Category Archives: Writing

A Buffet on Cheat Day


I used to steer away from nonfiction books the way you steer away from cliffs or angry moose. What, read something that isn’t about story? Something from which I can’t learn about character and plot and structure and all things writerly? Nonsense. I only have so many hours in the day; that’s time wasted.

And, well, I used to be a lot dumber than I am these days, too. (Which is not, by the way, to say that I am not currently dumb. I am currently very dumb about a great many things. But not, I think, as dumb as I used to be.)

Because if fiction books are good (we hope!) for learning about all those things in that top paragraph — awesome, deep characters, twistedly perfect plots, etc — nonfiction books are infinitely better for learning what your stories are really about. The world we live in. The private worlds that exist inside our heads. The nuts and bolts of reality. The often harrowing stranger-than-fiction stories that have really happened to real people.

I can’t believe I used to turn my nose up. Thanks to my re-discovery of the stunning awesomeness of libraries, I’m diving into nonfiction with a passion.

But the time! I hear my former (and current) self crying. Reading a book is such a significant investment of time and mental energy — how do you pick?

Well, here’s another secret I’ve learned about nonfiction: you don’t have to read the entire book. (This goes for fiction, too, but the sense of commitment to characters is a lot harder to overcome.) In fact, it’s a rare nonfiction book that I’ll read cover-to-cover, unless the writing is just dynamite (in which case there are things to learn there outside the subject matter of the book itself).

I treat my nonfiction books like a buffet on cheat day. Sure, the salad bar is there. And I’m welcome to fill up a plate with the leafy greens of statistics and deep technical jargon of astronomy or sociology or the mechanics of religious faiths. But what I really want are the slabs of steak and greasy chicken with piles of mashed potatoes and everything that’s fried: the raw, personal anecdotes and shocking first-person accounts and fascinating glimpses into the invisible.

So when I pick up nonfiction, the first thing I do is scan the chapters like I’m scoping out the buffet on the way to a table. Ooh, I definitely have to have some of that. Maybe a nibble from over there. Not going anywhere near those. And I’ve got to save room for dessert.

Not only does this make reading nonfiction — which has a bad rap for being a bit dry and tasteless — more fun and mentally engaging, but it paradoxically encourages me to read even more widely on things I might not have bothered with. I know I’m not making a week-long commitment before I even crack the cover; I know I can put the book down and move on to something else if it isn’t moving me.

All of which leads me back to one of my personal axioms not just as a writer, but as a teacher and a human as well:

All reading is good reading.

At best, you’re learning new things and improving yourself in the process. At worst, you’re learning what not to do and what to avoid. Win-win, baby.

Pass the mashed potatoes.

(Actually, don’t. Tomorrow is cheat day — I’ll just take them in a doggy bag.)

Advertisements

Metaphor Monday: Rip Tide


I’m out at the beach with my kid.

Tybee Island has some of the most gently sloping beaches you’ll ever see; the difference between high tide and low tide feels like about forty yards, and depending on the time of day and where you choose to explore, you can wade way out and still find yourself only in water up to your waist.

So we’re way out. A good thirty or forty yards from shore, which is about as far as I care to go. (Thalassophobia. I don’t have it, but I get it.) And we’re bobbing around on these tubes, my son delighting in swooping up and down with the gentle waves, me trying to relax (at least as much as an appropriately paranoid parent can relax when his six-year-old is floating on the ocean, which is to say, only so much). One of the sprout’s favorite things to do is to pretend to fall out of his tube — he screams, dramatically, “oh no!” and tips it over sideways, pitching himself into the drink, then swims up under it and hoists himself back in so he can do it again. He’s doing this over and over, and I’m only kind of paying attention. My mind is wandering the way it only can when you’re floating, feeling weightless in the grip of the great salty blue. (Okay, the waters at Tybee are pretty murky — but you know what I mean.)

Next thing I know: “daddy, get my float.”

I turn and look. The float is a good twenty yards out. I paddle lamely after it for a moment, doing a sort of backwards butterfly with just my hands while floating in my own ring. That ain’t working; every foot I gain, the waves push me back. So I flop out of the ring and make to wade over there and get it — except my feet don’t touch bottom. I go under and catch a nose full of salt water, and come up spluttering.

Well, that doesn’t seem right. I whip around to glance at the shore, see how far out we are, and oh boy oh boy have we drifted. We’re about twice as far out as I thought we were, and the people on the shore look disturbingly tiny.

I start paddling after my kid’s float, but with a head full of seawater and my not-so-great swimming skills, it ain’t going so hot. Plus, I’ve seen Jaws, and I know that a human flailing around in coastal waters triggers an ocean predator’s prey drive like a fat, oblivious seal — so something like panic is flooding my system too. (Even though I know that’s ridiculous.) In my head, I see images of that riptide warning poster that they post everywhere at the beach:

Image result for riptide warning signs

And I think I might actually be caught in one of these things. (I’m not, as it turns out, but just try telling that to a brain that thinks it’s simultaneously drowning and being stalked by sharks.)

I turn to look toward shore once more and I see that my kid is paddling out after me. Something about that short-circuits whatever thinking I’m doing at this point. My lizard brain kicks the rational part of me out of the driver’s seat. Now it feels like a fight for survival. It suddenly feels like there’s miles of open water yawning beneath my feebly kicking feet, like the ocean itself is a living thing pulling me and my kid out.

I shout at him to go back to the shore, but he’s six — he’s a worse swimmer than I am, and though he’s doggie-paddling dutifully toward shore, he’s drifting even closer to me. I throw a glance over my shoulder at the float — it’s even farther away now, which seems impossible. My thinking brain sends up one last smoke signal that bubbles through my lizard-brain haze: It’s a five-dollar float, you idiot, help your kid!

With that, I hook two fingers into my kid’s swimming vest and paddle back toward the shore in earnest. We make it back without a fuss. My wife’s looking at me a bit oddly — to be fair, I’m a bit more spluttering and wide-eyed than usual. I turn around and look for the float; it’s basically a speck, floating a quarter-mile out from the shore. To make matters worse, it pretty much stays there for the next hour or so.

And I just have to watch it. And feel shame.

So.

Since it’s Metaphor Monday (when was the last one of those??), this is the part where I say this thing is like writing, and man, it’s easy to do. Sub in my project (or, in fact, yours, faithful reader) for the float, and you’re done.

I allowed myself to be distracted and took my eye off the float for a moment; next thing I know, the circumstances (my kid flipping the raft, the current, maybe even the wind, who knows?) had the thing out of reach and quickly drifting farther away. This is my writing project: you take a little break from it, and the tiniest things can push it away — out of convenient reach, where it doesn’t feel like you can get around to it, or out of mind entirely, where you don’t even think about it for a little while.

Next moment: I’m paddling after it but I’m in over my head, and I’m panicking as a result. I look up, in other words, and see that the project has gotten away from me, so I panic and make it a lot more important than it is. (If I don’t write a little bit today, I may never get it back.) Not to mention, I’m not the strongest swimmer (writer!) so even paddling after it feels like not making any progress at all — I sit down to write and feel like I just can’t do it, or I try to brainstorm on the project but my mind immediately wanders. Bang, it feels like I’m in a fight for my life — or, at the very least, the life of my project.

Next moment: I realize my kid is out here with me and decide to let the float go. In other words, I grasp that my family is still here on vacation with me and not going anywhere, and the choice of where to spend my time seems suddenly very obvious. I grab the kid and swim for shore — I give up on the project (again) and let it float away, as frustrating and painful as that may be.

Finally: I have to sit there and watch the float bobbing on the waves a quarter mile out from shore, unable to do anything about it. Well, that one’s obvious, too — no matter how much distance I get from the project, it’s never really gone — it just hangs there in the back of my mind (or, as t’were, floating on the horizon of my subconscious) waiting for me to swim out and get it. Perhaps taunting me. Because now, the work required to get it back is, admittedly, huge.

Interestingly, that’s where the metaphor breaks down — because while the float is well and truly gone no matter how frustrated I get or how silly I feel (or how much I lament the fact that it will probably end up choking some poor unsuspecting sea animal — and that does hurt my heart, unless it’s a shark, because seriously, I’VE SEEN JAWS), the project is not in any way gone. In fact, I sat down just this morning to put some words on the page and, while I’m nowhere near on the timeline I wanted to be, the project feels very much in reach again.

Writing, in other words, is just like riding a bike. Doesn’t matter how much time you take off, it’s right there waiting for you when you decide to go back to it.

Wait, that’s a different metaphor entirely. Damn.


Lots of Time, Not Enough Time


Summer is weird for my writing process.

I do my project writing at work — arriving early and carving time out of my lunch break to get my daily word count in. Which is great. It’s regular, it’s very rarely disrupted, and it’s (for the most part) uninterrupted. The big problem with it is: I’m a teacher. Which means that, for two months out of every year, and on the odd week here and there, my writing routine hits a speed bump. Except it’s less speed bump and more an entire clutch of trees fallen across the road.

trees see GIF

Because when we’re on vacation — and man, I’m not complaining about vacation! — so many of the elements I like to have in place are out of place. I don’t have my usual space. I don’t have the relative quiet. I definitely don’t have the lack of interruption.

Instead, I’m trying to work on the sofa in the living room, or the desk downstairs, with the kids running laps through the house and asking me endless questions. There’s no such thing as quiet. There’s no such a thing as even an interrupted five minutes.

I have all the time I could want, but I can’t buy the moments.

Like having reservations to a fancy restaurant on the night of my kid’s graduation.

Or having a membership to a swanky gym on the opposite side of town.

The thing is there, but it might as well be behind bulletproof plexiglass. I just can’t get to it. It’s frustrating as hell. I have so much time in the day, but I can’t — or at least, haven’t figured out how to — use that time.

Which means that, yet again, the project is stalled, until I can find a more reliable way to work on it. Which may well be going back to school in the fall.

Ugh.

This post is part of Stream-of-Consciousness Saturday.


Fail-Safe


Fail-safe does not mean what you think it means.

I mean, okay, sure, language is fluid, meanings are not fixed, words mean what we agree they mean. But origins of words can be instructive. So: fail-safe.

thought it meant some kind of device (or in a more informal, metaphorical sense, a procedure) that would keep another device from failing. Kinda like anti-lock brakes. It’s raining out, you slam on the brakes, which makes you skid, which makes you crash — the anti-lock brakes kick in, keep you from skidding, help you avoid the crash. Fail-safe.

Wrong!

Fail-safe was a term they invented for nuclear weapons. (I learned this reading Command and Control by Eric Schlosser, which is fantastic for exploring the limits of just how wide you can open your eyes in disbelief.) In their early days, especially, there was a great deal of unease that the warheads could be detonated by accident. (Spoiler alert: this fear has not been alleviated.) This was owing to the tremendous number of moving parts and interconnected systems (electrical impulses created by piezoelectric crystals crushed on impact powering explosive lenses which cause an implosion forcing the nuclei of radioactive atoms to fuse). Bombs have been accidentally dropped from airplanes more than once. Missiles have exploded on the launchpad or underground in their silos. Airplanes have crashed while carrying nukes. The fact that we haven’t had a self-inflicted nuclear explosion looks more and more miraculous after reading this book.

But it’s owing to these fail-safes. To really understand the concept, you have to think about what “failure” means. With a nuclear bomb, that’s easy. The bomb is designed to explode, and in the process of its explosion, to set off a nuclear reaction, leading to an even bigger explosion. How could that go wrong? Well, there’s the time factor: go off too early and you set the bomb off in your own backyard or in somebody else’s  backyard (which is not the kind of thing you can apologize for with a casserole and a check), go off too late and you have the same set of problems. Or, maybe it doesn’t go off at all, and you’ve deposited a radioactive paperweight in the countryside or the bottom of the ocean. Then there’s targeting: say the missile gets carried off course or the thrusters don’t fire or maybe you’re just dropping the bomb from a plane but it’s cloudy and you drop it on the wrong thing. Then there’s human error. Maybe some general gets crazy and hits the big red button out of turn. Or maybe some pilot performing maintenance on the plane mid-flight accidentally grabs the manual release lever and drops the bomb over North Carolina. (NOT THAT THAT HAS EVER HAPPENED OR ANYTHING seriously this book is horrifying.)

atomic-bomb-1011738_1280

That’s a lot of ways to fail. And you simply can’t prevent all of those things — especially the human error component. So what you can do is design your bombs

The fail-safes don’t stop the bombs from failing. Failure of a nuclear bomb would mean a crater miles across centered on some poor pig farmer’s backyard. The fail-safes ensure that, in the event of a failure, the bomb doesn’t do what it’s designed to do — in other words, in failing, the device remains safe.

Drop or launch the bomb by mistake, and it doesn’t arm, so maybe you put a hole in the aforementioned pig farmer’s backyard, but you don’t put a hole in Kansas. It fails, safely. In some cases, the bomb (which is to say the business end, the warhead) can even be repackaged, tuned up, and used once more.

Which is sort of a fascinating metaphor for the writer’s life, as it turns out. Because failure is EVERYWHERE, and it’s nothing short of miraculous that writers aren’t leaving radioactive craters in their wake everyday.

How, then, does the writer fail safe?

By having other things to focus on. Something — ANYthing — to take your mind off the fact that you just received ANOTHER rejection letter (or, worse, no letter at all!). The next project. The next query letter. Your next run or workout. Some dedicated family time. That book you’ve been meaning to read. Heck, just a walk around the block. SOMETHING. (May I recommend, if you’re the high-strung type, NOT reading Command and Control.)

How do you fail safe when it feels like you’re not getting anywhere?


NINE NINE


So Brooklyn 99 got canceled. And the internet threw a spontaneous collective hissy fit.

And then, in virtually no time at all, it got picked up again, on a different network. And the internet rejoiced.

But why the outcry over a relatively mundane comedy? And why the rapturous happiness at its immediate renewal? And why, for that matter, did NBC scoop it up so immediately, when Fox was ready to cut it loose? People feel strongly about the show. Exceptionally strong. Why? (And yeah, in the Internet of Things, all kinds of people love all kinds of things and everybody gets rabid about the things they love, so outspoken fans are not exactly unique. But fans of Brooklyn 99 seem more rabid than most.)

I don’t think it’s the humor, though the show is very funny; it blends deadpan snark with brick-to-the-face slapstick and the simple, tried-and-true formula of putting ridiculous characters in ridiculous situations for maximum comic effect. But B99 is not the only show doing this.

More likely, it’s the show’s subtle message of inclusion, its all-are-welcome and all-play-by-the-same-rules ethos that you really don’t find on other shows right now. Consider:

Captain Holt is the leader of the precinct. He’s black, and gay, and super-intimidating and exceedingly protocol-driven. But he’s also overtly willing to learn from his subordinates, and becomes more father figure than boss to most of them. He also has frequent moments of badass and hilarity.

Sergeant Jeffords is the second-in-command. He’s black, and ridiculously muscular, but rather than making him the “heavy” or the “bruiser”, he’s first and foremost a family man. Always driven by his wife and kids, he often ends up dropping wisdom on the others in the show. He also has frequent moments of badass and hilarity.

Rosa Diaz is Latina and bisexual, and she’s also the most feared person in the precinct. Not because of her differences, but just because her entire demeanor is terrifying. Of course, under that demeanor, she’s got a gooey center, but she’ll still throttle you for pointing it out. She also has frequent moments of badass and hilarity.

Then there’s Hitchcock and Scully, the stereotypical donut-chomping desk jockeys, usually played for laughs but still given the occasional moment of badassery. Amy Santiago is insufferable and brown-nosing, but still gets regular moments of badassery. Charles Boyle and Jake Peralta are the awkward cop buddies who seem to subvert every cop buddy trope, but they still feature in the show’s moments of badassery.

The show is an equal-opportunity feature machine, in other words, giving every character — regardless of what you may think you know about what makes them who they are — a chance to show out and, ultimately, just be a cop. Everybody gets to save the day. Everybody has others depending on them and actually follows through.

And that, I think, is what makes the show work so well. The character differences serve the comedy — yes, of course — but they also tell you only so much about the characters: what really tells you about the characters is watching how they cover for each other, how they get each other’s backs, and how little they care about their differences. What makes the show work with all its diversity* is the fact that the diversity is basically never addressed, and it’s never played for cheap laughs.

Point is, B99 isn’t all in-your-face with its inclusion — the inclusion is just part of the fabric of the show, which means you basically don’t even notice it.

Which I think is why people lost their minds when it got canceled. (And likewise rejoiced when it was saved.) It’s nice to have stories where people who are different don’t just have to talk about their differences all the time. The cops on B99 are cops first, human co-workers second, and, somewhere way down the line, they’re also ethnically diverse.

And let’s be honest: the show is funny as hell, too. That doesn’t hurt.

Nine Nine

Image is owned by Fox. For now.

*note that a show that includes a non-white individual or two just for the sake of having a diverse cast kind of misses the point. Have them, yes, by all means. But make them part of the storyline, and better yet, make the stories about them without making the stories about their differences.


%d bloggers like this: