Wednesday, October 31, 2012

On the Eve of November

This is my fourth attempt at writing something meaningful and clear and interesting here. So far it hasn’t worked. So let me lay it out straight, incomplete, and unpretty:

When I wrote up my November challenge, I was happy to see that several people had things they really did want to do and might actually be encouraged to work on in November (list below). But I also realized that I hadn’t defined the idea well enough or broadly enough. Some people have crazy, insane dreams like publishing novels. Some people don’t. This is all perfectly well and good. Quite frankly, I am actually kind of jealous of people whose dreams are more domestic (this is a topic for later, one I haven’t really fleshed out or fully understood yet). So if you don’t have a huge November project, maybe you could have some “smaller” things to work on (small perhaps in physical scope but not in effect or level of personal importance). Or maybe you are already living and doing the things that are really important to you. If so, congrats! That’s awesome. I’m really jealous of you too. I struggle on a daily basis to do the writing I want to do (if I did as much as I meant to, you’d be hearing from me a lot more often). I struggle on a daily basis to do the mothering I want to do (if I did, my children would be a lot happier, be cleaner and better fed, and feel more loved).
So whatever it is that brings you joy and brings you closer to who you are meant to be, do a little more of that this month! Or just do what you already told me you might do…

Dawn: Finish up 30 days’ worth of sewing projects! I’m already excited to see everything you make.

Kem: Write a racecar game (step 1 in a plan that I think sounds supercool).

Kirsa: Start painting her Giant Canvas of Doom (or, you know, just a giant canvas without any 

Marci: Work on her art projects, fifteen minutes a day. (Granted, I haven’t heard how Hurricane Sandy treated her family--in New York--so she may have more urgent matters to attend to in November.)

Marneen: Decide which of her awesome ideas would make her feel happiest at the end of the month. Then do that one! :)

Meghan: Write a novel, baby!

Michael: Write a novel (a different one from Meghan’s)! :)

Michelle: Finish that tree skirt—just in time for Christmas!

I suppose I should also toss in my plans for November, in case you’d forgotten (not likely, I know, given the amount of time I spend talking about it). Fifty thousand words! A novel! Craziness! Cashing in all my wifey points! Avoiding Facebook like the plague! And also avoiding blogs and email too! And tossing in a few exclamation points, just for good measure!!! These are the things I have planned for November.

Okay, people, go and do! And keep me updated! And take pictures so we can all revel in our awesomeness at the end of the month!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Book Review: A Tale Dark and Grimm

I recently got to listen to Adam Gidwitz and several other authors* discuss fairy tales, why people love them, and why these authors had chosen to retell them in some way. These people were funny, delightful characters. I wanted to invite them all over for a party and a book club. I wanted to shake their hands and soak in their awesomeness. And—probably what they cared about more than my admiration—I wanted to buy their books.
A Tale Dark & Grimm (A Tale Dark & Grimm, #1) 
So I picked up a copy of Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark and Grimm. Gidwitz himself was witty, amusing, and used the word “awesome” at least five times—which I found to be, quite frankly, awesome. How could I not buy his book? On a more serious note: He talked about the archetypal quality of fairy tales, and how that makes them—even the gruesome ones—less traumatic to read and easier for children to process. He said that he deliberately tried to keep that quality in his books so he could tell the worst tales without overwhelming children. I was intrigued; generally what I have loved about fairy tale retellings is that they take the archetypal and vague qualities and give them life and depth and complexity and specificity. I wanted to see how he made his versions work.

And, to my view, he did so beautifully. I think there are three things that make this book work so well:

First, the narrative voice. The narrator, like Gidwitz himself, is dry and funny and gives you the opportunity to step back briefly from the worst parts of the story. A repeated theme when he gets to the gruesome bits is something like, “Now, have we made sure there are no children in the room?” Or, “You may want to skip this next part.” A bit like Lemony Snicket, but he doesn’t overwhelm the narrative like Snicket sometimes did.

The point is that the narrator provides opportunities to step out of the story for a moment and warns you when it’s about to get bad, inserts humorous asides and commentaries, and even throws in a good moral or two for kicks.

Which leads us directly to the second thing that I think works nicely in this book: the bits of moral thrown in. I tend to be one who hates being beaten over the head by morals in fiction.** And a lot of the original fairy tales are pretty much a lesson wrapped into some bare minimum of plot. And yet. He manages tossing in a fair number of morals or at least ideas to consider, I think partially because of the matter-of-fact way the narrator and the characters face difficult and/or illuminating truths. And the personal way they do it.

And finally, the third bit that makes this book so delightful: the overall structure. In short, the story follows Hansel and Gretel through the twists and turns of a whole slew of Grimm fairy tales, most of which I didn’t know (fun times! I want to go read them now!). Gidwitz has made them the featured characters in all those stories that just had “a girl” or “a boy” in them. They’re the stars. And then he also does a nice job at the end of showing how we got the versions we have. But pulling together so many disparate tales into one fluid story? Fun and delightful.

Overall, yes, it’s gruesome. There is blood, there is dismemberment, there is boiling a warlock in oil with a bunch of poisonous snakes. There are murderers and terrible decisions and sadness and death. And while some heads are reattached, and some wounds are miraculously fixed (it turns out stringettes probably would be helpful!), some are not. But there’s a kind of meaning in all the suffering (mostly). I hate to say it’s lovely, because that’s a pretty weird word to attach to this book. Especially if I want any young boys to read it. But it kind of is.

I’ve checked out the next one, In a Glass Grimmly, from the library. Looking forward to reading that one too.

*Including Shannon Hale! Squee! But that is a story for another time.
**If I’m reading various genres of nonfiction, I’m perfectly willing to expect it. After all, who reads a self-help book not wanting to get the moral to the story?

Friday, October 12, 2012

Brief commentary, "Diamonds and Pearls"

My flash fiction piece “Diamonds and Pearls” is loosely based on an old Perrault fairy tale called “Diamonds and Toads.” In “Diamonds and Toads,” a fairy places a spell on two sisters—one kind and the other unkind. To the kind sister she gives a gift and to the other a curse. The “gift,” however, is to have precious gems spill from the girl’s lips every time she speaks. Of course, in the story, a handsome prince recognizes her value (we can only hope/pretend that it’s not her monetary value he recognizes) and rescues her from her cruel family. They marry, live happily ever after, la di da.

But that never really worked for me. Spitting out jewels every time you speak? This does not sound like a pleasant experience. Plus, I was never really convinced by that prince’s love. And what if someone in today’s world were to receive such a gift? It’s easy to think, “Oh! Then I’d be rich!” But really, would you? You’d have to sell the jewels somehow—which would probably require some tricky handling or some blackmarket dealing (and how would you account for the ongoing supply?). You could never speak in public, or you’d suddenly be an object of curiosity and freakishness. So… sounds good in theory. In practice, not so much.

And thus the idea for this story was born, on the whim of an idea, and carried on through an evening of rocking and holding my daughter as she drifted into sleep.

And then, as I got some critiques from some friends, I discovered that not everyone is familiar with the original story. I know I grew up with it somewhere in my vague past, but I don’t have any idea whether it’s a common enough story for most people to know. So if you’re reading this, I would love to have you comment and let me know—did you recognize the original fairy tale?

Whether or not you recognized the original, I hope you enjoyed my take on it. Thanks for stopping by!

“Diamonds and Pearls”

It was supposed to be a gift.

But she hadn’t spoken for five years now, and that was a curse.

Rose's Kindness.JPGShe remembered that summer day in Central Park. She had stopped for a moment to drink from her water bottle in the 90-degree shade.

“Spare a drink for a stranger?” asked a weak voice from a few feet away. Mina looked toward the voice’s owner, a small woman in ratty clothing, dirtier than the ground beneath her. Then she looked dubiously at her water bottle, imagining the swarms of bacteria on the woman’s lips.

But it was hot, and the woman was old. The least she could do was help. So Mina gave her the bottle and watched her drink greedily.

Passing the bottle back, the woman wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and said in a voice somehow both stronger and lighter, “Thank you. You are kind indeed. For this kindness I shall bestow upon you a marvelous gift.”

“You don’t really need to—”

The old woman swept to her feet, suddenly radiating power as she held up her hand to silence Mina. “This is your gift: The words that fall from your lips shall fall in jewels.”

Mina gaped in horror. She reached out in supplication, but the sun broke through the trees, momentarily blinding her. When she could see again, the woman had vanished. She cupped her hands to her mouth. “Please no,” she whispered, and two small objects dropped from her lips.

A ruby. An emerald.

She knew how this would work in a fairy tale, of course. A handsome prince would ride up on a white horse and declare his everlasting devotion. He would carry her off into the sunset to live happily ever after.

But this was not a fairy tale, and in her world a woman whose words produced jewels could never be safe—not from science or the press, not even from a prince who might declare his love. She would never be sure of anyone’s true intentions. She would never know whom to trust.

So she stopped talking. Her voice became a rusty memory. Even a cough creaked like an unoiled hinge. The words she would not speak began, instead, to pour out of her onto paper. Her passions, her fears, her hopes, her dreams—they spilled from her like blood, saturating the pages with her life. Pages became chapters became novels became bestsellers. Money flowed into Mina’s bank accounts. In her nightmares, it flowed in sapphires and garnets, opals and amethysts.

She hid inside her books. She used signing when required, but her refuge was a profound silence in which both her lips and her hands were still.

Then she met Daniel. Kind, funny, smart, handsome. Everything she’d always wanted. As the cold winter sun warmed to spring light, she felt the tightness within her begin to relax. She began to hope. And fear. She plucked petals from a daisy in her heart: He loves me. He loves my money. He loves me. And no matter which petal dropped last, the daisy always fell to the floor with the same question: But what if he knew about the curse?

It could not go on forever, she realized. So as spring edged toward the brightness of summer, she decided she would no longer live imprisoned by her cursed gift. “I have something to tell you,” she signed to him, unable to meet his eyes. They sat together on the very bench the old woman had occupied so long ago.

“I do too,” he said, smiling.

She gestured toward him. You first.

He took her hands, his eyes warm and bright. “I love you, Mina. I want to marry you.”

Her heart sped as a smile rose unbidden to her lips. How she had longed for this, prayed for it. Maybe his love would be strong enough to keep her secret safe. She shook with the hope of it.

She took a shuddering breath and opened her mouth to form forsaken words. “I love you too.” Her voice creaked from disuse, and his eyes widened in surprise. They widened even further as she put her hand to her mouth and spit.

Tiny objects glittered in the sun, lustrous and pure as true love in the fairy tales. She held them out for him to see: diamonds and pearls.

She raised her eyes to meet his. The light in them was brighter than jewels.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

"Everyday Hero"*

File:Cat in tree03.jpgCue upbeat music. The scene is a busy metropolitan street, people walking dogs, commuters hailing taxis, and so on. Our hero strolls down the street confidently, waving and smiling to the people he passes. Everyone smiles back.


It looks pretty glamorous, what I do. Rushing around, helping folks.

As monologue proceeds, switch back and forth between close-ups of our hero talking and various images of him cheerfully working: Rescuing a kitten from a tree and receiving a grateful hug from little old lady. Putting out a fire in a warehouse. Sitting in a park, playing chess or feeding the pigeons with the old men. Playing with young children on some OHSA-approved playground equipment. All smiles and laughter.

And I do really love my job. It feels good to know that everyday I’m helping someone and making the world a little better. People tend to like me. [He chuckles.] I get lots of thank-you cards. Oh sure, there are crises and sometimes it feels like the world’s about to end, but that’s just part of my line of work.

I’ve tried a lot of things in my life. I was great at some of them, and some left me feeling like I got hit by a train. But I kept picking myself up and dusting myself off. That’s just what you have to do—keep trying until you find what works. These days I’m pretty happy with who I am. I’ve worked hard to get here, and I think confidence and strength really pay off. I feel like I can overcome any obstacle in my path.

But it hasn’t always been easy.

Cue serious, thoughtful music. Our hero now sits alone on a couch in a little middle-class home. Blurry photos hang on the wall behind him. Lighting is soft, yellowy.

See, my parents gave me away when I was just a baby. I was adopted by this sweet older couple, and they loved me so much. They gave me everything they could and tried to instill good values in me. But there came a time when I questioned everything. Why did my parents send me away? What was I supposed to do in this world? I just didn’t know where I belonged anymore. When I was at my lowest point, so sure I couldn’t fall any more, my best friend turned on me. He’d been the person I was positive I could always turn to, and now he was doing his best to destroy me. It was a dark time. I felt so alone, like no one would ever understand me, like no one had any idea who I really was.

And then one day there was a knock on my door, and it was these two nice young men with the same first name, wearing suits and ties and little nametags.

Our hero smiles, reminiscing.

Well, of course I let them in. We talked and they told me a story that sounded even stranger than my life. Learning about that First Vision was a real eye-opener. I could certainly relate, seeing and doing things that other people couldn’t see or do. I saw that maybe there really was a reason I was here on earth. I realized that my strengths could serve a higher purpose. I saw that there would always be someone who knew me, no matter what.

Increase music peppiness, brighten mood.

Oh sure, the transition hasn’t been easy. I get asked a lot of questions about why I have funny little clothing lines under my uniform—and believe me, they show. And it’s sometimes hard to explain why I don’t do a lot of work on Sundays—you know, unless the ox is really in the mire. But when I see what I’ve gained by my faith, I know that it’s all worth it.

Scene is metropolitan skyline. Tiny speck speeds across the horizon and up to the top of a skyscraper. Quick zoom in. Now our hero stands, arms crossed and muscles bulging, on top of the skyscraper. Sun is setting in background. Wind whips his cape to the side.

I believe in the power of the individual. I understand what it means to be in the world but not of it. I wear tights and a cape. I’m faster than a speeding bullet. My name is Superman, and I’m a Mormon.

*This story was written as a lighthearted take on the “I’m a Mormon” ad campaign (of which you can see examples at In a brainstorming session one night it occurred to me that it might be funny if various superheroes were members of my faith. There was just something that tickled me about the idea. So I figured, why not?

Friday, October 5, 2012

A Challenge and a Mini-Challenge
The countdown has begun! (Image found here.)

So, my friends, fans, loyal readers, complete strangers, and internet stalkers, the month of October is in full swing. And you know what that means, right? NaNoWriMo is only 26 days away!

What is NaNoWriMo, you ask? Well, for one thing, it’s a pain in the butt to type (all those caps, blech). It’s also the month when thousands of people who want to write a novel DO IT! The goal is 50,000 words in one month; that’s about 200 pages of a printed book. I am a huge fan of NaNoWriMo (more on that another time). I have now tried it twice. The first time (2008, I think) I only got about 34K, but last year I hit about 55K words. And it felt amazing.

But all of this is irrelevant. The point is that November is the month in which thousands of people take the first step toward following a crazy-intense dream. Yes, the work we turn out in November is not impressive in its quality, but it makes up for that by its scope. It’s a beginning step, and it’s a big one.

So hoorah, blah blah blah, cheerleading, yada yada. Why am I telling you all this? Because, my friends, I want to invite you to join in. I know that some of you have been planning on writing or thinking about writing a book for a long time. How about doing it this year, next month? And for those of you who don’t have a noveling dream, I bet you do have some other aspiration. Something you’ve been dying to do but never get around to. Well, now’s your chance! Yes, November is NaNoWriMo, but you can make it whatever else you want. Write a symphony (at least the rough draft of one). Do some preliminary sketches for your grand masterpiece painting. Start picking apart some scrap fabric for the quilt you always dreamed of sewing. Pick a dream, set a crazy goal, and start! That is my challenge to you. It’s a month to dream big.

Okay, now I know that in reality not everyone will be willing or ready or able to devote an hour a day to some incredible dream in November. So here’s the mini-challenge: 15 minutes per day. I’ll even let you take off Sundays. Come on, you can definitely manage 15 minutes per day. And we’re talking 15 minutes of furious activity here, regardless of quality. Output is the most important thing for the month of November.

Do you know what made such a big difference in my word count from the two years I’ve done this? Having an awesome writing buddy (Meghan, you’re so shiny!) cheering me on and making me accountable for my progress. So here’s the deal:

Come up with a plan. It has to be crazy. It has to be something you’ve always dreamed of doing. I’m not accepting any house-cleaning or attic-organizing goals (unless you’re completely mad, and that really is your impossible dream that you’ve always wished for). This is not something you feel like you’re supposed to do, but something you want to do. So come up with a plan and email it to me ( Or just comment on this post. Then, in the event that anyone actually sends me something (hey, I have no illusions about the size of my readership here), I’ll post it on my blog and you’ll have people cheering for you. Maybe you can even make buddies with someone to be your daily cheerleader. But at the very least you’ll have people who know what you’re trying for. And when you achieve your goal, not only will you feel amazing (believe me, it’s a rush) but you’ll get to feel shiny in front of other people. And I’ll send you some ridiculous “Hooray, you did it!” certificate. Just because everyone needs a little external validation. J

So go! Plan (don’t get too elaborate, though—quantity, not quality!)! You have a month to get pumped up for this!


Seriously, folks, do something amazing this November.