Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Basic Bitch

The Basic Bitch is having an internet moment.

It's a criticism leveled at women and women only. One we're supposed to be cool enough to laugh about because, you know, everyone's just kidding and geez why do we have to take things so seriously!?!

 Being "Basic", in case you haven't heard, is based on female consumption choices. And while the trope to the right is slightly amusing, it also strikes a nerve with me because it's one more mainstream weapon in the mass artillery that pits woman against woman.

The typical Basic Bitch is someone with long hair, at least shoulder length. She gets excited about Pumpkin Spice Latte season. That's a consistent theme, as is yoga. Sometimes she wears Uggs and often she's blonde. It's entirely possible she still sleeps in her sorority letters t-shirt that she pairs with jewel tone underwear from Victoria's Secret.

To me the Basic Bitch is the opposite of the Cool Girl as defined by Gillian Flynn in Gone Girl.
Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.
Gillian Flynn's character goes on to say the problem with the Cool Girl is she doesn't exist. She's a trope. A creation no different than the Rules Girls who wait two days (I think, although I'm not entirely sure, having never been good at following any rules) to return phone calls.

My biggest problem with all these definitions foisted upon the female existence is their divide and conquer mentality. It's like high school on the internet.

The categories actively encourage us to dismiss women who makes choices that aren't as cool as ours. As in "OMG, she's so Basic! Why even bother?" But, hold on, I can still wrinkle my nose at the Cool Girl because, really, don't all her shenanigans amount to just trying too hard? Don't even get me started on those Rules Girls. They're so disingenuous!

These definitions allow us to write each other off while simultaneously reconfirming our superiority. Is that healthy? Is that really what people need to walk through this world? And isn't the need to shove womankind into prepackaged categories, well, a little Basic in and of itself?

As for me, I indulge in my love of yoga, food on sticks and although sometimes I don't return phone calls, it's usually just because I had a busy day.

Most of the women I know defy easy categorization. They're varied, unique and interesting in a way that has nothing to do with how they interact with consumer culture and everything to do with how they think.

I suppose if I wanted to, I could slap a label on the women I meet based on their love of lattes, reproductive decisions or predilection for poker, but then the loss would truly be mine.

And given all I have to gain from the treasure trove that is womankind, that's not a loss I'm willing to take.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Blogging Quandry

Last week I had lunch with a friend who knows social media in and out. Over salads (because that's what women of our age eat at lunch) she told me I HAVE to keep blogging.

"But it's so time-consuming. Isn't Twitter just as effective I asked?"

"Nope, you've gotta keep up with the blog."

She was so definitive that I spent the week thinking about why I've been shying away from blogging and whether there's a fix for the things that have pushed me away from it. Here are the issues I came up with.

1. Time suck.

Blogging is a HUGE commitment. Writing the piece. Editing it. Visiting your friend's blogs. Reading. Commenting. Tweeting links. I used to manage this by putting a time limit on myself. After an hour of social media I was done. Maybe I should go back to that.

2. The Promotional Posts.

Okay, here it is. I love supporting other writers, but I have little to say about blog posts that are perpetually tuned to the all-promotion-all-the-time channel. I know it's supportive to stop by and say, "Hey, great cover!!" but sometimes I feel like I'm commenting on random baby photos. Of course your kid is cute, but as writers, is this the best use of anyone's time? Isn't there some other way to build a supportive community? These aren't rhetorical questions. I really don't know. What do the rest of you think?

3. Voice.

My blog has a chatty feel. It's me-lite with a focus on daily events, writing and whatever happens to strike my fancy. My books are dark. They delve into places that aren't comfortable. I love those topics and that kind of writing. Sometimes I worry my cocktail party conversation style writing for this blog will dilute my fiction voice. Or maybe it's good to not cling to one voice or style like a blankie. Again, I don't really know and would love to hear your thoughts on the subject.

So there they are. My three big blogging issues.

The one thing I know for certain is I miss my cyber-friends when I go away. The people who produce interesting and quality content that makes me certain we would never run out of things to say in real life...you know who you are! I miss you!!

So maybe that's my answer. Blogging is part social media and part building substantial connections that I treasure as much as I do my life and blood friends.

What do you think? Do you struggle with any of the above issues and if so, how have you resolved them?

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Goal of Writing

It's September and I'm editing.

Although I recently realized what I'm doing is actually called revising. It's that point in the manuscript where I take the comments of beta readers and Agent Emily and try to incorporate them into a cohesive vision for this book.

It's a lot of redrafting. Moving things around. Changing the direction of certain scenes and characters. At the end of twenty pages my brain feels broken.

This weekend I was talking about writing with my kids. "Do you think it's possible you could write a book that EVERYONE would love?" my daughter asked.

"If EVERYONE loved it, it would probably be kind of a boring book," I told her.

"So what's your goal when you write?"

It's the kind of question I would ordinarily have had to think about, but for some reason, maybe because it was a sunny September morning, we were well-fueled by coffee (me) and doughnuts (them), my answer was immediate.

"I have three goals," I told her.

"The first goal is to keep the reader interested. The second is to create a sense of beauty for the reader. Either in the way the words come together or in the images it builds in their mind. The last one is to give voice to either an emotion or experience that is felt, but unarticulated."

In retrospect, it occurs to me these aren't necessarily the goals I had when I started writing. I'm not sure I had goals at all, other than finishing that first novel. And of course, I now understand that novels one through six all helped build my goals for novel seven.

What are your goals when you write? Are they in constant evolution or have they been a consistent touchstone for whatever you write?

And given the lofty nature of my own goals...please wish me luck in finishing this revision! I think I might need it!!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Summertime Madness

To quote The Chainsmokers, #SELFIE song, "It's not even summer. Why does the DJ keep playing, "Summertime Sadness?"

Oh wait, pause, it is summer! Just not here. Not yet. Not until Wednesday. Tomorrow!

Tomorrow afternoon we're headed out on a world adventure. Just the three of us...which is a first for me. Usually my husband comes along on our international explorations, but this summer he's going to pop in and out like our family is a sit-com and he has a repeat guest spot.

We're the Love Boat and he's Carol Channing.

In my usual way, methodical and levelheaded, on Saturday it occurred to me I hadn't done any research on our trip aside from making sure we have roofs over our head and seats on an airplane. It also occurred to me there might be *gasp* lines and Parisians might not take kindly to my joie de vivre when presented in the form of no reservations and impatient children. This realization set off a marathon round of internet research and booking, the kind I suspect others might do more than four days in advance of their departure.

That evening I overheard my son discussing our upcoming trip with a friend. "Dude," he said. "I'm going to France next week and there's going to be..."

He paused and in that pause my mind inserted Picasso, Eiffel Tour, Monet, pain au chocolat.

"Bunkbeds!" he finished. "I've got dibs on the top."

So yeah, everyone's priorities are a bit different.

We will definitely go to the Louvre and afterwards there will be a visit to the in-ground trampolines in the park outside. Castles will be visited, as will swimming pools. I made Viking ponies plans in Iceland and located an archery pitch in case we're all in the mood to channel our inner Katniss. My plan is to balance culture with healthy servings of pastries.

As for blogging, that's going to have to wait until we return.  Meanwhile, you can always follow me on Twitter @JohannaGarth, Google+ or Facebook, where I'm sure I won't be able to resist uploading the occasional photo accessorized with commentary.

Have a wonderful summer and I'll be back here with fresh perspective sometime in mid-August.


Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A Mouse Tale

Yesterday morning started like lots of other mornings. Breakfast prepared, school lunches underway. Me, trying to respond to my son's nonstop stream of morning chatter.

Everything took a sudden right turn when...no wait, scratch that, we drove off the bridge and crashed fifty feet into the water when I happened to leave the kitchen and glance behind me.

THERE IT WAS!!!

Under the baseboard of my kitchen was an extremely large mouse. Dead!! Tail, limp. Fur, brown.

I responded like any other reasonable woman of my age, which is to say I started gasping for air and making odd little moaning noises.

"You okay, Mom?" asked my son, who still hadn't spotted it?

"I'm okay, I'm okay." This was said more to convince myself than him.

My daughter appeared on the scene. The mouse situation was revealed.

"I'll pay you guys two dollars each to sweep it into a dust pan and take it outside," I told them.

My daughter, sensing opportunity for negotiation, raised an eyebrow. "Two dollars, mom? Really?"

"Ten," I said, because by this time it was clear I was unable to walk back into the kitchen.

"Each?"

"Yes, each. Just get rid of it."

They went at it with the broom and dustpan. This is where things took a turn for the worse. The mouse, it turns out, was only pretending to be dead. I know this because I heard cries of "It's moving," from the kitchen, while I was curled up in a fetal position on my bed.

My friend, who was staying as a houseguest, came downstairs. "I'll take care of it," she said. She walked into the kitchen with a swagger. Then turned around a moment later, retreated to the dining room and put her head between her knees.

"I thought I could do it," she said.

"Don't feel bad," I said from my new spot on top of the dining room table.

"It was just so brown and big," she said. "I was picturing it as one of those little white lab mice."

"You're mousist?" I asked.

I think she might have glared at me, but it was hard to tell because her head was back between her knees.

My husband, shockingly, informed me he would not leave his meetings to come home and deal with the mouse. By that point it had returned to its semi-dead state so we convinced my son to cover it with newspaper and vacated the kitchen.

By seven o'clock in the evening the mouse had pulled itself together enough to disappear underneath the refrigerator and possibly into the walls.

We're not quite sure where it went. Out of sight, out of mind. Here's hoping it made it back to the great outdoors so that this summer won't unfold to the olfactory strains of Eau de Mouse emanating from the kitchen.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Done

As in I just sent this year's book off to my agent.

The Family Warr

I'm alternating between being insanely proud of it and terrified she'll hate it. Or it's internally flawed in ways I missed. Maybe it's a good piece of writing that somehow misses the mark. Or maybe editors will like it, but not want to take a chance on it. Or maybe it's a bad piece of writing that hits the mark, but is nowhere close to being where it needs to be. Or maybe the market isn't ready for the subject matter. Lots of varieties on the theme of generalized angst.

When I tell people I've finished a book they congratulate me. And I try to be graceful about accepting their congratulations because it IS a big deal, however easy it is to lose sight of that given all the angsty thoughts above.

Maybe this book makes me feel particularly insecure because it's so different than anything else I've written. It's bigger and broader, which leaves me feeling exposed almost like wearing a particularly skimpy bikini to the mall.

In case you're wondering, here's my working version of the book's blurb. I'm sure it'll go through many, many revisions, but it's enough to give you an initial glimpse of my newest book baby.


The Family Warr

In a decaying Portland mansion, Henry Warr, marginalized heir to the Warr Pharmaceutical fortune, writes his groundbreaking series on Environmental Philosophy while his wife Willow, raises their four children on a diet of survivalist instinct and her own underappreciated art.
 
When Henry announces he’s dying and the funds in the Warr Family Trust have dwindled to almost nothing, his third daughter, the neglected and unlovely Desdemona Warr, attempts to unravel certain inconsistencies against the clock of her father’s disease.
 
Why would the great Henry Warr, known for unapologetically living life on his terms and a long time champion of Oregon’s assisted suicide provisions choose to die in accordance with the strictly drafted provisions of  the, now empty, Warr Family Trust?
Her questions lead her on a whirlwind tour of the seamy underbelly of Portland’s hipster culture, finally delivering her at The Farm, the first off the grid, completely sustainable marijuana farm built as a testament to the power of her father’s writings. The answers she finds challenge her nascent ideas about family, love and the sacrifices inherent in both.
 
 

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

#YesAllWomen

Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them. -Margaret Atwood

This was the quote that ran through my head all last weekend, assisted by Twitter, reinforced by The Atlantic and my Facebook feed.

Another news story of misogynistic violence followed by responses like the one below. I wish I could say this tweet shocked me, but even in all its callousness, it was predictable. As was the clench in my jaw and wave of nausea in my stomach when I read it. 

 
Every time another news story breaks, outlining the myriad ways men abuse women (shooting sprees, prisoners, abduction, rape, slaves, chained to the wall) my first protectionist instinct is to hide my daughter.
 
I want to school her in fear and wrap her up in things that will keep her invisible. Marry her off young, to be protected by a man, of course and teach her to be a silent little thing who doesn't ever draw attention to herself.
 
But if you knew my daughter, you'd laugh at me. None of that will happen. And you probably already know I would never really want that.
 
During and after September 11, 2001, I was living in New York City. After those towers fell and our world changed forever, we were constantly reminded to go on with our lives. Not to let the terrorists win. I think about that now because the acts of the gunman (no, I won't say his name and give him yet another link on any kind of media) are another form of terrorism. Terrorism against womankind. And terrorism against the people who love womankind.
 
Instead of hiding my daughter and teaching her the language of fear, I'll continue to expect her to be outspoken, opinionated and reject people who believe she should be anything else. Because, clearly, it's a battlefield out there and we all have to do our part to destroy the environment in which this kind of terrorism breeds and grows strong.


Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A Dark and Rainy Night

Where do you get your ideas?

Last week brought flash flood warnings, but I have a twelve year old. The flash flood of emotion indoors felt more lightning sharp and dangerous than the watery version, so I decided to go for a walk.

The Woods of McLean are close to our house. I'm sure it has another name, but that's my name for it, despite being teased that it sounds like I'm going to a shopping mall.

The Woods of McLean is a twisty well-maintained path through a wooded area. It has little bridges, lots of dog-walkers and moms' with strollers. It's much like, I suppose, any other park in suburbia. It's where I run, where inspiration strikes and where sometimes I pause to marvel at the 80s era fitness test equipment scattered at regular intervals throughout the woods.

On that evening, it wasn't really my intention to visit the Woods of McLean. It's just sort of where I ended up. Because it had stopped raining, I hedged my bets and followed the path. Underneath the canopy of trees it was deserted. And dark. Not really, really dark, but dramatically lit; wooded mood lighting for Bad Things.

In those dark woods lit for bad things, I imagined a murder. Mine! A crime of opportunity committed while everyone was warm and dry in their houses, safe from the high water. Which led to imagining that high water. What if a flash flood occurred and swept me underneath one of those bridges?

I pictured a four year old boy in one of the houses on the edge of the woods, looking out from the picture window of his living room.

"Mommy," he would say. "I think a saw a person floating in the water."

"We've talked about you making up stories," she would respond.

"No, I saw someone. I promise!" But she would already be leading him away, to dinner, bath time and bedtime. The comfort of routine. My corpse would be found the next day. The boy would spend his life trying to understand the little moments upon which fate hinges.

A piece of fabric was hanging from a branch underneath a bridge and I wondered if it had once belonged to the murderer stalking me through the Woods of McLean. Maybe he'd been lying in wait and been swept away, suffered an ironic death dealt by the high waters of a flash flood.

I turned around quickly like something being hunted, expecting to see him crawling out of the water and screamed (yes, out loud) at the sight of a shadowy human-shaped tree trunk.

And then I came to the edge of the Woods of McLean. The canopy parted and there was a crack in the clouds that made everything look sunny and bright. I skipped home feeling lucky to have avoided my million dark fates and as I did, I realized the answer to that question so often asked of writers.

The question is not where I get my ideas. It's how will I ever do justice to them all. And maybe, also, a keen curiosity about what other people are thinking. If their minds aren't engaged in making up stories, what is it that makes them look so far away?

And of course, the more I try to answer that question, the more ideas I'll have clamoring to be written down.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Writers, Rejection and Inspiration.

Last week I had the good luck to see my friend and writer, Jenny Milchman speak at a bookstore along with her friend and writer, Carla Buckley.


The format was loose and lovely. The readings left us wanting more. And the discussion, as it so often does in writer circles focused on the question that is becoming THE question of this century.

Indie vs. traditional.

Maybe it's a backlash to one-touch uploads that allow anyone with writing ambitions to have their books on Amazon in a matter of days, but I've seen (on social media) and heard (at book events) more and more authors who counsel patience.

Jenny wrote 11 novels prior to getting her first book published. Carla wrote multiple books as well. They both spoke of that time, in the pre-publication slog, as the dark days.

And yet, perseverance brought them both, finally, to book deals with Random House. Their other common factor was how deeply they believed those earlier books represented their best work, and yet, how happy they were those earlier books weren't published. Rejection made them dig deeper. Work harder. Push through to their best writing.

There's a lesson to be learned there. And, in our fast food, instagram, tweet-it-now society, it's not a popular one.

Maybe, the message in rejection isn't that you should go the self-publishing route. Nor do I believe the message is you should give up on your writer dreams, that you lack talent, skill or the ability to tell a story.

Maybe, it's just that you need to refine your skill. Aim higher. Not because you're trying to jump through publishing hoops, but because you really can do better.

That's a message I'm taking to heart.

Last year's book, The Virtual Life of Maisy Parker, is still out on submission. Last year, I was certain that book represented the best of my writing. This year, I'm certain the best of my writing can be found in my current project.

I know and have enjoyed lots of amazing work available in the Indie world, but right now, I'm holding out for a traditional path, if for no other reason than I think it will force me to do my best work.

Meanwhile, I'll be enjoying the stories told in Ruin Falls and The Deepest Secret and holding on to the inspiration provided by their amazing authors.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Conscious Decompress

Brigid Schulte's new book, Overwhelmed, studies our culture of busy. The book also happens to be a thorough investigation of a kind of culture I know firsthand.

One that involves shuttling kids from soccer games to scout meetings. Squeezing grocery shopping in post-run Sunday, before religious obligations, making sure you have time to grab something to eat before half of the family is due to volunteer to help stock the homeless shelter pantry from 2-4.

Track practice starts at 3:45, but it's okay if the kids miss the first fifteen minutes because the homeless shelter is such a good cause and dropping the kids at track means you have twenty minutes to prep dinner, do a load of laundry run back and get them before you all sit down to the family dinner that research shows plays a crucial role in determining the future success of your offspring. 

In the subtext of the previous paragraph, something is hidden that I've suspected for a while.

Busy is a status symbol.

Ms. Schulte's book, Overwhelmed, points out that at some point, busyness became a symbol of high social status, a testament to our personal importance and something viewed as downright glamorous.

It's nice to hear someone come out and say it.

It also makes me wonder, given the research showing we're at our least effective when we feel pressed for time, that this sensation actually shrinks our prefrontal cortex, if it's not a status symbol that's headed the way of the suntan.

Remember the eighties? When golden brown skin, the darker, the better symbolized the financial ability to fund trips to sunny climes and the free time to enjoy them? That was before melanoma became epidemic and men and women alike realized the real key to youth wasn't so much La Mer as it was avoiding le soleil.

Maybe being ridiculously busy is destined to be the golden suntan of the first part of this century.

All I know is lately our weekends have a lot more free time. I'm consciously choosing not to sign my kids up for so many activities. The dinner parties I used to throw on a regular basis have dwindled in both size and frequency. And family dinner, it's easy to prepare and enjoy when I have all afternoon.

Sometimes we're a little bored, but then we discover long forgotten board games, books and crafty projects gifted to us and shoved in a closet. When given the opportunity, it's amazing how good we are at occupying our time or, you know, sometimes just napping.

Maybe the next status symbol to trend will be that of the Conscious Decompress. Look for a rise in Google status's set to 'Dawdling'.

We'll be the well-rested, unbusy few who inspire the anti-time management movement and a whole new series of non-fiction books that giving precise instructions on how to properly achieve our glamorous empty- calendar lifestyle.

Who's in?

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Nirvana Phase

An alternate Nirvana :)
I'm at that Nirvana place in my current WIP.

From what I've gleaned from fellow writers, the writing process has a common arch. There's the initial beginning struggle when the world you're creating is tenuous at best.

While I've heard some people rhapsodize about that phase, for me it's the hardest part of the creative process. The place where I have to set defined word goals in order to keep my book from languishing in the land of almosts and could have beens.

The first draft is followed directly by the beastly first edit. The first time I re-read my words and take a fresh look at the people I've been living with on the page, day in and day out. The first draft is ALWAYS, without fail, cringeworthy!!

Somewhere between the first and second edit the book starts to settle in, become something real. That's my favorite writing place. It's also when the book becomes a home away from home. It's a place I can go for refuge. It doesn't matter if my Tweenpod is slamming doors or the men two tables over are talking about politics at a volume that's disturbing everyone in the coffee shop, I can jump into my creation and disappear for hours.

That's where I am right now. There's pleasure in the process. I look at my watch and realize hours have slipped away and I've been inadvertently muttering the words I'm writing out loud, in public, like a crazy lady in the corner on her laptop.

My characters might be dark. Bad things might happen in the world I created. Sad things too, but it still becomes a place I crave, a treasured addiction like chocolate or coffee.

Even though the end of this book has yet to be written, it's in sight. If I stretch out long with my mental fingers I can even feel it. This should be good news, but I have to admit it's exhilaration mixed with the bittersweet knowledge that soon (sooner than I'm ready for it to happen) it'll be time to move out of the safety of this world and into the awkward birth and creation phase of the next one.

Lucky for me I know the Nirvana phase exists and will be there waiting for me with each subsequent book.

What about you? Do you get a little sad when you're in the homestretch of your work in progress?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Tweenpod, Defined

The other morning I had to Google Tribbles. When the furry little creatures popped up on my screen I realized they look a lot like a Pygmy Puff. For those of you not in the know, Pygmy Puffs are a favorite pet of house Hufflepuff as envisioned by J.K. Rowling.

It just so happens I know a LOT about Pygmy Puffs.

My daughter is a longtime fan. We have a couple Pygmy Puffs lying around the house, thankfully they don't multiply like Tribbles, but what struck me as I was mentally comparing Tribbles and Pygmy Puffs is I now  have a Tweenpod in the house.

Tweenpod, a phrase coined by my daughter circa 3rd grade, is a teenage Pygmy Puff. During that period of my parental history I was routinely referred to as Mama Pygmy Puff. Maybe, my haste to put my Mama Pygmy Puff years behind me was part of the reason it took me so long to spot my own legitimate Tweenpod Pygmy Puff.

In case you're wondering if you have one of your own, here are my top five signs and helpful hints for spotting and dealing with a Tweenpod.


1. Tweenpods are often found behind locked bedroom doors. They enjoy communicating this way. Try not to raise your voice. This will only anger your Tweenpod.

2. Tweenpods enjoy conversation with you. They want to cuddle with you and sit close to you on the couch. They want to know what you're reading and why. They also want to be left alone. They need their space and they need it NOW! Failure to correctly intuit your Tweenpods mood will result in their hibernation back behind locked doors.

3. Do not say the following words around your Tweenpod. "Breast" "Period" "SexEd" "Crush" You might think saying these words in a different context, such as 'Who'd like the chicken breast?' is fine.

You are incorrect.

Any use of the above words will cause your pink Tweenpod to turn red and your purple Tweenpod to develop an interesting shade of blue.

4. No matter how much food your purchase for your Tweenpod, you'll need more. Double all recipes. Don't be alarmed when your Tweenpod devours your leftovers. Let them. They don't bite. Not usually.

5. Tweenpods don't like scenes.

Scenes are broadly defined. Your unwelcome presence in a room is occasionally tantamount to a scene. Scenes are less broadly defined in other contexts. Slamming doors, growling or cutting remarks are not scenes when performed by your Tweenpod. They are all nonverbal methods your Tweenpod uses to communicate your lack of understanding about their world.


Even though Tweenpods are often unpredictable, they're also often sociable, intelligent, enthusiastic and responsive to logic.

The best thing about Tweenpods is every so often you get a glimpse of the full grown Pygmy Puff they'll be in just a few short years. And that, truly is a treat.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Reading as Broccoli For the Mind.

How to get kids to read?

It's the subject of at least a gazillion internet articles and an ongoing topic of preference for educators, policymakers and politicians of all stripes.

Most writers love to read. I'm no exception to that generalization, so you can imagine my discomfort at discovering my children don't necessarily share my passion for the printed word.

That being said, I've come to realize my childrens' world bears almost no resemblance to the one where I grew up.

I was the only child of back-to-the-land ex-hippies living in a rural area without television. Reading wasn't a chore, it was my savior. Better yet, my parents didn't keep tabs on what I read. Stephen King in fifth grade? Sure, why not. The Blue Book of Fairies the next week? That worked too. I read indiscriminately, voraciously and without censorship.

My kids, however, live in a world filled with distractions. They have television, video games and a neighborhood filled with children. There are after-school activities, pets, texting with grandma, instruments to practice and cookies to sell.

Still, despite what seems like the constant forward motion of our lives, the occasional silence will settle upon our house and someone will fling themselves bodily upon me wailing the lament of children throughout time. "I'm sooooo bored. What should I do?"

It dawned on me lately that busy schedules might not be the only thing getting between my kids and their love of reading.

Instead of a simple pastime, something to do to relieve the, sometimes suffocating, boredom of childhood, the rhetoric which now accompanies the act of reading has transformed it into something to be measured out in doses and prescribed like a particularly untasty medicine.

The conversations I hear about reading revolve around quantity (30 minutes a night), leveled readers, award winning books and novels chosen on behalf of our children, after consultation with a trusted librarian. 

All this goes a little way towards explaining why, when we arrive at the library, my children tag-a-long after me asking questions like "Is it okay if I just read a graphic novel? Does it have to be a Newberry Award winner? Can I pick a book from the little kids' section?"

They've picked up on the societal message that reading is like working out. No pain, no gain.

My newest rules about reading are as follows:

You have to pick your own book.

The book should be interesting.

"Check out a lot, as much as you want," I tell them, "If you don't like it, don't finish it. Read what you love."

I'd like to think my new rules are having their intended effect. From Sunday evening to Friday after school, screens go off. There are still plenty of distractions, but more and more the plaintive whine of "I'm bored" is being replaced by the silence of an entire household reading, not because it's mandated, prescribed or assigned, but because it's a pleasurable way to pass the time.



Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Uncomfortable Nature of Art

The most recent episode of 60 Minutes caught my attention.

It was about an art forger named Wolfgang Bertracchi who paints in the style of well-known artists, not forging existing pieces, but creating new ones that the artist's might have painted if they were still alive.

The focus of the television piece was on the crime: the way it was committed, the use of materials and the backstory, but what fascinates me more than the crime is the way it calls into question our notions of art and authenticity.

Bertracchi's paintings hang in museums. They're good enough to fool art critics and collectors alike. And, most importantly, they are original works, painted in the style of the artist, but not copying another piece already in existence.

There's no question Bertracchi's talented, genius isn't a stretch for someone who can successfully paint in the style of so many varied artists and pass those pieces off as the real thing. Because they're his own creation, they ARE the real thing. But the dividing line, in my mind, between original work and forgery is that he signed other artist's names.

This makes for lots of tricky questions about the art world, specifically, and what we consider great art, in general.

The 60 Minutes pieces made me think about J.K. Rowling's recent crime fiction venture, published under the pen name Robert Galbraith. According to an article in the Huffington Post, The Cuckoo's Calling sold about 1500 copies until it's true authorship was revealed. Sales then suddenly jumped 150%.

The book didn't suddenly get better.

The only thing that changed was it became a name brand.
Recognizable.
Identifiable.
Not so different than a painting that's branded by the name Rembrandt or Cezanne.

Of course, J.K. Rowling already had the name to push her detective novel to higher sales. She worked hard for that name, earned it and it's hers to use. Both artists created original pieces of art.
Both artists' works have been recognized as masterpieces, celebrated in museums, feted by publishing.

The crucial difference is one artist created a legitimate name for herself that is now shorthand for "Really Amazing Book" while the other artist took advantage of established names that were previously established as shorthand for "Really Amazing Painting".

This territory between Bertracchi's forgeries and Rowling's unveiling of her authorship highlights the way we are quick to use name brand artists to classify certain work as great while others slip by in virtual anonymity.

Which brings me back to the nebulous nature of art.

No matter how hard we try to define art, measure its circumference and calculate it's area with geometric precision, it's still undefinable. The same artist has the ability to create great pieces and pieces that, given a different provenance, might lurch along in the realm of middle-tier.

The subtlety of artistic expression doesn't follow a corporate model, which is troublesome for the publishers and galleries that rely upon art to pay the bills.

In the end, I believe it's the need to define and calculate artist's work that is partially responsible for Bertracchi's success. Instead of uncertainty, he sold a name brand and for an extended period of time, everyone bought it. In much the same way as Rowling's readership jumped the minute she revealed her authorship.

It makes me wonder what we would discover if art wasn't pre-selected for us by the people who run museums, publishing houses and the entertainment industry. What kind of messy, unexpected creativity is out there right now, waiting to be discovered? The kind of thing that is undefinable, yet still undeniably great art.


Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Romantic Shift of a Word

Last week, in a slightly manic bout of children and husband on the west coast energy, I drove into the city on a chilly Friday night to have dinner with a bunch of strangers.

And, to my delight and surprise, it was FUN!

Maybe it's because they were writers. Cartoonists, copywriters, fantasy and poets. Creative people with creative appetites for conversation and food; our age ranges spanned from twenty-something to sixty-something.

Which of course, because we're writers, gave us an idea.  We would each write about what romance means to us; little essays informed by our generational differences.

If you'd asked me what romance meant when I was in my twenties I would have given you flowery descriptions; allusions of being whisked away to somewhere warm with the waves crashing below my window like a metaphor for the amazing sex I would have been too shy to describe.

There would have been exotic fruit, laughter, lots of champagne and eye contact. I would have tried and failed to put into words the feeling of giddiness that's like spinning in circles until you collapse in a giggling heap on the floor. 

After my children were born my vision of romance shifted, as though each birth was a mini-earthquake with the power to shake up and redefine language.

Romance was my husband getting up at 5:00 in the morning when the babies cried so I could sleep in.

It was dinners eaten at child-friendly hours so we could all be together. Looks of wonderment exchanged across the table over the heads of laughing toddlers. The question passing back and forth between the adults in the room, how is it possible that we created a place where our hearts are so full?

Lately, I've realized my definition of romance has morphed again. This time the shift has been slower, but like global warming, its effects can already be felt.

My notions of romance have become intertwined with the concepts of freedom and deep understanding born from quiet scrutiny.

The ability to say and do anything without fear of being judged. To have someone who is both a friend and the calm repository for all my wacky ideas. A person who makes me laugh while I'm brushing my teeth and, who knows me well enough to convince me to slow down, leave the lights off, look out the window at the setting sun while we share our secrets and feel grateful that somehow, through the teeming masses of humanity, we found each other.

Maybe the true magic of romance is located in its ability to shift and glide, changing slightly through each decade until, like a good bottle of wine, it becomes a thing that is perfectly aged.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Arctic Blast Freezes Writing

I promised to write a follow up to the saddest day, in which our dear hamster expired, but then it snowed.

And snowed some more.

And school was cancelled.

And cancelled some more.

It's funny how the advent of a snow storm causes an inverse relationship on the delight spectrum Chez Garth.

Snow is a BIG DEAL to my kids. Contrary to popular belief, it doesn't snow much in Portland. Hardly at all, in fact. Which is why snow is really, really exciting.

Time to work, however, is a BIG DEAL to me. Hence the almost tears when the third snow day in a row was announced.

Even though it feels like I've barely gotten back to work since the holiday's, I decided that maybe my kids could use a break from front yard snow, the new hamster (Yes. We got one. She's adorable) and video games.

I lucked onto two sleds, not snapped up by the craze of likeminded housebound peoples, and tramped across a field to a perfect snowy hill.

We spent all morning doing runs. Our cheeks turned bright pink and we stopped snapping at each other like animals trapped in a cage that's one size too small.

"There's definitely going to be school tomorrow," I said to a mommy friend who'd joined us. "Don't you think?"

"Yes, of course," she said, kindly ignoring the hint of desperation in my voice. "This can't go on forever."

It turns out she was right. The kids had school on Friday...with a two-hour delay. It's a good thing the Virginia school year is longer than the one we had in Portland because, combined with this week's mid-winter break, that gives us another four day weekend, I just might have to write January off as a writing wash.

The good news is we had fun!


 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Saddest Day

If you're my friend on Facebook you might already know the preceding week was a hard one for me.

One of our beloved hamsters, the same hamster that survived the flight from PDX to DCA, misjudged the width of that tiny slice of space on display when an interior door is open; the back edge of the door where hinge meets wall.

She tried to ram herself through that space and got stuck, head on one side, little body frantically wiggling on the other like a tragic Pooh Bear. Unlike the A.A. Milne version, the beginning of my story was heralded by shrieking children ascending from the basement in a panic.

We tried moving the door, ever-so-slightly, to see if we could make that small space slightly wider. I had the bright idea of dousing the hamster with water to see if that might make her slide out.

By the time I returned, ten seconds later, it was too late. A puddle of blood had formed beneath her mouth. Her eyes were vacant.

I covered the hamster with a cloth and ushered the kids upstairs to the living room. We all cried. They suggested mouth to mouth. They suggested a pet hospital. They told me stories of people who have been technically dead then come back to life.

Here's the thing I realized about my kids. They don't accept death easily. Here's the second thing I realized; they were going to need to see the body.

Except, gruesomely, little Nixy's body was still stuck in the door.

It's funny how quickly our instinctual aversion to dead things sets in. What was alive and cuddly ten minutes ago quickly goes to an it, something we don't want to touch.

I found a spatula in the kitchen, (the long-handled variety) and maneuvered the hamster out from between door and wall, trying not to notice how said maneuvering made her head twist at Linda Blair angles. I laid her on a towel and told the kids they could say their good byes.

We mourned.

Deeply.

"I just want to go back to that moment before she ran in that direction and scoop her up," said my daughter. "I want it to not have happened."

I wondered if that's the way everyone feels after a tragedy, even one as minor as the death of a hamster.

Whenever bad things happen in my life, I too find myself longing for that moment right before the cloud of badness burst open to reveal what was lurking around the corner. Even in movies or novels I have a hard time with destruction. I don't like things to get messy or go too deeply under the surface.

Which makes it odd that my books focus on all those dark, uncomfortable places. Or maybe not so odd. If writing is a cheap form of therapy it stands to reason some of us writers would use our words to push on the sore spots, testing to see if they're still there and what it means when you press down hard and they hurt.

What about you?

Is your writing therapeutic?

And don't worry, I'll have part two to the hamster diaries coming up in the next post.