Sunday, November 28, 2010

Thanksgiving and Three Heads and A Habit of Gratefulness

I always have this idea that Thanksgiving is going to be one of those calm holidays where we bond as a normal family with a long car ride, and I don't know, stories of how wonderful our lives are or how wonderful something is. It seems that other families are driving into New York City all calm and happy with children coloring in the backseats. Maybe they are just better at using silence as a cloak of dsyfunction. I'm not sure. I like to think that's what it is.

Our holiday began normally enough. We were within an hour of our time to pick up the kids' grand uncle. (Yes, he brought his hair clipper so my husband could clip his ear hair - if you are familiar with this blog, you know Uncle Jack's ear hair cutting is a somewhat unusual, but expected, holiday tradition - if you want to really, really stretch the word tradition)

Around ten minutes into the ride, Emma asked me how many fingers I could hold from my hairline to my eyebrows. I sort of didn't want to answer, but I did. "Umm, four."
"See, that's my whole problem. I can only hold three fingers there. I don't have a forehead. I have a three head. And that's what aliens and cavemen have."

I turned to look at her brothers who were very, very innocently gazing out the window.
And our usual wildly weird conversation went on until we reached Grandma's. That's when I thought I'd take some nice holiday pictures. Here is a lovely shot of Philip growling while Christopher politely tries to duck the camera:

And here, poor Philip looks like he needs corrective surgery.
 But it was at some point during the dinner, maybe when I realized they were actually pretty nice kids when people other than me spoke to them, that I realized I have to stop thinking about the serene families. I'm lucky to have them. They only pass the green bean casserole and whisper, "Some vomit in a bowl?" to each other when no one is within earshot. And even though they never colored or sat quietly, they do all pile in the car and endure the strange conversations of their elderly relatives (yeah, it's about that, complete with amount, consistency and frequency) without batting an eyelash.

We will probably never drive down the road without our minor battles and our own brand of three headed weirdness, but at least we are all together and we are all talking. It's really corny, but I like that Thanksgiving reminds everyone that we should be in a habit of gratefulness rather than think about it only on one day.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


I remember a graduate class where the professor seemed pretty much stuck on the idea that character and plot were one in the same. We talked about it for seven thousand hours, going over seven thousand lines of Henry James whereby that professor proved, undeniably, that Henry James could make both plot and character equally dull and therefore indistinguishable from one another.

I'm really sorry, but I can't stand Henry James.

 I'm not really sure why I took so much American Lit in grad school since that seems to be all we did. I actually do think there's a big difference between plot and character. What interested me way more, and what we almost never talked about, was the importance of setting.

Someone I read in grad school, when I was supposed to be reading Henry, was Eudora Welty. I saw her name on a bookstore shelf and I loved it.

Go ahead, say it: Eudora Welty.

It sounds like a children's book protagonist who is orphaned then left a fortune.I loved her name so much that I opened the book and saw it was about writing so I bought it. And she said this about setting:

"Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else... Fiction depends for its life on place. Place is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of, What happened? Who's here? Who's coming?..."
When I sit down to write, I see a person, then I see where that person is standing or sitting or looking out a window. I have absolutely no sense of that person until I see where they are physically. It kind of fills in: rainy, city, Saturday afternoon, boy on bus, looking out sooty window. That kind of thinking. I put the character in the setting, then their personality sort of emerges.

I think I'd like to go back to graduate school now, as the teacher this time, and talk for a really long time about how setting is really a character in the story, right along with the characters who talk and interact and change or remain static.

I always wonder how other writers start their stories. I definitely think place before person. If someone said, "Quick! Write about a wedding!" I wouldn't think about the couple. I would think about where: if it was the Presbyterian chapel in Swedenboro, Minnesota (if there is such a place) it would be an entirely different couple than the couple waiting on the steps of the Little White Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas. The Minnesota couple would have begun saving for their first home and decided to use only green cleaning methods; the Las Vegas couple might be able to use the same public restroom.

I think everyone who writes works from a different circuit board. I'm just wondering what comes first for writers out there: the character or the place?

Friday, November 5, 2010

Vampire Families and Theme Parks and Stuff

I have been blog-neglectful in respect to my own blog and other folks' blogs. I sort of get lost in my life and don't have time for even a few minutes at the computer. Of course that's not because I'm actually writing or cleaning the house or reading or doing any of the things that would make me timely and organized and increasingly published. It's because I'm doing...stuff.

One of those things did was take the kids to Six Flags, or two of the three kids and a friend. And of course then there was Halloween which completely absorbs me. We went to Six Flags just before Halloween.

Now, we are not a theme park family, but every once in a while, I roll a wheelbarrow of cash into one of those places just so we feel connected to the rest of theme-park loving America.

None of my kids are hugely into roller coasters, but we walked around, went on a few rides and let teenagers jump out at us and scare the scream out of Emma. Philip kept reminding her to "look cool" because the people paid to scare you "prey on the weak." But Emma is too young not to look terrified, so she provided those folks a perfect target.

What scared me the most was the family of vampires. Not too many people who weren't hired by the park were in costume, but this family stood directly in front of us on line with their fanged teeth and capes. After a few minutes of watching them, it occurred to us, I think simultaneously, that they were really, really, really into being "the vampire family" - in other words, you sort of got that they wore these costumes at times other than Halloween. Way scarier a concept than roller coasters.

I'm not sure what's wrong with us that we don't enjoy theme parks. Its seems sort of un-American.

I remember right after Emma was born, we took the boys, then four and six and a newborn to Florida. We stood in the middle of Disney World and only then did my postpartum, exhausted brain realize that we never really participated in much Disney stuff. We watched Lion King and Barney and knew the names of animals, but we didn't go to Disney movies or watch commercial tv. My boys did not know who Buzz Lightyear was and Philip grew absolutely terrified when Lincoln began speaking. In fact, he began wailing with terror. Christopher was in tears because he wanted to drive the go carts and after about ten seconds, he realized that the go cart was being controlled for him and not by him. "This place stinks," he pronounced. I remember going back to the hotel thinking we were the strangest family in the United States. What kids don't like Disney World? Well, mine.

But we did have fun afterwards talking about the vampire family, imagining them going shopping for their small, medium and large capes and fangs and pointy collars and sitting for the family portrait:
But now it's boring, wet November and I have to actually get back to doing stuff that isn't just stuff, like finishing a revision and adding at least 100 words to NaNo. I'm really hoping there is someone else out there who joined NaNo and hasn't started yet. There has to be: if the vampire people found each other, I can't be alone in procrastination, right?