school, so students are required to sit in the audience during the other band’s performance, and, time permitting, they have the chance to watch at least one "competitor" band. I included quotes because they’re not really competing with the bands from other schools but with themselves. (All the bands can get a 1 rating.) 
     The students behave well as audience members. They kind of have to. The judges (who are seated at American Idol-like tables taking notes) would surely notice if they heckled other bands, and might mark them down for it. Learning to be a good audience is almost as important as the hours they spent honing their playing skills.
     Okay, so that's Festival in a nutshell. Kind of an ordeal. Now back to sight-reading. 
     The band students and director have an allotted amount of time (five minutes or so?) while they prepare to play an unfamiliar piece of music. They start by talking to each other, pointing out key signature and any changes to it, noticing articulation, rhythm, and any accidentals or repeats in the music. The instructor asks them questions to call their attention to certain things they may not have noticed, like unexpected pauses and notations of allegro or staccato. The students aren’t allowed to play their instruments yet, so they make hissing sounds as they finger the notes. The band plays through this way once and then their time is up. They must perform the piece cold.
     In my opinion, our band rocked their sight-reading exercise, although I was probably a little biased, since I was so proud of them for even attempting this challenge. The judge gave kudos to the trumpet section, with good cause, because the music relied heavily upon them. I’d argue percussion should’ve been congratulated, as well. It's very hard to play a song for judges when you haven't practiced it...and this skill relies heavily on knowledge and confidence.
     But what does this have to do with writing? you ask. This: Chances are, they won’t play it perfectly the first time. C'mon! A Middle School Band? How could they? That would be a miracle. In fact, I bet it’s never been done, no matter how good a musician is or how adept at sight-reading. This exercise gives a musician permission to not be perfect. And that’s what your first draft should be. You have a vision, you have notes, you have all the answers laid out, but even as you pound a really good start onto that page you know that what you write can be—and will eventually have to be—improved. It’s not about lower standards, but letting yourself off the hook. That’s when the magic happens, as it did at my daughter’s Festival.