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Writing: The Ten Year Plan

To understand what I will be writing ten years from now, we must first understand what I write now, or better yet, maybe we should start with why I write now. After all, who is me (whoever that is), what seems presumptuous to utter as it would make me both criticizer and critic (which makes me feel a bit Ouroborosly bloated), when is now always now, unless it’s ten years from now, then when would be then, where is irrelevant to ones and zeros, go and chase the tail back to the teeth of hyper text protocols, ask a noisy zero where, and listen if you hear it yawn above halfway to one, but why is a question I will answer honestly, why indeed. I write now as a defense against the madness that is today. I write because this world was bequeathed to us by a yesterday full of passionate idiots, maniacal madmen, and far too many sad, quiet, thoughtful sots. I do not mean to disparage the sots, I find the same sort of refuge in words that the sot finds at the bottom of a barrel. Les sots et les mots; les sots de mots. A fuss of words or whiskey. Le fossé des mots ou whisky. Womp, Womp. Words are my refuge from a world gone mad. But, because I am very much a part of that world, albeit – of it, but not in it, instead of in it, but not of it-, I am possessed by the same madness that plagues this world. Its 140 character limit. Its reality tv stars. Its book of faces. Its googly, Googles. Its Google forsaken BLOGS! It is a sort of all sides madness. It’s the sort of madness that shakes you down to your toes and makes you wake with your thumb, middle and pointing fingers numb, (all opposable thumbs be damned, three fingers pointing back at you, & a bird flipped to infinity) having clenched inward so hard to discover something inside yourself other than what is outward, only to find there is no rabbit in the hat – only a looking glass. Art is still that looking glass, although hand held, subjective, a selfy stick pointing outward. What about the author – still dead? I should hope so, less he be forced to suffer the dye and the microscope of the outrages critic. What I write is a reflection of the madness I see. It makes me happy to get it right. Like I’ve captured the last plague carrying critter in a once great mansion irreversibly ravaged by lies. I imagine in ten years, I will be doing much the same. I think, ten years from now, I will write perfect, dirty poems, of the highest order. The sort that ought to be carved in secret (in the middle of the night) meticulously, using stencils, on a bathroom stall, only to be removed with great care and placed on the walls of the MOMA for all to admire.

Writing Ten Years Hence?

Because I am in the December of my life, any further writing for me in ten years’ time is highly unlikely. One task that might have remained would be a memoir; however, I started writing my reminiscences some years ago, publishing them privately in 2014, because I wanted my grandchildren to have a chance to read them while I was still alive and to discuss any aspects that interested or puzzled them.

This memoir is called The Fair Adventure. The following three paragraphs are the introduction to the book:

The title for these reminiscences is from Shakespeare’s King John: “The day shall not be up so soon as I / To try the fair adventure of tomorrow.” And, because I am ever mindful of ways to try to write beautiful English sentences, I want to point out that this quotation is a perfect example of the so-after-a-negative-in-a-comparison usage: “not so soon as I.” I have often toyed with the idea of writing a booklet on usage, using literary quotations to make the point. For example, “He cursed himself for making believe for a minute that things were different from [not than] what they are” (The Voyage Out, Virginia Woolf). “What a pity he has forever vanished from the hard and dusty paths of life—unless Donatello be actually he [not him]” (The Marble Faun, Nathaniel Hawthorne). There, we’ve cleared up those syntactical issues first off.

When I was about ten or eleven, The Fair Adventure was one of my favorite books. It features Serena Page McNeill, the youngest of a big family: Alison is married with kids; James is a professor; Robin is in law school; Jean, newly engaged, is just finishing nursing school; and Page is graduating from high school. She lives in a small town in the South—the town where her father is a beloved professor at the local college—but aspires to attend a women’s college in the East, Van Welmar, where she can study art and live in an ivy-covered dormitory. She passes the college boards well above average but does not score high enough to win a scholarship. Her doting Scottish father (who, like our father, quotes Shakespeare at the dinner table) cannot afford to send her away; thus, off she must go to Middleton, the public college where her father teaches and all her high school friends are headed. At the end of this particular summer, each unit in her family joins together to contribute something to a “scholarship fund” to enable her to attend Van Welmar after all. The principle? From each, according to his ability; to each, according to his need [as Karl Marx wrote in 1875].

The point of using that quote as a title for my memoir is that I was the youngest member of my family, and I never felt, for one minute, that my parents and my two elder sisters were not rooting for me, were not there to help me in any way they could, to mourn over my disappointments and to cheer for my successes. At the same time, I would have done anything for them—thrown myself under a bus, if need be, or donated a vital organ. And, all in all, life has been a fair adventure for me, a series of engrossing jobs teaching, writing, and editing, experiences living and working in foreign lands, serious challenges and choices, loyal friends, endless reading, and, best of all, a loving and demonstrative family of my own.

~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~

The third paragraph of my memoir above may contain the seeds of my absorption with my job at CWE. Perhaps our writers are my new family—my nieces and nephews, or, more accurately, my grandnieces and grandnephews—with whom I want to share my lifelong experience with writing: thinking through and building on the structure of a sentence; relating it meaningfully to what comes before and afterward; savoring words before choosing the appropriate one; experimenting with figures of speech; seeking specificity not vagueness; being as clear, cogent, and honest as possible; and trying to communicate an idea or an image that is unique because it belongs to them.

 

 

Writing Through the Years

Ten years ago, in 2007, I was 14. I graduated from eighth grade and started high school. At that stage in my life, the standard 5-paragraph essay was longest product I produced. I had never written a research paper, had no knowledge of MLA, and never planned on going to graduate school. Clearly, a lot has changed, especially regarding my writing style.

As an undergraduate English major, effective writing skills were crucial. It began with the two freshmen composition courses, where I learned to use social and political current events as fuel for argumentative essays, and how to close-read texts for literary analyses. From there, a variety of novel and writing-intensive courses helped me hone my skills as a student and writer.

I minored in Creative Writing, focusing on Fiction, and was able to strengthen my knowledge of plot conventions and dialogue through workshopping with my peers. My Introduction to Fiction Writing was the only course in my college career where I felt everyone in the class had bonded as a family. I was truly sad to leave it at the end of the semester. Since those courses, I have dabbled in various creative projects, hoping to one day unite my random ideas into a publishable novel.

My experience in the Teacher Education program at MSU broadened my horizons by serving as an opportunity to write lesson plans, community and student reports, reflection papers, and constructive criticism/positive feedback. I then decided to pursue a Master’s degree in English with a concentration in American Literature. Again, my writing style grew with me. I was no longer simply stating my opinion of the Walk on Wall Street, analyzing why the Wolf in Little Red Riding Hood is an antagonist, or modifying lesson plans; graduate writing requires perfection, new innovations, and publishable quality, which puts a greater amount of pressure on me as a writer. However, challenge is often the greatest catalyst for learning, and I am grateful for each experience.

Ten years from now, in 2027, I will be thirty-four. By then I will have graduated with my Master’s degree and hope to have a career in writing. This will be another change because I will no longer be writing essays for a course grade or GPA, but will likely be working on different projects and materials with my reputation on the line. I am confident that my experience writing through the years will provide beneficial skills to help me achieve success in my career-based writing.

Reflecting on past, present, and future writing styles is important for all writers at any age because life often takes us on paths we do not expect. Thus, we change as people and naturally our writing changes with us. We become more mature and professional; we revise old work and give it new life; we teach ourselves and acquire new skills from every experience we have. Eventually, our writing will be all that is left of our history. People will read what we have written and will piece together what our world looked like. Thus, writing will continuously serve a purpose that deserves reflection.

Nothing to it, but to do it.

As a self-identified static ball of anxiety, when I received the syllabus for my first ever creative writing class in college, my heart immediately began to pound against my chest, my hands turned ice cold, yet clammy, and it felt like my body was irradiating nervous tension throughout the room and everyone could see it.

The syllabus was three pages long in the standard 12px Times New Roman font, with loads of repetitive details that I saw in all my other classes, but the only line that seemed to glare back at me was the required workshop presentation. Dread swept over me. I immediately tried rationalizing picking myself and leaving the classroom mid-introductions (another favorite classroom activity of mine), and yet I remained. “Don’t be dramatic…” I scolded myself.

Blessed (or cursed, depending on how you want to look at it) with a last name that helps me practice my grade-A neurotic-influenced procrastinating nature, I was able to choose my presentation date first when we did the sign-ups in alphabetical order. Shamelessly, I picked the very last day possible, hoping it would never come.

Well, my wish almost came true. This was the year good ol’ Sandy hit and school was closed for a week. I thought that maybe I can somehow get away without presenting, but really, I was just lying to myself. I knew that I had to do it—it wouldn’t be fair if everyone else had to and I didn’t.

I should mention that the class was Creative Nonfiction—aka: Shy & Private Person’s Worst Nightmare 101. Or maybe that’s just my nightmare. Anyway, December 6th was fast approaching and I had to be strategic in what I wanted to present to my classmates. I remember thinking to myself, “Don’t reveal too much,” and “You’re an emotional wreck. Don’t write anything that will make you cry.” Even though our classroom was a safe-haven and everyone in it was respectful, I still didn’t want to let anyone in. “Keep a safe distance and please, for once, don’t embarrass yourself?” At this point in my undergrad, I was quite proud of my self-depreciating sense of humor and figured to be ahead of the game: make fun of myself before anyone can make fun of me. The tone of my story was set. I refused to write a depressing story about a depressing episode in my life—too much misplaced pride mixed in with an irrational fear of looking helpless.

All the while, I complained to my partner about this assignment. “Nothing to it, but to do it,” he said. And that was all I needed.

The story I wrote was probably corny (excuse me, as I peer over my glasses, but do the kids still use this word today?), but it explored the relationship between me and my partner–my co-pilot–and our support system. I wrote this short story with an emotion I didn’t know I was capable of conveying. It highlighted my messy and awkward personality in it, my (un)award-winning self-deprecating humor, and a small touch of my heart.

I love my short story now, but moments before I had to read it, I thought its proper place was in my middle school’s literary magazine. Particularly, when they were scrambling to meet the 20-page mark and were accepting any submission coming in from bright-eyed 7th graders. It belonged somewhere in the middle of the magazine, too, where it would go unread, due to poor attention span and so many words! But then, when I realized my personal apocalypse was about to commence, I took a deep breath and said quietly to myself, “Nothing to it, but to do it.”

It felt like I entered face first into the fiery pits of Hell while the rest of my body was submerged in Antarctic waters. I could almost see the steam coming off my skin as I read the first sentence aloud. And then it was okay. I remember smiling as I read, which made some of my words come out funny, and after what felt like an hour’s worth of hearing my own voice, reading my own words, of my own deeply personal story, it was done and I did it.

My classmates laughed and I didn’t cry. I probably forgot to breathe.

This short story, I’m still convinced, is the closest I’ll ever come to feeling like I own my writing. In all its roughness, pre-critiques, and silly typos and grammatical mistakes, it is still Mine, dedicated to someone who helped me in ways I thought were too hard to put into words. I received about eleven copies back, adorned in different colored ink and handwriting styles, with productive and helpful feedback (so much that I applied it to my future writing projects (ex: Watch out for those hyperboles! There’s too many interjections!­) (Side note: I still struggle with both of these, clearly)), but the feeling I had when I wrote the original remained unmatched. In under three pages, I accomplished many things and overcame my (many) silly fears. Really, there was nothing to it, but to do it. :)

Sharing my writing for the first time–again

I’ve been writing stories ever since I could remember. As a kid, I would bring a notebook with me everywhere–to school, on car rides, to my friend’s houses. I didn’t even have to write, and half the time I wouldn’t–I just had to have it with me, just in case.

When I was younger, I would let everyone and anyone read my stories, even though they were all cripplingly embarrassing. My pride and joy was a story named “Hamster Island” that I wrote and illustrated in third grade. For an entire year, I wrote through the perspective of a dog. I wrote graphic murder mysteries to try to shock my babysitters and my fifth grade teacher. By middle school, I was writing hundreds of pages of fanfiction and clearly inserted myself into some of my favorite shows. I was stubbornly proud of these horrific pieces of writing, though years later I would drive to a garbage can far, far away to dispose of them.

I started to become more secretive about my writing once I moved towns and entered high school. That’s when the stories became less about fantasy and more grounded in reality; they became about my life, my experiences. They were personal. For years, I wouldn’t let anyone read what I had written.

At the end of my junior year of high school, my English teacher asked us to write a short narrative. I had moved almost three years earlier, but I still missed my old home. Before New Jersey, we had lived on the East End of Long Island. Every day after school, I would drop my backpack and go for a walk on the beach, even when it was absolutely frigid. We were one of few families that lived there year-round. Sometimes I’d run through the yards of empty houses and peek through the dusty windows at the furniture covered in sheets. There was something calming about having so much space, about waking up and falling asleep to the view of the water. When the moon was high in the sky, it would sear a white line across the bay. During a storm, the placid water would turn into  whitecaps, which would break and carry on the wind to lash against our windows. In the winter, the whole bay would ice over, and the wind from the blizzards would create mountains of snow and ice that my brothers and I would try to scale. One time, during an unseasonably warm November day, I fell in a river that my friends had just successfully jumped across. We ended up swimming home in our clothes; we tied our shoes together and threw them into the water in front of us, our laughter echoing across the empty beach.

Our congested suburban town in New Jersey was an hour’s drive from the water. There was nowhere to go, nowhere to walk without someone asking, “What are you doing?” After school, I often just went home and stayed in my room.

So I wrote about my old home.

A few days after receiving the narratives, my teacher said he had chosen a few of his favorites to read out loud. He would read them anonymously and see if we could figure out who had written each piece. We were advised to keep our poker faces as he read.

He started with mine. I stopped breathing after I heard the first line. I looked down and felt the blood rush to my face. I tried not to smile, but barely succeeded at holding it back. When he finished reading, the class clapped enthusiastically.

For me, this was one of my most rewarding pieces of writing because it was the first time I had shared something so personal–and by a stroke of good luck, had it warmly received. I’d later go on to study creative writing at college and get ripped to shreds in the writing workshops, but I enjoyed the heck out of it. I began craving constructive criticism and the shared experience of making meaning. After that day in high school, writing stopped being a solitary act.

St. Robert, Patron Saint of Writing Skills

Mr. Wicke. Mr. Robert Wicke (wik-ee), as in Robert Redford. One was a high school English teacher; and the other a Hollywood movie star idolized by millions of female fans. Well, the Robert I knew was Mr. Wicke—a Redford doppelgänger who was so handsome and worldly that I often forgot I was in a classroom when he spoke. I was living a “trope”-schoolgirl crush on older teacher. While learning what caused King Lear to go mad, I noticed the way he flipped his buttery blond hair after he emphasized a point. It reminded me of Redford in “The Way We Were,” when a few, rebellious wisps would escape from his side-parted locks and graze just below his eyebrows. Consistently distracted, I always tried to think of a question to ask him after class. “Excuse me, Mr. Wicke,” I would say, as I nervously reached his desk; and as he looked up, he would stare just a bit longer than what was comfortable, (although this was probably wishful thinking). Besides, he was forgiven for any faults. He looked like a prep school senior, with his elbow-patch woolen sweaters over an oxford shirt and tie, although I’m sure he was in his early 30s.  And as a testament to his influence, two of my closest high school friends also became writers—one as a middle- school English teacher, and the other as an author and journalist. I pursued a writing career too, (later in life)–and we all credit Mr. Wicke and his unconventional, but disciplined writing style for inspiring us. It was in his class that I understood the reward of writing well.

On the first day of class, he announced matter-of-factly that no one ever had earned an “A” in his classes; on occasion, he might give some students a “B,” but it was rare. Many received “C’s,” and quite a few soundly saw “D” on their report cards. He explained quite casually that no one is “superior,” which is what an “A” represents; “B” meant “very good,” and “C” was average, which he considered most of us. I wasn’t sure whether to take him seriously—he could have been a poker champion in that his facial expressions never belied his intent. As an academically ambitious 17-year-old senior who hoped to be in the “top 20” at graduation, this was both a blessing and a quandary. I had a teacher who was a Robert Redford look-a-like—yet enjoyed playing mind games with a group of naïve Catholic school students.

My Wicke’s idea of a test was to take a passage from a Shakespeare text we had read, and write an analytical, three-paragraph essay in 25 minutes. With a dictionary on the corner of my desk, it was a battle against time.  By the second semester, I had finally earned a “B” in the class, with the “high grade” of “84” on most papers. Many classmates often received an “F,” on their papers, because any misspellings guaranteed a failing grade. Another sin was the phrase “in conclusion.” If written to begin the last paragraph, this was also an automatic “F.” He said this was implied, so it was redundant. He required concise language and objected to flowery prose; he called wordiness “padding,” which usually resulted in a “D.” These literary “pet peeves” became an internalized template that I had memorized. And although I never received an “F” on a paper, Mr. Wicke thought that adding “Sorry!” after a failing grade would soften the blow. Students were either permanently scarred or permanently motivated.

Although I cannot remember a specific piece of writing as “rewarding”, that “B” I earned launched a writing style that I still embrace. I am still amazed at the profundity of Mr. Wicke’s influence now that I am in graduate school. Not only did I have the advantage of Mr. Redford-I mean Mr. Wicke, as a high school English teacher, the skills I learned are still relevant. Sometimes when I read “in conclusion,” on a paper, I can imagine Mr. Wicke’s handwriting in his familiar red ink, gracing the top margin—and whisper a “thank you” to my literary patron saint.

On Creative Writing and The Magic Tree House.

As the English poet, essayist, and critic Samuel Johnson once said, “The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.” The importance and influence of broad and thorough reading on writing is as true for a woman as it is for a man, and I am either insightful or vain enough to consider myself a living example of this.

One of the first book series I followed as a child was Mary Pope Osborne’s The Magic Tree House. I read the first chapter book, Dinosaurs Before Dark, when I was in second grade, or seven years old. I worked through the volumes my little school library had on its shelves, then moved on to those in the public libraries in my town. When the Scholastic Book Fair came to my school, I raced through the catalog with such speed that I often ripped its pages in my haste to find the latest Magic Tree House. These books were valuable to me, I now realize, because they provided information, escape, and entertainment all in one text; I was interested in the more historical and literary elements of the chapter books because I was so engaged in the adventurous narrative and characters who reminded me of myself.

That annual Book Fair catalog arrived like clockwork when I was a nine-year-old voracious reader, and it held more than news of a new Magic Tree House installment: Osborne announced a nationwide writing contest. In this announcement, Osborne encouraged her readers all across the country to write and title a sample chapter of a Magic Tree House book of their own creation. The winner would receive their own “magic tree house,” or a life-sized cardboard cutout of the famous titular structure, and a letter from Osborne herself. At nine years old, I had written and illustrated several of my own “books” (a little series about a girl-detective named Crystal Harper and her friends), but I had never attempted to write for a contest with such a genuine audience and (what seemed at the time) proper stakes. My love for the series was more than enough to motivate me to research and write my own chapter for a new Magic Tree House book, Sunset on the Sahara.  

I submitted the chapter several weeks in advance and waited anxiously for a response. When I received my letter from Osborne congratulating me on being selected as one of the winners, the joy and pride were unlike anything I had felt up to that point in my little life as a writer. For me, this experience was so rewarding because an author I loved and admired had found my work as engaging and rich as I had always found hers. 

New Beginnings

Choosing my most rewarding piece of writing is like forcing a mother to choose her favorite child. I love all my scribbles equally. Okay, maybe I like my short stories and potential novels a little bit more than my post-it reminders and shopping lists, but that does not change anything. However, if I had to choose only one piece as the most rewarding, I would have to say it is the excerpt of an unfinished novel entitled “New Beginnings,” which I had published in Montclair’s National Society of Collegiate Scholars (NSCS) Literary Magazine in Spring 2013.

I had always dreamed of being a published author ever since I wrote my first short story at the end of sixth grade. To see my name in print and how proud my parents were was an outstanding feeling. Looking back at the excerpt itself, I will admit, I sometimes cringe at the way I worded a particular sentence because writing never stops even after it has been published; a writer continues to grow, change styles, and relentlessly critique their own work. Nevertheless, I still cherish this accomplishment.

As a novel, New Beginnings was a great struggle to write. The storyline changed so many times that it was difficult for me to tell whether the characters were even the same people I thought I knew from the start. My babies grew up so fast! In fact, two separate short stories emerged from this idea, which was supposed to be a novel, and seemed to have a happier existence as independent pieces; this realization ultimately led me to submit an excerpt to NSCS. I never expected it would be published.

This piece was the most rewarding because it reinforced, just as my acceptance to Montclair State University had, that dreams do come true. As I struggle to find writing time in my busy schedule, I often reflect on this achievement to motivate myself. Perhaps one day “New Beginnings” may become the novel I dreamed it would be.

Writing about Vermont

When I lived in Vermont, I began reading fiction to learn about the state, to absorb its essence and ethos. This enterprise resulted in the publication of my three guides to Vermont fiction, one of which focused on stories for children and young adults. I want to describe four insights I gleaned from this book.

First, reading has a profound and nourishing effect on the imaginations of the young protagonists. Their favorite books offer them solace, instruction, and a frame of reference. Second, reconciliation is crucial to the process of growing up. The characters initially meet challenges with resentment or indifference but overcome them with understanding or forgiveness. Three, family dynamics and school experiences have an impact on the development and enlightenment of the young characters. They learn about coping with death or divorce from a range of relatives at home and about attributes like discipline or courage from compassionate teachers and librarians at school. Finally, the protagonists are strongly attracted to Vermont. Whether native-born or reluctant arrivals, they become engaged in, and eventually part of, the landscape.

As to the effect of childhood reading on the sensibilities and choices of the characters in these books, In Haas’s Working Trot, a boy concerned about his future relaxes by reading Wuthering Heights, as does the girl in Wright’s Down the Strings, who is examining her next steps in life. The heroine of Kinsey-Warnock’s If Wishes Were Horses broods upon an injustice by rereading Black Beauty, while in Walkers’s A Piece of the World, a girl consoles herself with The Wind in the Willows. Paterson’s title character in Lyddie, a child mill worker, slakes her parched existence with Oliver Twist; in Winthrop’s Counting on Grace, a girl and boy, also mill workers, sustain themselves with The Red Badge of Courage. In Doren’s Nell of Blue Harbor, a young girl, struggling to cope with an adult emergency, wonders how her idol, Laura Ingalls Wilder, would handle the situation.

Reconciliation plays a key role as the young protagonists attempt to resolve problems and face reality. In Jackson’s A Taste of Spruce Gum, the heroine’s young heart feels betrayed by her mother’s remarriage, wounded by her stepfather’s behavior, and offended by her harsh new environment. Circumstances force her into a context in which she not only takes charge but also recognizes how much she loves her new “Papa.” In Stevenson’s Happily After All, the protagonist is forced to come to Vermont to live with a mother who, she thinks, has abandoned her. At first, she cannot adjust to Vermont, which is pretty, though in a “different way,” but she finally makes peace with her mother, who turns out to have been her loving Book Fairy all along. In Graff’s A Long Way Home, a boy sulks when his mother brings him to Vermont and cannot understand why his childhood friend refused to fight in Vietnam. A poignant revelation about the Civil War enables him to grasp the meaning of courage and, in a moving resolution, to respect his friend.

The particular ambiances of family, schools, and libraries have a major influence on the growth of the characters. Fisher’s eponymous heroine in Understood Betsy has never been asked to take responsibility or make a decision until she comes to live with her off-hand, eccentric relatives in Vermont; she then remodels her life on their mature and loving examples. Facing disasters like floods or fires, family members unite in new ways. Frost’s Maple Sugar for Windy Foot pits a family against a terrible flood. A young boy is waist-deep in water helping to get the horses out of the barn as another family’s house whirls by. Afterward, with his father, he views the barn “with its dead cattle, its destroyed hay and grain” and the “river-battered acres of what had once been a beautiful farm.” Having come through this crisis together, he feels he is “deep-down friends” with his father.

Complementing the importance of family relationships and the discipline of farm life is the influence of teachers and librarians. In Gauthier’s Hero of Ticonderoga, the two protagonists, both uninterested students, become engaged in and fascinated by research. In Doyle’s Stray Voltage, “The only person in his world who makes Ian feel valuable is Mrs. Worth, his sixth-grade teacher.” In Winthrop’s Counting on Grace, when Grace and her friend must give up school to work in the mill, Miss Lesley tutors them on weekends in her spare time. In Paterson’s Jip, His Story, a young teacher lends him books and assures him of her protection.

The characters have or develop a beneficial and devoted relationship with Vermont. The historical novels emphasize the statement that Meigs, in The Covered Bridge, attributes to folk hero Ethan Allen: “No person has come to live here who did not love the land.” The Vermont scene is rich and vibrant with pride in heritage, family roots in the land that go back generations, the tradition of neighbor helping neighbor, and challenges and hard work. As a boy observes in Haas’s Unbroken, “everything was work here. Everything was food and firewood and racing the summer to get both put away in time.”  The experiences of ancestors’ hewing out a life in the wilderness produce the qualities that the young protagonists find in their households of aunts, uncles, grandmothers, or grandfathers—wisdom, endurance, humor, and optimism.

In Stolz’s novel, By the Highway Home, a young girl mourns her brother, killed in Vietnam. She looks with affection at her books, filled with characters that make her weep—the little Mermaid, Oliver, Little Nell, Charlotte. Beth, and Bambi. She searches for and copies comforting quotations into her journal. In an essay by Simone Weil, this girl finds the following advice about death: “Do not grieve, or keep me always in your thoughts, but think of me as you would remember a book you loved in childhood.” I borrowed a portion of that quotation for the conclusion of my book’s introduction: “We all–librarians, teachers, and parents—remember with affection ‘the books we loved in childhood’ and the incalculable effect they have had upon our lives. The stories in this collection are the stuff of future memories for the young readers we esteem, support, serve, and love.”

Reading fiction about Vermont was the catalyst for my initial appreciation of the role of place in fiction. This experience led to my doctoral dissertation, in which I developed a theory, formed over the prior ten years, that place is the primary element in a piece of fiction because it affects the destiny of the characters.

 


 

 

 

 

 

On Tension, Rebellion, and Resignation

The New York Times‘ Opinion Piece: 31 December 2016.

From the (Impromptu) Desk of Alexander Hamilton.
The Central Offices of The New York Times.
620 Eighth Avenue.
Manhattan, New York.
The United States of America.

It is on the eve of the end of our year 2016 that I write to you, America, you great unfinished symphony (for indeed, you are still and may ever remain both great and unfinished). While, as the founder of The New York Post, it pains me to publish in The Times, I am told by certain parties of note that my publication is no longer of certain unblemished repute. These selfsame parties have called upon me (through temporal and technical means I do not entirely understand) from a place of concern for the future of this country; as a man who was once also concerned for these same reasons, and as a man who helped, in his own part, to mold this nation into the power it has been and is even now, I feel I have several brief remarks to offer on the state of this country and its place moving forward.

In the first place, I understand from conversations had and brief readings conducted prior to the penning of this piece that the nation finds itself in a state of apparently severe tension, confusion, and even rebellion. Rest assured that of this country, this has always been true. The United States of America as I have known it has thrived on the active pursuit of discussion of converse opinions and conflict. For my part, I have always been and, even in the current climate, would remain a passionate and invigorated orator, author, and politician. Further, at the birth of this nation and beyond it, these discussions and the demonstrations, arguments, and even duels to which they lead were not without their proverbial pain and suffering. The investment of the people of this nation and their willingness to argue and struggle for their beliefs is telling, reassuring, and admirable.

In the second place, then, I must reiterate the power and value of oral and written discourse. Silence is and always has been the killer of progress. When America moved to force itself from its place under the thumb of Great Britain and King George III, it did not do so with obedience and subservience; it did so with written and spoken resilience, passion, and rebellion. Further, then, I can emphasize the additional value of further protest when absolutely needed. Americans have always been known for their determined willingness to seek life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that is as true now as it is in my time.

In the third and final place, however, it is critical that, as Americans, we remember the value and usefulness of (it nearly pains me to admit) compromise. While it will sting to concede certain points so dear to consciences and minds, we must remember that, as a nation, compromise will move us forward for the sake of the common and, now, it seems, universal goods.

When in doubt, America, remember that “a nation which can prefer disgrace to danger is prepared for a master, and deserves one.” Pursue justice without fear, without shame, and at all costs in the coming years.

Most sincerely,
Your obedient servant,
A. Ham.