Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Childhood: fodder for an author

A friend mentioned to me that annother person, we'll call him Rumplestiltskin, seemed to be trying to prove something.  We speculated that his highly-successful parents must have made him feel less than special as a child.  After a couple of minutes of bemoaning Rumple's inability to "let it go," we realized none of us is very good at doing that. Most of us have a difficult time getting over whatever slight we suffered as a child.  I have a few friends and acquaintances who suffered various degrees of abuse and neglect.  Many more had a sibling who was Mom's favorite. 

My husband, the psychologist, is, frankly, surprised I am only now discovering this basic premise of the human psyche.  Well, certainly I know about psychological theory, but doesn't it seem weird that we can live to be 95 years old and still find thosefirst eighteen years important enough to spend time discussing them.  How many times can you question why Sister Sue got the Betsy Wetsy doll for Christmas, yet all you received was socks and underwear?  These stories are useful for more than just entertaining Sister Sue; you can always blame your faults on past injuries.

Just think about the novels we read and write.  If half the book doesn't entail a description of the character's childhood, the villain's evil intent is explained by a truly hideous mother and/or father.  It's almost a universal requirement in every good story. Now there's a thought - if childhood was perfect, what would we write about?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Out of Classroom Experience

A couple of weeks ago, I said good-bye to my students and wished my colleagues a pleasant summer.  Yesterday I went to the gym, then ran a couple of errands before I headed home.  I had, at least, blown my hair dry and straightened up a bit.  I have to admit, however, that with no makeup and wearing shorts I presented a decidedly less put-together image than was usual for classes.  In this casual state, I ran into a student.

"Oh. Madame. Bonjour," he said, using his usual classroom salutation.

"Hi Mark.  How are you today?" I said and reached in my purse as I prepared to pay him for my purchase.  "You work here, huh?"  When he didn't response I glanced up and found him staring at me. "Something wrong?" I asked.

"Uh, oh, uh," said my "A" student quite clearly.

And then I realized he was having the "out of classroom experience."  The rules are teachers don't supposed to show up in other parts of your life, right?  Indeed, they live in their classrooms where they do nothing but read and study in their fields.  And, above all, your French teacher talks about arts and literature; she doesn't show up at the Home Depot to buy dirt.

So, I chuckled and told him not to worry.  "When the fall semester begins, I'll be back where I belong, all neat and clean," I assured him.

Mark had recovered a little by then and laughed a little with me, and we talked about how we all see people in a certain context. Then as I left, just for fun, I did a little soft-shoe on my way out. 

I can still see the horrified look on his face.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Practice Makes Perfect: critique groups

I'm one of those writers who enjoys working alone for hours. And so, for the first year or so, that's exactly what I did.  The problem with that was the only feedback I received was from my husband.  My spouse is a fine psychologist and writes professional reports competently, but  is not much for creative writing.  His criticism was unfailingly on target, but there was just very little of it.

I suppose I was afraid someone would tell me I was hopelessly untalented and should give up on writing.  Maybe I just didn't want to do the work I knew was coming to rewrite the book.  Unfortunately, I couldn't escape the fact that, like playing tennis or learning the piano, I would need lessons and practice.  Finally, I went in search of a group through which I could receive constructive, yet gentle, criticism.  What a surprise when I actually found exactly that kind of support.

For about six years now I have attended the twice monthly meetings of the South Carolina Writers Workshop.  When I began reading the first chapters of SNOWSTORM, I knew they didn't particularly like my tough, teenaged character.  Looking back, some of their advice was of the most basic kind.  They had to start somewhere, of course.  A recent glance at my first draft made me wince, so I can easily imagine my fellow writers wishing they could cover their ears. They didn't, however.  Then and now, their critique is gentle and helpful.  Their sincere encouragment meant a great deal when the rejections were flowing regularly to my mailbox.

So, for any aspiring writers reading this, I hope you will find some folks like this to give you honest opinions and sincere support.  I was very lucky, because I don't think such people are easy to find, but when you do find them, don't let them get away!