Book Review: The Geek’s Guide to the Writing Life

I’m a sucker for books about writing. And add in an author who is part of the National Writing Project and you have my interest. So I grabbed a copy of The Geek’s Guide to the Writing Life by Stephanie Vanderslice, and dove in. I’m glad I did.

With a folksy, honest, funny voice on the page, Vanderslice seeks to surface the ins and outs of a writing life, weaving in her own stories as a teacher and writer as well as setting forth some very practical advice on how to approach writing, how to publish writing, how to see yourself as a writer (no matter what other people say).

Among her pieces of advice:

  • Make time to do the writing, regularly
  • Invest in the revision process (and be ready to revamp)
  • Network network network
  • Be teachable as a writer — be curious about everything
  • Be methodical if you want to get published
  • Resilience is key
  • Believe in yourself, even if no one else seems to

My eldest son’s friend is a budding novelist and upon finishing this book, my first thought was: I need to give this to Sam. So I will. And I hope the practical advice here will be inspirational, and that the realistic advice (writing as a profession is hard) will leave him clear-eyed about where he is heading with his stories. And perhaps the long list of resources at the end — with notes on agents, publishers, etc. — will be most valuable of all (although, he may already be on this.)

NWP Radio recently did an interview with Stephanie, who notes her previous work as a site leader in the Writing Project (Great Bear Writing Project in Arkansas) as influential to her as a writer and educator.

 

Peace (writing it, daily),
Kevin

 

Two Books. Two Gimmicks. One Worked. One Didn’t.

From Mead Art Museum: The Bookcase

I’m not one to complain about experimental fiction. While I love a traditional text as much as anyone, I am also eager to discover the ways an inventive writer can pull me along into stories and characters from some new way — either from the writing approach or from a format approach.

I finished two books, both of which are fairly non-traditional. Each has a gimmick (I don’t use that pejoratively here) involving photographs, but only one of the books really worked for me as a reader.

First, there was feast your eyes by Myla Goldberg. In this novel, the story unfolds as the text of a photographer exhibit, but you never see the photographs the texts are referring to. Only the exhibit information, and various journal entries and interview transcripts as a daughter tries to understand her mother. The absence of the images might seem odd, given the structure of this book, but it actually works because the reader has to imagine the photos, and how the photos work with the story. It’s as if we readers are in the darkroom with the main character, slowly developing the images as we dive into the story itself. This worked for me.

Second, there was Guest Book (Ghost Stories) by Leanne Shapton. This experimental text is built on a quilt of sightings of ghosts, with each small section centered on the semblance of a story. Shapton uses images, captions, architectural layouts, and other assorted media to hint at the spirits wandering the world. I wanted to like it. I really did. But I found the use of different media here distracting. I don’t mind odd, but a non-traditional book has to have a story running through it, and I never really found that here, which was disappointing to me. Here, the gimmick overtook the story.

Writing these kinds of texts — and reading these kinds of texts — is difficult, and worthy of experimentation. Sometimes, a writer pulls it off (Goldberg). Sometimes, they don’t (Shapton). I should note that Guest Book seems to have garnered a lot of positive reviews on Goodreads and other places (I think I first read about it in New York Times Books), so it may be that the book just didn’t work for me.

Peace (reading it),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: They Called Us Enemy

For the past few years, I’ve been involved in a growing partnership between the National Writing Project and the National Park Service (I work closely with the Springfield Armory National Historic Site). One of the regional partnerships in California involves the Tula Lake National Monument, but I didn’t quite realize — until I read George Takei’s  graphic memoir, They Called Us Enemy — just how big a role the Tula Lake site in California played in the terrible ordeal of internment of Japanese-American citizens in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor.

It’s not that I haven’t been educated about the historic site from various projects and sharing out by NWP colleagues from the Tula Lake partnership. Their work to surface stories of those who were segregated from society in one of the most awful legislative actions in modern times (and something I know I never learned about in any of my history classes) has been powerful and eye-opening.

(See more about the partnership between Tula Lake and the Bay Area Writing Project)

In fact, the focus on stories dovetails nicely with the upcoming free, connected Write Out project in October, which seeks to connect place to stories, particularly those stories that have been suppressed or hidden by time and historians, or just by our own ignorance or denial. Write Out is hosted by the NWP/NPS partnership.

Takei’s graphic memoir brings all of that past to the present, and the use of the graphic novel format is a powerful narrative tool. Takei, who is best know for his role of Mr. Sulu on the original Star Trek and as an activist on social media, recounts his own childhood experiences of being rounded up, unexpectedly, and sent off to three different internment camps with his family, including the first stop where they lived in a horse barn stall.

The last camp they end up in is Tula Lake, where bitterness and rebellion, and in-fighting among those held captive against their will, is the most tense and violent of the scenes here, particularly as Takei’s father emerges as a leader of groups, seeking calm and peace in order to protect families.

Takei’s father is the real hero here, and Takei’s flashbacks to arguments they had and Takei’s own later understanding of what his father was going through becomes the emotional center of They Called Us Enemy. Stalwart, smart and compassionate, his father is forever trying to keep his family together in hopes that confinement will not last, and that they will be able to rebuild a life after the war is over.

Early scenes on the train where Takei and his family are shipped to the next internment camp linger with me, too — of the armed guards and of the forced closing of shades when the train goes through towns, so that the United States citizens won’t know who is passing through in their midst on the way to confinement camps.

And the book’s storylines such pledges to renounce US citizenship (which would later lead to deportation), of persecution of immigrants seeking and building a new life in America, of government overreach and reaction, of camps where families are held behind barbed wire for unknown periods of time, and more echo with today’s times, too, unfortunately.

Will we never learn?

George Takei visits NWP teachers during a summer institute — from The Current

 

Peace (in stories),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: Guts

Guts continues the talented Raina Telgemeier’s storytelling into the minds, hearts and lives of middle school students, using her own experiences as anchor. Telgemeier is a favorite of many of my girl students, and some boys (but not many), and I am already seeing Guts being carried around.

And the topic of this latest graphic novel is apt. It’s all about the hidden troubles of anxiety in young people, and how debilitating it can be, and how mysterious anxiety is for young people and the adults who care for and love them. In Guts, Raina (the main character, built on Telgemeier’s own struggles with anxiety) comes across as a normal, quiet, creative young girl, but inside, she grapples with fears of the world around her, particularly being anxious over certain foods and a fear of sickness.

The result is stomach troubles, loss of school, family confusion and an inability to express what’s going on. Eventually, therapy and friendships help Raina begin to deal with her anxiety, as she soon realizes that many people have secrets about the things they fear or worry about. Some can deal with those worries easier than others. Some, like Raina, bottle it up until they any longer can.

As with her other wonderful graphic novels — Smile, and Sisters, and Drama, and Ghosts — Telgemeier’s graphic art style is engaging and her writing is spot on, capturing the humor and stress of adolescence in a meaningful way that gets to the heart of the characters. Storylines of friendships, of family change, of puberty all feed into the confusion that Raina is having with understanding her world.

As a teacher, I have witnessed the impact that high anxiety can have on my students, and I’ve worked with guidance counselors and families on strategies. I’m working right now on this issue, as a matter of fact. I’ve read up to better understand some of the root causes, although every case is different, and how I, as a caring adult in the classroom, can be sympathetic and helpful when an anxiety attack comes on. I’m still learning. This book helps.

A helpful author’s note at the end of the book relates Telgemeier’s own struggles with anxiety, and her path to finding some balance in dealing with it. She notes that this is only her own story, but that she hopes readers might find understanding or parts of their own story in hers, and that this might help forge a path towards healing. What more can you can ask of a book like Guts?

Peace (breathe deep),
Kevin

Poems Inspired by Untranslatable Words

I really enjoyed reading through Lost in Translation by Ella Frances Sanders, in which she explores through text and art many words from across different cultures that don’t translate into other cultures. These are words that touch on tangled emotions, or focused insights, or specific cultural reference points. It’s all a beautiful reminder of how language is often elusive.

A few words really spoke to me, so I started to write some small poems inspired by them.

You’ll bury me,

I hope, long before
I, you.
Long before
days slip
to nights,
long before
lost comes
into view
 inspired by the Arabic word — Ya ‘Aburnee

How much water

will your hand hold
when the rain falls
this Monday morning,
with the whole world asleep,
but you?
— inspired by the Arabic word — Gurfa
When she asks what you’re thinking …
when the words break your gaze …
when you find yourself sitting where you didn’t know …
when the trail of poems runs suddenly cold …
when the soft vacant hue of the distance disappears …
when … when … when … whe …. wh … w ….
 inspired by the Japanese word — Boketto
To see sunlight
bend its way
through the green leaves
of the trees is to wonder
what else remains
out of sight until our eyes
suddenly open
 inspired by the Japanese word — Komorebi
Peace (poems),
Kevin

 

 

Comic Book Review: This Is What Democracy Looks Like

Images from Center of Cartoon Studies

 

I was happy to crowd-fund some support for the creation of this “Graphic Guide to Governance” by The Center for Cartoon Studies.

This Is What Democracy Looks Like is a comic book that explores American Democracy, tackling not just the structure of government (from the very top — president, congress, courts — to the most localized — town meetings) but also to show how every voter has an obligation to take part in keeping Democracy alive and vibrant.

So, a book for our times.

Inside the pages, the comic utilizes aspects of comic book genre, with sight gags (not too many, but just enough to keep the important and weighty issues in balance), artwork and page design.

We get a crash course in the three main interlocking parts of the US government, the way each — federal, legislative and judicial — are designed to check and balance the other. There’s also key reminders that the federal government is not the only government — states and local communities also wield the power and purse to make change.

“Our system is still flawed, but if people are willing to fight, progress can be made.” — from This Is What Democracy Looks Like

The comic book takes a turn of tone near the middle, where it explores the ways that Democracy may not be working as intended (big money, voter suppression, lack of diversity, unresponsiveness, divided government, etc.) but then pivots to why voting is essential, and how elections at every level have consequences.

Again, a book for our times.

“Democracy is a WE …. not a THEM,” the book reminds us. It also reminds us that there are many ways to engage in creating the government you want, from local elections (many of our towns here still have Town Meeting) on up.

You can download a free version of this ebook comic. The last page has a long list of resources for engaging more in the voting process and in learning more about Democracy. As we approach the coming 2020 presidential election season, perhaps a comic like this might be valuable for students in the classroom. (There’s even a teaching guide to go along with the book)

Peace (voting for it),
Kevin

Book Review: The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge

It’s possible you won’t read a weirder, stranger or more entertaining book anytime soon as The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin.

It’s a hoot, with elves off to parlay with Goblins in a world nothing like Tolkien imagined it, and both societies of creatures misunderstanding each other. And then there is the use of hilarious illustrations that are designed to be in conflict with the story itself … these two storytellers know how to push the boundaries of a tale.

The plot revolves around one Brangwain Spurge, an elf emissary who is a historian — and secret spy, on a mission he doesn’t himself quite understand — sent to the land of Goblins, with a gift of an ancient jewel for the alien leader of the Goblins. There, Spurge meets his Goblin host, Werfel, another historian, and the two get into all sorts of trouble that lead to an epic escape. Arguments lead to friendship, which are built on arguments and insults, and eventually the two work together to save the world, but not without a whole lot of mayhem coming their way.

I found the authors’ notes at the end interesting, as Anderson and Yelchin humorously dissect the making of the book, and how Yelchin’s illustrations were built to be in conflict with the story Anderson wrote. Or is the other way around? You’ll have to read their chat to find out. But the whole idea of using images to play at our expectations, and to use the text as the basis for disbelief, is an interesting perspective.

Plus, every page brims with pure zaniness.

This book’s complexity makes it more viable for high school readers, but I suspect middle school readers of a certain ilk might enjoy it to, if they invest in the formatting and the flow of the story.

Peace (in truth and some lies),
Kevin

Book Review: feast your eyes

Mya Goldberg’s latest novel, feast your eyes, is non-traditionally told, just how I like my novels. Her fictional exploration of a single mother photographer and her daughter is narrated through the text and journals of a photography exhibit that the daughter has put together for her dead mother, so the text of this book is a collection of journal entries, photographer titles and dates, letters and other writings.

What we never see are the photographs that inform those texts.

And so, as you read feast your eyes, your mind wanders to imagine the images that became the backbone of the story centered on Lillian, whose work as a photographer of her young daughter, Samantha, catapults her to unwanted fame and even prison, for a stretch. This notoriety comes because some of the photos, taken in her home and shared in one of her first public shows, feature a young Samantha in nearly naked form, in childhood poses around their house. The community uproar over pornography versus art rears its ugly head early in the novel, and threads its way through right to the very end of the story.

With that controversy, as well as another controversial image of a bedridden Lillian following an abortion in the days before Roe vs Wade (which is now under fire again in our country, making the reading of these sections even more harrowing) as the backdrop, the novel explores a photographer’s life of viewing the world through a lens, and the struggle to balance what goes public and what stays private, and who has a say in which path is chosen. The voices of both Lillian and Samantha mingle in the texts here, as both seek to understand the other.

This structure and form creates a powerful story, with the formatting of the novel giving plenty of breathing room for the complicated relationship that the mother and daughter have, driven by wonder and art and regret, and ultimately, love.

Peace (what we can’t always see),
Kevin

PS — from an NPR interview, Goldberg explains how she used real photographs to inspire the story.

I was looking through these books constantly for inspiration. Occasionally, there’d be a photograph that was just, like, this photograph is perfect, I want to use it. So the description you’re getting in the book is the description of an actual street photograph. Other times, I would see a photograph, and one corner of it would be what I wanted my photograph to be. So in my mind, I would enlarge it, and that would become my photograph … other times, I would see a setting, and I would sub out one kind of person for another kind of person, or put my own people in the setting and that became my photograph, and other times, yes, I did just make it up. So it’s a combination of all those things. — Myla Goldberg

 

Book Review: Cartooning (Philosophy and Practice)

There’s a boatload of good suggestions in Cartooning by Ivan Brunetti on the art of comics/cartoons (terms which he uses interchangeable but which in my mind are different — I think of comics as Calvin and Hobbes and cartoons as The Jetsons — this is no doubt influenced by a childhood of Sunday Comics followed by Sunday Morning television). Brunetti has put a semester-long graduate level course into this small book, with chapters of overview and activities replacing actual desk time at a university.

It’s a fair trade-off.

I had been reading this book earlier this summer because some other friends in a splinter of DS106 and CLMOOC were also reading the book, and we were all doing some of the activities.

I love the concept of comics for the way visuals can help tell a story or make a point or create a joke, but my patience with making the art necessary on paper is thin, and my drawing talents, slim. I’m more apt to use apps or online comic makers, a move that would raise Brunetti’s ire.

I’m not sure Brunetti helped me on this weakness as an artist, but the blame is not with him. It’s all on me. Still, his professorial and rather authoritative tone — do this, don’t do this, in a way in which I could almost see his finger pointing at me — sort of put me off on him as a teacher in the early going. He name-drops comic artist Chris Ware a bit too much for me, too, but then redeems himself in my eyes with a lovely dedication of the book to Charles Schultz.

Since I wasn’t in the actual classroom, I began to skip around a bit (one of his earliest “no no no” in the book, where he nearly demands the reader follow him in sequence or risk injury. Ok. I exaggerate. But he does make it clear, following him in sequence is important). Yeah. No. That’s not how I learn. I’m affiliated with DS106, for goodness sake. I skip around. Liberally.

But, given all that resistance to his teaching style, I recognized early on that Brunetti definitely knows the field, and his advice on the art of making comics and writing visual stories, and of the ways one must consider the placement of lines and characters and dialogue, and more, is all very valuable and intriguing. It’s clear early on that he has thought through a lot of this on his own and in college courses that he has taught, and his own mentor comics in the book are interesting as examples to consider.

Cartooning

I proceeded to do a handful of his assignments, to explore his ideas, and I found the ones I did to be valuable and fun. Maybe if I had spent the hours necessary, as he demands, on the lessons, things would have come out more polished and clean and thoughtful. But I took some valuable ideas from Cartooning, and what more could you ask for?

Cartooning

Peace (in frames),
Kevin

Book Review: Meander Spiral Explode (Design and Pattern in Narrative)

I have not read Jane Alison’s work before, but her latest — Meander Spiral Explode (Design and Pattern In Narrative) — has me curious what kind of experimentation she might do in her own fiction. Here, she leads us on an inquiry into patterns and design of stories that reach beyond the traditional narrative arc.

You know, very linear. This one:

Instead, she explores the other ways that stories might develop, and in doing so, Alison surfaces not just experimentation in fiction, but insightful ways to think about character and plot, and writing. She focuses mainly on the three aspects of her title: Meandering, Spiraling, Exploding and adds in Networking and Fractals, too.

This is a short, simplified explanation of my take-away of her ideas:

  • Stories meander when the narrative zigs and zags, from different perspectives or different points of view, when the writer has a place to get to, but is content to take their time. In fact, time is a key element here, and Alison’s deconstruction of how a writer can use time was fascinating.
  • Stories spiral when a writer uses repeating phrases and themes, and circles back on ideas repeatedly, sometimes slightly hidden and sometimes not. A story that spirals either moves towards its core or center, or it begins there and then shifts outward, giving the reader a different way of seeing what is happening.
  • Stories explode (or are radials) when they move from a central point, but move away at different speeds of time and direction, so that there is something keeping the story solid, but the anchor is faint. The radial points of the narrative connect, if only slightly.
  • Networking, or cells, are designs in which the frame of the story’s parts are nearly identical in design – one echoes another — and each part builds with the others to create the larger narrative arc.
  • Fractal stories start at a single place — an idea or theme — and then slowly and then suddenly expand out with near mathematical certainly, so that the first piece was merely a seed for what comes next, and so on.

The book is packed with fiction excerpts that Alison uses as examples of her thinking, and these small pieces of writing were interesting to read and think about, particularly in context of her insights. As a writer, I am now thinking about a story I have been working on — and how I might reframe its design — and as a teacher of young writers, I wonder how I might introduce different story arc techniques beyond the traditional plot design we often use (the one above).

Peace (in text and beyond),
Kevin

PS — At a point in her book, Alison notes that a friend sometimes takes her writing and transforms it into pieces of music. I was curious. Then, I found this musical adaption of Meander Spiral Explode on Youtube, and it fascinates me to no end.

This is what the composer — Christopher Cerrone — wrote as text with the video:

In April 2019, my friend Tim Horvath, a novelist, texted me, “Do you know Jane Alison’s ‘Meander, Spiral, Explode’? It’s a book that focuses on unusual structural elements in novels.” I always trust Tim’s suggestions, and I tore through the book over the next few days, finding it unique and deeply insightful. I experienced what Melville called “the shock of recognition”—seeing someone describe your own efforts (in this case, an in-progress percussion concerto) without ever having seen a note of it.The three words of the title seemed to pertain specifically to each movement of my concerto. The first movement—while dramatic and intense—seems to meander through different landscapes, where the gunshot-like sound of four wooden slats morphs into marimbas and bowed vibraphones while changing volume, key, and context. The second movement (played without pause after the first) is structured like a double helix. A rising scale on two vibraphones slowly expands, speeds up, and finally blossoms into a sea of polyrhythms. As for the last movement (again played without pause): the explosion seems fairly self-evident. A single exclamation point ejects lines of 16th-notes into the ether which return, again and again, to a white-hot core. The propulsive patterns in this movement constantly shift emphasis but always maintain energy. The end of the work brings us back to the first three notes of the piece, suggesting one more shape that Jane Alison discusses in her book: a fractal. The simple shape of the opening turns out to have contained the entire form of the work to come.