Mrs. Zxy and Jane Maul Mr. Bill

Mr. BillThe headline sounds like something ripped from a check stand sleaze magazine except that it’s true. It’s also a common tale for anyone who has kids. Our hero, and victim, is Bill, my youngest kid. Today, he is an avid reader and published writer. But, it wasn’t always so. There was a time when everything went sideways.

Like most neo-adolescents, Bill was not fond of reading. In fact, he completely avoided it. I had seen this problem come and go with my other kids, so I wasn’t too concerned, at first. Many of these phases tend to work themselves out. Mostly, I didn’t want to force him into a pastime that I knew he disliked. I’ve never appreciated people telling me what to do so I assume others, including Bill, usually feel the same way.

Moving into his first year of High School, Bill drew a teacher, Mrs. Zxy, whose job it was to get him reading. As I recall, the class was about 25 strong, all new to High School, all new to each other, and probably most not interested in reading. No one would envy Mrs. Zxy’s job. I assumed she understood the perils of her role and was prepared to meet them head on.

Now, this teacher’s answer to a predictable reluctance to read was to throw Jane Austen at her class. Since our educational system is based on uniformity and collective adherence, this was a time-honored way of accomplishing the task. Throw out a classic, like Austen, and they will all become avid readers. The future would be secured. The predictable protocol would continue to reign as education king.

Talk about wrong-headed!

Portrait of Jane Austen

What in this universe of swamp gas would a neo-adolescent male find intriguing about Jane Austen? Sure, she was a literary luminary of the first order. Certainly, she was a classic author. But, where was the relevance? Mrs. Zxy may have been an expert in the Classics. Maybe. But she was older, mature, her education completed, her personal story line well into the process of being written. She was as far removed from adolescence as Mr. Scrooge, or so it probably seemed to her charges. If Mrs. Zxy would have asked, I would have been more than happy to explain to her that the Classics is not the starting gate for future readers. It’s more like the 1/3 mile post.

Anyway, I learned about the problem in the usual way, by talking with Bill. There he was, stuck with Jane Austen and trying very hard to please Mrs. Zxy. Bleak. We both knew that he had no choice but to carry on, to struggle through the Classics no matter his level of disinterest. I was secretly concerned about something else. Would this episode destroy his interest in reading, now and forever? It wasn’t what I wanted for the kid.

I thrashed around a bit, trying to come up with something innovative and easy to swallow. More pressure was certainly not the answer. I knew that the only way to engender a passion for reading was to get his attention, grab it outright, and never let go. But it wasn’t something I could do alone.

Carlos Castenada on Peyote. AKA, Why I Don't H...

At about the same time, the Carlos Castaneda mythos was making the rounds to a new generation. I had his first three books and enjoyed each. I devised a plan to just be seen around our house with the book in hand, or lying nearby. At some point, I banked on the assumption that Bill would show some interest. That would be my big chance.

He did, and he began reading. Bill liked Castaneda’s first book. He read it right through and moved on to subsequent Don Jan tales. Easy. He became a reader and, in later years, a talented writer. He survived Jane Austen and Mrs. Zxy. Like him or not, Castaneda became somewhat of a helper-hero in our family, one of those unexpected people whose work pushes you in a new direction.

And the moral? Two, really. The first is a lingering distaste for the uniformity of our educational system. But, that’s a soapbox topic and I won’t add to the boredom. The second moral is far more important. Readers need to be captivated, to become ensnared and moved, to live as participants in the story line. Failing that, boredom quickly sets in. For a young adolescent male, Jane Austen will never be the trick pony. Mrs. Zxy should have known that. Still, I don’t blame her too much. We need to take a big role in how our kids move through life. In the end, the job is ours.

Want your kids to read? Find out what moves them, what carries them through the pages. That’s how to create a reader. If you can help them read, you can help them write. The rest they will do for themselves.

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Reading, Writing the Perfect Book

reading

Like most writers, I enjoy reading. I’m always in search of that perfect book, that unique piece of work that finds a special place in my heart and mind. 

I’m looking for the book I will never give away, never leave behind, never forget. It can be fiction or nonfiction. It’s obviously a subjective search, changeable for every reader. There’s no predictable way to measure the perfect read, to agree on greatness. In fact, it’s hard to even define all the flavors that come together to blend the ultimate brew.

Let’s try anyway.

Legs. I don’t care about the hot genre of the day. They come and go. I want the book that has legs, that keeps its meaning over the years and decades. It has something to say that transcends the time in which it was created. What was important to the writer back then must still be important to me today. It just keeps on going, stays relevant and holds tightly onto its meaning. If the zombie apocalypse makes the tsunami of today, I’ll pass unless your zombie has something really special in store for me.

Easy read. I don’t want to trip over flowery sentences and over-polish. Sure, I enjoy a beautifully constructed phrase or a finely-tuned paragraph. But I’m not interested in only that part of the experience. I want to be able to get through the book without too much work. I want it to flow, to carry me along the story line and not distract me with glitz and fizz. Seasoned writers know this. First-time authors often get caught up in a love affair with their own words. I don’t want that love affair in my face. Keep me on the right track, move me along easily, grab me with the motion and pacing of the story line. Force nothing.

Break the Rules!

Breaking rules. Call me a miscreant, but I like writers who break the rules, so long as they don’t overload me with a manufactured style. Words and sentences are musical phrases to me. Punctuation is a way of making those phrases work well. So, go ahead and push a rule here or there. It won’t bother me at all, as long as its not fabricated or made the center of your style. Make up a word or two. That’s fine. I enjoy the uniqueness of style so long as it doesn’t distract me from the main thrust of the reading journey.

No phonies. I’ve been reading and writing all my life. I can spot a phony from thirty miles. If you’re not a sincere writer, making your art for unselfish reasons, I’ll sniff it out. Most readers will do the same. Don’t make me look at you too hard. If you’re a great writer, I will discover you for myself in your work. I must believe you’re a sincere writer to keep on reading. So, either be sincere or be such a good doo-doo slinger that I can’t tell the difference. Just remember that I’m no reader-pushover.

Move me. I want to feel that emotional side of your story, fiction or nonfiction. If I want a common, dry read, I’ll stick to cereal boxes and bug-chaser labels. If you can’t move me, I stop reading and never return. On the other hand, don’t try too hard. For me, a writer who is moved by his or her story line will also move me. It’s an automatic, transparent process. If you are moved when you write, it will shine through and move me also. If you try to force the issue, I’ll know it.

Make me wonder. I want to take something away from your words. I want to wonder about your story line, to become a part of that journey. Make me think as well as feel. When I put the book down for the night, I want to play with your words in my mind, walk along your story line in my own way, become a part of what is happening in your world. If you can do that, you’re my friend forever.

Surprise

Leave me different. You can make me happy, sad, angry, whatever. Just don’t leave me the same old reader you first found. Change me in some way, even something very small and insignificant. Reshape my views, rearrange my thoughts, tweak my emotions, take me on a little ride with your words. Somehow, leave your footprint on my heart and in my mind. But don’t try too hard. If you’re going to force the issue, I’ll know right away. However, if your word journey left you changed, I’ll likely follow suit.

Make me a better writer. Show me something fresh and unique. The best of the best show me a sincere and inescapable style that I cannot ignore. These works tell me I have more to learn, more to experience. They make me a better writer because I see opportunities and alternatives. In your words, I find a new path on my own journey. Teach me, if you can, but never try to do so. Lead me by your example and unique perspective.

Be honest. Even when you’re lying to me, convince me of your honesty. Can you do that? Great writers do it all the time.

Stay behind the scenes. Hide away behind your words and never let me catch you peeking out. I don’t want you to tell me you’re back there, just waiting to grab my attention. Let your story do the talking. If you’re a good writer, I’ll find you on my own. Don’t sell me, ever.

Don’t define yourself. I don’t want you to tell me about you. I want a little mystery behind my favorite writer. Be changeable. Surprise me. You’re a big part of my reading journey, so make it fun for both of us. Even if you’re the hottest swamp gas in the literary world, stay just far enough away from my doorstep that I wonder. Let me fill in your details. Make me work, just a little bit.

I suppose this list could go on indefinitely. Time to take a breath.

These are just a few highlights and they’re obviously personal. Your goodie list will certainly be different in many ways. Great writing is ultimately indefinable. Forget the sages of word theory and the alleged experts of prose. If it moves you, if you want to keep that book forever, the writer has done his or her job.

The big take-away is ridiculously simple. Keep it real.

Writers Workshop: Writer’s Test

"Writing on the wood is prohibited."...

Although I’ve been writing for well over 40 years, that’s not my whole life. I’ll bet you have the same feeling about your life, right? Sure, it’s a big part of how we define ourselves but it’s still not the totality of things. I like to have fun, to smile and laugh, to be captivated by anyone who takes a slightly offbeat view of themselves and the rest of the universe. Don’t you?

So, let’s just have a little fun today. What can be better than taking a tiny poke at ourselves and our passion. Some of this is a bit on the serious side. Much of it is just for fun.

You are a soul-writer, if . . .

You see the world filled with colors, moods, interesting characters, endless questions and an abiding sense of amazement. Oh, yeah, and a healthy dose of humor.

You want to be published but, if you’re not, your writing continues onward. Perhaps you have a compulsion?

You think in images but need to describe them with words. The words never quite rise to the importance and vitality of the images. So, you do a lot of re-writing.

You want to leave your mark somewhere, somehow.

Your best thoughts are communicated by the written word and not by your mouth. The word is your muse. Your mouth is often an unreliable partner.

You would rather listen than speak. However, when you speak, you gush.

You just can’t stop that runaway imagination, and you really don’t want to stop it anyway.

You enjoy some quiet time, everyday. Boredom is not your enemy.

You like to read, broadly and for fun. You have genres that catch your eye, and your eye wanders regularly.

You have some itch in the back of your mind and, no matter how hard you try, it just won’t go away. Scratching just doesn’t seem to help.

You have learned to live with frustrations and make the best of them. Mostly.

Your intuition is pretty good and you listen to it.

You’re an artist but you just haven’t admitted it to yourself. Still, it feels good to repeat the mantra.

You have a big ego, or a little one. Your ego is not common, for sure.

You know you can write, you just know it! Why doesn’t everyone else know it?

Form-over-function works well for you.

You worry about commas far too much. Maybe you hate them. Maybe you’re drowning in them. Either way, you worry too much. They have a life of their own, so leave them alone.

You like to tell a story but you’re a bit uncertain about memorizing the lines.

They can beat you down, kick you around, sling you onto the dung pile but you just keep on writing. You can’t help yourself.