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Monthly Archives: February 2016

Memory Vignettes – A Writing Exercise & “The LA River”

Memory Vignettes – A Writing Exercise & “The LA River”

As you may or may not have heard, I recently lost all of my photo albums from middle school, high school, and college.  (Read more about that here.)  After my initial outrage and devastation, I embarked on a project.  I thought it might soothe my heartache if I created something new instead of dwelling on the loss.

Over the past few weeks, not only have friends been supplying me with photos from 1992 – 2004 (keep ’em coming, people!), but I have been writing detailed descriptions of some of the photos I remember best.  These descriptions often turn into vignettes that I end up rather liking.  I can even imagine using some of them for stories or essays one day.

And not only that, I’ve given some of the descriptive vignettes to artists of all sorts (my brother, some friends, two high school girls from India), and they are going to draw/paint/create new pictures from my words.  I hope to write more vignettes and get more artists involved.  I’m very excited to see how these recreated images turn out!

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I’m so thankful for my friends who have been supplying me with old pictures, like this one (from Cari) of me in my Freshman dorm room.  

This project is turning out to be a very good writing exercise and creative venture.  In trying to precisely describe faces and settings, I am flexing my ability to paint pictures with words.  And in writing the stories that accompany the photos, I’m accessing memories and emotions that might be helpful in my writing at large.

I never would have done this if I hadn’t lost my photos, but it occurs to me that anyone can do this, without having to lose their treasured possessions.  Either reach back in your memory and write about photos you particularly remember, or, flip through your old photo albums (feel lucky you still have them) and write about the memories those old photos hold.

Meanwhile, if you’d like to recreate an image for me, let me know!  I have enough for everyone!  And for now, I thought I’d share below one of the vignettes.  Enjoy!

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Before my photos were lost, I took a picture of this one.  It’s a photo of some kids on scooters in my old neighborhood in Long Beach, CA.

“The LA River”  Long Beach, CA, Summer 2001 

This is a picture of me from the year I lived in Los Angeles…

To make a long story short, I dropped out of college after my freshman year and drove across the country by myself, from Virginia to Los Angles.  I was nineteen years old, and I wanted to be an actress.  I worked as an extra for movies and television shows and spent my free time mailing headshots to casting directors.

I lived in a run-down area of North Long Beach, near where the 710 and 91 Freeways intersect.  When I first moved into my apartment, I was afraid to take walks in my neighborhood because of the very-real gangs and the Hispanic men who stood around in the liquor store parking lot, shirtless and cat-calling.  It was only half a mile to the infamous Compton, and at night my roommate and I heard sirens on the street and the whir of news helicopters overhead.

But, after a while, I started taking daytime walks and exploring my surroundings.  I remember looking at the map and seeing that I lived only a few blocks from the Los Angeles River.  In fact, I noticed, there was a park nearby that ran alongside the river.  That sounds pretty, I thought.  I decided to go check it out.

When I got there, I realized the “Los Angeles River” was not the green oasis I had been imagining, but a large, concrete drainage basin filled with sluggish brown water and floating trash.  I was disappointed, but even so, the park became one of my favorite walking destinations.  When my boyfriend, Jason, moved out to L.A. to live with me, we walked together to the park alongside the river.

So this photograph I’m remembering, it must have been taken by Jason.  I don’t remember buying a little kick scooter, but apparently we did, because I have one in the picture.

It must have been summer time. I’m wearing a pair of dark, denim overall shorts with a red tank top underneath and black flip-flops.  My legs are long and tan, and my dark, straight hair is down at my shoulders.  The wind is blowing it back from my face in a lovely sort of way.

I’m standing on the concrete bank of the Los Angeles River with one foot on the scooter, my hands gripping the handlebars.  Below me is the dismal-looking water, and in the distance are the crisscrossing freeway bridges.  The sky is a washed-out, smoggy gray.  In fact, I am the only thing colorful about the photograph.  The rest of my surroundings are muted grays and browns:  the sky, the water, the concrete.

My cheeks are flushed, and I think I’m smiling.  Back then my face was chubbier than it is now, but I was thin everywhere else.  I was always trying to skip meals and cut calories.  I was told by my acting teacher that I wasn’t skinny enough.  I was told by casting directors that I wasn’t “hot” enough.  This was part of the reason why, eventually, I decided to move back to Virginia.  I missed school, and I didn’t want to spend the cutest years of my life being told I wasn’t cute enough.

When this picture was taken, I had already made the decision to go back.  Maybe that’s why my face holds a strange mixture of happiness and disappointment.  Los Angeles hadn’t turned out the way I’d expected, but I’d learned something important about myself.

In a way, I look like I’m about to take off on the scooter and follow the river all the way back home.

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My headshot.  Age 19.

 

Jackimo’s Bananas, or, How to Plot a Novel

Jackimo’s Bananas, or, How to Plot a Novel

A few years ago, I had a job as the after-school assistant at an elementary school. My duties included keeping track of the children until their parents arrived, dealing with Kindergarteners who had wet their pants, and supervising snack time.

If you’ve never watched elementary school students eat snacks, it’s rather fascinating to observe just how slowly a first grader can eat a box of raisins, or the intensity with which a third grader attempts (and often fails) to punch his straw into a Capri Sun juice pouch.

My favorite kid to watch at snack time was always Jackimo. He had a lot of awesome things going for him: his name, his crazy-curly hair, his dinosaur back-pack. Plus, the kid unknowingly turned snack time into a vaudeville comedy routine.

He was always having some sort of issue with his snacks. Often it was trouble with the packaging. He would struggle with the slippery wrapper of a Nutri-Grain bar or the pesky metal ring on a can of peaches until he had reached a near-temper-tantrum state. With a sudden burst of desperate energy, the wrapper would come flying open, the Nutri-Grain bar sailing through the air and landing halfway across the cafeteria. Jackimo would run to it, wailing about germs, and throw himself onto the floor in a fit of rage and hunger.

Half-Peeled-Banana

Then there was Jackimo and his bananas.

Bananas have their own tricky packaging. Jackimo would hold the banana at the bottom and open it from the top. He would peel it all the way down, at which point the banana would promptly topple out of the peel and fall onto the floor. Jackimo would then, of course, wail about germs and writhe in a fit of rage and hunger. (Obviously his parents never taught him the five second rule.)

After I watched Jackimo do this once, I tried to intervene. The next time he brought a banana for snack time, I sat down next to him and said, “hey, here’s an idea. Why don’t you peel it a little bit, take a bite, then peel it a little bit more and take another bite? Do that until you get to the end.”

Jackimo raised his eyebrows at me. Then he proceeded to ignore my suggestion and peel the entire banana. It started to fall, and I grabbed it with my hand before it hit the floor. “Well, here you go,” I said, giving him the banana, unsure as to whether or not I had made my point.

“Your hand has germs,” he told me. But he ate the banana anyway.

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Teacher face!

 

Speaking of kids, currently I’m teaching a class at The Writer’s Center on writing YA and middle-grade literature. This week we’re going to discuss story structure and plot, and as I prepared my lecture notes, I thought about Jackimo and his bananas.

There are so many ways to think about building a plot: the Three-Act Structure, the Hero’s Journey, John Truby’s 22 Steps to Story, Michael Haugue’s 6 Stage Plot Structure, Blake Snyder’s famous beat sheet, etc.

I’ve started to believe that before I can write my novel, I need to sit down and organize the story into one of these frameworks.   I need to make sure I know exactly where my story is going and exactly how it’s going to get there.

Not that I’ve changed my mind.  I still think it’s incredibly important to make sure I have an actual story and an understanding of where it should go before I get too deep into the drafting phase. I still think these frameworks can help me figure out how to write a good story with a satisfying amount of tension, conflict, and resolution.

But, I also think that trying to figure it all out at the very beginning, trying to outline every little plot point before I start writing, is a little bit like peeling the entire banana before I’ve taken my first bite. There’s a good chance the story will topple over and I’ll writhe in frustration.

As E.L. Doctorow said, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

That sounds an awful lot like my advice to Jackimo: Peel a little, eat a little. Do that until you get to the end.

banans

 

I still wonder which is the “right” way to write a novel. Create a detailed road map first then follow it precicely? Or set out recklessly into the fog, only able to see a little ways ahead, and hope I get to a good destination? I don’t know. Different things work for different people, and, for me, the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle.

I do think I need to use the frameworks to help me create my plot, and I do think it’s important to plan the story before I start writing in earnest. But during this planning stage, I can still be writing.  I can write to learn more about my characters and setting.  Write to get a sense of the overall tone. Write scenes that may or may not be used but help me understand the story better. And then, when I’ve done some planning, when I’ve peeled back the major story points, I can take a bite and start writing the actual novel. I don’t have to have the entire thing plotted at that point. I can leave room for my characters to surprise me. I can figure out some things out along the way.

I hope that, these days, Jackimo has figured out how to best peel his bananas. And I hope that neither of us have to writhe on the floor in frustration and rage any more.

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Here I am in my pajamas, acting like a monkey.You know:  bananas in pajamas, monkeys eating bananas…  This is an appropriate picture for this post, right?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Recreating Lost Photos, or, Feeling Better with Writing & Art

Recreating Lost Photos, or, Feeling Better with Writing & Art

Something really terrible has happened — don’t worry, no one died.  (That’s what I have to keep reminding myself to put things in perspective.)

To make a long story short, when my husband and I moved from Seattle to Minneapolis the summer of 2014, we had one of those u-pack cubes that got stored at a warehouse for a few days before it was delivered to us.  Somehow, at the warehouse, one of our boxes fell out of the cube and never got delivered.  It just so happens that the box contained ALL OF MY PHOTO ALBUMS.

A person at the storage facility found the box and tried to contact me through Facebook.  (Because that’s professional.)  I wasn’t friends with her, though, so the message went into my spam folder, which I don’t check regularly.  The people at the storage facility didn’t hear from me right away, so they THREW ALL OF MY PHOTO ALBUMS AWAY.

I found this out only recently, and when I did, the blood drained from my face, and white spots dotted my vision. I felt dizzy and sick to my stomach.

I still can’t understand how a person could throw away a box of treasured memories.  Those pictures were from middle school, high school, and college — before I had a digital camera. And they weren’t just loose photos in a box. They were carefully labeled in albums and scrapbooks – obviously something I had taken great care to make and preserve. I know it’s not the end of the world, but I’m pretty devastated. I’ll never be able to show my kids my prom pictures or the photos I took when I was nineteen and living in Los Angeles.

Those albums were from a very formative and important time in my life, and I almost feel like someone stole my past and threw it in the garbage.

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At least I have this one!  I took a picture of this picture (to post on this blog!) back when my photo albums were still safe and sound.  (I’m on the far left.)

 

Sometimes, when upsetting things happen, I think, “well, at least I can write about it.” But how, I wondered, could I take this heartbreak and turn it into something creative?

For lack of anything else, I started writing about all the photos I remembered — trying to describe them in the greatest detail possible so that the images would stay in my mind. As I described the pictures, I wrote about what was happening the day the picture was taken, and what my connections were to the other people in the photo.

Then I had an idea.

What if I gave these detailed descriptions to an artist — or many different artists — who could then draw/paint/create interpretations of the photos based on my descriptions.

We could make a book or collection of some kind with these “recreated” photos, paired with my stories and recollections. I know they wouldn’t look the same as the original photos, but maybe creating something new would be a way for me to feel better about the loss.

Already my artist brother and one of his friends have offered to do a few photos for me if I send them descriptions. I also created a project page on CollabFinder, and I hear there’s a reddit page I can check out. It feels good to be making something instead of moping.

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Me and my brother, Deven.  Obviously, this picture was taken with a digital camera in 2006.  The pictures I lost were from 1992 – 2004.

 

Just yesterday, I looked inside my closet at my boxes of old diaries. These boxes made it safely from Seattle to Minneapolis and Minneapolis to Maryland (where I live now). These diaries are my other treasured possessions, of which there are no other copies.

I started writing seriously in a diary in middle school.  I wrote at least once a week (often more) and recorded all major events (and many minor ones as well). I made lists of my favorite bands and the boys I liked. I wrote down conversations I had and outfits I wore. I kept this up until I was thirty – when I started this blog.

Up until 1996, my diaries were handwritten. In high school, I typed them on a typewriter, and later a computer. Up until my mid-twenties, I printed out my diary entries and then deleted them off the computer. I guess I was afraid of someone finding them and reading my personal thoughts, but now I could kick myself for deleting them.  A dozen years worth of my diary entries are just one throwing-in-the-trash-incident away from being gone forever.

So I’ve decided to do something I’ve been thinking about doing for a long time but never had the gumption for until now: I’m going to start the long, slow process of typing up all of my old diary entires.

Yeah, yeah, I know that I could either a) scan them or b) hire someone to do this for me, but scanning will take nearly as long as typing, and I can’t afford to hire someone right now. Besides, I think it might be really interesting — it will force me to read every single page of my teenage thoughts and emotions.

 

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At least I have this one!  (Also used for this blog, which is why I took a picture of it.)  Here I am, circa 1999, with my friend Melissa and Roger from the band Less Than Jake.  

 

Losing my photos made me worried that I would lose my connection to my past and to the person I used to be. But rereading  my old diaries is going to be an intimate reconnection with my teenage self. I might be able to incorporate some of these entries into this creative art project I hope to make happen. Or, maybe reading my teenage thoughts will help me as I continue to write novels for young people. At the very least, making a digital copy, safe in the cloud, will protect me from another potential loss.

And I find that in the past few days, I haven’t been thinking as much about the photos I lost, but instead about everything I need to do and write and type, and about all the new things that can be created.

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If you would like to draw or paint one of my old photos, please contact me, or see my CollabFinder page here.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Camel & Bananas: How a Math Problem Explains Writing (and Life)

A Camel & Bananas:  How a Math Problem Explains Writing (and Life)

Long ago, I was a math teacher. These days, I tutor part-time and (try to) focus on my writing career.

One of the great things about tutoring is that, unlike classroom teaching, there is very little prep-time. I just show up and help kids with their homework, or force them to organize their binders. Normally, we work on whatever they happen to be doing in class. And if all else fails, we review fractions and do mental math because every middle school student needs practice with fractions and mental math. Take it from one who knows.

Still, occasionally I spend a little of my own time browsing the Internet to find activities I can do with my students, which is how I found this page of “classic problems” from Ask Dr. Math. I was intrigued by one I’d never heard of called “Camel and Bananas.” I skimmed the first two sentences and thought it sounded interesting. Granted, I was largely swayed by my love of both camels and bananas, plus how ridiculously charming the two sound together, but in any case, I decided to work on the problem with one of my students.

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I drew this picture of a camel!

 

That afternoon I had my student read the problem out loud:

A camel must travel 1000 miles across a desert to the nearest city. She has 3000 bananas but can only carry 1000 at a time. For every mile she walks, she needs to eat a banana. What is the maximum number of bananas she can transport to the city?

As my student was reading, it suddenly occurred to me: I had no idea how to solve this problem. In fact, it seemed impossible. If the freakin camel has to eat a banana for every mile she travels, and she can only carry 1000 bananas at a time… then by the time she reaches the city, she will have eaten all of her bananas!

My student seemed to have surmised this as well. She looked at me with a baffled expression.

I looked back at the website. Oh, thank god, there was more information! I read it out loud:

Let’s begin by imagining how the camel might get the bananas across the desert. If she starts off with 1000 bananas and carries them 1000 miles, she won’t be able to return for the rest of them because she won’t have any bananas to fuel her trip back. She won’t have any bananas to give to her friends either, because she will have eaten them all during the journey. This suggests that the camel needs to cache piles of bananas at certain points in the desert so she can actually move some of them instead of using them all for fuel.

“Oh, I see!” I said, half to my student and half to myself. “She has to leave little piles of bananas in the desert and make more than one trip!”

My student was still looking baffled.

“Come on,” I said, getting excited. “Let’s try a few things and see what we find out. Let’s just pick a place for her to leave some bananas. What do you think? 50 miles? 200 miles?”

She shrugged. “200 miles?”

“Great!” I grabbed a piece of scratch paper. “So the camel takes 1000 bananas 200 miles into the desert. She eats 200 of them on the way, and then she needs 200 to get back. So how many bananas will she leave in a pile in the desert?”

“600?”

“Exactly! So then she does it again. She takes another 1000 bananas 200 miles and then goes back…”

“So now she has a stash of 1200 bananas in the desert,” my student says. I wouldn’t say she was excited, but she was certainly amused by my excitement.

We drew this picture:

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“Oh no!” I said. “Now she’s got 2000 bananas in a pile 800 miles away from the city, but she can only carry 1000 bananas at a time!”

In this scenario, the camel ends up getting to the city with only 200 bananas.  Still, that’s a lot better than none.

“OK, so let’s try it again,” I said. “Except let’s see what happens if she leaves her bananas in a different spot in the desert.”

“OK.”  My student said.  She was getting into it now (at least I like to think so.)

So we tried leaving the bananas at the 300-mile marker. Turns out, the camel can get 300 bananas to the city that way! Then we tried 350, but that still only yielded 300 bananas to the city.

“So what’s the answer?” my student asked me when we only had five minutes left of class.

“I don’t actually know.”

banans

 

When I got home, I sat down to work more on the Camel and Bananas problem. I found a way to get 500 bananas to the city – it involves leaving stashes of bananas in various locations in the desert.

When my husband came home, I told him about the problem (he’s got a Master’s degree in Applied Mathematics), and he got to work, creating an infinite series that he thought would solve the problem.

Finally, I googled the answer and wanted to smack myself for not realizing what I should have done. In all of my attempts, the camel made a total of three trips. After all, there were 3000 bananas, and she could carry 1000 at a time. But in order to get the maximum number of bananas to the city, the hardworking camel has to make more than three trips!

camel

Here is a picture from that time at Safari Park when a camel stuck its head into our car.

 

I know it seems like this post is about math, and it is. But it’s about so much more. It’s about my writing career. It’s about life. It’s about hardworking camels.

I am always in such a hurry to get as many bananas as possible to the city. And by that I mean, I’m always anxious to finish writing novels and get them published. And these days I’ve been down because I feel like I took a big step backwards when I lost my agent.  It’s been years since I started focusing on writing, and I have yet to get a book published.  I’ve been trekking through the desert for miles, yet I wind up in the city empty-handed.

But this math problem has illuminated everything!  Sometimes you go for miles, and then you have to turn around and go back to where you started, leaving your bananas in a pile in the desert. Taking steps backwards might be frustrating, but necessary.

Most importantly, you might have to take multiple trips to find success. Sometimes it takes a lot more trips than you were expecting. And even then, not all your bananas will make it to the city. Not all the books I’ve written will get published.  That’s just the way it goes. It’s hard work, but it’s worth it. Getting some of your bananas to the city is better than getting none, and if it takes a bunch of trips — so be it.  Enjoy the desert sunsets along the way.

As for the answer to the problem, I’ll let you work on that yourself. I’ll just say this: the maximum number of bananas the camel can get to the city is more than 500, and it takes her more than three trips.  Happy problem-solving!

the camel that ate my feed

Another picture from Safari Park.  The camel stole my feed bucket.  To read more about my trip to Safari Park, click here.