Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Even More Advice from David Copperfield

I've interspersed some rather lovely advice from David Copperfield with some horrid whinings of my own, but--thank goodness for you--it's time for more Copperfield again.

This little tidbit comes from the littlest tidbit of the novel, a super tiny dwarf named Miss Mowcher, who spends a few scenes flirting around with men and entertaining while David looks on. David doesn't take a liking to her, but once a mutual friend shows his true colors (I'd tell you who, and what he does, but that would spoil the story), she reveals she had no part in the deception, and shows she's as true a person as anyone, but has had to put on a show of sorts because of her chromosomal condition. 

She tells him she has no choice but to act as she does just so that she can survive in a world where she is deemed to be so different (because so small), and she promises to do all she can to help remedy the situation, even though she is not the cause. And as she leaves David, she tells him:

You are a young man.... Take a word of advice, even from three foot 
nothing. Try not to associate bodily defects [Dickens' words, not mine] with
mental, my good friend, except for solid reason.

You see, even though she was small and not the standard of beauty, her heart and mind were good. And even though the friend who had betrayed them both was very handsome and seemed kind, he was truly a selfish, egotistical user. 

This reminds me of a story I was told about the film Tootsie. Artists spent hours on Dustin Hoffman's make-up, but when they showed him the product, he thought they were kidding. He said something like, "Why don't you make me pretty?" and the make-up artists told him that was as pretty as he was going to get. Hoffman was deeply affected by this, for it suddenly occurred to him how many women he had passed by, had ignored, because they didn't fit his standard of beauty. And yet, dressed as a woman, he was the very kind of woman who would have been ignored. (If you haven't seen this movie, it's really very good. Bill Murray alone makes it worth watching, but Hoffman is also spectacular). 

I know what it's like to be passed over. It still happens to me, and has ever since I can remember. Yet I also know, with a sinking in my gut, that I have done the same to others. I have judged on looks alone, and I am a lesser person for having done so. I've likely missed out on some pretty spectacular people. 

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Down Time

I woke up this morning, and for the first time in several weeks, I didn't have a huge list of things to do for teaching. Okay, I did, but the list is for a class I start in three weeks, so I can't say I feel the tremendous heat of fire under me to get the stuff done. 

I know, I know, I will regret this soon. 

Still, it meant I had most of the day without anything pressing on me. I called a few people I hadn't spoken with in far too long, cleaned the kitchen, and then told myself, "Hey, self, you could finally write something!" 

Oh, to write after so many dry months of not having the time. Oh, to pick up my laptop, and instead of logging into my four different e-mail accounts (I'm not kidding), just avoid the Internet completely, opening up my play about two people at an airport and working on it, or planning out more of my revision of my Thomas novel, or even revising my Ark novel (I've been waiting to do this since June)! 

But that's not what I did. I played games, I played around, I read books to my kids (Okay, that's a good thing to do), I made dinner, I set myself out on a blanket on the lawn and read the last few pages of David Copperfield. Only after I'd put my kids to bed did I try to write.

That would be an okay ending, if I spent the next few hours writing. But I didn't work. I read through the short play so far--and I still like it--but when I sought the next real shift, the next touch of dialogue, my mind came up blank. Suddenly I felt like the last place in the world I wanted to be was here, with the laptop in front of me. I didn't want to write. Even setting this down, I admit I feel a bit writhe-ish (I must be taking a page from Uriah Heep), and all I want to do is go upstairs to bed--and not write tomorrow, either.

I can't say I know for certain, but I don't think this writer's block is going to be good for me long term. Any ideas for how I can get myself out of this writing funk?

Friday, September 25, 2009

Blind! Blind! Blind!

This next little bit of David Copperfield pith is from Chapter 35, and, surprisingly, the advice is not direct. David is in love with a silly, vacuous little girl named Dora, who gets him all hot and bothered every time she shakes her curls at him, but who seems intellectually incapable of being serious for a single minute of her life. 

He has just been expounding on the greatness of Dora to his wonderful friend Agnes, whom he grew up with, to an extent, and we readers have all figured out by now that he's infatuated with the wrong girl--and only later does he figure this out, long after he had married and settled down with Dora. As he is walking out the door...oh, well, I should really let Dickens describe it:

...Oh, Agnes, sister of my boyhood, if I had known then, 
what I knew long afterwards--
There was a beggar in the street, when I went down; 
and as I turned my head towards the window thinking of 
her calm seraphic eyes, he made me start by muttering,
as if he were an echo of the morning:
"Blind! Blind! Blind!"

In that one moment, when David was about to make a huge mistake, there was a portent, out of the blue, frightening him out of his stupidity, telling him how blind he was.

It may sound creepy to you, but don't you wish you had a portent, somebody who could hop out of a back alley at you, shouting, "Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!" when you are about to commit a huge mistake, or yelling "Cop! Cop! Cop!" when a policeman's sitting around the bend with a radar gun? 

Of course, what did David do with the portent? He ignored it. Only long afterwards did the scene occur to him, far too late to have done anything about it. Perhaps those same portents shout at us, but we ignore them, too, and keep heading headlong into the messes we create for ourselves. 

If only we'd listen!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

More Advice from David Copperfield

I know it's been a while since my last David Copperfield post, but I promised you more good advice from Dickens' memorable characters. I am not quite finished with my rereading, but I have a great bit of gold from David Copperfield's great aunt Betsy Trotwood. She is a lady who made a notable appearance as David's mother was in labor with him, and she sat by patiently, waiting for her beloved "niece" to be born. When she found out it was a boy--David--she left without another word, and she didn't appear in the story again until David, friendless, hopeless, a starving runaway, shows up on her doorstep, filthy and looking just as much a boy as before.

But she doesn't walk away from him the second time, although she does take to calling him Trotwood Copperfield instead of David. She learns a great deal from this young man, even in her old age. And when he is about to set off into the world, she gives him some advice in return. She says, "Never... be mean in anything; never be false; never be cruel. Avoid those three vices, Trot, and I can always be hopeful of you."

Now, all I can wish is that every parent and guardian gave his or her children the same advice, that the world taught its kids to be kind, to be true, and to cause happiness instead of pain to those around them. Think of how different the world would be if we lived like this. War would be impossible, for no one would knowingly intend harm to anyone else. Gossip would be unacceptable, for if one began sniping about someone else, those who heard the snipe would refuse to take part. 

Would all sadness cease? No, of course not. We would still do stupid things. We would still make mistakes. But instead of laughing at someone we accidently knocked to the ground, we'd hold out a hand and apologize, and we'd truly be sorry we'd hurt them. 

This advice has caused me to do all kinds of nice things just over the last week. I took my kids to the library today, even though I didn't have time (they were almost teary from the books they found). I saved the last piece of carrot cake for my husband (and I really wanted it, too). It made me sign three people into one of my day classes even though I only had room for one (I just couldn't turn the other two down!). 

I still have much to learn from this little kernel of wisdom. I should paint it on the walls of my office, so that I can read it through every day. I'd be a better person if I did.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Feeling Lazy...

Remember the Simon & Garfunkel song, "Feeling Groovy?" Okay, so I'm too stressed to feel groovy, but with two new classes looming in front of me (they start tomorrow), I have no choice. Yes, I'm prepared. Yes, I've taught them before. Yes, the syllabi are turned in and probably copied by now (I hope), and yes, the first class is merely me up at the front scaring the pants off all the students by telling them all the course requirements.

But I'm still tense. Instead of singing, "Feeling Groovy," I'm humming "Feeling Lazy." I have two more syllabi to create, for two classes beginning in October, and I really need to have the courses completely set up this week, before the rest of my classes get out of hand. 

But each time I get online, I balk. "I don't want to!" the baby voice inside me whines. "It's Sunday!" she continues, "Why can't I rest on a Sunday, just one day per week?"

Unfortunately, the truth is, I can't. I need to get this done. So even this blog entry, yet another attempt to stall, must end. I need to get to work. No lazy days for me!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Weeding Wisdom

I will get back to David Copperfield, but I was weeding yesterday, and as with the last time I weeded, I tend to philosophize as I pull out the horrid junk out from around my rose bushes. (I shouldn't be that mean when discussing these plants, but they really are annoying.)

If you'd like to read my other entry on the matter, I think it's on my defunct blog, so it's been a while since I wrote on the topic. I am struck, each time I do some gardening, by how informative it is about life--especially about my writing. Here are a few little kernels of what I learned yesterday:

1.  Get a problem out by the roots, and it won't come back. I can't tell you how many times I've pulled the leaves off a weed, only to see it come back in a week, stronger than ever. In my writing, I often tend to lop off a little scene that is giving me a sign of some bigger problem, rather than deal with the bigger problem. When I go back through the novel or play, though, the problem is still there. It won't go away until I take out the true cause, and that requires digging. (It also leads to the next item.)

2.  Get a shovel, and use it. When one revises a novel (or play), one might be more eager to fix a comma splice than delete an entire character, or scene, or situation. One might not want to admit the climax stinks, or that the whole beginning premise is absolutely lame. But if one doesn't take a hatchet to the work--or if one isn't at least willing to hold the hatchet out there, looking for places to hack--the real substantive changes will not occur, and the spine of the work is going to be weak.

My last piece of advice comes thanks to the neighborhood dog, who detests when I am weeding anywhere near the back fence, and thus barks savagely non-stop, hurling himself at the fence (which shudders) when I get quite close to it. So, here it is:

3.  It is very hard to weed with a dog barking savagely in the background. It makes me think of bursts like the NaNoWriMo concept, to write a novel in a month (it's coming up in November). If I have a huge deadline looming, if I feel as if a dog is barking at me over my shoulder, not only will I work less efficiently, but I will be miserable while I'm doing it. That stupid dog made gardening a chore when I normally would like to do it. Surely, after years of living here, it has to know I'm not coming through the fence, and surely I know it won't get to me, but the dreadful sound make me shudder (like the fence), and they set my hair on end. Not a good way to garden. Not a good way to write. 

It's almost fall, almost time for all the plants to take a breather--and that's good, since I have two classes starting in less than a week, and two more starting mid-October. Lots to do!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Wisdom of Wilkins Micawber

*Before I get into today's blog--I have an update from yesterday's: It seems the little boy I mentioned refused to go to school at all, and he actually started hyperventilating at the prospect of another day there. Not great news. The mother doesn't know how she's going to pull this off.*

Now to today's:  

I've been reading--well, re-reading for the third time--Charles Dickens' David Copperfield, my favorite of his books, and the most autobiographical of any of them. (Please don't tell me I don't have time to do this. I know. I'm at expert at filling my life with tons of projects I have no time for). 

Anyway, the characters are eccentric and funny, disturbingly real and joyous (no wonder I like them), and they are also full of good advice. One such lovely character is that of Wilkins Micawber, a man fashioned after Dickens' own father. David Copperfield lives as a boarder in this man's house for about a year, and when Micawber is about to move away, he gives him two pieces of great advice. Here's the first:

My advice is, never do tomorrow what you can do today. 
Procrastination is the thief of time. Collar him! (p. 230)

Who knew that Micawber and I agreed on this. It's the reason I make obsessive lists, the reason I work hard every single day, blogging here before I've even dressed for the day, grading papers at the first opportunity, using every second of the day to do something useful and creative. But what happens if we procrastinate? I know exactly what happens, at least for me: the waiting projects loom over me, weighing me down, waking me in the middle of the night. Stuff undone undoes me, and my life is harder because of the put off tasks, not easier. 

Now to Micawber's other piece of advice, one most Americans could very well pay attention to:

Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen, 
nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty 
pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, 
result misery. The blossom is blighted, the leaf is withered, 
the god of day goes down upon the dreary scene, and -- and 
in short you are for ever floored. As I am!   (p. 231)

Obviously, Americans are not paid in pounds, nor are they likely to earn only the equivalent of twenty, but the point is still the same: live within your means, and you will have peace of mind, security, and resulting "happiness." Live beyond your means, and accumulate debt more and more each year, and your stress will grow with it, it will pull from future income, and you will be in "misery." In this case, Wilkins Micawber knew the truth of this because he lived it, spending months at a time in debtor's prison because he didn't live within his means, even while his wife was nursing twins and his family were starving.

I could rant about this for a while, but I won't. The quotes pretty much speak for themselves. I'll have more kernels of truth next time, different advice from another unusual character. 

Friday, September 11, 2009

Separation Anxiety

It's been several days since I've blogged, but I was busy getting my kids set up for school. My son, a tiny five-year-old, just stepped on the bus for the second time this week to attend all-day kindergarten. Did I cry the first time? Nope. I did get a little hollow in my stomach, but I didn't cry. Honestly, I probably would have felt a little lonely yesterday, but I was too busy grading (I won't start on that subject, though).

This morning, my son was off again, holding his sister's hand as he climbed up into the bus. I know it helps to see him with her, to know he's riding all the buses with her, to know she's there on the playground for at least one of his three recesses. Mostly, though, I feel proud of him, that he's brave enough to take off and try something all day, to involve himself with new friends, new routines, and new explorations.

And he is brave. Did he cling to me? Nope. His sister didn't either. Neither of them were trouble in this way. Not ever. Not even on the first day of preschool. Now, since the day they were born I took them everywhere, organized play dates and sleepovers, took them to lunch with friends (my friends), and involved them in very social activities. 

I am not alone in doing this sort of socialization, yet I know there is a whole other group of parents who do the opposite. I was reminded of this just this morning, when one of the kindergardeners wouldn't get on the bus. His older sister climbed on and urged him to do the same, but he wouldn't. His mother had to drive him to school this morning, hoping she'd be able to leave him in his classroom eventually (once he stopped clinging to her leg).

Now, he's not my son. My son was born in Independence, Kansas, for a reason--and since he was born he's pretty much insisted on doing everything for himself. Still, my work to socialize him has paid off, for he has always had reinforcement to take chances, to try new things. So far the only thing that didn't work was soccer (again, that's a whole other blog). 

But this little boy who wouldn't get on the bus had hardly been out of his house. His mom had waited to go to the store until her husband was home to watch the kids. He never went to preschool. In fact, the three hours he spent at school yesterday may count as the longest he'd ever been away from his mother. No wonder it was tough for him.

I'm not saying the way I'm raising my kids is the right way. But it's my way, and it's a direct response to the lack of socialization I received as a child and the lack I see in other children. Children are taught their ABC's, but if they aren't taught to interact, they lose out on a lot. 

I have no desire to teach my kids to fear being away from me. I want them, if anything, to have a little more bravery than they need. I want them ready to face the world, no matter what, so when it's time to go off to college, to get that full-time job, to take some risks to get what they truly want, they are ready.

Thoughts? I've shared mine.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Receiving Feedback

I had to write about this, for, as those of you who've been following me know, I've read quite a bit of other writers' work lately. And I've read it with an editor's eye--tough, critical, pointing out what doesn't work, what doesn't fit, what makes me uncomfortable or bored, etc. The only ways I haven't been an editor is 

1.  I don't actually work for a publisher (so I'm not looking for books to sign).
2.  I am actually telling people what's going on with their book, instead of sending them a generic "Thanks for mailing us your manuscript but we don't want it" letter. 

Had these novelists and playwrights sent their stuff out to the real editors of the world, they would have gotten no information. And often no information feels better than my feedback (I am very willing to admit it), but in the end, the bland letter isn't going to help them get their book published.

I keep thinking back to a few years ago. I was seeking an agent for my first novel--a novel which I am letting fester right now, as I work through how I am going to transform it--and I met a nice guy who had found an agent recently. Excited, I asked if he could read my novel, and I'd read his (since his was not yet published, even though he had an agent). 

We exchanged novels, and he got mine back to me in less than a week, saying he really enjoyed reading it. His wife read it too, and "liked it." I took a bit longer with his. You see, on the first page alone, I found 9 errors--NINE--and this was the manuscript his "agent" was sending off to publishers! I considered reading it swiftly, telling him it was "nice," and leaving it alone. I considered it for a few days, mulling around the house, unsure what I should do. 

I chose the hard road. I spent the next month poring over that novel, filling it with Post-it notes remarking on errors, slips in narrative POV, places where I had legal questions, situations where more explanation or detail was needed. It took me a very long time, and by the end the folder was filled with five different colors of Post-it notes (I kept running out of pads). Even at the end, I contemplated pulling all those notes out and just telling the poor boy nothing about his work. 

Shakily, I left it for his wife (she worked in my husband's office), and she winced when she saw it. "That bad?" she asked. 

"Just let me know how he takes it," I answered.

That was Friday. On Monday, I called her. "He's okay, but he took it hard." I felt a dip in the pit of my stomach, but it was about to get worse. "He wants to talk to you," she added.

I was frightened, honestly, expecting him to yell at me, curse, or do something equally understandable. After all, I'd shredded the baby he'd been birthing for five years. He called me that afternoon, and he told me frankly that he'd been crushed when he got it back. And then, after a day of being crushed, he started back to work on it. 

The end? He asked me to read it--again--for pay. And when he published it, not only was I in the acknowledgments, but he gave me a copy in thanks. Will everyone be so grateful? Nope. They don't have to be. But with every paper I grade, every play of someone else's I look over, I have to make that same choice. A few years ago, I tended to play nice, looking over most of the problems and centering my replies only on grammatical errors. But errors are not what sends manuscripts to the trash. If I am truly to help those whose work I am reading, I have to do a better job, even if it means they don't speak to me again. 

It's the golden rule. When I want someone else to read my stuff, I want honesty--even brutality--so that I can fix what's wrong and make the whole thing work better. I can't say I always take the criticism well--coming from my husband, it usually irks me--but eventually it sinks in, and my writing is the better for it.

Can you think of a time when your writing was criticized? How did you take it? How do you approach criticism of the works of other writers? 

Saturday, September 5, 2009


No, I have not worked on my writing. And, yes, I am writing a blog. I have to. My husband and I watched the musical Wicked last night, and I have such a mixed response to it, I had to write to make any sense of it.

First, let me qualify my response. I have read the book Wicked, and it was terrible. Despite how poorly it was written, how boring, and how meaningless the whole thing was, I still did read it through to the end, and when the end of the novel occurred, I felt like I had completely wasted my time (and a lot of it, since it took a long time to read). Naturally, I was not certain the musical would be any better, but I'd heard good things, so my hubby and I thought we'd try it (buying the cheapest seats for the production, so we wouldn't be too disappointed). 

The good news? The musical retained few elements of the novel--very few--and invented all sorts of other elements, including changing relationships, changing the ending completely, and taking all sorts of other liberties with it. The characters were infinitely more likable and accessible, and they were funnier (which wouldn't have been hard, since the characters weren't the slightest bit funny in the novel). In fact, Glinda the Good Witch was pretty hilarious and stole the show from Elpheba (The Wicked Witch of the West) pretty handily.

The bad news? Well, it wasn't a very good musical. The music was pretty forgettable (I'd seen the most dramatic part of it on the Tony Awards, but I'd forgotten it completely). Plot lines were slim, and the ending was ridiculous.

Even worse, were I the novelist who penned the original novel, I would have run out of there screaming, and I would likely be in jail for killing the first person I saw. I imagined one of my own novels being turned into utter drivel, and the prospect of it made me cringe. Right now I am still cringing.

What's oddest about this is that I hated the novel--it might be one of the worst novels I've read in years--but I am still defensive about the idea of someone's work being mauled to death for the sake of a musical format. I can only compare it to the travesty that is Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame. What Disney execs were thinking when they took the most depressing novel ever (and one I personally love) and turned it into a children's cartoon will be forever a mystery. 

And so will Wicked, I'm afraid. Still, it was fascinating to watch and analyze, from the perspective of both a novelist and a playwright. 

Rather like a train wreck would be fascinating to a railroad engineer.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Built In Worker Bees

I know a few blog posts ago, I discussed hiring a maid. And who would blame me? I've got eight classes lined up for fall (two already begun, six to go), and I am soon to be swamped in papers. 

But how much would a maid cost? $50 a week? Depends on what I want the maid to do... clean the bathrooms, sweep and wash floors, do laundry (that's what the hubby suggested, probably because he feels guilty for never doing it himself--then again, the idea of someone else washing my panties, well... that's just not a very comfortable thought for me)? No matter what I want her to do, that's a lot of time. We're probably talking more than $50 a week. So, for a little over $200 a month, I'll have clean floors, clean bathrooms, and clean clothes. 

I, cheapy person extraordinaire, have thought of a way to save. No, that's unfair. My best friend up here in Seattle showed me the way with her own system. Inspired, today I made a list of chores, from sweeping the floor to vacuuming rugs, and put prices to them. Okay, most of the tasks, from unloading the dishwasher to cleaning up the living room, were 25 cents a piece, but I did up the reward for cleaning all three bathrooms (to $1). 

I read the list to my kids. And what happened? My son went straight for the dishwasher, and while he couldn't reach all the cupboards, he still saved me about five minutes. And my beloved daughter cleaned all three bathrooms (yes, I had to show her how, but that's the cleanest those toilets have been in months--and I'm pretty anal about it). 

Will the steam under them continue? It might, especially when they get their pay at the end of the month. And in the meantime, they're learning responsibility, they are learning how important they are to the running of the household, and they are learning to serve. 

And I'm learning to let things go a little, to be done by smaller hands than mine. 

I still don't think I'll let them handle the panties, though. At least not for a while.