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Monthly Archives: September 2016

Living Backwards & Steering by Starlight

Living Backwards & Steering by Starlight

This fall I’m doing a work-study at Willow Street Yoga. In exchange for working two hours a week, I get one yoga class per week for free. Pretty sweet deal. Not only does this appeal to my frugal side, I also like meeting the people I practice with and feeling more connected to the yoga community.

One interesting thing that Willow Street offers is “Living Yoga” classes. According to their website, in these classes they “combine yoga and discussion, group coaching and self-work, to co-create empowered, expanded self-conception, and supportive, intentional community.”

As hippie-dippie as this sounds, it makes a lot of sense. Westerners tend to think of yoga as exercise, but yoga should also include mental and spiritual components. In fact, I remember reading somewhere that the physical yoga poses were originally created in order to help yogis sit longer in meditation.

This fall, one of the living yoga classes is reading Steering by Starlight by Martha Beck. I’m not taking the class, but I picked up the book at the library out of curiosity, and because I’m a fan of Beck’s memoir, Expecting Adam. I didn’t read the whole thing, but I did like the first chapter, which was about starting at the end.

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In this chapter, Beck says to think about the things you want in life and think about how you will feel when you get them. Then imagine that you already have those things and try to live your life in that “feeling-state.” She calls this “living backwards.” She suggests you actively, vividly imagine that you have gotten the thing you want and then focus on that visualization for a full ten minutes – every day. She guaruntees that you will be amazed by the results.

It sounds hokey, I know, but when I applied the idea to something in my life, it started to make sense. I want to write books that get published by a major publishing house. I think that when this happens I will feel more confident in my writing (and stressing about it less means I will enjoy it more). I will also feel more confident and secure in my life decisions – that pursuing this difficult goal was the “right thing to do.”

So, according to Martha Beck, I should live my life as if I’ve already published books. Who says I can’t feel confident in my writing and confident in my life decisions right now? There’s nothing stopping me except for my own mind.

Beck says that some of her clients push back against this idea, saying things like:

“Well, if I just wanted to feel good by deluding myself, of course I could do it… Anyone can feel good. What I want is to get ahead.”

To this Beck says,

“If you agree that it is better to look good than to feel good, be my guest – stay miserable. But please bear in mind that as a miserable person, you’ll have a much harder time getting ahead.”

And it’s true. When I stress about my writing – Is this good enough? Why haven’t I been published yet? What must people think of me? – not only does it feel unpleasant, but it makes the writing more difficult as well.

Better to start at the end. I will publish books with a major house. It hasn’t happened yet, but it will, so there’s no need for me to stress or lack confidence. I can enjoy my writing and feel secure in my decisions, knowing that I will get what I want in the end. Delusional? Perhaps. But isn’t it a more pleasant way to live?

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Noose pose.  photo credit.

 

Ironically, when I went for my free yoga class the other day, the teacher talked about starting at the end, too. She showed us a deep twist called “noose pose” and explained that we were working towards a full bind with our arms.

“This is the someday pose,” she said. “You may not be there yet, and that’s okay. There are still a lot of interesting things to learn along the way.”

Beginning yoga students often feel bad about themselves when they can’t get into a certain pose. (And beginning writers often feel bad about themselves when they aren’t published.) But instead of feeling bad (because what’s the use in that?) you should hold firmly the knowledge that someday you will get there, and in that way you will have the confidence to enjoy yourself now and learn a thing or two as you work your way towards “the end.”

Review of Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

Review of Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

As a woman, as a Virginian, and as a former high school math teacher, the topic of Margot Lee Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures both excited and moved me. She tells the true story of the black, female mathematicians who, during the labor shortages of World War II, came to work at NASA’s Langely Field campus in Hampton, Virginia. These “human computers,” most of whom had previously worked as underpaid math teachers in segregated public schools, stayed on at NASA after the war ended and became an important part of America’s race into space.

Fascinating, right? Totally. Except I had some trouble actually getting through the book.

Largely this was due to my taste in books. I was hoping for a highly-personal narrative that closely followed the lives of these brilliant women. I was hoping, to be honest, for another The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (a highly-personal nonfiction book that I devoured in two days). But that is simply not what Hidden Figures is.

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I received Hidden Figures for review from HarperCollins and TLC Book Tours

 

The book does follow four women in particular: Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden. We learn about their personal lives as well as their careers and contributions to NASA. But it is done in a much more distant way than The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks; instead of staying close to these women’s stories, the book often spans way out to address the wider historical context. For example:

So far, Hampton Roads had avoided the strife that had befallen Detroit, Mobile, and Los Angeles, where tensions between whites and blacks (and in Los Angeles, between Mexican, Negro, and Filipino zoot-suited youths and the white servicemen who attacked them) boiled over into violent confrontations…

…Negro resistance to this injustice had been a constant ever since the first ship carried enslaved Africans to Old Point Comfort on Hampton’s shores in 1609. The war, however, and the rhetoric that accompanied it created an urgency in the black community to call in the long overdue debt their country owed them.

 

Margot Lee Shetterly AP Photo by Aran Shetterly

Margot Lee Shetterly grew up in Hampon, VA where she knew many of the women in Hidden Figures.

 

Also, unlike The Immortal Life, Shetterly, as the author, stays firmly behind the scenes (except for in the Prologue which, as it happens, was one of my favorite parts).  But all of this is not to say that Hidden Figures is bad or unreadable. The opposite, in fact.  It is a beautiful-written and expertly-researched book about a fascinating topic. It is the perfect book for people who love history and/or love reading nonfiction (especially if they enjoy nonfiction books about history). It’s not, however, the best choice for people like me who prefer novels, or at least nonfiction books that read like narrative fiction.

While this book wasn’t quite for me, I’m so glad it was written. I was happy to learn about these women, who proved you can be black and female and a top-notch mathematician (something, that, unfortunately, is still not as common as it should be.)  This is an important story that  most people knew nothing about until now.

What I’m greatly looking forward to is the motion picture; that’s right, Hidden Figures is going to be a movie! I’m guessing the film will likely focus on (and likely embellish) the narrative threads woven throughout the book and will provide me with the strong, personal story I tend to need when digesting my history.  The movie is due out this January.  It stars Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson and features Octavia SpencerJanelle MonáeKevin CostnerKirsten Dunst, and Jim Parsons.

 

 

 

The Graham Cracker Plot by Shelley Tougas on Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf

The Graham Cracker Plot by Shelley Tougas on Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf

Meagan & Eva’s Middle-Grade Bookshelf Presents…

THE GRAHAM CRACKER PLOT, by Shelley Tougas

Published by Roaring Brook Press, September 2014

suggested age range:  8 – 12 years

 

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SUMMARY:

Daisy Bauer doesn’t have much.  She doesn’t have a nice place to live or especially responsible parents (her mom is on vacation with her new boyfriend, and her dad is in jail).  What Daisy does have is hope, a vivid imagination, and an after-school friend named Graham.  When Daisy and Graham are left at their trailer park on their own, they hatch a plan to bust Daisy’s dad out of jail and escape to Canada to start a new life.

TOPICS AND THEMES:  Touches on a number of hot-button issues:  poverty, alcoholic parents, neglect, parent in prison, mental illness, and a brief mention of drugs.      

So what did we think?  

Eva:  This book is so fun and funny!  The story is made up of letters that Daisy is writing to Judge Henry in an effort to explain herself, so even though we don’t know at the beginning what Daisy did exactly, we know it was something bad enough to land her in major trouble with the law.   Daisy’s voice throughout is great; she explains her world with humor, and the story deals with difficult topics in a light-hearted and middle school appropriate way:  

The Chemist is my dad, but he’s not the kind of dad who lives in your house.  He doesn’t drive me to school or fold socks or put away dishes.  My parents were never married, so he didn’t learn that stuff.

The Chemist’s the kind of dad who buys presents and lets you watch zombie movies and gives you ice cream even though you already had cookies.  Mom was like that, too, back when she’d put booze in a travel mug and pretend it was coffee.  But now, she’s all, “Eat your peas and do your homework and that’s enough TV for one day.”  

Meagan:  I agree that Daisy’s voice is memorable and a very strong part of this book.  Shelley Tougas writes Daisy’s socio-economic status into her voice subtly and in a way that is driven by Daisy’s character.  Daisy is a fast-talking, no-filter kind of person to begin with, and her lack of mature adult role models shows up in her word choice and topic choice.  

Eva:  Not only is Daisy’s voice great, I love the humorous (and realistic) banter between Daisy and her friend, Graham.  For example:   

“I’m definitely the brains of this operation.” (Daisy said.)

“More like the butt of this operation,” he said.  

Meagan:  Speaking of butts, as a writer, my favorite line in the whole book is: “My butt was cold.”  It’s a totally unnecessary thing to mention, she’s just telling it like it is, AND it gives away that Daisy has not had a model of a more formal, respectful way of speaking that one might use with an authority figure such as a judge.  To me, that one line exemplifies the author’s brilliance in bringing Daisy’s voice to life.

Eva:  Daisy is also a great example of an active protagonist.  She is not just an observer.  She makes bold (often misguided) decisions that propel the plot forward.  At the beginning of the story, she throws a tantrum and gets banned from visiting her father in prison.  Not only is this realistic for a kid in her situation, it shows us her emotions and it sets the rest of the story in motion.  

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Meagan:  Another notable element of this book is the story-framing device. As mentioned, the story is told as a series of letters Daisy writes to Judge Henry.  It gives a strong, authentic-to-the-character reason for the story to be told and adds an extra layer of humor because you’re constantly thinking I can’t believe she’s telling the judge about the sound of someone peeing or dog barf or whatever.  Initially I didn’t think much of the letter format.  It seems to me like this sort of thing has been done before.  But on the other hand, it works, it supports the story, and I don’t think any kid readers would be bothered by it.  

Eva:  The book also manages to be hugely visual.  There is a part where Daisy and Graham accidentally trash a stranger’s house, and I could see it all playing out in my head like a movie:  the dog’s muddy footprints on the white comforter, the refrigerator tumbling over onto the kitchen floor…  Tougas isn’t afraid to make things go from bad to worse and beyond!  It’s a great example for writers who tend to be too cautious or “quiet” in their storytelling.  

Meagan:  Yes, she does a great job with her action scenes, like the house-trashing incident you mentioned.  Writing action scenes can be a real challenge.  At least it is for me.  I remember when I first started trying to write action, I wondered what really made a scene “actiony.”   I certainly don’t claim to have mastered it, but my working hypothesis is something like this:  a character makes a plan to do something difficult and midway through something goes wrong and they have to change course and make a new plan on the fly.  I know there’s more to it than that, but I do find that to be a useful definition to work from.  So, by that definition, the entire book of The Graham Cracker Plot is practically one big action scene, and that IS kind of how it feels to read it.

Eva:  That’s a really good observation.  Maybe that’s why I could so easily see this book as a kids’ comedy-adventure movie.  It’s a series of hilarious mishaps and plans going awry.  

The only concern I had was about the character of Ashley, who is mentally-impaired.  Sometimes she seemed like nothing but a plot device, and I wonder if her character was perhaps not handled in the most sensitive way.  But otherwise, I was impressed with the book, and it seems like you were, too.  It was action-packed and a lot of fun.

 

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Eva & Meagan

 

THIS BOOK REMINDS US OF:

Meagan:  I distinctly remember the books Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli and The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Patterson making a big impression on me because they were about kids from disadvantaged backgrounds (one who is homeless, the other in foster care).  Learning to love characters with lives that are very different from your own is one of the ways that reading can really enlarge your world as a kid (and as an adult).

Eva:  I had a similar thought.  While reading The Graham Cracker Plot, I thought of a book I LOVED in middle school:  Silver by Norma Fox Mazer.  Although it has a totally different tone (much more somber), it was about a girl who lived in a trailer park and had to deal with difficult issues.  I remember thinking it was refreshing to read about a character who didn’t have a lot of money.  

In the same way, I think Daisy is a great character because certain kids can identify with her and her situation, and other kids, by reading Daisy’s story, can learn to sympathize with kids who are in difficult situations.  

 

THIS BOOK IS A GREAT EXAMPLE OF:

  • Active protagonist
  • Character/narrator voice
  • Story framing device
  • Humor
  • Dealing with difficult topics in an age-appropriate way
  • Contemporary middle grade fiction

 

FINAL TAKE-AWAYS:  

Eva:  If The Graham Cracker Plot were a movie, it would be a family-friendly  comedy-adventure.  I think kids will love it.  I really enjoyed the voice and the action-filled plot.

Meagan:   I’ll put this on my writer’s reference shelf as an example of brilliantly crafted character voice.

FINAL FINAL NOTE:  

Shelley Tougas has a new middle-grade book coming out in October:  A Patron Saint for Junior Bridesmaids.  Click here for my interview with the author.  

 

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Come back soon for more Middle Grade Bookshelf posts!

 

Ode to the Metaphor: A Guest Post by Justine Polomski

Ode to the Metaphor:  A Guest Post by Justine Polomski

It’s back to school time again, folks.  Remember those tired old essay topics from English classes of yore?  Write about the person you admire most, tell about your summer vacation, describe a time you overcame an obstacle…  Well, my cousin Justine, a sophomore at Clemson University, got one such assignment for her speech class; the topic was “I believe…”  Normally that would be a big old yawn, right?  But Justine did something creative with it, and I decided to share.

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Sixteen-year-old Eva and baby Justine.

 

I Believe in Metaphors

by Justine Polomski

I believe in metaphors.

With over one million words in the English language, people should be able to find a few of them to convey anything and everything they want to say. Every word has a meaning, but what if that meaning is not accurate enough? Not true enough? Not powerful enough for your thoughts?

I’ve concluded that individual words with their messy, misguided interpretations cannot articulate every fact, figure, and feeling of the human experience. Life is not as clear-cut and literal as the words we use to describe it, so I believe in metaphors.

People think in thoughts, not in words. Words are just a commonly used tool to translate our abstract thoughts from one mind to the other. But things definitely get lost in translation; just ask anyone ever. If we could take our thoughts as they come and place them directly into another’s mind, everyone would be understood perfectly, and there would be no teenagers making punk music about how no one understands them. But because no one will ever be able to fully comprehend another person’s abstract thought, metaphors are what help us come as close as possible where words may fail.

A metaphor is a direct comparison of two things that have absolutely no business being together. As communicators, we hold the power to draw these unexpected connection lines just because it makes sense to us.

For example, we use metaphor to convey feelings because people have more emotions than words can accommodate. There’s happy and there’s sad, but there’s also millions of unnamed ones: “I feel blue”, “I’m walking on air’’, or just pointing at a half-smushed panini on the road and saying, “My life right now”. I believe in metaphors.

Some metaphors have become so widely used, they are now just clichés: judging a book by it’s cover, the elephant in the room, a slippery slope, a red flag, “Don’t go chasing waterfalls”, whatever that means.

Even society itself uses metaphors all the time to explain its own complexities: the circle of life, time is money, America the melting pot, the glass ceiling, the iron cage. Would we be able to fully comprehend these ideas we live by without metaphor?

In everyday speech, any meaningful insult is always a metaphor in one way or another. And calling someone “low-hanging fruit” or “an actual bag of trash” delivers a heavier blow than any slew of negative adjectives ever could.

Maybe you love something or someone so much more than just a word. So you use a metaphor to let them become something beyond a person. For example, “You are my rock”, “You are my world”, “And Juliet is the sun.” -William Shakespeare.

Or maybe you are trying to explain your love life as “skinny love”, or as a long, convoluted, extended metaphor about stagnant ponds.

Words can be weak, and talking is hard, but getting figurative can sometimes be the only way to go. I believe using any means to say what you mean. I’m Justine and I believe in metaphors.

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Justine Polomski