Three Ways to Keep At It

Starting a story is daunting and many of us who write struggle to find enough hours in the week to go deep into a narrative. As I embark on a new novel, three quick ways I use to keep me in the game felt like ones I should share.pencil-918449_1920

  1. Find Your Passion, or Embrace the Pain. I know, sounds like a massively tall order, but you need fuel for the journey. If it’s not something you think about constantly, then I wouldn’t pursue it. Whether it’s a cool idea that keeps flooding your brain, a meltdown you’re having about politics, or a personal situation that keeps you up at night, it is the perfect source to keep you writing. Motivation. My test is this: if I can talk with friends or family about it, I can probably write about it, too. I am good at turning obsessions, anger, revenge, distress into a scene in a novel.
  2. Keep Paper Everywhere. I could also say, Keep the Phone Nearby and Use Your Notes app, but the moment I tap my phone, notifications from Facebook/Tumblr/Messages flood my view and I am off down a rabbit hole before I realize it. Blank sheets of paper have inspired me since childhood. Seeing blank space gets me jazzed to fill it. So when an idea strikes at an inconvenient time, like when I’m driving or tumbling into bed, I have the blank sheet nearby giving my brain a little jolt to Jot it down, jot it down! before I forget. Because I will. I always do!
  3. Gather Up These Notes and Head to the Computer. If I do one thing, it’s get rid of one of those notes in the pile every day. I tap in something, somewhere. It could be in one of three documents I start: the Character Profiles (a stream-of-consciousness study of each major player in my story–thank you, Elizabeth George, for that tip), the Synopsis (my outline following Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat principles and beats of a story), or the Manuscript (first draft). The idea gets dumped somewhere so it’s not lost. So even if I don’t write a full scene or even a paragraph today, I have done Something. And believing you have accomplished Something lets me move forward with some confidence in unmapped territory.

This is how we do it. Idea by Idea, piece of paper by piece of paper, line by line.

I Have a Question

Random questions from my week:

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  • Why do some people’s sneezes sound like a raspberry? A sputter explosion? (Mine, for the record, sound like a dog barking.)
  • Why do some people keep their cranky child in a cafe when it’s clear the child wants to leave? And another question: when did public spaces become our living rooms–a place to let it all hang out–rather than a place of privilege we share with others?
  • Why did the employee of Trader Joe’s thank me for admitting I broke a carton of eggs? Who doesn’t report the mess she made and ask to pay for it?
Rant over. Rants are ugly but perhaps not so bad in the form of rhetorical, unanswerable questions. 
Literature at its best is the answer to a question told in images, characters, and events. While rants can sound alarm bells and beg for much-needed mercy and attention, they can also lose the opportunity for readers’ best thinking and grappling with the question themselves. Screaming and spewing anger from the rooftops isn’t literature. Art becomes diatribe, no longer experience but polemic. 
The best teaching is also question-driven rather than fact-driven. Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, two ground-breaking educators, talk about Essential Questions: those dilemmas, challenges, and open-ended problems of a discipline that drive scientists, artists, engineers, philosophers, doctors, architects, environmentalists–any profession–to quest after new answers. Our kids, just like our readers, should spend classroom time in the pursuit of the Big Questions. The challenge is in making the experience, whether literary or educational, an engaging and compelling trip. 
Milan Kundera talks of the novel this way:

The stupidity of people comes from having an answer for everything. The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything…The novelist teaches the reader to comprehend the world as a question. There is wisdom and tolerance in that attitude.

If we comprehend life as a question, and if we make art from our questions, then we engage in a great act of faith. We believe that answers will appear; that revelations will ensue; that God, the Universe, Spirit, or Energy is on our side, and that there is not randomness but order to be revealed.


  • How does a child survive chaos and abuse?
  • How do we define spirituality?
  • How does a self-proclaimed freak make friends?

Apparently Padgett Powell wrote a whole book of questions that might be a great start for those of us stuck in the answers.

What questions are you asking in your writing? In your teaching? And are you doing your best while in cafes and grocery stores to not rant at your fellow man?

Writing Prompts

  • Story idea: A boy who asks irritating questions finds himself ostracized. Where? By whom? When? Why?
  • Story idea: A teacher comes into her classroom one morning and finds a strange question on her board. Unravel a story of who wrote it and why and the consequences of the question writing for students, faculty, administration, and parents. 
  • Write a list of 10 unanswerable questions running the gamut from love to medicine, relationships to house cleaning, any stickler queries that needle you when you can’t sleep. Whatever keeps you up at night, whatever’s made you wonder where in the hell the answer is, write those questions down. Now which one would make a great story? A great novel?
  • Take those questions to people you trust and discuss answers that work and don’t work. Write a poem, short story, or essay with one of the answers.
  • Write about a person who never asks you any questions.
  • Ask yourself what questions you’ve asked lately. Are you comfortable or uncomfortable in a space of “not knowing”? Write about that.
  • In what place in your life are you most open to asking questions? The least? Why? Is there room for breakthrough–or at the very least, writing about it–to get to the other side of your lock-step, paradigm-stuck thinking?
  • Take one of my questions above–about sneezes, kids in cafes, or miscreants in grocery stores–and start a story. 
  • Check out the writing prompts I share at my post, “Ask and Ye Shall Irritate.”

Very Punny, Anderson; Thanks for the Reminder

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 “When nature calls and says, ‘Call me Ishmael,’ it’s a whole new way to get absorbed into a novel.”

–Anderson Cooper

Anderson Cooper featured a roll of toilet paper on his segment The Ridiculist last night, but not just any roll of toilet paper: one being sold on eBay for at least $999. Apparently, some dedicated soul has taken the time to type out the entire text of Moby Dick on five rolls.

Watch the segment and see if you can catch all the puns and allusions. But here’s the catch; if you’re not well read, if you ignored your English teachers’ assignments all those years, you won’t get all the references. High school kids will appreciate the bathroom humor, for sure, but only if they know the book titles. At least five other famous novels (The Call of the Wild, Lord of the Flies, Gone with the Wind, The Sound and the Fury, Howard’s End, and Something Wicked This Way Comes) are mentioned. Captain Ahab gets a moment, too.

When E.D. Hirsch talks about cultural literacy, the ability to know many bits and bytes of our history and culture at the drop of a name, it raises a question for educators in a global society of how much both we and our students should know about so many, many things.

Is there a canon anymore? I would argue yes, of course, but as America ages, I think we’ll have to get more selective, and that “dumbs it down.” Huck Finn isn’t the only representative of America, 1885 (trying to capture a pre-Civil War America, at that), but pacing guides and unit sizes force it into “main event status.”  Many teachers search out other American voices to round out the picture: quotations and excerpts from Chief Joseph, Chief Seattle, Frederick Douglass, or Susan B. Anthony. Educators try to give our kids the full picture and mention many idioms, allusions, and other rich moments of America while teaching our main events. It’s important when you consider that Google’s first response to your typing Susan B…yields an automatic “Susan Boyle.” What the mass of people want ain’t necessarily what they need to know–no offense to a reality-show star.

I’m headed to Mysore, India in May to conduct a teacher training, and I face every day my massive ignorance on the subject of that enormously rich, diverse country. I just picked up Imagining India and have a whole stack of authors to get to know in the next few months. My desire to learn more has always been there, since a child, but I always appreciated the cool trivia and fascinating nuggets my teachers shared with me over the years. It instilled further curiosity and modeled lifelong learning. My 6th grade social studies teacher who was brave enough, in a Catholic school, to mention the assassination of Harvey Milk and George Moscone; my high school teacher who spent ample time on Charles Baudelaire and ennui. No, I confess I’ve never read a big Dickens novel cover to cover (only A Chrismas Carol); nope, I bailed out of Moby Dick, too. (Sorry, Mrs. Connor. You were the best English teacher, but my senior year, I was full of ennui! But I read every other novel you ever assigned me, and boy, you had us read a lot.)

The solution isn’t to up the ante of the pacing guide and cram more books in, but perhaps the buffet of differentiated approaches might help this massive cultural literacy challenge we face. There are independent reading lists, tiered assignments, more excerpts and less full reads (for example, top-ten scenes of a classic work over 100 years old), summer reading lists, and book clubs, all of which can allow us to encourage, cajole, excite, and inspire our students to read more, think more, and make connections.

Of course, we hope the parents are spreading the same message every night at home, and not just about books. About great films, works of art, and works of music. About dance and sculpture and big moments in history.

If the whole village delights in our cultural details, we’re growing. We aren’t America on the decline, which seems to be a prevailing fear of late. Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can learn about your country. And the world.

Then, at the very least, we won’t feel ridiculous when we watch The Ridiculist.

Seeking Redemption

Okay, what’s the best Christmas present ever? Having a boy who happens to be your stepson tell you that a book you gave him is pretty cool.

“I read like 40 pages last night,” he said. Then a day later, “I finished.”

I bought Heavy Metal and You by Chris Krovatin off Amazon after reading some reviews, then read it myself before I wrapped it (or sent it back). Each time the F word appeared, each time drinking occurred, each time the possibility of sex was mentioned, I made a mental note. Where is this going? How will the character’s choice be handled? The jury was still out.

I finished it and deemed it worthy of boy consumption, especially by one whose first choice of music is thrash metal. This story of a heavy metal-obsessed youth was now authorized for his access. Why, despite all the aforementioned flaws? Because the tale was redemptive.

With teens in that strange, limbo stage of kid one day and young adult the next, you can tear your hair out wondering if that R movie or that less-than-savory language in a classic piece of literature is doing unspeakable damage to heart, mind, and soul. English teachers wrestle with this before they crack open a book with a class; how will we get through this hypersexual language in the repartee between Mercutio and Romeo? Do we explicate it, or do we ignore it? How about the mention of rape and incest in To Kill a Mockingbird, never mind the “n” word in that or Twain a dozen other canonical works on the yearly American Lit lists?

Here’s my checklist of how difficult words, difficult themes, and difficult character behaviors redeem themselves:

1. Does the character struggle with issues of conscience? Does he act wrongly but reflect at some point about mistaken actions? Is there internal as well as external conflict?
2. To what degree are wrong actions glorified–such as taking drugs, cussing, etc.?
3. Does this character or a foil evolve in any way? How static and trapped are the characters in a one-note stance or attitude?
4. Does the plot and its resolution challenge the darkness–and by darkness I mean hatred, hedonism, narcissism, racism, sexism–or is it merely stated, as in, “People make terrible choices, terrible things happen, and well, there it is.” Is the plot merely a mirror of human misery or is it a discussion of human misery? By discussion, I mean, is there interesting action that explores our journey through misery, with sparks of light somewhere, giving some kind of hope?

When we talk about the book, I raise these issues. I also treat the plot seriously–those choices by the characters, analyzing them without immediate judgment, trying to get to the root of the evil all humans seek. How else do we train youth to listen to the angels on their shoulders?

There is always the risk that exposing youth to the existence of bad choices can preach an unintended message of, “Well, he did it, so why not me? He survived it, so why not me?” True.

I feel safer knowing as a stepmom that I am in charge of the discussion that occurs before and after. This is not a simple pitch in the dark, hoping the ball will hit some target; it’s a throw within your control. He knows I already read it, and he knows what I think of cussing and underage drinking.

As a stepparent, I’ll take different risks than I would as a teacher pitching to 100-some students; the audience is much more diverse, and thus your argument has to be sure and solid–often erring on the side of canon rather than contemporary–in order to justify a choice. You want to talk with colleagues who’ve taught the work before, besides having read several critical reviews. And if you’re pioneering a choice, listen carefully to all the feedback you get. Risks I’ve taken in the past include Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane, Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich, and Colors of the Mountain by Da Chen. I still stand by these works as worthy and redemptive.

As you build your reading list for children or students, do the works meet the four-question test? Can you add some questions to the quiz?

If you feel you can argue the case for this book in front of one of your parents or grandparents, your favorite English teacher, and/or your partner, chances are the work is redemptive. Then you can head off to the child with work in hand, and gamble that he, too, will see all the light shimmering through the darkness.