Tuesday, August 31, 2010


Some people just aren't happy unless they're in charge of something. You know the ones I'm talking about...the folks who wear even the smallest bit of authority on their sleeve like they're a five star general. We've all had the misfortune to cross into the kingdoms to which these tyrants hold the keys. The guy at the convenience store who literally holds the key to the restroom...the crossing guard who puts on a dayglo vest and believes herself the newest member of Homeland Security...the bureaucrat whose spiel you must listen to once a year because the law requires it.

Like the man for whom their complex was named, these little Napoleons are clearly overcompensating for something. Maybe their mama didn't love them enough, maybe they have small...feet, or maybe the good Lord just didn't bless them with fabulous hair. Judging by the abundance of hair gel on the asshat I ran into yesterday, I'd say the latter was at least one of his problems.

Hair Gel Dude (HGD) was in charge of reading some information off of a powerpoint, and then testing his captive audience over the information. Yesterday marked the 13th time I have had the information imparted to me (although it was the first time via powerpoint). He presented the powerpoint, looking bored and only leaving his seat when absolutely necessary. Then, he strutted across the room like a smug Ken doll in a too-tight shirt that stank of Dapper Dan or whatever brand of gel gives hair an artfully mussed appearance.

Normally, I would roll my eyes at HGD, suffer through his presentation, take my legally-required test, and go on my merry way. In fact, that is exactly what I tried to do. I was in a hurry because a very nice person was covering another obligation for me until I arrived, so I was trying to be considerate by getting there asap. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of leaving when I was finished with the test instead of waiting for HGD to dismiss me.

HGD slung Dapper Dan all over the room trying to get to the door before I left. Cause see? He hadn't dismissed me yet, and I was being rude and imposing on him by leaving.

Wow. Yeah.

I was so stunned by his nasty tone that I didn't use any of the really awesome and clever comebacks I thought of later. Actually, I probably wouldn't have anyway. In spite of being addressed as if I were a child, I never forgot that I was a professional person in a professional setting. I actually apologized and tried to explain. He wasn't interested in anything but making sure I understood that he was IN CHARGE.

I finally just left. I waited until the door closed and called him something excessively nasty and not clever at all. Only the four walls heard me, so I suppose I retained my dignity.

The thing that bothers me the most about the encounter is that I let it get to me. I stewed about it the rest of the evening. Even Jazzercise didn't help. I looked for fault in myself. Was I rude in the way that I left? I didn't think so, but clearly HGD and I don't perceive reality in the same way, so maybe he thought I was.

I share this story to vent a little and offer it as a cautionary tale. When you meet someone who has obvious compensation issues, remember it's his problem. You can't fix it, and being nice won't get you anywhere. Just put on your professional armor, shake him off like toilet paper stuck to your shoe, and walk away.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Stealing is stealing

Plagiarism is an ugly word. Heck, it even looks ugly, reminiscent of the word, "plague." Like some contagious and dread disease that that bleeds, blackens, bloats, and ultimately negates the host. One would think those images would cause writers to avoid plagiarism like...the plague.

In fact, plagiarism and plague have different etymologies. Plagiarism comes from the Latin plagiarius which means "kidnapper, seducer, plunderer." While plague comes from the Latin plaga which means to "stroke, wound." Both seem appropriate to me.

A plagiarist is a thief, a plunderer of words and ideas.

Analyzing bits of information from various sources, breaking it down, combining your own experiences, synthesizing it all back together in the form of an original idea, and then communicating your new idea coherently in writing is HARD. The process requires time and brain power. You have to work for it.

A sketchy work ethic can get a young writer in trouble. Honestly, a sketchy work ethic probably gets older writers in trouble, but I'm not reading their unpubbed work, so I can't speak to how big a problem it is. I do know of one young college student who lost a $37,000 scholarship to a prestigious university because of plagiarism...so it does get older writers in trouble.

I ran into a particularly blatant bit of plagiarism recently...an entire section of a paper lifted directly from a source that it took me all of two minutes to locate. The student did something like this...type the topic into Google, click on the first link, copy, paste, print, DONE BABY!

Terrible, right? At least, I think it is. The teacher in me thinks it's terrible because that student lost the opportunity to read and think critically. No learning happened, so the assignment was a waste of everyone's time. The experience was an educational failure for that student.

The writer in me thinks it's terrible for an entirely different reason. Somewhere out there, a writer did do some reading and some thinking and subsequently, produced one of those original ideas we were talking about. And then the plagiarist, the thief, the kidnapper, the plunderer of words STOLE it. If you think my idea is brilliant and want to share it as you work your way to your idea....great! Credit me, and we're copacetic.

Explaining to a young writer why plagiarism is wrong is getting more difficult. We live in a world where any work of art can be reduced to bits and bytes and ripped off the Internet and on to your personal computer. And while we pay lip service to stopping it, the genie is out of the bottle, and the only thing stopping illegal downloads is personal integrity. Even that becomes problematic when the downloaders see themselves as having integrity.

Our society does not respect intellectual property. We just don't. I'd like to say it's only the kids downloading music, books, and computer programs without paying for them, but it's not. Adults are just as bad. I was at a friend's house recently where an intelligent, educated guy tried to defend the practice.

Stealing is stealing. You wouldn't defend slipping a book or a CD out of Wal-Mart without paying for it, so how do you defend stealing it electronically? How do you chastise your child for plagiarizing when you haven't paid for anything on your iPod?

Maybe you don't. But I promise you this...they'll get a failing grade in English.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Make like your cat, and get happy

Several pizza joints in my town have adopted an interesting marketing strategy. They find an enthusiastic young man (I suppose it could be a young woman, but I haven't seen any), put him close to a busy thoroughfare with a big sign, and have him garner attention by any means necessary. And boy howdy, can these guys get attention.

The guy in charge of the CiCi's sign raps. He puts his sign against a telephone pole, and using a mic unconnected to any power source, makes like Eminem. Sometimes, he accompanies himself with his Guitar Hero guitar, also unplugged. If you roll your window down, as almost everyone stopped at the light does, you can hear that he's not rapping someone else's lyrics. He's freestylin' baby!

I was with my eldest and his friend a while back, and when we pulled up beside him, they hung out the windows yelling, "Woooo! Go baby! Yeah!"

When we pulled away, my son's friend said, "I love that guy!"

A lot of people feel the same way. The kid gets heckled, but he also gets those appreciative shout-outs. Either way, he just keeps on rapping. I don't think he hears any of it. He's in the moment. Over time as I've been stopped at that light, I've heard fewer heckles and more appreciative shout-outs. It's hard to dis someone who is experiencing so much joy and who doesn't care what anyone else thinks.

Honestly, there are days when I envy that kid rapping on the corner. His corner is next to Wal-Mart, so usually when I see him, I've either just finished grocery shopping, or I'm on my way. I hate that particular chore, so I'm not in my joyful place when I'm coming or going. I like seeing him because he reminds me that joy can be found in anything...even advertising pizza with a giant sign in 100 degree weather.

I've noticed that people fall into one of two general categories: those who look for the joy in life and those who look for the pain. Everything contains it's opposite, so it's easy to find either one in any given day.

My job as a teacher holds the potential for joy or for aggravation. I usually find which ever I'm looking for when I walk into my classroom. The same goes for my writing. If I sit down with the attitude that I'm going to find the words, I usually do. I might change them later, but I don't come up empty. When I expect to struggle, I do.

People are trickier. Sometimes, even when I'm looking for the best in them, they let me down. Hello? Anyone else trying to raise kids? The fact remains that I control my reaction to that disappointment. Do I beat them over the head with their shortcomings? Or do I lift them up and move forward? What reaction do I want when I let someone down?

I've been thinking a lot about the joy and passion in life. It's so easy to let outside factors control our attitudes. In the end, I have control over whether I find joy or pain, passion or ennui, in the everyday moments in life.

We can all take a lesson from the CiCi's sign guy....or from our pets. I found this video Criss Cox's blog. It illustrates my point beautifully.

Thursday, August 19, 2010


I started my Pre-AP classes today with a quote from chapter II of John Stuart Mill's On Liberty.

But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

Dissent is such an important component of a free society. The majority is not always right, even though it believes it is because it's the majority, and majority rules. Sometimes, the majority has a nasty habit of painting dissenters as wrong-headed, frightening, immoral, even evil.

Cool discussion starter, huh?

I love teaching Fahrenheit 451. This is the 12th time I've started the school year with Bradbury's classic. The book never stops being relevant because the day-to-day living out of our constitutional ideals never stops being a struggle. Watch the news. You'll see that struggle playing out within the first five minutes.

In his "Coda" to Fahrenheit, Bradbury said, "There is more than one way to burn a book, and the world is full of people running around with lit matches."

I've posted this link before, but it bears repeating. The ALA keeps data on all formal challenges to public libraries, school libraries, and classrooms. This is their most challenged/banned list for the last decade. They also sort the data by year and by author, or you can see which classics are the most challenged/banned. For the most recent years, they also post the reasons why a particular book was challenged.

I gave the lists for the last two years and for the decade to my students. They were flabbergasted that books like the Junie B. Jones children's series are on the list. That particular series is beloved by a lot of kids because they discovered their love of reading with Junie. Goosebumps and Captain Underpants are on the list too.

Some of my more naive students were surprised to find the Harry Potter series at the top of the decade list. I explained that Harry Potter is challenged because of religious viewpoint. One confused student said, "But it's about how love is the most powerful force in the universe."

Out of the mouths of babes...

Interestingly, J.K. Rowling falls off the author list after 2003. I interpret this to mean that most of the challenges came early in the decade and that people have cooled down a little over Harry and the gang. One can only hope.

I asked students to tally the number of books they had read on the banned lists. The competition became fierce as students tried to add books to their tally they had started, but not finished. Or they wanted to count every Junie B. Jones they had ever read separately. One student had legitimately read 35 books on the combined lists. I've only read 44, so I was impressed. I'm challenging them to add to their tally before their freshman year is over, and we're going to count again at the end.

My favorite moment came when one young man asked me with wide eyes, "What happens if you read a banned book?"

I responded solemnly, "You burst into flames."

The poor kid doesn't know me yet, and "Oh my god...my teacher is crazy" crossed his face. Then, he realized I must be joking and laughed. I did have to explain that he would not be committing a crime if he read a banned book. I went further and said I believed the people who had the books removed from a library had committed a crime against every patron of that library.

I'm subversive like that.

But I'm not the only one. Mills said that suppressing ideas robs all of humanity of the opportunity to pursue the truth. President Eisenhower said, "Freedom cannot be censored into existence."

If we can't respect our neighbor's dissenting idea, then we have to find a way to respect his right to have a dissenting idea without limiting access to it. Censorship is a society killer.

You don't have to take my word for it. Read Fahrenheit 451.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Raised Eyebrows

Overheard in the teacher workroom this morning:

Colleague 1: They’re paying him 10 million dollars to suck.

Colleague 2: I’d suck for 10 million dollars.

A momentary pause as we all digested that statement followed by uproarious laughter.

Colleague 2: I guess I could have worded that better.

We’ve all made an innocent statement that would raise an eyebrow when taken out of context. But how many of us are throwing out intentional eyebrow raisers everyday in professional situations? As I’ve sifted through parent information in the last several days to set up distribution lists, I’ve spent a lot of time with my eyebrows raised.

Yes people…I’m talking about your email addresses.

Most folks have a fairly innocuous email address consisting of some version of their name. I’d say this group accounts for 75% or so of all the emails I entered. I'm in this group. Both my work and my personal email are my name with punctuation thrown in the middle to make it unique.

Some people need something snazzier than punctuation to make them unique, so they create clever “handles.” Their appellations fall on a continuum moving from silly to ridiculous to Oh My God. As I entered the addresses into my distribution lists, I discerned a pattern.

If you’re using something other than your name, your email address generally says one of three things. “I think I’m cute,” “I think I’m a badass,” or “I’m trolling the Internet for sex.” I came across one or two outliers that don’t fall into an obvious category, and there might be a fourth category called “I’m really serious about my religion,” but mostly it’s those three.

Note: I have enough sense not to post someone’s actual email address, so none of the examples I’m using are real. But they do retain the spirit of the actual names.

The “I think I’m cute” category includes handles like fuzzywuzzy, whatsupdoc, and any derivation of the word angel. Really, lots of people think they are angels. (Some people think they're devils, but they don’t fall into this category.) Mostly, these addresses just make me roll my eyes.

The "I think I'm a badass" email addresses make me laugh which I'm pretty sure is not what the authors of these handles were going for. Not to stereotype, but more men than women have "I think I'm a badass" names. Some brag about their car...ferrari_man, myrimsarehuge, monster.truckin. Others, their military career...sniper007...although, maybe the guy just plays a lot of video games. Some are reliving the glory days of their athletic careers...linebacker1985. One creative fellow had a reference to a bodily function combined with a military term I can't even begin to mimic. I stared at it for a full minute before typing it into my list. I was convinced I had read it wrong.

Blowing all of the previous email addresses out of the water are the "I'm trolling the Internet for sex" handles, and I hate to say it, but these are all women. It boggles the mind that mothers actually wrote these names down on a form for their child's teacher. Names like hotchick4U and sexy_secretary. Seriously, the actual names really are this bad. I feel sorry for the kids who had to hand the forms to me. They had to be embarrassed.

The lesson my friends is that you should all have at least one reasonably professional sounding email address. If you want to troll the Internet for sex, have at it. I don't care what you do in the privacy of your own home, but for Pete's sake, don't make that the email address you give to people who actually know you and have to look you in the face. Your nifty email handle puts a visual in my imaginative writer's brain that I can't unsee.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Structure, Football, and Three Amazing Girls

The first week of a new school year has come and gone, and I'm relearning how to keep myself on a schedule. The artist in me chafes at rigid structure. I've always been a go-with-the-flow kind of gal, and because of that, flying by the seat of my pants comes easily to me. That modus operandi works just fine if your life is uncomplicated by multiple plot threads.

Mine is not. In fact, I've got more unresolved issues than an episode of Lost. Hence, the need for some structure. I'm experimenting with where to schedule my writing. I have time late in the evening, but my brain has usually turned to mush by then. Early in the morning, I'm firing on all cylinders, but I'm limited in time. Nothing is worse than having the muse sitting on your shoulder, whispering sweet nothings in your ear, and having to close the computer and take care of another responsibility.

We make time for the things that are important to us, so I'll figure it out.

Time is even more critical now because football season is upon us. I LOVE football season. For real. It's my favorite thing about the fall. You can read my post from the start of last year's football season here. While I still have a few weeks before the college season starts and my Saturdays are booked, my Friday nights are already accounted for until sometime in November.

Last night, my young son, now a sophomore, played in his first varsity game. It was just a scrimmage, but the excitement of the first snap, the adrenaline rush at the sound of pads meeting in the first hits of the season, the euphoria of the first touchdown were all there.

The scrimmage was in Louisville, and much to my son's dismay, Bruce couldn't be there because of his own three-a-days, so I was the family representative. Not wanting to go alone, I dragged Pam along with me...although, not having been to a football game in two years (there's no football in Iraq), there wasn't much dragging involved. Even better, all three of Pam's girls went with us. Her daughters are 22, 19, and 17.

You haven't lived until you've gone on a road trip with three smart, opinionated, loud, sometimes ditsy young women. Remember, I have boys, and though I've done the road trip with a car load of testosterone, it's a whole different ballgame with girls.

Boys will go for miles without saying a word. They pop in their ear buds and disappear into their own thoughts. Not so with girls. We all listened to the same thing on the radio, and the talking never stopped. The conversation was entirely stream of consciousness. We moved from one subject to another with no apparent transition. Case in point...

Girl 1: Vitamin D is good for your colon.

Girl 2: Ewww.

Girl 1: Hey, I'm all about taking care of my butt. I'm not doing colostomy bags or having my butt hole sewn up.

She said something else, but I was choking at this point and missed it. When I regained control of myself, they were talking about tanning.

Girl 2: You get vitamin D from the sun. I wonder if you tanned your butt hole if it would help your colon?

Girl 3: How would you tan your butt hole? Tape your cheeks open?

Pam interjected at this point, like she couldn't take it anymore: Oh my god! When you get sun anywhere, the vitamin D is absorbed and your whole body gets the benefit.

Girl 2: Okay, I'm not a doctor.

I was laughing so hard, my stomach hurt. I can say with absolute authority that you would never hear this conversation in a car full of boys. I may actually lift this entire conversation and use it in a story somewhere. Really...you can't make this stuff up.

Lest you think these girls completely silly, there was another memorable conversation on the way home. We had the radio on loud, and we were all singing. This also never happens with boys. When I sing loud with the radio, my boys politely (sarcasm, sarcasm) ask me to stop. Not so with the girls.

Eminem's "Love the Way You Lie" came on. Pam's oldest daughter asked us to change the station. She hates the song, believing it glorifies and glamorizes domestic violence. Her other two girls disagreed completely. They believe the song graphically depicts domestic violence to show how both men and women fall into that ugly cycle...the idea that art sometimes shines an uncomfortable light on the grotesque. The conversation was intense and heated and came from a place of passion and belief in all three girls.

I was proud of them. They are strong, intelligent young women who know how to express themselves. Pam has raised self-confident daughters who, regardless of how they interpreted that song, would never stay with a man who abused them. The three of them are as different as they could possibly be, but I see Pam in all of them.

It was a great first night of football. My son played well, and I got to hang with my best friend and her three amazing daughters. I thought I'd end by posting Eminem's video, and letting you guys decide. Art shining a light on the ugly? Or glorification of domestic violence? (Warning: This is the unedited version.)

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Happy First Day of School!

Today is the first day of school. This summer has been ridiculously short, and although it just seems as if I was posting Alice Cooper's anthem to the end of school, already we're back again. The past eight weeks have been fast and full.

My son graduated from high school. Pam came home from Iraq. I've done a ton of professional development for school. Had a little time with the family in Ocean City and enjoyed spending the Fourth of July on the beach with a million (that might be an exaggeration) of my fellow Americans. Did I mention Pam was home? (A lot of time spent chillin' with her). Although I haven't done my "What I read this Summer" post yet, I have plowed through some books, and I managed to get some writing done as well.

And the highlight of my summer? I went to RWA in Orlando.

The positive residual effects of my busy summer are still making waves in my life like ripples in a pond. I'm starting school today with a positive attitude. I'm excited to meet my new students, and I'm excited about new opportunities as a teacher. My classroom is shiny and welcoming. I've even put up a new bulletin board. (I hate doing bulletin boards and rarely change them, so this is a milestone.)

My lovely new bulletin board sports several pictures of gorillas and chimps. In large letters running vertically down the left side, it says APE. APE is the acronym I use to help students start thinking more analytically.

A = Assertion
P = Proof
E = Evaluation

When students discuss what they've read or seen on the news or how they believe life to be in general, they lob opinions into the discussion like grenades. (Adults do this too, by the way. Where do you think the kids learned it?) Rather than let those grenades confuse my class, I will teach the lobbers to APE their opinions. You've made an assertion, so where is your evidence? Find the piece of text or the fact that supports your assertion. Then, connect that evidence to your assertion with good commentary.

I will model the process for you.

My assertion: This school year will be my most rewarding to date.

My proof: Last night at Open House, I had approximately 100 parents and students come in and visit with me. I have sign-in sheets and email addresses as hard evidence.

My evaluation: When two-thirds of your students' parents make the effort to walk through the doors of the school to shake your hand, you know you have parents who are engaged. When parents are engaged in their child's education, the child is more engaged. Engaged students create dynamic classrooms. Dynamic classrooms are fun places to be.

Happy First Day of School! It's gonna be a great year!

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Fading Light

Light, or the lack thereof, is the lens through which we view the world. My favorite lens is the hour just before sunset.

Driving on a narrow country road, the landscape, having baked all day under the unforgiving August sun, becomes pastoral. The yellow-gold light transforms everything. Green is deeper and richer, the tassels on the corn gold instead of brown. Even the rusting hulk of an old trailer becomes aged and venerable instead of the monument to rural poverty it was in the bright light of day.

I slow as a deer crosses the road and watch her white tail disappear into the woods. In these golden moments before the light glows orange, the softness of the world outside my window is mirrored in my heart.

"It's beautiful."

But even as the words cross my lips, a wistful longing tempers my happiness. Nothing gold can stay. The light is already changing, the yellow tinged with orange. The shadows have stretched out stealthily while no one was watching and the spaces between the light, the low places where it can't reach, have grown dimmer.

I sigh with relief when I top the hill, but it is short-lived. The sinking sun catches in the windows of a white clapboard house and blinds me. Fire shimmers in the glass.

This red-orange lens is different, less friendly...not the harsh reality of midday, but the precursor of the darkness to come. Red is passion, anger, lust, pain burning up the light, extinguishing it, so they can perform their rites in the dark.

I reach the end of the country road at true dusk. Headlights dot the interstate, artificial light to ward off the night. The effort is futile. The false light can't bring back the green or the gold or the orange. Technicolor has reverted to black and white like the Wizard of Oz gone horribly wrong.

The darkness should inspire dread, and in fact, before the light disappeared, the deepening shadows made my heart beat faster...in anticipation.

I used to be afraid of the dark. Now, I find myself embracing it, using it to tease out an idea or a story. The gold light softens the world, but the darkness hides it, morphing it into indistinguishable shapes, or blotting it out altogether. When the world outside my window is unclear, I can impose my will on it and remake it into whatever I want. Sometimes, that's not a bad thing at all.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Is Younger Better?

I was watching the Today show this morning when a segment came on about "emotional age." The editor of Self Magazine was plugging a book she had written about being emotionally young even if your birth certificate says you're not. The segment intrigued me enough that I went to the website and used the handy dandy emotional age calculator.

Click here for the magazine article and here for the calculator.

According to the calculator, my emotional age is 33.6. My birth certificate says I'm a smidge older than that. (Okay, more than a smidge, but who's counting?) My first reaction is to say "Yay! I feel younger than my age!"

But what does that really mean?

Instead of asking you questions and assigning a value to your responses, the calculator simply asks you how old you feel when it comes to different aspects of your life. It's up to you to be honest in your answers.

My problem wasn't dishonestly. I simply didn't know what the honest answer was. For instance, the first category is Career. You're supposed to plug in a number that represents how old you feel in your career. I had no idea what to put there. I still feel energized when a new set of kids comes into my classroom, but I also feel older and wiser and a better manager of both instruction and behavior. So what number do I put there? And then there is the second career I'm working on. As a writer, I feel like I'm still growing and learning, and I'm definitely a newbie to the publishing world.

The program doesn't allow for WTF as a response. I ended up putting my actual age in that box. I was trying to be honest, but I have no idea if it was the correct response.

The second box was Finances. I left a more lucrative career 15 years ago to be a teacher. Money is always an issue. As long as my boys are on the family payroll, it will continue to be an issue. So does that make me old or young in the finances category? I put a low number here because it seems like someone my actual age should be more financially stable. This brought my overall emotional age down, but it's not something I'm bragging about.

Family was the next box. I put a number higher than my actual age. My teenage boys made me old this year. If you've raised teenagers, I don't need to elaborate.

The Fitness box worked in my favor. My Jazzercise obsession makes me feel younger in this aspect of my life. I've lost weight. I feel physically fit, and I even eat healthier. I answered this box without a struggle...it was the only box I answered without a struggle.

I have no idea if the number in the Social box is accurate. I have a core group of friends I love. We have a blast when we're together. I'm not a fuddy duddy who sits around the house never doing anything. At the same time, I'm not a barhopping party girl. I put a number very close to my actual age.

The last box was Style. What does that mean in terms of age? I've met fabulously stylish older women and young women who have none. I know who I am when I'm shopping, not frumpy, but not ultra-hip either. They seriously needed a WTF option on this quiz. Again, I put a number close to my actual age.

All of which brings us back to my aggregate emotional age...33.6. The two categories that dropped the average lower than my actual age were Finances and Fitness. I'm happy about the one and resigned to the other, so I'm calling it a wash.

If you take the quiz and your emotional age is lower than your actual age, examine the data. Think about why. I don't think younger is necessarily better. Sure, we would all like to have the bodies of our 20 year old selves, but do we really want the emotional maturity of our 20 year old selves?

I don't. I couldn't write anything worth reading. I see the years I've accumulated as good thing most of the time. I like being confident in myself and my choices, and I just wasn't when I was younger.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

My Really Awesome Concert Tour

News of the weird: Justin Bieber has a deal with HarperCollins to publish his memoir. When I heard this from a friend, I had to shake my head. For those of you who don't know (and if you don't know, my respect for you has skyrocketed), Justin Bieber is the 16 year old singer who makes 12 year old girls swoon and who dominates the trending topics on Twitter (although strangely, none of the people I follow ever mention him).

I cannot be counted among the legion of Justin's fans. I'm not 12, and it kind of squicks me out when I hear him talking to his "baby." When the 19 year old daughter of a friend told me she liked Justin, she lost all her cool points with me. (Seriously, Steph, just say no.) I heard Justin do a radio interview, and he was so precious it made my teeth hurt.

I'm not hatin' on boy singers (okay, maybe a little). I have a son Justin's age. I teach kids who are Justin's age. Nothing makes me happier than seeing teenagers excel at what they love...especially artistic endeavors...especially writing endeavors. I have to be honest, though, after hearing Justin's interview, I have doubts about his ability to pen an entire memoir.

I have some experience with teenagers and memoirs. Part of my core content is personal expressive writing. Every year, I read between 120-150 personal narratives written by teenagers.

It's painful, people. Really, really painful. Ask any English teacher.

The pain starts when a student has to decide what moments in their short lives are meaningful enough to share with someone else. Many of them swear they have experienced no such moments, and sometimes, I'm inclined to believe them.

I get vacation stories which are kind of like looking at your friend's vacation slide show, and that's if you're lucky because sometimes, they're about a whole day at King's Island. Kids frequently fall off of things...bikes, horses, ATV's, motorcycles, fences, rooftops, skateboards, tree limbs, someone's shoulders, and so on and so on. There's always a coming of age moment in the woods with a gun and some poor dead animal, usually Bambi.

Worse than the mundane, cliched stories, are the death stories. Death is by far the most frequent topic, and these stories are the hardest to read. Even when the writing is not great, you feel the child's pain. The loss of grandparents, parents, siblings, best friends, and even beloved pets have made me cry. It can be emotionally exhausting. These stories force me to put the stack of papers down and walk away for a bit. These stories also make the teaching of personal narratives worthwhile. When a student finds an outlet for their pain through the writing of it, then I feel like I've made a difference.

A few glorious exceptions to the painful personal narrative stand out in my mind. The young lady who wrote about her dad stopping on a Himalayan road in the middle of the night just to show her the mountains in the moonlight was so good it made the hair on my arms stand up. Another student wrote an almost Hemingway-esque piece on the unbearable ennui of writing a personal narrative. Brilliant. Then, there was the story of a hiccup during a trombone audition that had me laughing from beginning to end. Unfortunately, those memorable pieces are few and far between.

All of which brings me back to Justin's memoir. I realize what I heard on the radio might not be indicative of the real Justin, but he doesn't seem to have the emotional or intellectual heft to write a publishable piece at this stage in the game. I envisioned an endless version of the vacation story..."My Really Awesome Concert Tour."

I did some more investigating, and my unpublished writer's envy is assuaged (because honestly, isn't that what this is really about?). As it turns out, Justin is publishing a "photographic memoir." It's a picture book...and he didn't even take the pictures.

Justin is in all the pictures, so I'm sure his "memoir" will sell like hotcakes. They should call it "My Really Awesome Concert Tour" and give me royalties on the title.

Monday, August 2, 2010

RWA -- After the Conference

My RWA experience ended when I checked out of the Swan at 3:30 am to make my shuttle to the airport. By the time I staggered onto the plane, any trepidation I had about the flight was overshadowed by delirious exhaustion. We were barely airborne before I passed out cold. I woke as we landed, groggy and with a crick in my neck.

I would say the ball was over, and I had turned back into a pumpkin, but there was no glass slipper, no prince, and I never was Cinderella. And in truth, as exciting as the conference was, the good stuff is just getting started. I have opportunities to explore, new writer friends already touching base with me, 43 new romances to read, and most importantly, new stories to write. We are each responsible for our own happily ever after, and I'm chasing mine.

Here's what I'm going to do.

  • I will set a strict writing schedule. School is starting next week, and I'm carving time out of every day to write. I'm setting a writing goal for each day, and no matter what else is going on, I'm laying down words. Cause I don't need no stinkin' muse.

  • I will continue to study my craft. I've barely begun to explore the resources I acquired. The conference flash drive has the handouts from every session, plus the audio is available online.

  • I will post new content on this blog on a regular basis.

  • I will foster the contacts I've made with other writers. I met so many accomplished women from all walks of life who write extraordinary stories. I want to be in that sorority.

  • I will continue to read widely. Every good writer is a reader first.

  • I will remain positive and soldier on in the face of rejection. The common denominator for every published writer I met was perseverance.
    • This is the big one...

      I will never again hide the cover of whatever romance novel I'm currently reading.

      I admit it. I've done this my whole life. For a while, I bought into the popular notion that romance novels are somehow sub-par to other works of fiction and that a serious reader should read serious books. I've been over that prejudice for a while now. Do crappy romances exist? Sure. No genre has a license on bad writing. If a book doesn't grab me in the first ten or twenty pages, I put it down, whether it's a too-cliched romance or a dense, pretentious, stick-up-your-ass piece of literary fiction. I just want a good story, well-written.

      So if you see me at a ballgame, in line at Wal-Mart, or waiting to pick up my kid, and I have a book in my hand, I won't be hiding the cover...no matter how hot the sculpted man or how flushed the bosomy woman.

      These are the two I'm reading now.

      Jessica Andersen and Claudia Dain are amazing writers and amazing women. They are established bestsellers. They don't need to present writer workshops to sell books, and yet they are committed to helping other writers hone their craft.

      Hiding the cover of their books would mean I'm embarrassed to be reading them.

      I'm not. In fact, I recommend that you read them. You can borrow them when I'm done.

      Next year's conference is in New York, the center of the publishing universe. I'm already excited about it. This year, my conference badge had a ribbon attached that said "first timer." My goal for next year is to have the ribbon that says "first sale."