Thursday, March 31, 2016

Throwback Thursday: A Love Song for Libraries


Ginger and her sister
In the beginning was the Word. In her beginnings, there was a book. Her mother told her she could read before she started kindergarten, and she started kindergarten at age four. Each week, she would walk with her grandmother and older sister the nine or ten city blocks to their local branch of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, a low brick building down a side street.

There, she and her sister would settle in the children’s section, while their grandmother browsed through paperback mysteries and Regency romances. She remembers little of that library—windows, low shelves, Ezra Jack Keats’ A Snowy Day, and the front desk, where a stereotypically severe-looking librarian stamped their books with a heavy rubber stamp—ka-thunk!

By the time she was in fifth grade, her mother was in graduate school studying to become an elementary school librarian. Long Saturday afternoons were spent in Lockwood Library at the university: Mom at the copier with piles of coins, sister claiming the best of the blocky chairs available. The options were limited. Ride the elevator up and down, up and down. Run out to the vending machines, having first snatched a quarter from her mother’s towering pile. Quarter in, press F8, curly-cue swivels around, out pops frosted nut brownie. Or, of course, there were the stacks.

Mostly, she spent time in the stacks. One single row of children’s books, mostly books that sported shiny gold Newbery stickers. Somehow she got her hands on a bookmark that listed all the Newbery award winners, and she decided she would read them. Some of her favorite books were Newberies: A Wrinkle in Time, Tuck Everlasting, Bridge to Terabithia, The Westing Game, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. They were quickly joined by Summer of the Swans, My Side of the Mountain, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, The Great Gilly Hopkins, A Ring of Endless Light.

She remembers, though, mostly spending those afternoons with E.L. Konigsburg. Oh, they weren’t on a first-name basis, she and E.L., but nevertheless, she became great friends with Claudia and Jamie, wishing more than anything that she could stay in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, that she could go to an automat (What was an automat, anyway?). She thrilled to the sound of Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth. She gobbled up About the B’nai Bagels, while developing A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver. She even became Father’s Arcane Daughter for a while.

Those Saturday afternoons ceased, but she found other libraries to haunt. She could make a dot-to-dot design on a map of the United States of libraries she has frequented over her lifetime. It would undoubtedly look like an open book. Some of those libraries don’t exist anymore; some of them have expanded. All of them have been important to her. This one is the one she went to in college, studying with her roommates while wearing large hats (to channel the brain-waves, of course). This one she frequented when she was first married, borrowing books with unlikely plots and even more unlikely heroines. That is the one she walked to with her first baby, borrowing books on child development, as well as board books and movies for cheap date nights.

This library, here, was one of her favorites. She brought her toddler there for story time, but also to see the fish in the fish tank, and to work the puzzles on the table, and to borrow picture books to read to him, and CDs to listen to (a compilation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s poems set to music was her favorite). It was there that she returned to her love of children’s literature, often grabbing Anne of Green Gables off the shelf to read while her gingerbread boy played quietly. It was here that she realized she liked children’s literature better than literature for adults.

Now she frequents her current town library, an old schoolhouse built in the 1800s. It is a place where the librarians not only know her name, they know her library card number. She also volunteers in the elementary school library, where she returns dozens and dozens of books back to their places on the shelves. Sometimes, though, she sees a book that catches her eye, and she sits down right in the stacks, caught up in the pleasure of a book, just like she did when she was in fifth grade. Some things never change.

Originally published here 3.31.11

Thursday, March 24, 2016

THROWBACK THURSDAY Guest Post: Life with a Writer

One of the most vital aspects of being able to fulfill one’s calling as an anguished writer is to have someone who understands. Today’s guest post is brought to you by William Johnson, also known as the Gingerbread Man. Ginger cannot confirm or deny any of the following allegations.
From the outside, to a non-writer, there are only three stages to writing a novel.
The first stage involves mornings when I awaken to the sound of pencil on paper, scribbling furiously. I see my writer intently pouring her soul into a small notebook. When I venture a question… “Honey, when do you think…?” I am greeted by a “Shhh, not now.”
If the muses have been kind, these mornings may involve an hour of ecstatic outpouring, rarely more. The activity sometimes comes in fits and starts, but often seems to most resemble the gush of a firehose from brain to paper. At times, there is transfer of notes to computer with smiles and giggles abounding. It seems that a writer truly enjoys this part of writing. But alas, with the dawning of the morning and the patter of size three feet, the muses are dispersed and the process comes to an abrupt halt.
The second stage of writing resembles sorting and folding laundry more than anything else. On these mornings, my writer goes to her office with her book map and sorts scenes and chapters instead of towels and socks. Here the disconnected ideas and anecdotes get molded by my writer into a coherent and compelling narrative. While something vital is getting done, it is considerably less fun for my writer. I see more mornings of furrowed brows and fewer of smiling and giggling.
The third stage of writing seems to be the least fun. I don’t recall having ever seen tears in the process, but they have certainly been warranted. Here my writer smooths the superfluous details and jagged edges; the unnecessary adverbs are speedily deleted and adeptly replaced. My writer has her axe: she takes her whet stone and sharpens and refines to make every word count, to make every phrase smooth, to make every paragraph a vital component of the story. Here the true poetry takes place. This is also the place where the fun and creativity of the project (for before this stage, a novel is really only a project) are transformed into something marvelous.
A prolific finance colleague of mine was once asked how he is so productive. His response was simple: “I am a good finisher.” It takes a good finisher to get through the third stage. The third stage of the writing process makes you want to pull your hair out. It may lead you to despair. But this is also the stage where you get to tell the world your story in your way. This is where you make the magic.
So, my writer, keep on.  Make your magic.
IMG_8018
When Bill is not sending smoke signals to the Muses pleading for mercy on behalf of his wife, he professes finance at Suffolk University. Bill says the only difference between Ginger’s creative writing and his academic writing is that he gets to use more adverbs.
Originally published at Quirk and Quill 4.8.13

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Throwback Thursday: Aristotle and Me

Back in the old days, or at least in graduate school, Aristotle and I became quite close. We were buddies.
aristotle0Well.
Ok. The relationship was rather one-sided.
But being something of a structure freak and a lover of tracing one’s roots (be they genealogical, linguistic, or literary), I spent quite a bit of time hanging out with Aristotle and his Poetics. (Wouldn’t that be a great name for an English-nerd band?)
Here’s what I learned:
Aristotle’s unities (the unities of action, time, and place) went out of vogue around the time of Shakespeare, because of the wild and crazy influence of mystery cycles and morality plays. Aristotle was no match for Shakespeare, and his theories took on the patina of an antiquated relic, whilst Shakespeare shone.
Dear Aristotle remains relevant, though, when you’re looking for a structural way to help convey emotion, shape tone, and dive into complex thematic content.
Just for kicks, here’s a refresher on the unities.
Having unity of action means that you can reduce the plot to a universal form. In other words, can you summarize the plot in one sentence? The other part of unity of action requires a cause-and-effect structure where each plot point is logically and directly connected to the next one (the beginning, middle, and end of a piece).
The unity of time requires limitations on the time span of the action. Aristotle says 24 hours, but I think any specified boundary of time is sufficient.
The unity of place limits the location of the narrative to a single place, whether a single house or a single city.
So what does this mean for a modern writer?
Say you’ve written a middle-grade narrative with some difficult content—the death of a best friend or a parent’s mental illness, for example. Using some form of these unities in a story will set boundaries for the reader that will circumscribe a safe area to explore the complex or troubling subject matter. The pain and difficulty of the subject matter become finite in this contained cognitive space.
Even if your narrative doesn’t contain emotional content, boundaries of time, place, and action mark the fictional world of the narrative. They set the story apart from the reader’s reality, giving it a delineated time, a specific place, and a logical structure, all good things for a middle-grade reader who is making sense of her world.
As the middle-grade reader ages, though, these boundaries are not as developmentally necessary. The young adult reader pushes against boundaries and tests borders as he navigates his way toward adulthood. Knowing this, a writer of young adult fiction can be deliberate about disregarding the unities or artfully manipulating them. If you want your plot to evoke a sense of uncertainty or discomfort, such a feeling can be emphasized with a disunity of time, place, or action—when there are multiple episodes, or when the duration, succession, or chronology of a piece are not straightforward, or when the action takes place in multiple locations.
Without unities of time, place, or action, an unbound narrative will provide a stage of possibility for the young adult. More experimental or unbound narrative architectures (such as vignette or themed short story collections, plotless or episodic novels, or story-within-a-story) may hold more interest for the YA reader.
The Unities. Use them (for middle-grade) or lose them (for young adult). Either way, Aristotle’s got you covered.
Originally published at Quirk and Quill 4.18.13

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Throwback Thursday: Growing Up

Writing a novel has often been compared to giving birth. I’ve done both twice, so I can attest to the fact that it’s a good metaphor–you write for nine months, then in a final painful push, drug-induced or not, you give birth to a being that didn’t exist before.
Too often, the metaphor stops there. It shouldn’t.
Just as no self-respecting mother would send her baby out into the world after the snip of the umbilical cord and a quick clean up, no writer should ever send a manuscript out into the world so new and so fresh.
It takes time and love and energy and dedication to raise a child. So, too, does it take significant effort to raise and revise a worthy novel. Some things cannot be rushed, no matter how much we writers seek validation or legitimacy, no matter how many times a well-meaning relative asks about “the writing,” and if we’re ever going to “finish that thing.”
It’s ok to be a first draft for a while. Perhaps we need to stop thinking of our first drafts with Anne Lamott’s famous descriptor. Perhaps we need to think instead that our first drafts are newborn babes, eating and sleeping and making good use of their diapers.
If we let them grow into a second draft, they turn into toddlers. The struggle ensues as personalities begin to develop. A third draft brings early childhood, with lots of learning going on. By the time the fourth draft comes along, our manuscripts are developmentally “in school,” persistently plodding along.
All too soon, the manuscript hits the teenage years and wants to break free and live an independent life. This, perhaps, is when our manuscripts need us the most. It’s time for tough love, friends. It’s time to say to our manuscripts. “Wait a while–there’s plenty of time for the jungle out there.” And then ground it until it’s 35.
Just kidding.
Sort of. ;)

Originally published at Quirk and Quill 7.26.12

Thursday, March 3, 2016

THROWBACK THURSDAY Book Review: TRACING STARS by Erin E. Moulton

On the last day of school, Indie Lee Chickory discovers a stow-away in her backpack: The Lobster Monty Cola, her pet golden lobster. In a series of misadventures involving a kickball, a chase, and a police siren, she ends up losing him in the ocean that day.
Indie wants to make things better: to find Monty Cola with the help of her new friend Owen, to regain the relationship she used to have with her sister, Bebe, before Bebe went all perfectionista on her, and to be a better Indie Lee Chickory.
But the Indie Lee Chickory she is when she’s looking for Monty Cola with Owen is a different Indie Lee Chickory from the one she is when she’s trying to be a better sister. The two Indie Lee Chickorys seem mutually exclusive.
One wears Carhartts and works in the set design studio with a pierced and fierce Mohawk-hair girl named Sloth. That Indie Lee recites fish names and makes fish faces, like the trout pout, to make people laugh.
The other Indie Lee wears French braids and matching outfits. She tells white lies to impress other people, and she does mean things, all in the name of helping her sister “network.”
In looking for The Lobster Monty Cola, she discovers the junction where these two Indie Lee Chickorys meet, and finds peace in her own skin, knowing she’s the best Indie Lee Chickory she can be.
This is a middle grade book with heart and hope, family and friends, and a whole lot of fish. Highly recommended.
Note: for the sensitive, there is one swear word in the text.
Originally published in Quirk and Quill 6.21.12