Saturday, July 29, 2017

Write? Yeah, right.

For the third summer in a row, I’ve spent a week teaching a novel-writing course to high school students, and for the third year in a row I approached this particular week with anxiety. They’re teenagers, after all, a difficult crowd to appease, or at least that’s what I nervously imagine each time. And of course every year it goes just fine. The class is part of a week-long “English Studies Camp” at the university where I used to teach, and these are students who have willingly—excitedly—enrolled in such a thing when they could be doing, well, anything else with their summer besides going back to school. In other words, they are word nerds, they love reading and writing, and in my class in particular, they all want to be novelists.

This is very sweet. It is also very heartbreaking. For a long time I too wanted to be a novelist, but lately I’ve been far less enamored with this dream—and not just out of sour grapes for my less-than-best-seller status as an author. I’ve found myself wondering how much good all these novels out there are doing for humanity and for the mess of a world we live in. Does reading novels really make us better people, or does it just make us think we’re better people without making us actually do better things? 

I don’t wonder any of this aloud in the classroom, of course. The world needs writers! I cry, and fires are lit in their eyes. But I don’t believe my own words. There are more valuable things than writing. I think everyone should be kind. I think everyone should do what they can for the environment, for the natural world. I think everyone should read. But should everyone write? In my opinion, no. 

Still, I don’t want to be the one who demolishes someone’s writerly dreams (or worse, gives them the fuel to churn out a successful novel every year and dedicate them, in-your-face-like, to me). I had this in mind when the earnest young lady, the one who always came to class clutching at least three huge hardback books weighing more than she did, approached me after class and displayed a binder thick with handwritten pages. We had been working on outlining our novels, and she pointed out a tabbed divider in the binder that said “OUTLINE.”

“I created outlines of all my chapters for the first two books in my series,” she explained eagerly. She flipped to the next tab, CHARACTERS, which we had discussed in yesterday’s class. “I write lots and lots of notes, everything I know about my characters.”

As she went on, I admit that the mean-spirited part of me wanted to ask, Do you have an actual question for me, or are you just looking for praise and approval? I didn’t ask that, of course—I’m not that heartless, despite the way I sometimes portray myself in this blog—because it was obvious she wanted praise and approval, which I easily gave. Part of me still wonders, though, if I should be giving it. I don’t want them to want my approval. Ideally they shouldn’t be seeking anyone’s approval for the things they love to do, if they can help it. But they can’t help it much of the time, certainly not in a world that seems increasingly driven to seek the largest number of “likes.”

I see this reflected in the massive glut of popular YA books these students devour. So often the heroine is a supposedly “ordinary” person who is plucked from obscurity because of special powers she didn’t even know she had, culminating in her being the unwilling but much revered leader of a rebellion of some sort. It’s obvious why this trope is popular; when you’re a teenager, you often feel powerless and distinctly un-special. You wish you could be powerful, but a special kind of powerful: the kind of powerful that gains respect and admiration, because that’s what you’ve been led to believe you desperately need.

The young lady before me, like so many others in the class and so many others before her, had taken something she enjoyed and turned it into a driving desire for external validation. As she told me about the series she was writing—two books finished (“my mom helped me edited them”), several more on the way, a few recent attempts to contact publishers—I struggled to keep from looking pained. I’d seen some of her work; she was a good writer, certainly advanced for her age, and who knows, she could very well be successful one day. That’s not what pained me. Nor was it entirely the fact that the odds were heavily, ridiculously against her becoming successful in this way and that I might very well be nudging her towards years of struggle and ultimate disappointment. What truly pained the most was the thought that I was encouraging her to do the right thing for all the wrong reasons—the wrongest one being that writing was all about succeeding.

Well, actually, it kind of is. Even a blog post has goals; I didn’t write this just for me, or you wouldn’t be seeing it. I’m not getting money from it, and I won’t know who’s reading it for the most part, so to a large degree I’m writing this for my own satisfaction. Yet I’d be kidding myself if I didn’t like the “likes” these posts get. So, gist is, here I am supposed to be guiding these budding young writers based on my great wisdom and experience, when in reality I’m just hopelessly confused about it all. It was simpler when I was like them; I didn’t think so much about why I was writing, whether I really thought writing could save the world or if it was just self-indulgent whimsy at best and a tool of the hegemonic oppressors at worst (I didn’t think at all about the hegemonic oppressors). It’s not simple for me now, but truth seldom is.

The young lady who sought my approval (and bought all three of my books, by the way, and begged me to sign them, saying I was the first “real writer” she’d ever met—oh my heart! my heart in little jagged pieces prodding at my ribcage!) will most likely discover that on her own. Writing can still be a discovery of truth. Perhaps it will be so for her—and because of this, it is quite possible she will consider herself a success.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Shorter day's journey into night

It’s a cruel trick of the calendar that the minute it’s “officially” summer, the days start getting shorter. Even though this happens every year, it can still be dismaying anew the moment you realize night is falling just a tad bit sooner than it did last week. It’s the sun’s big tease: you enjoy all this daylight, do you? Don’t get used to it. Australia needs me too.

I’ve been thinking lately about this idea of things we love despite knowing they’ll all too soon be gone. (I’m great at parties. Having too much fun? Let’s discuss loss and misery!) I don’t actually relish thinking grim thoughts all the time, but I also have a hard time avoiding it. The trick is in the balance, something I strive for but don’t always achieve; more often there’s the face I show the public and the one I bash into my pillow at night when I can’t sleep for all the suckiness in the world. Sometimes, as happened recently, the two faces come perilously close to merging at the worst time.

So the daughter of our friends wanted to ask K if he knew of any volunteer opportunities for kids during the summer that involved working with animals. Unfortunately most such opportunities require volunteers to be at least high-school age, and she’s quite a bit younger than that. K suggested she might volunteer here, at our place, helping to care for our small menagerie. In truth we don’t have that many more “pets” than most rural people do, and the ones we have are not all that unusual; it’s just that K’s being a zoo vet makes our friends tend to ask questions like how big will the lemur habitat be and will the wombats get along with the capybara. At last count we had a half dozen chickens, two turtles, and two macaws. Up until a couple weeks ago, there was also a dog.

This seemed sufficiently intriguing for our friends’ daughter, so last weekend K and I showed her around and described her volunteer duties. I wasn’t sure how this would go; it was quite possible that any desire she had to pursue a career relating to animals would vanish once she started having to scoop poop and plunge her hand into a big bag of dried mealworms. That being the case, she might then turn her attention from K to me and focus on her career as a novelist. We’ve pretty much got the monopoly on cool jobs, as far as our friends’ kids are concerned, as many of them have expressed an interest in working with animals and nearly all of them, certainly all the girls, want to write novels. At least a couple wanted to combine the two areas and write novels about animals. At the moment, though, animals alone were front and center.

To her credit, she did not mind the yuckier aspects of animal care. She eagerly hunted for rotting pieces of wood that might be filled with tasty crawly things for the turtles. “I don’t care if I get my hands dirty,” she asserted, picking up a food dish caked with crud, “just as long as I can wash them later.” 

Some of the activities we had lined up were not only unglamorous but decidedly dull, involving wrapping small pellets in scraps of paper to be hidden around the macaws’ room for them to seek out as foraging. Take a pellet, put it in the center of a square of paper, and twist the ends of the paper closed. Now do that another ninety-nine times. I probably wouldn’t have made her do this except her parents insisted she was there to volunteer, not to play, and as such she needed to be useful. She did offer to help us work on our fixer-upper, which would totally be useful, but that might be going a bit too far.

And it wasn’t all drudgery either. We had not yet managed to differentiate between our six hens, so one of her activities was to observe them and see if she could tell them apart, as well as to log their behaviors and get them used to being handled by people. This last item, I cautioned her, might take time; they were not at all aggressive and would not peck at her, but they were not used to being touched and so would likely be skittish at first. These tasks she took on with admirable persistence. She would crouch and slowly bring her hand toward a chicken, not getting discouraged if it darted away, simply waiting a bit and trying again.

I was impressed—and uneasy. It occurred to me that there was something a little dishonest in my instructions to her—or, worse, devious. The truth is that one of the reasons we needed them to get used to being handled was because one day they’d be too old to lay eggs anymore and at that point we would have to catch them in as non-stressful a way as possible, end their lives as humanely as we could, and eat them. 

Maybe that sounds horrible to you, raising an animal like a pet only to kill and consume it. There’s plenty of justification: practically speaking, they are a potential source of food, and food should not be wasted, especially food that checks off all the ethical-and-local boxes. Far better to know where your food is coming from, and to know that when it was alive it had a good life, than otherwise. What’s more, if I felt just as horrified, I’d be a hypocrite. If I can’t deal with seeing one of our chickens killed (which would be K’s job) and then plucking and gutting and all that (which would be mine, since it’s probably way out of the bounds of what we could have a volunteer do)—if I can’t handle that, as any vegetarian would tell you, I shouldn’t eat animals at all. It would be so easy to dissociate, to say this is an animal and it’s alive; it has nothing to do with breaded and fried patties on a bun or grilled chopped morsels in a taco. But that’s a lie. These are animals and right now they’re alive, but they won’t be some day, and I’ll have to deal with it one way or another.

I wasn’t about to go into all that with a ten-year-old, however, and in truth, there was really only one thing I wanted to say to her as she ran a gentle hand over a feathered back: Don’t get attached. Don’t care for them too much. But that’s foolish advice, because no one would ever listen to it, ever. Many people would argue that no one should listen to it—would insist, instead, that we are supposed to get attached to things, desperately, and love them without reserve, even though doing so risks being absolutely destroyed when they’re gone. I don’t know that I agree completely, at least not right now. Right now, the pain of loss—because up until a couple weeks ago, there was a dog—is such that I wish I could take that advice and stick to it. Don’t get attached. Don’t care too much. Stay distant, reserved. Don’t put yourself in a position where you find yourself holding on to things that you can’t imagine being without—because one day you might be without them. 

Of course I’m neither giving nor taking that advice, never have, probably never will. The days are getting shorter, but there’s still a little daylight left to enjoy.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Grief, good and otherwise, part 2

A maroon station wagon was making its way slowly down the long driveway toward our house. I walked as fast as I could without looking too alarming about it, still clutching the eggs I’d just gathered from our chickens. Maybe. Maybe they’d found her and were bringing her home.

“Hello! My husband used to live in this house 20 years ago! We live in Iowa now but we’re passing through the area and he wanted to see the old place again.”

She looked so nice and sweet, it was hard to believe she could have been so cruel. Of course she had no idea our dog was missing, so I put on my good country folk face, shifted the eggs to my left hand and offered her my right. She introduced herself, and her teenage daughter still in the car, while another car pulled up and a man, presumably the husband, got out. A third car pulled in behind his, with a teenage boy at the wheel. Four people, three cars. ‘merica.

There was more handshaking, and smiles, and general cheerfulness. “How do you like living here?” 

Right at this moment, I couldn’t be more miserable, but thanks for asking. “It’s great! We love it!”

They told me a little about the history of the house, what they’d done with it, what the owners after them had done, or not done, since most of the deterioration and decay that we inherited had happened during the interim when that other family ran out of money and split apart. “They tried,” the husband said with a sad smile.

Another car pulled up the drive in the evening, this one going all the way around to the back of the house where we park our own cars, as though the driver was one of the family. 

I went out to meet him, a man who looked a little like Fred Gwynne, with just as jovial a demeanor as Herman Munster but no cracked forehead. “Hello there! I’m your neighbor.” He pointed south, to the farm nearly a mile away. “Are you the owner of …”

A dog. Yes. Yes, we have a dog. The dog you have in your car right now, correct? Yes. Thank you. Bless you, Fred Gwynne’s rural Illinois kid brother.

“… a couple of parrots?”

It took me a blink or two to slap on the GCF face again and exclaim “yes, yes we do!” and enthusiastically answer his questions about our macaws, which he had just seen flying over the soybean fields. I apologized profusely for any noise they were making—a large part of the reason we moved out here was so that we could do our own thing without bothering people—or people bothering us. Our neighbor waved the apology aside—there was no bother at all.

His name was Floyd, or Lloyd, or maybe it was something else I didn’t catch and I just had the stereotypical mindset that people who live out here have names like Floyd or Lloyd. He had seen the flier we’d put in his mailbox, about our dog, and he asked about her. I told him where things stood, which was still. We had no leads.

He shook his head. “I’m so sorry. Hope you find her soon.”

Me too, Floyd Gwynne. Me too.

An hour later, yet another visit, this time a young couple in a go-cart-looking vehicle in the now familiar green-and-yellow of John Deere. There was no raising of hopes this time; clearly they did not have a dog in the go-cart.

“Hello! We’re your neighbors!” They pointed north, to the farm nearly a mile away in that direction. “Are those birds yours? They’re beautiful!”

More introductions, more pleasant conversation, more curious questions about the birds, more well-wishes about our dog, since they got the flier too but had no information either. They, too, assured us our macaws were not bothering anyone. “They’re just so cool,” the man said, and his wife nodded vigorously. “It must be amazing to get to see them fly all the time.” They were so enthusiastic, I found myself telling them to feel free to come on over to watch them fly whenever they wanted, even though that was not something I really wanted.

“I think you’ll like living here,” the young woman said as they waved their good-byes. “This is a great place to live.”

I agreed with her, and up until a few days ago my agreement would have been sincere. Now my words felt just a little hollow. I said them anyway, all of us smiling, gazing around at the open fields and the great big sky.


Move to the country, think you’re getting solitude and privacy, discover you’re getting something else entirely. The vast spaces you so longed for have turned out to be a nightmare when you think about what you’ve lost; meanwhile the neighbors are stopping by like it’s some kind of summer block party even though the block is a mile long and there are only two houses on it. That’s not to say these visits were unwelcome. Sometimes solitude and privacy are exactly what you don’t need. I guess I’ll keep waiting to see who comes down our driveway next.