Ghosts of Scrooges Past

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I’ve read Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” at least twenty times and I’ve seen nearly every film and television version of the story, from the first silent movie depictions to Disney’s most recent CGI-animated monstrosity. I enjoy the 1938 film with Gene Lockhart as the perfect Bob Cratchit, but my favorite classic version is the 1958 film “Scrooge” with Alistair Sim. It is a masterful portrayal of the tale. Every year I hate Sim’s selfish and sarcastic Scrooge at the beginning of the story, yet am somehow drawn to him and his cynical loneliness. I then laugh when he dances around and frightens Mrs. Dilbur after his conversion, and, finally, cry when he sincerely apologizes to his nephew Fred and Fred’s fiancee.

But the version most enjoyed my entire family is “The Muppet Christmas Carol” with Michael Caine as Scrooge, Kermit as Bob Cratchit, Fozzie Bear as Old “Fozziewig” and Gonzo as the narrator–Charles Dickens himself. You might be surprised to find out that, lyrics and musical numbers aside, much of the dialog and narration in the Muppet version is drawn word for word from the original published text.

Watching the Muppet “Carol” I heard, for the first time, the line that Scrooge speaks to Marley’s ghost, “..there’s more of gravy than of grave about you…” Many of the other film and television productions cut that line (and others) attempting to enhance the seriousness of the story. Consequently, some of us have forgotten (or perhaps never even knew) that Dickens wasn’t just an insightful and brilliant writer, he was funny. I believe that the reason the Muppet “Carol” is so successful in telling the true tale is that it portrays both the silliness and the seriousness–just as Dickens himself did. Watching the Muppet “Carol” we feel the hopeful joy of the Season and lament the sickness of greed and the tragedy of poverty. We see the dirt of old London and feel the cheer of a “Merry Christmas” between friends. The Muppets make us laugh and cry. Dickens himself would have been pleased.

“A Christmas Carol” has always fascinated me because it is the story of a character transformed–his cold, unhappy world suddenly filled with warmth and love. As a writer, I am in the business of telling the stories of characters who change and grow into better, happier, or at least, wiser, beings. And, since I want my writing to ring true, like Dickens’s, like life, I won’t forget that there are tears and laughter. Thank you, Muppets. Merry Christmas.

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If Jane Austen and Charles Dickens had a baby…Middlemarch!

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I’ve got a confession to make. It isn’t an easy one for an avid reader and writer with a degree in English from a fine liberal arts college. I’ve always prided myself on my broadness of view and quality of thought–but here goes

I hated Middlemarch the first time I read it.

There, I’ve said it. Now I can move on–thank goodness.

The first time I read Middlemarch, I was very young. Still all aglow from reading the complete Jane Austen, I had dabbled in Dickens without much enjoyment (excepting A Christmas Carol) when a wise professor recommended Middlemarch.

I dove in…and immediately fell in love with the high-minded Dorothea Brooke. She was a kindred spirit! I, too, felt myself “a cygnet among ducklings”–don’t we all, at some point in our lives? I read the beginnings of Dorothea’s story with a kind of rushed rapture. She was so passionate and thoughtful–a girl/woman breaking the bonds and conventions of her time–wait!

Why is George Eliot writing about all of these other people? Writing a lot about them, too. Smells like Dickens! I want Dorothea…turn the pages…okay, okay, I’ll read about Lydgate…and Rosamund…and Mary and Fred…but what’s all this about politics? Yuck! And pages and pages about boring peripherals: theology, drunks, farmers, clergymen!

I hurried my way to the end of the book, judiciously skipping some long-winded poo-poo, and prepared to be satisfied by Dorothea’s ultimate decision concerning Will Lladislaw. Instead, I found myself extremely disgruntled by the final passages detailing her future life. In fact, the happiness in the story seemed to have been the prize of the characters I had found most uninteresting!

For some time after my initial reading, I found myself agreeing with others who professed a dislike of the book, sagely nodding my head, offering high-sounding comments about the didactic tone, etc. So haughty and über-intelligent, wasn’t I?

Then, recently, I watched the BBC dramatization of Middlemarch. When the portrayal of Dorothea in that mini-series seemed to not quite match up with what I remembered from the novel, I recalled how differently I now felt about Dickens and how much more I now knew about the Victorian Era and its literature. Had I misjudged Eliot, as well? Semi-reluctantly I pulled up a free online copy of Middlemarch and began to read–carefully.

I still found it wildly complex and exceedingly long, but now the peripheral characters and stories seemed tantalizingly layered and important. I could see the irony and the sweet-and-sour poignancy of the myriad episodes that had once seemed banal, but now seemed to combine unusual psychological depth and realism. I found Lydgate to be (almost) as important to the story as Miss Brooke. And Dorothea herself? Not so perfect in my minds-eye, but somehow an infinitely more interesting character. Eliot’s work seemed a fusion of Austen’s sassy and/or ridiculous women and men and Dickens’s scope of vision (and word count!) elevated into a more truthful, less Disney-fied, and thought-provoking medium.

I could go on and on, you know. I could begin channeling George Eliot…

Just kidding! Here’s the “sum up”:

Middlemarch: an extremely long but worthwhile Victorian literary mash-up/masterpiece. Don’t be a hater!

Signs and Portents

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It often happens that I become discouraged with the progress of my writing career. There are so many interruptions and distractions. After all, my writing hat is only one of many that I must wear–I am also a mother, a wife, a friend, an employee, a supervisor, a musician. Work deadlines, dinner menus, doctor’s appointments, bill due dates, sick pets, yard maintenance…they all do their best to interrupt my writing goals.

But, as the real world tugs me this way and that, sometimes succeeding keeping me from putting words on the page for days on end, there are always signs to keep me on my true path–my writer’s path.

Sometimes it is something as simple as a yellow finch singing outside my kitchen window as I mundanely wash the dishes. Proudly cocking his little golden head and hopping from branch to branch. What are the words of his song?

Or, shuffling papers to search for a receipt at tax time, an old photo slides to the floor. My Granny. The sweetest soul who ever graced this planet, smiles out from a faded Polaroid. How I loved her laugh and her stories. How unconditionally she loved me!

Other times a shooting star will streak across the night sky as I stand outside shivering while my dogs sniff around in the dark. Make a wish! Then my eyes connect the star-dots of Orion and I think of ancient times.

Once, after cleaning the bathrooms (my most unfavorite chore) I saw a bald eagle fly past my bathroom window. I ran through the house in just a towel, following it from window to window, desperate to keep watching it until the last possible second. My heart thumping. Massive majestic bird. What is he doing here? Where is he going?

Often when I’m singing, I forget where I am and who might be listening, and I am the song–the perfect words, the notes following one after the other like a bridge to something amazing. There’s magic in song. Magic in words. Magic in story.

Forced to attend a tedious business lunch, I meet someone new and they tell a tale about their life–an amazing revelation of uniqueness where I had expected monotony. For the rest of the day I look at the other ordinary people around me and I wonder about their stories.

The façade of an old building on a one-way street in the city. Gargoyles and supernatural beings, frozen in stone, beautiful ugliness, stare down over modern life. What would they say if they could speak? What if they came to life and walked among us?

And my fingers begin to itch. I need pen and paper, a keyboard, a digital voice recorder. I need to write, to create, to pour it all out like an offering. And I do! Scribbling like mad on the train on the way home–laughing silently as I feel the curious looks of my fellow passengers. “What is she writing about?” they wonder.

Everything! I am writing about you and me and everyone! Laughter and tears and war and wonder! The beauty of the ordinary and the secrets of the soul’s imagination.

The next morning, I’m tired. I have a headache from staying up too late or being woken an hour before the alarm by two geese yelling at each other on the lake behind my house.

No writing today. I can’t even think!

Driving to the train, I turn down a road I’ve been down every work day for the last five years.

And I catch my breath….

The road is lined on both sides with blooming pear trees back-lit by the red-pink rising sun. White wedding-dressed branches welcoming and waving me on as I drive slowly and drink in the loveliness of the picture.

And I know I’m a writer today and tomorrow and every day until the end of my time on this planet.

Amen. So be it.

 

First Lines First

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I don’t remember the first line of every book I’ve ever read. In fact, when I’m wearing my “reader” hat, I’m usually so eager to get into the story that I fly through those first words with shameful speed.

But, as a “writer” I’ve analyzed first lines to the nth degree. I’ve read articles and books and discussed those first lines with other writers many many times…

“Where’s Papa going with that axe?”

That famous first line from E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web always comes up in any discussion of perfect first lines.

There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.

This first line from Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book makes me shiver every time.

How five crows managed to lift a twenty-pound baby boy into the air was beyond Prue, but that was the least of her worries.

This longer first line from Colin Meloy’s Wildwood is one of my recently-discovered favorites.

My name is India Opal Buloni, and last summer my daddy, the preacher, sent me to the store for a box of macaroni-and-cheese, some white rice, and two tomatoes and I came back with a dog.

Masterful. Thank you, Ms. DiCamillo.

When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle, everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen.

The perfect first line of my beloved Secret Garden.

But, as important as that first line is, it is the story that follows that really matters. The first line could be amazing, but if the story it introduces is a shovel of poop, it is a shovel of poop. If the characters are watery and the plot pointless and the dialogue trite and the prose moralizing and the setting ridiculous, then no amazing first line under the sun will make it a success.

I recently read a self-published book with an amazing first line, but the rest of the book was a disaster. I won’t mention the author or the title. But it was not a quality effort (that’s polite code for a shovel of poop).

“Bean has to pee.”

That’s the first line of my new novel, Liar’s Song. I don’t mean to brag, but I think it does everything a first line should. First, it creates a half dozen or more questions in the reader’s mind: Who is speaking the line? How do they know that Bean has to pee? Who is Bean? Why can’t he speak for himself? And why is he named “Bean”? Why can’t Bean just go use the bathroom?

Second, it initiates an immediate emotional or physical response. In this case, a snicker (“Hehe, “pee”!), grimace (“Gross, “pee”!), or perhaps a realization that the reader himself has to pee.

And finally—and most importantly—the questions and the response come together in the reader’s mind, mix together in some mysterious way weaving a spell that fulfill the writer’s greatest wish…

It causes the reader to READ ON!

And hopefully, I will deliver a plot and setting and dialogue and characters that are worthy of my first line and are NOT a shovel of poop.

A Writer’s Thank You Note

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I was inspired by my friends at TeachingAuthors.com to write this post.

I recently came across a piece of my own journal writing from about ten years ago. I had been reading Joseph Campbell at the time and was in a kind of existentialist reverie when I penned the entry. It is a bit wordy and pretentious, and yet, as I write this seasonally-appropriate post, there is a truth in the journal entry that seems a good starting point.  Here it is:

“When I write, the stories and songs and lives and dreams and emotions of the many souls who have traveled through my life coalesce in my mind in a cacophony of energy. I see and hear and feel them as I am empowered to put pen to paper and, through the great mystery of human creativity, find that the journey through the secret labyrinth of my own thoughts and the filter of my own snowflake soul miraculously conceive something uniquely mine.”

Wow.

And whose stories and songs and lives and dreams and emotions have inspired me the most? Who, or what, has earned my writer’s admiration? Well friends, fact is, I value the mythic insight of Joseph Campbell as much as the solid, loving truisms spoken by my own beloved Granny Bertrim. I recall the grand fantasy works of Tolkien, the novels of L.M. Montgomery, and the music of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Phantom with as much pleasure as the tall tales of my Poppy, the childhood imaginings of my children, and 60’s folk music on the record player. Disney’s short and satisfying animated offerings are as large in my mind as the black-and-white cryptic majesty of “Citizen Kane”.

And there are other, darker, harder memories that are a part of my writing mind, too, folks. Not everything is sunny kitchens and fairy tales. There were poorly-written best sellers I wish I’d never read, hate-mongering popular music I should have turned off, and tedious legalistic business communiques I was forced to plow through. With fresh mental pain do I remember the “C-” and scathing critique I received from my least favorite college professor, the cutting remarks of the horribly mean boss I had during a very difficult time in my life, and the forced cheerfulness of the dinner conversations during long weeks of putting butter noodles and cream of wheat on the dinner table in order to make college tuition payments. News stories of war and suffering often brought tears to my eyes, passing remarks of those around me frequently wounded like a knife, and unexpected change often brought uncertainty and instability just when I was least able to cope.

And today, with all of these thoughts and memories and emotions inside of me, coloring the lens of my mind’s eye…

I let the words pour out.

And it is all me…the pain, the joy, the darkness, and the light.

And so, I thank you.  All of you.

Might as Well Face it I’m Addicted to Blogs

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A couple of months ago, I purged myself of most of the way, way, WAY too many blogs I’d been  following. The number of posts I received were overwhelming and I felt my own precious writing time being sucked away as I tried to do justice to the writing of others.

In the end, I kept my subscriptions to just three: 

http://eyespeeledalways.blogspot.com/  : Writer Karin Diamond’s powerful and inspirational chronicle of her amazing life as she battles Hodgkin Lymphoma. I found Karin’s blog after my own cancer diagnosis.  Her words touched my heart and continue to help me immensely.

http://www.teachingauthors.com/  : A creative, smart, and helpful blog by six children’s book authors who are also teachers.  So many times their “Writing Workouts” have made me pick up my pen and have FUN writing.

http://www.darcypattison.com/  : Fiction Notes by author Darcy Pattison is a comprehensive resource for any writer.  Whenever I am in the midst of revising, Fiction Notes seem to provide just the right information.

Three blogs is good, right?  I can handle three.  Three has symmetry.  And I won’t be overwhelmed by posts.  I will stick to three, I decided.

And then, last month…someone commented on my blog…and I visited theirs…

http://tryingtowriteit.com/author/tryingtowriteit/

And I thought…OMG, my inner writer self started a blog and didn’t tell me about it!  Subscribe, subscribe, subscribe!  Since then I have faithfully read every post by this amazing writer.  Her struggles seem to precisely mirror my own.  I love, love, love this blog!  Honestly.

But then, today, my paragon blogger re-posted an entry from another blog:

http://abusivelybaboozan.wordpress.com/

It was funny, inspiring…and…oh no!  Now I’ve subscribed to her blog!

But there is no symmetry in 5! And I can already feel my writing time being sucked into a black blog hole!  But, I can’t give any of these blogs up…I’m in control…right?

Whoa, you like to think that you’re immune to the stuff, oh yeah

It’s closer to the truth to say you can’t get enough

You know you’re gonna have to face it,

you’re addicted to blogs.

Adapted from ROBERT PALMER’s ADDICTED TO LOVE LYRICS

A Writer’s (non) Drought

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My area of the country has been experiencing the most depressing heat wave and drought.  And the hot dry weather has been affecting my creativity. I feel tired and lethargic and uninspired. Drought or no, this happens to every writer, I know.  But I can’t afford to let myself settle into writing inactivity. “Drought begets drought,” the local meteorologist said during a broadcast this week.  This old adage is true for writing droughts, as well.  Once a writing drought begins,  the writer moves farther and farther away from his or her creative self.  The words dry up like the crunchy petunias in the neglected pot outside my back door.

And I can’t let that happen.

So, I write.  I journal every morning on my train ride into Chicago–at least one page.  It isn’t always pretty writing.  Some mornings I write the most inane drivel:  what I watched on television the night before, how grumpy all of the other commuters are, how hot and horrible the weather is, etc. Some mornings each word is sooooo painful.  I just can’t get anything flowing.  Then I write about not being able to write and how my creative soul is empty and how I’m going to expire here with all the other mindless herd animals–“mooing” my way back and forth to my office every day.

Stop!  Enough of that kind of thinking.

Even in this drought, there are some mornings–some bright shining dawns–when I forget the heat and the dead plants and the grumbling of others and the words begin to flow.  Some small thing wakes my creative self–that bird hopping on the metal train rails watching me with a twinkle in his knowing eye or that boy with his cap on sideways reading Salinger as he waits for the train or the streaks of red-orange morning light emerging between the elusive clouds over Lake Michigan.  Before I know it, the page is filled with funny creative writing and my morning train ride has barely begun.  I put my journal away and take out my notebook and work on my novel.  The words and ideas push against each other to emerge on the page.  The story unfolds, the mystery reveals itself, the characters clamor for recognition.  Me, no me, no ME!!

Tap! Tap! Tap!  “Ticket please,” the grumpy conductor says.

“So sorry,” I answer, scrambling to pull it out.  I’d forgotten I was on the train, you see.  I was in the midst of another place, another time, another story.  I was writing. 

Reaping the Field of Dreams:

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Only once have I used my actual nighttime dreams as an inspiration for my writing.  A few years ago we adopted a border collie/Australian shepherd mix puppy that we named Took.  He was a mischievous, fuzzy little guy with an oddly curled tail and a number of curious habits.  Not only did Took watch television (and I do mean watch—he growled at villains and suspenseful music, got excited by wolves howling and horses running, and whimpered if women or children wept) but he also seemed to have certain cat-like traits.  He licked his paws to wash his face, stretched in a very un-doglike way, and had that decidedly feline manner of batting with his paw at toys, people, and flies.

A couple of weeks after Took joined our family, I fell asleep on the couch watching a James Bond movie—I believe it was “The Man with the Golden Gun”–and proceeded to dream about an everyday working dog who had a secret life as a spy….cat.  Yes, an international cat spy who was actually a dog.

Crazy?  Maybe…no, wait—definitley! But, crazy or not, when I woke up I was so inspired with the idea that I began a new project—Spy Cat!  I loved writing it. I felt alive and full of fire! It fairly flew from my mind to my fingers. Within a couple of months I had a complete project.  I see it as a kind of illustrated chapter book for the middle grade reader—a new kind of graphic novel.

It’s in a drawer now—my agent is working on selling a couple of other projects first.  I read it over once in a while—it still makes my heart pound and my laughter burst out uncontrollably.

Thinking about it now makes me hope for some new dream tonight.  Took is still here—still the smartest, oddest animal I’ve ever owned, and I’ve been watching the Food Network quite a bit lately….what about a picture book about a vegetarian dog who wants his own cooking show????