Friday, December 31, 2010

Lessons from Libaria for Writers

In 2004, I was the last ditch hiree by the last-resort Principal of a middle school here in Denver, Colorado. I, however naively, was thrilled with the job and jumped in wholeheartedly to the position. Soon thereafter I attended a meeting where a plea was made for reviewers "We need YOU!" The chairperson squawked into the squawky school microphone. An idea had begun forming in my mind, and as the meeting droned on I mulled the pros and cons. As we finished up, I approached the head of the department and asked her for special dispensation so that I (not a teaching librarian) could join THE REVIEW COMMITTEE. She agreed and the rest was, if not history, then at least in the past. SO... I was a paraprofessional librarian who purchased books on a very limited budget (at least most years) for kids who desperately needed good books (most of the kids in my school were very low readers) to read and I reviewed new books that were being published by mainstream publishers... 

I learned a few things. (which is why I joined the Review Committee in the first place. I wanted to review so that I could be a better writer-- it seemed logical that in reviewing other people's books that I would learn a few things about writing. But another bonus: I got free books for my library!)

The first thing I learned is that there are lot of books that are published that are not good. Each month we would gather together and choose from piles and piles of books that publishers would send out and I was astounded at how many of the books we received that were just terrible. As a librarian this was bad news. I had a limited budget. I could not afford to spend money on bad books. I had to learn how to find the books that were worth buying. As an author, I was discouraged to see so many poorly written books sitting on shelves. It seemed to me that this meant that publishers were spending money on books that would not sell... 
My responsibility as a reviewer then led me to a conclusion: Although I hated to tell people that the books they had written were not very good, nevertheless, my colleagues were also working with limited budgets. My reviews were one of the tools they would use to decide how they would purchase materials (but let's be real here I am not god-- my reviews were only one of the tools they might use-- most librarians look at more than one review and even then may bypass reviews if they need a book of a certain genre or topic) . SO It seemed to me, that candid honesty was necessary. If a book was bad, I had to write a bad review. 

I generally read middle school books as those were the audience I was purchasing for but I also read for high school and elementary age children as it became overwhelming to have too many novels to read each month. I found some wonderful books that I read with gusto and recommended to teachers in my building who then passed them on to their students- books I have since seen on the tables of Barnes and Noble. (I like to think it was a slow word of mouth growth that put them there. Barnes and Noble was definitely not promoting The Girl who Could Fly when it was first published!) 

The second thing I learned was that authors did not like getting bad reviews. Not that I blamed them (nor do I still). I have had the bad experience of having manuscripts rejected... it's no fun! And it is less fun to have someone say that you have too many characters and your plot line is disjointed, etc. One writer bullied the reviewer into changing her review and another was extremely cocky and annoying, also pushing for a good review. Lessons were not learned by either writer which is too bad. They were both self-published and I would imagine they will remain that way. As writers we put ourselves out there and reviews are part of the gig. It's part of life. When I was a singer and butchered a song, you could see it written all over the audience's faces (if they were even bothering to look at you). My darling Mo is my harshest critic-- which can be difficult sometimes-- but I have become a better writer as result of his criticism. And even when his criticism is wrong (in other words he isn't seeing what I am getting at at all) it is because my description is poorly done or my dialogue is confusing, etc. so he's still right. Critique is a time for learning. There is a time for cheerleading and supporting... but there is also a time to give real advice, real appraisal. And it's important- maybe more important than the strokes. 

I am reading Hemingway's biography. His editor and closest friend, Max Perkins was the one person who would tell him that what he had written was not his best work. He would encourage him to go back and edit out parts that should be cut or "go back to the drawing board" on others. When he passed away, Hemingway wrote,"Max was a great, great editor and a wise and loyal friend." Hemingway's final works of fiction that were published a few years after Perkins death were notable because only in sections is the writer's touch still evident- his biographer speculates that if his editor and friend had been around he may have been able to distill the best parts of Across the River and drop the worst... 
Even great writers need people to tell them when they have lost their way.          

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Key West blog

Lots of memories linger in this little building that, on first glance, is little more than a shack-- more than I could possibly mention-- but if you happen upon the still erect building by the Coconut Mallory you can hear the echoes of Gumbo's speech as he talks about his little CiCi and how she "could grab you by your funny bone and not let go..."

(full blog posted at KeyWestTV. Click on picture to read the full post)  

Friday, December 24, 2010

A Christmas Dance


 Nearly all her memories of him were Polaroid-instant-photograph-fragments, blurred, faded, and dim. Then a snapshot captured suddenly clear and precise would grip her, freezeframe her in time.
            “Your father has always been in a wheelchair? How weird. A cripple” The girl had turned and walked off leading the rest of the pack away with a sniff that let everyone in the school know that her Third-Grade-Majesty’s royal opinion had been decreed: The person no one was to like this year was the preschooler with the cripple parent. A second grader snuck her a sad sidelong glance before turning to walk away, a slight lift in her step at having finally escaped the label “The Untouchable” after two years running.
            Cripple. Words echo and bounce in the child brain that had known her father only as someone who loved and protected her, a man who inhabited his own personal throne. Not cripple.    
            A plaintive call from the dark “Janice, can you come here. I can’t. My teeth. Can’t even brush them. Damn it! The tooth brush is too heavy. Help me.” A hummed response, padded footsteps and soft comforts, Mother to child solaces “It’s okay. Long day. Tomorrow you’ll feel better.” “I don’t understand. Don’t know. How you… Can you live like this…?” weeping, drunken grief make the move to wheelchair a series of bumps, squeals, moans and apologies. The chair wheels slowly through the hall, body lumped on the chair, head wheels back, face strained with misery “Why? You deserve--  I don’t know, better… you should find yourself someone with two legs… strong” Backing away from the crack in the doorframe, wary of the helpless stranger in the chair she stumbles back to her bed and cries in the darkness.   
            An unaccustomed gaiety lights his eyes and he fingers her over “Sit here on daddy’s lap.” She slides awkwardly onto a knee as he breathes into her hair. “What do you want for Christmas?” Bubbly holiday cheer has champagned the evening. Bouncy ball children entertain glassy-eyed adults and they sit quietly watching the three-ringed soiree. Nearby a tot grips the forefinger of her father, trawling him to his feet and twirls lightly on her toes. She watches the impromptu pas de deux and blurts out “For you to dance with me, daddy.” Her feet thud roughly to the ground and she pretzels around to be overtaken by her father’s now familiar storminess as it rolls back in, a growing tsunami of unhappiness. He twirls around in a single fluid motion and thunders out of the room.
            Mesmerizing herself in the twinkling lights of the Christmas tree in the quiet hours past midnight, she snuck out to the tree after the deep breathing of the rest of the house assured her solitude. “In a few more nights he’ll be on his way,” Realization gives her a shiver. “I should make my wish NOW, the real wish, not the silly list mommy made us write. At midnight like this, it would be like magic, I would think…” holding her breath, she closes her eyes and gives voice again to her Christmas wish. “I wish I could dance with my daddy.” Time protracts as she opens her eyes and listens for rolling fury. In the unbroken silence of the house, she finally creeps off to bed hopeful her midnight plea has been heard.
            “Tell us what you got for Christmas,” the teacher has them sitting in a large circle, legs criss-cross apple-sauced.
            “A doll”curls bounce jauntily.
            “A truck and a football,” several boys nod approval.
            “Santa brought me the best gift ever…” The words almost catch in her throat. “My daddy danced--”
            Unfinished words are buried beneath the sudden outbursts of her classmates, “Santa! There is no Santa!”“What a little baby!” “ Haven’t you figured out that your parents are  puttin’ the gifts there?” “Oh my gosh, did she say…?” “What a dope!”
            “There is a Santa.” Inaudible words escape from her throat. “He made my daddy dance with me.”
            Clapping hands interrupt the taunting and teasing “Children, children, that’s enough. Go to your desks and get out your pencils and pads. Since we can’t be a polite audience we will start our spelling.”
            “There is. There is a Santa.” As if an enchantment, she repeats the words in a whisper as she puts her head down on her desk, recalling her father’s hand in hers, her feet tiptoeing next to his. His feet… on the ground. They were… weren’t they?They had danced because she had wished… from Santa. Santa was? Wasn’t? Tears stream down her cheeks and a sob bursts out of her throat. A desperate glance… escape? The teacher nods assent as she flees to the safety of the hallway.
            “After your grandfather died, I mostly remembered his unhappiness. He had gotten so weak that he couldn’t do much of anything for himself anymore and he was worn out.” She curled the child’s fingers in her own and breathed the scent of outdoors that clung to curls. “I was very angry with him for making us all so unhappy. But then one Christmas Eve night under the tree I remembered that night under the tree and how I wished Santa would let my dad dance with me…”
            “Did he, Momma?” the child’s eyes were waterfalls cascading with wonder and magic. “Did Santa make Granpa dance?”
            “He danced with me, he did Clara. But the real magic” She kissed her daughter fiercely, fighting off the echoes of days long gone. “was that after he died… I remembered that wish. Each Christmas eve I have a dream that your grandpa asks me to dance with him by the tree. And we twirls around the floor for hours. And I always ask him if he will come back and dance with me next year and he always says yes.”
            Hopeful eyes lock onto the mother’s “Can I ask Santa if Granpa will dance with me too, Momma?”
            “You can, honey. And Santa will listen. You just have to believe. Make your wish now. You don’t have to wait till midnight, on Christmas Eve when it’s magic you can make these wishes. Just close your eyes and say it very softly…    

Thank you!

Yesterday I was honored to receive this Christmas Blog Award from Michael who also had a lovely display of Christmas decorations. If you want to really get yourself into the spirit of the season head over to his blog and check out the lovely pictures from his trip to the Chicago Zoo or the pictures he posted for the Be Jolly by Golly Blogfest! Thanks again Michael!

And don't forget to check out Rayna's Christmas drabble linked below (click on the picture and it will take you straight to her blog) and...

a Christmas story (or two????) for the blogfest are in the works for tonight so be on the lookout for that!  

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Rayna's Christmas drabble!

For those who were looking for Christmas stories (part of the Christmas story blogfest) Rayna has her's posted today. Please visit her sight by clicking on the picture!
Christmas Short Story Blogfest

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Book nerds at Christmas

The Christmas Story Blogfest has not faired well as far as participants (I know it's a busy time!) but I plan on posting a story by Christmas Eve (hopefully) as it was my Blogfest. So, for those of you who thought I had forgotten, fear not! I have not! (anyone still interested is still welcome to post a story but you'd better get busy writing!)  
Christmas Short Story Blogfest
Twice a year, at a local bookstore, we receive an invitation for an open house. One in the springtime and one at Christmas time. The Christmas invitation is as much a part of the ritual and tradition of Christmas as purchasing our ornaments. Books are always purchased for Christmas and the Christmas open house (with accompanying discount!) is the perfect opportunity to browse for Christmas gifts. So off we head to the wilds of Cherry Creek to Rob's bookstore on 4th and Fillmore:
The lights are warm and welcoming as we descend the stairs and already we hear laughter and pleasant tete-a-tete betwixt the mulling crowds that stand not too far from the open door.  
A new face greets us at the cash register although it turns out not to be new at all- a former coworker from my Barnes and Noble days has landed this pleasant job here at the Hermitage. Allan is doing is best to keep up at the Cash register after just having started the week before. And I have the pleasure of congratulating him albeit envying his bookish work. Off to the right of the work is the pleasure--  
Catered foods of all sorts were brought in for the occasion and I cannot imagine that anyone went home hungry. The bean dip was terrific as well as the Sesame Seasoned chicken. There were several wines to choose from and desserts to die for. Needless to say, I had not fasted in vain.

In the Nooks and crannies of the shop, the customers were scouring the shelves with gusto...
some were more concerned with First Editions and older gems while others were searching for hidden treasures for their children that might not be found on the shelves of the BnN or Borders anymore...  
Rob (the gent in the Bookishly decorative shirt on the left by the counter), the Proprietor of said establishment stands quietly by hosting and overseeing and finding books when they are in need of finding. And no doubt on an evening like this, with his shop full of folk buying books and perhaps becoming customers who will come back to buy MORE books...    
 is probably quite happy with a life that is built around books that are so much more than the recent bestsellers... books that have stood up against the test of time- books of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Lawrence Durrell, Jeannette Winterson, Paul West, David Foster Wallace, Gustave Flaubert --  
The writers that wrote and who are still worth reading. 
The kind of writers we should all aspire to be!
if we're going to call ourselves writers, that is...  
(Disclaimer: blogging is not my best writing) 

Monday, December 20, 2010

In the St. Nick of Time!!!

The Be Jolly By Golly Blogfest  (thanks Jen and Melissa!!!) presents me with the perfect opportunity to post the purchases from our Christmas extravaganza from the previous three posts (if you missed, you'll want to catch up!) 
Freshly brought in from the cold, is our tree as aromatic as a mountain cut pine (although a tree cut in the mountains would never look this full!) Here we have not yet begun putting on our decorations. 
But first to go on...
Having an eye for the nostalgic this year, and having a love for horses, I chose this lovely little rocking horse.
Last year's catch was this glass dolphin
Failing to find another petite aquatic ornament that hooked my fancy, I found one that reminded me of the place that I wish I were when the cold winds are ablowin here in Colorado...(the lighthouse would be what I am referring to, not the penguin! 10 points to the commenter who figures out what place I am referring to!)

A dino tree was spotted this year and as dinosaurs carry a lot of weight in our house, there are several new ones on the tree...
 Giraffes are another favorite of a newer member of the family... 
A favorite ornament from our tradition, years past, is this one...
With all the favorites of each family member specially chosen over the years donning the tree, the final results are quietly pleasant...
 and under??? Could those be package for pretty little girls?*

And a favorite drink? Well, around here, drink of choice, in Key West or by the Christmas tree,  is always...
And finally, the recipe...
When I was a very little girl, my grandmother (mentioned previously on this blog in a fiction piece) was a marvelous cook. Each year she made mountains of a particular cookie, a German cookie called a Pfeffernuesse or Peppernut. They are generally made with anise although my grandfather hated Anise so she never added it. I prefer it with Anise myself so I will include it in the recipe...
Evelyn's Peppernut Recipe 
3/4 c Oleo (I don't think they make Oleo anymore... Butter or "I can't believe it's not butter" or something like that. Butter is the best!)
1 egg
1 tsp. vanilla
1 c. dark brown sugar
(mix well)
2 c. flour
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp. cloves
1/2 tsp crushed anise
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. cream of tartar 
1/2 tsp. salt
 1/2 c. chopped nuts (pecans generally)
Mix dough. Chill several hours or overnight. Roll dough into thin ropes (finger widths thick). Freeze them. 
 When you are ready to bake them, (heat oven to 350 degrees) take out four at a time and cut them approximately 1/2 inch wide. Place flat side on cookie sheet and bake them 10 minutes or until brown.  
Last tradition:
A piece of chocolate each day to count down to Christmas. Some years the house contained a clue to tell you where the chocolate was hidden. This year, we simply get the chocolate out of the door that coincides with the day of the month counting down to Christmas day!!!

*Lucy from Charlie Brown's Christmas

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

On Dancer and Prancer, Rusty Ol' Bastard and Vixon...

Across the street from Christmas Paradisio, (also known to the unimaginative as St. Nick's because they rely on the name the owner's gave it), is a little metropolis known as Littleton.      
Littleton's origins can be traced back to the "Pikes Peak" gold rush of 1859 as merchants and and farmer poured into the region for their own piece of the golden pie by providing goods for the growing population that was flooding the nearby Denver/Auraria region searching for gold...

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Sleighbells ring!

What say the writer of our quest? 
A little pedestrian seeming, KMart usually has a gem or two for our treasure seeking eyes, so across the street we head. This might seem a likely place to fight off the Black Friday hordes but apparently the bargains were early or nonexistent so we are safe from deal ravagement. 
Nostalgia is a particular fancy as you might note-- the tender look on St. Nick's face caught my eye. There are pluses and minuses to this ornamental trimming. Perhaps a bit too homemadeish??? hmm....

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Christmas Tradition

Each year on the day after Thanksgiving our family sets out on a treasure hunt that has been anticipated for some weeks. Our route has been scouted and plotted and planned...    
But! before we set off, it will require some sustenance, on this hunt for the rarest of finds. So before we head off, we set off for breakfast at our annual feast at The Inn of the Village (otherwise known by the Hip and Happening Set VI and to those of us who've know it for a while, Village Inn.)  

We fill ourselves with our favs knowing that they day will be long and there won't be food between then and the time we complete our mission. 
And what is our mission you ask????

Monday, December 6, 2010

Dancing with a snow man

The snow swirls around us
dancing, careening, cavorting
tickling our noses 
and teasing our toeses 
We join in the whirling dirvishes 
 swirling whirls
whorling swirls
  whirs twirling
slowly turning 
to find 
a giant of snow 
Standing before us 
a grin of toothiness 
spread over his features 
We spread out our arms 
to ask for waltzes 
and the jolly coal eyes 
sparkled down at the lark
and then as we stand in the silence of the dark
a call comes from the lighted warmth
we hug him tightly
and whisper lightly  
and slip off
to leave him in the 
whorling night

Friday, December 3, 2010

Riding alongside a lightbeam

Sometime ago, I read Einstein: His Life and Universe having gained an interest in his Theory of Relativity after learning that Lawrence Durrell had leaned heavily on the theory for his Alexandrian Quartet (and I count this among the most amazing fiction I have ever read-- highly recommended reading!!! You will be ready to pack your bags and go to Alexandria after reading the Quartet!!!). While reading the biography I was impressed by the famous physicists way of thinking. He was quoted as saying, "Accumulation of material should not stifle the student's independence...a society's competitive advantage will not come from how well its schools teach the multiplication and periodic tables, but from how well they stimulate imagination and creativity.

Einstein's ideas were developed first in his imagination. As a young man he would imagine trying to catch up to a light beam- but then in the same thought experiment the complication arose that another person who saw the ostensibly the same thing, did not see the same thing. How could this happen? His imagination eventually led him to develop his 'Theory of Relativity.'

In another section his biographer notes, "Therein lies the Einstein's brilliance and the lessons of his life. As a young student he never did well with rote learning. And later, as a theorist, his success came not from the brute strength of his mental processing power but from his imagination and creativity. He could construct complex equations, but more important, he knew that math is the language nature uses to describe her wonders. So he could visualize how equations were reflected in realities-- how the electromagnetic field equations discovered by James Clerk Maxwell, for example, would manifest themselves to a boy riding alongside a light beam. "

I personally believe that learning the multiplication tables is a foundational piece of education which is lacking today but it has it's place... but I also firmly believe that the lack of imagination and creativity in learning today is also a large piece that is lacking in our schools. Too many of our students are merely learning tools for trades and careers and not learning how to think critically. Thinking critically is an act of creative teaching not an act of rote memorization or plugging in numbers. 

 Einstein once declared, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." 

As a writer, I may be a little biased, but to my way of thinking, all of life begins with imagination. 

Thursday, December 2, 2010

So you want to write a novel?

I'd add a few things- one being that if you don't read, don't even think about writing (and if you aren't well read...), but this is terrific -and funny! Click on the picture and it will take you to Youtube video.
I'd love to know what you think! 

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Birthday extravaganza

Having mentioned the birthday, the pictures need to be posted before the boy is able to drive so... 
Having had a warmer than average October, the first Sunday of November (the day before Mack's actual day of birth) was as bright and sunny as the boys' smiling faces. 
Rudy is a neighborhood friend
We rounded up the party and headed off for fun-- or perhaps to be sick if one were to judge by Tristan's face. 
Tristan is Mack's best friend of the last four years


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