Archive for November 21, 2011

I’d Follow Joan Didion’s Mind Whatever It Roams

I just read Joan Didion’s new book, Blue Nights.

She’s just an amazing writer, so precise. I’d follow her mind anywhere. And this book is particularly remarkable, not only for the content, but for the style — the texture of the thought as much as the thoughts themselves, if the two can separated. Brief and fractured, at times clear and direct and yet elusive, slippery, the book takes on the qualities of a prose poem.

It struck me that Didion in this book writes as an elderly woman in her late 70’s, from that specific place, the way her thoughts (and sentences) keep circling back, almost forgetful, picking up dropped threads, weaving them into loose patterns, drifting back again, and plunging forward as if reluctantly, yet determined to arrive . . . at something. There’s a frailty here, the uncertainty of any old brittle-boned body, picking a cautious path down the sidewalk, fearful of losing her balance, falling. Reading it, I thought of my own mother, age 85 or 6, who knows anymore, and the new palpable fear she experiences stepping off a curb, walking to the mailbox, wondering when gravity will be her undoing. And yet out into this perilous world she bravely steps.

Two things:

First, look at this photograph, the peculiar pose, that thin right arm, hand rested on her right shoulder, and that clear-eyed gaze. What an intimate photograph by Anthony Dunne.

Second, let us now marvel, and reread over and again as we gape with admiration and open-jawed awe at the punctuation, pace, and mastery of writer Joan Didion (pp. 140-141, Blue Nights):

—–And yet:

—–And still:

—–Despite all evidence:

—–Despite recognizing that my skin and my hair and even my cognition are all reliant on the estrogen I no longer have:

—–Despite recognizing that I will not again wear the red suede sandals with the four-inch heels and despite recognizing that the gold hoop earrings and the black cashmere leggings and the enameled beads no longer exactly apply:

—–Despite recognizing that for a woman my age even to note such details of appearance will be contrued by many as a manifestation of misplaced vanity:

—–Despite all that:


—–That being seventy-five could present as a significantly altered situation, an altogether different “it,” did not until recently occur to me.

Here’s an earlier photo, similarly shielded, creating an interesting echo. Which brings me to the third thing: I’d love to have lunch with this woman, just sit at the same table, talk. Hey, a guy can dream.

Write What You DON’T Know . . . Yet

First, this is funny:

We’ve all heard it. And most of us have probably said it. Write what you know. Value that singular fingerprint you carry, the gathered sediment of our long hours, the crazy accumulation of days, the fossilized imprint of memory — all that we know, and have felt, and dreamt. Start there, dear writer.

As most folks know from my school visits, I’m a writer who very much begins from the particulars of my life. My family, my memories, my experiences.

But also, but also, but also.

Let’s not forget, as we recite the mandatory mantra, write what you know, that part of the great fun and discovery of writing is to learn new things, explore new places and events, and to write it.

Write what you find out. Write what you learn.

Don’t feel limited by your small little town, the supposed meagerness of your experiences. Learn new things. Go out — seek, discover! I’m saying: Writing doesn’t have to always fall back on the familiar. Inspiration might well come from your journey into an unknown country.

That is, again: You can’t write convincingly about what you don’t know. But you can certainly find out. You can research a new place, a different kind of job, an illness, or any other place your imagination carries you.

I think many young writers, boys especially, feel constrained by this idea of writing what they know. Their lives, they might think at this age, are too dull, too boring. Not a story anybody’d want to hear, much less write.

(Of course we understand that it is not our lives, but our response to the life, that truly matters.)

We hear it so often, from so many writers: they love the research, the finding out; it’s the fuel that feeds the furnace. It gives flesh to the writing, the research becomes the fire, makes it all fun and, yes, even educational. You can imagine a character in a place you’ve never been, a beach or city or distant moon, so long as you convincingly make the reader know it, and for most of us that begins with research.

Write what you don’t know — but first, learn it.

One Book, One School: My Visit to John Winthrop Middle School

Trying something new today — typing on my iPad from a hotel in Newberry, South Carolina, about my visit a few weeks back to Deep River, Connecticut.

First, an article that gives you all the info you need, plus some snaps. Media specialist Cara Rothman spearheaded the plan, enlisted the support from fellow teachers and administrators, and, amazingly, about nine months after she first emailed me . . . there I stood, meeting with the students of John Winthrop.

I love the “one school, one book” concept. It creates a true unity of purpose among the educators, and a common experience for students. It doesn’t have to be my book; there are so many great books out there. But I do think it brings a school together in a spirit of cooperation, everybody pulling on that same oar.

Thank you, Cara!

Really nice, carpeted library — the perfect setting. Nice chairs, too. At John Winthrop, even the halls were carpeted. Very quiet.

Cara used the book to teach and reinforce vocabulary and key concept

These awesome girls hung around to comment and ask questions after one session — and somebody grabbed a camera. I love it when a book seems to appeal to both male and female readers.

Oh, dear. An unfortunate angle.

Essential Listening: “Middle School” as featured on THIS AMERICAN LIFE

It’s been a busy month, with many school visits and almost no real writing. On Sunday, tomorrow, I’m heading to South Carolina, a trip that begins with three presentations in a middle school. So I thought I’d share my highest recommendation with you.

Listen to This American Life: Middle School. Trust me, it’s terrific. Smart, insightful, poignant, funny, heartbreaking. Really, I mean it. This is brilliant and you have must, must, must give it a listen.

Seventh-graders at a costume dance, dressed

as characters from The Outsiders.

To listen to the show, you have a couple of options. You can go here, for free, to hear the show in its entirety. Or you can catch up on all the old episodes of “This American Life” on iTunes for only 99 cents each. The “Middle School” segment originally aired in late October. Here’s some background info, as provided by WBEZ:

Middle School

This week, at the suggestion of a 14-year-old listener, we bring you stories from the awkward, confusing, hormonally charged world of middle school. Including a teacher who transforms peer pressure into a force for good, and reports from the frontlines of the middle school dance.


Host Ira Glass interviews a 14-year old named Annie, who emailed us asking if we would do a show about middle school. She explains why exactly the middle school years can be so daunting. (4 1/2 minutes)

Act One: Life in the Middle Ages.

In an effort to understand the physical and emotional changes middle school kids experience, Ira speaks with reporter Linda Perlstein, who wrote a book called Not Much Just Chillin’ about a year she spent following five middle schoolers. Then we hear from producer Alex Blumberg, who was a middle school teacher in Chicago for four years before getting into radio. Alex’s takeaway? We shouldn’t even try teaching kids at this age. Marion Strok, principal of a successful Chicago school, disagrees. (6 1/2 minutes)

Act Two: Stutter Step.

We sent several correspondents straight to the epicenters of middle school awkwardness: School dances. Producers Lisa Pollak and Brian Reed, plus reporters Eric Mennel, Rob Wildeboer and Claire Holman spoke with kids across the country during the nervous moments leading up to the dances. And Lisa even ventured inside, to the dance itself. (9 1/2 minutes)

Act Three: Mimis in the Middle.

When Domingo Martinez was growing up in a Mexican-American family in Texas, Domingo’s two middle school aged sisters found a unique way of coping with feelings of inferiority. This story comes from Martinez’s memoir The Boy Kings of Texas, which Lyons Press will publish in July 2012. (11 1/2 minutes)

Act Four: Anchor Babies.

We realized that there are already reporters on the ground, embedded inside middle schools: The kids who report the daily announcements, sometimes on video with full newscast sets. Producer Jonathan Menjivar wondered what would happen if instead of announcing sports scores and the daily cafeteria menu, the kids reported what’s really on their minds. Students at Parkville Middle School outside Baltimore, and their journalism teacher Ms. Davis, agreed to try out this experiment. (7 1/2 minutes)

Act Five: Blue Kid on the Block.

Producer Sarah Koenig reports on a kid we’ll call Leo, whose family recently moved away from Rochester, NY, leaving behind all of Leo’s friends and stranding him in a new—and in his opinion, much worse—middle school. (10 minutes)

Act Six: Grande with Sugar.

Ira speaks with Shannon Grande, a teacher at Rise Academy in Newark, about a seventh grader who had all sorts of problems with behavior and hygiene and schoolwork. In order to help turn him around, Grande had to harness the power of peer pressure for good. This story came from Elizabeth Green, who’s writing about Rise Academy for a book and for a reporting project on the schools called Gotham Schools. (7 minutes)

Note: Here are the covers of the two books mentioned above. I haven’t read either, but suspect that might change:

Fan Mail Wednesday #129

This one is from Canada — I can tell, because it will cost me almost a dollar to send a reply.

And yes, folks, that’s a hint! Please include a self-addressed, stamped envelope.

I replied:

Dear Troy,

Thanks for your letter. I love hearing from fans of Jigsaw Jones, because I think he’ll always be my favorite character. Jigsaw and me — we’re tight. I’m proud of those books.

Ideas come from everywhere and everything — but most often, for me, from real life. I think of it as a diving board. I bounce on real life, spring into the air, and land into a pool of imagination. That’s writing for me, real life splashing into the liquid world of “anything goes!”

Does that make any sense at all? I start from real life, then . . . sort of make stuff up. And that’s one way of describing the genre, Realistic Fiction.

My publisher, Scholastic, has been kind enough to publish 40 Jigsaw Jones titles. At this point, they don’t want any more. I’d love to write another story with Jigsaw. Who knows, maybe someday.

Yes, I suppose Jigsaw and I are similar. We share the same views on most things. We vote the same in general elections. We both like the Mets and cereals that are bad for our teeth; we both dislike making our beds, and people who eat tuna fish with their mouths open. I admire a lot about Jigsaw — he has fine qualities I’ll never possess. I especially like his friendship with Mila Yeh. Those two are great together, true friends, and I like the way they are so good to each other.

Keep on reading, my friend! All books, any books, even mine.