Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Lessening of the Horrible

My daughter is learning the oboe. She's just begun, and even though I played throughout middle school and high school, I'd forgotten how horribly awful those learning curves sound. Squeaks and squawks and barely-there, full-of-air notes that are always out of tune. I don't think she expected that either. After all, when she learned piano, the problem was getting the fingers in the right places, but even if you didn't, the notes themselves were still pretty. It bothers her, this screeching that comes from her instrument which she can't seem to control.

Strangely, though, it doesn't bother me. It's the sounds of learning, and every time she plays, I hear her getting better. Less squeaks, less air, more music. I don't hear the horrible; I hear the lessening of the horrible.

She is too much like me, though. She wants to be good at something right away, and if she isn't, she wants to move on to something she IS good at. She doesn't have to be perfect right away, but she needs to see that she's good, that there is immediate hope of being good. I have to keep reminding her that there are some things in life worth working at, even if she isn't good at it right away.

As I was listening to her practice this weekend, I realized how true this is of me, too. This semester I took time off working full-time on my novel and shifted most of my attention to writing short stories. It wasn't an easy decision. I talked a long time about it with my advisor, with my past advisors, with friends and fellow students. I agonized over it. Maybe more than I should have. Because I knew, I'm not particularly good at short stories. I think if you could put sound to my words, they would sound like those early squawks of the oboe.

I've been reading a lot of short stories lately: books by Benjamin Percy, Raymond Carver, Denis Johnson, Andrea Barrett. I love many of those stories, but I don't always get them. They move around too much, aren't always very linear, don't always seem to have fully developed plots, or any plot at all. They sometimes start in one place and end somewhere entirely different and I don't know how they got there, and how the end relates to the beginning. They are sometimes slices in time in which nothing happens. I love them - the words, the rhythms, the characters. I can sense a brilliance about them. But I don't get them. I can't dissect them and figure out what makes them good the way I can about a novel. I just know they are brilliant. And I know, if I wrote something like that, it wouldn't be.

Working on something I'm not good at is hard. Not just in the sense of writing and rewriting, but emotionally. Who wants to spend hours and hours during the day doing something they're failing at? Not my daughter. And not me.

So I have to remind myself every day of what I try to impress into her: some things are worth working on. Some things are worth enduring long bouts of awful to get to the fantastically good. Sometimes the work is not just about becoming better at your art, but becoming a better person. And with hard work and lots of practice, the horrid parts lessen, and the beauty increases.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Ten (only semi-) Interesting Things

Patti passed this on to me, and since Patti's been hanging around this blog for YEARS, I figured I owed it to her to not let it die on my watch.

(I will say, because I always have to add some sort of parenthetical comment, that the misspelling, even as purposed as it presumably is, bothers me. Putting a grammatically incorrect badge on my blog?? Oh the horror!)

Okay - on the the requirements. I'm suppose to list ten interesting things about myself. Seriously?? Ten?? Who came up with this idea? And if you are so Kreativ, you should have chosen a more Kreativ number, like say 11. Or seven. A prime number. Something not as cliche and even as ten. That is SO not Kreativ.

Okay, here we go.

1. All the canned goods in my pantry are facing perfectly evenly face out, labels aligned. My boxes also are all faced a certain way. It feels very "Sleeping with the Enemy" but if I don't keep them that way, I feel all itchy. I also straighten the towels so they are even.

2. I like the smell of skunks.

3. I am stupidly awkward about talking about my writing. If people ask about my published book, I blush, I mumble, I manage to say something wishy-washy about it and then switch the subject. I suspect I will never be good at marketing myself.

4. I am obsessive. About most things. Except cleaning the house. For instance, when I began reading Raymond Carver's short story collection, I had to find out everything I could about him. I spent two entire days online reading his biographies, his interviews, his poetry, people's blogs about him, his famous quotes, his tombstone.

5. If I read historical fiction, I end up reading more research about the time period than there are pages in the actual book. Possibly this goes along with #4.

6. When I write an update on Facebook, I sometimes think, "If I die, this will be the last thing I post here, and for years it will hang around as a reminder to people that this is what I was doing or thinking, and this is what they will remember about me." Sometimes I change what I wrote because of that.

7. One of my very most favorite things to do is to watch my son play percussion in band. When I was a kid, I got the feeling that all of the adults were just there because they had to be there. But I really want to be there. I would not rather be anywhere else. And I am totally and utterly amazed at him.

8. I can run 8 miles in an hour on an elliptical but can't run one mile on a treadmill without stopping and gasping for breath. This baffles me.

9. I dance in my kitchen while I am cooking or doing dishes. I dance with my kids before they go to bed. I cannot, for the life of me, dance outside my home. It's like I completely freeze, I have no rhythm, and am totally self-conscious. In the words of Dudley from Wild Hogs, "The music moves me, but it moves me ugly."

10. I think about putting a surveillance camera over our kitchen table to tape our dinners. We eat as a family every night, and we do much more laughing than eating. The stories, the jokes, the songs.... I wish I could capture that, to play over and over when the kids are grown and gone. It is one of my favorite times of day. (and it helps that all of my kids love vegetables!)

So there you have it.

I'm supposed to pass this on, so here's a few of the many bloggers that I love.

Heidi the Hick
Holly Bowne
Laurel Garver
Cindy Wilson
Jessie Oliveros

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Burning Questions

I'll admit that a small part of me liked Pacific's MFA program because the website promised bonfires on the beach. While I joke that this is the main reason I chose it, the fact that the program is ranked #4 in low-res programs in the U.S., has amazing faculty, is exactly the kind of curriculum and semester requirements I'd hoped for, and didn't require a foreign language proficiency to apply all ranked higher in practical reasons I chose it.

But the bonfire might have ranked highest on my emotional levels.

Really, is there anything more literarily romantic than a bonfire on a beach with a bunch of writers standing around talking shop? That just might be might idea of a tiny slice of heaven.

The funny thing is that it never once crossed my mind how ironic it is that a bunch of writers aspire to stand on a beach around a bonfire, considering the history of literature and how many books have been thrown in just such a bonfire. 

This was on my mind this morning, though, when I spent breakfast talking to my two middle-school-age kids about profanity in required reading at school. This weekend my son told me his reading group at school (8th grade) is getting ready to read The Book Thief, which happened to also be on my semester reading list. In anticipation, I moved it up on my to-read list and began last night. In the first 40 pages, there is a not-inconsequential amount of profanity.

My son's been choosing a lot of adult fiction to read on his own lately: Michael Crichton, John Grisham, Tim LaHaye to name a few. Grisham and LaHaye have been pretty safe, but Crichton he's had to sift through. On his own choice, he puts back the ones that have profanity, because he just doesn't want to read it. I admire him for that.

But now he's heading into a book required by his teacher that he doesn't have a choice in.

In our breakfast conversation, my daughter, who is currently in 6th grade, informed me that last year her class had to read a book with profanity in it as well. And they read much of it out loud. She said when one girl had to read a page to the class that had a word she wasn't allowed to say (by her parents or, according to the Code of Behavior, by the school), the teacher told her to go ahead and read it, because it was part of the curriculum. The teacher himself read much of it out loud, and my daughter said the class giggled because their teacher was "swearing" in class. She told me she never laughed because she didn't think it was funny.

Call me what you want - a prude, a fundamentalist, a head-in-the-sand parent - but this disturbs me. 

I've never used profanity. I didn't growing up, and I don't now. I don't wear that as some point of pride, anymore than I would be proud that I've never worn stilettos or eaten foie gras. I just haven't. It's a choice I've made for my life. I don't make it for yours; you are free to talk however you wish. And when my kids are adults, they can choose to talk however they wish. But while they are in our house, they are not allowed to use profanity - or scream, or hit one another, or throw things, or eat dessert without finishing their vegetable. The thing is, I've had to teach them not to scream or hit or throw, but I've never had to teach them not to swear. Because they know instinctively that, like screaming and hitting and throwing, words like that are meant to hurt or shock. 

My kids know it's out there. Sure, they hear it in the stores and on the street and even, sadly, at DisneyWorld. It's everywhere. It's true. I can't shield them from life. 

But I wonder why public school choose books with language in them that the kids aren't allowed to speak in the hallways. 

Don't get me wrong: I think a lot of these books are great books. The Book Thief is outstanding. I don't want to throw books onto the proverbial bonfire. I'm not saying kids shouldn't be allowed to read them. I'm just saying, shouldn't they have a choice? Shouldn't books in lower education be put to the same standard as the kids themselves? Should kids who are nine and ten be made to read books with language that would, if it were a movie, be rated PG-13?

So my son will read The Book Thief, and we will talk about it together, which is a good thing, and something I'm unable to do with every book my kids read. But that doesn't make the exposure go away. And while some might say that exposure is going to come anyway, that doesn't make it beneficial.

There is, hopefully, an awful lot of life left for my kids to hear these words... to decide for themselves if they want to use them, to read them. Is it a crime to want them to have a few more years without them?

(And don't think I haven't missed the irony that The Book Thief contains a crucial scene of book burning in Nazi Germany... which brings us back around to the irony of the beginning photo... )