Posts Tagged ‘judge’

The Post – Okay, NOW Let’s Talk About Where Under the Pier Came From

February 20, 2008

As with most of my projects, my novel in progress, Under the Pier, started as a picture book. What a surprise, hmm? In fact, it started out as three of them – one animal, two human. Two were homework assignments for the Institute of Children’s Literature (ICL). One was a short story I wrote for myself. As picture books, all were rejected. Yes, I know. Another surprise.

The animal story was one of the homework assignments for ICL. It reflected my love for the sea – I flat out love the ocean, and really flat out love the rocky New England shores. It also reflected my love for all things ignored or overlooked. We used to go to Cape Cod when I was a kid. Forget sunbathing. I spent all my time with a face mask on, diving between waves to see what rolled around on the bottom. If I could have stayed down there forever I would have. Jacques Cousteau was my hero. I loved crawling all over the rocks at Newport, Rhode Island, sticking my face into blue mussel beds, poking into tide pools, and trailing periwinkles. I loved every creepy thing that slithered out from under a pile of seaweed or crawled out of the foamy surf.

Ironically, my animal picture book story started out set in North Carolina, not New England. We’d taken a day trip to Wrightsville Beach and ended up sitting under the pier because it was so crowded. I sat there looking up at the weathered rafters, watching seagulls roost. Then I noticed the pilings covered with snails, blue mussels, and algae. I knew there were all kinds of fish feeding in the surf around the pilings, and I could see dozens of jellyfish bobbing in the waves alongside them. I’d never realized how many things lived right around a pier.

Stuck in my picture book mindset I figured I could do a short nonfiction with the slant of who lives on and under the pier, maybe even give it a bloodthirsty twist – who eats who under the pier. After much struggle, and several rejections, it occurred to me that since my soul was in New England maybe the problem was location. So I changed it to a New England pier, though I kept it a picture book. Again, rejection letters piled in. Finally, busy with other things, I set it aside.

The two human stories – again, one was a homework assignment, the other something I wrote that drew on imagery of the blue-collar town I grew up in. Like I mentioned in my last post, stories reflect the questions in their writers’ hearts. My questions? I was one of those kids more likely to be in the shadows of a dark window at night watching the skunk nose through the garbage cans, than at a middle school dance. Even if you ignore the fact that I went to a Catholic school with nuns and I don’t think we had middle school dances, there were other places in town that did. No matter. I didn’t care, and even if I had gone, I’d have been overlooked. That’s who I was back then. So why bother?

I compensated by becoming very good in school. So good, I could stuff down my insecurity and look down my nose at all the popular girls and their snobby cliques. How many of them could tell a garnet from molybdenum? I could. Academics and books were my shield against the pain of being excluded. They were my place to shine.

The other half of it was, I truly LOVED all those books and studies. Frankly, I had a better time one summer climbing all over a rock quarry hunting minerals and gems than going shopping. Who else would, of their OWN CHOICE, with their own money, on summer vacation, go to the local tobacco and hobby store and buy a dissection kit and formaldehyde-preserved frogs, fish, and crayfish to cut up? And consider this fun? Of course, in this day and age, I don’t think you can get these things unless you’re an adult, a teacher, and you can order from a science supply house. And they don’t even use formaldehyde because I think it’s some kind of carcinogen. But, I survived. It was the mid-sixties, heck, you could also buy interesting chemistry sets. I had those too. And the prepared microscope slides to go with my microscope and my geology hammer and chisel.

I also loved playing baseball on the street behind our house with the neighborhood kids, loved climbing the fence into the cemetery with the boys, and doing anything that did not include makeup or dresses. The times I had been most bored were play dates at other girls’ houses when they wanted to play house, tea, dolls (now if they’d had that GI Joe doll maybe….) or hairdresser. That’s when I usually wished they’d had brothers. Brothers who had the neat aircraft carriers that launched planes, tow trucks with flashing lights, helicopters with winches, or those old metal yellow Tonka trucks. I spent hours with my friend across the street playing with those and digging in his dirt pile. We were trying to get to China. So. Is it any surprise I did not do well at dances? Still, nobody likes to be rejected. So I declared those girls enemy number 1, ignored them like they ignored me, and stuck to the things I loved

Given this background, I figured I could do a story with two girls, Max and Jamie, who were cousins. They were stuck with each other for the summer at their grandmother’s house in a blue-collar, coastal New England town. Of course one was the “neat character” – hated makeup and such. One was the snot – always putting her tomboy cousin down. Mix in a hefty dose of all of those animosities that creep up between two very different 12-14 year-old girls, add in a quiet, smart, 14-year-old boy to bring complications, and there was my picture book. Except it got rejected. Not to mention that what I just described is no more a picture book than a refrigerator is. And…not to mention that the story line is a bit simplistic, cliché, and maybe not totally honest?

Midlife brings humility in the form of gray hairs, wrinkles, and regrets. Life beats you up enough and somewhere along the line you start to realize, gee, maybe I’m not so right, and maybe they’re not so wrong. Odd ideas arise, such as maybe those snobby girls weren’t the only ones acting like a jerk? This was a scary thought. I always saw me as their victim. Though I didn’t like what I was feeling about how I’d acted, I investigated that line of reasoning a little deeper. I took a good look at who were those girls, really? Again, midlife does weird things to you. Suddenly I no longer saw demons, just girls as scared and vulnerable as I was. Where I used books or preserved frogs, they used clothes or makeup. They were girls with their own struggles, insecurities, and troubles. Maybe they were even, say it’s not so, living, breathing, 3-dimensional human beings with feelings?

I’d rationalized my behavior all those years by deciding they got what they deserved for looking down on me. Anais Nin said that we see life as we are, not as it is. In that moment all the defenses started crashing. When the dust settled, all I saw were a bunch of people, all very much alike, all just trying to get by. What I realized was that I could be that geeky uncool person just because that’s who I am and it’s what gives me joy in life and it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. I finally came to accept me. When you accept yourself, you are then free to accept everyone else. You no longer have to judge others to protect yourself. I could just enjoy being a geek and not wield it like a weapon against others. I could lay the weapon down because it wasn’t them vs. me anymore.

After I got over feeling like a jerk, it occurred to me I could add some entirely new layers and depth to that very superficial “picture book.” Also, about the same time, I finally started accepting 1) I don’t have a voice for picture books and 2) NONE of the stories I wanted to write were picture books. At the shortest, “maybe” chapter books, but frankly, I think most of what I wanted to write fit into middle-grade fiction. I finally accepted the fact that the child inside of me is about 11 or 12.

The final nail in the coffin of trying to stuff a novel into a picture book came in the mid-90s. I attended an SCBWI conference (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) and one of the published authors critiqued that third “picture book” I’d written for myself. Her feedback said “Great chapter. Where’s the rest of the book? I want to know what happens to your character before and after this chapter.”

My thought was, there IS no before and after. I only wanted to write that one segment. And what did she mean, “chapter?” It was a book, not a chapter.

Faced with a bunch of rejected picture books that weren’t picture books, I finally surrendered to the truth – I HAD to become a novel writer.

UP NEXT – How do you take three picture books and make a novel?

The Post – Thomas Paine and the inner rallying call

February 3, 2008

I posted Thomas Paine’s quote from Common Sense, yesterday – “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right.”

Being a history lover, particularly of the American Revolution, I always love to see what kinds of thoughts and words propelled so many people to throw away every last bit of “status quo,” and “security” to wage war against the 18th century superpower so as to right injustice.

I used to go to the racetrack in Saratoga, New York, every summer with my family. We’d have our $10 or $12 to spend on bets and knew that once that was gone, that was it. So we chose wisely. Even as kids, we knew that yeah, you could walk away with many months of allowance money if you won on the 100:1 shot. We also knew we’d actually go home broke from the racetrack that day because the 100:1 shot never came in. So we passed on it. Given the power of the British in the 1700s, colonial America would have been doing great to even be considered a 100:1 shot. So for that many people to still roll the dice on themselves and go for a dream, you just know there had to be powerful motivators. I look at Thomas Paine’s words and rank his as one of those motivating forces to fight injustice.

I also realize they have a timeless quality. Yes, they applied to the circumstances that let to the Revolution. They also could be a rallying flag for battles against other injustices such as those against race, religion, sexual orientation. Many thought slavery was right. For centuries many just accepted that a long-standing institution was not wrong. These days people make derogatory jokes, or poke fun at certain religious or ethnic or sexual groups, and because “it’s always been that way” it’s assumed it’s okay. I realize Paine’s words do have a rallying quality to fight those battles, no matter the century.

It occurred to me, though, when I posted them, that most people read those words and perceive that the battle, the threat, the enemy is “out there.” The British, or the Jews, or the gays, or the Irish or the Muslims or whatever group is currently the problem. I wondered though if even Thomas Paine knew that his words were really a call to a larger battle.

I stood in front of the mirror and for a split second, caught a glimpse of the real enemy. The true battle, underlying all others, is within. Our beliefs. Biases. Our view that “I’m fine but it’s them” – “those people” – “they’re the problem.” Even the most open-minded liberal who supposedly loves everyone might be surprised to look in their hearts and see the real answers to questions like: Who did I judge today? Who did I decide I was better than? Who did I proclaim a failure because they did something I didn’t agree with so they must be worth less than me?

The reality is we all do it and we do it so often we don’t even notice it. We do it because we always have, and because “a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right.” But every once in a while, in the small second between thoughts of, “Well of course I’m better because I do this, and of course, they’re worse because they didn’t,” there’s that fleeting glimpse of the enemy. I see the enemy staring back at me in the mirror – the person whose heart is so sure it’s right, it’s hardened against anything else. The mind that is like a full glass of water – no room to add any more – so that no room exists to ask questions like, Am I really that good? Are “they” really that wrong? Or the most important question of all – “What if we’re all really the same, no better or worse than the other?”

No answers this morning. Just questions. When Voltaire said “Judge a man by his questions not by his answers,” maybe he was simply pointing out the importance of asking the questions. Questions can bring you to the mirror. The answers are perhaps less important. In fact, maybe the answers are the same for all of us. In the end, we all struggle with the same things because we’re all human. So it’s the questions, the stopping to ask, that matters. Deep down, we probably already know the answers, no matter who we are.

And by the way, don’t assume because I asked these questions, I won’t see that enemy staring back at me in the mirror tomorrow morning. I don’t think it ever leaves. I think it’s somebody that maybe just softens over time, and eventually might stare back at us and say “Yeah, I have been kind of a jerk, haven’t I?”

The Gift

February 3, 2008

“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.”

Voltaire