Monday, October 24, 2011

I refused to close my eyes

Today's writer's notebook topic was on dreams, lullabies, nightmares, spells, or magic.  We will be beginning A Midsummer Night's Dream in the coming weeks and I wanted my classes to start writing about some of the imagery, ideas, themes, and words.  My entry written side by side with my students is below:

Dreams fascinate me as does the notion that people study dreams--and study them to interpret them which then tells us something about ourselves.  You can't predetermine what you want to dream about--sometimes you can't even recall what you dream about--and there are dreams which never leave us--the dreams I had as a child have stuck with me through well over 30-35 years--one recurring dream I had as a child always rises to the top of my dreams memories: a marching band of soldiers approaches me--I couldn't see them and never did--simply stopping their feet to the slow rhythm of several bass drums--I was in a neighborhood, and no one else was outside--the band still approached, relentlessly, tirelessly--they were close, just on the other side of the hilly road I stood in the middle of--there were no cars--no traffic, so sound except the sound of feet and drum, feet and drum--the sky was blue and cloudless--all of the houses were one story tall--each house and lawn was neat and tidy and bright--the day was bright like the sunshine in an Edward Hopping painting--and yet there was nothing friendly, nothing welcoming--it was an imposing moment which I dreamed over and over and over--it frightened me--as I layed awake many nights I refused to close my eyes--and often lost--not wanting to shut my eyes for fear of standing frozen in the middle of that neighborhood street before the advance of a dull thud of a band of soliders I couldn't see.

Edward Hopper: Sunlight on Brownstones

Sunday, October 23, 2011

driving lessons

On our congested city street, my mom offered me my first driving lessons in her red Ford Escort.  Usually, she let me drive the car wherever I wanted to go--it was just neighborhood streets: a lot of stop signs and controlled 10-15 mph driving.  You rarely took a car out of third gear in the neighborhood--if you did it would be just a little reckless.  Even with the herky-jerky nature of driving a manual car along city streets, neither the manual shifter nor the need for double parking posed any problems--handling the compact car came naturally to me.

Joey, my tall neighborhood friend, came along during one of my earliest lessons.  He and his bony knees wedged themselves into the back seat.  He had been taking his own driving lessons with his father in what was soon to be Joey's gold Plymouth.

As I pressed the clutch and started the car, mom turned towards me in the passenger seat, smiling.  We hadn't eaten dinner yet; my mom once again sacrificing her time (and a prime parking spot near the house) right after work.

Finding a parking spot near your own house anytime after 5pm was often forged out of sheer luck and patience.  A familiar topic of conversation in our neighborhood was how many times someone drove around and around the neighborhoods, in ever widening concentric rectangles in search of the perfect parking space near your house.

The genesis of some of the best neighborhood angst included being in a car when you passed up a space in the hope of a better, closer, space only to find that someone else nabbed it during your next trip around the block.

I liked pulling myself into the driver's seat as if I were a stock car driver  entering through the driver's-side window--only, in this case, the car door would be completely open.  I watched a lot of shows with cars in them: The Dukes of Hazzard, Knight Rider, Starsky and Hutch, Magnum P.I. and even old men such as Jim Rockford and Quincy, M.D. all jumped into their cars to hurtle to something exciting, dangerous, and sexy. My fantasized stock car entrance occurred by grabbing the roof of the car in a psuedo-chin-up position and swinging my legs in and then under the red steering wheel.

Satisfied with myself I closed the car door and started it--this is when I turned and saw my mom smiling at me, ready to guide me through my next driving lesson.

Before pulling out, and out of force of habit with hopping into a car with friends, I turned and asked Joey, whose eyes  reflected the enormity of the mistake I made as it came out of my mouth, "So, where are we drinking tonight?"

"Get out of the car, Brian."

Sheepishly, I did while Joey slid home quietly.

There ended the lesson.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Book Review: Wired by Martha Randolph Carr

WiredWired by Martha Randolph Carr
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My experience reading Martha Randolph Carr's Wired reminds me of leaning against a post in the MoMA a few years ago and staring at Van Gogh's Olive Trees.  The subtle variations of stroke, color, and layer kept me glued.  My eye traced each undulating curve and zoomed in and out from foreground to horizon.  I experienced the same trance as I read Wired.  I'm not necessarily calling Carr "Van Gogh" or Wired the Olive Trees. But am I calling Carr an artist and I am saying Wired is a piece of art.

The reaction I felt standing and looking at the Olive Trees and sitting and reading Wired were, in this case, similar: "I can't teach that. I can't do that. I admire that."

I didn't want to walk away from that singular painting in a museum full of painted, sculpted, filmed, and photographed life and emotion. Only a few feet away were paintings my some of my personal favorites (Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock), yet I couldn't walk away from the Olive Trees.

I teach a creative writing course to 8th graders and over the past few years I've found myself reading books as a writer as much as a reader. I can provide a list of techniques with Carr used in Wired. I can take an excerpt and show it to my students as strong examples of setting...or suspense...or showing vs. telling...or text as camera...or indirect dialogue...or symbolism and foreshadowing...

I can show them these things. I can tell them these tools exist as much as any art teacher can show a student the colors Vermillion, Paris Green, Iris, and Eton Blue right out of the tube. An art teacher can demonstrate with a palette knife that artists blend colors according to their eye and imagination and purpose. But, as a painter, just knowing the tools or techniques doesn't make what you paint the Olive Trees.

Nor does knowing the tools of writing make what you produce another Wired.

But budding writers should read Wired--if you can read it as a reader, then do it. But if you are a writer and can't help but read something as a writer then this is one of those books you should read. Not to instruct, but to have something you can't walk away from because of the talent and see the tools we all study and try to employ in our own writing.

During a winter break in the 1980s I visited the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia and was awed by what I found. Immediately, I was on a singular mission to find art stores supplying sandstone and carving tools. When I emptied my wallet and bought everything I needed (without ever taking a class in sculpting and not having the benefit of the internet as it was not in the public consciousness yet) I set to work as a sculptor in the back of my parents storage area-- pings, grinds, and scrapes along with chip-chip-chip and tap-tap-tap fell from the back room over the course of several days. I learned as I went.

My dad's friend jokingly called to me "DaVinch! Grab me a beer!" several times throughout the weekend. My hunched over body, sculpting supplies, and thousands of fragments of dust and stone blocked the beer fridge.

I produced nothing until at the very end of several very long days of experimenting--an accident occurred. A small chunk of stone fell in the raw shape of a heart. I left the rest of the mutilated block and filed and sanded and polished and made a heart about the size of your thumb out of a block of stone which was originally size of your head and shoulders.

I used the tools without any training, and didn't really produce anything but an accident. I find that happens a lot in writing classes. So many young writers come to me with a love of writing and reading and write and read with freedom and love. Then we teach them that tools exist and the writing can often go to pot. The tools get in the way.

Martha Randolph Carr is an artist and Wired demonstrates that she knows how to use the tools...with subtle strokes, colors, and layers.
Tour Notes: Enter to win 1 of 3 free paperback copies of this novel on the official Wired blog tour page. The winner of the give-away will be announced on Wednesday, October 26 – be sure to enter before then! Just can't wait to read Wired? Pick up your copy in the Kindle, Nook, or iTunes stores or visit Smashwords with the coupon code AK95A to receive a discounted price (just $2)! Don't forget to vote for my blog in the traffic-breaker poll for this tour. The blogger with the most votes wins an Amazon gift card and a special winner’s badge. I want that to be me! You can vote in the poll by visiting the official Wired blog tour page and scrolling all the way to the bottom. Learn more about this author by visiting her website, Facebook or GoodReads pages or by connecting with her on Twitter. You'll definitely want to check out Martha's Mystery Blog--each week a new short thriller is serialized Monday through Friday. The entries are nice and short, easy to read via smart phone or tablet. It's all at

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Why I Write

My Tweet to #whyiwrite in recognition of today being National Writing Day: I write because it is an imperfect art accessible through its forgiveness of our imperfections and humanity. 

Yesterday, I gave my students the prompt Why I Write in anticipation and recognition of today being National Writing Day.  As I've learned to do through the NWP I write alongside of my students--yesterday was no exception.  The following is what I produced in my Writer's Notebook writing alongside of them:

I write for the _______  --there are so many reasons why I write that I find it difficult to place a thumbtack on one reason.  I write now, in this moment, to show you, my students that I do write, that I write alongside of you, that my writing isn't necessarily great or creative or inspirational--I write to show you that we all can struggle with it--I write because it is an imperfect art accessible through its forgiveness of our imperfections and humanity--I write for myself outside of class because it allows me to be private in public--in the moments that I write I am alone with my thoughts and I still realize others may read it--I wrote last November to grieve over the death of my beloved dog, Rain--I wrote last December to remember and celebrate the many loving uncles and aunts and grandparents I've been blessed by--I wrote Monday afternoon with my Nature Journal club to observe the outdoors, to relax and refocus myself--it can be a kind of therapy or cleansing as much as it can be a way to play and explore and create...