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It’s that time of year again: Banned Books Week! The week where we conspicuously celebrate the fact that we, as adults*, are allowed to read what we want to and that no one else has the right to tell us otherwise or foist their hang-ups on us.

 

RB burning book poster

Censorship causes blindness.

 

So in honor of Banned Books Week, I offer my students extra credit during the whole month of September to read a book from the official Banned Books list, one they’ve never read before, and then to write a short review explaining why they think the book was banned and whether they agree with that. (A few notes for those who might want to share this assignment: I tell them they must not, on their honor, look up why the book was banned, since that would defeat the purpose of the assignment, which is all about THINKING FOR THEMSELVES; whether they agree with the ban is completely irrelevant to their score on the assignment or whether they get the extra credit, because as long as they present a cogent argument, I don’t have to agree with it to give it high marks.)

So I’m curious: what’s your take on banned books? Have you read any banned books? What did you think about it/them?

Chuck Wendig’s blog today asks about books you love but others hate and books you hate but others love. This is really interesting to me, too. Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

 

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* Note the “as adults” part. As a parent, I still monitor what my young children are allowed to read, as best I can. I don’t sanitize things for them, but I do strongly caution them against books which I know have too-heavy subject matter and help them gently through the consequences if they go against my recommendation. And this also has limitations. For example, I counseled my daughter when she was eight through her existential crisis over the death of Sirius Black, but there’s no way in heaven or hell I’m going to let her read anything by Kresley Cole till she’s at least eighteen — or maybe twenty-one!  ;)

I was nineteen, almost twenty. We were on the glorious five-week hiatus our university called Winter Break. My college friends all hailed from different states, and everyone had gone home for vacation. And one of them wanted me to go out with him, so to make sure I thought about him while we were on opposite sides of the country, he wrote me a letter. He was an English major and I liked Shakespeare so the prose was filled with archaic forms of “you”: thou and thee and thy sprinkled everywhere like inky blossoms trying really hard.

 

We all wrote letters in those days, honest-to-goodness personal notes written on paper and folded into envelopes, with stamps and ink and licking the whole thing. Stamps and envelopes weren’t self-adhesive, the paper was real stationery, email was not a thing we’d even heard of, only drug dealers and doctors carried cell phones. We had long-distance phone cards, but it cost a lot more money to talk on the phone than it did to write a letter, so we wrote. The more romantically-minded of us even used sealing wax for fun, for special occasions, though often it had cracked and crumbled by the time it left the post office.

 

Letters are so much fun to receive. When I was a child, any piece of mail I might receive was a treasure. Birthday cards, letters from pen-pals, Highlights magazine. When I was in high school, the flood of brochures from colleges and universities that started in tenth grade filled a filing cabinet before I ever sat down to write my first application essay. In college, the mail was letters from friends at faraway schools and bills. Now it’s mostly junk mail and bills. Things that must go into the recycling or into the file, things that take up mental energy but give little of value in return. I miss correspondence and, frankly, wish I were better at it.

 

The one thing I always manage to accomplish, though, is love letters. Certainly for my husband, and a different sort for my children. If I’m going on a trip without them, I leave them letters on the kitchen table to find when I’m gone. If my husband has to go on a business trip, there’s always something tucked away in his suitcase, slipped in while he’s rushing around and not paying attention, a letter or card or heart-shaped stone waiting in the pocket of his dress shirt or rolled into his socks. Other than the holiday greetings we try to send out almost every year, Valentines and anniversary cards for my husband are the only cards I still give.

 

I love letters. I adore love letters. We need, in such a busy and disjointed world, those tactile reminders, those tangible artifacts of human interaction and loving connectedness. Write a love letter today, and someone can read it every tomorrow.

 

What is the most interesting love letter you’ve ever given or received?

Fashion Friday 9/12/14

Today we have a Fashion Friday post from guest blogger Kasia over at Writer’s Block. Some of you might remember her as the force behind The Milk of Female Kindness — An Anthology of Honest Motherhood, an excellent and rather varied collection of essays, fiction, poetry, interviews, and art on the theme of motherhood. Check out her blog and the anthology, but first enjoy her timely post on style correlation.

 

***

Are you a style icon? I’m not.

But I do like to watch and learn. I travel on the train to work, and if I’m too tired to do anything but stare around in a zombie-like fashion, then I can’t help observing my fellow commuters. Discreetly, of course – there’s nothing more likely to have you labelled as the train lunatic (there’s one in every carriage) than sticky-beaking unashamedly at the people around you.

As a result of my gawking research, I’ve come up with a working theory about style. There are perhaps three schools of commuters. Firstly, those who are bursting through the cutting edge of fashion – whether it suits them or not. Often they are beautifully groomed, having spent at least an hour in front of the mirror before hopping on the 8.07am. I guess that I can admire the time and effort that they must go to, although part of me wants them to rebel against the sycophantic dictates of the industry that tells them they will look wonderful in neon yellow this season. Unless, of course, they do glow in neon.

The second group just don’t care, and I suppose I’d divide them into those who have a noble disregard for their appearance (a freelance sculptor I know comes into this category – he used to come to work in his pyjama top), and those who are, well, slobs. Sometimes it can be pretty hard to tell the difference. It may come down to how articulate you are.  ;)

The third group? These women have their own styles, regardless of fashion. It can be a brave position to take – the peer pressure to all look the same is not inconsiderable. This third group I’d also split, but by a sort of style correlation factor. Let me explain.

There are some women I see, about whom I think: “Wow – I love that top/skirt/magician’s cape! I wonder if I should try one of those?” High style correlation. I’m not saying that my taste is better than anyone else’s, just that these people have a similar look or body shape, and they have dealt with it beautifully. They give me ideas. Sometimes it’s just a small thing, like wearing brightly coloured stockings with a monochrome outfit – a little whimsy that I saw a woman in the city carry off with terrific elan, and which I now often wear in winter. I do love colour, and being able to add a flash of it to a more sober suit is a joy.

Some people are trying but, well, they just get it wrong. We all have those days, I think. Too tight, too short, not right for our body shape or colouring. I’d call this one Low Style correlation, because of course, it’s only my personal taste that says that look isn’t right. There is a woman who I see most days, who always wears black, head to toe. Layers of black, in an unflattering cut. I long to be able to suggest to her tactfully, that unless she is in mourning, she would look so much better in colour, but I know black is easy. Perhaps even lazy. Perhaps, and I suspect this is closer to the truth, she just wants to disappear into the background, which is a bit sad.

Then there are those who provoke the thought: “Wow – you look great in that! But not for me.” These women often have superbly quirky styles – the goth girl who is as white and lithe as bamboo grown in the dark, with long green hair.

 

 

Kasia's post pic #1

 

The chick who looks like she walked off the set of Mad Men (and the amount of time required to achieve that corseted, lacquered mid-twentieth century look makes me shudder).

 

 

Kasia's post pic #2

 

The lady with generous curves who dresses with terrific colour sense and flamboyance.

 

 

 

I would never choose to wear what they have chosen, but I can appreciate it. I love the fact that they have been able to bring their personality out in their clothes: that they seem to be having fun with their appearance. I see joy and playfulness in these women, each with their very different styles.

Style is inherently a matter of taste.

What I think these women have in common is a terrific natural self-confidence. They can rock their own style, to use a great American phrase. You’ve got to admire that. My point is this: you don’t need to give a stuff about what is in Vogue this year. You don’t have to bow to some bimbo in advertising. If you love hats, then wear them with verve, and people will admire you for it. If you want to wear studs and chains, go for it. Red rubber shorts? If you can carry it, and they suit you, why not?

You may need to grit your teeth at first. It’s a scary, judgmental world out there; you need only look at the statistics about body image to get confirmation of that. To give you some examples, 7 in 10 girls believe they are not good enough or do not measure up in some way, including their looks, performance in school, and relationships (from HeartofLeadership.org). Beyond Stereotypes, the 2005 study commissioned by Dove, surveyed 3,300 girls and women between the ages of 15 and 64 in 10 countries. They found that 67% of all women aged 15 to 64 withdraw from life-engaging activities due to feeling badly about their looks.

A random stranger once reached across, tapped me on the arm, and said, “You know, you’re very pretty,” and then kept looking out the window. I was blown away and have never forgotten it. It’s only happened once. I don’t even remember what I was wearing, but I do recall the courage it must have taken for her to say that to a stranger, and also how it made me glow all day. This could be a reflection of my vanity, but there are so many images and messages out there all the time telling you that you’re not good enough. You know the ones – the photoshopped perfection of magazines, the insidious messages of advertising. That sneaky little voice that says: “You could have perfect skin if you just buy this cream.” They’re all selling hope. Hope that you will look better.

Imagine if every time we saw someone with their own style who looked terrific, we could tell them so. They might be putting their own style out there, but cowering inside. A little encouragement can go an awfully long way.

If we all had the confidence to rock our own style, the world would be a much more intriguing, varied, and happier place.

 

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Would you like to write a guest post for our Fashion Fridays series? Check out the Fashion page on this blog for more information and some examples, then query me with your idea!

So if you’ve been reading my blog for a long time, you might remember that last summer I wrote a review of Scotland-based Marie Marshall’s poetry collection Naked in the Sea. I’m a big fan of her work, and on her blog she often posts daily or near-daily short poems. Wonderful stuff, really great, and you should check it out.

So you can imagine my delight when she told me she was writing a review of Finis.! Today I woke up to see that review was posted; you can read it here at her blog.

Finis. is also showing up in more places now — on Goodreads, for example.

Have a good weekend!

So if you’ve been reading this blog for any time at all, you know my latest publication — fiction, this time — just came out this month. The title is Finis., the genre is magic realism, and the length is novelette (a classification that occurs in speculative fiction genres, but which is essentially a short novella). The response so far has been quite good. However, when searching for my book on Barnes & Noble and other retailers, some people have noticed there is some other genre work out there with similar titles to my book, which appear to be related to The Book of Revelations — and my story couldn’t be much farther from that!! So to clear up some confusion, here’s an excerpt from my Finis., just for you — the first chapter. (More information about the story follows the excerpt.)

***

ELSA’S PARENTS and sister have become meaner than usual, and her cat, Jonas, resents her. She has a nagging concern he wants to eat her.

“He bit me again this morning — I woke up to find half the toes on my left foot in his mouth! I kicked him away but he just came back, all fangs and hissing, till I locked him in the coat closet.”

But that’s only the beginning, Elsa tries to explain to her cousin Gerard. She has to speak in short bursts: he’s conducting his water exercises, his head bobbing in and out of the water in orderly arcs. She knew she’d be interrupting his routine, but this morning’s episode has brought things to a head. On her way to work, anxiety commandeered her every thought and movement. Before she could catch her breath, she found herself tearing through Gerard’s garden gate and rushing to his salt-water pool.

“Oh, Elsa,” he says, his feet spiraling around a large stalk of kelp just below the water’s surface. He runs a watery hand across his spiky brown hair, and brine curls down his back. “What are you going to do?”

“What’s even worse, my landlord left another threat-of-eviction notice today.” She sets her briefcase down near a baby potted corpse flower and ventures closer to the pool. “I’ve done nothing wrong. My rent is always on time. I’m a quiet, orderly tenant. I thought getting a cat would mollify the building association, but unless I become a cat, I don’t think it’ll help.”

Gerard dunks, flips neatly into a ball, and spins back up; he swims to where she stands at the edge of the pool and rises. “Have you had any hints of your self?” He looks at her carefully, scrutinizing, and she wants to shrink into the empty void of mediocrity. Still, his voice is tender. “Anything at all?”

“No,” she murmurs, mesmerized by the ripples his body makes, the way the water slaps against the side of the pool and then laps backward over itself, folding the brine under to dissolve in a never-ending cycle of thrash and renewal.

“I’m not sure I approve of where you’re living, anyway. Those nasty gangs — I read about them in the newspaper. Packs attacking Plain Ones right and left, even children.”

“I saw that, too. They usually go for adults, though — people who ought to have blossomed by now.” Her shame for the disgrace she’s caused her family burns on her face.

Gerard smiles. “Come in for a swim. You’ll feel better.” He shoots backward through the water, darkened spiny ridges flashing on his skin.

She almost wants to but imagines how painful it would be. “I can’t,” she says, then makes an excuse. “Work.”

“Of course. The monster.”

“I’ve never been a swimmer, anyway.” Even standing for too long in the shower makes her skin feel prickly and sore; she usually just soaps up before turning the water on and then washes her hair in the sink. “I think I’m allergic to water.”

He laughs. “Off you go, then. See you later–” His words bubble as he dives backward.

Elsa trudges out the gate, hardly even waving back at the friendly centaur trimming his hedges next door.

***

Finis. is an ebook, but if it had a back cover, this would be its blurb:

Elsa’s family grows more unkind by the week. Her boss, a seven-foot-tall rage demon, has control of everything but his anger. And her cat wants to eat her. Things could be better.

In a world where one’s Animal Affinity is a sign of maturity and worth, Elsa’s inability to demonstrate hers is becoming more than a disappointing nuisance; it’s becoming a danger. She has no confidence she’ll ever conquer her Plainness by “blossoming.” She also fears both the wolf packs that prowl her neighborhood and being stuck in a life plummeting rapidly from lackluster to perilous. Fortunately, she has a cousin and a co-worker who know her better than she knows herself and can see through to what society won’t.

Finis. is the magic realism of our time, a story of finding one’s way to the end of things, of persevering through the dregs of life to discover something more.

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See advance praise in the following online listings, where Finis. is available for purchase:

Amazon

Barnes & Noble

Smashwords

Oyster Books

Scribd

Finis. is also available in Apple’s iBooks Store. And here’s its listing on Goodreads.

If you don’t have an e-reader, no worries! Amazon has a free Kindle app that will allow you to turn your device (laptop, tablet, or smartphone) into an e-reader. Finally, one more lucky person will win a free copy of the ebook by participating in my back-to-school poetry contest over on Twitter. You can also find the Facebook page for Finis. here. (Go on over and Like it. It’s okay, I’ll wait.)

If you’ve read the story, please consider leaving a review at one of the abovementioned places. I love hearing from my readers and am interested in what you think!

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UPDATE (less than half an hour after this post went live): The Twitter contest is now closed! Thank you to everyone who participated. I may do another give-away in the future, so watch this space and Twitter for information about that. Cheers!

Finding Poetry

School has started, and I’m teaching again. My tenth grade English classes and my grades 9-12 Creative Writing class have not yet begun to look at me with abject skepticism, but then I haven’t asked them to write a lot of poetry yet.

When I was in high school, I detested poetry. My instruction had been confined to the episode in The Odyssey when Odysseus outwits the Cyclops by telling him his name is Nobody, “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold and a few other poems about World War I, some Shakespeare, and maybe a little Emily Dickinson. While all those things are great, there wasn’t really a sense that poetry was something still-living people did. Poetry itself did not live. The most contemporary poet any of my friends knew of was Sylvia Plath, and her caché was having tried so many times to kill herself. And by the time we were aware of her, she was also already dead.

Is it any wonder I considered myself a fiction writer only? In stories, for me, there was peace. There, in stories, was the world as I dictated it, a haven for a girl who felt invisible more often than not, silenced not by malice but through the daily machinations of the 20th-century Texas in which the accident of her birth had placed her.

And, much like the progressive French women authors who write comte de fée (fairy tales) centuries ago were able to make female characters into empowered heroines with agency and active motivations by couching those characters in the realm of children’s fancy*, stories allowed me to reshape the reality of the world as I knew it.

When I got to college, I knew I would be a fiction student. (I went to the University of Houston for Creative Writing.) And then halfway through my degree, I had to take some cross-genre classes. Poetry workshops were my new experience: I made friends with other student-poets; learned from living, breathing, author-poets; tried writing poetry myself. I read the works of the poets of my own time, I learned how to see the world around me in short bursts of lyric. The rain-drenched courtyard outside my dorm became leaves “on a black, wet bough.”**

I wrote nothing but poetry for several years, and through this practice what I learned about language, about the relationships among words and between word and meaning, completely changed the way I worked. When I came back to fiction afterward, my writing style was wildly different, dramatically improved. My stories had become worth reading, all because poetry had taught me language.

When my students tell me they don’t want to read or write poetry, when they confess it freaks them out, I remind them that poetry is all around us. We practice with short form debriefs about mundane things, focusing on turning a single image into two or three sparkling lines of metaphor and comment.

My friend Chris Noessel, who lives in the San Francisco Bay area, takes Casual Carpool to work and sometimes posts on Facebook his impressions of his varied carpool experiences. One day this summer a line from one of his posts caught me, felt like it had rhythm, and I turned his post into a poem. Not a great poem, by any stretch, but something fun to work with for half an hour while I sat, otherwise unfocused, procrastinating my novel revisions.

****

Casual Carpooler

In this immaculately aging sedan, my feet intrude upon
a floor mat bedecked with red and pink hearts, a riot of
affectionate color in a gray, gray mechanical world.

A plastic key fob boasts a picture of the driver and
children, witnessing a moment of joy on a roller coaster, but
her movements,
.                         now fastidious,
.                                                  brake – accelerate – brake – like
dressage. A full ten car lengths separate us from the white van

ahead. The driver’s back, ramrod, doesn’t rest against her seat,
stiffens against the radio’s latest testimonial: a man lamenting
his thug life full of guns, dope, and, oh yes, bitches.

.                                                                                       The driver taps
her index fingers – da dum, da dum – in time on the steering wheel.

doot doot do do, doot doot do do, doot doot do do, doot doot do do…

****

Find the lyric in at least one moment of your day, every day.*** It’s like meditation without having to meditate: this forced daydream of language, your moment of Zen in a chaotic world.

 

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* For more discussion of this idea, see Jack Zipes’ When Dreams Came True.

** This line is paraphrased from the imagistic poem “In a Station at the Metro” by Ezra Pound.

*** I currently have a contest running on Twitter: the first three people to reply to me with a one-tweet-long poem about school starting up again will win a free copy each of my new ebook FINIS. You won’t be the first winner (that spot has already been claimed this morning), but will you be the second or third?

 

It’s not so much a photograph as the black-and-white computer print-out of a photograph. And it’s not so much placed on the windowsill among the framed snapshots and portrait prints of my family as it is stapled haphazardly into an empty spot on the aging bulletin board. The bulletin board whose juvenile illustrated border has been falling down for years, whose navy blue felt backdrop is dusty and faded by the sun around the rectangles where items like this not-so-much-a-real-photograph have been thumbtacked and stapled up for years. So many years.

But this picture matters to me. It’s a picture of my birthday. Or more specifically, of a birthday party my Creative Writing class threw me one year––in 2009, I think––and I’m there in the middle, surrounded by my students and desks piled high with paper plates and napkins and homemade cookies and random snack foods from the grocery store that opens before school starts and a chocolate cake with a candle on it. The photo is grainy and hazy and even a little graffitied by my daughter, who drew ball point pink hearts around her favorite students, ones who used to babysit her and her little brother before they moved away to college.

I am dramatically rearranging and overhauling my classroom this year. It began with the acquisition of a Promethean Board which necessitated moving my computer (and thus desk) to the opposite side of the classroom, and that meant moving my bookshelves around, which snowballed into moving everything else around, too. In cleaning off the bookshelves I let go of a lot of things I don’t need or want anymore, and halfway through inservice week I spontaneously decided to redecorate my bulletin boards, which I hadn’t really done ever, choosing instead each semester only to add more stuff on top of what was already there. The fire marshal might have written me up, if he’d seen it.

By any logical estimation, this not-so-much-a-photograph, this piece of paper, curling at the staple-holed corners and ripped down one edge, ought to be tossed into the recycling bin. But I cannot let it go. This casual print-out of a digital photo one of the kids emailed to me is proof that during at least one point in my teaching career, I was able to make a meaningful connection with a room full of high schoolers that was powerful enough that they found a way to throw me a surprise party in my own classroom on my birthday, complete with decorations, food, a cake, and even handmade cards and a gift wrapped in lovely paper with a bow. I seem to recall that one of them posted to Facebook a short video of them singing to me, then one of them saying, “Now get your germs all over that cake!” and all of them laughing as I––also laughing––blew out the candle and then cut each of them a slice. Only half a class worth of work got done that day, but no one really cared about that.

I keep this picture around because it reminds me that I am capable of making these meaningful connections, that no matter how difficult it is for my students to relate to me as I get older and they seem to get younger, to get less interested in school and in learning for its own sake, to get more involved in the digital world we all now inhabit to the exclusion of real, tangible interactions with actual live humans…I was able to make an impression on them once, and I will find a way to do it again. I have to believe that, no matter how difficult it feels the first couple of weeks of the school year, no matter how many people ask to be transferred out of my English class because they’ve heard it’s hard, no matter how many of them stare up at me on the first day of school with faces that have shut down to mask the fear in their eyes. I’m so tired of not being known, so tired of not being given a chance.

I’ve been giving my classroom a make-over this week. The bulletin boards are now covered in a cheerful robin’s egg blue with white and silver scalloped borders. I’ve put up new artwork––some of the best of it by my AP Gothic Lit. students from last year. I’ve even included the book launch party poster for Finis. The walls have been freshly painted, all the surfaces have been dusted and Clorox-wiped. By the time classes start on Wednesday, the classroom will look like a brand-spanking-new place that is my own, rather than a room I inherited when I started teaching in it so many years ago, and even my desk will be cleaned off. I will appear to have it together.

In this process, I’ve been wanting to give myself a make-over, too. Wanting to walk into Macy’s and head right up to the Chanel or Dior counters and tell them to give me a new look. Preferably one with a shade of red lipstick I actually like, not too pink and not too orange. Something that won’t rub off on my teacup. Maybe find a new blouse or two to go with my fabulous skirt wardrobe.

In clearing out the physical detritus, I’ve been yearning for an emotional purge, too. I’ve had some setbacks with this school year already, and classes haven’t even started yet. Monday it felt like I was being slaughtered by a thousand bureaucratic and technical paper cuts. Here I am, already back at school and my summer’s work isn’t finished: I didn’t finish the rewrites of my novel, I didn’t finish clearing out the clutter in my house, I didn’t finish reading all the books I wanted to. My thinking about all of this is so entrenched in the negative, I have to consciously remind myself of all the good things that have happened: traveling with my family, successfully launching a new book and the excellent reviews it’s garnered so far, getting two of the rooms in my house and my wardrobe really purged and cleaned out. My god, I have to remind myself, the summer is only so long. How much did you expect to get done and still have a life? I’m too hard on myself.

David Foster Wallace’s brilliant commencement address to Kenyon in 2005 begins with an old joke about two young fish swimming around, when they encounter an older fish who says to them, “Good morning, boys. How’s the water?” After the older fish leaves, one of the younger fish asks his friend, “What the hell is water?” Wallace’s point is that we sometimes cling to our natural default setting of disappointment in the tedious fulcrum of mediocrity upon which so much of daily adult life turns; in this self-indulgent laziness, we sometimes forget to appreciate the value of our own experiences among other human beings. In short, we focus on the negative of what we know we don’t have, instead of recognizing the potential beauty in what we do not yet know about what we are going to have. Wallace’s speech is one of the most impactful and glorious elucidations of the Human Condition I’ve ever heard, made even more poignant by the fact that he, just a few years later, ended his own life. I share this speech with my students every May, just before the school year ends. Yet as often as I’ve heard it, I still have trouble, sometimes, remembering its wisdom.

My classroom is looking great so far. So here is my own personal start-of-term make-over: it’s going to be okay. Look, I’m getting writing done this very morning. After my writing date, I’ll head over to Macy’s and get some new lipstick. Then I’ll go home and attack one pile of paperwork and finish my summer reading, and then take my kids to a birthday party. My students are going to be marvelous and smart and kind and find something about my classes interesting. It’s all going to be okay.

I just have to keep reminding myself, This is water, this is water, this is water…

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