Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A Little Inspired

Today I taught two different plot workshops as part of the Calvin College Youth Writing Festival. Honestly, my own plots have always lacked a certain luster, more like scared and scrawny fur-ball ferrets than proper weasels, twisting slyly beneath the reader’s eyes. But these kids were wizards with it all.

“We write in wonder and because we wonder,” says Richard Peck. And I wonder at how creative middle school kids are. Is there any way my mind was that agile 10 years ago?

The workshop informational sheet gave me some tips to pass along such as “Be willing to change a plot line that seems too limiting or uninteresting.”

These kids needed no such advice. I got a magical melons, lover-clones taking refuge on a Canadian houseboat, and—maybe my favorite—a magical rock which split into a thousand pieces and then floated in a circle above a boy’s head, crowning him prince of some magical land. Yeah, not bad.

We all remember Eustace from Voyage of the Dawn Treader right? “His name was Eustace Clarence Scrub and he almost deserved it.” But I, for one, had never noticed that five times Lewis’ narrator says that Eustace’s problem was this: he “read the wrong kinds of books.” College sometimes feels a little like that.

At the end of my second session I had the kids write down books I ought to read over the summer, books they thought were good. It’s a treasure trove of a reading list and I intend to make good headway into it this summer.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Quafftide of Words

Do you remember when spelling and vocabulary were classes? How quaint! In middle school (a decade ago!!!), our vocabulary assignments often went something like this:

Write a sentence for every vocabulary word. Each sentence must use the word in proper context giving some clue as to its meaning. This last stipulation usually led to some of the most pathetically redundant sentences ever written that would make even Dickens roll his eyes at the extensive clauses rolled into one sentence such as this one.

Thus this little beauty using 23 words that didn’t make it to modern English:

“That dress looks absolutely abracadabrant on you,” Charles said. “Simply stunning.”
I twirled in front of the mirror. “Thank you, Charles. But you don’t think I look a little too dressed up?”
“Of course not?”
“Do you think I might be talked about? That people might think I’m a flamfoo?”
He raised his eyes in surprise, utterly blutterbunged. “Of course not!”
“Thank you, Charles. I’m just so used to mobbling these days, you know. Dressing in jeans and a sweatshirt when I’m at home.”
“Just mind Louise doesn’t have someone poosk you.”
“Charles! No one checks for hidden vermin on a lady’s person anymore. Besides, I think this new rabbit scarf is great!.”
 I croodled into the soft fur, rubbing my cheek and finding myself warmer than ever.
            I will look finer than all the outcumlins at the party. No stranger will outshine me tonight, no matter how much Louise thinks foreigners have such style.
            “What was that dear? Your lips were moving, but I could hear nothing.”
            I blushed red, caught at my (unconscious, of course) liplabours.
            Next we kissed our ruly children good night—such good little girls who always do as their told. Then we were at the party. And what a dream! Eattocks as far as the eye could see—cookies, cakes, pastries. And because everyone had a great big drink in his hand it was certainly a great quafftide. Just ten minutes in, Charles, having drank too much wine already, gave an obnoxious kelk.
            “Charles! Manners!”
            “A man’s got to belch sometime, Isabelle!”
My reference
            I watched as the gallywow—he hasn’t been able to bear children since that accident, you remember—and some nizzertit foreigner—really! I didn’t know people of stunted growth dared show their faces in society today—scaum back and forth. The same insincere banter of every year, as always.
            “Look at your physician!” Charles pointed at I saw Elias, my old iatromathematique, explaining some archaic mathematic principle to a dear friend.
A sudden draft whispered through the hall and I hurpled against the cold into my scarf. I knew something was wrong.
In the corner, the violinist tootled a few notes in an undertone before breaking out into a rousing jig. The spell was broken and most people broke into a dance. Even the soldier, disillusioned after the war stopped his disquixotted talk about the failing world and did a few steps. But I knew nothing had changed.
I felt unky. Alone. I reached for Charles’ hand but he had commenced his usual vagation, wandering about the room. Not that it mattered, I had no idea how to wordify what I was feeling even if Charles would have listened.
Then I knew who the culprit was: a xanthodont, a yellow-toothed woman skulking in the corner of the room. I took a yeepsen of cookies, filling both hands with the delicious food and screamed my challenge cry.
The woman winked and suddenly a heavy stupor fell over me. In my zwodder, I didn’t see how she escaped, but it haunts me to this day.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


As a rule, writers love to write about writer’s block. In every book I’ve read about writing (yes, writers like to read about writing too), there’s a chapter devoted to advice about how to beat it, bear it, or ignore it.

Here are my thoughts on the subject: aaaauuuuurrrrgghghghghghgggggkphx

Sidenote: My writer’s block is not “I have nothing to write!” I have plenty of ideas. I’m still alive, aren’t I? It’s more of the “I suck” variety. 

This is more like it.
This was my week of writer’s block, which, strangely enough, coincided with a week of listlessness, depression, and increased levels of angst. There was even a brief moment in which I considered hanging it all and become a something else that wasn’t a writer. I always liked math, for instance. Then my math education housemate explained something about circles being the answer to everything because prime numbers have a probability π squared over six of being second cousins. Or something.

So it’s back to being a writer for me and my week of angst is over. Finished. Kaput. Writing is writing. Some of it sucks, some of its great and most of the time you have to write 120 pages in order to get 3 good ones. I can now say that from experience.

On the back of my fiction writing syllabus are these encouraging words from a professor:

“This is the life of a writer: you write, you read, you write, you write again, you revise, you throw everything away, you read, and you write. It is, as Flaubert has said, a dog’s life—but for some, it’s the only life worth living. So do not fear it.”

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

In Which God Pulls a Bait-and-Switch

The more time I spend in the Bible—and as a good Protestant girl, this is a must—the more questions I have. Some of them are stupid (I’m consumed with curiosity about what Jesus’ favorite food, color, and weather was). Some are slightly more worthwhile: What did Sarai think about Abram pretending she was his sister? But most are just baffling.

I'm puzzled. Get it?!
Recently I’ve been wondering which is more important: faith or deeds? Because although it is optimal to have both, it’s impossible to be thinking and doing exactly what God wants you to be thinking and doing at all times. (Forget feeling because “The heart is deceitful above all else and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” Not Me.) So, when you can’t have both right thoughts and right actions, which should you shoot for?

Yes, I can see all my fellow Protestants fervently flipping to James right now so I’ll save you the trouble. Chapter 2, starting in verse 14, James says,

“What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? ... faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”

And I say, “Oh good. Finally God is going to explain how I’m supposed to balance my inadequacies!”

But James suddenly takes a hard left, pulling what can only be described as a classic bait-and-switch:

“Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that, and shudder.”

Although arguably some of the greatest verses in the Bible, they say nothing about those people who place deeds ahead of faith. Stumped again. But at least I am left with promise:

If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.

Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened to you.