Thursday, March 31, 2011

Escape Artist: How Not to Write a Book

First, have a deep and abiding passion for cheap motels.

Second, have an idea for a book that you are sure will save your family from imminent financial collapse and wrest you from the emotional despair of having never achieved your potential.

Next, decline an invitation to a fancy writer’s retreat at a villa in France and instead Google “cheap motels” in your own vicinity. Consider, for a minute, booking the gem with the online reviews that boast cockroaches, mold, vomit, stained sheets and the final, winning comment: “If this is the only place you can stay in this city, go to a different city.” Chicken out and book, instead, the motel with the broken hairdryer. Use the $50 visa gift card your mother gave you for Hanukkah to confirm the transaction. Invite your girlfriend, who shares your conviction that Calgon will never be enough to take you away. Mark the dates out in your calendar with a sharpie so that in order to change your plans you will have to go to the store and buy white out, which you refuse to do, due to your office supply addiction.

As you pack, reminisce over all the places you’ve ever slept—from damp sleeping bags in soggy tents to hostel bunks to the executive suite in the Opryland hotel where your family was once upgraded on a lark. Remember how you dumped a whole bottle of shampoo in the Jacuzzi and then sniffed the sheets of the king-sized bed whose last occupant was Jon Bon Jovi. Get called “Klassy with a K.” Honor that truth.

Sing “Rambling Fever” loudly in the car before abruptly pulling into the parking lot which you have clocked at 2.1 miles from your own driveway. Drive an extra .2 miles to pick up a menu from a Chinese restaurant so that you will be able to shave 8 seconds off your dinner order. Check into the motel as the clock strikes three. You don’t have a moment to lose. Great things, you know, happen in pressure cookers. Put your laptop on the desk next to the motel stationery and then put the motel stationery in your purse.

Draw the curtains and take in the stunning view of the Auto Zone. Remember that you are close enough to home that your mother could drive by and wave at you through the window. Redraw the curtains. Unpack your red silk robe, because when else are you going to wear it? Forget to wear it. Spend the next twenty-one hours in your track suit. In the bathroom, put the package of Folgers in the miniature coffee maker that is small enough to put in your purse. Don’t put it in your purse. Drink the bathroom coffee out of a Styrofoam cup like it’s an Italian espresso.

Plan the bulk of your time around snack breaks. Where else would Jarlsburg cheese scooped up with a pita chip taste so good? Between the cherries and the olives, open your laptop. Decide that instead of a book, what you really need to write is a book proposal. Write three zingy chapter titles and as a reward, take a field trip to the lobby for more coffee. Back in the room, turn the lights out and switch on the battery-operated candle you brought for ambience. Sit cross-legged with your girlfriend, each on your own queen sized bed. Expose your deepest secrets. Re-plan your life. Consult your tarot cards. Laugh your mascara off. Open the mini-fridge and debate over which box of chocolate to open first. Fall into a coma like sleep completely uninterrupted by your dog, your cat, your husband or your son.

In the morning, write frantically for 15 minutes before running down to the all you can eat Waffle Bar. Use three or four packets of syrup. At check out feel like you are turning in your wild side with your room key. Bid a teary farewell to your friend who you will see next Thursday. Make the most of your 2.1 mile drive home to reflect on all you have accomplished. Listen to your husband explain that after helping your cousin move and cleaning up the vomit of the dog who devoured what was left of your chocolate stash, he fielded a call from your ex-boyfriend who drunk-dialed you from Europe in the middle of the night. Thank him profusely.

Then, start planning next year’s trip. Make it a tradition.

Published in Belle, April 2011

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

My Q&A with Jon Scieszka

Q: You are slated to give a two hour talk about inspiring guys to read on Monday, April 4 at St. Christopher's, here in Richmond. What are one or two of the most important points you hope to get across?

A: I'm only going to talk for one hour, sign for another. And most of the talking hour will be jokes, so tell people to not be afraid. But my most basic advice to folks is to 1. expand their definition of what they call "reading' to include non-fiction, graphic novels, sci-fi, magazines, audio books . . ., and 2. to let guys be a part of choosing what they want to read. Reading is a very personal activity.

Q: What do you wish you had in the way of reading and writing when you were a kid?

A: I think I had plenty of great reading and writing when I was a kid. I didn't find much reading I enjoyed in elementary school. But outside of school I read the Hardy Boys, Landmark non-fiction books, Dr. Seuss, comic books, MAD magazine, and all sorts of random literature and not-literature around the house.

Q: What event or person made the difference in your life, allowing or encouraging you to become such a prolific and beloved writer?

A: My mom made all of the difference in the world. I was reading Dick and Jane and other equally strange and uninspiring stories in school as I was learning to read. But at home, my mom was the one reading Caps for Sale, To Think What I Saw on Mulberry Street, The Carrot Seed, Go Dog Go and other stories to me that made we want to hear more stories . . . and to ultimately tell some of my own.

Q: What advice do you have for children’s writers whose primary readers are boys?

A: I tell all writers to please not "write for boys" or "write for girls." Write the best story you can. Write what thrills, excites, moves you. Your readers, boys and girls, will find it.

Q: What did you learn about young readers during your two year stint as National Ambassador for Young People's Literature?

A: I knew young readers are smart, but in my first year as Ambassador, I discovered that young readers and writers are even smarter than I had suspected. The crazy range of stories that kids are reading and writing is phenomenal.

Q: What has your work on the NYC Board of Valencia 826 taught you about writing with young people?

A: The work that 826 does connects perfectly with what I learned from kids when I was a teacher -- kids will produce amazing work if there is a good reason to. And the reason at 826 is that kids get to make real books. You use correct spelling so someone else can read your story. You edit the story as many times as you need to so it is the best it can be. You are writing for a reason, not for an abstract assignment. And that is how and why the real world of reading and writing works.

Q: Do you have anything new and exciting in the works right now?

A: I'm in the middle of the crazy 4-book / multi media storytelling extravaganza that is SPACEHEADZ . . . and really enjoying writing with the kids who become Spaceheadz. And I'm also still messing around with stories for the younger guys with TRUCKTOWN.
But my newest, and most unformed project is a YA novel I'm just starting. I don't even know what it's about yet. I'm writing to find out.

Q: Is there anything else you might like to add?

A: With all of the crazy tech developments happening right now, this is a fun time to be a writer/storyteller. I think that kids becoming writers now will take us places we never imagined even 10 years ago. And I can't wait.

Jon Scieszka will speak and sign books at St. Christopher’s School on Monday, April 4 from 7-9 pm. Adults only, please. Tickets are free, but must be reserved at: Donations will benefit Read Aloud Virginia and Guys Read.

Visit him online at Jon Scieszka Worldwide.

Friday, March 25, 2011

She & I

She goes between countries. I go between grocery stores.

She travels the way I read: voraciously.

She can change money in any language; I can quote Lolita.

She runs. I eat french fries, cheesecake, double shot lattes.

When we were 16 that she told me she had libraries inside her. I felt that I had at most a pamphlet, maybe a few books.

She knows exactly how to care for her hair, spending hundreds of dollars on fine, organic products, sharing them with me in special, miniature glass jars.

I float between Hair Cutteries, searching, dissatisfied, never going to the same place twice as if I've just been to a Cathouse. As if I'll be seen.

She loves deep and fast and often. I love slow and unspectacularly, but in an endless, enduring kind of way.

She has a sister. I feel like they both belong to me.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

My House, My Self?

I have recently made a resolution, not to perfect my house, but to stop apologizing for its many imperfections. I hate it when anyone else does, especially when their house turns out to actually be immaculate, but, say, with a child’s puzzle splayed out charmingly atop a freshly vacuumed carpet. The effect is the same as a skinny woman apologizing for eating a French fry—it just makes everyone involved feel terrible.

Because I once lived in a tool shed in Arkansas for a few months in my early twenties, I feel I can say on full authority that our house is “Very Arkansas.” But even with the half painted walls, the haphazard shutters, the backyard full of nearly functional machinery and the hole in the fence large enough for our neighbor’s dogs to climb through, our house does boast a certain resourcefulness and creativity that I found in concentrated supply in the tool shed’s surrounding grounds. In the spirit of Macgyver, my husband can restore things to usefulness that, had I been single, would have inspired me to move out. Like plugging our broken bathtub drain with a rubber ball, for instance.

Looking back, “in cleanliness and in filth” should have been part of our marriage vows, directly following “for richer or for poorer,” because over time, we have wrestled with and accepted varying degrees of all four. Whenever I point out one of my husband’s rat’s nests of wires, tools and dirty socks beneath his desk he has but to look in the direction of my overflowing piles of photo albums, books, journals and junk mail to settle the score. As they say, “you spot it, you got it,” and oh, how I’ve got it. I envy my friends who are naturally inclined to pick up a scrub brush to battle their grief, stress or anxiety. For me, when anything hits the fan, I pick up a pen, the phone, a book or a deluxe sized package of Little Debbies. I talk, eat, read and write my way through my troubles, but rarely, if ever, do I put on rubber gloves and scour them away.

I love it though, when my friends take trips to third world countries, because even before I see their pictures of the dirt-smeared children or hear their livestock-on-the-bus stories, I am reminded of how filthy rich we actually are, even on days when our bank deposits are in increments of one.

My son started kindergarten this year and, upon inviting new friends over for play dates rather than thinking, “Oh boy, my son is making friends!” I braced myself with, “Oh dear God! Another West End mom is going to see my house!” But, I tell myself, kids like spaces in which they feel free to make a big, artistic mess and that the crayon art preserved like a caveman’s buffalos on the walls promotes a certain creativity that sterility might stifle. And, by the sheer volume of art produced in our house, so far this seems true.

I keep a reminder from my 2010 “Daily Bitch” calendar on my fridge: “A clean house is a sign of a wasted life.” It at least partially balances out the other idea- that the state of one’s house is an outward reflection of one’s inner life. Because that is frightening. If it’s true, my inner life probably needs a power-washer and a full time maid. On the other hand, the contents of my inner life--- the sloppiest, the ugliest, the most real and the most beautiful-- are always available for my own inspection, and for the inspection of those I invite in, as well. And for this, I am not sorry at all.

Belle, March 2011