Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Why a Pro-Life Christian Is for President Obama

When people ask me why I am voting for Barack Obama in this election, I say, “Because I am a Christian and I vote my values.” I am pro-life, and when you line the two candidates up side by side, there’s an overwhelmingly clear choice. Which
candidate supports the life that is wriggling all over our public school’s playgrounds? Which candidate supports the lives of those who cannot afford health care, or who might be denied health care because of pre-existing conditions? Which candidate supports the lives of those on death row, who may or may not be wrongly accused? Which candidate supports the lives of our future descendants by pro-actively encouraging green, sustainable energy sources? True, Mitt Romney calls himself pro-life, but only on one issue: abortion. Given that we cannot truly know when life begins but that it’s pretty obvious that life abounds in the above situations (playground, hospitals, prisons, and—oh, yeah, the planet) I’d say Obama is the real pro-life candidate.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

How to Write a Novel

Disclaimer: This post is really just my scribbling about process. So skip this if you are looking for deep spiritual insights or cute stories about my kids and read this instead.
Damned if I know. Well, OK, I do, actually. I have written a novel, and really I have written two novels. The first one, Plastic Angel, was published by Scholastic in 2005, and it's a YA about two girls finding themselves (and each other)through music. The second, called The Big Idea, is about a folk-rock band who is also a family (write what you know...). I finished a draft--five years in the writing--in 2005 and my agent tried to sell it and could not. I got many kind and encouraging letters back from various publishing houses which I stuffed away somewhere and concentrated on my growing belly and eventual daughter, and the son who came two years later. Every year or so, I would revisit the pages, making small changes. Almost every day I have thought about the characters. It feels as though they are in prison. I want to set them free. But the task seemed so gargantuan that I needed to give myself a pep talk and a plan.

And so this fall, I threw The Big Idea into the midst of a group of five incredibly talented writers, my Weeding & Pruning group. Every other week, I submit a chapter from TBI and they go at it, telling me where they are thrown out of the story, what they like, where they want to know more. We talk about what we should be reading to strengthen and inform our own writing practice. I am writing new scenes. I feel reborn, and my characters are talking to me again.

What are my professional and artistic goals in life? I ask myself this question all the time.
-I want to write gorgeous inspiring funny vibrant books and CDs that will make people feel, smile, cry, relate, understand, feel connected to each other, and grow.
-I want to be able to spend more time writing and making music. (but I need to make a living, and right now, those pursuits don't pay the bills. So....)
-I want to make a greater income than I do now through sales of my books and CDs. So...
-I want to finish my ebook How to Be an Adult, sell it online, and thus learn how to self-publish
-I want to write The Big Idea so that it is as perfect, complete, absolute as a book can be. Then I want to publish it myself.
-I want the book to come with the CD of songs the characters write. I want the CD to be a recording of a band just like the Big Idea, which will necessarily be different from what Katryna and I can do. So I want to find these musicians, find a producer, executive produce that soundtrack.
-I want to be able to pay these musicians and producer, so I need money. Maybe I will do a Kickstarter campaign when the time comes.
-In order to do any of this, I need to re-write the book. I need to find times every day to write AND to read, for I am convinced that in order to write well one must read well.
-In order to this, I need some more discipline, self-control, grit and determination, and I need to schedule my time even more precisely than I do now.

The book I am reading now is Paul Tough's How Children Succeed. I am a little more than halfway through, and I am quite taken by the premise and ideas. In a nutshell, Tough argues, it's character that makes the difference between success (a happy, productive engaged life) and failure, and not cognitive skills. Moreover, failure--or rather, learning how to use failure--is as important as success.

Paul Tough: That’s an idea that I think was best expressed by Dominic Randolph, the head of the Riverdale Country School, an exclusive private school in the Bronx where they’re now doing some interesting experiments with teaching character. Here’s how he put it: "The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure. And in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything."

That idea resonated with a lot of readers. I don’t think it’s quite true that failure itself helps us succeed. In fact, repeated failures can be quite devastating to a child’s development. What I think is important on the road to success is learning to deal with failure, to manage adversity. That’s a skill that parents can certainly help their children develop--but so can teachers and coaches and mentors and neighbors and lots of other people.

I can't tell you how bummed I was every time I opened a letter from yet another publisher rejecting the book I had poured my heart into for over five years. A (bestselling) writer friend of mine said, "Just write a new book. That's what I did." And I was tempted to. I was also tempted to just say, "Well, I guess I can cross 'novelist' off my list," and focus instead on music, or non-fiction, or blogging, or the hardest and most important of my jobs: mothering. I have a full, rich life. Do I really need to be a novelist? Being a novelist is so all-consuming. It requires me to read and re-read "my own princess self" as Anne Lamott would say, encouraging my already frighteningly narcissistic tendencies. Who cares about characters who don't even exist? Pay attention to the sweet souls around my kitchen table!

Shorthand: in How Children Succeeed, Tough lists these character virtues as being the most critical:
-social intelligence

I took the grit test on the UPenn website and to my shock and disappointment scored about a 33%. My husband laughed when he heard this; to him I am nothing if not gritty, which may or may not be a good thing. But the questions really gave me pause. One was, "Do you finish what you start?" Another, "Are you easily distracted?"

Oops, just left this page to go check Facebook to see if my old high school buddy Wendy Gabriel had "friended" me yet.

So here's what I need to do.
1. Re-read the book.
2. Write new scenes
3. Re-read the book with the new scenes
4. Make changes accordingly
5. Read some other novels by writers I like
6. Read Suzzy Roche's novel Wayward Saints and Scott Alarik's novel Revival: A Folk Music Novel so I can see what my peers are doing with a similar subject.

In the end, finishing this novel--and by finish, I mean to my artistic satisfaction-- might be one of the most important things I do as a mother. Someone asked me recently what my goals are for my kids as little Suzuki violinists. Orchestra? A career with the Boston Pops or BSO? No. No. No. My goals for them are about the day-to-day. I want them to have music. That's it. And I know, as my sister Katryna would say, that while listening to music is powerful and can be transcendent, making music, the actual play, is always transforming. After we enter this particular communion, we come out different, changed. But having music by making music, by participating in this particular way, as a player, demands a daily practice--and grit, self-control and zest. So I will continue to practice with them, and I will model my own practice by working on my novel every day too.

Besides. The Big Idea needs a fiddle player.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

September Garden and Life is in the Practice

I look out at my garden these days and drink it in, knowing that by Saturday morning it will likely be gone. All that work in September. Worth every bit for these morning viewings from the couch in the new kitchen. St. Francis in the foreground, Kuan Yin in the back. But still, it breaks my heart that in a few days the pansies and impatiens will be gone forever, and the cone-flowers and hydrangea will wilt and brown.

Jay has had four violin lessons and one group class. It’s so strange to see how different two children can be. After years of telling friends that my kids were more alike than not, as violinists at least they show their proclivities. Elle’s bow-hold was right-on from the start; Jay grabs his fat marker in his fist and doesn’t comprehend that one does not wield it like a sword. We are supposed to be clapping out each of the six Twinkle variations to our new teacher’s words, but Jay wilts after one-half of one, where Elle dashed ahead, graduating from her Twinkles in less than nine months. I take his fists in my two hands and tap them together for claps, but he says, “Dis gives me a stomach ache.” And more painfully, “Dis is my body and I get to do what I want!” Who can argue with that?

In Paul Tough’s new bestseller How Children Succeed (which I am supposed to be reading but haven’t started yet, but I did listen to half the This American Life piece about it) he argues that the skills most necessary to teach kids are self-control, to learn to focus attention, and to delay gratification. The exercises our teacher gives us are all about these skills. We start with a bow in which Jay says, “Good morning” or “Good afternoon” or “Good evening,” depending on what time it is. We listen to the Suzuki Slow Twinkle CD and clap along, as I said above, and we listen to the Twinkles up to speed while he sways back and forth, his feet in playing position and his box violin on his shoulder. Then we do “Up Like a Rocket” with his pen-cum-bow and his bunny bow-hold. He wants to make up his own lyrics, but his teacher insists on hers. Delay gratification. He wants to make his pen go horizontally for “back and forth like a choo choo train,” but his teacher makes him keep it vertical. Self control. He ends each practice with “Thank you for the wonderful lesson,” and a bow. Nothing to complain about that. It’s teaching him good manners.

So why is this all so hard for me? Because he doesn’t always want to do any of it, and I feel foolish, frustrated, helpless, and most of all like a Tiger mom. A failed Tiger mom at that. We set up his foot chart (a 20″ cardboard with construction paper cut outs of his feet positions) and it can take 20 minutes for him to get in rest position and bow. Before he can do this, he has to fall on the floor a few times, balance on one foot and go, “Whoa! whoa!” and wave his arms around, ask for a drink, decide he has to pee, take off his shirt, roll up his pants legs, look out the window to see if Gulliver the Cat has come over, look out the window to see if his dad has biked home yet, set up his favorite cars to watch the practice, go get his ducky to watch the practice, count the marbles in his marble jar and then fall on the floor crying and insisting he hates violin and never wants to play again.

And we haven’t even picked up the actual violin.

Elle’s teacher Emily Greene says that whatever you are dealing with in terms of family dynamics will come out in the violin practice. As an author, and a teacher of writing, I notice that whatever is hard for me in life is hard for me on the page, and so it goes with my students. If a student doesn’t know herself, it is hard for her main character to be known. If a student is impatient and in a hurry, her scenes will skim by. If a student is fluent in the language of emotion but slow to take action, her scenes will be rich studies of humanity but lacking plot. And if a person cares more about being liked and well-thought of by teachers and other authority figures (but not little boys) and is the tiniest bit afraid of confrontation, violin practice sessions can turn into the Clash of the Titans.

Today I wised up. I looked at what we were being asked to do and decided to do exactly the minimum amount needed to make both of us feel like we had some kind of productive practice. Jay can’t make it through even one Twinkle, either in the swaying exercise or the clapping one. Our teacher doesn’t know this because I haven’t told her. Instead I have brought her practice sheets covered with stickers (and let’s be truthful: the stickers are for me, not Jay. I am the one who puts them on and gets a big hit from seeing them taking over the yellow lines of the paper.) But I will go in on Thursday and tell her we need to slow down, even though progress seems snail’s-paced to me as it is. And this morning, I got down a shaker of non-pareilles which I used to bribe him to do each item on our practice sheet. I had Jay bow, do one Twinkle variation for swaying, one for clapping and his "Up Like a Rocket." It all took five minutes. I hugged him and praised him and he bowed deeply. “Sank you for a wonderful lesson,” he murmured.

He may or may not continue with the violin. He may be a perennial or an annual. What matters is that he get this space each day, this moment of my full attention and love (which includes structure, boundaries, firmly holding the line) the way I have my moments with the pansies and St. Francis every morning.