Friday, October 30, 2009

The Red Baron Lives.

I really like champagne. Okay, that has nothing to do with this blog, other than that its Friday night, I should have written this post this morning, and now I'm reveling in a lovely bottle of bubbly supplied by my parents who, fortunately for me, happen to have fantastic taste in champagne. The apple doesn't fall far and all that . . .

Anyhoo, its Halloween. The time for trick or treat, candy and costumes, ghouls and goblins. As I dressed my son in his store-bought "Golden Dragon Ninja" costume today (an early victim of precisely targeted marketing, my son. He has two other very viable ninja costumes), I felt sad I hadn't made his costume, that we hadn't culled together random pieces of fabric, poster board, old jewelry, and make-up to come up with some fabulous iteration of Sponge Bob, Anakin Skywalker, or Caillou (yeah, I know I could just shave his head and call it good on that one. . . .what's with that kid having no hair?). But, for better or worse, that's not how we roll in the Blanco house. A homemade meal, for sure. Homemade costumes, never going to happen. But does that mean I have to forsake all sense of tradition and authenticity? Well, perhaps. On Tuesday night, when I cleared my schedule and set the whole house up for an Its the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown viewing, they just wanted to watch Goosebumps and then the Monsters vs. Alien Halloween special. They begged, they pleaded, but I made them sit and watch Its the Great Pumpkin and I'm not ashamed to say I issued several threats during that half hour. I repeated Lucy's jokes, highlighted Schroeder's talent, but you know what? They didn't care. I guess I can only hope that one day my son will fake complain that his mother made him watch The Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown every year and that he'll meet people later in life who have the exact same story.

So I'll ask the same question I always do. What does this have to do with writing? Well, not much. But it has something to do with reading. My book club has recently read some great new books - The Selected Works of T.S Spivet being one of them. What a book, what a character. I would recommend it to anyone. But now we're reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and I can't help but think of Linus waiting for the Great Pumpkin and Snoopy as the Red Baron lost in France during WWI, and ask where would we be, who would be, without the classics.

Friday, October 23, 2009

And the Student Becomes the Teacher...

I had the pleasure of helping edit some short stories today for a writing class. The assignment was to write a story in 10 minutes or less, in the spirit of a Native American legend, explaining something we take for granted in our modern world. The stories had titles like, "Why the Sun is in the Sky," "How Snakes and Legless Lizards Came to Be," and, my personal favorite, "Why Women Talk So Much." (In case you're wondering, a lovely, handsome man wooed a young maiden and they would have lived happily ever after, except she ran around the woods and proclaimed her love to all who would listen and he was hounded day and night by curious and annoying woodland creatures until he had enough and sailed away, leaving the maiden with only her own voice for company. I probably would have titled it, "Why Women are Better Off Alone Than With Some Tool Who Can't Express His Feelings," but that's just me...)

I must say, I was impressed. The stories were only a page or two in length, but fully formed. The students were instructed to use their senses, so the stories were engaging, but also to the point. There was no digression, no backstory, no sentences requiring more than one breath, no cramming of words where they don't fit just because they sound pretty. Sure, given more time the authors could have rounded out their stories, but the exercise reminded me that, at its core, writing is about the story. The plot. The point! So often, I find myself stumbling over my words, trying to craft something beautiful, publishable, worthy of a table at Barnes and Noble. I've stared at a blinking cursor, trying to sift literary gold from the muddy recesses of my brain for longer than the time it took these students to write an entire story. Maybe, in those instances, I should try to just write what happens. After all, once I lay the foundation, I can build upon it later. Like Maria von Trapp always said, the beginning (the very beginning) is a very good place to start. So, thank you, Mrs. Sloan's fourth grade class (yes, fourth graders!) for helping me get back to basics.

And, in that odd, inexplicable way that everything seems cosmically connected these days, I stumbled upon this link on InkyGirl's website (helpful blogger for writers, and ridiculously hilarious literary cartoonist). It's called "One Word," and each day it provides a different one-word prompt. Writers have 60 seconds to write about that word. I haven't tried it yet, but it looks like it would help those of us (you know who you are) with the tendency to look far too long before leaping.

Friday, October 16, 2009

10 Things I Hate . . .Not About You, I Promise

It's not cool to put negative energy out in the world. I try in earnest to live that each day so that's why I'm considering this more of an unsolicited, benign airing of pet peeves than a rant about things that bother me. And in any event, I'm hoping I have enough stored up in the karma bank should the universe take it a different way. What does it have to do with writing? Well, let's see.

10 Things I Hate . . .Not About You

1. Those things you often see on the roof at car dealerships that look like a large dancing person, but are really just heaps of plastic that move by the gale force of a large fan. I hate those.
2. Passive-aggressive communication. Hate that.
3. The sound and feel of styrofoam. Ick.
4. The fact that businesses employ people to stand on the road waving a sign. Bums me out.
5. Waiting in line for the car wash when the person in front of me does the super slow drive out under the dryer. Get a hand wash if you're that concerned, people. Its a drive-thru.
6. Kalamata olives. Gag.
7. All of the Kardashians and Paris Hilton. Sorry, that's kind of about them, I suppose.
8. When people take themeselves too seriously.
9. Being grabbed in that tickle spot around/just above the knee. And I don't fake-ha-ha-squeal-hate that. I hate that.
And what I hate most of all . . .David Lettermen (although maybe I shouldn't so easily invoke his name) drum roll here . . .

10. Writer's block.

Friday, October 9, 2009

My life story, Holden Caulfield, and a living saint

So, you know I planned to post a blog a day for Great Books Week. Well, I skipped the past two days - circumstances beyond my control, I tell you (and maybe, just maybe, some Chardonnay). But, never are posts for the last three days, all rolled up in one convenient, easy to use post:)

Topic: I'd write my autobiography, but I don't need to because my story has already been told in [what classic book].

This was supposed to post Wednesday, but when I divulge the name of the book that most resembles my life, you'll understand why. Okay, okay, so it doesn't track my entire life, but if I just take a snapshot of my life right at this moment (with one kid home sick with swine flu, important deadlines looming at work, successive dinners from a box or bag, and a stalled manuscript)'s Lord of the Flies by William Golding. (I considered One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, with an inmates-taking-over-the-asylum analogy, but thouight my family might take issue.). I don't know exactly when it happened, but somewhere between "we're not going to be too indulgent as parents" and "okay, boys, you string hammocks in the hallway and eat canned frosting for breakfast if you'll just settle down and let me finish my work/work-out/chapter/edit/glass of wine" I lost control of the little three bedroom, 2 bath island we call home. Rescue missions appreciated...bring chocolate.

Topic: I hated [book] when I had to read it in high school, but when I read it on my own later, I loved it because . . .

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. My impression in Senior AP English? Blech. It was about a boy. Bo-ring. And he was whining about college, of all things. I'd just sent off my applications, worried I'd be stuck in my no-movie-theatre, party-in-the-cow-pastures town forever, and Holden was complaining about college? Even the much-hyped "bad word" didn't save the book. I thought he was a whiny boy with no real problems and I didn't understand why I should care about him. I reread the book last summer, after having two boys of my own (and raising a husband). And, it just clicked. Maybe it's our culture, or the benefit of psych 101, but Holden came across as a depressed ADD-addled narcissist. And that, is actually interesting.

Topic: When I want to give someone a special gift, I give them [book] because...

Oh, there are soooo many! It depends on the person and where they are in life. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert is a favorite. (I tend to even urge strangers to buy it, and I've given it to many, many friends). Another favorite is Three Cups of Tea. In fact, I know someone who sent her copy to President Obama after she read it, because it moved her so much. I'm going to re-post here a blog I wrote earlier this year about the book - it will explain why it is a special gift, and hopefully inspire you to buy it for yourself, or someone you love.

Here's the thing about Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin . . . you just need to read it. No matter your political affiliation, religious beliefs, social status, gender, ethnicity, race, age, or favorite breakfast cereal (mine's Cheerios . . . I'm old school), it will speak to you. Within the pages of the book, "hope" and "change," which have saturated our airwaves the past two years, cease existing as words and take shape as tangible ideals.
The book is non-fiction - a true account of American Greg Mortenson's failed attempt to climb K2 and his subsequent recuperation in a remote mountain village in Pakistan, which spawned his promise to build a school for the village, and led to 15 years of single-minded devotion to educating the war-stricken and impoverished children of Pakistan and Afghanistan. I know, I know, it sounds kind of dry. But it is not. It reads less like a factual account and more like an action-packed novel with a daring protagonist who just happens to have integrity running through his veins. It's like the love-child of Into the Wild and a biography of Mother Teresa. There is enough action to induce stomach acid (falling down mountains, kidnapping by a radical sect of Pakistani militants) and sufficient facts, figures, and maps to appease a scholar. But above all, there is the story. The story of impoverished communities in the Middle East whose hospitality toward Greg made me examine my own notions of love and acceptance. The story of children, their villages and parents and siblings destroyed by years of civil conflict, foreign wars, and American missiles, who scratch figures in the dirt because they have no school but want to learn. The story of radical Madrassas sprouting up across Pakistan and Afghanistan, built with blood money, certain to educate generations in the art of terror and graduate scores of Jihadists who hate America, unless the children have the option of attending real schools. The story of Muslim leaders agreeing to educate girls, because they recognize the importance of education for the future of the individual, the nation, and the world. The story of a Pakistani girl (who, ten years ago, had never attended school) now studying to become a doctor for women. And the story of Greg Mortenson who, through sheer determination and love for humanity, began raising money, building schools, paying teachers, and otherwise attending to the real human needs of the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan. While living out of his car. The story of hope. The story of change. The story of peace.
I don't presume to know how the book will affect you. For me, it engendered many feelings. I was embarrassed that I had to keep referring to the map at the beginning of the book because I never learned Middle Eastern geography. I was ashamed that in the days after 9/11, I was scared of the turbaned men on the BART train with me--that I considered myself progressive, and yet subconsciously equated Muslim with Terrorist. I was so incredibly thankful for my life in America, for my education and my opportunities, which I admit, I've taken for granted. The book talks about teachers and children climbing a ladder to reach the second story of their school, because the stairs were bombed out. I couldn't help but think about what would happen in America. Here, parents would be outraged if their child's school didn't meet each and every building standard. Here, most kids would be thrilled if they couldn't reach their classroom. I was inspired by Greg. I believe that one person can make a difference. I was frustrated at our government's lack of humanitarian aid, but simultaneously so proud to be an American, because, as citizens, we can be a beacon of light around the world.
It is so much more than a book about the Middle East. It challenges, educates, and inspires. For me, it shifted my perception. It clearly demarcated the notions of "want" and "need." It led me to pick up trash in my neighborhood and seriously consider whether I "needed" to add another pair of jeans to my closet. Given the result of the election, I think Americans are ready to embrace a spirit of volunteerism. Even if you think are not, please, read the book. It exemplifies pioneering spirit and perseverance at its best.
To learn more about Greg's foundation, the Central Asia Institute, or to make a donation, visit: To learn more about Three Cups of Tea, visit:

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Great Books Week, Part Deux

NAIWE's blog topic for today, in honor of Great Books Week, is: "When I was a child, my favorite book was… because…." I could fill pages (screens) with my love for Laura Ingalls, Betsey and Tacy, and, sigh, The Secret Language. But I'm going to modify the topic a bit and post a blog I wrote last year as a guest blogger for Engine Ed (for more discussion of children's books, check out Engine Ed's site). Let's call it, "now that I'm an adult, my favorite children's book is...because..."

I started reading chapter books when I was four years old, imagining myself putting on a show with Annie Oakley, sleeping on a bed of pine needles with the Boxcar Children, and traveling in a wagon with Ma and Pa Ingalls. When my boys were born, I couldn’t wait until they were old enough to enter magical fictional worlds . . . and I was devastated when they were uninterested. They’d spend hours with a snake encyclopedia or guide to rocks and minerals, but my attempts to engage them in Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh were met with yawns. And then my older son received a copy of Where the Sidewalk Ends for his 6th birthday. Thanks to Shel Silverstein and his perfect imagination, we read and laugh together nightly. To say that his poems are funny or interesting merely scratches the surface. Shel Silverstein had a gift for giving voice to topics that roll around silently in most kids’ brains and are dismissed by adults. Silly topics like belching (Rudy Felsh), scary topics like getting sucked down the bath drain (Skinny), and important topics, like how we’re all alike inside (No Difference). His poems address these topics without condescension, preaching, or advice—they have just the right amount of humor and irony. And though they seem silly at first, they often touch upon a deeper truth about how kids feel and think. A great example is the poem What a Day, which describes how it feels to have the weight of the world on your shoulders—a feeling many adults incorrectly assume is reserved only for grown-ups. Uncle Shelby writes: What a day/Oh what a day./My baby brother ran away/And now my tuba will not play./I’m eight years old and turning grey/Oh what a day/Oh what a day. Indeed.

I highly recommend this book, as well as his other poetry collections (A Light in the Attic, Runny Babbitt, etc.). I like to think of the poems as small bridges across the generation gap. Not only will you laugh, you’ll also remember what it’s like to be a child. And, if you’re like me, you just may find that the poems mirror your dreams and desires for your children. As Mr. Silverstein says:

Listen to the MUSTN’TS, child
Listen to the DON’TS
Listen to the SHOULDN’TS
Listen to the NEVER HAVES
hen listen close to me—
Anything can happen, child
ANYTHING can be.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Great Books Week!

I was posting more chick twit today (in case you haven't seen, we're tweeting the first chapter of The Pecking Order, check it out), and came across Grammar Girl's tweet about Great Books Week. In honor of Great Books Week, the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors is "hosting a Blog Tour with a specific daily topic Monday through Friday." Though it may cut into our fug girls time, it sounds fun and we decided to participate. Here's the first topic:

If I were stranded alone on a deserted island with only seven books to read over the next few years, I would like to have…
1. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. If I were stranded alone on an island, I’d probably be neck deep in self-pity (and sand), and Gilbert’s book would, as always (the two to three times I read it each year), remind me that I can choose how I wish to feel in this vast universe.
2. The Prince of Tides, by Pat Conroy. Language. Beautiful, lyrical, gut-wrenching language. Plus, he so effectively conveys the splendor of the ocean and the tides, with which I’m destined over the next few years, apparently, to become intimately familiar.
3. The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger. I had to make a chart the first time I read this book, and even then I’m not sure I fully grasped the time travel component. Time travel hurts my head. It’s why watching Lost sometimes puts me in a state of panic. But if I have a few years to figure it out, I’d love to dive back in.
4. Flowers in the Attic, by V.C. Andrews. Because I have to have a guilty pleasure now and then, and there won’t be any US Weekly or OK magazine stands on the island. And I doubt the coconuts make good gossip fodder.
5. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris. Solitude doesn't exactly do wonders for one's sense of humor and laughter is the best medicine and all that, so I can't imagine a deserted island without at least one of Sedaris's collection of guffaw-inducing essays.
6. Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl. This book is a reminder that books are fun, stories are fun, language is fun, perhaps moving me to pen a humorous, fictionalized account of my ordeal on banana leaves or the bark of palm trees.
7. The Collected Works of Shakespeare. Lust, murder, disguise, and iambic pentameter. Does it get any better? Plus, it could make an effective tent.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Dharma and Karma and Funeral Homes

Last night at Zuda, I was in the second minute of Utkatasana (or squat for my gym friends)--sweating, wincing, possibly cursing--when our instructor said "When things are hard, the teacher is in the room". The teacher, of course, being the universe or God, depending on how you roll in that regard. And at the end, he chanted something for which I can't remember the exact translation from Sanskrit, but the gist was the universe--or God-- is wise, all-knowing, and our greatest teacher.

Fabulous, you're thinking, what does this have to do with writing? Well, as you few, but fierce fictionlimbo followers know, Laura and I trekked across the country last week for a real, live Done Fell Out research trip. If you know me and Laura, or if you're a mother who often feels the weight of your family, perhaps the world, on your shoulders, you know how not-easy it is to make a solo trip and leave the troops behind to fend for themselves. Will lunches get made? Will homework be completed? Will they make it to practice? Will they--God, please--wear underwear to school? I could go on and on, but you get it. So as the date approached, Laura and I worried we were being frivolous, indulgent, even delusional. Sure, as we went through security and boarded the plane, we gave lip service to the commitment to our craft, nothing ventured, nothing gained, and other Oprah-isms, but not so deep down, we both questioned whether the trip was a good use of our time.

This is where the yoga comes in, the chant, the universe, God; because we found our answer shortly after we walked into McDougald Funeral Home and Crematorium, a place we were referred to as a result of chance encounters and the kindness of strangers. (In the interest of context, and in case I've not mentioned this before, our main character in Done Fell Out--a California native-- inherits a funeral home in a small town in North Carolina). There we met Beacham McDougald, whose family has owned the funeral home since the mid 1800s when it was a funeral home and a furniture store, who happened to have a free hour to discuss his business (he had two funerals that afternoon), talk about the families he serviced, give us a tour, and who happened--hello universe, God--to be a writer. He didn't say as much, but when he gave us (yes, gave and let us take home) a personally bound collection of the stories he'd written about the families his home had serviced, we knew writing was also his personal passion. Laura and I looked at each other with the tears and goose bumps of gratitude because we knew with all certainty (and how often does that happen?) that in that moment, in that instant, we were exactly where God, the universe, intended.

A special thanks to Beacham McDougald for his time and his lovely stories and a special apology to Ty at Zuda for possibly butchering his lovely chant.