I have spent a lot of time reading and reviewing other people’s books. And at the same time I have invested some of my free-reading time in re-reading my own novel, The Baby Werewolf. The thing about all of it together is that it represents the actual life-force of the author. We all do it. Authors put their own experience, their own heart, and their own precious world into their work. We do it at different levels of confidence, competence, and creativity. But we all do it. And because we do it, someone needs to read it.
contains the characters that the author has known, the author has loved, and especially the people the author has lost over the course of his or her life.
At least, the competent authors do that. They put real people into their work. You can tell, even in really awful, poorly written novels, that flashes of what the authors really observed, really hated, or really fell in love with about the people in their lives are there to be read and absorbed.
are also crucial to the story. Fiction or nonfiction, you will be taken to other homes, other cities, other worlds than the one you yourself inhabit.
What more can you truly say about your life than where you lived it, where you are from, and what background defines you as an author?
that which happens in a story, is probably the most important thing of all. Because reading gives you a share in someone else’s life, in someone else’s experience. A chance to walk about in someone else’s shoes.
You can comfortably learn what others have learned before you. You can share in their ups and downs and all-arounds to experience the same chills and thrills and sadness as they have lived, and loved, and laughed about.
So, in this essay, I contend that human life on the planet Earth is a very good thing. And you multiply its goodness a thousand-fold if only you will only pick up and read someone else’s book.
I was a middle school English teacher. And part of that job is to build reading skills. But that is a challenging thing. Especially if you work for a poor rural school district with limited budgets and very little ability to buy computers and the necessary software. After all, being a reading teacher in the upper grade levels of public schools is HARD. Can you figure out a child’s reading level with teacher-made Cloze tests? Do you know how to tell a book’s reading level just by sampling the concept density, vocabulary load, and sentence lengths in the beginning, middle, and end of a book? Do you know where to find the readability information in the student’s History and Science textbooks? And did you know there is no formula anywhere to cover how you match up kids to books they will actually read and like without becoming a mind-reading trusted friend of every kid in your class?
Seriously. Even if you are a teacher certified to teach reading, they do not teach you these things below the doctorate level in teacher-training schools. I had to teach myself before I could effectively teach them.
The fact is, life-long readers are made by book-reading parents who read to their children a lot before they ever come to school. Those kids get to school and top the lists of readers no matter what reading or literacy test you give them. They benefit from a reading teacher they can talk to about books, but they don’t need them. They know how to teach themselves. And kids who don’t catch fire in their reading ability thanks to an enthusiastic and gifted kindergarten, first, or second-grade teacher are never going to learn to read for fun, or probably ever read anything not assigned by their boss with job-loss consequences ever again after leaving school. Some kids burdened with dyslexia, ADD, or even mental illness of some sort are never going to read at all… without intervention.
And high-stakes State tests that have been all the rage with Republican governments who want to prove teachers make too much money, don’t even measure reading skills and compare results to see how much kids have gained every single year. They don’t want to give teachers credit if they take it upon themselves to actually teach students to read better. That is not what capitalist economies want to measure. They prefer to see how well students conform to norms and standards… to make an obedient working class that doesn’t cost too much because they think for themselves.
But a good teacher teaches kids to read or read better. They do it in spite of the huge challenge. There are ways to do it.
Pictured in this post are four books that I have read aloud to my classes. And walked them through the stories with word banks, guided-reading worksheets, focused discussions about theme-setting-character and whatnot. I tricked them into caring about what happens to the main characters because you learn to care about them as people (meaning both the characters and the student readers who invest themselves in those characters.)
I have used these books to make students laugh, as when Mr. Sir is shooting at yellow-spotted lizards in Holes. And I have made them cry, as when the family learns how Tom was killed in the Battle of Shiloh in the book Across Five Aprils. And I have horrified them when it is revealed what happens to old people and defective babies in The Giver. You can literally make students love good books if you are willing to share them hard enough.
I have never tried to get students to read books literally naked as my Paffooney might be suggesting. I don’t think the school boards I have worked for would’ve liked that very much. But it is a triumph of teaching when you can get them to figuratively immerse themselves in books to that degree.
But teaching reading is something all schools need to be doing. And I have to tell you, they are not doing nearly enough anywhere in Texas. And maybe not in the rest of the United States either.. Now that I can teach no more… I am left despairing. But not because of lack of belief in kids and good books.
This book of mine is in a free-book promotion this weekend.
My experience of the works of Kurt Vonnegut is limited to the reading of three books; Cat’s Cradle, Breakfast of Champions, and Slaughterhouse Five. But it was enough to make me love him and use him as a shaper of my soul.
I deeply apologize for the fact that even though he only wrote 14 books and a bunch of short stories, I have not read everything I could get my hands on by Kurt. Three novels and one short story (Harrison Bergeron) is not really enough to compare to the many, many things that I have read by Mark Twain, Terry Pratchett, Louis L’Amour, and Michael Crichton. I can’t begin to count how many books of each of those four I have read and reread. But it is enough that I read those three novels and have a lifelong regret of never buying and reading Slapstick when I had the chance. Vonnegut writes black humor. The ideas are painful, and burn away flesh from your personal body of being. And at the same time, you cannot help but laugh at the pure, clean, horrifying truths his ridiculous stories reveal.
If, in the course of telling a story, you can put the sublime, the ridiculous, and the horrendous side by side, and make the reader see how they actually fit together, then you can write like Vonnegut.
Let me give you three quick and dirty book reports of the Vonnegut I have read in the order I have read them;
I read Cat’s Cradle in college. I was young and idealistic at the time, foolishly convinced I could be a great writer and cartoonist who could use my work to change mankind for the better.
In the book, Dr. Felix Hoenikker (a fictionalized co-creator of the atomic bomb) is obsessively re-stacking cannonballs in the town square in pursuit of a new way to align water molecules that will yield ice that does not melt at room temperature. Much as he did with the A-bomb, Hoenikker invents a world-ending science-thing without any thought for the possible consequences. The narrator of the novel is trying to write a humanizing biography of the scientist, and comes to observe the inevitable destruction of the whole world when the oceans freeze into Ice-9, the un-meltable ice crystal. Before the world ends, the narrator spends time on the fictional Carribean island of San Lorenzo where he learns the fictional religion known as Bokononism, and learns to make love to a beautiful woman by pressing bare feet together sole to sole. It is a nihilistic picture of what humans are really like more savagely bleak than any portrayal Monte Python’s Flying Circus ever did on TV.
Needless to say, my ideals were eventually shattered and my faith in the world shaken.
I read Breakfast of Champions after I had been teaching long enough to buy my own house, be newly married, and a father to one son. It was probably the worst time of life to be reading a book so cynical, yet true.
In this story, the author Kilgore Trout, much published but mostly unknown, is headed to Midland City to deliver a keynote address at an arts festival. Dwayne Hoover is a wealthy business man who owns a lot of Midland City real-estate. Trout gives Hoover a book (supposedly a message from the creator of the universe) to read that suggests that all people (except for the reader of the book… meaning Hoover) are machines with no free will. Hoover takes the message to heart and tries to set the machines free by breaking them, beating up his son, his lover, and nine other people before being taken into custody.
The book contains devastating themes of suicide, free will, and social and economic cruelty. It makes you sincerely reflect on your own cog-in-the-machine reality.
Slaughterhouse Five is a book I bought and read when I missed my chance to buy Slapstick and needed something to take home from HalfPrice Books to make me feel better about what I missed. (Of the five books I had intended to buy that day, none were still on the shelves in spite of the fact that they had been there the week before.) It was fortuitous. This proved to be the best novel I had ever read by Vonnegut.
Like most of his work, the story of Billy Pilgrim is a fractured mosaic of small story pieces not presented in chronological order. It details Billy’s safe, ordinary marriage to a wife who gives him two children, but it is ironically cluttered with death, accidents, being stalked by an assassin, and being kidnapped by aliens. It also details his experiences in World War II where he is captured by the Germans, held prisoner in Dresden, kept in an underground slaughterhouse, and ironically survives the fire-bombing of Dresden by the Allies. Further, it details his time as a zoo exhibit on the alien planet of Tralfamadore.
It explores the themes of depression, post-traumatic-stress disorder, and anti-war sentiment. Vonnegut himself was a prisoner of war in Dresden during the fire-bombing, so real-life experiences fill the book with gravitas that it might not otherwise possess. Whether the author was ever kidnapped by aliens or not, I cannot say.
But Kurt Vonnegut’s desire to be a writer and portray himself as a writer in the character of Kilgore Trout, and even as himself in his work, has an awful lot to do with my desire to be a writer myself. Dark, pithy wisdom is his thing. But that wisdom, having been wrung from the darkness is all the more brightly lit because of that wringing. It is hard to read, but not hard to love.
Bob Keeshan, better known as Captain Kangaroo, would not like my title. He wanted them to be referred to as “children” not “kids”. The reasons were obvious. “Kid” refers to a baby goat. It’s all about the words. It’s all about respect and propriety.
But Bob Keeshan, though a TV personality, was much more of a teacher than anything else. His show went on air before I was born, and I don’t remember a moment in my childhood that he wasn’t a part of it. He was like Mr. Rogers, but came into our lives even before Fred Rogers appeared on the scene. I watched the show in the mornings before school started, at a time when I walked all the way across our little Iowa farm town to get to school. He taught me important early lessons in life that were just as impactful as the math and language and social skills I was getting later in the day. Of course, I had to leave home for school before the show ended at 8:00 a,m. But just like school, watching and participating in any part of it was capable of teaching you something good.
A lot of what I was able to do successfully as a teacher is a result of how Captain Kangaroo taught me. He taught me to deliver information in small bites that a young learner with a short attention span could fully digest. He taught me how to capture attention. He did it with puppets, a moose, a bunny, and a dancing bear all thanks to Cosmo Allegretti, a versatile and multi-talented performer. He could focus attention by letting Mr. Moose drop ping pong balls on his head. Whatever came next after the moment of mirth was something I paid attention to.
He also helped us learn science. Mr. Greenjeans in his low-key, deadpan way would teach us about eating vegetables, how farmers cultivate plants, and how to handle various small animals like kittens, rabbits, and even ferrets. Mr. Greenjeans got seriously bitten by a lion cub on camera. He simply stuck his bleeding finger in his pocket and went on with the show. Yes, the man was a veteran in more ways than one. (He was a Marine in WWII.)
And Captain Kangaroo taught me how to share a book. I became very good at reading aloud to students because Bob Keeshan and the crew that worked for him showed me how to read with expression, separate dialogue from narration, and build the excitement with pace and voice modulation. They were experts at reading aloud.
So, I say this with no disrespect, only veneration. “I am a Kangaroo kid.” I watched the show and internalized it. I developed deep pockets like the ones in Bob Keeshan’s jacket that gave him the name Captain Kangaroo, and I stored many treasures from the Treasure House there that I would later share with my students.
I finished reading this marvelous book over this dreary sunshiny weekend. And I am totally surprised by how much I loved it.
This marvelous book, Hearts in Atlantis, is a book by Stephen King, whom I have always considered a dreary sunshiny popular writing hack. I have learned by it, how wrong I have been all along about this author. He is now established in my mind as a serious literary giant (as opposed to a comic literary giant like Kurt Vonnegut or Terry Pratchett). He deals with the emotions of fear, loss, angst, and regret, and so falls too easily into the horror writer category. I misjudged him for so many years because I read Carrie, his first success, and Firestarter… well, I tried to read Firestarter and only got 40 pages in when it was due back at the library… and… I mean, I never fail to finish a book I have chosen to read. And then I did. But both of those books showed me a writer who was trying too hard, following some road map of novel writing borrowed from some other writer he admired. And it all becomes formulaic and trite, sometimes even boring. He is mimicking someone else’s voice. I filed him in the “authors who are hack writers” drawer next to R.L. Stine.
But this book proved me totally wrong. I had to take King out and put him in a different drawer. It starts out as a typical Stephen King monster story with a first section with a young boy as the protagonist and introducing us to the monstrous “low men in yellow coats”. But it is a total trick to draw us in. And it is even a very good monster story. Like H.P. Lovecraft he has learned the lesson that a good monster story is not about the monster. And showing us the monster directly is something that should only be done very briefly, at just the right moment in the plot. Like the works of David Mitchell, this section connects you to threads from King’s other books, especially the Dark Towerseries, which I must now read in the very near future. Stephen King has learned through practice to write like a master.
But the theme doesn’t really start to score ultimate literature points until he tricks us along into part two. The hearts in the title is actually the card game. It is a card game that takes over the lives of college boys in a dormitory in the 1960’s. They play it for money and it takes over their lives to the point that they flunk out of school at a time when that means they will be drafted and sent to Vietnam. And the characters that are immune to the pull of the hearts game (also a metaphor for the second protagonist’s love life) fall victim to the urge to take on the government and protest the war. Hence the “sinking of Atlantis” metaphor means the loss of innocence, and the devastation that comes from making choices when you are young that will haunt you forever.
The post-war section of the book is filled with hubris, regret, lost love and stoic determination that is barely rewarded for only two characters in the entire plot. I won’t of course, say anything that is a plot spoiler. This is a horror story, and it is not my place to reveal the truth about the monster. I can only tell you that this story is a devastating read for those of us old enough to remember. And it is a fine work of dreary sunshiny fiction that frightens us with its truthfulness.
One good thing about being a humorist is, if somebody calls you out for an error you made in your writing, you can always say, “Well, it’s a joke, isn’t it?” Errors are for serious gobbos and anal-retentive editors. I live with happy accidents. It is a way of life dictated in the Bob Ross Bible.
Yeah, I know it’s supposed to be “oops” not “OPPS”, but after all, this isn’t even a list I made up myself. I stole the whole thing from another writer on Twitter.
You have no idea what a cornucopia of ravings from knit-wit twit-tweets Twitter really is.
Oh, you waste time time on Twitter too?
Then you know already.
Twitter makes you want to shout at your computer, and has so many Trump-tweets and conservative blather-bombs on it, that it can seriously impair your editing skills.
So I look elsewhere and elsewhen to sharpen my critical English-teacher eye.
Yes, the illustrator of that meme doesn’t get the blame for the content. I wrote that violation of the sacredness of classic literature myself. I think we should thank God for the fact that neither Charles Darwin nor Dr. Seuss decided to act on evil impulses. The world is a better place for their decision on how to use their genius, and how to edit themselves.
So, this is me writing today’s post about editing as a writer, and failing miserably to edit my own self. I got the pictures from Twitter and edited them myself. Or failed to edit them properly, as the case is more likely to prove. But however I may have twisted stuff and changed stuff and made up new words, editing is essential. It makes the whole world better. Now let’s consider editing the White House for a bit, shall we?
When I started this whole blogging-every-day thing, I decided the rule had to be 500 words written in a day. And I meant to hold myself to writing 500 words somewhere in the writing day, whether it was my blog post or the novel I was working on, or a combination of both. I followed that rule religiously through more than 1,500 blog posts and five first draft novels. I found it easier and easier to surpass 500 words on a daily basis. There are all sorts of bits of time available and I collect ideas faster than a rich kid generates empty candy wrappers. The more I call on the well of words for more words, the more words are available. Now, it seems, writing only 500 words is the trick.
I suppose I have become an Old Man of Words. I know both the rules and the exceptions.
Knowing that I can write more than 500 words easily, then the question becomes, why don’t I? Well, the cardinalrule is “Say it short. Say it simple. And say it sweet.” That rule can generate a lot of wonderful writing, full of juicy ideas that splash with flavor when you bite into them. Ernest Hemingway knew that rule. Every poet knows it. Readers generally prefer the easily accessible idea expressed with elegance.
Now, I also have to admit a guilty pleasure in perpetrating purple paisley prose. That is the style of writing in which I generally write convoluted sentences with complex ideas that fold back in on themselves and over-use alliteration to criminal degrees. Charles Dickens liked to do that with descriptive details. Paragraphs about the boarding schools of London, the streets filled with child chimney sweeps and flower girls, and dingy mind-dulling workhouses could take up two or three pages per paragraph. And two pages further on, he layers more details on the same setting. Piles and piles of words and wordplay fill the pages of William Faulkner, James Joyce, and Marcel Proust. And if you haven’t read at least something from each of those gentlemen, you will never know what you are missing. But you can prune your paragraphs like a greenhouse master florist with limited space will do to his orchids, and you can actually end up fitting great beauty and powerful content into something even more limited than a 500-word essay. In fact, if you take your ideas and distill them, and keep distilling them, over and over, you will eventually have pared the words down into poetry.
So, there you have it. The reason my essays are about 500 words. This one is four hundred and forty one words.
Nobody who wants to be a writer gets by with just writing and never reading anything by anybody else. It is too easy to devolve into some kind of human mushroom that way, thinking only thoughts a mushroom could think, all fungus-like and having no chlorophyll of their own. You never learn to decode other people and other people’s thinking if you don’t read other people’s thoughts crystallized in writing.
And not every other writer is Robert Frost. Or even Jack Frost who thinks he’s Gene Kelly. There has to be some interpretation, some digging for understanding. What did that writer mean when she said political correctness was like a tongue disease? And what does it mean when a commenting troll calls me a nekkid poofter? Is that how he spells “exceptional genius”? I think it is. Trolls are not smart.
I know people have to make an effort to understand me. When I write, I am writing under the delusion that I can produce literary quality off the top of my head. In fact, I can barely produce hair off the top of my head, and it is gray when I do it. See what I did there? It is the kind of joke a surrealist makes, pretending the idiomatic expression you use is to be taken literally when it doesn’t literally make sense. That kind of nonsense is what my readers have to put up with, and probably also the reason why most of them just look at the pictures. If you have to think too hard when you read, your brain could over-heat and your hair could catch fire. I like that kind of purple paisley prose that folds back in on itself and makes you think in curlicues. But most people don’t. Most people don’t have fire-proof hair like I do.
Of course, there is the opposite problem too. Some writers are not hard to understand at all. They only use simple sentences. They only use ideas that lots of other people have used before. You don’t have to think about what they write. You only need to react. They are the reasons that words like “trite”, “hackneyed”, “boring”, and “cliche” exist in English. But simple, boring writing isn’t written by stupid people. Hemingway is like that. Pared down to the basics. No frills. Yet able to yield complex thoughts, insights, and relationships.
Sometimes, it doesn’t even take a word to make the point. For instance, why, in the picture, is Fluttershy trying to drink out of the toilet in the dollhouse bathroom? For that matter, why does a doll house even need a bathroom? Applejack doesn’t even fit in that yellow bathtub. I know. I tried to stuff her in there for this picture. And, as you read this, doesn’t this paragraph tell you a lot about me that you probably didn’t even want to know?
When I am reading the writing of others, I am looking for a cornucopia of things. I want to not only understand their ideas, I want to detect the limping footprints across the murder scene of their paragraphs and come to know the deeper things about them as well. I spent years decoding and trying to understand the writing of preliterate kids in my middle school English classes in order to be able to teach them to write better. And I learned that no writer is a bad writer as long as they are using readable words. I also learned that very few writers are James Joyce or Marcel Proust. Thank God for that! And given enough time I can read anything by anybody and learn something from it. I read a lot. And it may not always make me a better writer to read it, but it always has value. It is always worth doing.
I like to think that I am different than other readers, that the quirky, insane way I practice reading makes me somehow unique and individual. But if you have read very much of my goofy little blog, you probably realize already that I am a deeply deluded idiot most of the time. So let me explain a little about how I go about reading.
I am basically guilty of reading anything and everything I can get my hands on. And the stupid internet puts an infinite variety in your hands. Some of it is toxic and probably will kill me… or land me in jail. (Does the NSA really care about what Mickey is reading?)
Besides being Eclectic with a capital “E”, I am also obsessive. My daily reading project now is Garrison Keillor’s novel, Lake Wobegon Days.
I only spend about an hour a day reading this novel, but I am totally immersed in it. I am living inside that book, remembering the characters as real people and talking to them like old friends. I tried to read that book before and couldn’t make progress because I like so much to listen to Keillor tell stories on A Prairie Home Companion on the radio and it just wasn’t the same entirely in print. When he tells a story, he pauses a lot. In fact, that moment when he stops to let you reflect on what he just said is critical to the humor because you have to stop and savor the delicious irony of the scene. His pauses are funnier than the words. Man, if he just stood there and didn’t talk at all, you would probably die laughing from it. So, in order to get into the book, I had to read it with Garrison’s voice in my head, pausing frequently the way he does. Now the stories of Clarence Bunsen and Pastor Inqvist break me up all over again. I will soon acquire and read everything he has ever written. I truly love Garrison Keillor.
So there is a description of how strange a practicing reader I am. Think about how you read. Is the NSA watching you too? Do you ever read two books at the same time? Do you read everything and anything in front of you? If you are self-reflective at all, even if you are not pathological about it the way Mickey is, you may well decide that as strange as my reading habits are, they are probably normal compared to yours.
Yes, I read this book. Yes, it scared the poop out of me. Yes, it made me cry. This is a uniquely horrific horror story that is so realistic that you know that it has actually happened in real life somewhere, sometime. Only the names of the characters would be different.
I have a deep abiding respect for Richard Peck as a writer. He earned that with his books A Year Down Yonder and A Long Way from Chicago. Those books made me laugh so hard it blew chocolate milk out of my nose. And, yes, I was drinking chocolate milk at the time. They are so realistic because the people in those stories are real people. I know those people personally. Of course, they have different names in real life.
But Are You In the House Alone? is a very different book from those other two masterpieces. It tears your heart out and eats your liver because it is a first person narrative in the voice of a high school girl being stalked by a sexual predator. Everything that happens to Gail in the high school, at home, and at the house where she babysits is hyper-real with horror movie levels of attention to detail. I don’t wish to be a spoiler for this well-written book, but the narrator does not die in the book and it definitely does not have a happy ending. For anyone who has the amount of empathy I do, and in many ways becomes the narrator-character by reading, reading a book like this can physically hurt. A teacher like me has lived through horrible things like this happening to students before, it even happened to me as a boy, and it adds the slings and arrows of those things being re-lived as you read.
This is not the only book that has ever done this sort of damage to my heart strings. I remember the pain from the conclusion of Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop. You root for Little Nell and boo Daniel Quilp. But the bad guy wins. No happy ending can linger in the harp-strings of your memory-feeling song as long as a tragic outcome does. I was there with Scout in that ridiculous costume in the dark when Bob Ewell was attacking her brother Jem in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. That story was filled with wise and laughable things, but the stark horror of that climactic moment nearly wiped all the good feelings away, if not for the heroics of ghostly Boo Radley whose timely intervention brings it all back before the novel ends. It horrifies me to admit it, but I was there, too, in the moment when the boys all turn on Simon on the beach with their sharpened sticks in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. They mistook him for the monster. I still haven’t fully recovered from that reading trauma.
The thing about books that hurt to read which makes it essential that I never try to avoid them, is that they can add more depth and resonance to your soul than any light and fluffy piece ever could. Life is much more like Lord of the Flies than it is Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I am sadder but wiser for having read Are You In the House Alone? I am recommending it to other readers like me who don’t so much live to read as they read in order to live. Not because it is easy and good to read, but because it is hard and essential to read. It will hurt you. But it will leave you like it leaves its narrator, damaged, but both alive and purely resolved to carry on.