31 January 2008

On Tour With the Dallas Brass

I’m sitting in the back of the high school auditorium, writing in my journal. On stage, my BFF Nat is rehearsing with the high school’s brass sextet, running through a tricky phrase yet again. In a few minutes, the bell will ring to end the day, and we’ll wander out of the school and drive around in search of French fries. Maybe we’ll head to the drummer’s parents’ house; maybe we’ll just go to Hardees. We’ll kill a couple of hours and be back at school in time for the band concert tonight. After the concert, the band teacher will tell me about a conference she went to last weekend with Ms. Sanyer, my orchestra teacher.

Is it 1996? I don’t… think so….

But it almost could be. On tour with the Dallas Brass, high school doesn’t seem all that long ago. In fact, at a clinic at Warsaw Community High School in Warsaw, Indiana, when the middle school band teacher sits herself next to where I’m sitting with my laptop and journal in the back of the auditorium, I’m a little surprised at her explanation: “I wanted to talk to you because you’re the only adult in here!” I think, “Am I?” I don’t feel like an adult. I don’t really feel like a high schooler either, but certainly I feel closer to the kids than to their teacher. (The kids jump over the fixed auditorium seats and offer each other TicTacs. “I have orange, want orange? Are you sure? They’re maaaaagic!”)

Nat introduces me to people as one of his best friends, and I always add, “From high school,” in the same way that a grandma would talk about a friend from the old country, or a soldier about a brother from combat. Back in high school, the fact that Nat and I have been friends since our own days there seems especially remarkable.

The Dallas Brass does clinics with middle and high school bands during the day, and then brings the kids up on stage at night. It is awesome. In Warsaw, I watched them work with a septet of high school kids, who first ran through the song, and then played back different parts as several of the DB guys stepped in and offered advice. Then the DB musicians paired up with the high school musicians, and they played through the song together, switching off at rehearsal marks, so that the high school group would play ten measures, and then the DB would play, then the high schoolers…. What an amazing experience for those kids.

I thought about myself in high school, and how incredible it would have been to have a professional writer sit down next to me and give me feedback about what I was doing. I decided that if this whole writing thing pans out for me – or should I say, when this writing thing pans out – when it’s time to give readings and do book signings – I want to do the same thing for kids, to give writing clinics and sit down next to kids and write with them. Like the Dallas Brass, I want to give kids the message that you can follow your passion and make a career of it.

It was fun to watch people come up to Nat after the shows and ask for his autograph. Some of the teenagers, especially, came up with Youngblood Brass Band CDs and shyly asked if he’d sign them, as if concerned that they were breaking some rule by asking for an autograph on a non-Dallas Brass CD. To some of them, he’s this really cool, talented guy who just played a killer show. To others, he’s an idol. To me, he’s the guy who gave me feedback on my college application essays, who competed with me to see who could write a better paper title in English class (his titles took up entire pages; mine featured clip art of rats), who went to the Mustard Museum with me and patiently listened to the founder recite Shakespeare while I laughed and laughed.

The last day with the band, we went to a high school a few towns over from where Nat and I grew up. Hanging in their gym were banners from all the schools in their conference, including our alma mater. (“Panther pride!” I said, elbowing him in the ribs. He shrugged, laughing. “Nope. I got nothing.”) I remembered a day in 1995 or 1996, standing outside the doors of Oregon High School’s cafetorium with Nat, talking about our future. I wanted to be a writer… and a teacher… and he wanted to be a musician. From there, our futures seemed far off, hazy, abstract: the realm of what might be, what could be. In high school, among hundreds of teenagers who didn’t think much beyond the next day or week, who didn’t care about the world outside the fluorescent hallways and dingy lockers of our daily lives, Nat and I were kindred spirits. Even as teenagers, we each felt we had a calling in life, a dream to follow. He wanted to be a musician, I wanted to be a writer.

Twelve years later, back in high school, it seems that we’ve fulfilled the promises we made to ourselves long ago. Now here we are again, still artists, still friends. My favorite high school freshman recently said that she has a friend just like that. “He wants to be a musician, and I want to be a writer!” Awesome, I said. It may seem hard to believe now, at fifteen, but know that whatever you plan and dream now can actually come true later. It's pretty amazing when it does.

25 January 2008

A Life According to Writing

The other day I dragged out my old copy of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, looking for a certain quotation [1]. Old books are like old friends, reminding you who you were, who you’ve been. This book reminds me of how I read it in one of the art studios at Grinnell, perched up on the counters near the windows. It shows me how I wrote my name in the front, says “Here is how you rounded your 9s, this was the curve of your letters.” From between its pages it lets fall an index card covered with the careful handwriting of an old love. Return movies. Walgreens. Dry Cleaners. And on the back, in my hand: Friends love the person you were and the one you’ve become – and the one they know you’ll always be….

It’s all very mysterious and familiar.

And then, on page 18 and 19, the book shows me sentences and paragraphs I underlined a thousand years ago:

Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write. This above all – ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple “I must,” then build your life according to this necessity.

The question is: how do we build our lives according to the necessity of writing? It’s one I’ve been grappling with all year (and maybe earlier – perhaps I’ve been asking myself this question from the moment I took pen in hand and carefully underlined this passage).

Not only do we need space and time to write, we need to feed the inner writer (or as Maureen Johnson says, the BRAIN MONKEYS a steady diet of life: of love, of hate, of hunger and anger and hurt. Whenever something interesting happens to me, the inner writer says, hmm, this might work in a story. I confess to standing through the most dire tragedies – weeping in a freezing cold church at the funeral of someone I dearly loved – and thinking on some level, in some far back place in my head: so this is what it feels like.

And, the perennial question of writers: How can I use this?

Sometimes, though, the well runs dry, and life begins to seems stale and repetitive. At this point, I think that building your life according to the necessity of writing means finding ways of surprising yourself, even shocking yourself, out of your comfortable experiences and ways of thinking.

Sara Ryan wrote about this recently. “I do think that especially as we settle into professions and circles of friends and stable relationships, it gets harder to find new things that shake up our brains and engage us with the world differently.

Sometimes I beat myself up for jumping out of the box too much, for structuring my life in strange and surprising ways, for making major life decisions without solid reasons other than “It seemed like a good idea,” or “It seemed like what I needed to do.” At 20, I moved to Boston just because the very idea frightened me so much. I’ve learned that tackling something that scares me is an opportunity for growth. (With the possible exceptions of muggers, and wild animals. I’m not planning to tackle any hippos in the near future.)

Studying improv taught me the power of Yes, And. Before improv, I generally said no when people asked me to break out of my comfort zone. Want to come out and party with us? No, I think I’ll probably just head home. Want to drive to Michigan this weekend, just because? No, I should really stay home and clean the house. After taking improv classes, I started saying yes. It’s bar time: want to go to the casino? Sure! Why not. Want to take a writing class? Want to have dinner with me? Want to learn how to meditate? Yes, yes, yes.

Every new experience is a chance for growth, and it all feeds the writer.

A few weeks ago, a musician friend of mine called me and said, Hey, my band’s going to be in your area for a week; want to come on the road with us? Normally I’d say no, I really shouldn’t, the responsible thing would be to stay home and work, blah blah blah. But my inner writer was feeling parched, and my life was feeling a little gray, so I said, Sure! Why the hell not? It will be fun. So this weekend I’m going to meet the band in Indiana and travel through the Midwest with them for a few days, spy on them a little, see what it’s like to be a professional musician living on the road, try to imagine how it feels when it’s your job to be perfect on stage every night.

It might be fantastically fun, it might be painfully boring, but it will be something. Something surprising, something different. And though there’s the little voice in my head asking, um, you’re going on the road with a band for a few days? Are you seventeen? Are you nuts? there’s another voice in my head, more insistent, more reassuring, saying resolutely: Build your life according to this necessity. You must.






1“How should we be able to forget those ancient myths that are at the beginning of all peoples, the myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into princesses: perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.” – Rainer Maria Rilke, Letter 8, Letters to a Young Poet.

24 January 2008

In My Head, I'm Still Sixteen

Over the weekend, I heard my cousin say that she would be eleven in March, and I kind of freaked out. I turned to her father and asked, “Is Anna really turning eleven this year?” He nodded.

That’s so old!

Anna was the baby of the family until my (perfect, adorable, genius) niece Elodie was born last October. Her older brother is in high school, but that doesn’t freak me out as much as Anna turning eleven does, because he was born when I was in middle school, still a kid. Teaching middle school for the last five years pretty much resigned me to the idea that the children who were born when I was in seventh and eighth grade are now in middle and high school themselves. That’s cool. I’m okay with that.

What blows my mind is that I very clearly remember a time before Anna was born: Superbowl XXXI. The Packers were playing the Patriots, and everyone was gathered at grandma’s house to watch the game. Between plays, the conversation turned to What To Name The Baby. In the other room, I was filling out the paperwork to take the SAT and ACT tests. I remember stressing out about what schools I should list in the where-should-we-send-your-scores blanks. Later, my sister and I got in my red Renault Alliance and I drove us back to my mother’s house.

I told this little story to Anna’s father, and he nodded politely. He didn’t seem too shocked. “I was getting ready to take the ACTs when Anna was born!” I said. “I could already drive!!”

“Uh huh….” Dave said.

“I still have some of the clothes I was wearing then! How can it be eleven years ago??”

Dave seemed like he wished I would stop talking.

“This year is my ten year high school reunion, Dave!” I said. “Can you believe that?”

“Huh,” Dave said.

He was clearly unimpressed. Later, I realized that of COURSE he could believe it, that Molly being out of high school for ten years shocks no one but Molly. (Once at a Dar Williams concert, Dar said, “I think about myself a lot. The universe? Not so much.” Ali elbowed me in the stomach, hard, and laughed for about ten minutes. Funny, I said. I get it. After that, her motto for me was “Me? Lots. The universe? Not so much.”)

Sometime in the last ten years, I shifted into the adult category in my family. It probably happened when I lived in New Mexico, and it’s only surprising me now because I only got to see my family once or twice a year when I lived so far away, and didn’t have time to ponder shifting generational plates. Maybe I didn’t notice because I was too busy becoming an adult, or maybe it was the simple fact that inside my brain I still feel like I’m about sixteen – a smarter, more laid-back sixteen, but sixteen nonetheless. Who knows. But looking around the table on Sunday, it became very clear to me that I’m solidly in the “adult” category.

I remember one of my teachers in high school telling me that she still dreamed about her high school boyfriend sometimes. At the time, I think she was trying to explain to me that our first loves have major impacts on our brains, and that I wasn’t crazy for being so upset about breaking up with my first boyfriend. What I actually thought, at the time, was “You still remember your high school boyfriend? Didn’t you go to high school in, like, the GREAT DEPRESSION?”

Luckily, I kept my mouth shut.

Now I see that the teacher who counseled me probably felt that not only was she still dreaming about her high school boyfriend, but if she thought about it, she could still remember the exact fluttery, hollow, sinking feeling somewhere behind her sternum when he first kissed her. She could probably remember exactly how it felt to fall into that kiss, and she could probably remember it not in that hazy, overexposed photograph way you can remember flashes from your early childhood, but rather in the precise, cinematic way our brains hold on to significant moments. She probably felt like it hadn’t been so terribly long, after all, since she’d been my age.

I remember very clearly what it felt like to be in middle school, in high school, but I’ll also remember what it felt like to be here, to be in my late twenties and trying to interest people in how OLD I am. And when I’m in my mid-forties and Anna turns to me and says, “Can you believe it’s been ten years since I graduated from high school? I’m so OLD!” I’ll remember how it felt to be twenty-seven and marveling at your newly won adulthood, and I’ll nod sympathetically. “I know!” I’ll say. “That’s SO crazy!!”

And then I’ll go home and blog about how if Anna’s ten years out of high school, shoot, I must really be an adult. Even if I do still feel like I’m about sixteen.

23 January 2008

A Few Good Men


Last week, The New York Times ran an op-ed piece by Bob Herbert called Politics and Misogyny, in which he asserts that

“Sexism in its myriad destructive forms permeates nearly every aspect of American life. For many men, it’s the true national pastime, much bigger than baseball or football.”

I don’t know if I agree with Herbert – I certainly don’t want to agree, I don’t want him to be right! – but too often it feels true.

This is not an us-vs-them world, folks. It can’t be. We’ve grown too small, have gotten to know each other too intimately, to persist with the casual marginalization of any group of people, whether they be of a different culture, a different religion, a different race, or a different gender. The planet’s not doing too well, the global economy’s going for a ride, and as it turns out, we’re all interconnected. We’re all in it together, guys, and it’s not going to be easy.

Still, it’s hard to imagine what it’s like to be, as we’d say in my post-colonial lit class years ago, “Othered,” particularly when you’re securely in the dominant group. The other day I overheard some (white) friends arguing about the existence of such a thing as “white privilege.” One friend said, you can argue against it, but you cannot escape it. The other said, you don’t have to escape it, because it doesn’t exist.

I thought, I wonder if my non-white friends would agree.

Over the years, I’ve been in my fair share of fights about women, women’s rights, and feminism. If you ever dare to use the term “feminazi” in my presence, I will yell at you until you hold up your hands and apologize. If you tell me that “most of the battles feminists were fighting for have been won, at least in the United States,” I will publicly mock you… even if it means I’ll be disregarded as “just another angry feminist.” (I don’t feel like an angry feminist… an angry person, sometimes, and a feminist, certainly, but I think you can be a feminist without being angry. Maybe I’m wrong.)

I’m friends with a lot of men, and as I have impeccable taste in friends, they’re all quality people. The men in my life are generally intelligent, funny, creative, and very kind. (And devastatingly good looking, of course.) They’re the kind of guys who complain about how “women never go for nice guys,” while peeking at you out of the corners of their eyes, waiting for you to praise them for being such sweethearts. They’re the kind of guys who will drive you home if you’ve had too much to drink, help you carry a couch up three flights of stairs, lend you a hundred bucks when your wallet gets stolen. They’re great.

But they don’t always stick up for women.

Sometimes they listen to their friends or colleagues making disrespectful or inappropriate comments about women, and they don’t speak up. Sometimes they tell jokes or stories where women are the punchline – too strong or not strong enough, too smart or not smart enough, too pretty or not pretty enough. One of my dearest guy friends likes to call me when he’s been dumped and tell me that I’m the only woman he likes, that I redeem his faith in womankind. Shit, I always think, what if I screw up?

If you’re one of my menfriends, you’re probably getting defensive now. “Hey, I’m a good guy. I treat women well.”

You are. You absolutely are, and you do. And I know that sometimes it’s hard to see the little ways women get hurt around you, and the little ways that you can stand up for them. But when you can – when you see something that demeans women, and when you speak up about it – you can make a hell of a difference.

When I was student teaching at Grinnell, I was one in a class of three: me, my professor Jean, and my darling friend Cam, who’s long been one of my favorite men on the planet. In class, we were discussing methods of textual analysis, ways of deconstructing and understanding works of literature, and we started talking about reading texts through a feminist lens. Cam looked thoughtful, and said, “Do you think it would have a different impact on the students if I were teaching them about feminism?” You could see the idea playing across his face, as if never in his entire 23 years he had thought about feminism and women and the ways they’re presented to teenagers, but now that he was thinking about it, it seemed like it might be an incredibly important thing to talk about with students and there was no reason he couldn’t be the man to do it. “You mean, would it mean more coming from a man?” I asked. He nodded. Jean and I looked at each other as if our new puppy had just learned how to file taxes, and nodded enthusiastically. “YES, it would, it would be GREAT.” Jean said, “All your students will look up to you, Cameron, and you can set such an example for them!” Cam smiled and said, “Okay, then I will,” and it was decided.

I remember I felt so lucky to know such a good man, who was sensitive enough to empathize with women and to get the importance of feminism, and brave and confident enough to talk about women’s issues with teenagers. Very cool, Cam.

Last weekend, I was in Wisconsin, at my step-grandmother’s 87th birthday brunch. We had ten adults, a teenager, a tween, and a baby at one long table. The food was fantastic and at any given time there were at least three different conversations swirling around the table. I mostly talked to the people at my end of the table, but every now and then I’d pick up hints of other conversations, sentences or phrases here and there, and sometimes I’d get pulled in. The most compelling of these side conversations involved my brother-in-law, an attorney, talking about a big case he’s been working on forever. I didn’t hear a lot, but from what I could pick up, it’s a sexual harassment case with a number of female complainants against a company. What struck me was Justin’s voice as he talked about the case, how adamantly he felt that these women had been wronged, how intense he was about it. He described some of the actions in the case, some of the harassment, and I thought, “Well, that’s how it is,” (oh, cynical me) but Justin was like the sword of vengeance, coming down to smite the offenders. “No woman should have to go through that,” he said. “It’s despicable, and the worst part is that it’s not uncommon, at all.”

Again, I felt lucky to have such a good man for a brother. Later in the car, I asked Natalie, “Have you ever heard a man get so fired up about defending women?” “No,” she said, sounding amazed. “I was very impressed.” (Sadly, the fact that we were both stunned just to hear a man get so heated about women being harassed tells me that it's far too rare in both our lives. In an ideal world, we'd be rolling our eyes a little at yet another man passionately standing up for a woman's right to go to work without being harrassed. Oh you men, we'll say, you just want everyone to have equal opportunities all the time! That's just how you are!) Thanks, Justin, for fighting on behalf of women. I'm proud to say you're my brother.

Both Cam and Justin are fathers, and it makes me happy to think of the good examples they’ll set for their children. Obviously, this is an historic time for women, and regardless of how Senator Clinton does in the long run, she’s setting precedents right and left. Still, issues of gender equality, feminism, and women’s rights haven’t disappeared. The gender gap still exists. In the coming months, given the nature of politics in this country, I’m sure the meanspirited and often misogynistic sentiment toward Clinton will resurface with more frequency. I just hope that when it does, you good men – not just Cam and Justin, but all of you, you nice guys, you good, kind men – will notice it, and fight to stop it.

22 January 2008

Guest Blogging at Puffery


Given that I spend the entire winter in the bathtub (the only warm place in the house -- did I mention that the windchill here has consistently been around or below zero degrees? The second you step outside, you can feel your mitochondria freezing. If you breathe in too deeply, your nostrils freeze shut. And it's only January. We have another month of this, at least? And WHY did I move back to the midwest, again? OH MY GOD I HATE WINTER!)

...sorry, what was I saying?

Ahem. Given that I spend the entire winter in the bathtub, it's awfully nice to have the girls over at Puffery to offer up their reviews of and suggestions for bubble bath and all other manners of paint and powder, frill and frippery.

Even nicer, they let me rave about my latest obsession on their site! Check it out, and keep in mind that I'm not getting paid to gush...










...but I should be. Maybelline? Anyone? Bubble bath doesn't come cheap.

17 January 2008

This Makes Me Feel Better About My Life

YA authors Maureen Johnson and Libba Bray talking about Libba's new book, The Sweet Far Thing.




At about one minute in, she talks about her writing process. Currently, I seem to be in the "I drank lots and lots of coffee... and I didn't smell good" phase. At least I'm not alone.


"The book actually getting written... is not pretty."


Good to know.

15 January 2008

Chalk, PTSD, and the Incredible Weirdness of Teaching, or: Why I Hate Mr. Holland

One day last year, I walked in to the school after a day at the district-wide spelling bee. The school day wasn’t over yet, but I had a sub scheduled for the whole day, so my plan was to sneak past my classroom to the teacher’s lounge and use the rest of the afternoon to catch up on grading and paperwork. This plan was immediately thwarted when I pushed through the heavy front doors to find two of my most charming students racing each other down the hallway toward me. As soon as they saw me, they skidded to a stop, looking guilty. “Hi Ms. Backes!”

“Hello children,” I said politely. “And why exactly are you running down the hallway when you should be in my classroom right now?”

“The sub said we could! We have to go to the library!”

“Interesting,” I said. “And why is that?”

“We need a book to do the assignment!”

“That’s funny,” I said, “because I happen to know that the book you need for the assignment is the grammar textbook which you are currently holding in your hands, and of which I have forty copies in my classroom.”

The boys stuttered and fumbled, but ultimately gave in and followed me meekly back to my classroom, where I encountered a scene of such HORROR that I would still be having nightmares about it if I didn’t drink so heavily to forget. Children were in the hallways, screaming with laughter. (And I do mean screaming.) There were children writing on the board, throwing paper, chasing each other around the room, standing on tables, talking on cell phones, and doing pretty much everything in the world except identifying adverbial phrases. Meanwhile, the sub sat peacefully at my desk, knitting. In a cape.

In order to teach middle school successfully, you must develop a world-class poker face, which you will use to keep yourself from laughing when children fart audibly, or say things like “Tell him to stop playing with my balls!” Your poker face will keep you from rolling your eyes when your asinine co-worker gives you pedagogical suggestions involving spinners or beanies, and keep you from flipping out when the literature teacher has never heard of this T.S. Eliot fellow.

It will also hide your mortal fear when the children go wild.

You do the math of You vs. Them and realize, particularly if you’re teaching middle or high school, that the children are much bigger than you, and there are so many of them, and just one of you. When you come right down to it, what separates you from them, other than a valid driver’s license and the legal right to arm yourself? Thank god the kids don’t think this through, or you might be screwed. You turn your back on the class for one minute, and the next thing you know there’s a sow’s head on a pole, the conch shell is crushed, and Piggy’s lying dead under a boulder.

In your first years of teaching, you learn how to plan lessons, how to talk to parents, how to give good, helpful feedback on student papers, sure, but you also learn how to command respect. How to stare someone down. How to control a classroom of wound-up, hormonal teenagers. How to hide your pink underbelly. After a few years, these things come more easily, and you don’t have to think about them much. After a few years, you get to stop worrying so much about managing a classroom, and actually concentrate on teaching. It’s great!

And then you see a first-year teacher flopping around in front of a group of unimpressed students like a gasping fish on the beach, and it all comes back to you. The fear. The horror. The unfettered PTSD of your first years of teaching.


The faux-documentary Chalk captures this perfectly. Written, directed by, and starring actors and improvisers who really were teachers, and featuring their former students and co-workers, Chalk is the truest movie about being a teacher I’ve ever seen. The film is to education what The Office is to Office-Monkery. It is just so, so true. And as is often the case, the truth can be extremely painful.

The first time I saw this film, in Madison’s snooty patooty Sundance Cinema, I had a tiny breakdown in the theater. The audience kept laughing at stupid little things, and I had to restrain myself from standing up and screaming “IT’S TRUE! THAT’S HOW IT IS!!” Next to me, my mother elbowed me and cackled. “Does this make you miss teaching?” I couldn’t even reply; I was too busy cringing. Chalk follows three teachers and an Assistant Principal in their first three years on the job. Mr. Stroope, in his third year, just wants to win Teacher of the Year, and doesn’t mind fighting dirty. Coach Webb, in her second year, believes that “students are what you make them think you think they are.” And Mr. Lowry, in his first year, is awkwardness embodied. Poor Mr. Lowry is just painful to watch. The worst thing about watching Mr. Lowry go through his first days and weeks of class is that it brings up all the memories of how terribly awful you were, in your first days and weeks as a teacher. You seriously hope that you weren’t as bad as he was… but you might have been. In this way, the film feels a little bit like watching a screening of your own geeky, pimply adolescence. At times, it actually hurts.

Chalk tells the truth about teaching in a way I’ve never seen another movie do. As a teacher, I always felt I was closer to Jack Black in School of Rock (“I’m hungover. Does anyone know what that means?” “It means you’re drunk?” “No, it means I was drunk YESTERDAY.”) than I was to Edward James Olmos in Stand and Deliver. In general, I kind of hate movies about inspiring teachers. Mr. Holland’s Opus, for example, made me want to stick wooden spoons down my throat just to get the wretched taste of precious spun sugar and inspirational sign-language dancing out of my mouth. The thing about teaching is that it’s only inspiring FROM A DISTANCE. You don’t realize how good and brilliant and noble your teachers are until you are far, far away from them. In the moment, in the day to day scuttle of school work and staff meetings and broken copy machines and standardized testing, teaching feels less like a Precious Moment and more like Platoon.

What those insipid inspirational teaching movies don’t get is that the bulk of teaching isn’t noble or inspired, it’s just absolutely ridiculous. It’s trying not to laugh at your students, it’s listening to your colleagues make snarky comments about what the parents wore to conferences, it’s explaining the difference between a kitty and a goat to children who really ought to know. It's sliding to the floor of your classroom after the last student leaves, and finally allowing yourself to cry. It’s hard and funny and trite and tiring and weird, and sometimes, sometimes, it's genuinely moving. It’s the whole spectrum of human drama, played out under florescent lights by a cast of adolescents… and the grownups they bring down to their level.

In this way, Chalk gets it exactly right.

11 January 2008

Reimagining Ophelia

I first read Hamlet in my AP World Lit class, my junior year at OHS. I was 16. Before that, I’d seen – and maybe I’m making this up, actually, but it sticks in my memory as truth – a claymation version of the play, on VHS, in a summer drama class. Am I making this up? Did someone make a claymation Hamlet? I imagine it was one of the animators who worked on, say, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer sitting at a bar in his early thirties, saying to his friends, “Fucking reindeer! This isn’t why I went into claymation, dudes. I want to make ART. I want to do something that MATTERS.” And his friends go, “Yeah, totally man.” And then he goes and makes a claymation version of Hamlet, because it, you know, really spoke to him.

In high school, when your teachers make you read Romeo & Juliet, they always try to get you to identify with the protagonists. “It’s the ultimate teenage story,” they tell you. Romeo and Juliet were teenagers just like you, and somehow your teachers think that means you’re going to be totally moved by the story of this chick who kills herself over some fifteen year old dude. But even when you’re fifteen, you realize that the boys around you aren’t really worth dying for. Updating your myspace page with sad songs and angsty poetry, maybe, but not KILLING yourself. Not for a lame teenage boy.

Hamlet though. Hamlet makes sense to teenagers. Here’s this dude who’s totally pissed off at his crappy parents, who wanders around the big cold castle wearing black and being sad and making fun of old people. And then he’s really mad all of a sudden, and then he’s sad again. He yells at his mother, he suddenly decides that his friends are jerks, he’s mean to his girlfriend without exactly knowing why. The ghost of his father says he should kill his uncle, and he probably should, because his uncle’s such a dick, you know? But at the same time – god, it’s like, how do you know what to do? Everything’s so HARD, and it’s just like, what’s the point? Maybe I should just kill myself! That would show them!

I love Hamlet.

At fourteen, I wrote in my journal that it would be “fun” to go through a mental breakdown like Ophelia. (I grew up in a small town; we had to make fun in our own ways.) It would be “fun,” I wrote, to “start going to school with my hair not brushed and no shoes on and mismatched clothing and wander around the halls singing to myself and picking flowers and giving them to people and showing up for class once in a while… until I drown myself or get hit on the highway or something.” (Again, at fourteen, I had a limited experience of what “fun” looked like.)

At sixteen, when I had to read Hamlet in my English class, I wanted more for Ophelia. Her passivity frustrated me. I wanted her to stand up for herself. I wanted her to take charge of her own fate.

Hamlet: Get thee to a nunnery. Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest, but yet I could accuse me of such things---
Ophelia: [PUNCHES HIM THE FACE] Get a life, Hammie!
Hamlet: Are you honest? Are you fair?
Ophelia: I’m honestly over you! Hey Horatio, what are you doing tonight?

When we had to write papers about Hamlet, I wrote one arguing that Ophelia had a choice between staying in the life she had, pulled between the different men in her life, always answering to some dude or another; or going mad, choosing a different route, setting herself free. My teacher said, “Um, you can’t just CHOOSE to go mad, so this paper is inherently inarguable.” I thought she was wrong: after all, Hamlet chose to go mad. He was but mad north-northwest. He knew a hawk from a handsaw. Why couldn’t Ophelia? But, knowing from experience that you (or at least, I) couldn’t win an argument with “The Gravedigger,” I sat down the night before it was due and pounded out a perfectly fine paper arguing that Hamlet had never loved Ophelia. It was well argued and well written, but I hated to make the argument, because I never wanted to believe it myself. Of course Hamlet loved Ophelia. It wasn’t her fault that he was kind of a bad boyfriend, at the end.

Ophelia, of course, has become shorthand for all the girls who have been silenced over the years, all the women who have drowned in the weight of their own skirts. In various productions of Hamlet, I’ve seen her played sympathetically, and I’ve seen her played so goddamn passive you want to go down on stage and yank her around by the hair. Unfortunately, I’ve never seen her give Hamlet a well-aimed kick in the junk.

Imagine my delight, then, in Lisa Klein’s book Ophelia. Klein, an English teacher, was always frustrated with Ophelia’s portrayal as a meek, wussy, crazy girl. She wanted to hear Ophelia’s voice. She wanted Ophelia to be more. (She probably wanted to see Ophelia kick Ham in the nuts, but as far as I know she hasn’t said so publicly.) “The film versions of the play… focus on her naiveté and madness. Well, if Ophelia was so dim,” Klein asks, “what on earth made Hamlet fall in love with her?” And so she wrote Ophelia’s story, winding it through with lines from the play, but beginning years before Bernardo and Francisco meet on the platform, and ending long after Fortinbras embraces his fortune.

In Klein’s version, Ophelia is far stronger than we ever see her in the play, taking control of her own fate and meeting the future head on. She is intelligent and quick-witted, and banters with Hamlet as cleverly as any character in Shakespeare’s empire. She defies the rules of the court, sneaking out of the castle dressed as a peasant to meet secretly with Hamlet. And she marries him, secretly, claiming him as her own for one whole, perfect day, before Horatio interrupts their wedding night calling “To the ramparts, Hamlet! It comes!”

The familiar plot unfolds quickly, and we see from Ophelia’s perspective the treachery of the king, and the fear and unrest at Elsinore. As the situation grows desperate, Ophelia must choose between saving her husband and saving herself, and in doing so, shows that she’s made of mettle far tougher than Shakespeare ever gave her credit.


“I held his head there and stroked it. I knew that I would break my unwilling promise to Hamlet. Like one who digs a tunnel beneath a fortress, I would undermine his revenge, not aid it. This game of love would distract him from his dire course.

Revenge was Hamlet’s plan; this was mine.”

09 January 2008

How to Write a Novel

1. Brainstorm. I’m a big fan of Mark Baechtel’s “Triple Cloud” exercise (find it in his book Shaping the Story). My current Work In Progress (also known as “my novel,” “the novel,” and “oh my god someone please kill me”) began as a triple cloud exercise in a seventh grade classroom. As a teacher, I almost always did the writing assignments along with the students, and in this case, I’m glad I did. From my initial triple cloud, I wrote some “starter scenes” in which the characters first began to tell their stories.

2. Outline. A lot of people will actually tell you NOT to outline, and if that works for you, cool. I learned the hard way (300 pages into an endless first novel, I realized I’d need at LEAST as many pages to finish it, and moreover that at least half of the 300 first pages were utterly unnecessary) that I am the kind of person who really needs a good outline. For my current WIP, I sat down one day in April of 2005 and wrote a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the entire first draft, figuring that each chapter would run about 10-15 pages. The original chapter outline is about 3,300 words, which is far more than I normally write in one sitting. In my memory, it’s sort of a blur: writing it was sort of like being possessed, almost like I wasn’t fully in control, but merely a conduit for the story. This was in New Mexico, where you can talk about things like being a conduit for a story without people judging.

3. Start writing! This will take you a long time. The first draft of my WIP took about six months to write, which is actually pretty impressive to me in retrospect. It helps to have something else that you don’t want to do (for me it was moving out of one house and into another. Doesn’t writing the first three chapters of a new novel sound WAY funner than packing a bunch of boring old boxes? It did to me!). It also helps to have no TV, no internet, no radio, no job, and no friends. Nothing to do but write that next chapter!

4. Make a writing schedule for yourself. I find that I can write about a chapter a week, once I get into the story. The first three or four chapters generally take me either much more or much less time to write than the bulk of chapters do. So, I recommend not making a schedule until you’re four or five chapters into it, and then holding yourself to a reasonable timeline.

5. Finish your rough draft & celebrate! Make people give you lots of kisses and attention. Finishing a novel is FAR more difficult than starting one.

6. Immediately start working on something entirely different, and ignore your novel for a while. Maybe you want to write some short stories, maybe you want to start your next novel, maybe it’s time to write a sonnet cycle about nascar. Whatever you do, give yourself at least a month away from your novel. (I took six, but I wouldn’t recommend it.)

7. After some time away, come back to your first draft and re-read it. You might want to print it out and put it in a binder! This way you will have the pleasure of writing all over your manuscript, as well as a tangible sense of how much you’ve written. Also, three hundred pages in a binder makes a very satisfying smack against the wall if you feel the need to hurl it across the room. In this stage, you should pay close attention to the things about your manuscript that have been bugging you all along, the nagging little questions, and scenes you don’t really believe, the parts you’re completely horrified by (WHO WROTE THIS? DID MONKEYS TAKE OVER THIS CHAPTER?? OH MY GOD, IT’S SO AWFUL!).

8. Take copious notes. Rewrite.







9. Repeat steps 7-8 as needed.

10. Get an agent. When you get to the point when you feel your manuscript is absolutely as good as you can make it on your own, write a kickass query letter and send it to a bunch of agents who represent the kind of work you’re doing. Pick an agent who really loves your work, and who wants to work with you on this and all future projects. It doesn’t hurt to pick an agent who will send you cute little drawings and presents to cheer you on, if you like that sort of thing (and I DO! Not only did my agent send me an adorable mug for xmas, she also offered to send me a new one when I told her the handle broke in the mail. I [heart] her).

11(a). If you are lucky, at this point your agent will sell your novel, and you will go into an editing process with your brand new editor! Yay! Have fun!

11(b). If you are lucky in a totally different kind of way (on a bad day, I call this kind of luck “cursed by the gods themselves,” but generally I understand that I am very lucky indeed), your agent will work with you to make your manuscript kick as much ass as possible, which means that you will get to do rewrites before an editor sees your ms. I know this sounds wretched, and it feels wretched to be in the middle of it, but ultimately your goal is to write the best book possible, and unfortunately…. it takes a lot of work.

12. See steps 7-9.

13. Sell your novel! Hoooray! Get an editor! And….. do more re-writes. (Again: steps 7-9. Also, maybe find some sort of support group, because after five or seven or fourteen drafts of your novel, you will definitely start to become a Deeply Unhappy and Haunted Person, and you may be tempted to start drinking heavily.)

14. Finish your last re-write, check your proofs, make everyone give you lots of kisses and attention. And….

15. Start all over again.

07 January 2008

Schmapologies

Apologies for not writing much lately; I am drowning in revisions and re-writes, and fully immersed in the writing life for now (aka eating Junior Mints for breakfast and taking lots of baths). Lacking full-time internet access and a searingly boring job in which to contemplate possible blog entries, I've had fewer chances to post of late. Still, I've read some good books lately, and today I had a chat with a squirrel, and soon I'll be back in the swing of things. I promise.