Archive for March 30, 2012

Photo: A Couple of Guys I Met

A wonderful, dedicated teacher took time off from her afternoon to bring these two students to my signing at Pooh’s Corner, a bookstore in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

All those got was my signature and a few friendly words.

But I got this terrific photo, those two great faces. Winning!

Thank you for the hospitality, Sally and Camille. Long live the great independents.

50 Words You Can’t Say On Standardized Tests

It sounds like a George Carlin riff, but no one with any sense is laughing. That is, so long as we all agree to disqualify the rueful laugh, the mournful chuckle, or the stomach’s sad-and-knowing rumble.

You know, the laugh that keeps you from screaming.

Click here for the article that caused my jaw to drop:

The New York City Department of Education is waging a war on words of sorts, and is seeking to have words they deem upsetting removed from standardized tests.

Fearing that certain words and topics can make students feel unpleasant, officials are requesting 50 or so words be removed from city-issued tests.

Ludicrous, misguided, dumb. I won’t keep you in suspense.

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The complete list of words that could be banned:

Abuse (physical, sexual, emotional, or psychological)

Alcohol (beer and liquor), tobacco, or drugs

Birthday celebrations (and birthdays)

Bodily functions

Cancer (and other diseases)

Catastrophes/disasters (tsunamis and hurricanes)

Celebrities

Children dealing with serious issues

Cigarettes (and other smoking paraphernalia)

Computers in the home (acceptable in a school or library setting)

Crime

Death and disease

Divorce

Evolution

Expensive gifts, vacations, and prizes

Gambling involving money

Halloween

Homelessness

Homes with swimming pools

Hunting

Junk food

In-depth discussions of sports that require prior knowledge

Loss of employment

Nuclear weapons

Occult topics (i.e. fortune-telling)

Parapsychology

Politics

Pornography

Poverty

Rap Music

Religion

Religious holidays and festivals (including but not limited to Christmas, Yom Kippur, and Ramadan)

Rock-and-Roll music

Running away

Sex

Slavery

Terrorism

Television and video games (excessive use)

Traumatic material (including material that may be particularly upsetting such as animal shelters)

Vermin (rats and roaches)

Violence

War and bloodshed

Weapons (guns, knives, etc.)

Witchcraft, sorcery, etc.

Of course, we’re not really talking about words, are we? We are talking about realities and ideas — those shadowy, sometimes unpleasant things that words are meant to represent.

Can you imagine the discomfort that’s been caused? The dis-ease? So many poor test-takers, fidgeting unhappily in their hard seats. Shivering over thoughts of Vermin and Parapsychology.
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Out, damned ideas. Out!
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Let’s sweep ‘em under the rug.
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Poverty? Oh, yuck. Gross.
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Dinosaurs? Evolution? Heaven forfend.
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A big N-O to Violence, Terrorism, Politics and Cigarettes!
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Don’t even get us started on Rap Music.
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And let’s not forget the yin and yang of HomelessnessHomes With Swimming Pools. Ban ‘em both!
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Let’s face it, life itself is pretty uncomfortable. And economic extremes so very messy.
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But there will be a test on it.
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Well, more or less.
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Okay, definitely less.
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But I wonder. Is it too late to add the word Hoodies? Because I feel nauseous just thinking about it.
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GUEST BLOGGER: Lewis Buzbee Interviews James Preller About His Upcoming YA Novel, “Before You Go”

Greetings, I’m Lewis Buzbee, guest-blogger for the day.

Guest blogger: Lewis Buzbee.

It’s true, I’ve hi-jacked James Preller’s blog to bring you a very cool conversation with Mr. Preller (he makes me call him that) about his newest book, Before You Go (Macmillan, July 2012), which is his first Young Adult novel. I’ve taken control here because Mr. Preller is a very generous writer who frequently trumpets and supports the work of his fellow writers, and I figure it was time to hear from him. James has interviewed me twice, and our conversations have been so enjoyable, so thoughtful, I wanted to turn the tables, see what he had to say.

Before You Go, I must tell you, is a deliciously good book, whether you call it YA or not. It centers on a tough summer in the life of Jude, who has to face all of the toughest questions — what is love, what is death, what comes next? It’s everything a novel should be; it’s funny, moving, troubling, smart, and illuminating. Forget the labels, it’s a beautiful novel, and you should read it.

James, you’ve written picture books, chapter books, and middle grade novels; Before You Go is your first Young Adult novel. Why now?

Before You Go was the most logical step in a haphazard career path. You could argue that writing older and longer has been a gradual process for me, roughly parallel to the growth of my own children (Maggie, 11, Gavin, 12, Nick, 19). But you asked, “Why now?” and frankly I don’t have an easy answer for that. Except: opportunity. I’m lucky to have an editor, Liz Szabla, who doesn’t look to put me in a box or turn me into a brand. She supports my randomness.

How was writing Young Adult different?

I felt that writing for young adults came closest to my natural voice. I loved going back to my 16-year-old self, tapping into that rich and vigorous vein. So many ideas and feelings and memories bubbled forth. First love, big emotions, friendships, wild times, painful times, all of it. Location became central to this story, and I set it in my hometown, including real places I’d been. That trip out to the Amityville Horror House, for example, that’s something many of us Long Island kids did in our boredom, in our driving-around-looking-for-something-to-do lives. I am instantly transported back into that car with my high school friends, Kevin, Eric, Billy, and Jim –- a bunch of guys, a little lost, trying to figure out Saturday night.

Amityville: one exit in our driving-around lives.

Tell us where and/or how this story came to you?

After glancing through the pink-and-fanged world of Young Adult fiction, I felt a desire to write a realistic book, and a love story from a male perspective. There seemed to be many rescue-type love stories that were extremely romantic, but I felt as a guy, “There’s not one freaking thing here that my teenage self would read.” That’s a slight overstatement, but only slight. So that was the impulse, number one, but where was the story? I got the idea for a car accident out of two experiences: teaching my oldest son how to drive; and my recollection of two boys from my high school, Jesse and Mark, who died the first few months after getting their licenses. I remember driving by the tree where it happened, staring at that big oak, seeing where the bark had been chewed up by metal, imagining the horror. I got the idea to start the book with the accident, page one, then rewind six weeks into the past and tell the story from that point. We catch up to the accident about two-thirds of the way through, meet the characters, wonder who will be in the car and who will die, and so the book is divided into two parts, “Before” and “After.” Thus the novel’s opening sentence:

This is the moment between before and after, the pivot point upon which story, like a plate, spins.

I hoped the accident would give my story enough of a hook to keep readers hanging on, as this isn’t a story that offers one big action scene after another. It can’t be described as a typical book that average boys typically like. I don’t feel at all comfortable with these clichéd, empty-headed notion of what boys supposedly like.  As a guy, I’d like to proclaim, “We are more than just farts and fire trucks.”

Farts = still comedy gold after all these years.

I feel there’s a certain self-defeating, self-prophecy in a lot of publishing these days, i.e., boys are big galoots, so let’s give them farting fire trucks, or girls are princesses, etc. Funny, that’s not my memory of being a kid — I had all sort of interests.

When you first glance at a list of “books for boys,” well, yes, certainly, there are many appealing books on there. Action, sports, humor (bodily, mostly), and so on. But that kind of list depresses me, because it boils down boys to caricature. Boys only like X and Y and Z.

So while there is always a degree of truth to every stereotype, I know boys who are sensitive and thoughtful, funny and frightened, lonely and confused. Boys who don’t fit the mold. Or I should say, boys who can’t be contained by the mold; they keep surprising us in new ways. Our so-called “books for boys” should not pander to an extremely narrow view of what “boy” is and what “boy” can become. I am saying as a father and an ex-boy: It’s hard not to feel insulted. I don’t intentionally set out to write for “boy readers” or “girl readers.” I write about characters and situations; readers will relate or not. I don’t know which sex will read Before You Go, but I know the story involves boys and girls, so I’m hoping for a variety of readers. Fat ones, skinny ones — come all.

Didn’t anyone tell you that teenagers “just don’t read anymore?”

I can’t listen to that stuff. Statistics, numbers, none of it connects with what I do as a writer, or what any individual does as a reader. The thing for me about this particular “market,” as they say, is that I have no experience with it, and no idea who if anyone is going to read my book. This might sound phony, but I wrote this book for myself –- I wanted it to exist, and I took my time writing it, too. I’ve been involved in children’s publishing since 1985, much of the early years with book clubs, where there’s direct, immediate feedback from the marketplace. I usually have a pretty good idea when a book might sell or when it won’t. But for this novel, I haven’t a clue. But yes, certainly, I would love to get starred reviews and awards and all that stuff –- I’d love that — and I do wish for readers to find and enjoy Before You Go.

This seems a huge oversight, but didn’t your editors point out that there are no vampires in here, no angels, no dystopias? What were you thinking?

I was recently inspired by a blogger who encouraged us to “read out of our comfort zone.” You know, the books you don’t usually pick up. So I grabbed Laini Taylor’s The Daughter of Smoke and Bone –- which has gotten gigantic buzz, sold the movie rights, amazing cover. I was curious about what I might be missing.

It’s a beautifully written story about angels and dystopias and underworlds and bizarre creatures and idealized romantic love, paranormal or otherwise, and on and on. And you know what? I was unmoved. I could admire much of it, particularly the language and the imaginative feat of creating an alternate universe. I respect it, but it’s not where I want to live as a reader. That’s not a criticism of the book, more a reflection of my own interests. Same thing with me as a writer. I am stuck with the person I am. Which does not rule out, by the way, magic realism or other elements of fantasy. See my comment about, re: haphazard career. I like to try new things, so I wouldn’t rule out anything. And to be clear: I’m glad I read Laini Taylor’s book.

Tolstoy said a writer can get lots of things wrong, but not the psychology, meaning, a work, no matter how fantastical, had to ring true to human life. This is what I find so wrong with so much vampire/fantasy/dystopian literature these days. It works on the page, but not in real life.

Realism is the coin of the realm, the heart of all fiction, including the most imaginative fantasy. It has to connect to the human heart, it has to feel true. That is, credible. In a book I’ve been writing for a long time, I began with an impossible idea. Something that couldn’t ever happen. But . . . what if? And the essential thing, I think, is to play that out as credibly as possible, there has to be a cohesive internal logic. It’s been a struggle, frankly, but I view that as a good sign. I believe a writer can accomplish powerful things in any genre, even if it involves, oh, fat vampires on a spa retreat in New Mexico. But sooner or later it’s got to deal with the human heart — or else who really cares beyond the momentary diversion?

You write: “He was in between, a lit fuse, a teenage rocket exploding, and he felt there was nothing for him on this Wrong Island.”

I am a child of suburbia and this book reflects that.

Wrong Island, New York. Levittown, specifically.

Many of my friends and I shared a sense of not belonging, of having inherited a world not of our making. I just wanted to get out, you know, create my own reality –- and I think a lot of teenagers feel the same way. Isolation, alienation, I used to think they were teenage feelings. But now at age 51, it seems like a lifelong perspective. You learn to become okay with not quite fitting neatly into the world’s puzzle.

It seems to me that, no matter outward appearances, this is how all teenagers feel, outside, stuck between childhood and adulthood, “in between.”

Literature is a powerful force –- the written word mightier than the sword, and all of that. Sometimes we forget it, but it’s still true. Ideas do change the world. Atticus Finch and how important it is to walk in someone else’s shoes, for example. To go somewhere else, or to be someone else, if only in your mind. To imagine the possibilities. That’s what’s so exciting about YA, this incredible in-between moment in a life. I was listening to a renowned speaker the other day and it’s clear that right now, today, the universally-accepted answer among educators is that kids need to read in volume. Don’t worry about what they are reading, so much as that they are reading. In other words, it’s about quantity over quality, to the point where quality isn’t even in the equation. And I get that, I really do, the way a young soccer player needs “touches” on the ball, and a musician needs hours with his instrument, but there’s a part of me that thinks, “Yeah, but that doesn’t connect with why I personally love books.” We also need soccer players, and musicians, and readers to love what they do . . . or else they quit.

Told in the third person, the novel stays with Jude’s character most of the time, but there are two places where you dip into his girlfriend Becka’s consciousness, and later we have access to Jude’s mother’s thoughts. Tell me about this choice.

I often begin my books by writing out of sequence and from spontaneous inspiration — building on random scenes and sentences — and as a result my rough drafts tend to lack consistency. But I revise continuously, endlessly, and over time the editor-in-mind cleans up the mess. Conventional thinking would have me “fix” all those lapses. Fortunately, I was able to talk over each scene with Liz, my editor. Sometimes I made those revisions, other times we mutually concluded, “No, this feels right, let’s keep it.” We have the same conversations about split infinitives, by the way. Oh, those are exciting times. Other editors might have told me those point-of-view lapses had to go. But as Thoreau said, “Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.” The guideline I try to follow is, “Does this work?” Another way of saying, I don’t pull every dandelion.

One of Steinbeck’s editors pointed out to him that a character early in a novel had blue eyes, but later brown, and was he going to fix that. I believe he told them to go to hell. All good books have flaws, which I believe adds to the sense of their rightness, oddly.

Right, you want to honor the mistakes. It’s a matter of taste. I compare it to music. Some bands are really polished, everything sounds perfect, slick and smooth, labored over in the studio, whereas other artists prefer to keep the rough spots, the grit –- they resist the surface sheen and focus more on making that direct emotional connection, warts and all. There’s a native distrust of polish and shine and, more significantly, even of that part of the brain, the parent-in-the-mind, where something essential gets lost in the refinement process. Most of the Beat writers felt that way. Perfection has a certain blandness, don’t you think? Don’t get me wrong. I work very hard to make the book the best it can be –- according to my own taste and ability — so I can’t pretend that my failures are intentional.

Much of the first half of the book takes place at Jones Beach, where Jude has his first job in a grease palace by the sea.

That was my summer job, age 16, flipping burgers, hauling garbage out to the Dumpster, sneaking out beer in big, plastic mustard jars. The sun, the heat, the beach, the bikinis, and that first paycheck.

I knew it would make for a vivid setting for a teenage story, that classic dumb summer job we all suffered through and secretly loved. Jude is not me, he’s his own character, but I worked that job, I know that world.

That’s the Field 6 concession stand at Jones Beach.

You’ve spoken previously about that reader who is, how did you put it, able to be bored, that is, able to enjoy being bored and sink deeply into a book, let the hours go by.

A lot of ways to answer this, and I’m afraid I might try them all, so you better grab a chair. More and more, I see writing is an act of faith, a trust. This comes back in some ways to the boy reader, which is a code, by the way, for the impatient reader, the barely-willing-to-put-up-with-it reader. And we’re told that the way to reach this hard-to-reach reader is through short chapters, lots of action, one conflict after another, etc. It rewards a certain kind of typing. But I feel as a writer and as a reader, that I’ve always (also) liked the slow parts. There are forty books in the Jigsaw Jones series, and the mystery is always the engine that drives the action forward. But my favorite parts are often the closely-observed, domestic moments. Three brothers in a room, or the parents painting a bathroom together, or the conversation at the dinner table. I saw one of my writing heroes in New York City back in the late 80’s, the great Roger Angell. During his talk, Angell compared reading to being a baseball fan, which I am.

Baseball fans and avid readers both share a willingness to be bored.

He contended that both occupations are for people who are not afraid of being bored. I’ve never forgotten that observation. I’ll quote Angell here, because I have a recording of that talk and I recently transcribed it: “It really is one of the great pleasures of baseball. If you sit there in the early innings, there’s that wonderful time when you wait and see what kind of game this is going to be. Every game is so different from the other, and you need those early chapters, sometimes very slow moving, in order to lead up to the end of the book, the end of the game.” First off, that’s brilliant. And so true. To me, at any given moment a story moves horizontally (the plot advances) or vertically (characterization deepens). Those directions are not mutually exclusive, the line may be slanted, but that’s basically the two main thrusts. I’ve always been drawn to the slowing down, the sinking into character and setting, more so than the headlong forward rush to the next big climax.

For example, there’s a small moment in Before You Go, a few paragraphs early on, when we see Jude at home for the first time, and we meet his mother. His father has already told Jude that she is in bed with a headache, not to be disturbed. So Jude enters the house after his first day of work, tired and dirty. I love that mother and son are separated by a shut door, the staging tells us all we need to know.

In the hallway, he paused outside the closed door of his parents’ bedroom, tilted an ear, listening for movement.

“Jude?” his mother called.

“Yeah, it’s me, Mom,” he answered. “How you feeling today?”

A long silence. “I’m sorry, I’ve got nothing for you in the kitchen,” she finally said, her voice muffled, as if groaned into a pillow.

“That’s okay, Mom, I’m good,” Jude replied. He considered telling her about work, how some girl saved him from getting pummeled by a trio of behemoths, but it felt awkward trying to talk through a door. He placed his right hand on the door as if to push it open, and he saw his fingers as the legs of a fleshy spider perched there, tingling. Jude rested his head against the jamb, shut his eyes. He waited in the hush for something to happen, some change to occur, but nothing did.

Nothing ever did.

I’m proud of that little encounter. “I’ve got nothing for you,” she says. To like my book, I think you have to enjoy those quiet moments. You must have the patience of a baseball fan. Admire the way a pitcher drops that 0-2 slow change just off the outside corner, low and away, trying to entice the hitter to chase. The art, the craft, the whole of it. In this scene, I’m plunging downward, not across. It’s slow, not fast. And I need a reader who is okay with that. I have faith that that reader exists, just as any reader must have faith in the writer –- that eventually he’ll deliver. But nonetheless, I wrote it anyway. That’s the thing. You just write. Because it’s what you do.

Fan Mail Wednesday #143-146: Some Recent Letters from Teachers about BYSTANDER

I’ve been getting a lot of mail from teachers who are using Bystander in their classrooms. From early on, that was my hope for this book — a talking book, a valuable conversation starter in the hands of a good teacher and a lively classroom. I’m happy to see that it’s been embraced in the 5th grade, as well some 4th-grade classrooms. Overall, most readers seem to be in grades 6-8.

Here’s a sampling of emails from teachers I’ve received over the past few weeks. As always, some personal info has been deleted to protect the innocent  . . .

Hi James,

I’m a 4th grade teacher in Iowa. Today I started reading Bystander aloud to the class. I think this is my 3rd year in a row reading the book and I LOVE IT!!! As the kids were listening their mouths were ajar. (I love that!)

Thanks for sharing your awesome talent –- with such an important message.

Cheers,
K

And from Hawaii . . .

Dear Mr Preller,

My name is ____ ______ and I am a 5th grade teacher on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. I am currently reading the book with my students and I have some students who would like to write you some “fan-mail” and replies to reading your book. On your web site you do not have an address in which we could mail you. Could you possibly email me your address?

Any help would be much appreciated. Thanks so much!

Love the book! My students cannot put it down!

Sincerely,

G

I replied: James Preller, 12 Brookside Drive, Delmar, NY 12054.

I also might have added something about being available for school visits. Aloha, baby.

Hi James!  I teach fifth grade and we read Bystander as a class.  They LOVED LOVED LOVED it.  You are a rock star.  One of my students took the initiative to write you a letter but I cannot find the address to send it.  He even included a self-addressed stamped envelope in the hopes of hearing from you.  Can you please send me the address?  I would really appreciate it.
V

And lastly, from the Windy City . . .

Mr. Preller,

I would like to inquire about having you come to visit our middle school in late August or early September of 2012 (the beginning of the next school year).

We have adopted your novel, Bystander, as an all-school summer reading novel for all students in our building, grades 6-8 (about 900 students).  Our School Climate Committee has been meeting this year to develop a more effective anti-bullying initiative in our school, and your novel is a perfect match for this project.

Please let me know your availability and fees.  We are located in _______, Illinois, a northwest suburb of Chicago.  Here is a link to our school’s web page linked to our district’s site if you would like to get a sense of our community.

Thank you,

M

I replied, in part . . .

M,

This sounds wonderful, though there are some obstacles in our path.

I live outside of Albany, NY, so there is travel to consider. Generally speaking, I prefer to have a minimum of three full days of work for any trip. Four is better. The best arrangements come when schools in a district coordinate their efforts — and share the expense of plane tickets — and I’m invited somewhere for 4-5 school days.  Is that enough to get you started?

Lastly, thank you. I’m very glad to hear about your efforts, and glad that my book might help in the process for cultivating a safe, happy community of learners.

My best,

JP

“My Life’s Sentences” by Jhumpa Lahiri (on the art and craft of writing — and reading!)

I have to share this brilliant piece from The New York Times Sunday Review, March 18, 2012, written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Jhumpa Lahiri. I powerfully identified with it.

In it, she expresses her love of sentences. Everything about this piece confirms, echoes, and expands upon my own feelings as a writer and a reader. Though we’re told that Lahiri’s piece is part of a series about “the art and craft of writing,” it is just as much about reading. Perhaps more so. Teachers, librarians, editors, readers, please check out it.

Art by Jeffrey Fisher.

Here’s the opening . . .

In college, I used to underline sentences that struck me, that made me look up from the page. They were not necessarily the same sentences the professors pointed out, which would turn up for further explication on an exam. I noted them for their clarity, their rhythm, their beauty and their enchantment. For surely it is a magical thing for a handful of words, artfully arranged, to stop time. To conjure a place, a person, a situation, in all its specificity and dimensions. To affect us and alter us, as profoundly as real people and things do.

I remember reading a sentence by Joyce, in the short story “Araby.” It appears toward the beginning. “The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed.” I have never forgotten it. This seems to me as perfect as a sentence can be.

As I’ve said before on this blog, that’s how I read — pen in hand, underlining sentences, making marks, asterisks and exclamation points, my beloved marginalia. But the thought that really had me nodding in agreement was how the best sentences made me stop reading. I looked up from the page, thinking, feeling, dreaming. It’s counter-intuitive. We want readers to keep turning the pages, right? To devour the book, consume it. Well, maybe not. Maybe we want them to slow down, or stop altogether.

From my copy of Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann.

That’s why, I think, that I’m so often uncomfortable when I encounter the counters and the tickers, the well-meaning folks who inform us how they read exactly 214 books this year and so on. I don’t mean to insult anyone, but I’m so tired of the idea of quantity.

Pause and reflection, that’s reading too.

Of course, there are different kinds of reading. Librarians, for example, tend to read with an ultimate user in mind. So he burns through a Percy Jackson book (doesn’t that kill you when folks use that language, burning through a book), wanting to be familiar with it, but mostly thinking, “I can’t wait to give this book to about twelve boys I know.” That’s an altogether different reading experience — and probably a topic for another day.

Speaking of sentences, here’s a sturdy one:

The best sentences orient us, like stars in the sky, like landmarks on a trail.

And in the next paragraph:

They remain the test, whether or not to read something. The most compelling narrative, expressed in sentences with which I have no chemical reaction, or an adverse one, leaves me cold.

This is exactly why I could not continue reading Twilight, for example. For me, there was no spark in the sentences, no electric connection between writer and reader. I couldn’t even get past them to story.

Sentences are the bricks as well as the mortar, the motor as well as the fuel. They are the cells, the individual stitches. Their nature is at once solitary and social. Sentences establish tone, and set the pace. One in front of the other marks the way.

Another sentence to underline:

My work accrues sentence by sentence.

So true, could it be any other way? Bird by bird, sentence by sentence, brick by brick.

I hear sentences as I’m staring out the window, or chopping vegetables, or waiting on a subway platform alone. They are pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, handed to me in no particular order, with no discernible logic. I only sense that they are part of the thing.

I talk to students about this in a different way, more about ideas than sentences. Those times when you are thinking that you are not thinking. That’s often when the ideas come, when the sentences, unbidden, line up inside your skull. I know a book is going well when sentences come to me in the shower.

Last  thought — and please, go to the original piece, read it in full — I also connected with Ms. Lahiri’s concept of revision:

All the revision I do — and this process begins immediately, accompanying the gestation — occurs on a sentence level. It is by fussing with sentences that a character becomes clear to me, that a plot unfolds. To work on them so compulsively, perhaps prematurely, is to see the trees before the forest. And yet I am incapable of conceiving the forest any other way.

Students are taught the writing process in school, the five steps, brainstorming and so on, that it’s easy to imagine each as isolated, distinct from the other. In fact, many experts advise writers to “just write” in the beginning, get the words on the page, don’t worry about mistakes. And while I understand that point of view, that’s never been how I do it. Revision begins instantaneously, inextricably linked to the writing impulse. In this age of trumpeting daily word counts on status updates — “1,687 words today!” — it’s nice to read that maybe I haven’t been doing it completely wrong after all.

When something is in proofs I sit in solitary confinement with them. Each is confronted, inspected, turned inside out. Each is sentenced, literally, to be part of the text, or not. Such close scrutiny can lead to blindness. At times — and these times terrify — they cease to make sense. When a book is finally out of my hands I feel bereft. It is the absence of all those sentences that had circulated through me for a period of my life. A complex root system, extracted.

I have just been through this with my upcoming book, Before You Go (Macmillan, July 2012).

And though all my favorite writers are great sentence-makers, with this novel I came closest to that ideal. This book has my best sentences. Each confronted, inspected, turned inside out. Yes, the sentences are vehicles for ideas, feelings; they carry story on their shoulders. But story itself consists solely of sentences, sounds, rhythms, meanings. And  now that my book is at the printer — hey, before you go! – too late, too late! — I too feel a bit bereft.

The only way out of that hole is to write a new story. Sentence by sentence.

Go here to learn more about Jhumpa Lahiri.

Photo from a Michigan Classroom

I love looking at these faces. This class, along with every other 4th-grade classroom in Grand Rapids, Michigan, received free copies of my book, Along Came Spider, as part of their “One City, One Book” program. Then they entered a contest and won a visit from the author.

How come I feel like the winner?

Slice of Life Writing Challenge: My Hot Tub Story

Preamble: This entry was inspired by Stacey Shubitz and Ruth Ayres at the great Two Writing Teachers blog, where they issue an annual slice-of-life writing challenge. Essentially, to write every day through the month of March. I did not participate formally, but I like the concept — especially for anyone who attempts the near-impossible, i.e., to teach writing. Bless you all.

What I took from the challenge was a simple idea, to react to my daily life by writing . . . daily. Oh, and by the way, this is the book that Ruth and Stacey wrote . . .

My Hot Tub Story

It was my fourth hotel in little more than a week, I’d attended a literacy conference in Dublin, OH, flown into Philadelphia, and now worked my way north in a rented Kia through New Jersey on my own, personal traveling dog-and-pony show.

I was both pony and dog, whinny and woof.

It’s true there is no place like home, but hotel life has its comforts, episodes of ease and quiet. I’d adapted to the routine, moving like a shark through the murky waters, seeking out a good meal and an elliptical machine, maybe some free weights and a local highlight.

By 9:00 on this particular night, I’d exercised, eaten, washed and folded and repacked a load of laundry, and now read in the hotel lounge, warmed by an electric fireplace. I learned not to spend too much time in the room, supine, half-awake, fat and clickered. A thought came: the hot tub to melt these tired bones, perhaps slide more easily into sleepfulness.

Two men were already soaking in the water. Men like me. Away from home on some job. The younger man said he lived in California, looked about 40. The other was about a decade older — a solid, square-jawed guy bristled with gray, from St. Louis, MO. A sizable man, formerly sturdy, even forbidding, now with a vast distended belly.

St. Louis, I knew, was a baseball town, and in the previous October the Cardinals won the World Series in heart-stopping fashion, so we talked baseball, those cardiac Cards. Sports talk, old glue amongst men, binding us, opening our mouths, a language we shared. I brought up the Steve Jobs biography, said how much I enjoyed reading it, and he said that he was in the middle of it, too.

After ten minutes I rose, ready to leave, but before I could towel off, he climbed out like a great pale bear and produced three cold beers from his personal cooler. He was a bring-your-own-cooler kind of guy, a seasoned traveler, used to making himself at home in anonymous, sterile places.

So he offered me one, here, arm extended, beer tipped a little toward me. Ever have Yuengling? I could hardly refuse. Sat on the ledge this time, submerged in hot water up to my knees. More talk of work and technology and other things. Topics that left me smiling, nodding, a little bored, nearly done. I asked if he had children. Yes, he told me, a boy, 25, and a daughter, 17.

You must be doing the college thing, I said.

No, no, he answered. My daughter has severe cerebral palsy, she was born very small, very early. No, she won’t be going to college.

We talked for a long while about his daughter. He explained her condition, his wife’s difficult pregnancy, the forced bed rest and preeclampsia, the terrible choice he was forced to make. To save a life, to risk a wife or daughter. He said, I live with that decision every day of my life. And he described his daughter’s ability to hear and understand a conversation, but her near-total inability to communicate. I would give my left nut, he said, if she could just tell me that she had to throw up. He told of those occasions when she grew unsettled, distressed — talked of bathing her, of rubbing lotion into her skin, of making her smell clean and good, fresh clothes and baby powder, trying to calm and sooth this troubled creature.

But after two days of that, he said, fussing and fretting and still nothing works, it’s time to pay a visit to the pediatrician.

Was she happy, I asked, could he tell? He said how they loved to go camping, described in detail the whole elaborate set-up — and how she loved to ride on the back of his motorcycle, using the complicated harness system he’d rigged up for those trips. How, also, she liked to turn the pages of magazines and listen to music. The Steve Miller Band was her favorite, no one knew why. So yes he believed she was happy, yes, happy every day.

And a pause now, time moving slow like the smoke that rose from the heated water, and I gave a half-apology at the preposterousness of my next question, which I asked anyway. What has she taught you, this daughter of yours. What have you learned?

He thought it over. Patience, he said, and love. He said how he used to think that love was this or love was the other thing, that love was lust — he made a crude push-pull gesture, in and out with his bent arms — that love was only physical. But he had been mistaken about those things.  He said, I learned that love is a quiet river that runs through you, with the power to carve a valley through solid rock.

He said those exact words in a hotel hot tub somewhere in Jersey. We soaked in the echo of that amazing statement. Love is a quiet river, I repeated. That runs through you. With the power, I said, trying to recall the words exact, to carve a valley. Through solid rock. I asked his co-worker, who was now quiet and pensive, if he’d known this about his friend. No, he said, we just met yesterday on the job. And the man from St. Louis, whose name I never did learn, said it’s not something he usually talked about. So I thanked him for that, for telling us about his little girl.

She is so beautiful, he said. Blonde hair, pretty blue eyes.

Poetry Friday: Frank O’Hara, “Why I Am Not a Painter”

Conversational and accessible, Frank O’Hara’s poems read as if he jotted them down on a scrap of paper during lunch break, or told you them as you walked down the hall. Don’t let the surface casualness fool you, the man could write and he did it with care. This is one of my favorites, and one of the best poems ever written about the creative process and its attendant mysteries.

Why I Am Not a Painter

I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,

for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
“Sit down and have a drink” he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. “You have SARDINES in it.”
“Yes, it needed something there.”
“Oh.” I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. “Where’s SARDINES?”
All that’s left is just
letters, “It was too much,” Mike says.

But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven’t mentioned
orange yet. It’s twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike’s painting, called SARDINES.

Here’s Michael Goldberg’s expressionist painting, “Sardines.”

Lastly, below, Frank O’Hara reading “My Heart,” because it is always a thrill to hear the poet’s actual voice, his pauses and cadences, the sound his own work makes.

Don’t you think?

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Fan Mail Wednesday #142: Penguins & Other Pleasures

Come on, people. Number 142, give it up!

Here’s a lovely one, from Jessica in California . . .

 

I replied, of course:

Dear Jessica:

Thank you for your typed letter, complete with smiley icons. It’s nice to hear from my biggest fan. I’m glad that you told me a little bit about yourself –- how you like handball and soccer and wish to see a penguin someday.

In the meantime . . . LOOK!

You are right about Jigsaw, part of the fun is watching him slowly piece together the mystery. He talks to people, asks questions, snoops around. It wouldn’t be any fun if he solved the case too easily. Mila tests Jigsaw’s brainpowers for two reasons: 1) To keep him sharp; and 2) Because he loves that stuff!

For the codes, there are many good books on codes in the library. That’s how I learned about them. Most of the codes I copied from other books, others I changed a little bit, usually taking complicated codes and making them simpler for younger readers. I put a coded message in every book, just for kicks.

I started writing the Jigsaw Jones series in 1997, and for 10 years straight worked steadily on them. These days, I’m exploring different things. I’m currently starting on a new series of scary stories, called “SHIVERS.”

Unfortunately, I don’t have a photo to send. But you can swing by my blog at Jamespreller.com. There’s all sorts of stuff on there, including photos.

My best,

James Preller

Watch This . . . JP on TV (A Star Is Born)

On Monday, I appeared on a local morning televison show in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Click here to see me in all my telegenic glory.

I’m posting this, just barely, from the antiquated computer in my hotel in downtown Grand Rapids, birthplace of Amway and President Gerald Ford, so you’re not going to get anything fancy in this post.

I should also mention . . . it took me three days in this hotel until I finally turned the right way after getting off the elevator. It was a small but satisfying victory. Life is good.