Monday, January 31, 2011

On Writing: Exiting the ‘Enchanted Forest’

I recently returned from a four-day writing retreat, part of my master’s program.  The retreat is one of four held within the two-year course, and the days are filled with workshops, workshopping, guest writers, student readers, and bonding. My mentor from last semester, a wonderful gent named Merle Drown, refers to the retreats as “The Enchanted Forest.”
The Enchanted Forest is a place where everybody knows your name, understands your growing pains and offers witty banter in response to your clever quips. (We are writers after all, and who better to impress with our bon mots than other writers?) We play word games, talk and play music late into the night, dance like fiends and encourage each other.  During the retreat, we ignore our day jobs, give up cooking and cleaning, and spend long hours staring into space, scribbling into notebooks and banging on laptops.
Then we come home, where nobody understands us. Our families expect us to take the trash out and wake up on time for work. Nobody much cares when we talk about our WIPs or applauds when we stumble through a reading of the short story about squirrels we just expectorated onto a napkin. We wonder if our spouse’s salary could support the household if we took a couple of years off from work. Our genius goes unrecognized and we grow depressed and irritable. Thumb sucking and fetal positions ensue.
I felt the pangs for awhile when I got home from the retreat, particularly after I locked myself out of my house and spent a couple of hours wandering the city and waiting for my wife to get home. Then I put on my big-boy pants and gave myself a stern talking to. “Rob,” I said, “suck it up.”
The Enchanted Forest is fun, but it’s not real. It’s certainly not typical of the writer’s life. Most days, I’m lucky to get an hour of writing in, much less a full day of wordsmithing. Most days, the demands of real life trump my artistic aspirations.
And that’s how it should be. In “On Writing,” Stephen King reminds us that, “Life is not a support system for art. It’s the other way around.” My art, in that one hour a day when I can practice it, makes my life better.  Some day it might make it richer, too, but I’m content with the boost those 60 minutes gives my mood, my mind and my self-respect. I’m a writer, darn it, not a kept man or a princess maintained fat and lazy in a magic tree lot. My life informs my work and without that life, chores and all, I would not be the writer I am.
Enchanted Forest”? Bah. Who needs it? Not this guy. (But every writer should visit it, at least once. It’s pretty cool.)

Monday, January 24, 2011

Teaching: The Perfect School Year

I teach high-school English in real life and the number of snow days we’ve had this month (four) and the number of people complaining about going to school deeper in June (many) has me thinking.
I’m in the school-should-go-year-round camp. In my experience, as a student and educator, the big summer break is not conducive to educational continuity. To put it more plainly: the kids (and teachers) get stupid over the summer. They don’t read, they don’t write; and the result is a lot of reteaching, a lot of review and a lot of forgetting what came before.
“Mr. Greene, what’s a thesis statement?”
“Dude, you learned that last year. And the year before.”
“Did not.” (Did, too.)
It never fails. Here’s my solution, especially since most of the youth of today are no longer helping out on the farm: Year-Round High School. Break the year into four quarters, conveniently, One, Two, Three and Four.  Give the kids a two- or, more likely, three-week recuperation break between each one. Arrange the schedule so the winter break comes in January, when a lot of the Latino kids take that long trip back to their native countries (I forget what it’s called). A long January break also will save school districts money in heating.  Set the summer break for July, to save AC costs.  Make sure the kids have, at the very least, reading assigned for the next quarter.
Teachers are going to say this schedule doesn’t leave them much time for professional development, so here’s the plan. Teachers will be required to take one of the quarters off and apply that time to getting better at their jobs. To keep all the teachers from rushing to take the summer off, set up a weighted lottery system. Personally, I’d rather have time off in the fall.
Wait, there’s more. Extend the school day, but only make kids go Monday through Thursday. On Friday, youths will be required to do internships, community service, or learn something in some other way (online?). Teachers, on Fridays, will have to be in the building but can do their professional development stuff, plan amazing lessons, prep for team-teaching, etc.
We can get fancier if need be. Give kids more flexibility in picking their schedules so they can come in late, or leave earlier. Give teachers the opportunity to work a later shift for the students who want or need later classes.
Oh, and as far as snow days go, create a system that will allow teachers and students to work together online during those periods of inclement weather.
Go. Call your Congressional representative and local school boards.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Blues: A poem I wrote ...

... in fifth grade (It seemed appropriate for this snowy month):

 The Old House
The old house on the hill
is ever so still
as a cold, cold wind whips toward it

The old house sighs
as a little mouse cries
for winter has begun.

We had a student-lit magazine in those days called The Writer' Cramp, and The Old House was my first published poem. (The most recent one was a Valentine's Day haiku I wrote for a Boston Globe contest about eight years ago.) I wrote a lot of poetry when I was a kid, and gave most of them to the school librarian, Mrs. Hickey. She died around 10 years ago. I've visited her grave a few times; she was a really nice lady. Come to think of it,  I don't think I've ever met a librarian I didn't like.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

On Writing: Creativity Needs Discipline

            Pivo, prosim: That's how you order a beer in Czech. Cervisiam, sodes: That will get you one if the bartender speaks Latin.
Last year, at Boskone, I picked up a flier printed by the Esperanto League of North America. It showed me how to order a beer in 26 languages and suggested that if we all learned Esperanto, we'd all get along better and, perhaps, get our beers quicker.
I'm not overly interested in learning Esperanto, but I took the flier. In my brain there's a germ of an idea: a novel with 26 chapters, each starting with someone ordering a beer in a different language. That's all I have so far. Maybe the protagonist is a multi-lingual secret agent, maybe it's a photocopier tech with a very specific phrase book. When I get the time, I'll work it out.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Books for Writers: Dust and “True Grit”

I read somewhere that we cotton to cowboy stories because of the simplicity of their “thematic execution.” The bad guys all wear black hats. Vengeance is best served from the barrel of a Colt. Men are strong, women are subordinate, and love it. Those savages want our white chicks in the worst way possible.
I've watched a lot of Westerns. My grandmother was a big John Wayne fan and, as part of the every-Sunday pilgrimages we made to her house, we'd invariably watch The Duke shoot the hell out of someone. Gram also liked Bonanza because she had a yen for Lorne Greene (no relation); I preferred The Big Valley, because the guy from The Six-Million Dollar Man was on it, and The Rifleman, because the main character seemed like he had a brain and gave good advice to his son.
“A man doesn't run from a fight, Mark...but that doesn't mean you should go running 'to' one, either.” (The Rifleman, 1958)