Sunday, September 28, 2008

What Reading Means to Me...

To write such a thing presupposes that I know what reading means. I’m at a point in my life where I’ve lost the meaning, which is why I’ve decided to write this thing in the first place. At best it will be a discovery. Maybe we can explore together? We’ve found a white pillared house at the end of the street. Still another, stone-front, a light burns from a window at the back. The houses are old and the furniture is dusty. Is that memory’s decay? Rooms are dark and the dark gets thicker where the walls come together. Here we may find our meaning. Do you have your flashlight handy?

First memory of writing involves my father sitting cross-legged in the large, lavender straightback living room chair. The lamp on the round table next to him casts light across the lenses of his black rimmed glasses and across the open page on which he writes with a yellow pencil. The book he is busily filling with words is dark blue with darker whorls. The word RECORD is stamped across the front in gold. My father keeps a stack of these journals in his closet, separated into two piles. Some covers are red, some are green, some are brown. There are quite a few.

I suppose before I could read or write I watched my father perform these rituals with a sense of hopefulness about the adult world. How marvelous that someday I would sit and write in a book! After I’d learned to read, I would lift one from the top shelf of my parent’s closet and open to a page that held a date and a description of what I’d done that day. He kept a journal for us.

The first entry was written after they, my adoptive parents, brought me home from the hospital. I’ve always wondered if being adopted has enhanced my reading experiences. I don’t suppose it has, though knowing nothing about my biological parents or my biological ancestry, I have always felt the benign possibility that I could belong to just about any culture. I wonder if my willingness to become someone else within the pages of a book is enhanced by my feeling like the darling of the world. Perhaps not, but I knew the world was large and interesting and I couldn’t wait to learn more.

Suspension of Disbelief

In childhood, I really didn’t have much disbelief to suspend. My reality was shaped by the adults in my life—my parents, teachers. And like many young Americans, I lived in a world in which I was visited by the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and Leprechauns. It was a world where magic was as likely as the mundane, and you were as likely to run into a witch as the mailman. It’s the magic I want to tell you about. We’ll start with the leprechauns.

Every St. Patrick’s Day eve, my sister and I would set out cookies for the leprechauns. We were skeptical. What would they leave us? We were given proper procedure for visiting leprechauns—spread sheets of white paper on the floor. We were told leprechauns had excessively dirty feet. We’d know whether or not they visited based on what kind of trail they left. So, we gathered as much white paper as we could find and spread sheets throughout the house—down the hallways, up the stairs, into our bedrooms.

On St. Patrick’s Day morning, my sister and I were astonished to find little black footprints across the papers, and the cookies were gone. I scooped up all the evidence and took it to school. By third grade I began devising traps to try and catch one. My parents swayed me from the more devious – a few sharpened pencils, a school-boy punji pit. “You don’t want to hurt the leprechauns.” I settled for a box trap. Besides sooty feet, these leprechauns were crafty. All of my attempts were foiled!

At school, my third grade teacher, Mrs. Scalera, led the leprechaun hunt. We were told to bring a shoebox from home and some yarn. During our St. Patrick’s Day party, between bites of clover cookies and green Kool-Aide, we strung yarn from our open shoeboxes to the ground. In our shoeboxes we placed a clover cookie. We were told leprechauns only ate four leaf clovers, to stay lucky, but with any luck, a clover cookie might do the trick. Our teacher told us leprechauns were invisible, so we’d have to watch our strings closely to be sure if one had taken the bait. So, I watched my red yard intently for movement.

Nearly everyone caught a leprechaun. Finally, I did too. The string moved—he was climbing into the shoebox! I closed the lid once I was sure he was inside and called my teacher over. She congratulated me and we lowered our heads to the box to listen. He was in there! I heard the scratching! Privy to how slippery these soot-footed pigmies could be, I wrapped my coat around the shoebox and began the walk home.

My parents congratulated me. Afternoon wore on to evening, and I wondered if he had eaten the cookie. I wondered if I was suffocating him. I knew he couldn’t be happy in the shoebox. By bedtime, I resolved to let him out and opened the box. There was the green clover cookie, untouched. I was beginning to feel a little ridiculous, in truth. Had I been duped by my parents and my teachers? If so, it had worked, and it had been a blast!

Later I learned that my parents pressed the sides of their fists into a black stamp pad to make tiny feet and thumbprints for toes. Mrs. Scalera had scratched one side of the box while we listened. I was convinced I had caught a leprechaun that day. It was a feeling I knew I wanted again, but how could I trick myself?

As a kid, magic was a large part of my life. School was frightening. In kindergarten, David Winfield, the kid who sat next to me, had a thick down on his forearms. Inevitably, one kid ate glue. The black girl from across the room showed me her middle finger when the teacher wasn’t looking. The teacher herself—Mrs. Railsback, a large matronly figure I associate with Mother Goose, could be frightening. I made kids laugh at school by making faces. “Entertaining again, John?” She’d ask, disapproving. I began to dread school. As a fussy kindergartener, my parents relied on magic.

I was entrusted a magic coin. I knew my father knew everything about coins because he had quite a collection—coins in rolls, coins marked in books with prices. I was sure he’d know if one were magic or not. I was to keep the valuable magic coin in my pocket and if school started to grate too much on my sensibilities, I was supposed to reach into my pocket, rub the coin and think of all the stuff I could do when I got home. I thought of my swing-set, the kind with the rusty frame, corner pole pumping with each pass. My large stuffed Mighty Mouse. My red Huffy bike. I always felt better when I thought of these things and school became easier to stomach. Soon I gave the magic coin back to my parents. School was getting better every year.

Then I had Ms. Meek. She was a thin woman, wore her chin length black hair straight and sharp, her nose was long, and she painted her severe mouth with bright lipstick. She was a fierce, bony woman. I remember coloring a picture of my dog, Amos. He was a black dog, so I colored him black. “Is your dog really black?” she asked. Something in her voice always accusatory. Maybe her racial sensibilities were offended by a black dog named Amos. “No,” I said dejected. “he’s not.” It was her way of making you feel guilty. Of course he was black.

That year, coupled with conjugating –ing verbs (I had a hard time remembering when to drop the e, or double the consonant), I needed the coin. I looked through my parents things. I knew it was somewhere on their dresser—where my father kept valuables—his college ring, my grandfather’s police badge. I found the coin at the bottom of his wooden valet. I lifted the coin, comforted by its weight and texture, and read, stamped across the front – COUNTRY KITCHEN.

In kindergarten I assumed these were runes of great power. This was truly my first lesson in the importance of literacy. As I grew more aware of the world around me, magic was suddenly in short supply. However, like Jack and his magic beans, I pocketed the coin and thought of the magic the coin held in those early school days. From then on, conjugating -ing verbs held fewer terrors.

My first memory of a chapter book was in third grade, when I was finally beginning to feel like a big kid, had mastered my times tables, borrowing, could read fluently, and conjugated -ing verbs in my sleep. The book was called The Witches, by Roald Dahl. Older students who visited Mrs. Scalera would giggle when they saw she was reading us that book. I felt jealous that they knew something I did not! Story time came at the end of the day, and every day, we would gather on the floor around Mrs. Scalera, who sat on a stool. She would read out loud—at least a chapter. My walk home from school was addled in fantasy.

Looking back, she read to us not to meet some academic content standard, or so her school would look good in the newspapers. I don’t even think we took a fourth grade proficiency test back then. She read because The Witches was a great story that lent itself to being read aloud. That and she loved scaring the pants off us. I know this is true.

Mrs. Scalera was short, had straight, shining red hair to her shoulders and horrible teeth. She would open her mouth and tip her head back to show us the bridgework. “I never brushed my teeth when I was your age. These operations hurt worse than flossing. Be sure you floss or the same will happen to you!” One of the students lost a tooth, about the size of an ivory pebble, and brought it to school in his pocket. It was Mrs. Scalera’s idea to soak the tooth in Coca Cola, our, well, my, favorite drink. It took about a week for the tooth to turn totally black. To this day I always brush my teeth after drinking Coke.

The story of The Witches follows the main character, orphaned (a trend in Dahl books), and his Grandmother, who smokes long black cigars. The book talks about real witches and how it’s a little known fact they truly exist and delight in killing children. Children smell like dog’s droppings to witches, Dahl wrote, and they took the “same pleasure in killing children as you do in eating a large bowl of strawberries and cream,” or something to that effect. Mrs. Meek, my second grade teacher, the one who made us conjugate –ing verbs was growing in my memory to fit his description of a witch. Imagine how this would affect an imaginative child, especially coming from the mouth of his teacher! But, the book was also a survival guide for children. It spoke of how to identify witches. This knowledge, she said, could save our lives.

In grocery stores, on the street, everywhere, I longed to spot a witch. Dahl told us witches wore wigs, because they were naturally bald. Real witches could often be caught scratching their scalps, which chaffed from rough wig lining. They wore long gloves to hide their talons, and their shoes were square because they had no toes. I wanted it to be true! The danger made life for a third grader, a third grader who looked forward to visits from the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, and the Easter Bunny, very exciting because Santa never stood leering over your bed, the Easter Bunny would never kick holes in your house, and the tooth fairy wouldn’t consider taking just one or two more teeth…

It was the book The Witches that made me into a reader. I checked all of Dahl’s books out of our school library that year, for many of which there was a waiting list. I finally found a way to give myself the feeling of holding true magic in the palm of my hand. Or, a shoebox with a real leprechaun inside. I grew to love the weight of a book. I still grow giddy with the smell of a library book. I loved the way a bookmark stuck out from between the pages. I was hooked and it began with Roald Dahl.

I discovered I loved his other books almost as much as The Witches. I read The BFG, The Twits, James and the Giant Peach, George’s Marvelous Medicine, and Charley and the Chocolate Factory (though that one was my least favorite). I couldn’t wait to get my hands on these books when each page held danger, adventure and humor. In fact, I still read my favorites for their capricious weirdness. Roald Dahl is not considered a very important writer amongst literary critics, many of whom I’m convinced were never children, but he was the writer who made me love fiction. Roald Dahl made me thirst for odd tales and danger. His words were bizarre candy—sweet, though you never knew if they would blow off the top of your head, force steam from your nostrils, or change the color of your hair. Roald Dahl inspired me to imagine, to dream, and for those reasons, I will forever love him.

Sunday, September 21, 2008


The following is a general announcement to the Cleveland Browns—“If you lose today, you will break this little guy’s heart.”

The truth is that the wardrobe of any guy this little more genuinely reflects the parents’ tastes (see Jen Sullivan’s most recent blog). In fact, I don’t think the Browns will break my heart if they lose today. Dr. Dukes has me re-reading Mystery and Manners, and it was O’Connor’s contention that the South produces more writers because they lost the War. I’m wondering if there’s any correlation between writing and being a Browns fan.

Friday, September 19, 2008


So this doesn't have anything to do with the fact that he's my thesis advisor, ahem, but I just received a copy of Eric Wasserman's chapbook "Brothers" from Cervena' Barva Press. I was impressed with the author's ability to create compelling conflict in just a few pages, though, given his approach in the classroom, I should not have been surprised. Ha, ha. The chapbook itself is very handsome and the writing is stellar. With only the first chapter to go on, I imagine the book itself must feel like equal parts Arthur Miller and the Cohen brothers-but it's all just Eric Wasserman! Congrats and l'chaim!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

art story

I found this picture on the web, and it started me thinking about story art, or art story. For high schoolers, the work of Chris Van Allsburg and Scott Mutter can inspire some pretty off the wall stories. This is one of Dave McKean's.

When I visited MoMA, I saw Picasso's "Two Acrobats with a Dog" for the first time. Talk about a picture that screams for a story!

What do you think of writing that springs from a picture? Do any of you know of any other artists whose work might inspire stories? What about stories that are masquarading as pictures?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

So I'm reading a book called Maiden Voyage by Tania Aebi, the first woman and youngest person to circumnavigate the earth alone in a boat. The story is that her dad offered her an ultimatum- "Either go to college, or I'll use this tuition money to buy you a boat." She took the boat. The catch was that if she took the boat he expected her to sail around the world. She did it, and Maiden Voyage is her story. I had never heard of her, and I really like the book. I don't feel for the writing the way Maxwell Perkins felt about Beryl Markham's, but hell, I'm not Maxwell Perkins. I DO think Tania Aebi is a really tough chick- and she can write, which makes her that much tougher.

I'm teaching Oedipus the King to some advanced seniors. I've been really impressed with their insights.

"Why is there a plague at the opening of the play?"

"Sophocles needed a reason for Oedipus to find Laius' murderer."

I imagine life got a lot harder for storytellers when the pantheon broke up. (I refer to them as if they were a band, but that's how I always imagined them-Hermes as Paul McCartney, Poseidon as Ringo, John Lennon... probably Dionysus). What's the implication? Writers could no longer use the gods to act out conveniently in their stories.

Jocasta brings up the idea that life is chaos, and that we are all living day to day at random. When 70 mph winds took down a tree in my front yard and I was out there with an axe chopping away, (I can only guess how folks in New Orleans, heck, even Texas feel about this right now), I felt subject to really powerful forces, forces as unruly as that rock and roll pantheon.

The prophesy, of course, proves this idea wrong, and that Oedipus' actions do have consequences. I was asking my students how they feel about this, and, "Of course Mr. Skarl we know there are consequences for what we do... that's why our parents make rules, there are rules at school, the law, etc." They've been told this their whole lives, have been shown that their actions have consequences, and it's why they're good kids, but I wonder... what happens when the individual outgrows parents' rules, teachers, etc. ? Well, my students say, you're supposed to turn around and create and enforce rules for young people- there's a swapping of roles.

I had to ask myself, is this how it's supposed to work? Am I staying up past my bedtime to create bellwork for students so they don't feel the fingertips of chaos? Is this what teachers are for? What about writers? Is their job to filter chaos until it's palatable? Anyway, it got me thinking... about my job and about my life. About what I need to do as one of Wyatt's parents. I appreciated a moment of clarity in an otherwise chaotic day.

Thematically I was kind of excited to see this idea of chaos versus order brought up so soon in the year... it's such a motif of John Gardner's Grendel, which is next on our list after Antigone. As for Wyatt, he's hooting away on his play mat, batting a blue elephant as I type this. Who knows, maybe I'll take a page from Tania's father's book. Either eat your vegetables or break the world pogo stick record. It's over 23 miles. How badly do you hate broccoli?

Monday, September 8, 2008

flavor text

Could flavor text work in a novel? (I almost wrote, "I'm just thinking out loud here," but I'm not really thinking out loud at all, am I?) If you don't know what flavor text is, it's probably because you spent time in high school talking to girls or playing a sport other than academic challenge. Flavor Text is the little blurb at the bottom of a Magic The Gathering playing card that hints at a larger story within the context of the playset. I guess what I'm envisioning is a typical third person narrative broken by chapter, yet at the beginning of most or all chapters, there's some of this flavor text to hint at a larger story... mostly past events, conversations between characters in the book, journals, and possibly even the creative writing of certain characters. All of this flavor text would have to inform the larger story, or maybe even be menioned in the larger story, yet I'm afraid it might slow the reader down between chapters, and if it were that important, couldn't the writer find a way to work it into the chapters in the first place? Maybe... yet I don't think I'm envisioning the reader of such a story galloping through at a breakneck pace set by an author who is more concerned with suspense than they are with content (you remember The Davinci Code).

Friday, September 5, 2008


The other day in Intro to Fiction Writing we were talking about sensory strokes, and we read a short-short called "Breakfast" by John Steinbeck. My students appreciate shorts from the Norton anthology Flash Fiction, but I think "Breakfast" works really well as a sensory scavenger hunt (the story appeals to all five senses). We also read the Chekhov letter about writing description and tried our own hand at a Checkovian sentence.

"I think descriptions of nature should be very short and always be à propos. Commonplaces like "The setting sun, sinking into the waves of the darkening sea, cast its purple gold rays, etc," "Swallows, flitting over the surface of the water, twittered gaily" — eliminate such commonplaces. You have to choose small details in describing nature, grouping them in such a way that if you close your eyes after reading it you can picture the whole thing. For example, you'll get a picture of a moonlit night if you write that on the dam of the mill a piece of broken bottle flashed like a bright star and the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled by like a ball, etc. ... In the realm of psychology you also need details. God preserve you from commonplaces. Best of all, shun all descriptions of the characters' spiritual state. You must try to have that state emerge clearly from their actions. Don't try for too many characters. The center of gravity should reside in two: he and she."

I handed out a poetry starter (purchased through Teachers Discovery... it is an often vivid, often strange picture designed to act as a creative springboard) and urged my students to write a flash piece that attempts to do the following:

Preface- don't simply describe the picture.

1) Attempt at least one sentence of Chekhovian description.

2) Create at least one character (Chekhov suggests a he and a she; in the case of an openly gay student... I have one... a he and a he is okay too).

3) Try to create some element of suspense.

Today we workshopped the stories. I asked them to type them out if they liked what they wrote and bring them in... about half of them typed their story. We had a really great mini-workshop, and I attempted to define the three types of common workshop comments. There's the Paula-sickeningly sweet and uplifting (never a bad thing), the Randy must start with "Yo dawg," and must be honest in an I-still-want-to-be -your-friend kind of way, and the Simon, which is always brutally honest, and sometimes mean (your attempt at dialogue is really laughable... you make Lovecraft look like Elmore Leonard). By the end of it, the kids who hadn't typed their story were jealous of the ones who had, and we had a really great spontaneous workshop.

I had written with them in class, as I often do, and I was surprised how much I liked what came out. I have many binders full of junk from these experiments, but I really liked this one, so I typed it and threw it into the Xeroxed manuscripts and let them workshop mine, too. It was a lot of fun.

Here's what came out of me-

“My Heart is More Like Guernica”

The light saturated the stage from overhead and rimmed the brass horn blue while deepening the dark skin of the man holding it to indigo— the kind they don’t sell any more at the campus art supply. It was as if some divine brush or pen was filling in the open spaces with chiaroscuro melodies—melodies as rich as the oils in my art box, or as rare as those of Renaissance paintings. No, I think Picasso’s Three Musicians, but tonight my heart is more like Guernica. She has not seen me yet and she was wrapped in a kind of blissed-out blues trance that I knew well— the melody had wrapped its strong arms around me on many nights, yet I seemed immune to its seduction on this, the same night I hoped to dance with her. I leaned my artist’s portfolio against the chair I had been sitting in and made my way through the crowd toward the stage. I don’t know why I dragged along my portfolio, perhaps as some unlikely shield behind which I hoped to avoid what I know now must be done, to avoid her glance, so much like a siren’s song. How many times had I attempted to capture her features with a pen or brush? No matter, the past has dried on the palate, and I have this one chance. I step onto the stage and she sees me—we are here, this is now.