First Lines

As I mentioned before, I’m teaching this week in Chanhassen Elementary through my work with Compas Arts. (For those of you who work in schools, I can’t say enough good thing about this program. The artists on the roster are some of the most passionate and talented artists that I have ever met, and all are deeply committed to their work as teachers. There is grant money available, and honestly, you could do worse.)

I love this part of my job. I love it a lot

Whenever I start the kids off in their week of working hard writing stories, I have them do a project writing first lines of stories. Stories that do not exist yet. Stories that they would like to read someday. I tell them to write as writers write, which is to say selfishly. Because we are selfish. We follow our own passions, quirks and compulsions. We write to entertain ourselves, and it is ridiculously fun.

I have the kids think about the kinds of stories they like to read. I ask them to think about what hooks them as readers. I read to them a long list of cool first lines, and then I set them to work.

Here is what they wrote:

I was the only one left.

The sun went down, and I knew it was time.

Late one night, Bruce came back from Buffalo Wild Wings and his house was a mess.

There once was a zombie named Trevor.

Close this book and burn it.

I’m not telling you nuthin.

When she went to live on the moon, she swore she would never come back.

School is a prison for me!

We all live in Garbage Town.

She was sitting in a large field where roses bloomed.

Her eyebrows never grew back.

He became the most popular kid in school after that day, and it was all because of one paper airplane and a miniature hamster named Morris.

I told them not to go; of course they didn’t listen.

I woke up and my room was warm. Warmer than usual.

The moment I walked up to the house, the lights went out.

My teacher screamed bloody murder.

When I woke up, the elephant was in my room. And he wasn’t happy.

Yup. I’m pretty sure this week is gonna rule.

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And sometimes we are in the world.

Normally, I wake my children, feed them, make their lunches, wash their faces and haul them off to school, then return to the quiet of my desk. My house doesn’t speak. It doesn’t watch. It breathes and dreams and breathes and dreams, and I write stories in that quiet world.

Sometimes, however, I must expose myself. I must use my voice and my stories and my body and my face to communicate to other people what I do. I do this so that people can learn. I do this so that stories can be told. I do this because it’s too easy to forget that stories matter, that we were built for this work. We were born to tell stories and read stories and listen to stories, and believe in stories. 

Last weekend, I taught a class at The Loft in Minneapolis called What We Write About When We Write About Magic, and then I sat on a panel with Pete Hautman, Heather Bouwman, Sheila O’Connor and Kurtis Scalata and I blathered a bit about my writing process and my thoughts on how children read stories. I don’t know if I made any sense. I don’t know how truthful I was. But if it got one person at that conference to trust themselves and trust their voice and trust their work, then it was time well-spent, I think.

(The conference, by the way, was the Children’s and Young Adult Literature Conference, and it was awesome. And well worth your time for next year.)

Today, I’m powering up at the local Caribou Coffee and getting ready to spend a week teaching story writing to fourth graders at Chanhassen Elementary. I have no doubt that their stories will be magnificent.

This is an intergal part of my work, though teaching – by its nature – thwarts my work. Stops it in its tracks. Teaching is wonderful, but it saps me utterly. I will, at the end of the day, be spent, hollowed, deflated. I will be a dry, dry husk. Still, this is important because it reminds me that stories are primal, vigorous and alive. It is our birthright to tell stories. This is what I will tell these children, and this is what I believe.

And my desk, my office, my dreaming house will all be waiting for me when I return.

Sometimes I am hijacked by poetry

Apparently, I need to return my English degree. And I need to send letters of apology to Sister Margery and Sister Vera and Professor Everyone Else. Because I have learned nothing. Nothing!

I went to the noon Courtroom Concerts that the Schubert Club puts on at the Landmark Center to hear my dear friend KrisAnne Weiss sing. (And oh! She was magnificent! And Oh! That voice!) Among other things, she performed a cycle of songs by a local composer that used the poetry of Amy Lowell as their foundation.

And I realized that I have never, ever read the poetry of Amy Lowell. Indeed, I knew nothing about her. And those poems blew me the frick away.

Amy Lowell was one of those women – born in privilege, yet bound by constraints of narrow-minded American Aristocracy – who baffled the people around her. Denied education, so she vigorously pursued self-education. Bound by the conscriptions of femininity, and threw them off. Spoke in public when it was shocking to do so. She was short, brusque and loud – a wide woman. She was smart-mouthed, quick-tongued and abrasive. She pissed people off. She smoked cigars in public and spoke in public and embraced her off-kilter public persona, when it was taboo for a woman to do so.

And I’m kinda in love with her.

Here are the poems that did it for me. I hope they do it for you as well.

Pyrotechnics

Our meeting was like the upward swish of a rocket
In the blue night.

I do not know when it burst;
But now I stand gaping,
In a glory of falling stars.

Obligation

Hold your apron wide
That I may pour my gifts onto it,
So that scarcely shall your two arms
hinder them
From falling to the ground.

I would pour them upon you
And cover you,
For greatly do I feel this need
Of giving you something,
Even these poor things.

Dearest of my heart

 

I am large, I contain multitudes.

My daughter, at 2:45 today will become Walt Whitman. She has the hat. She has the rakish stance. She’s got the magnetic stare. Indeed, she’s had them all her whole life. I think, in the end, I can blame myself – I was reading “Leaves of Grass” obsessively when I was pregnant with her. Over and over again I laid down on the grass. Over and over I was the grass. And now she is Walt Whitman. So it goes.

In any case, at 2:45, she and the rest of her fourth grade class will don their outfits and become the Famous Americans that they have spent the last month researching, and explain to the hordes of adoring parents that will be crowding into the room why their person was famous and important, and it will be ridiculously cute. Also, there will be cookies.

This morning, as we were getting ready for school and Cordelia was going over her note cards one last time, she decided to quiz her brother. This is a time-honored tradition of big sisters (I confess to doing it myself, way back when) of quizzing their younger siblings on topics that they know absolutely nothing about so that they can feel deeply informed and awesome. Here’s how the conversation went:

CORDELIA: Leo. Quick. Who was Walt Whitman?

LEO: Ummmm. A garbage man.

CORDELIA: No.

LEO: A farmer.

CORDELIA: No.

LEO: A teacher.

CORDELIA: No. Well, yes. But only for a little while. And he hated teaching.

(That was true. Points to Cordelia. This is what he said about his time living in Long Island teaching school: “Never before have I entertained so low an idea of the beauty and perfection of man’s nature, never have I seen humanity in so degraded a shape, as here. Ignorance, vulgarity, rudeness, conceit, and dulness are the reigning gods of this deuced sink of despair.” Ouch. Even I didn’t have such rough talk for the profession that kicked my butt, long ago. Though, in retrospect, I think I may have used the “sink of despair” line once or twice.)

CORDELIA: (after some consideration) Well, he had lots of jobs. But what job made him famous? Like for forever. What did he do?

LEO: He was a baker.

CORDELIA: No.

LEO: Building canoes?

CORDELIA: No.

LEO: Sewing?

CORDELIA: NO! He was a poet.

LEO: What’s a poet?

ME: A poet is someone who writes poems for their job. Just like a novelist is someone who writes novels for their job.

LEO: Is a bookie someone who writes books for their jobs?

ME: No, that’s something else.

LEO: (thinking) Walt Whitman writes poems?

ME: Well, he did. He’s dead now.

LEO: OH! I KNOW THAT GUY!

CORDELIA: You don’t know that guy. None of us do. Because he’s dead.

LEO: No. I know his poem.

CORDELIA: No you don’t.

LEO: Yes I do. O Captain, my Captain.

ME: (jaw drop)

LEO: (thinking) O Captain, my Captain our fearful trip is done! And….(eyes rolling to the ceiling) then something about bells.

CORDELIA: Nice work Leo. I see you’ve been paying attention.

LEO: I know all about poems. I am a poemer.

ATTENTION TEENAGED ÆTHERNAUTS, SKYMINERS, AIR PIRATES AND ANACHROPOLOGISTS!

Like Steampunk?

Me too!

Have you ever wondered what an alternate Minnesota would look like? A steam-powered world of intrepid explorers, polished locomotives, bustles, spats, strict adherence to tea time, automatons and teleautomatic robot servants, and high altitude dirigibles? A world where every child knows the name of Nicola Tesla and has his daguerreotype image framed above their pillows? What would our state look like in a steampunk world?

Wonder no more!

This Saturday is Teen and Family day at the Minnesota History Center. The theme: Alternate history – Steampunk, Science Fiction, Magical Realism and other disruptions of the space-time continuum. And it’s gonna be awesome! There will be an interactive Steampunk mystery with the Red Ribbon Society, a steampunk fashion workshop with Leonardo’s Basement, and Bad September will be playing.

And I’ll be there too, along with writers Lyda Morehouse and Kelly McCullough for the Ask-A-Writer panel.

Grab your goggles and top hats, button up your duster jackets, tighten your corsets and be sure to holster your Vapor Particulator Ray Gun. It’ll be fun!

“No one is afraid of me at all,” she said. And she grinned a wicked grin.

ImageYou are not afraid of me, are you?

Perhaps you should be. After all, I killed a man yesterday. Granted, he was imaginary, but I showed motive, opportunity and intent, so perhaps I should be in prison.

Particularly since it was not my first offense. 

So far this year, I have – willingly and without remorse – killed seven people. Recently, when assembling my short fiction and laying out the spine of a possible collection, I took stock of the crimes that I have committed since first writing fiction on a professional level. In my short fiction, there are twenty-two murders, one suicide, countless maimings, one self-inflicted limb loss, and a death by burning. (Side note – never smoke cigarettes while sitting on a pile of dead, dry leaves. Trust me. It does not end well.)

And, of course, this doesn’t count the victims of war in my high fantasy stories. My god. People are dropping like flies.

Now, granted, it could have been a lot worse. One of the early draft of one story had an entire universe of people being snuffed out without a trace. That, apparently, was too scary for middle grade, (who knew?) so I changed it. 

The thing is, in real life, I don’t typically strike people as a particularly dangerous person. I am a thirty-eight year old mother of three. I drive a minivan. I volunteer at school. I bake pie and garden and chat with neighbors. I appear sinister or dangerous or threatening to exactly no one.

Once, last year, I was running along Nine Mile Creek in Bloomington. If you’ve never gone running there, I highly recommend it – soft trails along a rushing creek cut in a deep, steep ravine, full of trees and vines and flowers. There is no road noise, no houses in sight, very few people. You run in a river of green. Anyway, last year, I was running along that path, all alone. I was two miles in, and I hadn’t seen a soul the whole time. It was around eleven a.m. on a Wednesday. The bedroom community surrounding the park had all packed up and gone to work. No one was in the park.

Except me.

And some man.

I slowed down. He was about a quarter mile in front of me, travelling in the opposite direction. He looked like he was in his late forties, caucasian, scruffy beard, vest and shirt sleeves ripped off. I could see, even from that distance that he was strong. I looked at him, he looked at me, and neither of us altered our direction.

And I thought should I be frightened? I wasn’t, but I wondered if I should be. I was alone. And attacks happen. 

And I thought, if something happened to me down here, would anyone hear me call for help? Absolutely not. That much I knew for sure.

And I thought, does he think of me as a threat. Is he frightened of me? Again, absolutely not. Though, he should have been. I know how to kill a man with a set of keys. I know how to use someone else’s momentum to throw them to the ground and then step on their neck. I know a lot of things. I’ve been in three fist fights in my life, and broke two noses (neither of them my own) in the process. I would likely be able to defend myself if need be. Plus, I was faster and stronger. And I have a wicked left hook.

And I though, how strange that, because of my gender and my age, because of my Anglo features and my crows feet and my wedding ring, no one sees me as a threat.

Now, of course, the encounter in the park occurred without incident. We passed, I said hello, he nodded, and that was that. He was nothing to be frightened of. Neither, apparently, was I.

But you know, I wish I was. Sometimes, I wish I was frightening. Sometimes I wish I was dangerous. Sometimes I wish I was sinister or ominous or wicked or menacing. I am not. I am the open-armed mama folding laundry and cooking soup. No one is afraid of me at all. 

Real people aren’t, anyway. Characters, on the other hand, are friggin’ terrified.

And really, in my real life, I like being a cookie-baking matron with a swarm of kids in the back yard and a gentle lilt in the voice. I like being the neighbor with the cocoa on the stove and the wine in the pantry and the nine million sleds or bikes or scooters in the garage. I like drawing pictures with kids. I really do. But I also like the idea that I could be dangerous- that I could be a threat, but that I choose not to.

Because the line between good and evil is perilously thin.

And I want to keep the world on its toes.

Today. In the car.

The kids were all buckled in when I ran out to the car, tea sloshing everywhere, shoes only half on. I sat down in the midst of an argument that went something like this.

Cordelia: Mom.

Me: (searching for keys) What?

Cordelia: Tell Leo what boogers are made of.

Leo: Candy.

Me: Not candy.

The Little Redhaired Boy: See?

Leo: Rats.

Me: Boogers are made of dried up snot, skin cells, dust, pollen, street dirt, in your case: dog hair, and lots and lots of germs.

Leo: Well, that’s not so bad.

Cordelia: Mom!

Me: What?

Cordelia: Tell him that you can’t eat boogers.

Me: Oh. For sure, Leo. You can’t eat boogers.

The Little Redhaired Boy: SEE, LEO?

Leo: But boogers are so good! And sometimes I get hungry.

The Little Redhaired Boy: If you get hungry, then you can eat bugs. Lots of people all over the world eat bugs all the time. 

Leo: Really?

The Little Rehaired Boy: Yes. So next time you get really hungry, just find a spider. Then eat it.

Cordelia: Or a worm.

Leo: Can I eat grasshoppers?

Me: Sure, but you should first ask its permission. Grasshoppers are terribly fastidious and won’t be eaten by just anybody. They will want to know whether you have brushed your teeth lately, and will likely inquire as to the state of your nails. They will want to know if your room is clean and if your toes are free of jam and if you have recently washed the dishes.

The Little Redhaired Boy: My room is clean. I can totally eat a grasshopper.

Leo: I’m fastidious.

(pause)

(pause)

Leo: What does fastidious mean?

Cordelia: It means “not Leo”.

Me: You should be careful of grasshoppers, though. While they are reputed to be delicious, they are also terribly clever. A grasshopper might convince you to build it a new house, or give it the PIN to your bank account, or buy it a rocket ship.

Leo: Grasshoppers like pins?

The Little Redhaired Boy: They use them as swords.

Leo: ON GUARD!