Love Stories

I have a thing about love stories. I hate ’em. Okay, that’s over-selling it a bit. But I’m a tough critic when it comes to actually letting a love story pass mustard in my book. My wife and I go back and forth all the time about this subject. The other day she said to me, “If you hate love stories, why do you love Romeo and Juliet so much?” It was a tough question. Not because I don’t know why I like (“love” is going too far) R&J. It’s a nice tragedy, with the usual Shakespearean brilliance in wordplay and plotting. The question was tough because she’s wrong; I don’ t hate love stories. I hate bad love stories. And I hate seeing people develop a taste for these watered-down love stories, then slowly letting this appetite influence their expectations for future stories.

Now, let it not be said that I’m some sort of Grinch when it comes to stories which involve a guy and a girl, and, well, you know the rest. My heart is not six sizes too small. I beg to differ. I’m a softie. I’ve cried at E.T. Those Olympics montages get to me. You know the ones: athlete from Slovakia lost mom to painful wasting disease, lived in a cardboard box and donated one kidney and six teeth while training just to realize THE OLYMPIC DREAM. And a small piece of metal around the neck will make that all worth it. Well, maybe I’m a cynic, too. Can one be both a softie and a cynic simultaneously? A softic? A cynie?

The way I see it, I’m not a mean one, Mr. Grinch. I just have high standards. Like most stories, the love stories I dig are the ones where the characters are authentically drawn, speak like real people, and have real-people type motivations. I also like love stories where the men are not from a planet where they have perfect hair, loads of cash, and never sweat. I can’t relate to that. Now, that’s not to say all I want in a love story is for a guy like me to end up with a girl like Jennifer Garner. That’s equally far-fetched. I just ask for a story where the love feels like a real relationship and the resolution, however it goes, feels earned. Not to beat a dead Pixar horse, but the relationship between Carl and Ellie in Up is a good one to me. In real life, people are drawn to each other not because of some yellowy-orange glow surrounding each others’ face at first meeting, while melodic pop music plays. They’re drawn to each other out of their own weakness, their own frailty, an ineffable mixture of desire, regret, hope, fear, and the baggage that we all carry around. We drag ourselves up to someone and out of an overwhelming desire to surge past the fear and weakness, we summon the courage to just say “Hi. You make me feel something inside.”

That’s a love story I’d like to see.

The Road is Long

No, this isn’t me  slipping into a cover of “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.” I’m starting to crank through another round of revision on the finished novel manuscript. There are people who save every separate draft in a different Word document so they can clearly tell you, “I wrote fifty-seven drafts of my novel before it was finished.” I’m just like that. My number is a-whole-heckuva-lot. How’s that for precise?

And today began “a-whole-heckuva-lot plus one.” Since work on the new manuscript has bogged down, and since I got some great feedback from a friend, I figured it was time to go back to revising. And, like love, it hurts. It scars. It wounds. And mars.

But while the road to Final Draftland is long and not clearly marked by yellow bricks and Munchkins, revisiting a draft after many moons has some advantages. I’m seeing things in a fresh light. I’m suddenly taking a jackhammer to phrases that I’d committed to memory and locked in place. When it comes to tightening and trimming the fat, time apart is a wonderful thing. I read my stuff with a more objective eye. Even while I haven’t been spending time with my characters, I’ve been thinking about them. I’m ruthless with their motivations and actions. The narrative becomes more streamlined. A few more weeks of this and I’ll be unstoppable. UNSTOPPABLE! Mwahahahahaha!!!!!!!

(One other thing: revising is also a bit like being in a padded room. But I don’t type in a straightjacket. Yet.)

Robin Hood: Try this instead

Ebert has posted his review of Ridley Scott’s new Robin Hood movie here. His thoughts pretty much mirror mine going back several months when I first saw the trailer, “Braveheart called; it wants its plot back.” His review opens with these lines:

Little by little, title by title, innocence and joy is being drained out of the movies.

Well how ’bout that. Sounds like Ebert should be reading my blog 🙂 Anywho, back when I first heard this new travesty movie was coming out, I read a fantastic take on the Robin Hood legend which contained both innocence and wonder, as well as a whole bunch of imagination and craft. It’s by Stephen Lawhead, and it’s actually a trilogy. The titles are called Hood, Scarlet, and Tuck. They’re all great reads. Here’s a link.

An Interesting Conversation

Had a conversation between classes today, during what students love to call my “free period,” with a fellow teacher who’s also the mom of a kid I will likely teach next year in IB English 1. After a few minutes, the conversation returned to a familiar place: boys who love to read when young, but whose zeal gets pounded into submission so that when they come to me as juniors in an advanced English class, they’re drooling slightly and reciting the same old mumbo-jumbo: “Why do I have to keep taking English? Don’t I already know how to read and write? How is this going to help me in life?”

So what happens? I’ve been puzzling over this a lot this year, since it’s my fourth year teaching and I’m starting to pick up on familiar patterns. My working theory has to do with the importance of story as an entity or an experience and the gigantic impact it has on us as humans. (I think that sentence just sounded slightly Carl Sagan, but I don’t know how else to word it.)  I’ll have to revisit this in more depth at a later date, since it’s getting late and I have theories about Tuesday’s episode of Lost to construct, but for now, I want to get down that it has to do with the fact that without a proper appreciation for the vital importance of stories in our lives, readers can gradually become non-readers. For young readers to turn into old readers, they need to continue to find stories which connect to them on a meaningful, visceral level. Sadly, the type of teaching that passes for reading appreciation in schools involves a whole lot of worksheets and, as Billy Collins wonderfully called it, “beating it with a hose.” Reading is not a scientific process; it’s not a punch-your-card type experience. The benefits are much less tangible. It’s not about an accumulation of knowledge to be able to stick a pie piece in your Trivial Pursuit mover.

But stories matter. There is no other experience similar to that of entering a character’s world and holding a mirror up to the soul.

What I Wrote

I’m fascinated by the process of writing prompts, how there are things lurking inside us, just below the surface, that we have no knowledge of until we are prompted. Sometimes, it’s a character, sometimes, an emotion or an experience we had forgotten (or, perhaps repressed). And at the bidding of a writing coach, or a book, we heed the prompt, and away we go. Before we know it, these things hidden inside us dive out before we have a chance to stop them.

Thursday night’s RACWI (Rochester Area Children’s Writers and Illustrators) meeting was all about writing prompts. As one who gives writing prompts for a living, I can spot a dud a mile away. Fortunately, Sibby Falk, our fearless leader, had chosen some good ones. Or maybe it’s just that I’ve been slaving away the past couple of weeks trying to get my school’s god-foresaken yearbook to the presses in something resembling on time that I was just STARVING for an outlet of writing. We did about five prompts, and by the third or fourth, I was getting just plain wacky tobaccy. Fortunately, before I reached that point, I turned out something I was actually pleased with. So I thought I would share. I think I might tuck this away for something else down the road. The prompt was, “Use these five words in your writing: paper clips, principal, lunch box, swing, girl with a pink ribbon.” I used one. See – I follow directions 🙂

I see her first on the playground, April breeze snatching the pink ribbon from her hair and sending it skipping across the open space between us until it curls against my shoe like a stray cat. She approaches me hesitantly. I twirl the soft fabric around my finger. Then, three years swoop down unbidden and engulf me.

I think of swimming pools in June, Tiffany’s cool feet slapping the deck. I hear her before I see her. She holds her hands above my face, letting the water drip on me. Then, the memory is gone, shredded in two, and I see on the other side, staring through, a thin white sheet pulled over her face: an angel on another April day, gone to heaven.

“I think you have my ribbon.”

I peer down at her , honey-blonde hair flitting about her cheeks as she waits for me, quiet as an altar girl. Behind her, a mother waits anxiously.

Hug her, a voice inside commands me to tell the woman. Treasure the moment. I bend and hand this artifact of childhood to her …

(And time’s up).