Just read A Death in Belmont, about the Boston strangler, by Sebastian Junger. I wasn’t particularly interested in the subject and had never read anything by Junger, but the book was lying around the house, waiting to be read. (I have a lot of books that fit that description. My guess is I’ve read about 70% of the books I own.) The book is fascinating in the connections Junger draws between innocence and guilt, between good luck and bad, between evil and good. I thought I knew about the insanity plea, reasonable doubt, and a host of other legal and psychological concepts, but each time I was surprised by intricacies I’d never plumbed. So while part of the book was page-turning and, as you might expect, graphic, much of it was academic. I felt like I was listening to a patient and thorough professor make a case. By the end, the case is left in doubt, through no fault of Junger’s. In fact, that’s probably the strength of the book. He allows the facts to unfold and guides as far as he can, leaving us to our own conclusions.

I did need to cleanse those haunting images from my mind. I took a bike ride to the local book store and picked up Kurt Vonnegut’s new book of old short stories, While Mortals Sleep. Just the thought of a new book by Vonnegut is reassuring. The stories were written many decades ago but never published. And now we get to read sentences such as, “It was a swell morning.” The line reeks of sincerity and self-mockery at the same time, and would be excised from just about anything  written today. But there it is. New Vonnegut. A treat waiting for me in the next few days. In the introduction, Dave Eggers writes, “You as the reader know that by the end of the story, you will get somewhere. That Vonnegut will tell you something with candor and clarity. That being a decent person is an achievable and desirable thing.” Vonnegut captured perfectly. 
Here’s why reading is so vital to me. I’m nearing the end of Jonathan Eig’s fine biography about Lou Gehrig. Because of Eig’s diligent reporting, I’m there with Gehrig as a young boy, as he leaves home for the first time for college at Columbia, as he tries out with the Yankees, as he and Babe Ruth slam homeruns together and then apart. This ain’t no movie. I have hours invested. And now that I’m to the part when he contracts ALS, I feel his devastation. Because I know what’s coming, I don’t want to finish the book. Though I will. I’ve heard about Gehrig for decades. I’ve watched the Gary Cooper movie, which I now realize captured Gehrig’s character fairly well. I’ve read about what we now call Lou Gehrig’s disease. But now I understand the magnitude of the crippling disease that took away what he prized most: his physicality, his work. We all hold dear our physical bodies, I know, but Gehrig embodied his nickname, Iron Horse—playing through injuries and headaches and backaches without complaint, appearing in over 2000 consecutive games. So his illness seems especially cruel. But because I have been a reader-witness to all this, his spirit will live on for a while in me, and for that I feel privileged. 

13 March 2011

I got to speak to students at Harper College last week—about the Beatles. When I told family and friends, they paused and shot me a puzzling look that said, What do you know about the Beatles? I love that pause, slightly accusatory but curious. Even though I’ve read many books about the Beatles, I wouldn’t call myself an expert. But my new book, Because the Sky is Blue, opens in June 1967, the day Sgt. Pepper’s came out. The main character, Nicholas, a boy, sits outside a circle of older boys, rapt with the music. The scene is fiction, but it’s based on my own vague recollection of that night. And I’ve been fascinated ever since by each stage of the Beatles’ remarkable run: the long struggle to master their craft, being discovered, dealing with fame, the evolution of their art. Evolution is a big word, but fitting when you think about the breadth of what they achieved in ten years. And the great bulk of their artistry spanned only six or seven, before they were 30!

Anyway, I got to read to them this early chapter of the book, which is a sequel to my first novel, When the World was Young. Students were attentive—at least they seemed attentive. How can one ever know? When my students are chatting, I sometimes tell them to pretend to pay attention; that’s enough for me. It’s a joke, which I always find more amusing than they do. But the Harper students were in fact attentive, as evidenced by their thoughtful questions and their ability to find connections with what they’d already studied and what I had to offer. It’s always a pleasure to speak to people who are open-minded and inquisitive.

Two other thoughts come to mind regarding all this:

1) No, I haven’t heard back about the new book, other than that the editor loved it. Fiction sales have not exactly been soaring lately. So you need to go out there and buy fiction, any fiction, if you want publishers to keep putting books on shelves...or on devices...or however they will appear before our retinas. 

2) When you write a novel, you think about those characters daily and obsessively for a year or two or more. They become not quite real but real enough that you anguish over their fate. After the book is written, you don’t think much about them. You’re on to new characters, new settings. All this meshes with psychological research: if you’re in the middle of a project, your brain continues to think about the project, even after you’ve consciously put the work aside, which is what we English teachers sometimes call incubation, which is why we have students begin an assignment in class. A brief paragraph or two will suffice. Getting back, ahem, to my original point, when I’m invited to read my work aloud, after having spent years on the work and then putting it out of mind, I feel like I’m running into old friends. Hard to describe the satisfaction of hearing their voices and finding that they still exist on some plane. No, I’m not delusional. No, I’m not compensating for any lack of intimacy in my life. Still, those characters and their voices move me. They’re a part of me. 
Writers Week Highlights Day 5 Friday
I need to relax my brain. 

People who don’t step foot into the auditorium during the week think we English teachers have it easy. The week is exhilarating, enriching, educational, but easy it’s not. Listening is work, but you want to do it because that’s a necessary part of the equation, what you put in to gain something back. 

I led off today with a short story from my book, If You Eat, You Never Die. Always hard to gauge how your own presentation goes over, but I was pleased with the pace. I’ve learned to slow down and live in the story. To prepare, I honed down a 12-page story to about eight pages, always a valuable exercise. In the same period, my good friends and colleagues, Gary Anderson and Kevin Brewner, shared their work as well. I never tire of hearing Gary’s poetry. There’s a wholeness and goodness and decency that comes through in every line. And Kevin usually reads a short story, but this time he read an essay about connections that was both nostalgic and mysterious. And he got to perform his famous eye-popping trick during Q & A.

Next came Dave Cullen, author of Columbine. He was at Columbine HS one hour after the first shots. He spent five years researching and writing, then threw out the pages and began anew and spent another five years creating the final manuscript. That’s ten grueling years. Many of the official documents (the police reports, the journals) weren’t released until seven years after the attacks, so his patience and diligence were necessary in order to get the story straight. Rather than list the details of his talk, I’ll recommend that you read his book, which explains why one of the killer’s journals was filled with the word hate, the other’s with love, as in, he didn’t feel loved, the result of his depression.

The best part of having Cullen visit our school was the post-visit. He sat around in our hospitality room for hours, encouraging questions from about a dozen or two students and teachers who straggled in during this time. He was conducting an informal seminar, and I felt privileged to be there. He had copies of the killers’ journals, and to have them in hand was chilling. One student asked, “If Eric was so smart, why did he make so many mistakes with his bombs and other plans?” Cullen: “Psychopaths with their sense of superiority and contempt believe they can’t make mistakes.”

Next was my good friend and old writing group colleague, Billy Lombardo, who has three fine books of fiction on the shelves. Billy’s work and presentations are filled with quiet intensity. He writes about baseball, family, being a dad, being a boy, nostalgia, and the ways one struggles to maintain decency in a world that’s sometimes harsh. His solution to writer’s block: “I think of occasions...things people say.” On the importance of creative writing: “The hard work at creating the language of poetry and fiction will carry through to more analytical kinds of writing.” ACT anyone? I’d add that simply listening to the sophisticated language of poetry and fiction will help as well.

FANBOYS performed next. Hard to explain. This is a teacher-band at our school that takes real songs and adds their own lyrics about proofreading and school rules and other school-related subjects. Then they rock out, and the auditorium is standing room only. Pretty cool. They work hard, practice in the basement of one of their mom’s (how fitting), and they show another side of themselves that students never get to see. Modeling playfulness should never be underestimated. At one point, they asked students to wave their cell phones. I peeked over, and only one or two of my AP kids had their phones out. I’ll give them a hard time about that on Monday.

Finally, our last guest, Kathryn Janicek, executive producer of NBC5 morning news, and former Fremd student, took to the stage. Her energy was boundless, another good lesson for students and adults alike. She puts in 12-14 hour days deciding and managing what gets shown on the morning news, and she had captivating and often hilarious behind-the-scenes stories of what can go wrong that early in the day. She balanced practical advice with genuine encouragement: “You can make money writing. Let’s hear a clap for that.” It was quite apparent that she loves what she does and that she enjoyed being back.

After all was said and done and our Writers Week “set” was stored, someone said, “This was the best Writers Week ever.” I didn’t disagree, but I hear this every year, which strikes me as some sort of impossibility of physics or nature or something. In my mind, every year has been packed with life-affirming moments that cause one to pause and take in the wonder around us. It was as true at Writers Week I as it is now, during Writers Week XVII. I wish you could have been there. There’s nothing quite like it.
So far, four other schools nationwide host their own versions of Writers Week, modeled after ours. If you teach and have questions about how, feel free to drop a line. The week will transform your school. 
Writers Week Highlights Day 4 Thursday

The last of the students performed today, 33 in all, and over 90 for the week. Quite an array of talent. The highlight for me was an impromptu break at the end of period two. With time remaining after all six students presented, they were given a prompt and had two minutes to write something brilliant in response: “Write about an unanswerable question.” The results were witty and rich in sound—I think there’s a valuable lesson in the exercise. This was a day of chances for students: several had music playing while they read, one sang an original a capella composition, three others presented original songs, two rapped. Favorite line: “I have been an aspiring senior since freshman year...but this is home...this school has raised me.

Our first visiting presenter, Mark Buenning, a Fremd HS grad, echoed this sentiment: “This is the most encouraging environment I’ve ever been in artistically.” I suppose this comes as no surprise, as Mark works now in Los Angeles. But he mentioned many times how well our school, particularly the speech team and drama department, prepared him. Teachers crave hearing this because our “achievements” are largely intangible. (Though test scores are certainly tangible, there’s little joy in that murk. Disclaimer: I have nothing to do with speech or drama...I’m happy to hear of any student who gained from what teachers do. Again, I’m not talking about test scores. Can you imagine a former student looking back fondly on...high test scores? Sorry for the digression.) Buenning described the difficulties in becoming successful in the entertainment business, how you have to begin at the bottom, make contacts, work hard, and scratch your way up. Mark shared some of his hilarious stand-up bits, and when Q & A began, students requested more bits. Selfish, yes, but I was glad for the request! Best question and answer: “What do you do about writers block?” Mark: “That’s like asking, what do you do all the time?” In other words, writing is a job, and you have to work at it.

Student favorite Daphne Willis capped off the day. She’s another former student and another person who said she appreciated the support she got in high school, especially from her experience with Writers Week. Daphne is a singer-songwriter, who is on the verge of stardom. She has a recording contract, she moved to Nashville, and she has a new CD coming out soon. Check her out at daphnewillis.com. Students who heard Daphne today won’t score higher on their ACT scores, but they saw the joy that results from following your dream. When she was a student, Daphne would walk around with her guitar strapped over her shoulder and be asked to play all the time. She made the school a happier place, and she’s spreading that joy of hers everywhere. I know I’m sounding corny as all hell here, but check out the music and you can’t help but smile.

I love my job.
Writers Week Highlights Day 3 Wednesday

Today was solid from beginning to end. Those who know what Writers Week is all about realize that while writing is the central focus, the week is more about integrity, perseverance, vulnerability, and a host of other fundamental attributes that make us human.

Evidence, you say? You want evidence? Here’s evidence.

1) Chicago writer Jonathan Eig began the day at 7:30 a.m. What were you doing at this ungodly hour? Not speaking to 550 tired faces, I assume. He woke them up, captivated them with his stories.

2) Takes him two to four years to write the books. He’s written bios on Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson, and Al Capone.

3) “There’s an awesome responsibility as a biographer to get it right...I’m a stickler for details.” (Again, I’m doing my best here to transpose. I can’t very well ask these guests to repeat key lines while on stage, and if I record them, there’s no way I’m going back to listen—though we have done that when we produced highlight CDs. Now, if I were a biographer, I’d be much more responsible.)

4) Eig talked about the necessity for details. If you’re a reporter investigating a story, “you get the name of the dog.”

5) He said it took about a year to get Robinson’s widow to open up about her husband. He would send her old photos to gain her trust, to jog her memory. He even went to their old apartment and took pictures.

I can stand in front of a class and talk about perseverance, but Eig embodied it.

Next up was a young poet from Minnesota, Sierra DeMulder. She had me teary-eyed several times with her poems about cancer, anorexia, and rape (“The person who did this to you is broken, not you...Nothing was stolen from you”). She had me enraged with her poems about brutal discrimination, drug abuse, and child neglect. She had me thinking with her persona poem from the point of view of a serial killer’s mother (“No one wants to hear you were a wonderful child”; “Did I hold your hand too tightly when we crossed the streets?”). And she had me laughing many times with her poems on love and maturity. Best title: “On watching someone you love, love someone else.” Best advice/encouragement: “After high school, life gets so much better...You will change a hundred times over, like a revolving door, like a waterfall...You will give and receive love like an open window.” At one point, retiree Kevin Brewner shook his head and whispered, “Incredible similes.”

Chris Crutcher enthralled next with his masterful storytelling. As a former and sometimes therapist, he talked about how his experiences with young children inform his writing, how they teach him about strength and grief and unconditional love.

Part of his charm is his self-deprecation: “What do you want out of high school?” someone once asked him. “Outta high school,” he responded.

Practical advice: “You have an imagination, but so does the reader. Don’t need to put down every little detail.”  “Writing isn’t magic, it’s tenacity.”

Last up was showman Buddy Wakefield, who commands audiences with his sweetness, hilarity, and depth. “I keep forgetting to put focus on my to-do list.” “I know I’m better than the worst thing I’ve done.” “Writing was a healing tool for me.” On style: “I made myself vulnerable.” On memorizing his work: “I memorize in my body, not just my brain.”

What’s wonderful about Buddy is how he balances the serious with the whimsical. He answers questions respectfully, showing great integrity for his art and the necessary habits to keep that art alive.

A great day. And now I’m tired.  

1 March 2011

I love the first day of March, which marks, in my mind (and sometimes only in my mind), the end of cold weather.

Writers Week Highlights Day 2 Tuesday

Before I forget, a highlight from Monday I neglected to mention. Best question from audience: “In poetry, is reason more important than rhyme?” And this was asked to a panel of students, who all had thoughtful answers. I felt lucky to be there to witness the exchange.

As for today, I’d venture this: no other school in the country, aside from Hazelwood West High School near St. Louis, that runs its own Writers Week, showcased so much talent from so many corners of the school. Here’s the rundown of speakers who read their writing: the principal, an English teacher’s father, an English teacher, a social studies teacher, two math teachers (yes, math), and 28 students. Topics and themes: farming, an uncle’s last breath, a grandfather’s racism, a Christmas letter, a multigenerational love letter to ancestors and the beloved land they lost, a nasty cyst, volunteering last summer on an organic farm in Canada. All this from the teachers and principal.

Among students, the most memorable subjects included: being a nerd, a trip to India, how teens think everything is the end of the world, being comfortable in one’s own skin (on scoliosis), cultural identity.

 Just hearing about such variety makes you want to be there, yes? Students are allowed only five minutes each on stage (because so many want to share their work), but they make the best of their time. Each of them takes a risk in sharing their writing. And I feel privileged.